SAN FRANCISCO — If you are in my age group or are a frequent visitor of a service called The Internet, you know about “First-World Problems.”
(Hi, I’m James Santelli and this is the hackneyed start to my First Pitch column.)
Starbucks is no longer serving your favorite frappuccino? First-world problem. New printer not working? First-world problem. Want to watch episodes of Sports Night, but the show is no longer on Netflix and I don’t subscribe to Hulu Plus? That’s a first-world problem, but it’s one that should get our collective attention first.
In the same realm, the Pirates’ overall hitting at this point in the season is the equivalent of a first-world problem. This team is on pace to score about 633 runs this season, a total that would come near the results of last year and 2009 and surpass the awful teams of 2010 and 2011. As Pittsburgh teams go, the current offense is not a bad one but certainly not a good one.
But to get a better context of the Bucs’ offensive performance, we need to look at how the team compares to other National League teams in 2013. Let’s use Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) from FanGraphs, which includes baserunning and adjusts to the ballpark.
- Catcher — 6th (of 15 teams)
- First Base — 10th
- Second Base — 7th
- Third Base — 6th
- Shortstop — 10th
- Left Field — 4th
- Center Field — 1st (Andrew McCutchen for MVP)
- Right Field — 15th
If you recognize the Pirates’ weak spot is in right field, you are very attentive and smart. Did you watch Sports Night?
So yes, the Bucs are getting fair-to-middlin’ offensive production from every position (even if the infield is a bit weak) except for right field. It is no surprise that RF is also the position that has seen the most different starters in Pittsburgh’s lineup this season. From leading start-getter Travis Snider (48 games) to Russell Martin getting the call June 4 in Atlanta, eight players have formed a patchwork for the Pirates, and fans may see a 9th or 10th starter in Felix Pie or Russ Canzler at some point.
Lack of right-field production is a significant problem for a few reasons, not the least of which because it is considered a power spot for most teams. Having a poor defensive right fielder is not as much a liability as a poor defensive shortstop or catcher, so you will see plenty of teams grin and bear a slow player in the corner outfield because he can swing the bat well.
Every other National League playoff team has an elite or near-elite hitting right fielder. The Dodgers have Yasiel Puig. The Cardinals have Carlos Beltran. The Braves have Jason Heyward. The Reds have Jay Bruce. These are great players. I don’t think it is unfair to say Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are not great players. They have potential, but potential in a pennant race and five bucks still won’t bring back that Starbucks frappucino.
We are now about five weeks from the start of the MLB playoffs, which means the focus will turn from the day-to-day grind of the regular season to the fact that the Pirates have a better-than-98-percent chance to get some kind of postseason berth. We will start using terms like “division lead” and “magic number” not as abstract concepts but harsh-yet-exciting realities.
What’s the RF Solution?
I have been on Justin Morneau Watch (patent pending) in earnest since a week before the July 31 trade deadline. I predicted on a July podcast that the Pirates would acquire the Twins’ first baseman to push Garrett Jones to right field. The Bucs reportedly showed interest, I pointed out that Morneau remains an effective hitter against right-handed pitching, but the twain never met.
The facts then are the facts now: Morneau is still a capable, veteran first baseman with good hitting ability and the Pirates still need to alleviate their poor production from right field. Only now Morneau has cleared waivers and we still have no idea if he wants to leave Minnesota or not.
This seems like a good spot to address people’s issues with Garrett Jones, moreso than just his overall power numbers being worse in his age-32 season. His production is worse in the second half, and Jones acknowledges it. The veteran says he is “maybe getting a little pull-happy” but and has to adjust his hands to square up more pitches. Fans should not be worried, because Jones’ struggles are mostly bad luck.
His .195 batting average since the All-Star Break is mostly due to bad luck — Jones has a .219 BABIP since mid-July and is not striking out more or walking less than in the first half. Jones should not be benched, and his luck will turn.
Does the fact that the Pirates did not place a waiver claim on a player mean they have zero desire to acquire that guy? Not exactly, general manager Neal Huntington told the media earlier this week.
“It doesn’t mean you have no interest. It may mean there’s not a great fit,” Huntington said, though he was not asked specifically about Morneau. “It may mean that [a team] thought somebody else was gonna claim him, so they claimed six other guys instead of him. I don’t know… Post-waiver-deadline trades do happen on guys that have cleared.”
Huntington added that it appears fewer players have been placed on waivers this year, but the bigger issue is that teams who were not willing to move hitters on July 31 may not be more keen to deal on August 31. The Chicago White Sox were willing to trade outfielder Alex Rios to Texas this month, and the Chicago Cubs traded outfielder David DeJesus, though the Nationals’ motivations for acquiring him remain unclear.
With nine days until the August 31 waiver trade deadline, a couple teams have made moves, but it’s not as if Huntington and the Pirates are wallflowers without a dance partner.
“People seem to miss that it still takes two teams to do a deal,” Huntington told me Wednesday. “Just because a player cleared waivers doesn’t mean that his holding team is motivated to move him… There still has to be the ability to satisfy what the other team is looking to get in return.”
An Immediate Need?
The GM did add that the team is looking for opportunities, but he will not show desperation as deals may still be developing.
However, the Pirates find themselves in something of a bind. The company line over the last week has been clear: win today’s game. Transactions that added Andrew Lambo and Kris Johnson to the Pirates for separate short periods of time were done, the team says, to have the strongest group of 25 players to win that day’s contest.
But winning the games in front of them has become tougher with outfielders Starling Marte and Jose Tabata sidelined day-to-day by injuries, leaving manager Clint Hurdle with a short bench for all intents. Felix Pie and his .325 season on-base percentage in Triple-A had to fly across the country because the Pirates had precious few other options to start in left field at Petco Park and probably for the four-game series at AT&T Park.
“We brought up guys we feel are capable of doing the job,” Hurdle said after Wednesday’s loss. “I don’t know if we could better select somebody than what we have right now.”
Even if you think Andrew Lambo is the panacea for what ails the Pirates’ right-field production (and I think the Bucs need more than Lambo’s .306 career OBP above Double-A, even if the power surge is real), Lambo can’t even return to the active roster for another six days because he was demoted for Johnson to pitch last Sunday. The Pirates will play another five games until then, trying to stay just ahead of St. Louis and Cincinnati for the prized division title.
The rosters expanding on September 1 will allow Hurdle to potentially deploy situational hitters and baserunners like Canzler and Pie, but that will not be enough to jump-start a stagnant offense.
The Pirates should not be emphasizing the importance of building a roster to “win today’s game” one minute and then starting Felix Pie as the leadoff hitter the next. Call it disingenuous or call it hypocritical if you would like, but it is mostly just a bad strategy to stay ahead in the National League Central and win playoff games.
There is bound to be a hitter out there to plug in at first base or right field. If Morneau will not leave Minnesota, call about Hunter Pence. Call about Marlon Byrd. Call about David DeJesus.
Having a starting lineup that is right around league average is not the standard the Pirates should be setting for themselves anymore. As phenomenal as the team’s run prevention has been, any day the offense flounders can sink a possible win.
One weak spot in a lineup? That’s now a first-world problem for the Pirates, because a championship contender should have no weak spots.
Links and Notes
**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.
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