The off-season plan for the Pirates feels far from complete. They made a big move this week in trading away Neil Walker for Jon Niese, adding another ground ball pitcher to the staff, and making a big change at second base. Beyond that, they could still add another starter, will probably trade Mark Melancon, should definitely add a first base option, and there are plenty of possible scenarios beyond this.
Since we’re so early in the off-season, it’s impossible to say for sure how things will shape up, and how the team projects to perform. That said, one thing seems to be coming into focus after the departures of Walker and Alvarez.
It may not be by design, but the Pirates are set to see an upgrade to their infield defense with the loss of Walker and Alvarez. They project to have Jung-ho Kang and Jordy Mercer at third base and shortstop. Kang rated 11th in DRS and 13th in UZR/150 last year at third base out of 31 qualified players. Mercer ranked 14th and 12th respectively out of 31 qualified players. The 31 was a coincidence in an attempt to get the list as close to 30 players as possible.
The results were worse at second and first. Neil Walker ranked 21st and 30th out of 32 qualified players at second base, and unlike the other positions, he had negative value in each stat. And Pedro Alvarez ranked last in each category at first base.
Josh Harrison is already announced as the replacement for Walker at second base, and this will provide a defensive upgrade. Walker had a career -6.4 UZR/150 rating, and was in the -8.6 range the last two years. Harrison has a 1.6 UZR/150 at second, with positive value the last three years. This comes with the disclaimer that he has a total of 605.2 innings at second, so we’re dealing with about half a season of results. That’s not reliable data, but other metrics, including Defensive Runs Saved and Plus/Minus, also give him positive ratings in this short time. It looks like the Pirates have a good chance to upgrade defensively here.
At first base, the Pirates could put pretty much anyone at the position and see an upgrade. That includes the water cooler that Sean Rodriguez beat up in the Wild Card game, assuming it doesn’t start the year on the disabled list. You know what? Even if it does start the year on the DL, we’ll assume the defense will be upgraded.
The Pirates will have an improved infield defense, and that is a great thing for a pitching staff that will probably lead all of baseball in ground ball percentage for the fourth year in a row. Out of the 113 starters with 120+ innings last year, their current rotation includes the 5th (Charlie Morton), 10th (Jon Niese), 23rd (Francisco Liriano), 26th (Jeff Locke), and 37th (Gerrit Cole) best ground ball rates. Assuming that stays the same (probably unlikely) or assuming they replace one of these guys with another good ground ball pitcher (historically likely, if they add another pitcher), then the upgraded infield defensive will provide a huge boost to the team and the pitching staff.
There’s one problem with this approach, and that comes on offense. At the start of the off-season, I talked about how the Pirates are going to have a specific challenge this year finding upgrades. There aren’t many positions on the team that were huge holes, which means they have the challenge of replacing good players with the right players who are better fits for the team. In this case, Harrison and “Inevitably Better at Defense Than Alvarez” are much better fits on defense. The problem is that the Pirates are losing offense in this exchange.
Walker has been one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball the last few years. I’d throw out his 2014 season, because I don’t think he will repeat those numbers, but his other seasons are fairly consistent and pretty strong. Last year he posted a .269/.328/.427 line in 603 plate appearances, with a .325 wOBA and a 108 wRC+. That’s in line with his normal performance.
Harrison had a great year in 2014, but I also don’t think that will be repeated. He posted a .287/.327/.390 line last year, with a .313 wOBA and a 100 wRC+. I think that’s more likely to happen again. That would represent a drop in production from Walker though.
The Pirates might also see a big drop in production from Pedro Alvarez to his replacement. For all of the defensive criticism I’ve given him in this article, Alvarez had a huge year offensively. He had a .243/.318/.469 line, a .333 wOBA, and a 114 wRC+.
Between Walker and Alvarez, the Pirates are losing a lot of offense. The problem with the current team is that it’s difficult to see where that offense could be made up. You hope that Francisco Cervelli and Jung-ho Kang perform as well as they did in 2015, but you couldn’t realistically expect more than what they put up. Jordy Mercer has been inconsistent offensively, and I don’t think you can expect an upgrade there.
Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen didn’t have their best offensive years last year. Marte had a .337 wOBA, which was down from .358 and .344 the previous two seasons. McCutchen posted a .380 wOBA, after being in the .393-412 range the previous three years. So you might get some kind of upgrade here, but those two already had strong numbers, and I don’t think you can bank on anything more than last year (you can certainly hope for it, though).
There’s a chance that the first base addition could help out offensively. The Pirates have been connected to Mike Napoli and Mitch Moreland the most this off-season. Both have been strong defenders at first base, but neither looks to match the offense from Alvarez. Napoli had a .321 wOBA last year and a 98 wRC+. That’s down from his previous seasons, but it’s also possible he could be on the downswing of his career at the age of 34. Moreland had a career year last year, with a .348 wOBA and a 115 wRC+. If you knew you were getting this, then you’d trade for him instantly and have a massive upgrade over Alvarez. But his history suggests he might not repeat this, with a career .329 wOBA and a 101 wRC+.
If you read the article title, then you’re probably expecting this next part, a thousand words later. The area where the Pirates could see the biggest improvement offensively — enough to make up for the loss of Walker and Alvarez — is in right field with Gregory Polanco.
Last year was Polanco’s first full season in pro ball. He finished with a .256/.320/.381 line in 652 plate appearances, along with a .304 wOBA and a 94 wRC+. Polanco did show some improvements in the second half. He had a .276/.324/.425 line, a .324 wOBA and a 108 wRC+. He was great in July and August, but saw a bit of a decline in September. That could have been chalked up to poor luck, as he had one of the best hard hit rates that month, and it seemed like every hard hit ball he had went directly to a fielder, including the Wild Card game. His hard hit rate was above 30% in each of the last three months, after being at 27.7% the first half of the season. Despite this trend continuing in September, he saw a drop off with his numbers.
I could see a breakout from Polanco this year. So far, the only projections on him are Steamer, with a .316 wOBA and a 103 wRC+, although ZiPS comes out shortly and has always been higher on him than other projections, so that will be interesting to see. If he can repeat his second half numbers, putting up a wOBA in the .325 range, that would go a long way to replacing Walker and Alvarez.
The Pirates last year had Alvarez at a .333 wOBA, Walker at .325, and Polanco at .304. Let’s say they get .313 from Harrison, and .320 from whichever first baseman they add. I think the latter number is fair, since it matches the projections for Napoli and Moreland for the 2016 season, while still allowing for plenty of upside with either player (Napoli returning to his pre-2015 numbers and Moreland repeating his 2015 season).
Converting the 2015 Alvarez, Walker, and Polanco wOBA numbers into wRC, we get a total of 198.46 wRC. Assuming everyone else stays the same, that’s the figure the Pirates would need from their new first baseman, Harrison, and Polanco.
If we use the .313 for Harrison and .320 for the first baseman, then Polanco would need a .328 wOBA next year in order to make up for the drop in production at first and second base.
If Polanco can repeat his strong second half, and carry that over to the 2016 season, then the Pirates will be fine on offense, and a much better team overall. They’ll see big upgrades on the right side of their infield, which is extremely important due to their ground ball approach. They’ll see a decline in offense from those two positions, but Polanco’s improvements would make up for that, leading to the same overall team offense from last year, along with much better defense.
Obviously there are a lot of other moving parts on the team. Maybe Kang and Cervelli take a step back. Maybe Marte and McCutchen bounce back to their previously higher numbers to make up for that. And then there are all of the defensive considerations, all of the pitching considerations, and every other factor which makes up a team’s overall record. But the big concern with the current off-season status is that the Pirates will lose a lot of offense from replacing Walker and Alvarez. If they are able to bring in a first baseman like Napoli or Moreland, and if Polanco repeats his second half success, then that drop in offense at those two positions will be negated.
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**Pirates Sign Pitcher Juan Nicasio. I like this move. It’s a better version of Arquimedes Caminero. If he repeats last year’s results, then you’ve got a strong middle reliever who can throw multiple innings. If he improves his control, you’ve got a late inning guy. And the Pirates are pretty good about fixing control problems.
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**Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Rule 5 Draft Results. The Pirates lost one of their recent minor league free agent signings, and a few lower level minor leaguers in the Triple-A phase, while picking up an organizational shortstop.