First Pitch: The Big Lesson Learned in 2013

A few years ago — I don’t remember the exact year — I was reading an off-season article written by Pat Lackey at WHYGAVS. In the article, Pat talked about what he learned about the game the previous season. There was something about that concept that just clicked with me. Baseball is a pretty simple game at the core, but when you dig into the strategies involved, you start to see how complex the game can be. No matter how much I think I know about the game, I’m always learning more as time goes on. After reading Pat’s article, I went into every off-season questioning what I learned the previous year.

It didn’t take long for the big lesson to emerge in 2013. The Pirates saw a ton of early season injuries to their pitching staff, combined with a few poor performances. Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald struggled. Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett both dealt with injuries. They used 11 different starting pitchers during the first three months of the season. And yet the starting rotation held strong and led the team to 94 wins, all because of the strong depth the Pirates had.

The biggest lesson in 2013 was appreciating the value of depth.

The entire off-season is spent focused on the Opening Day 25-man roster. Minor moves are usually dismissed as being pointless, or will raise questions as to why the Pirates are wasting their time with such players. The starting eight fielders, the five members of the rotation, and the back-end relievers get the attention, and that attention is deserved. But the bench, bullpen, and depth players are just as important to the team, despite the fact that those moves come with much less fanfare.

All of the moves that have been made so far by the Pirates have been minor moves. Today they added Chris Stewart, a strong defensive backup catcher. The addition doesn’t change much in the short-term or the long-term. The big impact is that the move adds an extra layer of depth. If Russell Martin goes down with an injury, Tony Sanchez will likely be the starter. Now that Stewart is in the mix, the Pirates will still have a strong backup in that scenario, rather than relying on minor league depth like Nevin Ashley or Carlos Paulino.

The Pirates have also added Jaff Decker, who has options remaining and looks to be one of many options for the outfield. They brought back Duke Welker and added Miles Mikolas, along with the addition of four right-handed pitchers who were non-roster invitees. Those six players provide a lot of bullpen depth, which the Pirates didn’t need much of in 2013. You never know when the injury bug will hit, and it’s always good to be prepared for that.

Perhaps the best example of how the Pirates weren’t prepared was in 2011. They saw a ton of injuries behind the plate, leading to eight catchers on the major league roster throughout the year. They were going with minor league depth guys like Dusty Brown and Matt Pagnozzi. It seems like the Pirates were forever scarred by that situation, as they’ve gone to extremes to add more depth than seems necessary ever since that year.

Am I saying that the Pirates will be fine if they just stick to smaller moves this off-season? Not at all. The Pirates still have a need for a starting pitcher, and they need to eventually come up with a plan for first base and right field. What I am saying is that only looking at the starting positions, and ignoring the role players and depth additions is a very short-sighted approach. Guys like Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, Kris Johnson, and Ryan Reid didn’t get much attention when they were added last off-season. In the former two cases, the question was “why do the Pirates need these guys when they have a full bullpen already?” But Mazzaro and Gomez ended up playing key roles in the bullpen, while Johnson and Reid served as depth when needed throughout the season.

The Pirates will eventually need to make a big move or two in order to address those holes in the starting lineup and rotation. But that doesn’t mean those are the only moves that are important. A good free agent might be worth 2-3 WAR. Meanwhile, the swing between the Pirates’ backup catchers (-0.3 combined WAR) and Chris Stewart (0.5 WAR) would have been almost one full win in 2013. Vin Mazzaro was worth almost a full win last year. Jeanmar Gomez and Ryan Reid were worth almost half a win combined. If you make enough strong minor additions, you’re getting the value of a big free agent signing for a much smaller cost.

So the idea that minor additions are pointless is ignoring the fact that the Pirates need to find value anywhere they can get it. The addition of Chris Stewart isn’t going to be better than the addition of a starting first baseman or a starting pitcher. However, if the Pirates can make a few different minor upgrades similar to the Stewart move, then they could be adding the value of a starter at a much smaller cost, which is something the Pirates should always be trying to do.

Links and Notes

**Sad news today, as Evan Chambers passed away at age 24. The link includes messages from tons of players in the Pirates’ organization, a statement from the Pirates, and my thoughts on Chambers, who was a great guy. That is very apparent when you see the outpour of condolences over his passing.

**Pirates Tender All Eligible Players, Including Travis Snider

**The 2014 40-Man Payroll Projection has been updated.

**Pirates Acquire Chris Stewart From the Yankees

**What Does the Chris Stewart Deal Mean For Tony Sanchez?

**Pirates Sign Pitcher From Czech Republic

**Winter Leagues: Two More Hits For Polanco

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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  • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

    For depth purposes, assuming loss of Liriano/Morton after this year, I take a flyer on Jeremy Hefner, just non-tendered by Mets, on shelf until August due to elbow injury. But strong possibility of solid backend starter in 2015.

    I also take a look at Ryan Webb and Wesley Wright, also non-tendered yesterday. Where the Pirates have no depth in is MI, and I’d seriously look into trying to flip Melancon for help there – either a platoon partner for Walker or a LH or true switch-hitting utility guy with decent OBP as part of the haul.

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

      Scott…I’m all for flipping relievers if we can get something good for them. They are incredibly volatile.

    • stickyweb

      I’d love to see the Bucs get something productive for a bullpen piece, as they always seem to be able to do. After Melancon’s season and what RP have brought back in the past, they should be able to get a ML ready position player.

      Is anyone else piqued by Tommy Hanson being non-tendered? He could be a good one to take a flyer on. One bad year in the AL (who didn’t have a bad year for the Angels, other than Trout of course), still fairly young. I know his GB% isn’t what the Bucs would want, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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

    You can’t really say we were ‘unprepared’ in 2011. We didn’t have the minor league depth at that time and were still ‘dumpster diving’ for anything we could get our hands on. The ONLY way we could get depth was to overpay for it, and I am glad we didn’t.

    Also, NH, Frank, etc, were all surprised at how well we did that first half. They knew we didn’t have the depth to sustain it.

    • stickyweb

      I agree Foo. No team is prepared to go 7 or 8 deep at catcher. Things happen, and no matter how prepared you are, you can’t cover every possibility.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.emeigh Mike Emeigh

    Why is everyone forgetting about shortstop when they talk about positions that need an upgrade? Jordy Mercer isn’t a long-term answer at the position.

    Neal Huntington doesn’t do bold, but this is a situation where he probably should. David Schoenfield had an interesting suggestion about going after Troy Tulowitzki:

    http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/42646/lets-have-some-fun-three-team-trade-ideas

    and while it would be hard for Huntington to set that up, that’s exactly the type of bold move that Huntington should be trying to swing. I’m all for developing from within but the Pirates are *this close* and the window is never going to open wider than it is right now.

    • stickyweb

      I don’t think everyone’s forgetting about SS, it’s just that there aren’t many options out there. Right now, Mercer is basically the same as Peralta, though obviously Jhonny has more experience. Could Mercer fall off a cliff statistically? Sure. Though so could Peralta as he’s several years older, and who knows what the PED thing does to him.

      I’ve always loved Tulo and would love to see the Pirates get him. However, giving up Polanco, Hansen, Mercer and eating Tulo’s whole contract wouldn’t be bold. It would be stupid. Tulo has missed an average of 50 games each year for the past 6, turns 30 next year so injuries may get even worse, and his stats are inflated by Coors. There’s a reason why everyone thinks the Rockies need to trade Tulo, and the Bucs are not in any better position to eat that contract than COL is.

      Why not see if what Jordy did this year is legit? And why not give a top 50 prospect a chance in a couple of years?

      • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

        Plus a $134M commitment to a single player over the next five years along with (as I read Cot’s Contracts) an unlimited NTC would move the trade from “stupid” to “imbecilic”.

    • bucyeah90

      That trade would result in another losing streak. The Pirates need young performers like Polanco and Hanson, not aging big names like Tulo. Thank goodness Neal would never ever make that trade.

    • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

      “the window is never going to open wider than it is right now”

      Except, you know, when Gregory Polanco is starting in right field, Jameson Taillon is in the rotation, Starling Marte has a couple of years of major-league experience, and Cutch is still in his prime.

      This thought that the Pirates have to make a big splash now because their window is closing is counter to everything that a small-market team needs to do.

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

      Teams can operate in one of two ways. They can believe that a “window” exists, which ends up being a self fulfilling prophecy since operating with the idea of a window usually creates a window. As an alternative, they could ignore the “window” theory and operate with the goal of being competitive for the long-term. This might not result in making the playoffs every single year, but it also means you’re not going to have to blow everything up in a few years and start over.

      • https://www.facebook.com/mike.rosati.75 Mike Rosati

        Please see the Brewers as an example of operating under the “window” idea…they had what? 4 fun years? And now they’re looking at a heck of a rebuild….Nope, I don’t want that….I’d much rather consistently have the pieces in place for 88-90 win seasons and hope the luck goes my way in the playoffs.

      • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

        Tim & David,
        While I wouldn’t do that kind of ridiculous deal for Tulo (or anyone) that cost 2-3 top 5 prospects and takes on a whopping contract, I don’t think that’s what “the window is never going to be as wide open as it is now” implies.

        Yes, the Bucs have what appear to be some gems on the way and they should be “competitive” for several years to come. None of that needs to change.

        However, it would be silly to make a golden rule that you have to keep every single top 10 prospect. Look at how the Nats just converted a lower top 10 prospect and some spare parts into Doug Fister. The Bucs can certainly afford to do deals like that.

        The “window” will not be closed for awhile. However, it will not always be open the same amount year-to-year. Some years it will be 3/4 open, some years 1/2, some years – like 2014 – WIDE open simply due to who’s still here and contributing to provide a solid, proven foundation to build on. And on those “wide open” years, it behooves the FO to get more aggressive in pursuit of a championship.

        • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

          I read “the window is never going to be as wide open as it is now” to mean that the upcoming season (“now”) is the one in which the Pirates have the best chance to compete for a postseason berth (“wide open”) for the foreseeable future (“the window”). I mean, it’s a pretty cut-and-dried statement, without a whole lot of room for interpretation.

          And it’s one that I fundamentally disagree with, because it means that the Pirates’ major league talent is at its peak and is expected to decline between now and when, say, McCutchen’s contract runs out. Which totally disregards the contributions that it is reasonable to expect from the likes of Polanco, Hanson, Taillon, Kingham, and on down the list of minor-league talent.

          Polanco will be better in RF in 2015-2018 than whoever the Pirates put there in 2014. Hanson will be better at SS in 2016-2018 than Mercer in 2014. Taillon will be better in the rotation in 2015-2018 than the Pirates’ fifth starter in 2014. The Pirates’ talent is trending upward over the next three years, not downward; the window is going to be opening wider over the next few years.

          • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

            And the 2013 Bucs won 94 games. That is a proven fact.

            Before I moved here 11 years ago I was a die-hard Mets fan. Billy Beane was the best position prospect the Mets ever had. Couldn’t miss. Probably more certain than even Chad Hermanson.

            The Mets had Isringhausen/Wilson/Pulsipher (aka Generation K) who would lead them to years of success.

            Didn’t happen as envisioned.

            Even Strasberg hasn’t yet lived up to the hype.

            Every team has its story of a failed “can’t miss” prospect. And more than one.

            Thus, you have a 94-win team where all the important pieces minus AJ are coming back for one more year. Build on that while you can without mortgaging the future. It can be done while maintaining a profit for Nutting.

            • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

              Any prospect can bust. But it’s fairly unlikely that three top-100 prospects all bust. Polanco, Hanson, Taillon, and Kingham all have (reasonably-likely) performance expectations significantly above who they’d replace in the current MLB roster, and the chance that none of them reach those expectations is (I would submit) less than the chance that any single high-priced trade acquisition falls off a cliff.

              It comes down to a difference in philosophy. I prefer the philosophy that continually has a stream of high-ceiling prospects coming onto the major league roster over the one that bets on a single established player. I prefer to spread my bets over three or four players – any one of which may have a lower probability of success, but who collectively have a lower probability of failure.

              If Hanson ends up a bust because he zones out on too many routine ground balls, and Taillon blows out his arm in May and never pitches in the majors, and only Kingham and Polanco succeed, I’m OK with that – whereas if you trade Polanco and Hanson and Kingham for Tulo, and then Tulo spirals downward in 2015, you’ve crippled the organization for five years because you’re carrying a replacement-level shortstop for $20M/season.

              • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

                I’m not arguing for a Tulo trade. I like what the Nats just did to get Fister. Improved for 2014,/2015, small dent in system. Didn’t strip their vault of prospects.

    • Cato the Elder

      I’m all for developing from within but the Pirates are *this close* and the window is never going to open wider than it is right now.”

      Really! We are only now witnessing the window opening. It has been years, but it is finally here. This is what all the “developing from within” was all about; our prospects are arriving in waves – Taillon and Polanco this year; Hanson Kingham, Bell, Glasnow, Heredia, et al soon to follow. The absolute worst thing we could do is package our top prospects in a deal for an injury prone 30 year old with a $134 million dollar contract – and I love Tulo.

      I don’t think it is even reasonable to suggest that the Pirates’ window is even beginning to close until McCutchen’s contract approaches it’s end 2018. And if by that point, Marte and Polanco are succeeding at the big league level and Medows,Barnes, Bell or someone else is knocking at the door, then you might as well kick that window-closing-can down the road a few more years.

    • buster09

      Schoenfield is the same clown who thought the Pirates should trade Polanc and Taillon ( along with others ) for Stanton just to have a shot at the playoffs.

  • piraddict

    Great insight with this article Tim! Looks like NH is relentlessly pursuing an increase in WAR at every position on the MLB and AAA roster to provide resilience in the face of injury or performance decline. Just what he should be doing.

    I favor having Tony Sanchez playing full time in AAA versus being the MLB back up. It’s very hard to improve your game on the bench. There is a reason why MLB managers prefer experienced players for their seldom used backups. First they have probably fully achieved their potential and second they have more MLB experience to draw from when they are asked to perform after extended time on the bench. Performing well as a bench player is very difficult to achieve as you lose any feel for game at bats. Which is why so few players put up outstanding offensive numbers from the bench.

    Sanchez and the Pirates are better served with Sanchez playing full time where he can work out his occasional “yips” throwing to second and continue work on his hitting on a full time basis. Hopefully he’ll be ready for full time MLB work in 2015 if he is not called up in 2014 due to an injury to Martin.

    • japple2298

      I agree with the article, but I am starting to worry about the offense for 2014. Last years offense had a lot of weakness, and all we did so far was get rid of Garret Jones. We have not improved anywhere on offense. I feel the pitching will be good enough, but we need to score way more runs if w are to keep up with the Cards, Reds and even the Brewers.

  • babeadamsforthehall

    I agree with you regarding how the Pirates seem to ne approaching depth. I am just of the opinion that Sanchez should be the backup at the major league level in 2014, and that McKenry could have been the “depth” you speak of (because he has the option left). If the Pirates could give Martin 115 starts at catcher in 2014, that would give Sanchez 45 starts. I believe those would be more valuable to both him and the Pirates than having him play at AAA, where his performance would continue to give us no real indication as to how he would hit in the majors.

    • Cato the Elder

      Do you have a reason you would prefer that Sanchez be the backup in ’14? Not saying you’re wrong, just that it seems that he might benefit as much from playing full-time as he would from being the back up. Maybe you believe that Martin/Sanchez is better than Martin/Stewart, but I think it is much more evident that Martin/Stewart/Sanchez is better than Martin/Sanchez/McHenry. In any case, the point is moot – what is done is done – and quibbling about 2nd and 3rd string catchers is the epitome of a slow offseason.

      • babeadamsforthehall

        Certainly true. I just think that getting Sanchez 250 at bats at the major league level will do more for him than would 500 at bats at AAA. It would also allow the Pirates to get a glimpse of whether he might look like a starter for 2015. The only way we know if he is starter material for 2015 is if he bombs out at AAA in 2014. If he does well there, what do we really know? That he can hit AAA pitching. Does that give us an indication that he is starter material for 2015? Most likely not.

        • Kevin_Young

          250 ab’s?? That’s nearly half of our games. Barring injury he’s not getting more than 150.

          • babeadamsforthehall

            If Sanchez starts 50 games he will get 250 PA’s.

        • impliedi

          “The only way we know if he is starter material for 2015 is if he bombs out at AAA in 2014. If he does well there, what do we really know? That he can hit AAA pitching. Does that give us an indication that he is starter material for 2015? Most likely not.”

          Wow. Couldn’t disagree more. I don’t think this has anything to do with Sanchez’s bat. Even if Sanchez bats .230 in his career for the majors, he’ll be the starter, as long as his defensive consistency improves (the key point). The Pirates won’t get any kind of look at what kind of catcher they have in Sanchez if he sits the bench and watches and only plays once a week.

          The ONLY way the Pirates will see if Sanchez can play consistent defense over a whole season is to have him playing consistently, and right now, with Russell Martin on the team, the only option is to have him play everyday at AAA.

          • impliedi

            And to add to the point, when’s the last time you’ve seen a baseball team carry their future starting catcher as a back-up for a full-season before giving him the starting job??

            Looking back at recent Pirates history of their home-grown catchers:

            Tony Pena won the starting job having only been a September call-up the previous season.

            Jason Kendall won the starting job out of spring training with zero MLB experience.

            Ronny Paulino won the starting job having only been a September call-up the previous season.

            Ryan Doumit was a June call-up and given the starting job immediately with no MLB experience.

            I don’t buy that Sanchez has to ride the bench at the MLB level to see what kind of catcher he’s going to be.

            • babeadamsforthehall

              Pirates history = the right thing to do by major league standards?

              Ok.

              • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

                So let’s look across the league. Looking at starting catchers with the most PAs in 2013:

                Carlos Santana: Called up from AAA in June 2010 and became the starter immediately.

                Buster Posey: Called up from AAA in May 2010 and became the starter immediately (was a September callup in 2009).

                Jonathan Lucroy: Called up from AAA in May 2010, split time with George Kottaras through mid-August but was basically the starter from then through the end of the season.

                Matt Weiters: Called up from AAA in May 2009 and became the starter immediately.

                Yadier Molina: Called up from AAA in June 2004 when Mike Matheny was hurt; started until he came back and backed him up the rest of the season before becoming the starter in 2005.

                Ryan Doumit was covered above.

                A.J. Pierzynski got a September callup in 1998, spent a month in the majors in 1999 (mid-May to mid-June) backing up before being sent back down, and then was called up in August 2000 and became the starter.

                Salvador Perez was called up in August 2011 and became the starter immediately.

                Joe Mauer made the Twins out of spring training in 2004 as the starter.

                Russell Martin was called up in May 2006 and became the starter immediately.

                I stopped at 10, because there didn’t seem much reason to go farther. 8 out of the 10 starting MLB catchers with the most PAs in 2013 spent basically no time in the major leagues as a backup. Molina was called up to start when Matheny got hurt and stayed up as his backup; Lucroy came up in a timeshare and gradually took over the starting job. None of the ten started with their team as a backup out of spring training and took over the starting job the following year.

            • babeadamsforthehall

              Oh. And Tony Pena and Steve Nicosia pretty much split time in 1981 before Pena took over in 1982. At least get the facts right.

          • babeadamsforthehall

            So, if he hits .230 at AAA that tells us nothing, as long as he plays good defense?

            What?

            How he hits at the major league level makes no difference as long as he plays good defense?

            What?

            Maybe he is a starter if he hits .230 for his career. But he would be a REALLY, REALLY bad starter.

            You must love the Clint Barmes types huh?

            • impliedi

              Um, Russell Martin hit .226 last year, and many say he’s the greatest Pirates free agent signing in recent history.

              If you can get a catcher that actually hits anything, you’ve got a rarity, not the norm.

              So, no, Tony Sanchez’s ability to hit/not hit MLB pitching in 2014, means absolutely nothing as far as his ability to be the 2015 starter.

              • babeadamsforthehall

                Yeah. And if his defense isn’t good enough to keep him off the 25 man roster versus Chris freaking Stewart I’m not going to hold my breath that he will become the defensive player that Martin is. even if I felt that defense from a catcher can more than make up for being an automatic out. Which I don’t.