Friday, March 29, 2013

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview - Position Players

So here we are. We looked at all the other NL Central teams this week and saved the best for last. Yea, I am talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. While they might not be the flashy and sexy team to look at there is a lot of meat on the bones and going through it took me a lot longer than I expected. There are a lot more questions and answers when you look at the Pirates and when I finally got down and started writing I figured that out, for better or worse. That is why I am breaking this preview down in a three part series. Today I will be talking about all the position players which will look at the starting lineup and then look at some bench and fringy players that you might see.

I really don't even know what to expect going into the season. The last two years were really unexpected and even though they were horrible disasters by the end there were still some good things to take away from them. They did play some really good baseball for at least half of each season but when it all came down to it they folded down the stretch in a big way. Not an ideal scenario but if they were consistent over the whole season instead of hot then cold then we would probably be looking at the team as taking steps in the right direction.

Catcher - Russell Martin

In Martin the Pirates are going to upgrade their biggest weakness last season, the catching position. While it is true that Martin had a horrible year at the plate in 2012 (.211/.311/.403) that is better than what Rod Barajas gave the Pirates (.206/.306/.343) if only by a little but he should be a huge help defensively where Barajas really struggled. While I think the Pirates overpaid Martin (two years, $17M) but if the Pirates are going to get a significant upgrade (which I think Martin is) then they are going to have to pay a little bit more. Martin probably won't be as bad as he was last season and should be around a .240-.250 hitter but he if can give the Pirates good defense and solid pitch framing then I think the contract will be doable.

Pitch framing is still a tough thing to qualify but if you want any amount of baseball at all you know when a catcher receivers the ball well and when he doesn't. The Pirates have had some brutal receiving catches over the years which include Ryan Doumit and Rod Barajas and while Michael McKenry is a solid bench option he does not receive the ball very well. According to Mike Fast over at Baseball Prospectus who charted runs saved via pitch framing from 2007-11 Martin ranked second only to Jose Molina in total runs saved, and it was by a mile from the next closest competitor. Like I said pitch framing is really hard to qualify and while Mike tackled it pretty well it would be foolish to look at only offensive numbers when talking about Martin and why he was brought to the Pirates.

First Base - Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez

Around the infield diamond much more is the same from the Pirates. They will start the season with the platoon option at first base with Jones getting the main looks against right handed pitchers while Sanchez will play against left handed hitters. On paper this should be a pretty good platoon as Jones has really struggled over his career against left handed pitching (.198/.237/.353 in 503 plate appearances) while Sanchez is career (.291/.385/.484 in 440 plate appearances) against left handed pitching. Last season Jones had a really nice year with 27 home runs and hitting .274. The problems are still there as he only had a .317 on base percentage and still struggles against left handed pitching. The platoon option is never ideal for any team. As some would say if you have two first baseman then you really have none but at this juncture there really isn't any other way to turn for the Pirates. You have to hope that Sanchez can perform well enough against lefties that he can take Jones out of that situation and keep him fresh. While Jones exceeded my expectations last year I am not really sure if you can count on him to hover around .280 for another season.

Second Base - Neil Walker

As we go around the horn a real wild card in my eyes is Walker. He is the hometown kid and I don't really think you would find one Pirates fan that doesn't like Walker but he is a huge unknown. At times he looks like he could be one of the best offensive second basemen in the league and then for stretches it looks like he's never played baseball before. I know a lot has been talked about giving Walker a contract extension and signing him up long term but I have been pretty vocal against this as the Pirates have him locked up through the 2017 season when he will be 31 years old and probably having his prime years behind him.

Walker missed a ton of time last season with a back issue and that coincided with the Pirates collapse and with the lack of depth the Pirates have they just can't afford to go long stretches without middle of the lineup position players. Walker only played 129 games last season and hit pretty well with a .280/.343/.426 triple slash line with 14 home runs which was a career high. I think with Walker you can expect to get around a .270 average with a solid on base and anywhere from 12-15 home runs. He offensive play gets more push because of his 83 RBI season in 2011 but I think you know how I feel about using RBIs to evaluate a player. While his strikeout rate (19.6%) wasn't terrible last season it was up in a big way from 2011 (16.9%) and even up from 2010 (17.7%). If he can cut back on a few of the strikeouts and put the ball in play I think he could be much more effective but that is easier said than done.

When Walker first came up he was playing second base which is something he had never done before and in three seasons he has gotten much better. I eye test tells you that and so does the advanced metrics which has him trending upwards in each of his three seasons. ZIPS has Walker with a .270/.332/.430 slash with 16 home runs and almost a three win player in 149 games. If the Pirates get that production from Walker I think they would be very happy. I could see him being a little better on the batting average and on base percentage as those predictions are below his career averages but if he can stay healthy I think he will give the Pirates a good stable piece to the middle of the lineup and in the middle of the infield.

Shortstop - Clint Barmes

The shortstop position was just an absolute mess last season. Barmes was brought in on a two year deal and was just brutally bad. His .229/.272/.321 line would not be back if he wasn't signed for a second year and he struck out nearly 22% of his plate appearances. A huge part of the problem is that Barmes swung at nearly 40% of pitches that were outside of the strike zone. You aren't going to be very successful in baseball when you are swinging at nearly everything that is coming in from the mound.

While Barmes wasn't good for the year he did finish up the season pretty well. In August his triple slash line of .271/.295/.376 was his best month and in 27 games in September and October he was .267/.382/.360. You aren't going to get much in terms of power from Barmes but you can't deny that he had a really strong end to the season after just a brutal start. As you can probably gather by the terrible out of zone swing percentage he isn't going to draw a ton of walks (4.1%) so it is really going to be a case of Barmes putting more balls in play. If he can do that I think we would be able to see a little more of what we saw in the final three months last season rather than what he brought to the team in the first three. His power is probably not going to come with an ISO of only .091 but it would be really hard to imagine him being as bad as he was last season.

Though he was dreadful (can I come up with more adjectives for how bad Barmes was?) at the plate Barmes was nearly a two win player last year. How you ask? His defense. Barmes was one of the best in the league with the glove and if the Gold Glove wasn't based as much on hitting as it was, you know, fielding, then Barmes probably would have had a Gold Glove last season. Barmes finished tops in the NL and second in the league in both UZR (14.4) and UZR/150 (15.3) and to say that he wash spectacular during the season would be an understatement. You can say all you want about Barmes as a hitter but as a fielder he is about as good as it gets. The problem here is that I said the same thing about Martin above and you don't want too many of these guys but I want my defense to be strong up the middle. Barmes, like Martin, isn't going to put up big offensive numbers but they will most certainly be better than last season and if Barmes can put up the same defense with improved offense things might go a little better.

Third Base - Pedro Alvarez

Maybe the biggest offensive wild card on the team is Alvarez. For as bad as he had been in the past he can be equally as good for like three weeks. I wish I had any real reasoning for it but there are a few things you know about Alvarez: 1) He is going to strike out, a lot (31% in 2012), he is going to hit the ball a long way when he connects (average HR distance of 408 feet, ten feet farther than NL average) and 3) he is going to be streaky. I mean, there are other things like he is going to wear his hat over his ears but I really don't think that counts. Does it? Probably not. OK, definitely not.

Last season was really a tale of two halves for Alvarez. He started the season with a brutal .189/.254/.373 line in 55 games and 205 plate appearances that included 67 (!) strikeouts and only eight home runs. After that though he finished the season strong. The last 94 games he played to end the season he hit .274/.352/.518 with 22 home runs and while he struck out 113 times in 381 plate appearances this is the guy that Pirates fans have been hoping for ever since he was brought up to the major leagues.

Like I said, Alvarez is going to strike out a ton. Over his career he has struck out 31% of his plate appearances and when you are striking out in nearly one out of three at bats it is going to make you suffer in a lot of other areas. While he did strikeout 31% of his plate appearances in 2012 he was able to still hit 30 balls out of the park and post a solid slash line considering how bad those first 55 games were for him. He was a three win player and even if he could cut the strikeouts to 28% he could be dangerously good. The problem is that last season he trended (again) negatively in the swing percentage at pitches outside of the zone. In 2010 he was around 27% and that went up to 30% in a really bad 2011 season and then went up again in 2012 to 31.3%. Not a good trend to have and when you are a guy who normally strikes out a lot you really can't afford to give pitchers free strikes when they would most likely be balls.

What would be more ideal is if Alvarez could translate that on base percentage that he had to end last season. He only finished with a .317 OBP last season and that really isn't that good but when you strikeout a ton that is going to happen. He did raise his walk percentage up to 9.7% from 9.2% so that is a good trend especially considering his lowest walk rate at any level in the minors was 11.5%. I wish I could begin to tell you that I understand anything about Alvarez. The most I know that he is a huge wild card that has the gift of unreal power. I think a big part of his success is his mental stability where I think he gets really down on himself and doesn't trust his swing. When he is rolling he trusts his swing and good things happen.

Defensively Alvarez is sort of a mystery. It seems like when there is a tough play that needs made he is going to make it up when a routine ball comes down the line he tries to fight it. With the type of player he is (power hitter) you are going to take a little less on the defensive side for the obvious upside but I actually think he has got better (at least in 2012) defensively and if he can make the same progress this year he will be a decent third base option. He is never going to be good defensively (in my opinion) but he is still athletic enough to play the position and he has an absolute rocket for an arm (which sometimes he relies on too much).

Alvarez is going to have to hit in the middle of the lineup. I know that Clint Hurdle wants him to hit in the cleanup spot and while where you hit in the lineup really has no bearing other than the first time through the order it is a spot where he is going to have Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in front of him. His job is going to be to drive those guys on when they get on base and even though we would all like to see better defense out of Alvarez if he is driving in those guys more often than not and hitting 25 balls out of the park I don't think most are really going to care what he does defensively.

Outfield - Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Travis Snider

The outfield is pretty set but there is really a lot uncertainty to it. Sure, the Pirates have one of the best young players in the game in McCutchen but they have a lot of unknowns at the corners withMarte, Tabata, and Snider will try to give more production than the outfield saw last year outside of McCutchen.

I am gonna touch on McCutchen a little bit but really not a lot needs to be said about him. He was a MVP candidate last season and if it wasn't for a second half swoon he probably would have won the award. Well, that and the Pirates being horrible in the second half of the season. You always have to bring that up. Anyways, Cutch was better than a seven win player with a .327/.400/.553 line with 31 home runs in 157 games. Needless to say this was a breakout season for him and while we all knew he had some power I don't really think many predicted a 30+ home run season out of him.

McCutchen got a ton of his damage before the All-Star break when he hit .362/.414/.625 in 81 games while he finished the second half with a .289/.385/.475 line with a .252/.347/.346 line in August and a .254/.361/.500 production level in September and October. I think mod people knew he wouldn't be able to keep up what he did in the first half but as the Pirates sank so did he and you have to figure he was probably trying to do a little too much but he did the same thing the year prior when he went for a pretty putrid .216/.330/.392 line in the second half of the 2011 season.

Look, I don't think that McCutchen is consistently do this season after season but it does leave you wondering what is up with him. While his overall numbers from the second half last season aren't bad (actually pretty good) he really went down the tube in the final three months. Also something to keep your eye on is both the walk and strikeout rates for him. In 2011 he did an outstanding job jumping his walk percentage to over 13% but that dropped back down to just over 10% in 2012. Sure, his power jumped up and across the board he did a nice job but his strikeout rate went from 13.6% in 2010 to 19.6% last season. That is not a good trend. At all.

Despite the jump in home runs McCutchen's ground ball/fly ball ratio was a career best 1.28 while his line drive rate (21.9%) was the highest of his career and had a significant drop in his fly ball rate. Obviously you know that you are more likely to get hits from line drives and ground balls rather than fly balls and his batting average on balls in play was .375 which would correlate to his increased ground ball rate/line drive rate. All that being said I don't think there is any way his BABIP will stay at the level for another season which is much higher than his career average of .326. All that being said I still think McCutchen has another great year and if he can get any sort of production out of the players hitting in front or behind him then he is going to be that much better.

The one thing that McCutchen really struggles with is defense. I know he won a Gold Glove last year but with how flawed that award is I don't really know how you take that seriously. McCutchen is pretty brutal defensively and in my eyes it really hasn't got all the much better as he has gone forward. I am not really even talking about the physical error of dropping a fly ball or not getting to the balls in the gap (because he can fly out there) but I am talking about the mental mistakes. Too often he gets caught up in the moment and is throwing to the wrong base and making unnecessary throws that let runners move up. Those types of things can't happen and it happens way too often with McCutchen. He is a superior athlete playing at a prime position so making smarter decision with the baseball need to happen. On a slow grounder in a tight game just throw it to second rather than throwing it home when a runner is going to be safe. Little stuff like that will go overlooked most times but they can, and have, cost your team games.

Marte is going to be the regular in left field and he will now be playing his first full MLB season after being called up midway through the season last year. He came on the scene with a blast, literally, hitting a home run on the first pitch he ever saw but he didn't see a ton of success only hitting for a .257/.300/.437 line hitting out of the lead-off spot. Marte is freakishly athletic with quick hands but just as a lot of his teammates he doesn't get on base a ton and he strikes out a ton. He had 182 plate appearances last year in 47 games and walked only 4.4% of the time while striking out nearly 28% of the time. That isn't unlike Marte as he career high in walk rate was 6.5% and is usually around 22% strikeout rate but you have to assume the adjustment to major league pitching was going to make those numbers a little worse to start.

I really have a hard time thinking about what Marte is going to be because there is just so much unknowns with him. He is an athlete so he is going to be able to collect a few more infield hits than most but if he is going to give you a below average on base percentage does it really benefit the Pirates to hit him in the leadoff spot? Is he going to be able to stay on base enough to give himself a chance to steal some bases and make the defense worry about him? I sure hope so. He was interesting to watch last year. At times it look like you weren't going to get anything by him and then there would be stretches where he would strike out half of his plate appearances and look generally lost at the plate. His value is largely tied up in his batting average which is something you don't like to see but it will be interesting to see if he can adjust to the pitcher and bring his walk rate and strikeout rate back to a more respectable number.

While there are a lot of important players to focus on I think Marte is right near the top. The Pirates have really struggled to find anyone that can be productive at the top of the lineup and even though Marte isn't going to get on base at a huge clip if he could cut the strikeouts down and take a few more walks he could really start to set the table for McCutchen and Alvarez. As I said before Marte might be one of the only guys on the team who can legitimately steal a bag with 12 stolen bases in 17 attempts with a number of predictions having him getting around 25-30 this year. That would be huge at the top of the lineup.

Where the Pirates really have value in Marte is in the outfield. I talked about him being such a great athlete and you can see that just by watching him play the outfield. Marte probably should be playing in centerfield but I would be fairly shocked to see the team move McCutchen out of center even if it was the right decision. Playing at PNC Park means that you need to essentially have two center fielders with the way the Northside Notch plays. Between him and McCutchen there shouldn't be too many balls that hit the grass from right centerfield to the left field line.

I guess when you look at Marte you just throw your hands up in the air and see what you have. It is still a pretty small sample size from what we saw at the major league level last season so I wouldn't take the stats as truth but as you look at his minor league numbers you see that his on base percentage is highly fueled by batting average and he is a pretty free swinger. He swings at 35% of pitches throw outside of the zone and connects on only 52% of those pitches that are outside of the zone that he swings at. Not good. Hopefully that improves. It needs to, for himself and for the team.

There are two players that are going to be battling it out for the right field duty. I guess they might call it a platoon but I think of it as more of a case where the Pirates are waiting for either Jose Tabata or Travis Snider to come out and take the job. Remember what I said about the platoon at first base? If you have two first basemen then you have none. Well, yea. Awesome.

Snider was the return from the Toronto Blue Jays that the Pirates got for Brad Lincoln. All-in-all I am still pretty excited about that trade because middle/late relievers can be found all over the place and Snider still has the ability to be a really solid regular player for the Pirates and he is under team control till the 2017 season, all for a reliever.

Overall Snider hasn't been overly productive in his major league career. Last year he only played 50 games for the Pirates and suffered through some injuries and only went .250/.324/.328. Like many of the other Pirates he has struck out a good bit in his career at a nearly 27% clip over 1,062 career at bats. He has never been a really solid on base guy but his 9.2% walk rate is better than his career average (7.8%) and much better than his 5.4% rate in 2011 in 49 games with the Jays.

Snider does have some power as he did hit 14 balls out of the park in 2010 in only 82 games with a ISO of .208. Not too bad, but that took a dip to only .128 (.078 with the Pirates) last year and was well below his career average of .167. Most predictions have him posting an ISO of .160-.190 so if that comes to fruition then it could be a much better, and productive, year in right for Snider.

All told Snider is sort of a wild card because he has never played more than those 82 games in the majors so he hasn't had a full season to see what he can do. Much has been linked to him being sort of jerked around in Toronto but if he can stay healthy we all should get a good look at what Snider can bring and if he can be a regular going forward. He is much like a lot of the other Pirates with a poor OBP (career .309) but I guess we are all just used to not getting on base with any regularity.

Tabata is also a pretty large wild card, but a lot of people have really soured on him since a pretty good rookie season, but it has been with both good and bad things being said about him. His rookie season he was called up and played in 102 games, hitting for a .299/.346/.400 line and although he didn't have much power he was pretty athletic getting 19 steals and fitting himself pretty well at the top of the lineup.

In 2011 his production dipped due in large part to some lingering injuries and his average dropped to .266 but was able to keep his OBP about the same at .349 thanks to a 10.5% walk rate after being at 6.3% in his rookie season. Not too bad. The average went down but his ability to still get on base and be able to work counts could make him a viable option for the lead-off or number two spot. 2012 was not kind to Mr. Tabata.

The bottom fell out in 2012 and Tabata only hit .243 and his OBP dropped over 30 points and injuries continued to bother him. People were yelling that he wasn't trying (which is ridiculous to say) and that he didn't care (again, ridiculous) but things just weren't working. His walk rate dropped back down to 7.8% last year and he still wasn't able to generate any power with only 26 extra base hits in 374 plate appearances. His OPS was only .664 last season and his OPS+ was 86 and for a right fielder that isn't going to cut it if you aren't going to put a bunch of balls out of the park. That being said his line drive rate was up from his first two years and his fly ball rate was down, which for a non power guy is a pretty solid trend. One spot that has to be improved is his rate at swing at balls out of the zone. When he made the jump in his walk rate he swung at only 24% of balls out of the zone but that jumped way up to 31% last season. That surely contributed to the lower OBP and resulted in some easy outs.

So what is the deal in right field? Hard to say really. I think Snider is going to get the first look and he probably should. He gives the Pirates more upside and some power in a corner outfield position and you aren't going to get much of a drop off in defense as Snider showed that he could be pretty decent in the outfield (at least better than I thought he could be). That being said I still think there is a place on this team for Tabata. Sure, his 2012 was really brutal but I think in the first two seasons he was a pretty good piece to have. He can get on base, which not a lot of guys on the team can do. His stakeout rate is around 15% so he puts the ball in play. His speed has declined a little bit but as a guy who puts the ball in play and gets on base I think that can be pretty valuable at the top of the lineup in front of McCutchen and Alvarez. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates split this up but I would assume seeing both of them with Snider getting more of the at bats at the beginning until something shakes out.

The Bench - Brandon Inge, Josh Harrison, Michael McKenry, John McDonald

The bench is less than stellar, to say the least. The best part of the bench is that you are going to have two of the platoon guys taking up two of those spots which would be one of Snider and Tabata or the other guy that isn't playing out of Jones or Sanchez. Outside of that the Pirates have decided to go with a veteran approach with some decent defense and no bat quality of players. This is, well, less than ideal. Actually it is a pretty awful idea but, hey, veterans!!!!

Earlier this week the Pirates said they were going to keep Brandon Inge on the roster even though he is probably going to start the season on the disabled list. This is a highly questionable keep seeing as Inge has virtually nothing left in his bat (.226/.286/.389 last season which is bad but not as bad as his .197/.265/.283 line in 2011) and can only play one defensive position (third base) while the Pirates also traded for John McDonald who is an all-defensive player that has no bat (.239/.276/.331 career average in 14 years). True, McDonald can play multiple positions above average but overall he is another Barmes. The Pirates are going to have two guys on the bench that provide zero offense and zero power for defense and moral. I obviously can't say this for certain but I assume that Clint Hurdle had a lot to do with Inge staying around and it is this kind of stuff that is going to prevent the team from having any type of chance to come back late in games when a hitter is needed off the bench.

I guess the silver lining in all this is that we might not possibly see Inge on the team has I said he was going to disabled list to start the season and that might be just buying some time for, well, who knows. I just hope that both McDonald and Inge aren't on the bench at the same time because that is an absolute waste of a spot.

Who could take that spot on the bench? Well, anyone really. I know I have bagged on Josh Harrison a good bit over the last three years and while he isn't a very good baseball player he brings much more to the table than Inge. Harrison is a guy that isn't going to hit for a good average and certainly is going to get on base a lot (2.7% career walk rate) but he is still young enough and his minor league numbers (.306/.355/.424 in four minor league seasons) give at least a possible chance of him being useful. While he can't play defense as well as some might think he can play nearly every position on the field and is a capable base runner.

The guy who really might get the short end of the straw here is Jordy Mercer. Mercer can play some pretty decent defense and really hasn't had any extended time in the majors, especially considering he was Hurdle's 25th man which means that he got to serve as last years Pedro Ciriaco. In 68 plate appearances he is a .210/.265/.371 hitter and over his minor league career he is a .265/.322/.402 player, which isn't great but when you are giving up two bench spots to McDonald and Inge then what does it hurt to give Mercer an actual shot to play off the bench?

The other bench spot is obviously going to go to backup catcher Michael McKenry who has held that spot for a few years now. McKenry is sort of the Yinzers hero as he is scrappy and short and generally works hard to get where he has been. Listen, there is nothing wrong with that and through some stretches he has been decent for the Pirates over the past couple of years. For a backup catcher he is pretty much what you want. What the problem has been for the team is that they have had to rely on him a little too much. Last season he hit a career high 12 home runs and got his walk rate up to 10.5% but his took a bit of a swoon over the latter half of the season and finished with a .233/.320/.442 line but as I said before, if he can be relied on in a backup roll then I think he will be alright, even if I don't think he is all that great.

So there ya have it. Those are your 2013 position players. Like I said there are a ton of questions with the group but overall this is probably as talented of an offensive lineup that the Pirates have put on the field in some time and if a few things click correctly it could be interesting.

Make sure you check back in tomorrow when I will look at the pitching staff that includes both the starters and relievers.

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