Around the League in 30 Days: Pittsburgh Pirates
By Wil Glavin
Sorry Pirates fans, but with the way the Pirates’ 2nd half of last season went (19-39 in final 58 games), they have to be my choice for 4th place in this new NL Central. Choosing the NL Central’s 4th place team was a lot harder than choosing its 5th place team (which I did without even looking at rosters or stats). The Pirates had a very promising year last season, and for a while, it seemed as if Pittsburgh was going to play in their first Postseason game since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 65th Academy Awards (they made their last postseason in 1992 for you non-movie buffs). However, after the All-Star break, this was a different team. Don’t believe me? Ask 1st half star starting pitcher James McDonald. His 1st half record was 9-3 with an ERA of 2.37 and a WHIP of 0.97, but his ERA and WHIP in the 2nd half of the season were 7.52 and 1.79, respectively, in 12 starts (miraculously, he had a record of 3-5 during the 2nd half of the season). While McDonald takes a lot of the blame, if you need a theme for why the Pirates will come in 4th in the NL Central, the reason is simply, pitching (starters and relievers, but especially relievers, who had a 5.46 ERA in September). Last year’s Pirates went 79-83. Will they improve this year?
Here is a look at the Pirates’ 2013 projected opening day depth chart:
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
SS: Clint Barmes
3B: Pedro Alvarez
OF: Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider (there are a lot of OFs competing for LF and RF)
Bench: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Josh Harrison, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley
SP: A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano
RP: Jason Grilli (closer), Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Mike Zagurski, Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris
Let us start with the positive for this Pirate team—Hitting. Statistically, last season, Pittsburgh finished outside of the top 20 teams in the MLB in runs scored, batting average, and on base percentage, but with Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez entering their primes, Rod “fantasy killer” Barajas replaced at catcher, and a ton of outfield depth, I am willing to put my reputation on the line and guarantee that this team hits better in 2013 than they did in 2012.
For starters, newcomer Russell Martin will try his luck back in the NL, after spending his past two years as a New York Yankee. While Rod Barajas was probably the worst starting catcher in the MLB last season (.206 Avg, .283 OBP, and more strikeouts than hits 69-66), Russell Martin was not so great himself. His batting average has lowered in each of the past six seasons! I could not believe my eyes when I saw that stat, but sure enough in 2007, he hit .293, and then .280, then .250, .248, .237, and finally .211 in 2012. There are positives though. He hit 21 HRs in 2012 (granted, in a very easy stadium to do so, Yankee Stadium). He is a solid signal-caller (in other words, pitchers like throwing to him), and he is a 30 year-old veteran who has postseason experience, which is hard to find on this Pirate team, who has not been to the Postseason since George H. W. Bush was President. In case Martin is on pace to lower his batting average for the six straight year, they have a capable backup, who will be discussed later.
Garrett Jones is the starting 1B for this squad. It is the age-old tale of lefty-righty splits for the left-handed hitting Mr. Jones. In 401 ABs against righties, he hit .289 with 25 HRs, but in 74 ABs against lefties, he hit .189 with 2 HRs. You may say to yourself, Jones is not getting enough at-bats against lefties, my response—there is a reason that Manager Clint Hurdle enjoys sitting Jones against lefties, and also, have you ever seen Garrett try to hit lefties? It is less than pretty. I am being too hard on this stud of a hitter (.274 with 27 HRs and 86 RBIs), but because of his lefty troubles, I do not see him getting enough at-bats to top his 2012 HR total. Expect 25 HRs and a batting average closer to his career average of .259.
2B Neil Walker oozes consistency. His stats are exactly what you want from a pretty good 2nd baseman. In the past three years, his average has been between .270 and .300 (career Avg. .280), his home run totals have been between 12 and 15 and RBI totals between 65 and 85 (which is generally near the top for 2B, 5th last year with 69). He was slightly limited by a dislocated finger and a herniated disk in 2012, but a now healthy Walker should finish 2013 with a .290 Avg., 17 HRs, and 75 RBIs (I expect a slight uptick in ABs due to clean bill of health and a lot of productive hitters in the lineup will lead to higher totals).
Now we move on to the first major problem position for the Bucs—Shortstop, Clint Barmes. He has not had a good offensive season since 2009 (he hit 23 HRs and had 76 RBIs). While he is still a great defensive shortstop, expecting good offensive numbers from Clint will leave you disappointed. He has not hit .250 in the last three years, nor has he hit more than 12 HRs in any of the last three seasons. I do not expect Barmes to be the Pirates’ starting shortstop all season, and he should max out at 10 HRs. His .272 OBP in 2012 is a major red flag, so he better enjoy starting on opening day, because it will be the last year he ever starts for a team on opening day for the rest of his declining career.
Now we move to the man who is probably Pittsburgh’s 2nd best hitter, 3B Pedro Alvarez. In his first season with 500 ABs, Alvarez hit 30 HRs with 85 RBIs, showing that he truly deserved to be the 2nd pick in the 2008 MLB draft. A .237 career avg. (including .244 last year) is an issue for this man with sky-high potential, but he is only going to get better at his age (26). Barring an injury, be surprised if he hits under 33 HRs or has fewer than 90 RBIs, and hopefully he can hit .260, but that may be asking too much.
24 year-old Starling Marte, who spent the 2nd half of 2012 in the majors (his first MLB experience), is projected to start in LF on opening day. Marte batted .257 in his 167 ABs last season with 5 HRs and swiped 12 bases. You want a strange Marte stat from last season? During day games he hit .305 (59 ABs), while at night he hit .231 (108 ABs). Here is another interesting Marte stat—.191 avg. from the 7th inning onwards. In other words, he is afraid of the dark/cannot see the ball at night, and he despises clutch situations. Neither of these stats is particularly glaring, but just two interesting points. Starling should be able to get 400 ABs in a crowded Pittsburgh OF, so expect an average in the .260-.270 range with 15 HRs and a possibility of 30 stolen bases for this up-and-comer.
In centerfield is the future Hall of Famer, (he is only 26, it may be too early to tell, but hey, I am calling it right now, on the record) Andrew McCutchen. After his 2012 season, an argument can be made that he is the NL’s best player (along with Ryan Braun). The definition of a 5-tool player, McCutchen hit .327, scored 107 runs, hit 31 HRs, with 96 RBIs, and stole 20 bases, along with a well-deserved Gold Glove for his defense in CF. I tried very hard to find a weakness that Andrew has, but the best I could find is that he hits only .290 during day games compared to .347 at night. Also, his stolen base numbers have decreased in each of the last three seasons (33, 23, and 20). But these are not concerns, as long as McCutchen stays healthy, I see an MVP in his future (maybe even in 2013). Pencil him in for a slightly lower average (career avg. is .290, he hit .327 last season), so put him down for .315 with 34 HRs, 105 RBIs, 115 Runs Scored, and 18 stolen bases. Never count the Pirates out of a game when this man is at the plate.
Finally, in RF, is Travis Snider (at the moment). The 25-year-old is a great Minor League hitter, but only owns a .248 MLB avg., .309 OBP, and limited power and speed. I do not see the benefits in Snider, other than the fact that he is young and will supposedly improve. He hit 14 HRs in 298 ABs in 2010, so maybe if he plays a full season, 23 HRs could be expected, but do not count on it. I do not expect him to maintain his starting RF job for long; there are too many good hitters waiting in the wings.
We now move onto the Pirates’ bench, which is somewhat of a strong spot for this team. Let us begin with capable backup catcher, Michael McKenry. The 27 year-old righty is simply put, a power hitter. He blasted 12 HRs in just 240 ABs (his avg. was just .233 however). Like the other 2012 Pirate catcher, Rod Barajas, McKenry lost some steam towards the end of last season (.219 average in the 2nd half). Statistically, I see Russell Martin, Rod Barajas, and Michael McKenry as incredibly similar hitters. All of them hit for low averages, and all of them could hit 20 HRs if given enough ABs. Although Martin is being paid 17 million dollars over the 2013 and 2014 seasons, if he is hitting below .220 for April and May, expect McKenry’s ABs to gradually increase. The point is, the Pirates will not have a high batting average from their catcher position. Gaby Sanchez will man the backup 1B spot. Gaby is a perplexing player for me (a member of my 2012 fantasy team). For the Marlins, in 2010 and 2011, he had 572 ABs (same amount both years), hit .273 followed by .266, hit 19 HRs both years, and his RBI totals were 85 followed by 78. This man seemed destined to be a slightly above average 1B for years to come. Last year, in 299 ABs, he hit .217 with 7 HRs. Until further notice, these 2012 numbers will define Sanchez. He will probably bat against lefties (because of Garrett Jones’ inability to do so), but do not expect the 2010 or 2011 Gaby, that man is gone. Josh Harrison is a 25 year-old, career .250 hitter, who can play 2B, SS, 3B, and the OF. He will not wow anyone with his power or speed, but expect his name to be on the lineup card as a spot starter throughout the season. In the OF, Jose Tabata has had at least 333 ABs the last three seasons, but his Average numbers and stolen base numbers have declined all three seasons. In 2010, he hit .299 and stole 19 bases in 405 ABs, but in 2012, he wound up spending part of the season in the Minors. If he can somehow become the player he was in 2010, he will start in RF over Travis Snider, but until that day, he will have to enjoy 4th OF duties. Finally, there is Alex Presley. The 27 year-old has 584 ABs over the past three seasons combined with three year totals of 14 HRs, 19 SBs, and a .260 avg. He hit only .237 last season, but if the Pirates gave him 500 ABs (which they will not), maybe he could put up 15 HRs and 20 SBs with a .260 avg., but for now, he is just a solid 5th OF on an average team.
The Pirates’ hitting staff should be an improvement over last season. Primary weaknesses are at C, SS, and determining who will start in the corner OF spots, but overall, if the Pirates do not make the playoffs, it will not be because of their hitting. It will be because of their pitching. Here is their starting rotation with 2012 stats:
- A.J. Burnett—16-10, 202.1 IP, 180 Ks, 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
- Wandy Rodriguez—12-13, 205.2 IP, 139 Ks, 3.76 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
- James McDonald—12-8, 171 IP, 151 Ks, 4.21 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
- Jeff Karstens—5-4, 90.2 IP, 66 Ks, 3.97 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
- Francisco Liriano—6-12, 156.2 IP, 167 Ks, 5.34 ERA, 1.47 WHIP
So, there are a lot of ups and downs to this rotation. First thing I would like to point out is that their number 1 and 2 starters are 34 or older (this is a small red flag). First, A.J. Burnett (36 years-old), was stellar in 2012 and greatly enjoyed his move to the NL. He excelled at PNC Park with an ERA of just 3.10. Because of Burnett’s age, I expect a slight regression, but pencil him in for 13 wins, around 200 innings with 175 Ks. ERA and WHIP may rise slightly, think in the ballpark of 3.70 and 1.30, respectively. No. 2 starter, Wandy Rodriguez was traded to the Pirates halfway through the year last year, and pitched basically the same for the Pirates as he did for the Astros. However, it seems as though (compared to past seasons), he no longer can strike batters out. In 2010, Wandy pitched 195 innings and struck out 178, in 2011, 191 IP with 166 Ks, yet in 2012, 205.2 IP with 139 Ks. This is a very frightening 2012. Wandy was always known as a strikeout pitcher, and a strikeout pitcher who can no longer strike people out=a man who is about to enter a steep decline. He cannot make hitters swing and miss like he used to. James McDonald had an elite 1st half of 2012, and then maybe fatigue was the cause, or maybe he aged 10 years before our very eyes, but whatever the cause, McDonald is one of the riskiest pitchers to bank on for 2013. As I stated earlier, 1st half ERA=2.37, while his 2nd half ERA=7.52. If McDonald continues to pitch at his 2012 2nd half rate, he may be kicked out of the Pirates rotation in May or June of 2013.
Now we will move onto the back-end of the rotation. Jeff Karstens can be great at times, and has posted back-to-back years with an ERA below 4.00. His 2011 ERA was 3.38, while his 2012 ERA was 3.97, so he is headed in the wrong direction. In addition, he missed a decent chunk of 2012 due to injury (shoulder and hip-flexor). He is nowhere near a sure thing, but if he stays healthy all year and if he pitches like 2011 Karstens, he could wind up being the 2nd best starter on this team (those are two big “ifs” though). Finally, is the biggest question mark of them all—Francisco Liriano. The former Twins Ace, has now compiled back-to-back seasons with an ERA above 5.00. 2013 is huge for Liriano, if he continues to pitch with an ERA of 5 for the first half of the season, his career as a starter in the MLB will be over. The one thing Liriano has always done well is strike batters out, which he did as well last season as he always has (156.2 IP, 167 Ks). I am not ready to give up on Liriano, who is now pitching against non-DH lineups, expect him to drop that ERA (4.30 range perhaps), and if he stays healthy he can win 12 games and might turn into a nice investment for Pittsburgh.
Finally, the worst part of this Pirate team is their Bullpen. What is so bad about this Bullpen? There is not a single “sure thing” pitcher available. Joel Hanrahan, last year’s elite closer, and probably one of the Pirates’ top 5 most valuable players from a year ago is now a member of the Red Sox. So where does that leave the 2013 Pirates? First comes the new closer, Jason Grilli, who has had back-to-back years with ERAs below 3 and was a strikeout wizard (90 Ks in 58.2 IP) last year. However, these stats do not ease my worries, because first off, he has never been a closer before, and anyone who has pitched late in a game can tell you, the 8th inning is nothing like the 9th inning. Also, Grilli’s ERA went up by .43 points last year from the year before (2.48 in 2011 to 2.91 in 2012). My point, despite great 2011 and 2012’s, I have my doubts about this first-time closer. If I am that harsh on the best reliever on the team, imagine what my tone is going to be when describing these next six guys.
The new set-up man is former NL Central alum (Astros), Mark Melancon. This righty was dreadful for the Red Sox last year. He posted a 6.20 ERA in 45 IP last season. His stats will improve because he is moving away from the beasts of the AL East and into the weaker NL Central. But how much can his stats improve? He had a 2.78 ERA in 2011 for the Astros, so I am going to predict he will finish somewhere between 2011 and 2012, let us say 4.45 ERA. Outside of these two relievers, the rest of the ‘Pen is very young and inexperienced. 27 year-old lefty, Tony Watson pitched well in 53.1 innings in 2012 (53 Ks and a 3.38 ERA). Next comes 27 year-old righty, Jared Hughes, who also pitched well in 75.2 innings last year (50 Ks, 2.85 ERA). Quick sidenote on Hughes’ Spring Training: he has landed in hot water for reportedly using a racially insensitive term directed at the Reds’ Brandon Phillips after hitting him with a pitch. This sidenote should have no affect on Hughes’ pitching, but it may make you want to root against this basically unknown (outside of Pittsburgh) reliever. To round out the bullpen, former Phillie and DBack, Mike Zagurski, a member of last year’s Pirates, Chris Leroux, and finally there is Bryan Morris, with a total of 5 innings of MLB pitching experience. Zagurski and Leroux both had ERAs above 5.50 last year, and Morris has an extreme lack of experience, so in other words, Pirates fans better pray that Jason Grilli does not get injured.
Ideally, Grilli becomes the elite closer that his stats suggest he can be, Melancon returns to 2011 Astro form, Watson and Hughes pitch as well as they did in 2012, and the final three pitchers pitch well enough to not lose games, and this becomes a playoff team. More likely: Grilli finishes as the 18th best closer in the MLB, Melancon is a below average set-up man, Hughes and Watson pitch slightly worse than last year, and the Pirates struggle all year trying to fill out the Bullpen’s final three spots.
Overall, the Pirates’ hitting will be better than in 2012, but the pitching (especially the Bullpen) will be worse. McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, and Garrett Jones will anchor the hitting lineup, and hopefully Burnett can repeat 2012, Wandy can prove that his low strikeout rates in 2012 were an apparition, James McDonald must prove that the real him is the first half of 2012, Karstens needs to stay healthy, and Liriano needs to return to his former Ace-self. The Bullpen will need to maintain leads for this team, but overall I expect the Pirates to improve on their 79-83 record, but not enough to end their 20 season losing streak drought. 2013 projection—80-82, this will be good enough for 4th in the NL Central. The Pirates have a lot of great pieces, and this year’s team is probably the best Pirate team since at least 2000. Hopefully Pittsburgh will make a few positive moves following the 2013 season, and if they do, expect this team to have a winning record in 2014. You are so close Pirate fans, hang in there.