The Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs this year, and will largely be keeping the same team together next year. When you add in the continued improvements from young players, and the expected mid-season additions of prospects like Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco, then you’ve got a team that has the potential to be strong once again next year. Because of this, there aren’t a lot of things the Pirates need to focus on this off-season. Here are three of the big topics to watch for when the off-season starts to unfold over the next two months.
Which Pitchers Will Return?
The Pirates have two pitchers who are question marks heading into the off-season. Wandy Rodriguez has a player option for $13 M, while A.J. Burnett is eligible for free agency, and hasn’t decided whether he would return.
The question with Rodriguez isn’t whether he will return. He’s almost certain to pick up his option, considering his injury throughout the 2013 season. The question here is how big of a role he will play when he does return. Will he actually return to the field, or will he only return to the payroll? If he does return to the field, will he be the same pitcher again, or will he struggle? I don’t think he’s a guy the Pirates can count on. They need to view any production from Rodriguez as a bonus. And that brings me to Burnett.
The top of the rotation looks good with Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. But the 2013 Pirates made a transition to a contender. Contenders don’t just have two solid spots in the rotation. They have more than that. If A.J. Burnett returns, that gives them a solid 1-3 in the rotation, and more when Jameson Taillon arrives. If Burnett doesn’t return, the Pirates would be smart to find a replacement.
A prime candidate could be Josh Johnson. He looks like the perfect bounce back player. His ERA was 6.20, but his xFIP was 3.58. His strikeouts actually went up to a career best 9.18 K/9, and his walks didn’t increase that much to a 3.32 BB/9. The problem was his home runs and went way up. That was the result of an 18.5% HR/FB ratio. He also had a .356 BABIP and a 63.3% strand rate.
Johnson got an average amount of ground balls (45%). He also throws a two-seam fastball, but only throws it 13.3% of the time, compared to 45.7% with his four seam fastball. He throws a slider 20.6% of the time. The Pirates have had success with pitchers like Johnson by getting them to rely on their two-seam fastball more often to generate more ground balls.
There is the injury factor to consider. Johnson recently had elbow surgery to remove bone spurs. It was a minor surgery, and there were no issues found with his elbow ligament. He will be throwing again in five weeks, and will probably be looking for a one year deal. Even if they sign Burnett, Johnson seems like the perfect gamble to take to get another potential top of the rotation guy. And if they don’t sign Burnett, Johnson would be a great alternative.
Who’s on First?
Garrett Jones will probably make $6 M in arbitration this off-season. Gaby Sanchez will probably make $3 M. Sanchez did his part in the platoon this year, while Jones didn’t play well and looks like a strong non-tender candidate. Without Jones, there’s not a big need to pay Sanchez $3 M, since he’s only a first base platoon option off the bench. Justin Morneau is also a platoon option, but was a streaky hitter and didn’t do much while he was with the Pirates.
The Pirates need production from the first base position. My personal preference would be Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. Rather than paying Jones/Sanchez $9 M, you could spend a little more and get Abreu. There’s the risk that Abreu doesn’t carry his production over to the majors, but I see risk involved with all of the alternatives, including pending free agents Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart. Abreu’s risk comes with the high reward that he could be a big middle of the order bat if he does carry his hitting over to the majors. Even if they don’t get Abreu, the Pirates need a solution at first.
Solving the Neil Walker Problem
Neil Walker went 0-fer in the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals. This came a week after he finished the season on fire, helping to lead the Pirates to home field advantage in the Wild Card game. Walker is a streaky hitter who is capable of getting hot like we saw in the last week of the season, then going ice cold just as fast. This year he had a 2.7 WAR, which rated 9th of 17 qualified MLB second basemen. So Walker is about middle of the pack.
The problem is that Walker plays too big of a role in the Pirates offense. He’s not a guy who should be a leader on offense. He’s a support player. He’s a platoon player. The Pirates did well to platoon him with Josh Harrison at the end of the year, and that should continue next season. But they need to do something to move Walker down in the order. At best, he should be a number six hitter. They need someone more consistent setting the table for Andrew McCutchen.
The problem here is that Walker is the best option at the position for the Pirates, but he’s not a good option for his role with the team. For a few years, Walker has been seen as one of the top hitters in the lineup, and has been used like one of the top hitters in the lineup. But Walker shouldn’t be a top hitter in any lineup. If the Pirates added a good first baseman, and a right fielder like Byrd, then it would move Walker down to being the sixth or seventh best hitter in the lineup. That’s more appropriate for his hitting skills.