I wrote earlier in the week that the Pirates had two major problems so far in April. They were not only one of the worst offensive groups, but they were the worst defensive group by several factors. This led to the utility players getting a lot of blame for not being the saviors of both problems. The Pirates have recalled a few players who have helped out, with Jose Osuna helping on offense but not defense, and Gift Ngoepe expected to only help on defense, but adding some offense in his debut.
The Pirates don’t really have a player right now who can step up and help both problems. The best solution this year will be Austin Meadows, although he’s not ready with the bat just yet, and the hope is that he would be ready to arrive sometime around mid-season or earlier. Until then, the Pirates still have questions with their hitting and defense, and no easy answers.
I wrote about the offense on Wednesday, noting how much has gone wrong for the team. Their top two hitters from 2016 are on the restricted list. Five of their other starters are playing below their career numbers. The best two hitters this year are injured. That’s nine of their best players who are either out, or slumping in the first month of the season. The obvious thing that would help here is getting David Freese and Adam Frazier back healthy, while also seeing most of the lineup return to their career numbers.
But that still leaves questions about the defense, and I’m not sure the solution here is as easy as “wait until everyone starts playing like they normally do.”
No More Offense to Sacrifice
The Pirates traded Neil Walker away prior to the 2016 season, and in turn they gave Josh Harrison the starting second base job. The Walker trade was a bad one due to the return, but the strategy of switching to Harrison wasn’t a bad move.
The Pirates lost some offense in switching from Walker to Harrison, but they didn’t miss that as much. The team ranked 6th in the NL in wOBA last year, and 3rd in wRC+. Meanwhile, the defense was worse, but did receive a boost from Harrison. He ranked second in the NL in both Defensive Runs Saved and Plus/Minus out of all second basemen. The Pirates sacrificed offense — a quiet strength of their team — and added to their biggest weakness.
Unfortunately, you can only make that trade so many times, and it becomes even more difficult when two of your top defenders are out.
Jung Ho Kang provided positive defensive value in 2015 at third base, although he declined in 2016. It’s hard to say if that was due to his knee injury or due to a small sample size. David Freese did well defensive at third base last year, so when he is healthy he could provide a solid replacement. But that creates a different problem.
Freese was partially used last year at first base. He was new to the position, but surprisingly had some of the best defense out of all of the options the Pirates had. They have Josh Bell as their primary first baseman, although his defense is poor. Freese provides them better defense, especially when a lefty is on the mound, and a late inning option. Now that Kang is out, Freese is limited to third base when healthy, leading to John Jaso or Phil Gosselin as the defensive replacement — both providing a downgrade in offensive skills.
The other big defensive issue comes with Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates moved him to right field, switching Starling Marte to center field. That was the correct move, as McCutchen was the worst defensive center fielder in baseball last year, and has seen a downward trend with his defense and speed over the last four or five years. Now that Marte is out, McCutchen is back in center field, and the Pirates have poor defense in right field. Jose Osuna has been the main beneficiary of that situation, getting four of the last six starts in right field. While he has provided some offense, with a .759 OPS, his defense has struggled.
The Pirates entered the season looking like they might have to big liabilities on defense with Bell at first base and McCutchen in center field. They reduced the liability by moving McCutchen to right field, and the Bell situation was going to be partially reduced by Freese. With Kang and Marte out, the Pirates are now back to the situation of having Bell in there full time with no good replacements, and McCutchen in center field full time. What is worse is that they have a third position that is struggling, with right field being another liability. And with their offensive issues, they don’t have any extra offense to sacrifice in favor of defense, like they did when they swapped out Walker for Harrison.
More Slumping Players
I don’t like to make much of defensive stats over a partial season. Most defensive stats, especially the advanced metrics, are best when used over a large sample of playing time. So using one month of defensive stats really doesn’t tell much. That said, here are a few situations to watch.
**Francisco Cervelli currently has four errors behind the plate, after having just seven in each of the last two years. He’s also not throwing out runners at the same pace, although this is probably more of a Tyler Glasnow issue.
**Jordy Mercer had a 2.0 UZR/150 in 2015, which was in line with his earlier career production. He slumped down to -10.1 in 2016, which really hurts because shortstop is one of the positions where the Pirates sacrifice offense for defense. This year he is at -0.4, which is an improvement over 2016, but still not up to the standards of 2015 or earlier.
**The outfield realignment was working out pretty well. Andrew McCutchen had a -23.2 UZR/150 in center field last year, marking his third straight year with negative value, and fourth in his last five seasons. He was at -2.6 UZR/150 and 1 DRS in his short time in right field, which is a big improvement over his -28 DRS in center field last year. He is already at -2 DRS since moving back to center field.
Gregory Polanco’s move to left field has gone well so far. He had a 7.5 and 8.4 UZR/150 the last two years in right field, and is at 10.0 in a small sample size in 2017 in left field. That lines up with his previous time in left, although the combined time only amounts to 392.2 innings.
Starling Marte was actually seeing a bit of a decline in his value in center field, putting up a -3 DRS early in the season. But Marte is preferred to the current right field situation, where Jose Osuna, Adam Frazier, and John Jaso have combined for -4 DRS so far.
Playing As Expected or Better
Unlike the offense, not everything is going wrong for the defense. Here is a rundown of the players who are performing as expected.
**Josh Harrison continues to put up strong defense at second base, with a 32.2 UZR/150. I don’t expect him to continue at this pace, since he was at 2.4 last year. But he continues putting up positive value.
**You don’t want Josh Bell playing as expected, and the good thing is that he isn’t doing that so far. He’s actually showing better signs on defense this year. It’s still rough, and he’s still going to provide negative value. But consider that he had a -32.8 UZR/150 last year in 150 innings, and has a -1.0 this year in 125 innings. Both small sample sizes, but you hope he continues playing closer to the 2017 results going forward.
**As mentioned above, the outfield alignment was working well until Starling Marte went down.
How Can the Defense Improve?
Much like the offensive situation, the defense is really hurt by the loss of Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang. There are some players who are performing as expected, and not many performing below expectations.
What really hurts the Pirates here is the strategy. They built a situation where the team had two position players who were weak defensively, and countered that with a few positions where they were sacrificing offense for defense. It’s not a bad plan if everyone stays healthy and productive. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. They have created a balancing act where the loss or slump from a few players can greatly tip the scales, and the scales have been greatly tipped this year in a bad way.
I don’t think there’s much the Pirates can do about this issue in 2017. They tried dealing Andrew McCutchen over the offseason, but couldn’t pull off a deal. Eventually, he will be replaced by Austin Meadows, who projects to have better defense, while having a chance at good hitting skills in the majors.
Josh Bell is the starting first baseman, so the hope at that position is that he continues to improve, and looks closer in the short-term to his small sample in 2017 than his small sample in 2016. Some have suggested putting Jose Osuna at first base, although Osuna isn’t a great upgrade over Bell, and any value he has would be negated by Bell moving back to the outfield.
On the flip side of this, it would help if the Pirates can eventually find players who can play solid offense and defense at places like second base and shortstop. I think they have those types of players in the system, but they’re currently in Altoona. Kevin Newman projects as a better version of Jordy Mercer on defense, with the chance for more offense. Kevin Kramer has shown good defense in his move to second base, and is showing signs of the start of a breakout year at the plate. Unfortunately, they don’t project to be ready until the middle of 2018.
For the short-term, the Pirates are stuck in this situation, and you have to lay the proper blame on Neal Huntington for constructing a team with some glaring defensive weaknesses. It’s not exactly easy to find guys at every position who can play both offense and defense, but if you want to contend, you’re leaving little room for error with the current weaknesses on this team. And the situations with Kang and Marte removed any room for error on either side of the ball.
The hope is that this all improves in the long-term, with players coming up from the farm system who may be able to help give the Pirates a more balanced team. That puts a big focus on the development of Meadows, Newman, and Kramer, while also hoping that Bell can show improvements at first base. Relying on all of this to happen is risky, and the Pirates would be well served to find some backup plans in the form of trades or free agency next year, so they’re not fully relying on prospects and non-guaranteed improvements.