Following the announcements yesterday that the Pittsburgh Pirates had turned down all four player options, Pirates fans began to panic. The panic was the same thing we see at the beginning of every off-season: the worry that the Pirates wouldn’t add anyone over the next five months, and would enter the 2012 season with the options available in the system.
It’s far too early to assume that the Pirates will do nothing this off-season. They can’t even negotiate with free agents until Thursday. After that there’s the 40-man roster period in mid-November, the non-tender period in early December, and of course there’s trades and free agency along the way. I don’t expect the Pirates will stand pat this off-season, although the topic does give us a reason to look in to the internal options to see what the Pirates have available at each position of need. Here is a look at each position that has been opened up in the last two days, with all of the internal possibilities listed.
The Pirates currently have four catchers on the 40-man roster. The top option is Michael McKenry, who seems like a lock for the 2012 25-man roster in one role or another. Behind McKenry are Jason Jaramillo, Matt Pagnozzi, and Eric Fryer. Right now all four catchers profile as backups. Fryer is the only one who could become an everyday option, although he needs a bit more time in AAA before that could happen.
The Pirates could go with a combo of guys like McKenry and Jaramillo, which would give them strong defense behind the plate. That strong defense would come at the expense of offense. McKenry posted a .598 OPS in 2011, while Jaramillo has a .621 OPS in 336 career major league at-bats. Defense is the most important aspect for a catcher, although the Pirates could probably find a starter on the open market with similar defense and acceptable offense. Thus, it would be best if the Pirates explored the free agent market, rather than going with a combo of the internal options.
It would be unlikely that Tony Sanchez would arrive this year. He’d have to either start off in AAA, or make a quick jump from AA to AAA in order for that to happen. Either scenario would obviously require an immediate turnaround from his disappointing offensive numbers in 2011.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how Derrek Lee is the best option available on the market – that is if you don’t consider guys like Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols “available” to teams like the Pirates. Lee has struggled at times over the last two years, although that’s mostly been due to off-season injuries. He has no injuries heading in to this off-season, and for that reason I don’t think we will see the slow start that we saw in the first two months in Baltimore this past year.
We know that the Pirates are interested in retaining Lee. What we don’t know is whether he’s softened on his stance of not wanting to play in Pittsburgh. If Lee declared free agency, there would be a few internal options. Garrett Jones is one option. He’s nowhere near the quality of player that Lee is, profiling more as a strong bench player. Jones had the second highest OPS on the team last year, although he’d profile as an average starter at best.
There’s also Matt Hague, although it seems unlikely that the Pirates would go with him out of Spring Training. They had so many chances to call him up in 2011, only to leave him in AAA. Hague doesn’t really have the upside to be an upgrade over Lee. He doesn’t really profile as a guy who could come close to Lee’s numbers. Hague is a guy who, best case scenario, would be a James Loney/Casey Kotchman type.
If Lee doesn’t return, the Pirates would have some options on the free agent market, such as Carlos Pena. That would be my preference. If they couldn’t get Pena, I’d rather see Hague get a shot, with Jones retained as a backup, rather than the addition of guys like Kotchman or Loney.
This is the one position where I feel the Pirates could be fine without adding outside help. Not that the Pirates have a standout internal option, but they do have options that are comparable to the free agent market. The club bought out the option of Ronny Cedeno yesterday, after Cedeno posted a strong defensive season. There are a few options who profile as upgrades, such as Clint Barmes and Alex Gonzalez, although there are no guarantees either way.
Internally the Pirates have Pedro Ciriaco, who has strong defense, but a weak bat. They also have two upper level prospects in Chase d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. Both players could use more time in AAA. It wouldn’t be a bad option to give Ciriaco a shot. The Pirates would stand a chance of getting the same production on defense as guys like Cedeno, John McDonald, or Ramon Santiago, although like each option, they probably wouldn’t get much offense from Ciriaco. That could provide a good stopgap until one of Mercer or d’Arnaud step up. It wouldn’t hurt the Pirates to add a defensive option as insurance, although if they’re going to start a defense-only shortstop, I’d say it should be Ciriaco.
The need for pitching really depends on your view of the current starters. The Pirates enter the season with three guys who could be widely agreed on as locks for the rotation: Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens. Morton will miss the first few weeks of the season, although long term that shouldn’t affect the 2012 rotation. From there, the need for outside additions really depends on how you view the internal options.
Brad Lincoln did enough in 2011 to warrant a shot at the rotation to start the 2012 season. His 4.02 xFIP was in the same range as Morton, Karstens, and Paul Maholm, although it was a smaller sample size. With Lincoln in the rotation, the Pirates would have one more spot, with a lot of unproven internal options.
The guys who will likely start at AAA are Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, and Kyle McPherson. I don’t think any one of these guys would be ready to start out of Spring Training, although they do provide nice depth throughout the season, with the possibility that one or two could emerge by mid-season. We said the same thing last year about basically the same group of pitchers. That didn’t come close to happening, and it flew under the radar a bit due to the strong pitching the Pirates saw in the majors. The Pirates have talent here. Maybe it’s not #1-2 talent, but I can’t see all five upper level pitchers failing to make the jump to the majors, especially when all five have posted strong upper level numbers. Again, in each case I feel the Pirates have depth options, rather than a starter out of Spring Training.
Two other options are Kevin Correia and Ross Ohlendorf. Ohlendorf is a strong candidate to be non-tendered. Correia is pretty much a lock for the roster, with a $4 M salary in 2011. A lot of people don’t trust him, mostly because they’re focused on how he ended the season (7.68 ERA in his last eight starts) versus how he started his season (3.74 ERA in his first 18 starts). Correia wasn’t as good as his 3.74 ERA, but he’s also isn’t as bad as his 7.68 ERA. In fact, over the last three years his xFIP is 4.27, which is very similar to Paul Maholm’s 4.29 mark.
I like Correia more than most. He’s not an ace at all, but he’s a guy you could consider for the back end of your rotation. The problem is that the Pirates need more than another number four starter. They’re not getting a number one or a number two externally, but they could find a guy who could put up number three stats. I think Correia would be a good guy to replace Morton for the first few weeks, then play out of the bullpen as the team’s number six starter.
The Pirates have the internal options to fill four out of five rotation spots, a sixth starter for the first month or two, and depth for the remainder of the season. What they need is one more starter from the trade or free agent market. Without that starter, you’re looking at Correia and Locke in the rotation for the first few weeks, Locke as the 6th starter in late-April after Morton returns, and the possibility of needing someone like Rudy Owens in the event of an early season injury. An external starter makes it so that Correia is that 6th starter, and Locke is the early season emergency guy, which works much better based on their experience levels.
In almost every case, the Pirates would be better off seeking outside help. They could go with a combination of defensive options at catcher, although the offense would suffer. That’s not really manageable when you also add in the defensive-only option at shortstop: Pedro Ciriaco. The Pirates are more likely to find an upgrade at catcher on the open market, which should make that position a priority. They could find an upgrade over Ciriaco, although most of the options available are just defense-first guys.
The Pirates can really capitalize on the first base market. They’ve got money to spend, and they could land someone like Derrek Lee or Carlos Pena for a $10 M a year deal. Either option would be a strong fit for the middle of the lineup, and would hold down first base until someone like Matt Curry or Alex Dickerson emerged as a starting option.
As for the starting pitchers, the Pirates could use an extra starter, just to strengthen their depth. We can’t expect the team to go injury free for most of the year like they did in the first half of the 2011 season. Right now the team is two pre-season injuries away from someone like Rudy Owens or Justin Wilson getting thrown in to the major league mix out of Spring Training.
This shows why some people are freaking out about the possibility of the Pirates going with internal options at each position. Most of the internal options profile as defensive only options, or average starters at best. It’s still far too early to even suggest that the Pirates won’t add anyone this off-season. This look at the system does show that the Pirates need to add outside help this off-season, as the internal options aren’t really desirable for starting roles.