Ever since Neal Huntington and company took over prior to the 2008 season, they have gone with a plan I agree with. Build the farm system up through the draft, trades, international market, and any other method of adding young talent. Use that talent to put together a young team that can contend for multiple years. Throughout those years, keep bringing up new prospects to try and expand the “window” to compete.
Not every deal the Pirates have made has worked out. Some have been horrible, and some have been excellent. But they find themselves contending this year, currently 12 games above .500, and holding a half game lead in the Wild Card race. So they’ve reached the point where they’re contenders, although it’s too early to say that they will do this for multiple years. Yet for some reason, after dedicating themselves to building the system for this moment, the Pirates don’t seem to trust their prospects.
That happened tonight when the Pirates called up Kyle McPherson and Justin Wilson — both options to start, and both on five days rest — and then proceeded to give Kevin Correia the nod as the starter, despite the fact that he threw two innings yesterday.
I could see not giving McPherson a start. In hindsight he pitched well in his debut. But prior to the outing he had just two starts at the Triple-A level. But I can’t see why Wilson wasn’t given a shot. He’s one start removed from an eight inning, rain-shortened no-hitter, which is the second no-hitter he’s participated in this year.
Maybe McPherson or Wilson don’t fare any better than Correia, who gave up three runs in 4.1 innings. But I can’t imagine a situation where it makes sense to start Correia. I understand Correia offered to start, and that’s admirable. But that doesn’t mean you start him. He threw two innings the night before. Even if he’s got his best stuff, he’s not going deep in to the game. And how likely is it that he has his best stuff, one day after throwing two innings?
If Correia was on five days rest, I could see not showing trust in two rookies to take the mound in a playoff race. But opting to go with Correia pitching back to back days, rather than one of two starters who are fully rested, shows a lack of confidence in prospects.
The Pirates aren’t like this in every situation, but they do this enough to raise questions and make their approach frustrating. Sure, they gave Starling Marte a shot. But there’s also been a lot of stories where they haven’t turned to the prospect tearing up Triple-A. And I’m not talking “Brock Holt hitting .400 in his first 50 at-bats”. I’m talking “this guy has made over 20 starts and has an ERA under 3” success. Consider three examples from the pitching staff in recent history.
**They call up Jeff Locke, then use him as a long man, rather than a starter. Kevin Correia struggles in the rotation. Locke throws 4.1 shutout innings, allowing one hit and no walks. Yet Locke is sent down to Triple-A.
**When the Pirates decided they needed starting help at the deadline, they traded three prospects for Wandy Rodriguez, who had seen a decline in his strikeouts in each of the last three seasons, and was struggling in June and July in Houston. Rodriguez has continued those struggles, and the Pirates would have been better off turning to someone like Jeff Locke or Justin Wilson, who both looked ready at the time. Instead they dealt away prospects, including Robbie Grossman, who is hitting for a .295 average and an .858 OPS in Double-A with Houston.
**The Pirates traded for Chad Qualls. Yet Bryan Morris sits in Triple-A on his last option year, despite numbers that would warrant a major league call up.
Then there’s some examples last year.
**Lyle Overbay was struggling all summer, while Matt Hague was tearing it up in June. It made no sense to keep going with Overbay, yet the Pirates left Matt Hague in Triple-A. Hague might not have been the answer, but it would have been hard to do worse than what Overbay was doing. The Pirates are in this situation again this year. They’ve got Jordy Mercer as an option to take time from Clint Barmes, and Michael McKenry has played like he should be a starting catcher. Yet Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes are getting too many starts.
**I’m not a big believer in Pedro Ciriaco’s success in Boston. He has a .333/.345/.463 line in 108 at-bats. Ciriaco never had over a .741 OPS at any level in the minors. The numbers might not be legit, but what if they are? What if they’re close? The Pirates had Ciriaco last year. They sent him back and forth about 100 times between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Yet he only received 33 at-bats. And that included time in September. The team was out of it in September. They were also about to move on from Ronny Cedeno. So why not give Ciriaco a shot to see what he could do? If he does end up being legit (again, I doubt it), then the Pirates are going to look foolish giving at-bats to Ronny Cedeno in September, in a losing season, right before they cut him loose in the off-season.
As far as this year goes, the only thing that would make sense is if we were over-rating these prospects. But so far that hasn’t happened. It’s been a small sample size, but Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Kyle McPherson have all looked good in their time in the majors. And not just from a numbers standpoint. They’ve all looked good with their stuff. Yet instead of bringing up Locke to start, the Pirates opted to trade for Wandy Rodriguez, who hasn’t looked good since May.
There’s a certain amount of trust that comes with veterans, and I could see how a team would expect someone like Rodriguez to bounce back in a new organization. But what about the actual prospects that were called up? That just confuses the matter even more.
Starling Marte was called up, and immediately started. The team traded their best reliever for Travis Snider, who was far from a guarantee, and had struggled previously in the majors at a young age. Both of these moves pushed Alex Presley to the bench. Yet Jordy Mercer comes up and barely plays, even though the numbers from Barmes were much worse than Presley, who was replaced by prospects. And how long can Kevin Correia keep getting starts with so many young options available? Finally, why is Bryan Morris in Triple-A, and Chad Qualls is in the majors?
Maybe the Pirates are just gun shy here. The truth is that prospects aren’t a guarantee. As bad as Barmes has been, Mercer could be worse as an every day starter. Jeff Locke might not be better than Kevin Correia. Bryan Morris could be worse than Chad Qualls, and that’s hard to imagine. All of these could very well be true, leaving the Pirates in the exact same situation they’re in, only with prospects instead of veterans. But that’s the worst case scenario, and it doesn’t sound that bad, considering the alternative of upgrading over your worst players in the majors.
You might point out that the Pirates are 12 games over .500, and half a game up in the wild card race, despite these strategies. And because of that, it might not seem like there’s any reason to complain about the usage of prospects. But the Pirates have a chance to upgrade here. They can potentially upgrade the rotation by hoping one of Locke, Wilson, or McPherson can pitch better than Kevin Correia. They could help the shortstop position by giving Jordy Mercer more time when he returns. They could start Michael McKenry more often, and hope his numbers continue, giving them a great starting catcher.
All of these involve risk, but the Pirates need to take risk if they want to contend. And it seems silly that they wouldn’t take the risk at this point. The whole process of building through the farm system, and trading for unestablished players is a big risk. It’s not guaranteed. We’ve seen that over the last 19 years. But that’s what teams like the Pirates have to do to compete. And it’s pointless to go through the risky process of building through the farm system if you’re just going to be shy about the final step of calling those young players up to the majors.
For whatever reason, the Pirates appear to be hesitant to turn to prospects. Rather than turning to Jeff Locke, they traded for Wandy Rodriguez. Kevin Correia keeps getting starts, despite better options available. Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas are getting the majority of the playing time, while Jordy Mercer is benched and Michael McKenry is OPSing over .800. Guys like Juan Cruz and Chad Qualls keep getting innings in the bullpen, while Bryan Morris waits to throw his first major league pitch.
The Pirates might be winning despite these moves, but they could increase the wins by playing the best options available. And it’s not hard to see that some of those options are prospects.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost to the Padres 3-1.
**Pirates Notebook: McPherson and Wilson Shine in Their Debuts; Upcoming Rotation Set.
**Prospect Watch: Garcia Homers Twice; Holt’s Hitting Streak at Nine Games.