First Pitch: Are the Pirates Better Than Last Year? It Depends.

A few days ago, Frank Coonelly said to KDKA that he feels the current Pittsburgh Pirates team is better than the team that ended the 2013 season. I’m higher on the 2014 team than most, but I don’t think I agree with the idea that they’re better at the start of 2014 than the end of 2013. If given the choice, I’d take A.J. Burnett over Edinson Volquez, and I’d take Marlon Byrd over the combination of Jose Tabata/Travis Snider. Of course, the latter means that Gregory Polanco would be blocked, but we’re just doing a simple roster comparison here.

I don’t think you can successfully argue that the team now is better than the team at the end of last year. I do think you can argue that the team at the start of this year is better than the team at the start of last year. I also think you could argue that the team at the end of this year could be the same or better than the team at the end of last year. And here are my arguments for each case.

Start of the Year vs Start of the Year

If you want to compare the Pirates at the start of 2014 to the Pirates at the start of 2013, then I think you could make the argument that the 2014 team is better.

The 2013 rotation had A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke, and Jonathan Sanchez. Gerrit Cole was expected to make his mid-season debut, and Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens were guys who could return from injuries by mid-season. However, no one was looking forward to the returns of Liriano and Morton. I spent a lot of time last summer writing about how Morton should be in the rotation, and people weren’t exactly high on Liriano last year, just like they’re not really high on Edinson Volquez this year. Looking back, Karstens might have been the guy people were most looking forward to from that group.

As for the five starters, Burnett and Rodriguez were seen as good options. McDonald was coming off a year similar to the one Jeff Locke had in 2013, with people hoping he’d be more like the first half of 2012 than the second half of 2012. Locke was a rookie, and not many people were looking forward to him making the jump to the rotation after he struggled in brief appearances at the end of the previous two seasons. Sanchez was a filler due to injuries and a good Spring, and the hope was that he discovered something to revert to his former success.

The 2014 team has Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole who are seen as good options. I think that this duo looks better than Burnett/Wandy did in 2013, simply because this group looks like two top of the rotation guys, while Wandy never had that look. I’d label Morton as a good option too, and he’s much better than their number three starter last year. The only concern people have with Morton right now is his injury history, and not so much his production. Volquez might not be the next Francisco Liriano, but I think he can at least put up league average numbers over 180 innings, which is a strong number four option. Wandy Rodriguez is a great number five option if he’s healthy, and so far he has said he feels better than last year.

The Pirates don’t have Liriano, Morton, or Karstens possibly returning mid-season, but they also don’t have as big of question marks in their rotation on Opening Day. They do have top prospect Jameson Taillon set to make his mid-season debut, which covers the Gerrit Cole aspect. And this year’s James McDonald is Jeff Locke, who projects to be the number six starter in 2014, rather than the number three starter in 2013.

As for the offense, it’s pretty much the same, except for a few places. Andrew Lambo replaces Garrett Jones in the first base platoon. Going into each season, Jones was viewed higher. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it wouldn’t be hard for Lambo to at least match what Jones did. Jordy Mercer takes over at shortstop, with Clint Barmes backing up and probably getting a decent amount of playing time. That’s a better situation than Barmes as the primary starter. The Pirates also have a lot of young players who are all a year older and a little more adjusted to the majors in 2014 than they were in 2013, which should provide a boost.

End of the Year vs End of the Year

The end of the year in 2013 saw the Pirates with three top of the rotation arms in Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole, the latter of which looked like a top of the rotation guy in September and in the playoffs. Charlie Morton was looking like a solid number three starter, and was the number four guy in the rotation. The number five spot was questionable, with Wandy Rodriguez injured and Jeff Locke struggling.

The end of the 2014 season could see three top of the rotation guys with Liriano, Cole, and Taillon. Morton would still be the number four, and the number five would be whoever is still producing or healthy from the Wandy/Volquez/Triple-A depth group. It’s possible that this group could be equal to the 2013 version.

The offense saw the additions of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd. I was never high on Morneau, and he didn’t do much with the Pirates, which means Lambo won’t have a hard time replicating his performance. Byrd was good in the month he was here, but the Pirates project to have Gregory Polanco arriving mid-season. His overall game should provide more value than Byrd, especially if the bat comes along quickly.

The rest of the offense would be the same, and that includes Mercer now, since he came up mid-season in 2013 and was there by the end of the year. There’s also the part about the young guys being more established this year, which gives them a boost.

Of course the downside to this comparison is that we know what happened last year. We can only assume health, production, and so on for the results this year. That’s the case for every player, whether it’s the guys on the team, guys who didn’t sign like A.J. Burnett, or guys who could still be added like Ike Davis/Mitch Moreland/Justin Smoak. People tend to look past this fact when talking about guys who aren’t on the team.

Overall it’s best to say that the 2014 team has the potential to be the same or better than the 2013 team, rather than arguing that they will be better.

Are the Pirates Better?

It’s expected for Coonelly to give a vote of confidence to the current team, and to say the current team is better than the team last year. Whether he actually believes that or not, you’ll never find an executive of any team who isn’t going to publicly support their team in these types of situations. I disagree that the team right now is better than the team at the end of last season. I also don’t think that’s a relevant comparison.

The team at the end of last season didn’t win 94 games. The team that won 94 games was the team at the beginning of the season, the team at the middle of the season, and the team at the end of the season. You have to look at the entire year to get the overall impact of that team. I think if you look at the potential for the 2014 season, whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end, you’ll see that this team is the same or stronger than last year’s team at their respective end points. The 2014 team is starting with basically the same offense, and a better pitching staff. They’ll have more high-end prospects ready to join the team in the second half. There’s still the ability for trades like last year, if those are needed.

I don’t know if the 2014 Pirates will win 94 games. That’s a tough expectation to put on anyone. But I do think the 2014 Pirates will be a contender. Right now they’re worse than the team at the end of the 2013 season, but by the end of the season they have all of the potential pieces to be equal or better to that 2013 team, and contending once again.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered your copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide, you had better act fast. I just opened up the last case of books today. I say that’s the last case because I don’t think I’ll be ordering more this year. Each year I order the books in bulk through the publisher, which allows me to save several dollars per book, and I pass that savings on to you to keep the price of the book low. You’ll still be able to buy the book from the publisher after I sell my supply, but the bulk discount price won’t be included, which means you’ll be paying $25, plus $3.99 for shipping. Right now you can buy the book for $25 shipped on the products page of the site.

**Are the Pirates the Top Team in Latin America? Bob Nutting and Clint Hurdle both talked about the Dominican academy and the results from Latin America. Then I asked Ben Badler of Baseball America for his opinion on the subject, to get an objective take.

**Wandy Rodriguez Throwing Live Batting Practice (Video)

**You Don’t Have to Wait Until Opening Day to Watch Francisco Liriano (Video)

**Draft Prospect Watch: Top Tools and Two Prep Stars Square Off

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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  • emjayinTN

    The Pirates are decidedly better than where they started in 2013. The Rotation to begin 2013 was shaky, but that problem led to identifying guys like Jeanmar Gomez and Brandon Crumpton as reliable options for the Rotation. It also led to overworking the BP which identified Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro as very dependable in any situation. We knew that Cole would be up in June and that Morton was sometime by mid-year, but if not for the performances in the first half of Liriano, Locke, and those folks already mentioned, we would now be discussing the possibility of playing .500 baseball in 2014 instead of coming off our first trip to the Playoffs in 21 years!

    In 2013 we had a new starter at Catcher, a new RF possibility, Starling Marte entering his first full season, and a battle going on at SS. We also knew that ‘Cutch was coming off his best season, but we were kind of questioning whether we would get the 2011 version of Pedro, or the 2012 version. Because of the strength of the pitching staff, our hitters were allowed the luxury of being able to win even though the run production was low. All of this came together and the Buc’s finished very strong down the stretch to reach 94. I am looking forward to Jameson Taillon, and Gregory Polanco coming up in June, and I know that with the cast of thousands at 1B we will have someone down there better than what we had to start 2013 even if it is Gaby Sanchez full time. I like the acquisition of Stewart as the backup Catcher, and look forward to seeing Stolmy Pimental; I also want to see the Pirates start to put some 1B in the Developmental System, probably through trades, but who knows?

  • jaygray007

    How many wins did projection systems give for the pirates? anywhere from mid 70s to low 80s if everything broke right? right?

    this year they range from high 70s to high 80s. people just focus on the fact that aj burnett is gone but even the objective projection systems like them better, even without AJ.

    Granted, they would probably win another game or 2 with AJ, but the roster isn’t complete yet so that could be a moot point, depending on if/where the AJ money goes.

  • glassers

    We are having the same kind of discussion going on over at PMB . The majority of those weighing in agree with your position . It is interesting how the question is asked because if you compare the 2014 team to the 2013 beginning of the year team IMO that most posters would say the 2014 is better .

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

    The staff, w/o Liriano and Morton, overcame Sanchez and JMac for a +3 April and +10 May. They were +4 when Liriano made his first start on May 11. They followed with a +8 June, then were only +2 in July, even .500 in August, finishing +3 in September. To summarize, they built a +21 over .500 record in the first three months and added only +5 the rest of the way, despite adding Cole, Byrd and Morneau.

    A couple of remarkable stats during those first two months – in April, the Pirates went 15-13 despite starting Sanchez/JMac and only having a .702 OPS vs opponents’ .721. And in May, the Bucs couldn’t even muster a .700 OPS (they went .680) but held opponents to an astounding .591. It’s fair to say that the Bucs built a +13 record primarily on the strength of the BP and ridiculously well-timed hits because with so few run scoring opportunities, they had to optimize each one.

    The staff threw 5 shutouts in April and 4 in May. They threw only 6 the rest of the way.

    Can they get off to a fast start again? My gut says the starting pitching should be better – provided Wandy’s recovery is real. But IMO, the bullpen will take a step backwards. Grilli is another year older. Melancon had a poor finish to 2013. I think Watson will continue to be solid, Wilson may improve his control a bit and Pimintel should be an asset. Mazzaro should be OK. Gomar was up and down and Morris still scares me. But the thing nobody has discussed is that there are no new faces for the first time. There’s now a book on all of these guys – and you can see how teams took advantage of going opposite vs. Melancon late in the year.

    Thus, IMO, the starters are going to need to add at least another 1/3 inning to starts as a group. Last year starters averaged 5.7 innings while the pen averaged 3.4 per game. Cole should help those figures and Morton should be able to go deeper now that he healthy and more proven. Question is whether Wandy and whomever is the other starter(s) will offset those gains.

    Defensively, things should be about the same, although any improvement by Mercer would be welcome.

    Offensively, who legitimately has an upside? If Mercer gets 2/3 of the starts, that’s something. IMO, Pedro has upside. If Lambo proves legit, that’s an improvement on Jones. But there’s little to no upside elsewhere. I expect Martin to regress some and certainly Stewart adds nothing. If Gaby plays more often vs. RHP, he might do worse than Jones. Here, I believe the key is getting another 20 points of OBP from the 1 and 2 guys. Cutch should not have fewer than 90 RBI – and should be regularly over 100. But he’s not getting opportunities (although in Q&A at PiratesFest Hurdle also noted he was a main culprit in the sac fly drought, failing often at 3b less than 2 out situations). Whether or not one believes in “protection”, Cutch’s 2nd half with Byrd/Morneau as clean was tremendously better than his first half. So Pedro hitting in the cleanup spot is a necessity.

    All in all, it’s not a bad team, but I don’t think it improved and in fact, might be a bit worse. Playing interleague in the AL East won’t help. IMO the Cards are improved, even w/o Beltran. Moving Carpenter to 3b and adding Bourjos to CF markedly improves their defense. The Nats should take the NLE and Dodgers the NLW. So the Bucs will be up against the Reds, Braves, DBacks and potentially Giants for one of the WC spots.

    My early pre-Spring Training guess is that they win 87-88 and barely squeeze into the 2nd WC spot. If Lambo breaks out and Volquez can actually pitch, that would get them the 1st spot. But I do not see them winning the NLC in any event, short of a lot of injuries in StL.

    • piraddict

      As a broad generality the pitchers do better in the Spring and the hitters tend to prevail in the dog days of August when the pitchers start to wear down and the weather is warmer. Since the Pirates won with pitching and defense (primarily based on the efficiency of their bullpen) it isn’t surprising that they did comparatively better in the first half than the second.

      I agree with your assessment of the pitching.

      Defensively Stewart is an upgrade on the Fort, Polanco will be an upgrade on whomever in RF, Whomever will be an upgrade on Jones at 1B. Barmes will play in late inning save situations so the 2014 defense will be an upgrade over 2013.

      Offensively, Marte and Walker will have better years if they remain injury free. Cutch could resort to 2012 numbers. Pedro could increase his OPS. RF could hardly be worse than 2013, and I expect that the combo of Tabata/Decker/Snyder will outperfom the 2013 RF by committee until Polanco arrives and the position is permanently upgraded. Catcher and SS will be about the same. So overall the offense should be better.

      The 2014 team is better in starting pitching, defense and offense. The Achilles Heel could be late inning relief pitching if Grilli and Melancon regress. But if they do maybe Watson, Wilson and Pimental will step up.

      But as always how they perform depends on the opposition as well as the Pirates. The Cards are definitely better, the Reds worse and the Cubs and Brew Crew improved. So it will be tough to improve upon the divisional record, they could regress. They drew a tough inter league match up this year. That could hurt.

      So overall I’d agree with your assessment that the 2013 win total may be difficult to achieve, even though the team will be better. But it sure will be fun to watch!

    • stickyweb

      Scott, nice post. I had a similar argument with another commentor on an article a month or two ago, though I didn’t use +Ws by month, just winning % before and after Byrd and Morneau were acquired. He threw back that after the trades Locke was horrid and (Johnson maybe?) had a couple of bad starts. He might have also said Marte was out a lot and concluded that the Bucs might have been under .500 for that stretch without Byrd. So he could focus on the few bad things from the last month, but ignore Sanchez and JMac’s “contributions”, Walker and AJ missing time, and Frankie and Morton beign delayed at the start. There’s just no winning with some people.

  • CalipariFan506

    My chief concern is the bullpen. All of those guys are coming off high appearance totals. None of them except Watson have proven to be consistent from one year to the next.

    • tom2125

      I’m not too concerned with the bullpen. Wilson was used to starter innings, so he should be fine. Watson was stronger in the second half. I think melancon won’t have to pitch as much as he did since we have those two pitching well in late situations. I think grilli should be ok since he missed some time. We so have pimemtal coming off starter innings and mazzaro pitched alot but also was a starter 2 years ago. Yes I know they threw a ton of innings but I think everyone hat did except for melancon can handle it well. But who knows, we shall see.

  • The Masked robshelb

    .

    Here’s one of the more insightful (among many) — and more perplexing — points in this article.

    The team that won 94 games was the team at the beginning of the season, the team at the middle of the season, and the team at the end of the season.

    How true, how very true.

    And here’s where the perplexicity comes in. Most would agree that the 2013 Buccos became a better team as that season progressed. And yet their W/L percentage was actually better the first half of that year.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PIT/2013-schedule-scores.shtml

    My pal hunter, over on the Asylum blog, has made this same point in a generalized sense. I’m only paraphrasing him here. But yes, I suppose it is possible. After all, we’ve seen it. To be, or to become, a better team and still win fewer games. Luck, scheduling, wear and tear among key otherwise winning components. Or change in game strategies, e.g. more or less use of defensive shifts, using the same players. Whatever. The correlation is obviously there, but there’s no one-to-one correspondence between being a “better” team and winning an equivalent amount of more games.

    Unless we re-define, or re-think, the notion of “better.” After all, wasn’t it Vince Lombardi who once famously said — “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” (I know, some people say that he never actually said that. But if he didn’t, then he certainly should have.)

    I guess overall, over a given period of time, a team — taken as a whole — can get “better.” But if the fates transpire against them, and/or if key internal aspects of that overall team don’t get better but instead stay the same or (knock on wood) actually deteriorate or under-produce, then it clearly is possible to get “overall better” and nonetheless win fewer games.

    .

    • rburgh

      What he should have said is that this year’s team has more potential that last year’s did at this time. Polanco, Taillon, Hanson, Bell, and Kingham are all a year closer to contributing. The lower minors has filled in where those guys looked to be last year with Glasnow, Meadows, and McGuire moving into top prospect lists and guys like Joely Rodriguez, JaCoby Jones, and Cody Dickson progressing.

      Chris Stewart appears to be a better backup C than the Fort did, and we are pretty sure now that Tony Sanchez can contribute.

      Andrew Lambo has more potential than GIJ, but of course GIJ had established that he could be a decent option at 1B against RHP and Lambo, McGiunnes, and Ishikawa haven’t done that.

      The infield is stronger, with the apparent readiness of Mercer to contribute regularly and with Pedro having developed into a serious, albeit straky, power source.

      The outfield is stronger, with Marte having established himself as a solid contributor and Tabata showing that he can contribute when healthy.

      The rotation has lost AJ, but Liriano and Cole both look like far better options than they looked last spring. Morton has recovered from TJ, and looks like he is the same old Ground Chuck. Wandy has regressed, but he is expected to be the 4th starter rather than the 2nd or 3rd. Volquez can’t possibly be worse than Jonathan Sanchez, but what we need him to be is far better than that.

      And the bullpen is miles better than it was at this time last year, with JW having established himself and the back end returning intact after a great year.

      But potential doesn’t mean a thing. Take a lamp cord, cut it and separate the two free ends, and plug it into a socket. There’s still 110 V of potential between the two ends, but until you connect them to something, no work gets done. Last year’s team took a week or two to get its legs under it, then took off running. It’s up to this year’s team to do the same.

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

        Other than Polanco and Taillon, what does your first paragraph have to do with this year’s team?

        If they’re not going to contribute in 2014 in Pittsburgh, there’s no point bringing them up in this topic.

    • wb

      Pirates were good in first half but also lucky. Less luck in 2nd half even as team performed better. Some of that perception came from playing some high stakes division series. How did the overall SoS compare between 1st and 2nd half?

  • jon6er

    This is the most excited I’ve been coming into spring for many, many years as I’m sure we all are. I have heard Mazzaro’s name mentioned a lot as possibly the odd man out. Whether that happens or not we will see, but I thought he was outstanding last year because he was used in so many roles and situations out of the pen and pretty much did a great job.

    • wb

      If a BP option is moved I’d rather see Morris as odd man out strictly looking at 2014, but the age difference and control factor may motivate NH to keep Morris instead of Mazzaro. Mazzaro is hardly expensive, but Morris is cheaper

  • wb

    Thanks for providing some much needed perspective Tim. the underlying concern for many fans relates to the Pirates overachieving on their win total based on their stats, but collectively that number was reached over the course of a full season. The league best record around the midpoint was achieved with some dead weight in the rotation and some unsustainable performances. This year’s starting team has less glaring holes on opening day (at least for now) and will definitely see some internal additions plus possible external ones. It’s hard to improve statistically on already inflated past performance but the Pirates are well built for 2014.

  • michaelbro8

    Factoring in that the Bucs will very likely add a key free agent mid season, I vote for the ’14 version

  • Y2JGQ2

    Tim- fantastic well balanced article. This is exactly what I hope to see more of as the season progresses.

  • http://twitter.com/bourgmichael bourgmichael

    I really like your perspective on this since it focuses on one of the things that really helped the Pirates last year, depth. I also think one of the things that is not talked about is how the Pirates compare to other teams they will be competing with from a Wild Card standpoint. I don’t know the Braves, Nationals and Giants organizations that well, but I’d be curios to know how their depth stacks up against the Pirates over the course of a season