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