First Pitch: The Pirates Could Have Up to Four Starters on Their Bench

Back in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates ran into a horrible situation with their catchers. They used eight catchers in the majors that year, with Michael McKenry getting the most playing time, despite the fact that he was acquired for cash considerations, and was about the fifth or sixth option they went with. Other options included Matt Pagnozzi, Wyatt Toregas, and Dusty Brown, with the latter catching 78 innings.

After that season, it seemed like the Pirates went out of their way to avoid any similar situation in the future. Even if they had players at a position, they added more, trying to increase their depth. As an example, they had Russell Martin and Michael McKenry as their catching combo in 2013. Tony Sanchez was projected to be in Triple-A to start the year. That didn’t stop them from also signing Ali Solis, Lucas May, and adding Brian Jeroloman and Kelly Shoppach during the year, before eventually landing John Buck as a backup catcher late in the season.

I don’t know if that was a direct response to the 2011 issue, or if it’s an issue where you can never have too much depth. The Pirates learned this the hard way once again in 2014, this time with their middle infield. The month of August saw the team ravaged by injuries. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, and Clint Barmes all suffered injuries and were on the disabled list around the same time. When you combined that with Pedro Alvarez struggling, the team ran into a disaster situation where they had Michael Martinez, Jayson Nix, and Brent Morel on the active roster, with some of those guys starting each night for about a week.

It’s hard to avoid that type of situation, especially when you lose your MVP, your two starting middle infielders, and your top backup middle infielder. The blow would have been softened by the exceptional play from Travis Snider and Josh Harrison, except Harrison was needed to replace the struggling Pedro Alvarez, and Snider was needed to replace Gregory Polanco as he struggled to make the jump to the majors.

Just like the moves after the 2011 catching situation, it seems the Pirates are trying to avoid another doomsday situation. They started the off-season with about a million waiver claims and small transactions to add potential utility and middle infield options. Then they added Sean Rodriguez from the Rays, giving them a middle infielder who could lock down the utility job. Rodriguez was coming off a down year, but in his best years he was good enough to be a starting option, and in a normal year, he’s a good utility player who you don’t mind starting in place of an injured player.

Then there was the addition of Corey Hart last week, which opened up a lot of possibilities. Hart looks like a guy who will be limited to the right-handed side of the first base platoon, with the possibility of playing some outfield. He’s coming off a lot of injuries and a down year at the plate, but like Rodriguez, he’s a starting option if he can somehow return to his best form. John Dreker pointed out something interesting with Hart’s contract situation today, noting that his performance bonuses start at 350 plate appearances. Gaby Sanchez had 290 and 320 plate appearances the last two years, and probably played more than he should have against right-handers. It will be difficult for Hart to reach those bonuses if he’s just a platoon player. And as I pointed out on Sunday, it doesn’t seem like the Pirates want just a platoon player.

Finally, there’s today’s news that the Pirates won the bidding for exclusive negotiation rights with Jung-Ho Kang. The Korean shortstop hit for a ton of power in the KBO, although there are questions about how much of that offense will translate over to the majors, and whether he can even play shortstop. Jeff Sullivan wrote a preview last week on Kang, which said his upside could be an Ian Desmond type, while also noting several options who are well below Desmond in talent. He followed up the player comps with this.

We know that’s not a lock, but it’s not inconceivable, so, how much do you pay for the right to find out? I hesitate to draw this comparison, but Yasmany Tomas signed for six years and $68.5 million, with an opt-out clause. A lot of talent has come out of Cuba lately, which boosted Tomas’ price, but if you just look at the player, he’s almost pure power, with questions on whether he can even play anywhere in the outfield. Kang doesn’t have Tomas’ power, but he does have real power, and he seems to have greater defensive value and versatility. Tomas got that much money as an unknown, supported by predecessors. Kang doesn’t have predecessors, which is why he could turn out to be a steal. Teams will be cautious until there’s proof that players can come from Korea and hit.

Kang will probably end up costing half the amount that Tomas will cost per year, and that’s including the posting fee. Just like Rodriguez and Hart, the Pirates seem to be banking on the unknown here (assuming they sign Kang). In the cases of Rodriguez and Hart, it’s a question of whether they can bounce back to their former success. In the case of Kang, it’s a question of how good he will be in the majors.

In all three cases, there is a chance that the Pirates could end up with a starter on their bench. You could add Travis Snider to this mix, with his question marks surrounding whether the second half last year was the start of a breakout, or something unsustainable as a starter. Those chances for these players becoming starters are obviously small, otherwise these players wouldn’t have come at relatively low prices. I think the chances that they could all be solid bench players, and guys who you wouldn’t mind starting if an injury occurs, is much better. This also moves guys like Justin Sellers and Pedro Florimon to Triple-A as the top depth options, making it less likely for guys like Martinez, Nix, and Morel to play in Pittsburgh in 2015.

On paper, this looks like the strongest Pirates bench I can remember in recent years. There is risk involved with each player, but a lot of upside. If you’re dreaming big, there’s four potential starters on the bench once they add Kang. The Pirates had an incredibly strong offense last year, and they project to have a strong group this year, even without Russell Martin. This bench will only give them a better chance to maintain a strong offense through injuries and struggles that take place throughout the year.

Links and Notes

**The 2015 Prospect Guide is now available! The book started shipping out on Friday. A lot of the pre-orders were on track to arrive today or tomorrow. If you ordered over the weekend, the books shipped out today. I went through another case of books today, and will be shipping more out tomorrow. Your book will be in that shipment if you order by 4 PM. Or you can get it immediately by purchasing the eBook. You can place your order on the products page. For those of you who have ordered and got your books already, I hope you enjoy!

**Pirates Win the Bidding For Korean Infielder Jung-Ho Kang

**Video Highlights For Jung-Ho Kang

**Contract Details For Corey Hart

**Pirates Sign Three International Players

**Winter Leagues: Playoff Teams Are Set in the Dominican

**Comparing Corey Hart and Gaby Sanchez

  • OMG, I was just looking and thinking. What a roster we will have at Indy this season!
    Quality starting pitching with depth, solid catching. Really good outfield with experience including the highest paid player in AAA. The infield is decent with a few prospects. (with so many quality outfielders, I see Lambo getting plenty of time at 1B. Only weak spot so far could be the pen. Looks like a winning season at Indy and the Pirates should not have to worry about depth at most positions.

  • The Bucs should be good in 2015, but I don’t think the bench is a strength.

    Kang is a lottery ticket. Snider’s Steamer projection is 1.1 WAR. Hart’s is 0.2 (with a low Avg and OBP and only modest power). Rodriguez’ Steamer projection includes a wRC+ of 91 with below average defense.

    The Red Sox have Allen Craig, Ryan Hannigan, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and Jackie Bradley on their bench. That is a solid bench. The Pirates need to count on their starters staying healthy.

    • Apples and Oranges. The Pirates had 281 pinch hit at bats last year. The Red Sox had 86. Even a bench of Maris, Mantle, and Ruth isn’t going to do a whole lot in 86 combined ABs over a season.

      And despite leading the major’s in pinch hits last year (61), the Pirates had a low average for those ABs (.217). Even if Hart recovers to league average numbers (.250 AVE, .700 OPS), that is an improvement.

    • Judging the Pirates bench against one team is no way to determine whether nor not it is a strength.

      Would you rather have the guys Tim listed above, or Tony Cruz, Mark Reynolds, Dean Anna, Peter Bourjos, and Randall Grichuk? How ’bout Jose Lobaton, Tyler Moore, Kevin Fransden, Michael Taylor, and Jeff Kobernus?

    • Cant cherry pick BOS and act like we are bad in comparison. Along with that, look at what BOS is paying for that bench. Victorino alone makes 13 million. Allen Craig 5.5 million. Hanigan 3.5 million. So those 3 alone on a bench costs over 20 million for 100-200 at bats. That is a good bench, but really not great value for their money. PIT cant do that, and shouldnt. That is an overpaid bench unless they get a good deal of reps.

  • Great article, this bench is looking strong. Which i never thought i would say since PIT seemed to love no hitting defensive options on the bench.

  • If the Pirates are going to take a chance and even pay 2.5 million for Hart, my only complaint would be that they didn’t get on option for another year. If he shows his injuries are behind him and he’s on pace for 25 HR’s and a .270 BA he will be worth 12 million next year. Should have got a team option for 7-8 million. Too bad they didn’t get something more for revitalizing Edinson’s career. He’s no making 10 million a year

    • I totally understand your feeling, but a player has literally zero incentive to sign a deal with a club option.

      If you want a club option, you have to accept that the original terms of the first year will change. The Pirates wouldn’t have signed Volquez, nor Hart for $5m and $2.5m respectively if they also had club options on a second year.

  • Having all this depth is a great thing, all it means at the end of the day is that somewhere along the line somebody is getting traded. The perception that this is a bad thing is beyond me. Trades are a good thing ( you hope) if the gm and analytics team make good decisions, trades allow you to improve the entire org. and the player(s) traded get an opp. on another team. Now that the pirates are a winning org. trades of assets for assests will become more common. Not the trades of the past where assests where traded for ???!!

  • My perspective: Everyone saying Korean ball is like AA, ok cool. Then I am super excited to get a 26 yr old middle infielder that just hit almost 40 hrs with a ton of RBIs, etc. in AA ball. I think if we had that in our system, we’d be stoked and dreaming about him being a 27 yr old 2B with 20 hrs in the bigs.

    I understand he hasn’t proven anything in MLB. But, he is the same age as Marte and many think he still has upside left to reach. Why not this dude?

  • Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble but Korean Baseball is not much better than Double A ball here in the states. Check out the Korean League stats and look at some of the players. You’ll see guys from the states who excelled in Double A, washed out at Triple A, at the top of the stats page. If the Buccos give Kang more than say 4 yrs./5 mil it will be wasted money.

    • OMG Korea isn’t as good as MLB?!?!

      I was way off, thanks so much!

    • As long as he OPS’s .700 with some power, and defensive abilty/versatility of the bench, he’ll be totally worth a little less than 4 yrs/20 million. So yeah if that’s what he does, the contract will be slightly bad. But the upside is much much higher. It’s a nice little gamble.

      But if anyone thinks he’s gonna come in and hit 40 bombs and OPS 1.800 or whatever it was like he did in Korea, then theyre being pretty silly.

      • That is the point. Look up Korean baseball players who came here from the Korean League. None of them made it. Kaz Matsui had 36 hrs in Japan ( much harder than Korea, more of a AAA league) and his best year in the states was 9.

        • What is more logical; that Koreans inherently cannot play Major League Baseball, or that the first Korean player from the KBO has yet to play Major League Baseball?

        • my best response to this is this passage from a fangraphs article.

          “We don’t have a lot of data points within the KBO. But if you’d like, you could think about it like this, simplistically: Eric Thames
          just slugged in the KBO at a level similar to Kang. In the majors,
          Thames had a 96 wRC+. He posted a WAR of 0, because he was a bad
          defensive corner outfielder. What if you got Thames-level offense from
          an infielder with versatility?”

          Like you say (sorta), there isn’t a lot of data to go off of. But i think “Josh Harrison before he became JOSH HARRISON” is a fair enough of a most likely outcome.

    • What bubble? I think most people are pretty reasonable with their expectations.

    • Actually, some have the korean league as PCL type AAA level. Reports vary, but its clear it is somewhere between AA and AAA, so signing a top talent in that league and having him as a bench option for 5 million is a good move if they finish it. At his asking price of 5 millionish per year, he has to be a 1 WAR guy to break even on value. Early projections have him closer to 1.5-2 than 1 WAR. Good bench option.

      • Check the stats from the Korean League. Pay close attention to the US players there and how they did before going to Korea. A Triple A player worth his salt would be in Japan. Those not good enough for Japan play in Korea.

        • But the performance of crappy US players isnt the sole, nor best, mode of determining talent level of the entire league. The PCL is a hitters league that ups batting value and suppresses pitching stats, which is similar to that of the league being discussed. Personally i think the league is somewhere between AA and AAA, but there have been a few that actually study and follow it that see it as similar to the PCL. Others agree its like AA. Either way, promoting a hitter from AA/AAA with his overall talent level for a bench spot isnt a bad idea.

  • I certainly hope the Pirates are building their bench based upon recent and rare events.

    It will be nice to not have two spots occupied by all glove players. Though I think one could construct an argument that the seemingly stronger structure of the bench is a reflection of the question marks surrounding Pirates infield and RF starters.

  • The bench does look strong on paper, kind of like If’s backing up If’s, but what team doesn’t have If’s.

  • credit has to be given to this front office. every year they find a new clever way to surprise me. the ajb signing round one or frank and eddy. sure they have missed on a few. lets not forget what nh started with, the joke of the league. now we are not only competing but we are a desired destination. who am i to question the mans moves? i am just gonna sit back and let him do his job and enjoy some good ball. given the financial constraints as a small market team maybe they are tbmtib!

  • Kang reminds me of a right handed Kolten Wong.

  • One way to improve a team is to improve at the top of the roster and spend a ton of money to buy the most expensive, and hopefully most productive, big name free agents out there.
    A second way is to elevate the bottom of the roster and try to not carry anyone that you think will produce negative WAR. Spend an extra 1.5 million to carry a 1 WAR bench player instead of spending the league minimum on a -1 WAR player. Do that 4 times and maybe you’ve gained enough production so that when you have injuries or when you trot your Sunday lineup out there you win a extra 3-4 games over the course of the season. (Assuming your regulars produce at expected levels.) What would that 3 wins have done for the Pirates in each of the last two seasons?
    Maybe increasing productivity at the bottom of the roster at relatively low cost is exploiting the new market inefficiency.
    A couple of months ago someone wrote an article about improving the bottom of the roster, don’t know if it was on here or not. If I was smarter I’d know how to find it but… oh well.

    • No one on this team played more than 149 games last year and there were another 508 plate appearance by “subs.” A bench provides a lot more than any individual starter by a wide margin (and plays every position!) $13 million isn’t an outrageous amount to spend on a starter, and its not an outrageous amount to spend on a bench.

  • Kang, IMO is a very good acquisition, he can be an insurance policy for any infield position and might even be good enough to unseat a starter, he gives the Pirates flexibility to make moves. Since the Pirates have no middle infield depth ready in the minors at this time Kang becomes even more valuable. His stats and numbers tell you what he is capable of, pulling it off against better competition will be a challenge, but he won’t see anything he has not seen already, he has seen 100mph fastballs for example.

  • My vote is for kang to be treated as a top prospect. . Send him to AAA unless you believe he’s an everyday player.. if you believe that then give him 300 ab’s to prove you wrong..

  • After watching the youtube videos of King Kang on defense and offense he definitely is much better than his KBO counterparts. Can’t predict what he will do in the majors but he is fun to watch. The parks are small but he hits alot of his homers out of the park when he hits to dead left and many of his homers to left center and right center are well beyond the fence. His 2013 and 2012 videos on defense shows a very athletic player. He makes an unbelievable double play on a ball hit up the middle over the bag at the 1:23 mark of the 2013 youtube video of his defensive highlights.

  • If the Buccos can add another arm at some point and whoever gets most of the time at backstop is half as good as Martin was, I really feel like a World Series is not out of the question for 2015. I can’t wait!

  • This should be a very strong bench. Personally, I’d have Walker, Mercer, and Kang (with Walker obviously only playing 2B) rotate between the two middle infield spots depending on pitching match ups, injuries, who needs a day down, etc. But if the Pirates want to go the trade route, they should look to trade Jordy Mercer to SD for something like a bullpen arm. The
    Padres starting middle infield of Clint Barmes and Jedd Gyorko isn’t
    exactly good. In fact, the Padres’ entire infield sucks.

    • If they’re super confident in Kang, then i wouldn’t mind something like Mercer for Tyson Ross. That is close to fair.

      But i can’t imagine they’re willing to put all their eggs in the Kang basket.

      But yeah. throughout all of the Padres hype, people are ignoring that their infield sucks. This fetish with RH power that the national baseball media has is getting out of hand. unless the Padres get hamels, they’re still not going to make the playoffs.

      • You really think dego would part with ross to get jordy mercer? If this is even remotely fair my view of ross is way off..

      • Mercer for Tyson Ross would be highway robbery by NH. If the Padres were willing to do that, Neal needs to hurry up and get the papers to the league offices before SD can change their minds. Even if they get Hamels, the Padres still won’t be a playoff team. Upton and Kemp are their only (proven) good hitters, and Kemp has injury questions and who knows if either of their power translates to Petco. I said the proven thing because Myers needs to show 2013 wasn’t a fluke after last year.

        • i figure there’d have to be some balancing done with a prospect here or there, but why is 3 years of Ross so much more valuable than 4 years of Mercer? I’m fine saying that another prospect in the #10-20 range would have to be thrown in, but i’m not sure if I agree about it being highway robbery.

          • Just looking at the market.

            How much more market value would Jordy Mercer have over Didi Gregorius and Euqenio Suarez? Some, probably. But I don’t think enough to fill the gap between Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, and Tyson Ross.

            • i really don’t know. Mercer’s accomplished much, much more than Didi or Suarez so far in their careers. Honestly, i do think Gregorious is better than what his stats so far show and could be equal to Mercer this year.

              But on the other hand, Greene does have 3 more years of control than Ross as well.

              And i don’t know nearly enough about Suarez or Jonathan Crawford to comment on the Simon trade.

              That said, I see what you’re saying and i do appreciate that it was a much more useful response than just saying that the Padres would be dumb to do Mercer for Ross.

              Maybe i’m way off base with Jordy’s and Tyson’s values. It doesn’t even matter because nothing resembling it will come close to happening. They aren’t going to trade Jordy and put everything in the Kang basket.

          • Mercer is a slightly above average SS, Ross is a budding ace. Big difference there.

            • If your opinion of Ross is that he’s a budding ace, then yeah Jordy for Ross obviously wouldn’t work in your head.

              I like Ross, but not as much as you do. Fair enough.

        • We must have another Mercer that I’m not aware of. Jordy Mercer for Tyson Ross would be the heist of the decade.

    • The Padres will win the BlueJays Memorial “win the offseason” award and then proceed to finish around .500, well back of the playoff race, and light years behind the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West next year. And their prospect cupboard will be bare as they watch Matt Kemp spend most of the season on the DL. No idea what the plan is in SD really, as they seem to be counting on a ton from Upton and Kemp in a severe pitcher’s park… and who neither can be called out for exemplary leadership or traits to build a team around.

      • i do like the upton pickup for them, but Kemp and Myers might not even be good. He’s an above average player.


        Kemp and Myers are both projected for 1.8 wins. I have no idea why Preller has gotten so much love.

      • Yeah, you haven’t paid much attention to San Diego’s system.

        • I admit I have spent zero time studying SD’s system. They still traded prospects other teams wanted, and I will stand by my main point that Upton and Kemp won’t carry this team to the NL West contention, with those personalities, and in that park. Upton will then depart via FA, most likely, and SD will be saddled with the arthritic and acidic (personality wise) Kemp. Myers I think does have some upside and makes sense, but not Kemp and Upton. Seems desparate to try to drive fan interest by new ownership, go for ‘names’ that exceed actual on the field impact. And that includes trading Hanigan for Middlebrooks, a Sox-hyped prospect that fans have heard of, but who is a terrible return for the undervalued Hanigan. But this is all my opinion of course.

          • I don’t think these moves will make them NL West Champs, either, but you’re dead wrong to overlook the value of stimulating a fan base.

            Preller is going to get San Diego generating revenue about four years quicker than Huntington in Pittsburgh. San Diego has money to spend, and Preller just put together an interesting team while holding onto his top two hitting prospects and top pitching prospect.

            Not every rebuild has to take seven years and make fan suffer through abysmal performances.

            • A rebuild can be quicker when your system is ranked around 10th, as opposed to the bottom five (Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker is not a farm system.)

              In the aggregate I don’t quite get San Diego moves, though not surrendering top prospects is a good idea, and as Dayton Moore showed there is value in constructing a team slightly better than mediocre.

    • No reason to deal Mercer at all. He needs to stay. Kang is an unknown commodity until we hit May or June.

      • I agree, I’m just saying if they want to trade one of these guys it should be Mercer.

        • With his fielding numbers and the fact that he is a true SS that can get near 50 XBH a year, if he stays a similar player he is a rare commodity and extremely valuable to the Pirates…and he is cheap and in his prime.

          • Which is why I don’t want to trade him and want to get all three of these guys at bats.

    • Yes, Mercer doesn’t have any untapped upside but he is under control for 4 years and you want to trade that for a bullpen arm? In order to start a SS out of the Korean League?

      • Not at all what I said. I said if they are looking to move someone out of the log jam, Mercer is the guy I’d look to move first.

  • Unless its just a comparison of their bats, given how almost everything I’ve read about Kang suggests he is not good enough with the glove and range to play SS, I don’t see how anyone would think he could be another Desmond?

    • Very few scouts said Jordy Mercer was a big league shortstop, either, and he grades out very similar to Desmond defensively.

      As an absolute ceiling comp, Desmond seems to be just about perfect.

    • I think it is an offensive comparison. But also, Desmond was not a good glove at all when he came up. If Espinosa had hit when he first came up Desmond probably wouldn’t have stayed at SS. Desmond’s improved now, but he still isn’t that good at SS.

  • There’s going to be some serious competition for roster spots and playing time next season.

  • After seeing how active the catcher trade market became, and how much effort the Pirates put into solidifying marginal roles in the form of Rodriguez, Hart, Kang, and even Radhames Liz, I’m tempted to wonder if they regret acting so quickly to “solidify” their catching situation with Francisco Cervelli.

    I have a hard time believing a Rene Rivera or Ryan Hannigan couldn’t be an improvement on at least one half of the Cervelli/Stewart tandem, let alone a Yasmani Grandal, Derek Norris, Miguell Montero, or guys who seems eminently available like Wellington Castillo and Dioner Navarro.

    As Tim pointed out above, the team knows how fragile the catcher position can be, and has to understand the reasonable likelihood of Chris Stewart starting for significant periods of time. Leads me to believe they’re a lot more comfortable with Elias Diaz than the majority, which is something they’ve been demonstrating for a while.

    • If the Pirates sign Kang, they may not be done–given how many teams need a shortstop, it isn’t out of the realm of possiblity that a Mercer trade could bring in a catcher.

      • I think they missed the boat there with San Diego. Hanigan for Will Middlebrooks still makes me shake my head.

      • Maybe, but that also leaves the very real possibility that Kang is a bit overmatched and struggles early on to figure out ML pitching, leaving us with bad depth at SS and Rodriguez plays or you move J Hay and hope he improves a good deal on defense at SS. As it is, Kang can flop and we dont really get hurt that much. Kang shows he is the real deal, and we have great depth at the corners and can move guys around next offseason.

    • Good post NMR. I partially agree with you. I like the idea after they got Cervelli of adding another veteran catcher also to come in and compete with Stewart. Giovani Soto or someone like that who could add possibly a better hitter into the mix. But, if they like Cervelli and Stewart I understand their process…and they at least did get Sebastian Valle to go with Sanchez who I don’t think you want playing more than one game out of 7-10 in case of emergency. I hope they still do add an ok vet though.

    • I’d really like to see them still go after Castillo. He’s probably only $500k or so more expensive than Stewart. Problems are that would be an in-division move – don’t know the Cubs would do it, and while Castillo grades above average at blocking and throwing, he stinks at game calling and framing, which is what the Pirates seem to be prioritizing (how teachable are those skills anyway?)

      • With you on this one. The Pirates do seem to be going all-in on the whole pitch framing thing. I personally would prefer balance, matching a good bat with a good glove. Castillo, as you say, grades out well in just about everything BUT framing and caries an above average bat for the position, especially if he’s limited to mostly LHP.

        There’s obviously history between these clubs on in-division moves, but these things seem to be trickier when both clubs are in “win” mode.

        I’ve read that framing can be taught, but just like most skills there’s inherent limits to how much guys can improve. Game calling simply comes down to learning. Even relatively unintelligent catchers should be able to call a decent game given enough study.

        • I think the pitch framing is fairly crucial when you have a rotation of starters that aren’t exactly strike throwers. Though I do agree that the Pirates seem to be placing a lot of faith in their new found ability to keep players healthy or are comfortable with Diaz or the forgotten Tony Sanchez getting starts.

          • Always enjoy hearing your thoughts on this…

            Do you see framing as having multiplicative value in this case? A run saved from framing actually has additional benefit to the pitcher as well?

            I’ve always defaulted to a run saved on defense is as good as a run gained on offense. In that context, I think you have to really, really trust the framing run values for some of these guys to see them as net positives.

            • Not entirely sure how to value framing runs relative to more established valuations. I was more getting at, that I think stealing strikes could possibly be more important for certain pitchers. Vance Worely’s strikeouts come via called 3rd strikes in a much greater percentage than the league, Liriano has one of the lowest Zone% in baseball, and Burnett and Locke aren’t exactly known for control. All speculative.

              I agree a run are interchangeable between offense and defense (the Padres might not in the OF,) but Pirates seem to have a preference for defense at catcher. Their whole run prevention plans revolves around limiting extra bases, of which the catcher has a significant role. Of the names you listed I think only Hanigan and Grandal are certain upgrades given the preference for defense.

              • I think in regards to liriano, batters aren’t able to distinguish between his fastball and change up so he enduces a lot of swings outside the zone.. I think his low zone% isn’t necessarily a sign of control, or lack there of?

            • A defensive run saved is better if it means that a starter can stay in longer, saving the bullpen for another day. So a defensive run saved has a possible carry over effect to the next few days, while an offensive run scored is finished that night.

    • By most accounts if Cervelli can stay healthy (BIG IF) he is going to be really good overall. “Russell who?” good.

    • I’m with you on Rivera. I was hoping he was the target all along. But I’m OK with Cervelli. If he stays on the field, he’ll be good, IMO. If he doesn’t, we could see some Tony and then later, some Elias.

  • 2 things
    1) If Kang is signed, the bottom four could all very easily have positive WAR. Which could be 2-4 WAR, which is even bigger WAR if you think some of last year players had negative WAR. The bench could really make a difference this year

    2 or B) To me, it seems like a good portion of the trades last year wanted MLB talent back. Snyder will have 2 years of control and Kang will probably have 2-3 years of control. Throw in a prospect or two, and you have a trade package. It seems like the Pirates learned this lesson also from last year

  • I’ve seen at least a moderate amount of “well this meannns the enddd of walkerrrrr” and “omg where will they play everybody!?”

    Embrace the fact that there will be a good bench! for the crazy complaining about Nix, Morel, and Martinez being on the team with all those injuries last year, you’d think people would appreciate having utility players who are actually good instead of panicking about ABs.

    • jaygray….agree…just like pitching, you can NEVER have enough depth anywhere.

    • If Kang plays decently Walker may be able to get some AB at 1B or 3B. With his back and the physical demands of 2B it would be nice for him to play 1B once a week or so.

      • Do you think his bat is good enough to play first? If Pedro and Hart disappoint, he might be a better alternative, but I don’t think his bat is good enough for first.

        • On certain teams I would guess maybe you don’t want Walker’s bat at 1B…but on this team definitely. This if they had a decent 2B and Walker’s bat was at 1B all of last year…how much better would the lineup have been. If Walker is a plus fielder at 1B and gives you a .780+ OPS and hopefully 18-20 HR he is an above average MLB 1B.

        • I look at walker per 162 games for his career and he is at 18 HR….771 OPS. Throw in 30-35 2B and a few triples, plus his ability to work counts and give you solid at bat after solid ab and I would take Walker’s bat anywhere

  • One guy who has never played in the majors, and three guys who have never been full time starters, or that is in their rear view mirror, and that translates into 4 starters on the bench? How about in 1979. John Milner, Lee Lacy, Mike Easler, Bill Robinson and Willie Stargell all pretty much shared left field and first, with a little sprinkling of Lacy and Robinson at second and third. Garner, Stennett and Madlock splitting second and third, with Dale Berra as a back up infielder.

    That’s a strong bench. Travis Snider had his first 300 PA season and first season with significant time hitting over .260. That’s the strongest bench player they have. Sean Rodriguez, a career utility guy with a career average of .225 in over 1800 career PAs?

    Then there’s Corey Hart, who the Pirates are hoping can be something like he once was, although 2 years ago he was out all year, and last year he DH’d and played a few games in the field, and hit .203.

    Followed up with a Korean league ball player, who they might sign, of who their is no track record for really projecting how these players do coming to the major leagues? Compared to the crappy benches of the last few years, this bench might be better. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of genius.

    • There always has to be that one guy…

    • Yeah, yeah, yeah… the 1979 Pirates were the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was 35 years ago: time to move on and stop viewing every every baseball move, team, and player through the nostalgia glasses.

      • They were world champions. Exactly how many of those do you have stored up? I’d guess 2, huh? And guess what, I’m really John Lease, not someone hiding behind the name of a back up outfielder from 20 years ago.

        Now, go make some money shoveling snow.

        • They were world champions. Exactly how many of those do you have stored up? I’d guess 2, huh? And guess what, I’m really John Lease, not someone hiding behind the name of a back up outfielder from 20 years ago.

          Now, go make some money shoveling snow.

          I don’t understand what any of this means or how it responds to my earlier criticism.


        What’s a Pirate always looking for even though it’s right behind him?
        His bootie!!!!

        Dang meddling kids 🙂

    • I think it’s pretty clear that Tim wasn’t saying that this 2015 potential Pirates bench will go down as the greatest bench in history, just that it has the potential to be better than it’s been in a while. He was clearly stating that, rather than previous years when they were starting players short-term that really had no business being on a major league roster, this team could posses bench guys that you could be comfortable starting for a week or two during a stretch of injuries.

      Obviously, guys who are on the bench are (and should be) worse than actual starters. That’s why they are on the bench and not starters!!!

      Strong benches are about situational versatility.

      You do realize that the difference between a .220 hitting and a .280 hitting bench player is only about 10 hits over the course of a season??

      Say what you want about Sean Rodriguez, but bb-ref has him listed as a positive WAR in each of the last 5 seasons.

      Up until his injury, Corey Hart WAS a starter.

      And just because there isn’t a “track record” of success from Korea to the majors yet, doesn’t make Kang a question mark. He’s a question mark because he, himself, hasn’t played in the majors yet. However, the Pirates must see something that they like.

    • That’s still better than most benches, even if you DO exclusively focus on the flaws that you cherry picked and ignore the good things.

    • Hey JL.

      I like the contrarian view and often look for dissenting opinions along my way. One has to consider that they could be wrong. And if you have wise people around you, then you make contingencies. I think NH is making contingencies and TW is commenting on them.

      On the spectrum of John Lease to Tim Williams I am shading toward the Williams just a bit, but recognize both the darkest and the brightest possible outcomes. AND you need to check the title of the article: Pirates COULD have four starters on the bench. And you know what? They could. They might not. But they could.

      Based on the way Hart has killed the Pirates over his career in PNC, you would have to say he’s comfortable in our park. (Or juiced, like the rest of the Brewers.) Rodriquez is a plus WAR player. And based on the highlight reels I’ve seen of Kang, he certainly looks every bit the athlete and his glove and arm look good. (Allowing that they are highlight reels, one must allow that the player was good enough to make a few web gems.)

      Now. All this said, I have to suggest that the Pirates have made themselves substantially better than they were last year. Deeper at every position with high upside all around. The Pirates had a rough start last year and had some career minor leaguers playing in August and still lost the division by two games.

      Have the Pirates gotten two games better? I believe they have gotten FIVE games better.

      Time to go to the thinking room and read the Prospect Guide.
      “Shaddap an’ start simmerin’!!”

      • If could is the standard, Cervelli could hit 20+ HRs this year. I really doubt it though. I said ‘compared to the crappy benches of the last few years, this bench might be better’. I’d even go further and say it should be better, and probably will be better.

        But calling guys who have never really started in the majors ‘starters’, is being too gushing, for me. And the Pirates aren’t better at catcher. We’ll see about third and first too, although it would be pretty improbable for Pedro to stink as bad as Gaby and that giant stiff from the Mets. He doesn’t deserve to have his name mentioned again. Can Harrison repeat last year? I think he can be a plus defender, but hit .315 again like he did last year and almost lead the league?

        Rodriguez is exactly what I said he is, a .225 career hitter. He’s Barmes, with a little less offense, and a little bit lesser glove. He’s better than the drek they served last year. Yay?

    • One thing you need to remember about ’79–that team carried 10 pitchers. It’s a different world today; when you’re carrying twelve or thirteen pitchers, it’s awfully damn difficult to platoon at two or three positions, and you’re just not going to see teams with a bench like the ’79 club (or the ’71 team , for that matter). Given the number of guys you carry today, this is going to be a pretty damn good bench.

      • Off course no one carries only ten pitchers anymore. Men were made of sterner stuff back then, evidently. And they didn’t work out and weren’t in shape like they are today. How in the heck did that happen?

        • These darn kids today are lazy…..last generation was better…..get off my lawn….

        • Men were made of sterner stuff back then, evidently.

          No, there just weren’t as many MLB players back then. With more pitchers being needed to fill MLB rosters, they got more valuable and more protected as a result. It used to be you could overwork whatever pitcher you felt like and when his arm gave out you just replaced him with someone about as good from AAA; today, that guy that used to be in AAA is probably on some other MLB team. So rather than just working pitchers until their bodies gave out, the teams starting protecting their guys more and having more relievers.

        • Relative to today, players back then simply weren’t very good.

          Good pitchers could get by at 75% of their best because that’s all they needed to get hitters out. Today, think about a guy like Justin Verlander who goes from literally the best pitcher in baseball to a mid-rotation starter, at best, in a year’s time.

    • You forgot to mention how cheap Nutting is, too.

    • And Dave Parker signed the first million dollar a year contract. My how times have changed.

    • Remember back in 1979 when batting average mattered?

    • I wouldn’t call the bench bad the last few years. It was at least an average to above average bench. Especially last year with Harrison dominating until he became a starter, Gaby being a dead average option, Barmes and Stewart having solid (For them) hitting years, and Snider dominating once he started playing a lot when Harrison moved to full-time. I would take that bench over half the teams in the league or more.

      • I agree.. a lot of folks refer to the martinez type guys who were brought up when we had three/four guys out with injury.. those aren’t bench players but instead triple AAA depth.. seems it would be difficult to get a quality pro to be willing to start off in the minors

    • Most of the guys you mentioned in this tribute to the 79 Pirates bench – Stargell, Robinson, Stennett, Garner, Madlock – opened the season as starters. Stennett only moved to the bench because he was awful, and he continued to be awful as a bench player.

      Berra was also awful as UT IF and so was Manny Sanguillen, who didn’t do anything but pinch-hit. Matt Alexander was a designated pinch-runner and he did pretty well at that but he was still only a pinch-runner.

      Milner and Lacy were very good bench players and Steve Nicosia had a nice year as backup catcher (even though he was clearly playing over his head that year), and Mike Easler was a good pinch-hitter, but the 79 bench had its weak points, too.

      • Don’t you dare, Andrew…

      • That team top to bottom hit .272 BA / .746 OPS and actually scored more runs (769) during the regular season than the hot hitting Orioles (757).
        The Pirates had a lot of speed on that team (179 Stolen Bases, 3rd in MLB) and had a very high batting average of balls in play (.296). Part of the BABIP is luck, part of it is catching infielders out of position by sending base runners.

      • I guess leading the league in runs makes them not that great, huh? You do realize they didn’t have a DH, like the American League?

        • Yes they were an average to above average hitting team, nowhere near historically great whose run scoring was a product of being the best team on the base paths.

          Not sure what big lessons in roster construction can be gained from a season three years into the history of free agency.

          • Well historically, they did set a team record in 1979 and once held the major league record for intentional walks received by a team in a single season (102). That record is now held by the 2004 San Francisco Giants (154). Barry Bonds had 120 himself that season.

            Imagine how well they would have hit if opposing pitchers would have actually pitched to them.

          • Which points out the importance of the use of team speed, an area where today’s version of the Pirates needs to greatly improve. Given Marte, Polanco, Cutch, J-Hay, heck even Pedro’s speed the Pirates should be better base stealers than what they were last year. Aggressive running of the bases was a point of emphasis for Chuck Tanner. It seems like it’s more of a “yeah, yeah, we do that too..” for Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have been upgrading the players this winter. Who is out there who would be an upgrade to Ric Sofield as the base running Coach? Cutch’s efficiency at not getting caught was great, but his stolen base attempts was pathetically low given his high OBP. He needs to be prodded to be more aggressive. Marte is fast, but not really skilled with his reads. Polanco could be terrific if he can get his OBP up this year. The Pirates need to run, run, run!!!

            • There ought to be a statistic that adds net stolen bases to ISO to capture the effect of the ability of a player to get beyond 1B by himself.

              • Piraddict,

                Not exactly what you want but ISO is calculated this way:

                ISO = SLG – AVE = Extra Bases / At Bats

                I think you would add stolen bases and subtract base position when caught stealing (not attempts caught stealing) to have a useable number. Obviously hitting a double and getting thrown out trying to steal 3rd would be worse than hitting a single and getting thrown out trying to steal 2nd, but there are no “situational” stolen base numbers that I have ever seen.

                Meaning hitting a single and getting thrown out at 2nd subtracts one extra base. Hitting a double and getting thrown out trying to steal 3rd should subtract two extra bases.

                • Thanks Frank! To clean up the math from my original comment I proposed a Self Scoring Position (SSP) as:
                  SSP = (SLG – AVE + SB – CS) / AB
                  I appreciate your thoughts on the variability of damage caused by the circumstances surrounding base running mistakes. But properly accounting for those might be pretty complex. What I am trying to get at, in a simple way, is what indicates how often a player can advance into scoring position on his own efforts (being bunted over to second base shouldn’t count). But perhaps the CS figure should be dropped and a better figure of merit would be:
                  SSP = (SLG – AVE +SB) / AB

                  • Piraddict,

                    SSP = (Doubles + Triples x 2 + Homeruns x 3 + Stolen Bases – Caught Stealing) / At Bats

                    Again, I think to be useful, you need to adjust stolen bases and caught stealing by run expectancy value for each outcome.


                    Based upon 2012 numbers, moving a runner from first to second with no one out gains you 0.215 in run expectancy. Getting caught stealing from first to second subtracts 0.595 in run expectancy. That is why to increase your projected runs scored, you need to be successful about 73-75% of the time stealing bases.

                    • I think you are on to something here Frank:

                      “You could take this really far and use run expectancy for everything. Again based upon 2012 numbers:

                      Increased run expectancy of double versus single (no one out) = 0.215 = RE2B
                      Increased run expectancy of triple versus single (no one out) = 0.819 = RE3B
                      Increased run expectancy of home run versus single (no one out) = 1.00 = REHR
                      Increased run expectancy of successful steal of 2B (no one out) = 0.215 = RESB
                      Decreased run expectancy of caught stealing of 2B (no one out) = -0.595 = RECS

                      SSP = ( 2B x RE2B + 3B x RE3B + HR x REHR + SB x RESB + CS x RECS ) / AB”

                      I really like the overall approach.

                    • Tetrapharmakos
                      January 5, 2015 11:18 am

                      I know I am quite late to the party, but I am pretty certain that what you are looking for is the the “OFF” stat in the fangraphs leaderboard. It combines with weighted run expediencies for hitting (i.e. wOBA) with essentially what you are suggesting here for stolen bases (i.e.wSB – Furthermore, it includes UBR (ultimate base running) which quantifies stretching a double into a triple, advancing on an groundball, etc – UBR and wSB are combined the baserunning stat “BsR”, but each is available for reference. Finally, wOBA and BsR are combined into OFF which is presented as runs above average (E.g. McCutchen was 2nd in the league last year with 51.1 OFF meaning hes was 51.1 runs better than the average hitter). OFF is then combined with the “DEF” stat, also presented as a RAA, to get WAR. It is all there if you know what you are looking for.

                  • I have been playing with run expectancy values a little bit and have wondered whether a double steal with no one out makes sense even if the runner going to 2B is thrown out. Obviously you would not want to do this with a slow guy at 2B.

                    Run Expectancy with man on 1st and 2nd with no one out = 1.442
                    Run Expectancy with a man on 2nd and 3rd with no one out = 1.893

                    Run Expectancy with a man on 3b and one out = 0.898

                    Successful double steal gains = 0.451
                    Failed double steal loses = 0.544

                    Break even rate = -0.544 / ( -0.544 – 0.451 ) = 54.6%

                    The Pirates projected starting lineup next year:
                    Harrison – Career 31 of 42 in SB (73.8%)
                    Polanco – Career 14 of 19 in SB (73.6%)
                    McCutchen – Career 143 of 193 in SB (74%)

                    The double steal is a moderate risk / high reward play. Teams don’t like to give up a potentially big inning, but the numbers show that you only need to be successful about 55% of the time for it to pay off.

            • Despite stealing 107 bases last year (good for 10th in the majors), the 2014 Pirates had a pretty bad success rate (68.9%).

              Your first conclusion might be that Marte gets caught leaning or stops / starts, but that wasn’t the reason for the Pirates low success rate last year. Marte was successful 30 times on 41 attempts (73.2% success rate). And Pedro had pretty good success as well – successful 8 of 11 attempts.

              The culprits last year were Harrison and Polanco – combined 32 for 52 (61.5% success rate).

              During 1979, the Pirates were successful on 73.3% of stolen base attempts. The Royals last year led the majors in stolen bases (153) and were 3rd in success rate (80.95%).

              Here are run expectancy values for 2012:

              The break even point in 2012 for stealing with no outs and a man on first was 73.5%. You needed to be successful at least that often for the averages to start to work in your favor. An increased emphasis on defensive shifts may have altered those league wide numbers for this past season.

              Polanco was a rookie last year and Harrison earned a starting job midseason. Expect spring training for both of them to focus on reading pitchers. Good base stealing instincts are all about knowing a pitcher’s tendencies. The only thing that can build those instincts are experience.

              • Great post! Thanks for the referenced article, I have saved a copy. I think that better coaching all through the Pirates system is in order. A short list of trainable elements:
                -Length of lead
                -cross over for first step
                -what counts to expect an off speed pitch
                -reading the pitcher’s move to the plate
                Hopefully the Pirates should get better in ST, but they really shouldn’t have to, they should have been taught alot of this up through the system.
                Kansas City had a bench spot or two reserved for a speed guy whose job was to come in late in the game and steal a base. Probably skewed their statistics up, which ended up as a good idea.

                • Definitely on the Royals. Watch that Oakland wild card game as an example of what the speed game can do for you. As a side note, Oakland’s starting catcher for that game was Giovanni Soto. I think he got hurt in the 2nd inning and Derrick Norris was brought in. Norris was dead last among qualifying catchers last year in MLB in caught stealing percentage last year (16.7%).

                  Obviously not all catchers are built the same and so again, situation dictates some portion of expected results.

      • Never ever let statistics get in the way of a negative commenter !

  • Tim: Excellent piece, and the Pirates are set to open ST right now. The Pirates very quietly fortified the lineup with some strong professional ballplayers/pitchers. Team salary is right at $90 mil which is only about a 10% increase over the average for 2014. We are good, but I am not sure we can say we are equal with the Cardinals; the Brewers may find a way to play for the whole 6 months in 2015; Cincy may wake up after taking a year off; and Chicago will get better much faster. Is it the right time to take that next step?

    Buon Natale.

    • Buon Natale sounds like an International Signing Prospect. 🙂

    • Pencil Cincy in for last place, and no big shock there. Can’t see that team seriously competing especially as they continue to trade away from their rotation.

      • Only if you expect Matt Latos to regain those two mph on his fastball and Simon to continue pitching over a run better than his peripherals.

        • Regardless, pencil Cincy in for last place in the division. Check back and let me know how that prediction goes.

  • Great piece . Gave me a great deal of clarity and cleared up confusion I had as to the purpose of some moves. It feels like very accurate perspective on what the strategy has been and even potential motives.

  • Happy,happy,joy,joy! So many options, it’s gotta feel like an early christmas for hurdle and the gang. One other note, with the way hart’s contract is structured I would not be surprised to see an infielder moved. Most likely candidates are either pedro or walker so they will probably trade

    • Don’t really think that Hart’s contract is cause for a trade of Alvarez or Walker. You could argue that if Kang turns out to be something, it could cause movement in the infield. Otherwise, I would imagine that Walker and Alvarez will be moved the moment that Hanson and Bell are (hopefully!!!) ready. Unless the Pirates get suckered into an unnecessary Walker extension.

      • Agree…I’m still not sure Hart has anything left.

        And I DEFINITELY agree with your last sentence!

        • Signing Hart is the type of high risk/high reward move the Pirates can take. If he doesn’t work out, they are not saddled with a unmovable, salary eating long term contract. If he does work out, he could be the one player who could hit in the 4-hole.

    • Maybe its me but I just feel like the Bucs are making moves this year with the purpose of going all the way. I didn’t feel that way last year. I really am looking forward to seeing this team play.