A few weeks ago I wrote about how Gregory Polanco is the key to the offense for the 2016 season. The main point of the article was that the Pirates were expected to see an offensive downgrade at first and second base with the departures of Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, and that improvement from Polanco (which was seen in the second half) would help to off-set that. Add in the improved defense in the infield, and the Pirates could be a better team if Polanco’s second half improvements are for real.
The Pirates were already going with Josh Harrison at second base at the time of the article, but one thing that was missing was the first base position. That has now been filled with the addition of John Jaso, giving the Pirates their left-handed hitting first baseman to pair with either Michael Morse or Jason Rogers. I wanted to revisit that article again, just to get an updated total of where the offensive comparison stands.
Last time around, I used wOBA and projected plate appearances to get a wRC total. I’ll do the same this time around.
The projections for Walker and Alvarez (using their 2015 seasons) remain the same. Alvarez had a .333 wOBA in 491 plate appearances. Walker was at a .325 wOBA in 603 plate appearances. Combined, their numbers amounted to 133.75 wRC.
I went a simple way with Jaso and Harrison. I gave them the same playing time as above, and used their 2015 wOBA figures, with the exception of Jaso. I used his career totals, since his 2015 figures were inflated beyond the career numbers. The result was a .313 wOBA from Harrison and a .342 wOBA from Jaso. And that combined for a 131.59 wRC. Basically about the same as Walker and Alvarez, with very little improved production needed from Polanco to make up for the difference.
There are some disclaimers here. First of all, Harrison has never gone beyond 550 plate appearances in a season, so chalking him up for 603 in 2016 doesn’t seem realistic. That said, his 2015 wOBA is actually ten points lower than his career figures, so that might off-set the playing time. You don’t see much of a drop at all using 550 plate appearances and his career figures.
Then there’s the fact that Jaso has never received just shy of 500 plate appearances in his MLB career. The closest he came was in 2010 with 404. His injury history has prevented the extra playing time, along with his work behind the plate. That could all change with his move to first base. The injury history, lack of individual season playing time, and the high offense kind of remind me of Francisco Cervelli last year. The biggest question here is can he stay healthy, and can he keep the offensive production up over a full season as a starter. First base should help with the health.
Finally, there’s the issue of the bench production. In the Walker/Alvarez comparison, Harrison would be a utility player on the bench. The only known utility player the Pirates have right now is Sean Rodriguez. But I don’t think Harrison is being replaced by Rodriguez. The Pirates had Rodriguez last year, and always had a better utility guy in addition to him. I could see Jason Rogers filling that role, or maybe Alen Hanson if they want someone else who can play the middle infield spots. In either case, I think the player can replicate Harrison’s numbers off the bench, at least to the point where Polanco could easily make up the difference.
As for Polanco making up the difference, I covered why I think he’ll break out in the last article. I don’t know if we’ll see Andrew McCutchen/Starling Marte numbers from him next year, but he only needs a slight improvement at this point to help upgrade the entire team offensively.
The Pirates don’t have the power that they saw with Alvarez and Walker. In place of that lost power, they see a massive spike in OBP, along with better defense (Jaso is far from guaranteed to be a good defender, but I like the track record and the idea of moving a former catcher to first base).
Looking at the numbers right now, the Pirates look like they could have a better offense on paper with their current team than with Walker and Alvarez. The one final disclaimer I will bring up is that the new team is favorably compared in large part due to John Jaso, who will be in a platoon role. We’ve seen a lot of cases the last few years where the Pirates had MVP production from their platoon guys on paper, based on the career numbers, only to see one or both players fail to live up to those numbers. It has worked in some cases, and you hope that Jaso will be one of those cases. But for whatever reason, a platoon doesn’t always work out in reality as well as it does on paper, and that’s something to consider here (although Alvarez and Walker were both being used in platoons, so they’d be subject to the same uncertainty).
The biggest question mark after Alvarez and Walker left was the offense. That appears to have been fixed, although with a much different offensive approach than the Pirates had last year. And the best part is that they’ve got this new offense with just a $95 M payroll, leaving room for a starting pitching upgrade to the rotation, which is needed since Ryan Vogelsong doesn’t look like a guy you want in the current rotation.
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**Pirates Sign John Jaso to Two-Year Contract. Full analysis of the move here.
**Clario Perez Suspended 80 Games. The Pirates brought him back as a minor league free agent this year to pitch out of the Double-A bullpen, but it doesn’t appear he will be doing much of that for the first half of the year.
**Pirates Claim Yoervis Medina Off Waivers, LaFromboise Claimed by the Angels. The other transactions of the day, with a very interesting bullpen arm added. Full analysis in the link.