Every year it seems like there’s one surprise team that everyone starts talking about early in the season. The Pirates have been a surprise team in each of the previous two years, but I don’t recall the discussion starting this early (probably because they broke out in June 2011, and had a historically bad offense this time of the year last year). In the last few days there have been a few articles that have gone up questioning whether the Pirates are for real. They are tied for the second best record in baseball. It looks like they’re “that team” that everyone talks about early in the season as a surprise breakout team.
Here are a few links from the past few days, along with my thoughts.
**Dave Cameron of FanGraphs writes that It’s Time to Take the Pirates Seriously. Cameron notes that the team is on pace for 101 wins right now, and that there will be natural regression as there would for any team that has that pace. However, Cameron doesn’t think the Pirates will regress that much. He uses the FanGraphs projected standings to show that the Pirates will finish with 89 wins and a Wild Card spot. He also noted that with mid-season trades, the Pirates could finish with 90-92 wins. They’ve had two straight collapses, and it’s hard to get excited about their early season win totals without thinking about that. However, it’s hard to not enjoy reading about how the team looks like an 89-92 win team who is set to make the post-season.
**On the other side of things, Rob Neyer isn’t buying in to the Pirates until they answer some questions. Neyer brings up some good points about the current team. We don’t know if Francisco Liriano is really back yet. There’s the chance of regression with Jeanmar Gomez and Jeff Locke, which is a subject we’ve been talking about for a few weeks now. Neyer doesn’t trust the relievers and the ridiculous numbers they’re putting up. While I agree that it’s hard to trust Grilli and Melancon giving up almost zero runs, I don’t think it’s hard to trust that they’re both talented relievers. He also points to the lineup which has some question marks from performers like Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Russell Martin.
I don’t think the performances from Sanchez and Martin are too surprising. Sanchez is playing in a platoon role, which suits him best. He played in Miami last year, which was a train wreck for everyone. It’s not out of the question that Sanchez just had a down year, and he’s now benefitting by returning to his career norms of crushing lefties. The big thing about Martin this year is that his average is up about 40 points. One scout during Spring Training commented about Martin’s swing and the contact he made with the ball and said there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be hitting .280. Last year Martin hit .211, but in the previous three years he was in the .240-.250 range. So I don’t think he’s as big of a concern.
I think the points Neyer makes about the pitching are a concern. I’m more concerned with the eventual regression of guys like Locke and Gomez, but as I wrote last night, the Pirates system might curb that regression, and allow those ground ball pitchers to perform above their skill level. That will be another thing to watch as the season goes on.
**Neyer quoted Grant Brisbee in the article, who wrote yesterday about the Mark Appel situation from last year’s draft. Brisbee wrote that it would be great to have Appel in the system this year as a mid-season addition to the rotation. I’m not sure I agree with the premise here. Appel is having a good season with Stanford, with a 2.12 ERA in 106.1 innings, along with a 130:23 K/BB ratio. I just don’t see how he’s automatically major league ready right now. I also don’t think that would happen with the Pirates. That’s not saying the Pirates are too conservative, but they don’t make those ultra aggressive moves to bring a guy to the majors after half a season. I also don’t think they should. You can look around the league and find a lot of ruined pitching prospects who were rushed through the minors. If you want a cheat sheet, just look at the majority of the Detroit pitching prospects over the years.
The big reason I don’t think Appel would have helped this year is because I don’t see what he has that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon don’t have. Cole has struggled with his command this year in Triple-A, and Taillon has done well in Altoona but has been hit around on occasion. Appel also has a history of getting hit harder than he should, so I don’t think he would have had an easy path to the majors without any speed bumps along the way.
I think you can take Brisbee’s argument and apply it to Gerrit Cole. It would be great to have Cole up in the majors as a mid-season addition if he was dominating. It’s also more realistic that Cole could be up mid-season, rather than Appel if he was in the system. There’s still time for Cole to get back on track, dominate Triple-A hitters for a month, and come up in July. If they added Gerrit Cole when he’s pitching like Gerrit Cole, that would be as good as any trade they could possibly make to bolster the pitching staff.