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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.