About a year ago at this time, the Pittsburgh Pirates had started promoting players from their AAA squad to take over for some of the struggling players in the majors. The decisions to be made were easy. Aki Iwamura was struggling at second base, with a .173/.274/.250 line at the plate when he was replaced with Neil Walker, who had an impressive .321/.392/.560 line in Indianapolis. Jeff Clement and Andy LaRoche were also struggling, which made it easy to call up top prospects Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata to replace them in the lineup.
One year later the Pirates have a few players in the lineup struggling, and a few players in AAA who look deserving of a call-up. Lyle Overbay is currently hitting for a .229 average with a .660 OPS, and isn’t displaying the defense that he is known for at first base. The platoon of Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz in right field also isn’t working. Jones has a .228 average and a .742 OPS, while Diaz has a .247 average and a .579 OPS. Meanwhile, Alex Presley is dominating AAA pitching with a .339/.381/.523 line in 218 at-bats, along with eight homers and 13 stolen bases.
I talked the other day about how the Pirates don’t look like contenders this year. They could help improve that outlook with more victories like last night, over first place teams like the Phillies. However, one win doesn’t erase the fact that the Pirates have largely struggled against winning teams this year, while beating up on bad teams. At some point they are going to have to give guys like Presley a shot, acting in the long term interests of the team, rather than continuing to trot out Overbay and the Diaz/Jones platoon to get a few extra wins in 2011 (and honestly, that group isn’t doing the best job of achieving those results).
So what do the Pirates do to optimize the roster? Here is what I would do, with a look at the players who are candidates to be replaced first:
Overbay is signed to a one year deal for $5 M. That’s a large amount for the Pirates to eat, although they basically did the same thing last year when they benched Iwamura, who was making $4.85 M. As far s performance, Overbay isn’t living up to his salary. He’s only hitting for a .229 average, which is a career low for him, and down from his .243 average in 2010. Last year Overbay supported that low average with a .762 OPS and a 0.1 UZR/150, which was down from his previous years. This year his OPS is .659 and his UZR/150 is -2.4.
It’s looking like last year was more of a downward trend for Overbay, rather than a down year. I’ve felt since the moment the Pirates signed him that he would be best as a platoon player, considering his career splits. However, this year his splits have been reversed, with a .712 OPS against left handers, and a .639 OPS against right handers, with neither number looking impressive.
Overbay would be expendable if the Pirates had someone ready to take over at first base in the majors. Garrett Jones is a possibility, although we’ve seen how bad his defense can be at the position, and he’s not exactly having a great year at the plate, which we’ll get to in a second. He could platoon with Steve Pearce when Pearce returns.
In the minors, the Pirates have Matt Hague, who is hitting for a .297 average and a .769 OPS in AAA. The power numbers aren’t very impressive this year, although his overall numbers are in line with his career .299 average and .801 OPS. Hague is also more of a platoon option, with an .838 OPS against right handers, and a .608 OPS against left handers. He has strong defense, which means he could be a better platoon option to pair with Steve Pearce.
Like Overbay, the Pirates signed Diaz this past off-season, giving him $4 M over two years. Also like Overbay, Diaz is struggling, with a .247/.270/.309 line. He was signed to be a platoon option against left handed pitchers, but so far this year he’s struggled against left handers, with a .220 average and a .490 OPS. He’s actually been decent in the field, with a 15.7 UZR/150 in the outfield, playing both left and right field.
If the Pirates released Diaz, they would have to pick up the remainder of his 2011 salary, plus his $2 M salary in 2012. They might have difficulty dealing him, considering his struggles at the plate this year, and the fact that he’s under contract for next year. The Pirates could afford to keep him on the bench as a fourth outfielder, and hope he increases his value. If he doesn’t, they could decide his 2012 fate in the off-season.
Jones has had the best performance of the three players mentioned, although that doesn’t mean he’s been performing well. He has a .228 average with a .742 OPS. He’s been doing his job in a platoon role, with a .778 OPS against right handers, although that’s not exactly dominant. Jones is an option to move to first base, although as noted earlier, his defense is weak at the position. That wouldn’t be a big drop-off from what Overbay is doing this year. Jones and Overbay are basically the same player, although the Pirates have an advantage of having Jones under control beyond the 2011 season if he miraculously turns things around.
Optimizing the Roster
The number one goal for me would be getting Alex Presley in the majors to see what he can do. Whether that means Presley becomes the everyday right fielder, or just splits time with either Jones or Diaz, he needs to be in the majors. It’s hard to ignore a guy hitting for a .339 average and a .904 OPS at the AAA level, especially when the same player hit for a .294 average and an .809 OPS in AAA last year. In 490 at-bats at the level, Presley has a .314/.363/.488 line with 14 homers and 21 steals, plus 25 doubles and nine triples.
I don’t think Presley is going to be a long term solution in the outfield. I think he could amount to an average starter, and a very strong fourth outfielder. That said, an average starter would be an upgrade over what Jones and Diaz are currently doing.
The next step is the first base position. Jones and Overbay are basically the same player right now, so one of them has to go. I’d cut ties with Overbay, and maybe even see if someone wants him in an Eric Hinske type deal, where the Pirates pay the rest of his salary for some lower level prospects. I mentioned Matt Hague, who is also just like Jones and Overbay. The Pirates could give Hague a shot, although there’s no guarantee that he makes the successful jump to the majors. Just like Presley, I see Hague as more of an average starter at best, and more likely serving as a platoon player. That’s an upgrade from Overbay, and considering the level of play from Overbay and Jones this year, the Pirates wouldn’t be risking much damage by making the switch.
The key here is what to do when Steve Pearce returns. Pearce has put up a good average this year, although his power has been down. He also has good platoon splits, with a career .901 OPS against left handers, including a .794 OPS this year. My ideal situation at first base would be to platoon Pearce with Matt Hague. Hague might not end up as an improvement over Jones or Overbay, but it would be hard to end up much worse. Ideally, the first baseman of the future is Matt Curry, who is in Altoona right now and could arrive in the majors this time next year. That means a Hague/Pearce platoon might serve as more of a stop gap. It’s not the most attractive option, but at the same time, neither are the present options.
That leaves the bench. With Alex Presley starting in the outfield (I’d put him in left and move Jose Tabata to right), and Matt Hague/Steve Pearce platooning at first base, you’ve got one bench spot, with Overbay, Jones, and Diaz competing with Xavier Paul for that spot. I would give the spot to Xavier Paul, who has been impressive in his short time in the majors, and has shown to be a weapon with his speed. That means the Pirates end up cutting ties with Overbay, Jones, and Diaz, although the Pirates wouldn’t be losing much by getting rid of those three. The one exception I’d make here is keeping Jones around to platoon with Pearce, rather than bringing Hague up to the majors.
I don’t think the Pirates are in a position to compete, and they definitely shouldn’t be holding on to guys like Overbay and Diaz to try and win a few extra games. That notion seems silly when you look at the numbers Overbay and Diaz are currently putting up. The Pirates have the chance to see what they have in younger guys like Alex Presley, all without risking much of a drop-off at the major league level. Considering the struggles by Overbay, Diaz, and Jones, the Pirates might end up improving the team by giving Presley his shot.