First Pitch: Looking at the Bigger Picture

Earlier today, Grant Brisbee of SB Nation wrote about “the perfectly whelming offseason of the Pirates“. As the title indicates, the article talks about how the Pirates haven’t done much this off-season, with their key additions being Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Or, as Brisbee puts it, “an average catcher and a pitcher with a CGI creation for a shoulder”.

Before taking the route that most people will probably take when grading the off-season, Brisbee turns in a different direction. He points out that last trade deadline, when the Pirates were “buyers” and “contenders” at the deadline, they added pieces that could help in 2013. Basically, they started their off-season shopping early when they added Wandy Rodriguez and Travis Snider, and called up Starling Marte, which is a point Kevin Creagh made earlier this off-season.

Brisbee made some good points about Wandy Rodriguez. He noted what guys like Kevin Correia received on the open market (2 years, $10 M), and noted what the Pirates will pay Rodriguez in 2013 ($8 M), and called that price a coup. In his overall argument he notes that the Pirates keep adding cogs in place. Not all of Rodriguez, Snider, Martin, or Liriano will work out, but some of them will. He focused on the big picture, noting that the Pirates have been improving position by position over the last few years.

I recommend reading the article, as it’s a great argument, and an approach you don’t normally see. People love grading things, whether it’s the off-season, the trade deadline, or some other major time period where teams acquire major league talent. Actually, it’s pretty much those two times. The problem with these grades and evaluations is that they’re frozen in time. If you’re adding free agent-to-be Shane Victorino at the deadline, you’re going for it! If you’re adding Travis Snider — an unknown who was once a top prospect, still is young enough to figure it all out, and is under control for several years if he does — then you’re punting. But then the off-season comes along and the slate is wiped clean. The guys you added in July suddenly don’t count as an upgrade for the following season. They were there all along. The only difference between the 2012 and 2013 teams is Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano are in, and Joel Hanrahan is out.

That’s what I don’t like about singling out the off-season transactions. It leads to this faulty argument. Yes, Wandy Rodriguez was on the 2012 team at the end of the season. But he only made 12 starts. Over the entire season he had a 3.76 ERA in 205.2 innings, with a 6.1 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9. I was critical when the Pirates added Rodriguez, just because I felt like they were paying for the old Rodriguez and not the current one. The current one is still a good pitcher. He’s just not a guy who looks like a top of the rotation option. And the Pirates could have him for 200 innings in 2013, rather than 75 in 2012. That’s going to be an upgrade.

At the corner outfield positions the Pirates have a ton of question marks. The guys leading the pack are Starling Marte and Travis Snider. Like Rodriguez, they were both on the team at the end of the 2012 season. Marte only saw 167 at-bats, and hit for a .257/.300/.437 line. Snider dealt with a hamstring issue, and only had 128 at-bats with a .250/.324/.328 line.

The Pirates went with Alex Presley and Jose Tabata for most of the year at the corner outfield spots, and the results were horrible. Then they moved Garrett Jones to the outfield, which made Casey McGehee an everyday first baseman, which Casey McGehee is not. So right away, keeping Jones in a platoon at first for the entire season is going to be a plus. With all of the outfielders, I don’t think Jones will be moving to right field any time soon, unless Gaby Sanchez turns into the 2010-2011 version. If that’s the case, then the Pirates won’t have to worry about first base.

A full season of Starling Marte should help make the Pirates outfield better in 2013 than it was in 2012.

A full season of Starling Marte should help make the Pirates outfield better in 2013 than it was in 2012.

As for the outfield, they’ll be getting a full season of Starling Marte, who now has some major league experience under his belt. Snider might work, and he might not. Jerry Sands is in the same situation. So is Jose Tabata, even though he was part of the problem in 2012. I often list Alex Presley as the fifth option here, but ZiPS had him as the best of the bunch, with numbers that projected as an upgrade over his 2012 numbers. In short, the Pirates didn’t set a high bar here in 2012. It wouldn’t take a lot for Marte and whoever else to top the performance from last year. Plus you keep first base strong with Jones staying in his spot. So there’s another set of upgrades. As Pat Lackey wrote today, Marte could provide the biggest upgrade to the team.

I wasn’t a fan of the Martin signing. I felt that the Pirates were paying for defense, and that Martin’s offense will take a dip at PNC Park. But it’s easy to see how Martin will be an upgrade over Rod Barajas, who was a complete disappointment on both sides of the ball last year.

Francisco Liriano is a huge question mark. He’s had some serious control problems, and an inflated ERA. But he’s only a few years removed from being one of the top young pitchers in the game, he’s still under 30, he strikes out almost a batter an inning, and he’s left handed with a high career ground ball rate. Those last three things are a great combination for PNC Park. Liriano might not work out, but that’s a good gamble for the Pirates to take. Even if he doesn’t bounce back, he shouldn’t be worse than Erik Bedard, which means the Pirates aren’t in neutral at that position.

A lot of people will point to Joel Hanrahan as a big loss. That really depends on philosophy. I don’t believe that closers make a big impact, and I don’t think it’s hard to replace closers. The Pirates have a candidate in Jason Grilli who has the stuff and the ratios to do the job. They also added Mark Melancon, who is coming off a down year, but was one of the top relievers in the NL in 2011 and has the stuff to be a late inning guy. It’s for that reason that Melancon looks like Hanrahan looked a few years ago. The Pirates haven’t had issues building a bullpen, so I’m not going to start worrying about this. There’s no comfort there of a Proven Closer or an established set-up man. But there’s two guys who have a good shot at being just as good as a Hanrahan/Grilli combo, and that’s what you need.

When looking at the off-season moves in isolation, you get arguments like “The only players they added were Martin and Liriano, and what will happen when one or all of Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez regress from their 2012 numbers?” Two things.

First, they didn’t just add Martin and Liriano. As shown above, they’re also adding a full year of Wandy Rodriguez, Starling Marte, the hope that someone else will step up in the other corner outfield spot, and keeping the first base platoon together all season, rather than having platoon players playing everyday at two different positions.

Second, as Pat wrote in that link above, the Pirates are always going to be a team that relies on their young players. He summed it up well here:

 

 

Instead of asking if the Pirates got better this winter, let’s ask a different question. If Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez both hit 30 home runs and Neil Walker puts up a .768 OPS at second base, do the Pirates have a supporting cast that can turn help buoy those performances into a winning or contending team? Last year, the answer was no. This year? Well, we’ll see.

Yeah, there’s a concern that Andrew McCutchen might not repeat his career year. But McCutchen’s career year led to a 7.4 WAR. The year before he put up pretty obtainable numbers and had a 5.8 WAR. One and a half wins isn’t going to sink the chances of the Pirates contending. The only way that happens is if McCutchen’s production absolutely falls off the table at the age of 26.

For a lot of the key performers who were around for the entire 2012 season, any predictions of a regression seem to be based more on “Well, it’s the Pirates, so horrible things will happen” rather than legitimate reasons why the player would seriously regress. The Pirates are going to need McCutchen, Alvarez, and Walker to be the core. Maybe Starling Marte joins that group this year. Then you add in everything from above, beyond just the off-season additions, and you can see how it would be easy for the 2013 team to be better than the 2012 team. You have to then ask what you’re actually improving on. Was the 2012 team actually a 79 win team, or did they out-perform their talent?

Every year around this time of year we start hearing the doom and gloom predictions. Last year the discussion was whether the Pirates would lose 100 games. If you said they wouldn’t lose 90 games, you were crazy. It was all because people were only looking at the off-season, rather than the big picture. So kudos to Brisbee for going beyond that normal off-season analysis, and looking at the bigger picture. Does this mean the Pirates are guaranteed to contend? No. But it does show how the Pirates are trying to continuously upgrade the team, and it’s more detailed than “they added Martin and Liriano to last year’s team”.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!

**Only two more days to save 20% on the eBook version of The 2013 Prospect Guide! The eBook is also available through our publisher. They also have a discount code during the month of January that allows you to save 20%. Use the code JANBOOKS13 to get the discount. This code is only valid on the eBook on the publisher’s web site, and not the books on the products page of the site.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Top Prospects: #4 – Alen Hanson.

**Pirates Sign Kyle Waldrop.

**Francisco Liriano Could Be on a Minor League Deal.

**Pirates Have Four in MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects.

**That Brisbee link, one more time.

**And here was Pat’s article. Hat tip to him for pointing it out this morning.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.zielinski.169 Steve Zielinski

    That Cole fellow may make the majors this year, and he could hit the ground running. By the end of the year, we may see this rotation:

    Burnett
    Rodriguez
    MacDonald
    Liriano
    Cole

    If the games break right….

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rothermund Ian Rothermund

      I don’t think he’ll show up and be that #1 guy from day one, but there’s no reason to assume that he would be any worse than the guy that ends up being the #5 to start the year. That being said, I don’t think there’s any reason to rush him.

      Looking at that list, there are a lot of nice fastballs in that group. It could look even better if MacDonald actually finds his velocity again rather than throwing 90-93 like he did last year.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        JMac’s velocity was 92 last year, right where it has been his whole career. That wasn’t the problem, it was command on the edges of the zone that fell apart late.

        • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

          Excellent point–and, in addition, it would be good if J-Mac took Tom Seaver’s notions about the importance of strike one. MacDonald doesn’t have to nibble.

  • tempman89

    I hopes marte has a great year, but we are expecting big things from him really fast.
    What do we do if tabata has a great spring, snider is hitting bombs, and marte strikes out 50% of the time?
    Something to consider

    • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

      Temp, I think you are getting to the main point of improvement with this team (in a roundabout way). That is depth. In teh past we relied on Tabata, Prelsey, Gaby Sanchez types to be starters, now they are backups/platoon bats that provide solid options if Snider or Marte struggle. In the past we would have banked on Locke and KMac to be SP and if they had failed we woudl have Brian Burres or Shane Youman starting. Now we have Kartsens, Liriano, Oliver, Irwin as viable options.

      The negativity will prevail around town until they win. I asked Dave Cameron why Pirate fans were down on the obvious upgrade at C with Martin and his reply was “bitterness”.

      It doesn’t tak emuch to look at this roster and see 83 wins or so, people projecting 90 losses just arn’t paying attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    I am cautiously optimistic, more so than last spring.

    .

  • leadoff

    Marte and Martin are huge upgrades for the Pirates, Marte getting a chance to play all year and Martin controlling the game, yes controlling the game, what the top catchers do, anyone can catch and anyone can throw, but few control the game, that is what separates the very good catchers from the okay catchers. Batting averages from catchers are bonuses, any manager will tell you behind the plate comes first. That is the main reason the Cards have the best catcher in baseball.
    I also think Presley is the best option for the 4th outfielder, Tabata has the talent to be the 3rd outfielder, but he doesn’t show it often enough. He does not play defense well enough and he shows very little power even though he has the talent for power. If Sands shows well I might move him to the 5th outfielder and Tabata to the 6th spot. Presley will do more for the Pirates.
    At this point in time my outfield looks like Marte, McCutchen, Snider.

  • Ron Zorn

    Tim, first want to thank you for being the only person I read on the Pirates that actually reviews what you have said in the past, and owns up to mistakes, errors in judgment, etc., Makes me take you articles more seriously, as I know it won’t be endless negative-ism without review and reflection back.

    Excellent article with multiple valid points. Overall, I like that NH always takes the big risk approach of acquiring former big time prospects, i.e, Clement, Snider, Zach Stewart, LaRoche, Moss, Hansen. Most have not worked, but our Buccos don’t need more middling, low-ceiling prospects, they need impact players. I’m sure I am in the minority, but only need one of this type of transaction to hit for it to be a huge win.

    Also, really like the philosophy of “not just for this year approach”. I cannot foresee a day when Buccos can take this approach, pockets simply aren’t deep enough, I just think it is bad business. Rodriguez, Sanchez, and Snider can all be viewed through the prism above, and rightfully so. Had we gone for it with a Dempster, Victorino, etc., approach, whole different outlook.

    Lastly, Hanrahan was a great acquistion at the time, part of the high upside approach, trading two decent players, Burnett and Plush, for two realy high upside guys, Hanrahan (great) and Milledge (waste, which was too bad, didn’t really seem like a bad kid). However, watching him last year, I started to get the “Mike Williams” feeling. Was pretty sure he was going to hold on, but was going to be an adventure. Regardless of who else we received in this trade, I think Melancon can easily be Hanrahan’s equal, with more year’s of control. Everyone else is simply a bonus!. And the exact same approach, former top prospects Sands and DeJesus, see if one of the them hits. I am strongly behind this approach, going in knowing it will only work 2 or out of 10 times.

    Thanks again, really enjoy the site and the hard work.

  • http://twitter.com/beatembuccos21 beatembuccos21

    Which narrative is the correct one? On one hand you have this type of thinking as posed in the article Tim linked to: 1. the team is headed in the right direction. 2. Huntington has fortified the team if you look at his trade deadline acquisitions in conjunction with his off-season acquisitions and 3. The farm system that will put this team over the top is on its way.

    On the other hand (as Tim postulated before the 2012 season had been put to bed), some would say this is a make or break year for the current administration (http://www.piratesprospects.com/2012/09/first-pitch-2013-is-the-make-or-break-year-for-huntington-and-company.html).

    Which one is correct? Has Huntington done a great job but, perhaps, Nutting does not understand that Huntington needs seven or more (assuming the club doesn’t reach the post-season in 2013) years to build a winner? Or has the current front office done merely an average (or perhaps a below average) job and, therefore, one more non-winning/non-contending year means a new front office?

    I mean, if Huntington has the team headed in the right direction and all it needs is a boost from the stockpiled farm system, then shouldn’t Nutting be more patient than giving him what could be one last year to put a winner on the field at the Major League level?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I think you’re over-emphasizing the whole “the team is headed in the right direction” thing to try and force this into a choice.

      My interpretation of Brisbee’s article, and my thoughts above were that you can see the plan of the Pirates if you take a step back and look at how they’ve been adding players over the last few years. They should have a few upgrades because of the guys they added, although there are still question marks for some of the other additions.

      Those question marks will really determine whether the 2013 team is a contender, or another losing team. If they’re another losing team, then it would be time for Huntington to go.

      • http://twitter.com/beatembuccos21 beatembuccos21

        Maybe I’m forcing the choice by misinterpreting or over-emphasizing some points, but that’s not my intention. What I’m getting at is the ‘why’ aspect of his potential one year leash? Why is there at least one school of thought that suggests Huntington has just one more year if things don’t go well? If the plan is coming into view and the farm system is ripening on the vine, why not give him two or three more years to see it through?

  • atniup

    I will try to make this brief and limit my commentary.

    1. Thanks for the great posts Tim, this is my first comment, but I have been reading for years.

    The lack of respect Jose Taba receives makes me sick to my stomach. It does. He is STILL, after 2 horrendous, circus seasons, a career .271 hitter. How many people on this team can say that?

    You may make the argument that he has no power. I wouldn’t disagree, but I have a theory. Has the system and the coaches forced him into being a singles hitter. Does anybody remember that when he was young, he hit for power, specifically gap power. Jose Tabata has power, make no mistake.

    The problem is that he pushes the ball to the opposite field ENTIRELY too much. I don’t have the numbers on this, and I don’t really need them because if you watch the team, you know that’s the case. Is he being forced into this? I firmly and strongly believe that if you put him in the 1 or 2 slot, cut him loose (not forcing him into anything he isn’t and just let him play), he is a .290 hitter with 20 HR and some equivalent RBI depending on the slot he is in. I don;t think that prediction is the top end either, I think it is what he would routinely turn in.

    Maybe I have lost my mind, but I see NO reason that he cannot be an above average outfielder in MLB. I just had to put the pieces together to get there, but I really do think they have given him no input into his approach. He plays tight every time he plays, and it bothers me. Even with all of that, he is a career .271 guy. To me, Travis Snider, Alex Presley, or Jerry Sands being considered instead is utterly absurd.

    Thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/beatembuccos21 beatembuccos21

      Here’s a quote from the 2008 Hardball Times Annual regarding Tabata: Despite occasional comparisons to sluggeres, the 5 foot 11 Tabata doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard and for the second year in a row was among the league leaders in groundball rate. There is plenty of time for Tabata to evolve and he may develop more power if he stays healthy, but as of now he looks on track to become a high average hitter with limited power.

      The 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook references the gap power that you commented on. But, from 2010 Baseball Prospectus: The last piece of the puzzle for Tabata is to learn how to hit for power, which is why he will go back to Indy to begin the season…If the home runs come, Tabata will become one of the cornerstones of the Pirates’ rebuilding effort; if not, he’s going to need a whole lot of everything else to be employable in a corner.

      • atniup

        Fair enough.

        I read some things like,

        “He has quick, strong wrists and a compact swing, which should translate his current gap power into homer power,” ” The consensus is that Jose Tabata has a big league bat capable of Manny Ramirez type numbers, (allyankeeinfo.com), and “skilled contact hitter … with line-drive power to all fields … projects to be a .285 to .300 hitter in the majors, (sickels?),” and potentially inflated the power thought.

        I just get frustrated because we seem to think at the minimum, he has the ability, or at least has the potential ability to hit the ball all over the field, and I don’t see it. I see him continually hitting the ball to right field.

        Regardless, great response. At the end of the day, I see that the evidence would favor you. maybe someday he can be a complete player and help us. Let’s hope!

        • http://twitter.com/beatembuccos21 beatembuccos21

          I’m with you – I think he’s young enough and talented enough to turn it around. Hopefully the club hasn’t given up on him entirely. Even if he doesn’t bang 20 homers a year, hopefully he can hit for a high enough average and draw enough walks to be valuable at the top of the order.