For the last two years on New Year’s Eve, I’ve written about the boom or bust players who could make a difference for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the upcoming season. The 2013 group included players like Francisco Liriano, Starling Marte, and Mark Melancon. The 2014 group had guys like Jordy Mercer, Travis Snider, and Edinson Volquez. All of those guys helped the Pirates making the playoffs two years in a row.
The 2013 article was titled 13 Boom or Bust Players Who Could Make a Difference in 2013. Continuing with that trend, the 2014 article was called 14 Boom or Bust Pirates Who Could Make a Difference in 2014.
When I started writing the 2015 article, my initial thought was that there wouldn’t be 15 players who qualified as “boom or bust” candidates. But then I started counting them, and quickly got to double digits. I put a few on here who are marginal — maybe there’s not a big chance for a boom — and got the list to 15. But the list is different this year.
The Pirates needed Francisco Liriano to work out as a top of the rotation guy in order to compete in 2013. They needed the production that Edinson Volquez brought in 2014. They took a risk with each guy, and it paid off. The 2015 team doesn’t need as many risks to work out in order to be a strong team. A lot of the guys on this “boom or bust” list are guys coming off the bench, or back of the rotation starters, or middle relievers. The starting position players factor into first base and right field. Those have been problem areas for the Pirates the last two years, and yet the Pirates have made the playoffs each season.
Considering the rest of their roster, I don’t think they need production from first base and right field to contend. If they get that production? Then you’re talking about going from a contender to a team that could be set to make a run for it all. And that’s the theme this year. The boom or bust guys aren’t trying to make the Pirates contenders. The Pirates are already contenders without them. The boom or bust guys this time around look to be taking the Pirates to the next level, by putting them over the top. Let’s proceed with the list, starting with the pitchers.
Vance Worley – Worley represents a common theme on this year’s list. He had great results last year, but they came in a small sample size, and followed a trend in his career where he struggled. This casts doubt on whether he can repeat those numbers going forward. I think he can. His xFIP numbers were in line with where he was at prior to his injury in 2012. That injury threw off his mechanics, and he didn’t get back on track until joining the Pirates. Now that he’s back to his old mechanics, he looks like the pre-injury pitcher, with no reason to think that his poor numbers in 2013 were anything other than injury related. If that is the case, then Worley will be an outstanding fifth starter.
Jeff Locke – In 2013 he had a great first half, and a horrible second half. The first half looked lucky, and his second half struggles were predictable. Locke got another shot at the rotation in 2014, and once again looked great in the first half. His numbers this time looked legit, with no signs of regression. However, things fell apart in the second half once again. This raises the question of whether he can have success over an entire season. The Pirates should start with him and Worley in the rotation, until Charlie Morton returns from the DL (I didn’t include Morton on here, although he could be boom or bust based on his health). Even if Locke doesn’t stay in the rotation when Morton returns, he will eventually get another shot at some point during the 2015 season. The Pirates will need first half Locke more than second half Locke.
Jameson Taillon – The starting rotation looks strong at the top with Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and A.J. Burnett. The back of the rotation has good options in Morton, Worley, and Locke. If enough people stay healthy and productive, then the Pirates could be in a situation where they don’t need to rely on Taillon, who is returning from Tommy John surgery. I think Taillon has a chance to make it to the majors this year, although I doubt he pitches into September and October, since the Pirates could go with a common approach around baseball and limit his innings the year following his injury.
Nick Kingham – Kingham is in a similar situation to Taillon in terms of playing time. However, if a spot opens in the rotation, he would be in better position to take that spot and play all season. He enters the 2015 season with more time in Triple-A than Taillon, and isn’t coming off a major injury that would limit him later in the year. Taillon has more upside, but Kingham projects to be a solid middle of the rotation starter one day, and wouldn’t be a bad option as a mid-season replacement. You could also make similar arguments here for Adrian Sampson, although I think Kingham has more “boom” potential.
Radhames Liz – The Pirates need middle relief help. The Pirates have done an outstanding job grabbing pitchers with zero value and turning them into pitchers who are key contributors. At this point, would anyone be surprised if Liz becomes a dominant reliever in the majors for the Pirates? The reports on him out of the Dominican Republic were strong, and the reports we heard were from people outside of the Pirates’ organization. He’s got outstanding stuff, and will be throwing in a low pressure role. That’s a great situation for any reclamation project.
John Holdzkom – Holdzkom put up outstanding numbers in a very limited time last year, and was one of the top stories in baseball due to the fact that he started the year in indy ball, and finished pitching in the Wild Card game. He’s got the stuff to be a late inning reliever and future closer. It’s still too early to say whether his numbers last year were legit. If they are, then the Pirates have a strong seventh inning man, adding to their combo of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, who were two of the best relievers in baseball last year. If Liz also works out, then that’s a dominant, hard-throwing bullpen that can shorten games.
Stolmy Pimentel – This is a personal choice, which comes with the disclaimer that I don’t think Pimentel will get the chance to break out with the Pirates. Last year was the year to see what he could do in the majors. Instead, the Pirates treated him like a Rule 5 pick, despite a lot of praise from pitching coach Ray Searage. This time around the bullpen is more crowded. Holdzkom and Liz should each get spots. Antonio Bastardo will get the fifth spot. One of Locke or Worley will take a spot when Charlie Morton returns. Then there’s Jared Hughes, who definitely earned a spot last year. Pimentel might get a spot at the start of the year, but could be squeezed off the roster a few weeks later when Morton returns. If the Pirates gave him a shot — a real shot where he pitches more than once a week in blowouts — then I think he could be a solid reliever and a future closer. I just don’t see them giving him that shot, especially when it didn’t come last year under the same circumstances.
Francisco Cervelli – The biggest loss for the Pirates this off-season was the departure of Russell Martin. That comes two years after the Pirates were criticized for valuing Martin much higher than anyone else in the league. Is it possible that two years later, they’ve found another gem? There are numbers you can dream about with Cervelli. He had an .802 OPS last year, and an .877 OPS in 2013. However, those came with small sample sizes, with the 2013 figure coming in just 61 plate appearances. If you want a bigger sample, he has a .729 OPS in 785 career plate appearances. That’s about what you can expect from Martin in a non-career year. The defense is solid, with better pitch framing skills than Martin, worse blocking and throwing, but highly praised game calling. I’d say Martin is the better defender, but Cervelli is good. A big question is whether he can stay healthy as a starter. If he can do that, and if he can put up his career numbers or better on offense, with his usual strong defense, then the Pirates won’t miss Russell Martin at all.
Josh Harrison – I hesitated in putting Harrison on this list, since he definitely had a “boom” season in 2014 (even though he didn’t look like one of the candidates last year at this time). The thing about that strong 2014 season is that it came in 550 plate appearances. His career up to that point consisted of 575 plate appearances where he looked like a marginal MLB bench player at best. So which one is the real deal? Did something actually click for Harrison in 2014 that will carry over to future years? Or did he just have a career year, only to decline going forward? I don’t think you’re too optimistic to think he can be a starter. I don’t think you’re too pessimistic to think he’ll revert to a bench player. But expecting his 2014 numbers again might be too much. I’m not saying it’s impossible, and that’s why I’ve got him on the list. The fact that he could reasonably be anything from a bench player to a star player makes him the definition of “boom or bust.”
Pedro Alvarez – He had a horrible year on both sides of the ball in 2014. The Pirates are moving him to first base in 2015, eliminating the throwing issues from third base. Perhaps that can allow him to regain the power he had in 2012/13, which disappeared in 2014. Alvarez has one year to bounce back, as I can’t see him sticking around with the Pirates in 2016, coming off another bad year, and due for another raise in arbitration. The Pirates had one of the best offenses in the game without his production last year. Imagine if they get the 30+ homer per year Alvarez back.
Corey Hart – The backup plan for Alvarez, and likely platoon partner, is Corey Hart. He was a great all around player as recently as 2012, but injuries have derailed his career. He struggled last year, both with injuries and from a performance standpoint. It seems like a long shot, but if he can get healthy, he might have a chance to get back to being a strong everyday option. That would either put pressure on Alvarez, or provide the Pirates with a replacement for Alvarez.
Jung-Ho Kang – Perhaps the biggest profile “boom or bust” case is going to be Kang, assuming he signs (which I think he will). He’ll be high-profile not just because of the impact he can make in 2015, but because of the domino effect he could have for the makeup of future Pirates teams. There’s also the fact that he’s the first hitter making the jump from the KBO. If Kang does work out, he could be an option for almost any infield position. The reports don’t seem strong on him being an option at shortstop, but he could replace Harrison or Alvarez if either struggle, or replace Neil Walker if he gets injured.
Sean Rodriguez – In 2010/11, Rodriguez was a 2.0 WAR player. He struggled defensively last year, while seeing a drop in his power and OBP. That followed two years where he put up an 0.7 and 1.1 WAR. Obviously the Pirates are banking on a bounce back here, since they not only took on his $2 M projected salary, but also traded a promising pitching prospect in Buddy Borden to get him. If he bounces back to the 2012/13 production, the trade would have value. But the idea that he could possibly bounce back to the 2010/11 version puts him on this list, and makes him a strong backup option for Neil Walker at second.
Gregory Polanco – Polanco was on this list last year, as he was expected to make the jump to the majors and claim the right field position for good. He made the jump, but struggled in his debut in the majors. That’s similar to the situation the Pirates had with Starling Marte, who under-performed with a .737 OPS in his debut in 2012, before breaking out with a .784 OPS/4.6 WAR in 2013, and an .808 OPS/4.1 WAR in 2014. Polanco was worse than Marte in his debut, putting up a .650 OPS. That doesn’t mean he’s not still a breakout candidate. He’s got the potential to be the best outfielder the Pirates have, even when you include Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates will make him the starter on Opening Day, giving him another shot to reach his upside in the majors.
Travis Snider – Last year Snider started hitting when Polanco arrived in the majors. When Polanco struggled, Snider continued hitting. At the start of the year it looked like the Pirates would need Polanco to replace Snider and provide production in right field. It ended up that Snider was the one who saved the day. He’ll be a fourth outfielder at the start of the season, and will once again be there if Polanco struggles. He’ll also be there if (when) Starling Marte gets injured (probably after getting hit with a pitch), or if Andrew McCutchen goes down for any amount of time. Snider was always a top prospect, and if he has a huge season this year, we’ll look back at the second half of the 2014 season as the time when he started putting it all together, rather than just a fortunate stretch of hitting.