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, asĀ 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

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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