Pirates Prospects » Season Recaps http://www.piratesprospects.com Your best source for news on the Pittsburgh Pirates and their minor league system. Fri, 14 Nov 2014 07:20:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 2014 Recaps: Pirates Showed You Don’t Have to Spend Big to Upgrade the Bullpen http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-pirates-showed-you-dont-have-to-spend-big-to-upgrade-the-bullpen.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-pirates-showed-you-dont-have-to-spend-big-to-upgrade-the-bullpen.html#comments Wed, 29 Oct 2014 16:33:17 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89900 For the past few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have acquired a lot of bounce back candidates in their bullpen, with a lot of those guys actually bouncing back. That approach led to one of the top bullpens in baseball during the 2013 season. Most of that bullpen was returning in 2014, and the Pirates looked to be in good shape.

What led to the success in 2013 was the Pirates going out and getting players who were coming off down years, but who had advanced metrics that indicated they would bounce back. That trend didn’t work as well in 2014. In fact, the Pirates saw two pitchers bounce back on other teams, after struggling in Pittsburgh. They also tried a few of their own reclamation projects, and missed.

Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris were the two players who struggled. Grilli’s struggles were worse, with a 4.87 ERA and a 4.54 xFIP that suggested he was on the decline. Then, he was traded to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri in a deal that looked like the Pirates were getting back the big reclamation project. It turned out that Grilli was the one who rebounded, going on to put up a 3.48 ERA and a 3.40 xFIP. Meanwhile, Frieri continued to struggle, to the point where the Pirates didn’t even call him up in September, despite paying the remainder of his $3.8 M deal.

Bryan Morris wasn’t exactly struggling from an ERA standpoint, as his 3.80 ERA wasn’t much worse than the 3.46 mark in 2013. However, he had a 4.51 xFIP, and a 5.92 FIP, showing he was getting a lot of good breaks. Morris was dealt to the Marlins for a first round compensation pick, which was eventually used on Connor Joe. He immediately turned into a late inning option with Miami, posting an 0.66 ERA and a 3.15 xFIP. His strikeout rate went to a career high 7.97 K/9 and his walk rate dropped to a career low 2.66 BB/9. The biggest change he made was using his cutter more often. He was throwing his fastball 61% of the time in Pittsburgh, with a 31% usage of his cutter. That was switched to 47% fastball and 44% cutter in Miami.

The Pirates bullpen was hurting in the first half of the season, with one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson were two of the best relievers in baseball, but outside of those two, almost everyone else was struggling. Seeing Grilli and Morris go on to turn things around elsewhere really hurt. Jeanmar Gomez and Justin Wilson were two other returning relievers who also struggled, compared to their success in 2013.

There were a lot of rumors at the deadline connecting the Pirates to available relief pitchers, but they opted against making a big move. Instead, they claimed John Axford and Bobby LaFromboise off waivers, and called up John Holdzkom, who was signed out of indy ball over the summer, and was consistently hitting the upper 90s with his fastball. They also showed patience with guys like Wilson and Gomez, and the results were good.

The bullpen was middle of the pack overall in the second half, but it really showed improvements down the stretch. Everything came together in the month of September, after the additions of the new relievers, and the Pirates had the fourth most valuable bullpen in the majors, and the best ERA and xFIP. Holdzkom (9 innings, 1 earned run, 14 strikeouts) was a big reason for this turnaround, although credit also should go to Justin Wilson (3.52 ERA in 7.2 innings) and Jeanmar Gomez and Bobby LaFromboise, who combined for seven innings and one run. Jared Hughes, who was the only reliable middle reliever all season, continued pitching well down the stretch. And Watson and Melancon continued being two of the best relievers in baseball.

The Pirates had one of the worst bullpens in baseball in the first half, leading to calls for that bullpen to be upgraded down the stretch. They didn’t trade a bunch of prospects for Huston Street like the Angels did, and instead stuck to their approach of finding value in the bullpen. That ended up working out just as well down the stretch.

The Future

The Pirates are fine with a late inning combo of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Due to the usage of both players, they could opt to trade one of the two and try to get a huge return. But they’ve still got multiple years of control with each player, so that’s not necessary this year.

The middle of the bullpen was an issue this year, due to struggles from guys like Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez, and a few of the players who departed in the middle of the season. By the end of the season, Wilson was pitching well, and John Holdzkom emerged as a hard throwing right-hander with a nasty palm ball, giving the Pirates two potentially strong options. Jared Hughes had a good year the entire season, although his advanced metrics suggest he shouldn’t have been that good. Still, those advanced metrics had him as a solid reliever.

Melancon, Watson, Wilson, Holdzkom, and Hughes is the start of a good bullpen. They could use two more solid relievers. Some of the internal options are Casey Sadler, Bobby LaFromboise, and Stolmy Pimentel. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates try and bring in help from the outside.

Last year the Pirates didn’t bring in many relievers in the off-season. Neal Huntington said during Spring Training that this was a result of their strong bullpen in 2013, and a lack of opportunity in Pittsburgh. That prevented them from being a destination for relievers looking for an opportunity. They certainly won’t have that problem this time around.

The Pirates don’t usually spend on relievers, and that is a process that has worked for them. I don’t expect them to spend big on relief pitchers this off-season, but to acquire a lot of options that could lead to a few bounce back candidates and sleepers.

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2014 Recaps: The Fall and Rise of the 2014 Pirates Rotation http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-the-fall-and-rise-of-the-2014-pirates-rotation.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-the-fall-and-rise-of-the-2014-pirates-rotation.html#comments Thu, 23 Oct 2014 18:53:45 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89861 The results from the 2013 season gave some hope for the 2014 rotation. At the end of the year, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked like they had three top of the rotation guys in Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and A.J. Burnett. During the off-season, they didn’t bring back Burnett, and instead went for Edinson Volquez. As a result, there was a lot of fan backlash to the set of moves, with Pirates fans wanting Burnett back, and predicting an early exit from the rotation for Volquez.

Prior to the season, I felt the rotation looked fine. They still had Liriano and Cole returning, and would have each for a full season (Liriano was injured to start the 2013 season, and Cole was in Triple-A). They had Jameson Taillon in the wings, ready for a promotion to the majors in June. Charlie Morton looked like a middle of the rotation starter at the end of the 2013 season, and would be pitching a lot more than he did in 2013. And Volquez looked like he could at least be a league average pitcher who could throw 180+ innings.

It turned out that pretty much every prediction on the rotation was wrong. The Pirates didn’t miss Burnett. Volquez did better than everyone expected. Cole and Liriano both struggled in the first half, and both missed time due to injuries. Taillon had Tommy John surgery at the end of Spring Training.

There were some predictions that came true. Wandy Rodriguez was unreliable, and left the rotation after six starts. Charlie Morton pitched well, and pitched more than he did in 2013, although he did miss time at the end of the year with a hip injury.

Overall, the rotation struggled on the season. By the end of the season, the results looked a little better. That was thanks to Volquez and the emergence of Vance Worley.

Worley was the silver lining of the season for the Pirates. He was acquired at the end of Spring Training from the Twins for cash, and spent his first month in the organization working on his mechanics with Jim Benedict. He went to Indianapolis for a month, and looked like the pitcher he was in 2011-12 with Philadelphia. After Rodriguez was released, plus injuries to Liriano and Cole, a spot opened for Worley. He took advantage of that spot, putting up a 2.85 ERA in 110.2 innings this year. His 3.54 xFIP that suggested he wasn’t as good as the ERA, but definitely one of the better starters in the rotation.

Meanwhile, Volquez struggled some during the first half of the season, posting a 4.67 ERA through the middle of June, with a 4.24 xFIP that suggested he would get better. He was fantastic in the second half, with a 1.85 ERA, although his 4.16 xFIP suggested this time that he was getting lucky. That luck ran out in the Wild Card game, as Volquez was hit hard by the Giants, while Madison Bumgarner shut down the Pirates’ offense. On the season, Volquez had a 3.04 ERA and a 4.20 xFIP. By ERA standards, he was the second best starter in the rotation behind Worley.

Worley and Volquez gave the rotation a boost in the second half, but the bigger boost came from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. Liriano struggled before the All-Star break, posting a 4.72 ERA, but a 3.73 xFIP suggested he should have been better. Something clicked for him in the second half. He had a 2.20 ERA after the All-Star break, and a 3.11 xFIP that justified the good results.

Cole was in a similar situation. He had a 4.02 ERA through the end of June, with a 3.59 xFIP. He missed about a month and a half in July and August, after missing most of the month of June. After his return, he posted a 3.44 ERA and a 2.75 xFIP.

The Pirates struggled in the first half. Their starters combined to finish 17th in ERA, which was higher due to the strong performances from Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke in June, when Cole and Liriano went down. Locke continued performing well in July with Cole out, but struggled in the second half. The advanced metrics backed up the first half ERA, with the Pirates finishing tied for 19th, posting a 3.83 xFIP.

The second half results were much better. The Pirates’ rotation finished 5th in ERA, and 2nd in the National League with a 3.14 ERA. The xFIP of 3.63 was 10th in the majors and 5th in the NL. The plan going into the season was to rely on their top starters (Liriano and Cole), go with some reclamation projects (Volquez and Worley), and rely on some of their internal guys to step up and perform (Morton). All of that came together in the second half, leading to a group that helped the Pirates make the post-season for the second year in a row.

The Future

Heading into the 2015 season, the Pirates will have some holes in the rotation. Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez are departing as free agents. There’s a chance the Pirates could bring either guy back. Charlie Morton will probably miss some time at the start of the season after having surgery last month. That leaves Cole and Worley as the only starters.

Jeff Locke could be an option, but his struggles in the second half this year will once again put his status in question. Locke looked amazing in the first half of the 2013 season, although his xFIP suggested a regression would come, and that eventually happened. He looked amazing in the first half of the 2014 season, and this time the advanced metrics backed up the ERA. He struggled once again in the second half, seeing a lapse in control. Locke would be a good depth option next year, and possibly an early season replacement for Morton, but he’s not a guy you can rely on as a starter for the entire year.

That means the Pirates will need at least two starters this off-season, via free agency. They have had a lot of success with reclamation projects, focusing on a combination of scouting, plus adjustments from Ray Searage and Jim Benedict. Add in the defensive help from their focus on catcher defense and shifting, plus the park factors at PNC, and the Pirates are set up to improve pitchers, and have them perform above their advanced metrics, just like what happened with Volquez and Worley this year. They should continue this approach over the off-season.

Things will get better for the long-term. The Pirates have a group of pitching prospects in the upper levels, with most of them ready to take over in 2015. Jameson Taillon should be ready to go in Indianapolis on Opening Day, and could be in the majors by next June. Nick Kingham and Adrian Sampson both had success in Altoona this season, and both moved up to Indianapolis with some success at the level. They both profile as mid-rotation starters in the future, and could both be up in the first half of the 2015 season. Tyler Glasnow is the top prospect in the organization, and will start off in Double-A this year. He will probably need a full year in Double-A before getting the call to Indianapolis. His ETA will most likely be the middle of the 2016 season.

Between their top pitching prospects, and their approach with coaching, scouting, and advanced metrics, the Pirates have what it takes to put together a great starting rotation in the not-too-distant future.

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2014 Recaps: Is Josh Harrison the Future at Third Base For the Pirates? http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-is-josh-harrison-the-future-at-third-base-for-the-pirates.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-is-josh-harrison-the-future-at-third-base-for-the-pirates.html#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 17:28:14 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89807 For the past few years, the third base recap has been a countdown to nothing. More specifically, it has been a countdown to when Pedro Alvarez would leave the Pittsburgh Pirates, at which point the Pirates had no internal replacements. After the 2014 season, the Pirates are now in a situation where they not only have a replacement at third base for Alvarez, but also could deal Alvarez two years before he’s eligible for free agency.

The 2014 season started with Alvarez at third base. However, he eventually fell out of favor. He experienced what could be described as a case of the yips, with 25 errors, and most of those being throwing errors. Many of the throwing errors came on routine plays.

Alvarez has dealt with errors throughout his career. He had 27 errors in each of the last two seasons, although that came in 1328 innings and 1273 innings. This year he had 25 in 823 innings, which is a more alarming rate. The previous two years could have been overlooked because of his offense, with a combined .777 OPS. The offense didn’t make up for the errors this year, with a .717 OPS.

The replacement for Alvarez came from one of the most unlikely places. Josh Harrison entered the season with a combined .648 OPS in 575 plate appearances. At the start of the season, he wasn’t even considered a great option for the bench. But struggles from Travis Snider in right field allowed Harrison the chance for more playing time, and to break out early in the season.

The struggles from Alvarez continued, and Harrison continued his breakout. By the end of June, Harrison was getting time at third base. He was getting more starts at the position by the end of July. And by the second week of August, he was the new third baseman.

Harrison ended up being everything you’d want from a third baseman. He had an .837 OPS this year, while also providing strong defense. The combination led him to post the fifth best WAR out of 24 qualified third baseman in baseball this year. He was the second best third baseman in the National League, behind Anthony Rendon.

Alvarez hit a lot of home runs in 2012-13, but even with all of that power, his offense wasn’t as good as Harrison’s in 2014. His defense couldn’t come close to the defense that Harrison put up this year. As a result, the Pirates might have found their third baseman of the future.

The Future

There are two words of caution with Harrison. First, there’s the fact that Harrison has more plate appearances where he looked like a bench player (575) versus plate appearances where he looked like a star player (550). To expect him to only be like his 2014 self going forward is too optimistic. I think the defense can be expected, but the expectations for the offense should be tempered.

As for long-term expectations, Harrison is only under team control for the next three seasons. That’s one more season than Alvarez. So the idea that third base is solved for the long-term isn’t exactly fitting, since the Pirates are basically in the same situation as they were in before, just with an extra year to find a long-term replacement.

Harrison seems more likely to be an extension candidate, or a guy who could return to Pittsburgh as a free agent. Alvarez is a Scott Boras client, and those guys usually go to free agency right away, and don’t do pre-FA extensions. So the Pirates might be able to keep Harrison around for longer than the next three years, allowing them more time to develop someone from within.

That development still isn’t going well. Last year I suggested that they could move Wyatt Mathisen to third base, and that’s something they did in the Spring. But to call Mathisen the third baseman of the future is way too premature, since he had just a .704 OPS in Low-A, and has only spent one season at the position.

Mathisen is the only third base option in the minor league system right now. Dan Gamache and Eric Wood both look like bench options, if they make the majors. Chase Simpson had a good season in the NYPL, but it’s too early to tell if he can hit at the upper levels, or even stick at third base at all.

The idea of Neil Walker playing third base gets brought up a lot, although it doesn’t look like a good idea. For one, Walker hasn’t played the position in years, and there’s no telling whether he would be good defensively at the spot at this point in his career. Harrison has already shown good defense at the position, even when he wasn’t hitting. There’s also the fact that Walker is making a lot of money due to being paid like an above average second baseman. As a third baseman, even with good defense, he would be average at best, and ultimately over-paid for his production at another position.

It’s too soon to say whether Harrison will work out and will remain the best option the Pirates have. After the 2014 season that he had, there’s no way that the Pirates can’t give him a shot. When you become the fifth most valuable third baseman in the league, it buys you a chance to prove that those results weren’t a fluke.

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2014 Recaps: Getting Expensive Replacement Level Production From First Base http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-getting-expensive-replacement-level-production-from-first-base.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-getting-expensive-replacement-level-production-from-first-base.html#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:59:42 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89750 For the past few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been relying on a platoon at first base, trying to get All-Star production for a fraction of the price. Each year the platoon has struggled due to one player in the duo playing below his career average platoon splits. This year, everyone in the platoon struggled.

The Pirates started the season with Travis Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez. Ishikawa won the job out of Spring Training, after Andrew Lambo struggled for a few weeks at the plate in his transition to the field. He hit for a .646 OPS in 15 games before the Pirates traded for Ike Davis to fill the left side of the platoon.

Davis started strong with the Pirates, posting an .862 OPS in the month of May. He then started to struggle, never posting an OPS over .747 in a given month, and falling below a .600 OPS in the month of June.

Meanwhile, Gaby Sanchez also struggled. The right-hander had a strong history of crushing left-handed pitching, but only managed a .746 OPS this season. Just like Davis, he was crushing the ball in May, posting an .898 OPS. He fell under a .600 OPS in every month after that, with the one exception being his .720 OPS in August.

By the end of the season, the Pirates had Pedro Alvarez getting time at first base, although the experiment was short-lived due to an injury that ended his season early. Alvarez was struggling with his fielding at third base, and his hitting also struggled, with just a .770 OPS against right-handers, compared to an .842 OPS last year, and an .833 OPS in 2012.

The Pirates also moved Tony Sanchez to first base down in Triple-A. That move was more a result of Elias Diaz needing time behind the plate. It was an interesting move, due to the fact that Sanchez has done well hitting left-handed pitching.

Overall, the first base position was easily the worst position for the Pirates this year. The group combined for exactly replacement level production, all while making a little over $10 M. Everyone remaining on the team is due a raise through arbitration, which means this off-season will provide a challenge for the Pirates to keep the players they think will bounce back, and get rid of the expensive players who might be starting their decline.

The Future

The Pirates will be going with some platoon combination in 2015. From the left-hand side, it will either be Pedro Alvarez or Ike Davis. From the right-hand side it will either be Gaby Sanchez or Tony Sanchez. My guess is that it will be Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez, although a lot of this depends on whether Tony Sanchez will be needed behind the plate, and what kind of trade value the Pirates could get for the other three players.

In the long-term, the answer at first base looks to be Josh Bell. The outfielder is making the move to first base this off-season in the AFL, and should be expected to continue that move next year. He should start off in Altoona, and could move up to Indianapolis by the end of the year. A conservative timeline has him making the majors by mid-season 2016, taking over as the starting first baseman.

Bell was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, and was given a $5 M bonus after he sent a letter to all teams saying he wouldn’t sign if he was drafted. That letter was the reason he went in the second round, rather than the top half of the first round. At the time he had hitting tools that you could dream on, with the potential for plus power and plus average. He broke out at the plate in 2014, showing off that ability to hit for average, along with some power in his time in A-ball.

He looks like a guy who could hit 20-25 homers, and possibly more, along with a .300 average. That would definitely play at first base, and would make Bell a fixture in the lineup for years.

Before Bell arrives, the Pirates need another year and a half of platoon players. Which players they go with will be an interesting topic this off-season, since they’re in a position where none of the options, even the free agents, look strong.

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2014 Recaps: Russell Martin Had a Career Year Offensively, But Defense Will Get Him Paid http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-russell-martin-had-a-career-year-offensively-but-defense-will-get-him-paid.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-russell-martin-had-a-career-year-offensively-but-defense-will-get-him-paid.html#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 20:29:47 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89706 Almost two years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin to the biggest free agent deal in franchise history. The deal was for two years and $17 M, outbidding the New York Yankees by a few million. Martin turned down a three-year deal from the Pirates, opting to enter free agency a year earlier. That turned out to be a very wise decision.

At the end of the 2013 season, I looked at Martin compared to the previous catchers in the system, such as Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder, and Ryan Doumit. It wasn’t difficult to rank better than those catchers, and Martin’s defense alone made him about three wins more valuable in 2013 than Barajas in 2012. This year, Martin went a step further, and became one of the most valuable players in baseball.

Behind the plate, Martin’s defense was once again outstanding. He ranked first in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, with 12, finishing one ahead of Jonathan Lucroy, and three ahead of Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, and Salvador Perez, who tied for third with 8 DRS. He tied Wellington Castillo for first in Stolen Base Runs Saved, with 6. Overall, FanGraphs rated him as the fifth best defensive catcher in the majors.

Those rankings don’t include Pitch Framing, which is an area where Martin excels. He was worth 19.3 framing runs, which could be the equivalent of about two wins. That tied for fifth in all of baseball.

It wasn’t just defense this year for Martin. His offense came up big, with his best year since 2007, and the second best year of his career. Martin had an .832 OPS, fueled by a .290 average. His walk rate was up slightly from last year, going from 11.5% to 12.8%. His power was down slightly, going from a .151 ISO to a .140 ISO. What helped Martin offensively was his .336 BABIP, which was the highest mark of his career, and about 50 points higher than his career line of .289.

Martin’s offense this year fueled him to be one of the best players in baseball. He had a 5.3 WAR, which tied for 20th in the majors. If you add the pitch framing numbers to the WAR numbers, Martin would have been the fourth most valuable player in baseball this year, behind Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Trout, and Buster Posey.

Going forward, Martin’s offense isn’t going to be as good as it was in 2014. His BABIP certainly won’t stay where it was this year, and his declining power numbers the last two years are a concern when the batting average ends up dropping. But Martin will still have plenty of value due to his defense. That defense doesn’t look like it is declining. He’s been number one in DRS the last two years, and it’s not close. His pitch framing has been top five in each of the last two years. The offense gave him a lot of attention this year, but the defense is what will make him worth paying for in the future.

The Future

The biggest subject this off-season will be the Pirates’ ability to re-sign Martin. It might not even be something they can control. If a big spender like the Dodgers, Rangers, or Red Sox decide that they want Martin as their starting catcher, then the Pirates simply won’t be able to out-bid those teams.

This isn’t like two years ago, when the Yankees wanted Martin, but the Pirates were one of few teams to see the value in catcher defense. That value has become widely known the last two years. The Yankees turned down a reported four-year and $40 M demand from Martin at the time. They offered a reported three years and $20 M. Now Martin is looking at four years easily, and more than $10 M per year.

If the Pirates can’t bring Martin back, then they’ll have a problem in the short-term. Their current internal options are Chris Stewart, Tony Sanchez, and Elias Diaz. All three profile as backups. Stewart seems the most ready to take over out of the three, since he can play defense at the major league level. That has been a question mark for Sanchez.

Diaz is a better defender than Sanchez, and his defense is major league ready. However, there might be more to Diaz than just a backup who specializes in defense. His offensive tools always showed potential, and the offense broke out this year in Altoona. He hasn’t received much time above Double-A, and only had half a season of at-bats at the level. I’d be surprised if the Pirates rushed him to the majors. He might be an option to take over by mid-season, or maybe in 2016. If they go with him on Opening Day, they risk sacrificing his future upside, which could be a starting catcher.

In the long-term, the Pirates have a lot of options available. The top choice is Reese McGuire, who has the best defense in the system. That defense will eventually get McGuire to the majors, but if his offense comes together, he will be one of the best all-around catchers in the game. McGuire won’t be ready for another 3-4 years, so the Pirates will need someone to bridge the gap until he arrives. There are other interesting catching prospects in the lower levels of the minors, such as Jin-De Jhang, Jacob Stallings, Taylor Gushue, Kevin Krause, and Yoel Gonzalez. Some of those guys are just defensive specialists, and some are good for their offense, but will probably eventually move to another position. No matter what, they’re all behind McGuire on the depth charts.

It seems unlikely that the Pirates will be able to bring Martin back next year. That’s just based on the probability that one big market team will be interested in him, enough to push the bidding to a place where the Pirates can’t go. Elias Diaz looks like the best option to be the starting catcher in Pittsburgh until Reese McGuire arrives, although Diaz doesn’t look like he will be ready by the start of the 2015 season, and might not be ready in 2015 at all. The Pirates will need to find a one-year option if they can’t bring Martin back, and it’s unlikely that this option will be able to replicate the numbers that Martin put up defensively over the last two years.

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2014 Recaps: Right Field Led to Unlikely Breakouts, But the Future is Gregory Polanco http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-right-field-led-to-unlikely-breakouts-but-the-future-is-gregory-polanco.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-right-field-led-to-unlikely-breakouts-but-the-future-is-gregory-polanco.html#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 17:03:43 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89648 Heading into the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were sticking with internal options in right field, just waiting for Gregory Polanco to arrive in the majors. Polanco was the long-term solution for the Pirates, completing their Dream Outfield along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

The Pirates opted to go with Travis Snider and Jose Tabata, two outfielders who struggled at the position enough in 2013 to warrant a big trade for one month of Marlon Byrd. Both outfielders struggled in the early part of the season. By the middle of May, Snider saw his OPS drop to .625. Tabata was no better, with a .612 OPS after the May 18th double-header against the Yankees.

During the month of May, the struggles from both players led to Josh Harrison getting more playing time in right field. Harrison started hitting well, and took over the starting role on May 20th, the first game after that double-header. Harrison went 2-for-5 with a double and a homer in the double-header, starting a stretch where he would put up an .820 OPS up until the arrival of Polanco.

With Harrison starting his breakout, the Pirates didn’t have a need for Polanco in the outfield, despite the fact that Polanco was tearing up Triple-A pitching. The need arose in early June, when Neil Walker went down with an injury. That shifted Harrison to second base, and led to Polanco getting the promotion.

At the time it looked like Polanco would be up for good, especially when he started his career with an 11 game hitting streak and an .863 OPS in that span. But Polanco started struggling after that, putting up a .602 OPS the rest of the season. He was also demoted to Triple-A in August, and spent most of September as a bench player and a pinch runner.

All of this was possible by Travis Snider’s breakout. It’s hard to say if something clicked when Polanco arrived, but Snider posted an .862 OPS in 224 plate appearances from the time Polanco first arrived to the end of the season. In his time as the regular starter in the outfield in September, he posted a .921 OPS in 72 plate appearances. He had an 11 game hitting streak in August, where he posted a 1.282 OPS. That would have been a 13 game hitting streak, had it not been for a pinch hit appearance in between the two events.

It was a strange turn for the right field position. It started with the Pirates waiting through Snider to get to Polanco. During that waiting period, Josh Harrison got his first chance as a starter, and began his breakout season. It’s hard to say whether Harrison would break out without that opportunity. Then, once Polanco arrived, it was Snider who broke out, eventually winning the job back by the end of the year. The 2014 season in right field was a season of unexpected breakout performances. The guy who everyone expected to break out ended up struggling, while two guys who weren’t even on the radar for production beyond mid-season 2014 ended up being two of the most productive players down the stretch.

The Future

I’m not giving up on Polanco at all. His .650 OPS wasn’t impressive, but that performance in his first run through the majors doesn’t define his future. Mike Trout had a .672 OPS in his first run through the majors, before turning into an MVP the following year. Starling Marte did better, with a .737 OPS, then improved to .784 and .808 the following two seasons.

The encouraging thing here is that Polanco didn’t look overmatched. He had an 18.9% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate. Those were both better than the league averages of 20.4% and 7.6%. He showed good base running, ranking 41st among 263 players with 300+ plate appearances in base running runs. He already started showing positive value defensively, with his arm ranking 23rd out of 98 outfielders with 600+ innings this year.

Eventually the hitting will click for Polanco. The Pirates will most likely make him the starting right fielder in 2015, since he’s the future at that position. It made sense to go with Snider down the stretch in 2014, since you wouldn’t bench a productive bat for a struggling rookie. But that’s not an approach that can be taken going forward.

This does raise the question about what to do with Snider. He probably won’t cost much in 2015, relative to what an average bench player makes around the league. His breakout in the second half can’t be ignored. If that is legit, then he’s not just a bench player, but a starting option for any team. The Pirates have a good situation here, since they could afford to keep Snider around as a fourth outfielder. That way, he could step up as a starter if someone goes down with an injury, or if Polanco continues to struggle in right field. The Pirates have gone a long time without a strong bat off the bench. They could have that in Snider in 2015.

As for the long-term future, Polanco is under team control through the 2020 season, and the Pirates have already started trying to extend him. I think the two sides will eventually come to terms on a deal, although it might not happen this off-season, or even during the 2015 season. Keep in mind that Marte signed an extension after his first full season, and McCutchen signed after his second full season. So we could be one or two off-seasons away from a Polanco extension. If he does sign, I think the Pirates will get three free agent years, just like the deals for Marte and McCutchen. That would give them control of Polanco through the 2023 season, which means it will be a long time before we have to think about the future of the right field position.

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2014 Recaps: Starling Marte Has Quietly Become One of the Best in Baseball http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-starling-marte-has-quietly-become-one-of-the-best-in-baseball.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-starling-marte-has-quietly-become-one-of-the-best-in-baseball.html#comments Thu, 16 Oct 2014 16:30:45 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89602 Prior to the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a big extension. The deal paid him $51.5 M, locking up all of his arbitration years and buying out control of three free agent years. That season, McCutchen responded with a 6.8 WAR, went on to win an MVP award the next year, and the extension started looking like a massive value for the Pirates.

They might have gotten the same massive value with Starling Marte.

The Pirates extended Marte prior to the 2014 season, with the extension taking place in Spring Training, just like McCutchen’s deal. The deal guaranteed him $31 M, and bought out control of his first three free agent years. And already, it is looking like a steal.

Marte quietly had an amazing season in 2014. He started off slow, hitting for a .612 OPS in the month of April. He picked up the pace a big in May, with a .780 OPS. He struggled in the first half of June, but once Gregory Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh, he picked up the pace. Marte finished the month of June with a .901 OPS after Polanco’s promotion, and he didn’t look back. From July to the end of the season, he had a .932 OPS, and finished the year with a 13 game hitting streak.

To put those numbers in perspective, Andrew McCutchen had a .964 OPS from July to the end of the season. McCutchen didn’t have a rocky first half, but both players were impact hitters in the second half. Adding more perspective, Marte finished 11th among hitters in the majors in WAR in the second half, falling behind teammates Russell Martin and Josh Harrison. His OPS after the All-Star break ranked fourth in baseball, behind Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Buster Posey.

Of course, Marte’s greatness isn’t just confined to the second half. Over the last two years he has combined for an  8.6 WAR, which ranks 30th among all position players in baseball. He’s not at Andrew McCutchen’s level (ranking second to only Mike Trout), but Marte is emerging as one of the top position players in the game.

There are things to criticize about Marte’s game. He doesn’t walk enough (although he did improve from a 4.4 BB% in 2012-2013 to a 6.1% in 2014), and he’ll make some mistakes on the bases due to his all-out style (still had a 5.8 BsR this year, showing positive value on the bases). Those mistakes can also carry over to the field at times. He strikes out a lot, leading to concerns that he won’t be able to hit in the long-term in the majors. But Marte’s speed allows him to keep a high average and a high OBP, despite the strikeouts and low walk totals. He had a 14.5% infield hit rate this year, which ranked 2nd in baseball, behind Mike Trout.

Marte hasn’t quite received the recognition as one of the top position players in the game, but he’s quietly already there. When he was coming up through the minors, there were concerns about his K/BB rates, along with his lack of power. He’s added some power since then, although a focus on power might take away from the biggest strength of his game — his speed. As long as he keeps using his speed to get on base, he should continue to be a productive hitter.

The Future

The Pirates have Marte under control through the 2021 season. Right now he isn’t guaranteed more than $10 M a year, and won’t make more than $13.5 M in any year of his deal. That’s the definition of a team friendly deal, especially since his value on the open market right now would earn him at least $20 M per year.

The Pirates have a Dream Outfield with McCutchen, Marte, and Gregory Polanco all under control through at least the 2018 season. That’s McCutchen’s last year of control. They also have a lot of promising outfield prospects in the minors, although Josh Bell will be making the switch to first base this off-season, and Austin Meadows is several years away from being a starting option.

Prior to the 2013 season, the feeling among Pirates fans seemed to be that Marte was the most expendable among the Pirates’ outfielders. I’m not counting out Gregory Polanco yet, and still think he can be a star, and possibly the best of the trio. Even if Marte is the “worst” of the group, he would still be one of the best players in the game. Marte should be viewed in the same light as McCutchen going forward. The Pirates have a highly productive player under a very team friendly deal. The only time they should consider parting ways with him is when his contract is up, and if there is another stud outfield prospect ready to take over for him at that time.

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2014 Recaps: The Pirates Have Finally Found Their Shortstop in Jordy Mercer http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-the-pirates-have-finally-found-their-shortstop-in-jordy-mercer.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/2014-recaps-the-pirates-have-finally-found-their-shortstop-in-jordy-mercer.html#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 16:28:28 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89524 The Pittsburgh Pirates may finally have a shortstop for the foreseeable future. The team hasn’t had a solid shortstop since they traded away Jack Wilson in 2009, with Wilson nearing the end of his career. They went with Ronny Cedeno, then defensive specialist Clint Barmes, before giving Jordy Mercer a shot in 2013.

Mercer did well in his time at the position last year, but not good enough to look like more than a stopgap option at the position. He showed improvements in 2014, and could have locked down the position for the next several years.

The biggest improvements from Mercer came with his defense. He finished with 9 Defensive Runs Saved, which ranked fifth among 22 qualified shortstops. His 0.5 UZR/150 was around middle of the pack, but an improvement on his -9.4 UZR/150 in 2013. The 2013 season also saw him put up a -2 DRS, so his improvements in 2014 represented an extra win.

Offensively, Mercer struggled to start the season. He posted a .199/.234/.274 line during the first two months of the season. Mercer had improved defense during that time, but as someone who was always advertised as an offense-first shortstop, it was alarming that the offense disappeared.

From the start of June to the end of the season, Mercer posted a .278/.333/.433 line, which was very similar to his .285/.336/.435 line in 2013. His OPS in the second half of the season ranked 4th out of 22 qualified shortstops. That, plus the improved defense, made Mercer the sixth most valuable shortstop in the second half of the season.

The Future

In previous years, talk of the future would have included prospects. But now the Pirates might be moving beyond that and sticking with Mercer. You could question whether Mercer’s 2014 numbers were legit. I don’t think the offensive numbers in the second half should be doubted, since that’s what he did in 2013. The defense could be doubted, although Mercer chalks that up to added experience at the position, plus work with Clint Barmes. So the defensive improvements make sense.

It seems that the Pirates are trusting the numbers. This year they moved their best shortstop prospect in the upper levels, Alen Hanson, over to second base. This move was made due to the fact that Hanson was struggling defensively at shortstop, and to get his bat to the majors quicker. If there was any perceived need for a shortstop, the Pirates wouldn’t have made this move. They would have stuck with Hanson to see if he could fix his issues at the position. The move to second base is a signal that the Pirates consider Mercer their shortstop. The fact that he’s under team control through the 2018 season means that the Pirates won’t need a shortstop anytime soon.

The current options in the minor leagues include Hanson, who is more likely to take over at second base in the short-term, if he has a future as a starter. JaCoby Jones moved to the position this year, although his chances of sticking at shortstop in the long-term are still up in the air, and it seems more likely that he will work out better at second base.

In the very long-term, the Pirates drafted Cole Tucker in the first round this year. On a very aggressive promotion schedule, and a not-so-conservative timeline, Tucker could be up at the start of the 2019 season. However, a more conservative timeline has him making the majors in 2020 or later. Either way, the Pirates will probably need a stopgap to bridge the transition from Mercer to Tucker, and that’s even assuming Tucker makes it to the majors at all, which is a big assumption when you consider the failure rate of prospects from rookie ball to the majors.

For now, the Pirates are set with Mercer. They’ve got four more years to find their next shortstop, unless they extend Mercer. If that’s going to be an option, it would be best done this off-season, since they’d get the most savings buying in now. There would be a risk that Mercer’s defense isn’t as good as he showed in 2014, or that his offense would continue to be inconsistent. But the upside would be big if they could buy “low” on some of his free agent years by showing faith in his future right now.

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Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Second Base Recap: Examining Neil Walker’s Career Year http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/pittsburgh-pirates-2014-second-base-recap-examining-neil-walkers-career-year.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/pittsburgh-pirates-2014-second-base-recap-examining-neil-walkers-career-year.html#comments Tue, 14 Oct 2014 18:55:35 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89495 Coming into the 2014 season, there were questions about which Neil Walker would show up. The second baseman had shown some positive trends the last few years, and if those trends continued, he could have been primed for a huge season offensively. That’s exactly what happened in 2014. Here is a quick look at those trends, and the 2014 results.

ISO

2010 – .167

2011 – .134

2012 – .146

2013 – .167

2014 – .195

The biggest improvement Walker saw this year was in his power production. His ISO has risen every year since 2011, after dropping from 2010 to 2011. Coming into the year, it was hard to say whether Walker was the 2010/2013 version, or the 2011/2012 version. His production in 2014 indicates the former. I don’t know if Walker’s power will continue to trend upward, and I don’t know if it will stay as high as his .195 ISO this year. But I don’t think it’s out of the question to project him for at least .167 going forward.

K/BB

2010 – 17.7 K%/7.2 BB%

2011 – 16.9/8.2

2012 – 19.6/8.9

2013 – 15.4/9.1

2014 – 15.4/7.9

One encouraging thing about the 2013 season was that Walker posted a career low in strikeouts. He matched that mark in 2014. Unfortunately, the 2010-2013 seasons saw a steady increase in his walk rates, and that stopped in 2014 when he dropped down to a 7.9 BB%. Walker’s career walk rate is 8.3%, and I think that’s something you can expect going forward, rather than a return to the 2012-2013 numbers. If he hits for average, that would still put him in the .340-.350 OBP range.

As for the strikeouts, the fact that he’s putting the ball in play more often might be leading to his increase in power numbers. Along with the fact that his strikeouts are down, his ground ball rate is down the past two years. He was in the 42-44% range in 2011-2012, but dropped to he 38.5% range in 2013 and 2014. In turn, he saw an increase in fly balls, which combined with his HR/FB ratio, led to more homers. Walker was at a 13.9% HR/FB rate in 2014, so he’s probably not going to repeat his 23 home run season. His career 10.1% HR/FB ratio would have put him at 17 homers this year. That’s still good, but indicates that he probably won’t repeat the home run totals or the high ISO in the future.

BABIP

2010 – .340

2011 – .315

2012 – .326

2013 – .274

2014 – .288

Walker’s BABIP took a huge drop in 2013, leading to his lowest average yet. He increased those results in 2014, and his .271 average was closer to his career mark of .273. The instinct here would be to assume Walker could still see more improvements with his average due to his BABIP getting closer to his career .307 mark in the future. While that is certainly possible, it ignores what we know about the changes Walker saw in 2013 and 2014. As noted above, he had an increase in fly balls. Typically, fly balls lead to the lowest BABIP of all hit types. The fact that he’s hitting more fly balls the last two years explains why his BABIP has dropped. He probably should be counted on to hit near .270 in the future, rather than expecting an increase in production.

Defense

2010: -16.4 UZR/150 / -8 DRS

2011: -4.4 / -3

2012: -1.4 / -4

2013: -0.8 / 9

2014: -8.4 / -2

Walker had a huge year offensively in 2014. However, the defense was a disappointment. The UZR trends heading into the year were strong, indicating that Walker was learning the position after a rough first year. This year he struggled at the position, and the eye test confirmed that he wasn’t the best defender at second base. Defensive numbers work best when taking multiple years of data, rather than one year. His career UZR/150 is -5.9 and he averages around negative 1-2 DRS each year. Walker continued a lot of good trends offensively, but did not continue the improvements defensively, and probably shouldn’t be counted on for strong defense going forward.

The Future

Walker had a breakout season offensively, but his defense raises questions about his future at second base. There have been calls to move him over to first base, although that raises two problems. For one, his bat doesn’t profile well at the first base position. His OPS this year ranked third among qualified second basemen. Even if he’s closer to his 2012-2013 numbers, he’d be top five offensively among second basemen. That same OPS this year would have ranked 10th out of 23 qualified first basemen. His 2012-2013 numbers would have ranked him closer to 15th out of 23 first basemen offensively. Walker is a top offensive second baseman, but would be below average at first base.

The other issue with moving Walker is that the Pirates currently have no option to take over at second. Josh Harrison could be an option, although he’s currently slated for third base. The other option in the future would be Alen Hanson, although he won’t be ready to start the 2015 season.

The Pirates moved Hanson to second base this year. Part of that was due to his struggles at the shortstop position, combined with the fact that Jordy Mercer has locked down his spot in the majors at shortstop. The Pirates also moved Hanson in order to speed up his timeline to the majors and get him on track to arrive in 2015.

Hanson has the bat and skills to be a leadoff guy and an above average hitter at second base. He should be expected to arrive in the majors in 2015. If he does well in his jump to the majors, he could take over as the starter at second base in 2016, at which point he would be the starter of the future. JaCoby Jones is another possibility for the long-term. He played shortstop in West Virginia, but it is doubtful that he will end up at that position in the majors. Second base seems more likely.

As for Walker, his future might depend on what happens with other positions, and how he follows up this career season. If he can show that it is more than a career season, then he could make sense at a corner position (although I’m not sure if third base is an option, due to his defensive struggles at second). Due to his rising cost in arbitration, it would seem more likely that Walker won’t be with the Pirates beyond 2016, if not sooner.

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Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Center Field Recap: Another MVP Season For McCutchen? http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/pittsburgh-pirates-2014-center-field-recap-another-mvp-season-for-mccutchen.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/10/pittsburgh-pirates-2014-center-field-recap-another-mvp-season-for-mccutchen.html#comments Mon, 13 Oct 2014 14:00:59 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=89427 Andrew McCutchen had the highest WAR among NL position players. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen had the highest WAR among NL position players. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Each year we do a recap of every position at the major league level for the Pittsburgh Pirates, taking a look at how the 2014 season went at that position, along with the future of the position. Each year there is no position easier than the center field position.

The Pirates have no question marks surrounding their center field position, either in the short-term or long-term. They’ve got Andrew McCutchen, who is one of the best players in baseball, and he’s under team control for another four years beyond the 2014 season. What is even better is that if McCutchen goes down, the Pirates can sub in Starling Marte, who is under control through the 2021 season, and who has emerged as one of the best outfielders in baseball in his first two pro seasons.

McCutchen is the reigning MVP, and followed up his strong 2013 season with another amazing year. Last year he had a .317/.404/.508 line in 674 plate appearances, posting an 8.2 WAR due to some strong defense. This year he had similar offensive numbers, with a .314/.410/.542 like in 648 plate appearances, along with a 6.8 WAR. His defensive numbers weren’t as strong this year, which led to the drop in value, despite the power increase.

This year, McCutchen led National League hitters in WAR. Based on that metric, he would win the MVP award if it was just up to the hitters. His only real challenge is Clayton Kershaw, who finished with a higher WAR. The only thing that might help McCutchen win is the hesitation to give the MVP award to a pitcher. One argument in favor of McCutchen was the fact that the Pirates had their worst stretch of the season while he was out. They had a seven game losing streak in mid-August, while McCutchen was out with a rib injury. The final game of the losing streak came in McCutchen’s return. He went on to hit three homers in his first week back, and his monster month in September — with a .347/.452/.589 line in 115 plate appearances — was a big reason why the Pirates finished strong and took the top Wild Card spot.

A growing concern this year was the amount of times McCutchen was hit with a pitch, or thrown at in a seemingly intentional way. McCutchen was hit ten times, which is a career high. A lot of that can be attributed to pitchers throwing inside against him and honestly missing. The Pirates can’t complain about that, since this is a big reason why they lead the league in hitting opponents each year. But some of the pitches are blatant retaliation, such as the Randall Delgado incident in early August that may or may not have played a role in McCutchen going on the disabled list a few days later. The fact that no punishments ever came down for throwing at McCutchen made it so that teams could pitch inside or even throw at him intentionally with no worry about repercussions.

Even despite the HBP numbers, McCutchen was one of the best players in the game this year. Whether or not McCutchen wins the MVP award again, one thing is certain: he’s the MVP of the Pirates. It’s to the point that his performance — ranking up there among the best players in the game — is expected.

The Future

This is the part where I talk about how McCutchen is under control through the 2018 season, and how the Pirates are in no rush to find a replacement. I don’t know if the Pirates should keep McCutchen when his contract expires. At the moment that sounds like a good idea, since he’s currently one of the best players in the game, and it would be nice, in theory, to see him play his entire career in Pittsburgh. But the reality is that there are still four seasons before that decision needs to be made, and McCutchen could be a totally different player by the time he is eligible for free agency again.

There’s also the fact that the Pirates could have a good option emerge in those four years, with the top option being Austin Meadows. The 2013 first round pick missed most of the 2014 season with multiple hamstring injuries. He could return to West Virginia next year due to the time lost. The Pirates really have no need to rush him. He could spend a full year in West Virginia next year, along with a full year at every level above that, then be on pace to reach the majors in 2019 to take over for McCutchen, if needed. He probably won’t move that slow. Meadows isn’t an option to take over in center field. He’s currently a center fielder, but Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte profile better defensively at the position. Offensively, Meadows could be special, with a lot of power potential in his bat.

Once again, this is a situation that has four years to play out. The more immediate question would be “how long can McCutchen stay in center field?” Or, more accurately, “how long can the Pirates keep McCutchen in center field?” He finished 16th out of 19 qualified center fielders this year in UZR/150. Using those same qualified players, he ranked 16th in DRS.

These defensive numbers are better when using multiple years of data. But the multiple years don’t help McCutchen’s case. He has a career -4.3 UZR/150 and a career -22 DRS. From a skills standpoint, Starling Marte would be a better center fielder. He has all the range that McCutchen has, and a much better arm. The Pirates would be better defensively with McCutchen in left and Marte in center.

This is unlikely to happen, because of McCutchen’s status on the team. He’s the leader, and the best player due to his offense, and for some reason in baseball that means he has to play the best defensive position in the outfield. It’s not something that makes sense in any other position. You wouldn’t suggest that a third baseman play shortstop just because he was the best hitter in the infield. You’d recognize him as the best hitter, then realize that his skills are better at the third base position.

The Pirates seem to have no interest in moving McCutchen off the center field position. As great as he is offensively, his defensive ratings hurt the team. His -11 DRS can be translated into one extra loss this year. Even just an average defender in center field gives the Pirates an extra win. And none of this says that McCutchen isn’t the best player on the team. He absolutely is. He just isn’t the best option defensively in center field.

For now, we can expect McCutchen to be the center fielder going forward, because that’s the way it’s going to be. The good news is that any fears that may have existed a few years ago, worrying about how he will never repeat his “career year” in 2011, have been quieted by the fact that he has emerged as one of the best hitters every year since. The great news is that he’s still under team control for the next four seasons, and should give the Pirates an MVP to build around for those years.

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