14 Boom or Bust Pirates Who Could Make a Difference in 2014

One year ago today, I wrote an article about the 13 Boom or Bust Players Who Could Make a Difference in 2013. The Pittsburgh Pirates had a lot of players last off-season who had a chance to be a top performer, but also came with a risk that they could be as low as a bust. Here were the players I outlined last year, and the results in 2013.

2013 Results

Hitters

Starling Marte: 4.6 WAR

Travis Snider: -0.6 WAR

Jerry Sands: Triple-A

Jose Tabata: 1.1 WAR

Clint Robinson: Lost on waivers

Marte was the only booming player from the group of hitters. Tabata didn’t exactly bust, but the group of 1B/RF options didn’t produce anything close to what Marte provided in left field.

Pitchers

James McDonald: 0.1 WAR

Francisco Liriano: 3.1 WAR

Jeff Locke: 1.1 WAR

Kyle McPherson: Injured

Jason Grilli: 1.5 WAR

Mark Melancon: 2.5 WAR

Charlie Morton: 1.3 WAR

Gerrit Cole: 2.3 WAR

The group of pitchers was very successful. The only downsides were McDonald, who never repeated his first half of 2012, and McPherson, who was injured most of the year. The “worst of the best” was Jeff Locke, who put up ace numbers in the first half, was horrible in the second half, and overall averaged to a pretty nice season for a back of the rotation starter.

Looking to 2014

The 2013 season showed us that not every “Boom or Bust” player has to work out. The Pirates had one hitter and a lot of pitchers work out. In 2014 they once again have a lot of Boom/Bust options. They also have more certainty on their roster. Last year they had two rotation spots that looked safe at the start of the year (A.J. Burnett/Wandy Rodriguez). This year they’ve got three (Francisco Liriano/Gerrit Cole/Charlie Morton). As we saw with Rodriguez, “safe” doesn’t mean the player will produce, so we can’t guarantee anything from the top three starters going into 2014. However, the Pirates are in a better position heading into the year. On the offensive side there were questions about both corner outfield spots, plus first base. This year one of the corner outfield question marks has been removed, and the right field question has a strong chance of being eliminated by the end of the season.

I will point out that there is no law of averages at work here. There’s nothing that says the Pirates will see things even out in 2014 after seeing a lot of players on last year’s list work out. They could have another year with several of the following players performing up to expectations, which would probably result in another contending season. As far as individual players go, I’m considering their “Boom” chances based on their potential. If a guy performs closer to the top end of his projection in 2014, it won’t be due to luck. It will be because he did a good job of realizing his potential. All of the players below come with the risk that they might not perform close to their potential, which is why there is also the “Bust” factor to consider. As we saw in 2013, anything can happen with these guys, and the guys on this list will probably determine what kind of success the Pirates have in 2014.

Hitters

Jordy Mercer could be one of the top ten shortstops in baseball if he puts up his 2013 results over a full season in 2014. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jordy Mercer could be one of the top ten shortstops in baseball if he puts up his 2013 results over a full season in 2014. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jordy Mercer: Last year he took over as the starting shortstop mid-way through the season, and got about 60% of the playing time. Clint Barmes returns in 2014 as his backup, but Mercer should at least see three starts for every turn through the rotation. He didn’t show the defense that Barmes showed, but his offense was excellent for a shortstop. If Mercer takes last year’s 1.4 WAR, and doubles it over a full season in 2014, he would rank as one of the top ten shortstops in the game. There’s a chance he could do better than that, especially if he improves his defense. The flip side, as with any young player, is that his 1.4 WAR per half season baseline can’t be guaranteed, as the league could adjust to his game.

Andrew Lambo: If the season started today, rather than three months from today, I’d guess that Lambo would be the starting first baseman in the platoon opposite of Gaby Sanchez. Lambo didn’t have the best winter league numbers, although I don’t let winter league results alter my view of a player, and that’s good or bad as you’ll see when I get to Gregory Polanco. For Lambo, it’s a small sample size in a new country where he could have been working on something specific (he played a lot of first base). The thing about winter ball is that if Lambo didn’t play at all, the only thing we’d look towards would be his 2013 season. That’s the only thing I’m looking at. Lambo exploded in 2013, finally showing the bat that once made him a top 50 prospect in the game. He did all of this at the age of 24, so he’s still age appropriate as a prospect. He’s got some impressive power, but also showed an ability to hit for average, and does well against right-handers, which is what the Pirates need.

Chris McGuiness: The Pirates just acquired him yesterday from the Rangers in exchange for Miles Mikolas. I might have had Mikolas on this list, although I don’t think the “boom” factor would have been as high for the right-handed reliever. McGuiness has options remaining, so he could begin the 2014 season in Triple-A. He didn’t have a great season in Triple-A last year, but did hit left-handers well. That’s a good sign for a left-handed hitter. He hit well against everyone in Double-A in 2012. McGuiness has shown some power and a great ability of getting on base in the minors. He will probably be a Plan B at first base if the Pirates go with Lambo, or a Plan C if they acquire someone else.

Was Travis Snider's poor season due to his injured toe, or just genuine struggles? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Was Travis Snider’s poor season due to his injured toe, or just genuine struggles? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Travis Snider: Once again, Snider is on this list. Last year the results were definitely in the “Bust” category, although it’s hard to say if that was due to Snider, or his injury. He had a toe injury, which was said to be bothering him for months before he went to the disabled list in July. It’s important to note that he started the season well, hitting for a .799 OPS in April. His season fell apart after that, which is around the time his toe injury occurred. The Pirates obviously believe that he can do more than what he showed in 2013, otherwise they wouldn’t have tendered him an offer of arbitration. If Snider can hit like he did in April 2013, and if the toe injury was the reason for his decline the rest of the year, then he could be productive for the Pirates in 2014. But those are a lot of “ifs”, thus making him a Boom or Bust player once again.

Jose Tabata: Tabata didn’t bust last year, but he didn’t exactly boom. He dealt with injuries, struggled early in the season, but then finished strong with an .848 OPS in the final two months of the year. Whether he repeats that in 2014 will determine where he falls on the boom or bust scale. He’s dealt with inconsistent performances and injuries in the past. I don’t think the odds are high of him being a bust, but I think the lack of consistency and the injury history is what could prevent him from booming. The most likely scenario would be that he becomes a good fourth outfielder, although you can’t rule out the chance that he could finally figure things out at the age of 25.

Jaff Decker: He’s similar to McGuiness in that he’s a left-handed hitter who has shown some power, a great ability to get on base, and ultimately the Pirates acquired both of them for Alex Dickerson. Decker came in the original trade, along with Miles Mikolas, who was flipped for McGuiness. Snider and Tabata are out of options, so they will get the first shots in right field. Decker would serve as a backup option to those two, although he has limited time to do anything in the majors due to the next guy on the list. Decker will only be 24 this year, and was one of the top 100 prospects in the game prior to the 2010 season. He looks more like a depth option, and could end up as a nice trade piece if he does well and the Pirates don’t have an opening in right field. And once again, that could be possible because of the next guy.

Gregory Polanco: Last year the Pirates got a huge mid-season boost from Gerrit Cole. This year they’ve got two top prospects who could give them a mid-season boost. Polanco is one of those prospects, and could be ready to join the majors by July. He’s got the potential to be an impact player, and just like Cole last year, there are questions of how soon he can start to make an impact. He had a great season in the Dominican Winter League, although that shouldn’t alter his timeframe to the majors. He still needs time in Triple-A, and needs to polish a few things in his game, along with getting experience at a corner outfield spot.

Pitchers

Edinson Volquez: Here was the write-up on Liriano last year:

He’s a lefty with a strikeout per inning and an above-average ground ball rate. A move to the NL Central and to PNC Park could help him put up some strong numbers. He’s had a high ERA the last few years, but his FIP numbers have been much lower. When a guy underperforms his FIP numbers one year, it could be chalked up to luck. When he constantly does it, there could be an issue. Liriano has great stuff, and he’s in the best situation he could be in with PNC’s park factors. But the fact that he’s constantly under-performing his skill level and FIP numbers means he isn’t a guarantee for a bounce back season.

Volquez is a right-hander who has an 8.4 K/9 ratio in his career, and an above-average ground ball rate. He doesn’t benefit from a move to the NL, and doesn’t benefit from PNC Park like Liriano did. His ERA has been higher than his FIP numbers, with a career 4.17 xFIP and a 4.75 ERA. Last year he had a 5.71 ERA and a 4.07 xFIP. Liriano wasn’t seen as a guy with a strong possibility of being an ace. I don’t view Volquez as a guy with a strong possibility of being an ace. I do think he has a good chance of playing to his FIP numbers and putting up league average results over 170-180 innings. As for being the next Liriano or Burnett, I think if Ray Searage does that with Volquez, then the Pirates will have their choice of whatever bounce back pitcher they want to sign in the future.

Jeff Locke Pirates

Last year, Locke would have been a guarantee for the rotation. This year he might start off in Triple-A. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jeff Locke: He’s this year’s James McDonald in the sense that he had a strong first half, and a poor second half. The Pirates were relying on McDonald as a key member of the rotation last year. Locke was on this list last year, but in the sense of being a fifth starting candidate. The difference between the two years is that the Pirates aren’t relying on a guy like McDonald/Locke for the rotation. There’s a good chance that Locke doesn’t even make the Opening Day rotation, and that could happen if Wandy Rodriguez is healthy. Locke will get time in the MLB rotation in 2014. I don’t think he will be as bad as his second half, but I also don’t see him repeating the first half numbers.

Wandy Rodriguez: The big question with Rodriguez is whether he can be healthy. He tried to return several times in 2013, but had setbacks each time. Neal Huntington has said he expects Rodriguez to be healthy for Opening Day. Even if he is healthy, there is the other question of what level of performance the Pirates can expect. So far he has had a 3.66 ERA in 137.2 innings when healthy for the Pirates. If he can return to that, the Pirates will get a huge boost with him as the number five starter. The health will be the big question mark with Rodriguez.

Stolmy Pimentel: Last year the Pirates got some key performances from Jeanmar Gomez. The right-hander pitched in every role, including a few starts. Gomez is expected to return this year, and could play in a similar role. However, Stolmy Pimentel could also fill that role, and has the chance for more upside due to his better stuff. If he isn’t needed for the rotation, Pimentel could provide a power arm for the bullpen. He’s got a fastball that hits 98 and a plus slider. If that translates to the majors, he could emerge as a strong middle reliever, and depth behind Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon for the late innings.

Jameson Taillon could be this year's Gerrit Cole.

Jameson Taillon could be this year’s Gerrit Cole.

Phil Irwin: I could have included Brandon Cumpton here, but I don’t think there is as much Boom/Bust range with Cumpton. He profiles as a back of the rotation starter, and showed the ability to pitch in the majors last year. I don’t think he’s as good as the numbers he put up in his 30.2 innings in the majors, but that time was good enough to show that he could be a major league depth option at the least. The reason I included Irwin is because he has more upside than Cumpton, with the chance to be a strong number four starter. Cumpton is a safer depth option, but Irwin has more upside, which makes him more appropriate for this list.

Duke Welker: Welker is similar to Pimentel in that he has impressive stuff that could make him a back of the bullpen option. He sits 97-98 MPH with his fastball and has a plus slider. He does deal with a lack of control, but those control issues have improved in recent years. He’s got an option remaining, so he should start the season in Triple-A. He could finally get a legit shot in the majors at some point this year, and he could emerge as a strong middle reliever and late inning depth.

Jameson Taillon: He’s this year’s version of Gerrit Cole in the rotation. Last year, Cole arrived by mid-season, and by the end of the year he was looking like an ace. Taillon has a similar upside, and could be a huge boost to the rotation in the second half. Between Cole, Liriano, and Taillon, the Pirates could have three guys pitching like top of the rotation starters by the end of the 2014 season. You can’t expect Cole’s timeline from Taillon, which means a booming performance from Taillon isn’t a guarantee.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • deacs

    Serious question – can a pitcher have a negative WAR? And if so, how did J Mac not have one?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I used FanGraphs WAR, which is based on FIP numbers. Baseball Reference is based on ERA, and has McDonald rated with a -0.9 WAR.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I’d love to see jonathan sanchez’s WAR……

  • deacs

    Also when Taillon comes up (hopefully late June) do you think they’ll keep him to a strict diet of fastballs like they did with Cole or is his offspeed stuff a little more polished than Cole’s was?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Most of their pitchers are taught to work off the fastball, I don’t know if Taillon will be throwing an extreme amount in the 80% range. However, he’s got a great fastball, so I’d expect he will use it more than others.

  • deacs

    I figured with a high 90′s fastball he’ll use that the most but I feel like they were almost afraid to let Cole use anything offspeed. I was wondering if Taillon’s curve for example was ahead of Cole’s slider at this point last year and if they’d feel more comfortable using that as an out pitch.

  • leadoff

    I can’t see Irwin over Cumpton, after watching Irwin in he Arizona fall league I believe he has further to go than Cumpton, Irwin is about 2 mph slower with his fastball than he should be because of his stride. Cumpton pitched well in the majors, what else is he supposed to do?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      If you’re saying that Cumpton should be ahead of Irwin on the depth chart, then I agree. Cumpton is a safer depth option, and Irwin has more upside. So in a list of Boom/Bust candidates, Cumpton doesn’t belong, while Irwin fits in well. I think both will pitch in the majors this year.

      • emjayinTN

        Tim: I watch Cumpton and think of a guy like Greg Maddux – never imposing, never overpowering, but always had a knack for winning. You are right, he is steady and a safer depth option, and almost 2 years younger than Irwin. Duke Welker, Bryan Morris, and Jared Hughes have left an opening large enough to provide hope for Pimental in 2014. He looked real good at AA and AAA as a SP in 2013 – I would love to see the Pirates plug him into the BP in 2014, but if he does well at Indy as a SP, he could provide a lot of insurance come trade deadline.

        I like the Sanchez/McGuiness rotation at 1B. If not McG, I favor Gaby full time with Neil Walker being an option for 20-30 games. Trying to learn a new position and get comfortable as an infield leader will be too much for Andrew Lambo.

        Mas vale tarde que nunca – received the 3 copies of the 2014 Prospect Guide through snail-mail and I have worn out my copy. Thank you for your work and that of the other contributors – Happy New Year. Go Bucs!

        • Kevin_Young

          Except that Greg Maddux is still probably better than Brandon Cumpton right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Very surprising to see that Welker still has options. How did THAT happen at his age?

    Snider had a .799 OPS in his good month? Yep…that’s a 4th OFer.

    I hope Tabata and Travis do well, but not enough to keep Polanco down on the farm.

    I am hoping we don’t need JT because our rotation will be strong enough (and healthy enough) that we WON’T need him.

    I’m still holding out hope that Lambo gets a shot to be the ‘new’ Garrett Jones.

    • IC Bob

      It would be great if Snider and Tabata did well enough to keep Polonco down. If thats the case I am guessing they are having great seasons and they could possibly become serious trade bait. That said I do understand what you mean and I look forward to seeing Polonco in our outfield ASAP.

      • jon6er

        Why would you want serviceable major league players to keep down a potential superstar and perennial all-star down? Since you constantly bash Lambo also in your posts, do you not understand that in modern baseball that 99.9% of all major league baseball players come from the minor leagues?

        • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

          I believe what Bob is trying to say is that he hopes Snider/Tabata do so well, they don’t NEED to rush/rely on Polanco just yet. And that, if they ARE playing that well and the Bucs still want to bring up Polanco, then we’ve got a couple awesome trade chips in Snider & Tabata.

          He even said he hopes to see Polanco soon and is saying essentially the same thing Lee is saying about Taillon.

          I agree with both of them on this. It’d be great to see the MLB club doing so well that they don’t NEED to rely on those guys. Wouldn’t hurt either of them to play a full season of AAA, just because WE want to see them (including me) doesn’t make it the right call.

          I’m also not sure what his opinion on Lambo has anything to do with it.

  • dr dng

    Drove up to Altoona to see Taillon. He certainly looked good.

    My only question about Taillon is can he hit as well as Cole?

    One thing not discussed is the fact that the Pirates pitchers
    (other than Cole) were last in MLB in hitting. When the
    rest of the team has such a low average, the pitchers need
    to do something (anything) at the plate to help out.

    Sometimes its frustrating and hard to watch.

    • leadoff

      I agree, there is no reason why they can’t help themselves a little bit with the bat, of course the priority for a pitcher is to pitch, but many of the great ones helped themselves out with the bat.

    • Cato the Elder

      Not that I think it matters much, but the Pirates pitchers were really bad, like historically bad a hitting last year.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-historically-dreadful-pittsburgh-pirates/

      • Willie the Starg

        Yeah, I remember years ago the Pirates had a young pitcher named Lee Tunnell … who kept blowing sac bunts in key situations ….

        He really got worked over by the coaches … and by the next spring, he could bunt.

        Unfortunately, he only had one really good year with the Pirates….

  • TonyC17

    Dr dng, as frustrating as it is. The last thing we should worry about is our pitchers hitting. They had a great year last year and need to focus on pitching like that again.

  • leadoff

    I would not be shocked if we don’t see Kingham with the major league club at some time this year because he is starting the year in AAA. I would think if he does well he will get a call sometime in 2014. I realize he is not being counted on, but IMO, the major league club could go through 10-12 pitchers again this year and if that happens he could make it.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    The prospect of an eventual rotation of Cole, Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, and Pimental/Heredia/Holmes/Sampson/Locke/Cumpton (or buying one stud FA pitcher to have 3 potential aces) is one of the things I am so so so excited about. Is it homerism, or would an outsider even be ridiculously impressed w/ the upside of that?

    2016/17 Lineup (too aggressive?)
    1B – Josh Bell
    2B – Jordy Mercer
    SS – Alen Hansen
    3B – Pedro Alvarez
    C – Reese McGuire
    OF – Cutch, Polanco, Marte

    Bench: Neil Walker (3B/2B/1B), JaCoby Jones (SS, OF), Tony Sanchez, Barrett Barnes, Wily Garcia

    Scenarios: Tabata gone, options declined
    Marte signed to extension and Cutch traded for a HUGE (SS, 3B, and SP prospects) return in 2017
    Meadows as 3rd OF after Cutch traded.

    Sorry…New Years got me looking waaaay forward!

    • emjayinTN

      NS: Time to stop and smell the roses and concentrate on the challenge directly in front of us – after 20 years of futility, the Pirates finally got the monkey off their backs. However, as hard as that was, it is always harder to maintain that level of success or do better. Just look around the NL Central and you can see at least 2 teams who have been unable to maintain the success they once enjoyed. Save those 2017 arguments for

  • Y2JGQ2

    Snider and Tabata have always had the talent to be star major leaguers. Each of them have more struggled staying healthy and figuring how to play well when hurt (and lets just say it, being able to be effective when nicked up is a necessity for a ML player) than they have in general. Tabata’s main issues are poor defense and poor baserunning, both of which can be coached away. Snider- IDK about him, but health would certainly help. If they were crushing the ball when June comes, and we don’t NEED Polanco, then there is no reason to bring up a rookie who will not mostly likely be better immediately. I think the chances of Snider and Tabata playing up to the level of their previous prospect talent forecasts is maybe 5-10%, maybe one of them performing well 30-40%. So who cares who plays well as long as SOMEONE is. Right?

  • Ed Ott

    Why can’t Snider and/or Tabata move to 1B when Polanco comes up? Why don’t the Pirates give Snider and Tabata some reps at 1B this Spring? They can still start the year playing RF. If one or both of them are hitting well by the time Polanco is ready, they should not be trade chips, they should be in the mix at 1B. Maybe I’m missing something I don’t see any downside to trying this?