With Opening Day less than a week away and Spring Training coming to a close in Florida, it seems like an appropriate time to take a look at what the Pirates will put on the field next Monday when the Cubs visit PNC Park.
The idea is to do one of these each day. I’ll break down the outfield, starting rotation, bullpen, bench and infield (today’s installment) individually. These are by no means meant to be a definitive prediction of what I think these players will do this season, I just wanted to get some capsules together as a sort of jumping off point. As the new guy I’m still learning more about the major league team every day after focusing on West Virginia for the site last season, so please bear with me. I’ll be more than happy to discuss the team in the comments and on Twitter (@TomBraggSports).
This is just going to be a look at the projected starters. The infield is set barring something strange happening in the next week, and I’ll get into the bench players in a few days. I’m including the catcher with the infield, so let’s just dive in there.
Catcher — Russell Martin
Russell Martin joined Pittsburgh last November, signing a two-year deal that will pay him $6.5 million this season and $8.5 million in 2014. The 30-year old spent most of his seven-year Major League career with the Dodgers before serving as the Yankees’ replacement for Jorge Posada the last two seasons.
Martin appeared in 133 games for the Yankees last year and hit a career-high 21 home runs, but also had career-worsts with a .211 batting average and 95 strikeouts. His resume includes three All-Star Game selections (2007, 2008 and 2011) and Golden Glove/Silver Slugger awards in 2007. His WAR numbers peaked that season (5.4) and have declined each year since then (2011 being the exception when he went from 1.8 in 2010 to 2.4 the follow year), bottoming out with a career-low 1.5 WAR last season.
Despite that, Martin’s history of playing for good teams and in big games should not be easily discounted. He has been a part of four Division winning teams (two in L.A., two in New York) and has helped manage quality pitching staffs for most of his career. A veteran catcher that can hit with a track record of managing quality pitchers is a good thing to have, especially for a team like the Pirates with a group of talented young arms that could possibly make their way to the majors in the coming years.
Martin’s best years are almost certainly behind him, but he gives the Pittsburgh something it has desperately needed since the Jason Kendall left town (and my high school classmate J.R. House’s body broke down) — stability behind the plate.
Third base — Pedro Alvarez
Pedro Alvarez is back for his fourth season in the big leagues and will man third base for the Pirates in 2013. A lot is expected of Alvarez, who turned 26 in February, at the plate this season after posting 30 home runs with .784 OPS last season.
He does come with a downside — his 27 errors were tied with Chicago’s Starlin Castro for most in the National League, his 180 strikeouts were second worst in the NL and he has not been much of a threat against left-handers. That said, he can hit the fastball a LONG way and anything close to his 30 home runs from a year ago make the negatives sting much less.
Shortstop — Clint Barmes
Most of the time when a club has to fill its shortstop position with someone who is not a top-level talent it has to settle. Do you want to produce at the plate or in the field? With Clint Barmes, Pittsburgh chose to settle for defense.
Barmes hit for power, struck out and walked at career-low rates in his first season with the Pirates, and certainly some of that can be attributed to spending the bulk of his career in hitter-friendly stadiums in Colorado and Houston. Barmes was not brought in for his bat though.
His Fielding Runs Above Average, a defensive metric you might be familiar with from Baseball Prospectus, was second among National League shortstops in 2012. He played in 142 games last year (even appearing at first base once) and committed 16 errors in a career-high 1,161 innings played. Paired with Neil Walker, Barmes gives Pittsburgh a solid defensive duo up the middle.
First base — Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez
Garrett Jones is a big guy (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) that hits for power — exactly what you want from your first baseman at the plate. The trouble is he struggles badly with left-handed pitchers. His 27 home runs were a career-best. His offensive numbers improved greatly last season, thanks in part to manager Clint Hurdle’s habit of keeping him out of the batter’s box against lefties.
The Pirates will platoon at the position, with Jones in the lineup against right-handed pitchers and Gaby Sanchez handling first against lefties.
Sanchez is two years removed from an All-Star appearance with the Marlins but found himself playing in the minors at one point last season before being shipped to Pittsburgh. He does not provide as much pop as Jones, but Sanchez hits well against lefties and helps give Hurdle options.
Second base — Neil Walker
Neil Walker continued to be an above-average offensive player and he has settled in as a legitimate second baseman with his defense improving every year. He hit .280 with a .768 OPS and accounted for 14 home runs last year. He’s not especially powerful, but he is certainly consistent.
At 27, Walker is entering the prime of his career and barring injury (such as the back issues the slowed him late last season) there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the native yinzer’s future.
Except, perhaps, his contract situation. Walker is slated to make $3.3 million this season but is not under contract beyond 2013. I’m certainly not a front-office type person, but it seems to me like the Pirates would be doing themselves a favor by locking Walker into a long-term deal to stay in Pittsburgh.