Who Says the Pirates Are One and Done?

One of the big arguments in favor of adding to the major league team this year is the fear that the Pittsburgh Pirates might not get a chance to compete in the coming years.  My stance on the trade deadline is that the Pirates shouldn’t sacrifice their future to improve their chances at competing for one year.  I’d rather see them try and maintain their chances of competing for years to come, rather than putting all of their eggs in the 2011 basket.  That’s usually met with comments like “that’s a defeatist attitude to not try this year”, or “there are no guarantees you get this chance again”.

I’ve never said the Pirates shouldn’t try to improve and compete this year.  I just don’t think they should sell the farm to do so.  When two months of Carlos Beltran fetches a top pitching prospect, and two years of Hunter Pence is enough to get the rumored offer of Domonic Brown, Jarred Cosart, and others, then the Pirates have no business going after big name players.  They can’t afford to give up a Jameson Taillon or a Luis Heredia for two months of Beltran, and they can’t afford to give up Taillon, Heredia, and more to get two years of Hunter Pence.

As for the thought that the Pirates might not get this chance again, I find that far fetched.  This is a very young team, full of players who are under control for multiple years.  Guys like Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez are under control through the 2015-2016 seasons.  The strength of this year has been the pitching staff, and the Pirates have Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald under control through 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively.  Add to that a lot of the prospects that could arrive in the next two years, and you only improve your chances.

Because of the “they might not get another shot” fear, I decided to look at the prospects coming through the system, focusing on guys who could join the team during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Catcher

Current – Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit, Jason Jaramillo, Eric Fryer, Michael McKenry

2012 – Jason Jaramillo, Eric Fryer, Michael McKenry

Prospects – Tony Sanchez

Notes – After this year, the Pirates won’t really have a standout starting option.  Jaramillo, Fryer, and McKenry would make a strong trio, with one in the minors and two in the majors, but the best case scenario is what we’re currently seeing: not a lot of offense, and strong defense.  Of the group, Fryer is the guy I like the best as a starting candidate, with McKenry and Jaramillo both serving as strong defensive backups.  Jaramillo is out of options in 2012, so it will be interesting to see how they handle things.

Ultimately the catcher of the future is Tony Sanchez.  The Pirates have some other options, such as Ramon Cabrera, Elias Diaz, and Samuel Gonzalez.  However, those options are either too raw (Diaz), too low in the system to project (Gonzalez), or have questions about their durability (Cabrera).  Sanchez is having a down year, but I think there’s a difference between a down year and washing out, which I detailed earlier in the month. It wouldn’t hurt to have more depth here, but I’m not ruling out Sanchez from arriving in the majors in the next year or two.

Curry might be in the majors as early as next year if all goes well.

First Base

Current – Lyle Overbay

2012 – Open

Prospects – Matt Hague, Matt Curry, Alex Dickerson

Notes – First base is a big hole in the short term.  Lyle Overbay has been a disappointment this year, and there’s no starter in 2012, unless you count options like Garrett Jones, which isn’t ideal.  Matt Hague is the best short term option, although he profiles as an average starter at best, basically capable of what we expected from Overbay this year (strong defense, gap power, good average).  Matt Curry is an interesting option.  After a slow start, he’s hitting for a .326/.382/.516 line in 95 at-bats in the month of July.  If he can keep this up, and improve on those numbers, we might see him in AAA next year, with a shot at the majors by June.  That assumes all goes well, and his one month of success in AA turns in to success for the remainder of the year.

Alex Dickerson is probably the best power option of the group, although he’s far off.  He might make the jump to Bradenton next year, and could move quickly through the system like Curry has this year.  Between Dickerson and Curry, the Pirates might be able to find a long term solution.  I don’t know if they’ll find their own version of Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder, but they should find a guy who can provide strong offensive production.

Second Base

Current – Neil Walker

2012 – Neil Walker

Prospects – Brock Holt, Jarek Cunningham, Josh Harrison

Notes – The second base position doesn’t really need any help with Neil Walker under control through the 2016 season.  The Pirates have a few prospects capable of handling the position, although there’s no need to rush any of them.  There’s also some flaws with each option.  Josh Harrison hits for average and has great speed, but struggles defensively.  Brock Holt hits for average and gets on base, but his power has been down this year.  Jarek Cunningham has power, but doesn’t hit for average.  Cunningham might be the most likely of the group to emerge as a starter, and fortunately, the Pirates have some time to develop all three players with Walker holding down the spot.

Shortstop

Current – Ronny Cedeno

2012 – Ronny Cedeno

Prospects – Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer

Notes – Cedeno is under control through the 2012 season, and based on his strong defensive play this year, he’s likely to return.  The Pirates don’t really have a better option at the moment, although they do have two candidates in the upper levels.  Chase d’Arnaud didn’t look ready for the majors in his call-up this year, and could use some additional work in AAA.  Jordy Mercer saw a big bounce back season this year, increasing his power production, but he could also use a lot of work in AAA.  The Pirates might be able to find a long term option from d’Arnaud or Mercer, getting them an average or better shortstop.  For now, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stuck with Cedeno, giving d’Arnaud and Mercer another year to develop.

Third Base

Current – Pedro Alvarez

2012 – Pedro Alvarez

Prospects – Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Jeremy Farrell

Notes – Third base is very thin in the Pirates’ system, which is why I don’t see Pedro Alvarez moving any time soon.  The best internal option might be Mercer, as he can provide strong defense, and he hits for enough power to at least cover the position offensively.  However, the Pirates would also need Chase d’Arnaud to step up as a long term shortstop in this scenario.  Neil Walker could also be an option down the line if a second base replacement emerges.  Josh Harrison doesn’t really hit for the power you’d want from a third baseman, and profiles more as a super utility guy.  Jeremy Farrell is too injury prone, and his defense might be worse than Alvarez.  For now, Alvarez looks to be the best long term solution.

Outfield

Current – Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley

2012 – Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley

Prospects – Starling Marte, Gorkys Hernandez, Robbie Grossman, Mel Rojas Jr.

Notes – Andrew McCutchen is looking like a star, while there’s some promise with Jose Tabata and Alex Presley.  For now, the trio of Presley/Tabata/McCutchen will do, provided Tabata plays more like 2010, and provided Presley can continue what he’s done so far this season.  Fortunately, the Pirates have a lot of options in the minors.

Gorkys Hernandez plays strong defense in center field, has been hitting well in AAA, and has some speed on the bases, although he’s prone to bad base running mistakes.  Starling Marte is the top prospect, with defense good enough to move Andrew McCutchen to left field, and good hitting abilities.  The main concern is his lack of walks, although he’s not really a free swinger, and makes up for the lack of walks with his amazing speed, which allows him to reach base on bunt singles and infield hits that would normally be outs.  Robbie Grossman is emerging as an interesting option this year, profiling as a strong leadoff hitter who can hit for some power and play good defense.  Mel Rojas Jr. is a bit raw, but has shown flashes of potential, with strong defense, great speed, and power potential that hasn’t translated over to the games yet.

Until the Pirates know they have three of these guys in the outfield for the long term, I wouldn’t deal away the excess (unless it’s for a good return).

Taillon could be up by June 2013.

Starting Pitching

Current – Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Ross Ohlendorf

2012 – Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Ross Ohlendorf

Prospects – Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Colton Cain

Notes – As we’ve seen this year, pitching is key if you want to contend.  While the pitching has been great this year, there are a lot of question marks. Those questions exists mostly due to luck from most of the pitchers, with high strand rates, low BABIP numbers, and low HR/FB ratios.  We’ve seen a bit of that even out with guys like Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens over the last few outings, and Paul Maholm in his last start.

Long term, the best is yet to come.  Taillon and Cole profile as the best of the prospects, and could both arrive as early as June 2013.  That could provide the rotation with two guys who have ace level potential.  Morton, McDonald, and Karstens would still be under control through the 2013 season.  That also provides two years for the rest of the prospects to make it to the majors, or improve their game, which is a lot when you consider that most of the names mentioned are in AA or AAA.

Bullpen

Current – Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Jose Veras, Tony Watson, Joe Beimel, Daniel McCutchen, Jason Grilli

2012 – Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Jose Veras, Tony Watson, Daniel McCutchen, Jason Grilli

Prospects – Daniel Moskos, Michael Crotta, Tim Alderson, Jared Hughes, Michael Colla, Phillip Irwin, Bryan Morris, Aaron Pribanic, Nathan Baker, Brandon Cumpton, Brett Lorin, Diego Moreno, Victor Black

Notes – The bullpen is a strong point of the team this year, and I don’t see that changing going forward.  The big thing you’re looking for from the bullpen would be power relievers.  Bryan Morris could lead the group of prospects in this category.  The Pirates have such an excess in this group that they run the risk of losing guys like Jared Hughes (who was throwing a 96 MPH sinker last night in Indianapolis) to the Rule 5 draft, all because they have too many guys to protect next year.

Conclusion

If I don’t mention that no prospect is guaranteed, someone will try to refute the above by saying “you can’t rely on every prospect to work out”.  It’s true that not every prospect will work out.  At the same time, it’s also true that not every prospect will wash out.  So of the group above, not every player will reach their potential, but the Pirates will have guys reaching their potential.  They’ll also have guys who we’re not even talking about right now, who will emerge in the next year or two.  When added to the current group, just a few above-average players could make a big difference.

If you’re going with the “they might not get another chance” argument, you’re basically saying that this current group is a fluke, and the current core of young players isn’t enough to compete in the coming years.  If that’s the case, then why trade away any chance at possible help?  If you don’t trust the current group of players, why trade away guys who can add to that group and make them stronger, in order to get one big short term option?  And if you don’t trust the current group, then what is one big short term option going to do to help?

I don’t believe the Pirates are a fluke this year.  I don’t believe the pitching is this good, but I also don’t believe the offense is this bad.  I think we’ll see some regression from the pitchers going forward, but I’m also not counting out potential improvements from Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and most importantly, Pedro Alvarez.  When you start adding some of the prospects above for the long term, I think you only improve your chances of being a long term competitor.  That’s what I don’t want to lose.  I don’t want to see a chance to compete for years thrown away in exchange for an improved chance to compete in one year.

Analysis

  • The hitters are underperforming, yes. Neil Walker may have the potential to step it up a little bit. Jose Tabata could certainly play better and with more durability. But their underperformance is nowhere near as extreme as the starting rotation’s over-performance. Pedro Alvarez has been wildly less productive than we all hoped and expected, but Jeff Karstens has literally been anomalous. Kevin Correia has somehow won pretty much every game in which he hasn’t give up six runs. Paul Maholm is easily having the best year of his career and Morton and McDonald are both exceeding what we all thought of as their ceilings. For any one of these guys to be doing what they’re doing would be astounding, but all five having career-years at once is a veritable miracle. I don’t think we should be selling the whole farm system and I don’t think the next few years will be like the last few before this, but I do think the Pirates will regress considerably from this year in the following year or two, especially given how horribly the Altoona Four have pitched. They were supposed to be our next big crop of prospects hitting the majors and everyone other than Weakest-Link Justin Wilson has pretty much fallen apart. There is something to be said for going for it this year.

  • RE: Stetson Allie/Josh Bell…

    This is a 2012/2013 list.  I don’t see Allie up by then, and even if Bell signs, I don’t see him arriving that soon.

  •   I do not have the time nor the ability to write out a long response to this, but we can significantly upgrade our major league team without impacting our future. You yourself wrote an article earlier this year where you threw out a number of minor league prospects that will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December, and we don’t and will not have the roster space to protect them. Why can we not trade someof them and take on salary to upgrade the team. I am not saying we need to go after Hunter Pence or even BJ Upton, but we should be able to aim a little higher than Jason Kubel, Ty Wiggington and that group of player. Carlos Quentin would be a major upgrade, Carlos Pena would be an upgrade, and neither one would cost much in terms of prospects.
      The minor league system has enough talent that we should be able to deal away a couple of decent prospects to get a good return and not have a major impact on the future. Are there untouchable prospects, yes, Taillon, Heredia, Grossman is getting close, Curry is also close to that point, but IMO not much of anyone else is or should be untouchable, and that includes Pedro Alvarez.

    • The thing is, the guys we’re at risk of losing are guys who profile as bullpen arms, #5 starters, and average position player starters.  The Pirates aren’t at risk to lose the top prospects, like Marte, Owens, Wilson, etc.

  • I’m still hoping that we can pull a rabbit out of our hat and add Josh Bell to that group of outfielders.

  • John DiVito
    July 29, 2011 9:07 pm

    The lack of an impact bat in the minors is going to hurt this team for years to come.  If we could sign Josh Bell, I *might* change my tune. 

    Honestly, it seems like we have a bunch of leadoff guys and bottom of the order defensive specialists.  I would love to see us use our pitching depth in the next few years to trade for guys that can drive in 80-100 runs a year.

  • No Stetson Allie huh?

  • I agree 100% I would much rather compete for the next 7-8 years than win just this year. We need to stick to what we have been doing. If we trade away all of our prospects then the last 3 1/2 years of rebuilding will have been for nothing and we have to start over. I want to see a winning season just as much as everybody else. Heck I havent even been alive for a winning season! But I would much rather stick to the plan and be a contender for years to come.

Menu