First Pitch: Tarantino-ing the Poor Bench Moves Over the Last Few Years
If there’s one move that the Pirates have made which I’ve constantly disagreed with, it’s their approach with bench players. The Pirates have a horrible habit of giving out bench spots to aging veterans, while passing over their own internal options. I was reminded of this with today’s trade. I initially decided to point out all of the past situations where the Pirates have passed on their own internal players, instead looking at the “grass is greener” veteran player on the other side of the fence. I’ve written about this in the past, so to keep it fresh as I update it, I decided to go Quentin Tarantino style. No, it’s not full of bloodshed, and Samuel L. Jackson isn’t in it. It’s just, well, here it is.
In 259 at-bats, Pedro Ciriaco hits for a .293/.315/.390 line with the Boston Red Sox.
Clint Barmes hits for a .229/.272/.321 line with the Pirates, while posting a 15.3 UZR/150 at short as the starter.
Jose Bautista gets 332 at-bats, hitting 27 homers with an .886 OPS.
Brandon Moss hits for a .291/.358/.596 line with 21 homers in 265 at-bats with the Oakland Athletics.
November 21, 2011
The Pirates sign Clint Barmes to a two-year deal worth $10.5 M, filling their starting shortstop position.
October 31, 2011
The Pirates decline the option of Ronny Cedeno, making him a free agent and opening up their starting shortstop job.
August 31, 2011
Matt Diaz is traded to the Atlanta Braves for a player to be named later after hitting for a .704 OPS against left-handers.
December 14, 2010
Matt Diaz is signed to a two-year deal to platoon with Garrett Jones in the outfield. Diaz, 33, is coming off a down year against left-handers with Atlanta, but has good career stats.
November 4, 2010
Brandon Moss is granted free agency by the Pittsburgh Pirates after 569 at-bats in the majors over three seasons, and a .667 OPS in that time.
Jose Bautista has a break out season and leads the majors with 54 home runs.
Bobby Crosby gets 156 at-bats from the start of the season to the trade deadline as the backup middle infielder.
Argenis Diaz receives 33 at-bats from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
April 8, 2010
The Pirates release Ramon Vazquez, eating his $2 M salary after he hits for a .230/.335/.279 line in 204 at-bats off the bench the previous season.
The Bautista Situation
August 21, 2008
The Pirates trade Jose Bautista to the Toronto Blue Jays, who claimed Bautista off waivers. In return they get Robinzon Diaz. Bautista hit for a .729 OPS in 314 at-bats in 2008 with the Pirates.
December 12, 2008
The Pirates sign Ramon Vazquez to a two-year deal worth $4 M.
Jose Bautista makes $4.8 M combined through arbitration.
The Pirates basically gave Bautista away. He wasn’t hitting well, was pretty much established as a bench player, and was about to make multi-millions as a bench player. Almost four months later, the Pirates committed $2 M per year to an aging middle infielder with poor numbers outside of Texas.
What happened with Bautista wasn’t the fault of the Pirates. No one saw that coming. He took two years to go from an established bench player to the best player in baseball with Toronto. In the process he almost was non-tendered by the Blue Jays. For all we know, Bautista could have never made the adjustment with the Pirates, or with any other team.
What doesn’t make sense is dealing Bautista at a time when his value was low. The Pirates only had one trade option in August 2008, and that was Toronto. They basically dumped his salary, which wasn’t a bad move at the time. They just traded their best player and their only hope for winning in the immediate future. Why spent millions on a guy who is an established bench player? Only they went ahead and spent that money on Vazquez, who was an established bench player with poor road splits in his time with Texas. If they were going to spend the money anyway, why not keep the younger Bautista, rather than the aging Vazquez? It’s hindsight that Bautista had a breakout season. But you don’t need hindsight to know that a 28-year-old with a career .722 OPS has more upside than a 32-year-old with a .749 OPS outside of Texas the year before.
The Lonely Grave of Brandon Moss
July 31, 2008
The Pirates trade Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox as part of a three team deal. In return they get Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris, Brandon Moss, and Craig Hanson. Moss is considered the third biggest piece in the deal, and a potential starting outfielder.
January 18, 2013
The Oakland Athletics avoid arbitration with Brandon Moss, settling for $1.6 M. Moss has three years of arbitration remaining.
Moss is another situation where you could point to hindsight when talking about his post-Pirates success. He went to Philadelphia in 2011, after being released by the Pirates the previous off-season. He was a total surprise in Oakland, and not many people trust his numbers. But they did happen, and if they continue, Oakland has him for $1.6 M in 2013, and for three more years after that.
The Pirates only gave Moss 569 at-bats in the majors. He had 103 with Boston before that. This amount seems like a lot, but consider the Pirates dealt their biggest trade chip to get Moss and three other players. You’d think he would get more of a chance to prove himself. Instead, the Pirates brought in Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz. Overbay was coming off a year where he hit for a .762 OPS in hitter friendly Toronto. He also looked like a platoon player at best, but was used as a regular. Diaz was coming off a down year as a platoon player. Both players were aging, while Moss was turning 27.
Maybe to a lesser extent you can excuse this move for hindsight. But why couldn’t the Pirates keep Moss around for a bench role? Why get rid of him so soon?
Now let’s get to today’s move. Today the Pirates added 38-year-old shortstop John McDonald from Arizona for a player to be named later or cash considerations. That will pretty much guarantee that he takes one of the final bench spots. The other spots are taken by Gaby Sanchez and Mike McKenry. At least one spot will go to an outfielder. My guess is that the other spot will go to a utility player like Brandon Inge or Josh Harrison. That means the acquisition of McDonald will most likely push Jordy Mercer and Ivan De Jesus Jr. to Triple-A.
The big strength with McDonald is his defense. He doesn’t have much of a bat, so he’ll be a strong defensive shortstop off the bench, unless he sees a regression.
I’ll get back to this.
July 22, 2009
The Pirates trade Adam LaRoche to the Boston Red Sox for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz. Diaz is considered a top defensive shortstop prospect with no bat.
December 9, 2009
The Pirates sign 30-year-old shortstop Bobby Crosby to a one-year, $1 M deal to be the backup middle infielder. Crosby is touted for his defense at short. Many Sidney Crosby/Bobby Crosby jokes follow.
July 31, 2010
The Pirates trade D.J. Carrasco, Ryan Church, and Bobby Crosby to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Chris Snyder, Pedro Ciriaco, and cash. Ciriaco is considered a top defensive shortstop prospect with no bat.
December 2, 2010
Argenis Diaz is granted free agency by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates enter the month with a 62-74 record, 18.5 games back in the NL Central.
Ronny Cedeno gets 47 at-bats, and starts 16 games.
Pedro Ciriaco gets 21 at-bats, and starts 3 games. He only had 33 at-bats the entire season.
December 12, 2011
Pedro Ciriaco is granted free agency by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Pedro Ciriaco received $502,500 from the Boston Red Sox, who control his rights through the 2017 season.
Argenis Diaz is currently in Detroit’s farm system, spending the last few years in Triple-A.
Notice a trend here?
At the deadline in 2009 the Pirates acquired Argenis Diaz as one of the two pieces for Adam LaRoche. Diaz was a strong defensive shortstop with the upside of a backup. Diaz spent the 2009 season in Triple-A. He was 23 in 2010. Yet the Pirates signed Crosby for $1 M to be a strong defensive backup shortstop.
That same year they dealt Crosby, Ryan Church, and D.J. Carrasco for Chris Snyder and Pedro Ciriaco. It was pretty much Carrasco for Snyder and Ciriaco, with the rest of the deal being made to cover Snyder’s salary.
Almost four months later, Diaz is a free agent, despite only 33 at-bats in the majors. But the Pirates do have Pedro Ciriaco, who is an even better defensive shortstop.
Fast-forward to 2011. The Pirates are out of contention in September. It’s clear that Ronny Cedeno isn’t one of Clint Hurdle’s favorite players, and won’t be back the following year. Yet Cedeno starts 16 games that month, while Ciriaco starts three. They were clearly moving on from Cedeno. They weren’t contending. That’s the perfect time to give Ciriaco a shot to see what he can do.
Instead, Ciriaco is let go in the off-season, and Clint Barmes is brought in on a two-year, $10.5 M deal.
First of all, Argenis Diaz is how most of these situations play out. A guy is released and never heard from again. I included him to point that out, but also to help illustrate this next point.
Ciriaco went to Boston the very next year, got some plate appearances, and had a surprising year. Was it legit? Much like Brandon Moss in Oakland, no one really trusts the results. But if Ciriaco can do it again, the Red Sox have him for the league minimum in 2013, and under control through the 2017 season. If he’s just a strong defender who can hit some, that’s going to provide some value for a few years.
What if the Pirates decided to actually play Ciriaco at the end of the 2011 season? What if he hits the same way he did in Boston once he gets a chance? Does the team spend $10 M on Barmes? More importantly, why even trade for Argenis Diaz and Pedro Ciriaco if you’re not even going to use them? It can’t be due to their lack of upside as no-bat, all-defense shortstops. That was known at the time. That brings me to the final part.
The Pirates have just added John McDonald. That’s probably going to push Jordy Mercer and Ivan De Jesus Jr. to Triple-A. It could also push Josh Harrison down. There’s not much room down there to begin with. Clint Robinson is at first. Matt Hague is at third. Jared Goedert could spend time at third or DH if he goes down. That would keep Matt Curry in Double-A. That also leaves two middle infield spots for Mercer, Harrison, and De Jesus. Plus d’Arnaud, when he returns.
Mercer was up and down a lot in 2012, but didn’t get much playing time. That was true even when Clint Barmes didn’t deserve to start every day. The Pirates just added De Jesus as one of four pieces in the Joel Hanrahan trade. He used to be a strong defensive shortstop before breaking his leg. He still shows some skill at the position, and one scout I talked with earlier this Spring liked him the best of the backup middle infield group. Is De Jesus going to be the next Diaz or Ciriaco?
Why even acquire these guys? The Pirates are a team that needs to build through young players. Some of the players they’ve acquired only have the upside of a bench player. Some of them had an opportunity to do more, and easing in to the majors on the bench would have been perfect — much like using a starter initially out of the bullpen. But the Pirates don’t turn to Diaz, Ciriaco, and De Jesus. They give that playing time to veterans who will be gone the following year. And what’s the upside? John McDonald had a 0.7 WAR in 2012. Jordy Mercer, in only 68 at-bats last year, had an 0.3 WAR. Even if that’s the difference, I’d trade 0.4 WAR to give the young players a chance and see if they can become more.
From a value standpoint, very few spots on the team are more worthless than the final spots on the bench. I’m also not a guy who buys the value of “veteran presence” from the bench. Don’t the Pirates already have “veteran presence” in Russell Martin and Clint Barmes? At what point does Garrett Jones get his “veteran presence”? And if they don’t have enough players, they should already have guys on the bench who are providing “veteran presence” — the coaches.
John McDonald isn’t going to play a big role on the 2013 club. So why even bother? Why not give any playing time to De Jesus or Mercer? Sure, there’s a chance that Clint Barmes goes down, and it’s not ideal to rely on inexperienced guys like De Jesus and Mercer as your starter. But Barmes and McDonald are both gone at the end of the 2013 season. Eventually you’re going to have to take the chains off the prospects and see what they can do.
If you don’t do this, then you’ll just see history repeating itself. Maybe it was total hindsight that Jose Bautista went on to become the best player in baseball. Maybe there was some hindsight involved when we look at Brandon Moss. I don’t think there would be any hindsight with Pedro Ciriaco if he proves to be legit, since the Pirates didn’t even give him a shot. They’re all different situations, but the moves behind them are the same. The Pirates chose to give bench spots to aging veterans — paying those veterans millions — and cast off younger players who went on to have breakout seasons.
That type of move is probably going to end up with an Argenis Diaz situation more often than not. If you do it too many times, you’ll get a Ciriaco, or a Moss, or worse, a Bautista. The Pirates seem to be continuing this approach. McDonald will take the spot of a younger player. We won’t get to see what that younger player can do in the majors. McDonald will provide minimal value. The Pirates will be left with unproven young players and an open shortstop position after the 2013 season, just like they were after the 2011 season when they didn’t give Ciriaco a chance. Eventually they’ll need to give a young player a shot. Wouldn’t it be better if that young player was getting playing time as a backup in 2013, rather than as a starter in 2014? That’s assuming they trust the young players in 2014, rather than signing another veteran for the job.
Links and Notes
**I mentioned earlier in the week that I was sick with a fever and a sore throat on Sunday. It got worse tonight, to the point where I couldn’t drink water without pain. I went to the doctor and found out it’s strep throat. So I’m going to take a day off tomorrow and let the antibiotics and the Airborne go to work. I’ve got 3-4 articles that I’ve been working on, plus a few interviews to transcribe, so I’ll have some content on the site throughout the day. I just want to stay away from people for a day or two. I’ll probably end up watching Kill Bill.
**From yesterday, James Santelli’s first article on the site: Pirates Projected Among NL’s Top Four Benches. Sure enough, one day later the bench looks different.