Sunday, March 31, 2013

NL Central & Pirates Preview Week Recap

If you have been been paying attention to this site or my Twitter feed this week then you know that I have been doing a NL Central preview that started with talking with a blogger with each of the NL Central team and asked them 15 questions concerning this season and what they expect. After those were done I put up a three part Pirates preview that I spent entirely too much of my time on.

If you were unable to check all them out then you are in luck because I have put all the links in one spot where you can look at all the previews.

Cincinnati Reds - [Red Reporter] - [Preview]

Chicago Cubs - [Bleacher Nation] - [Preview]

Milwaukee Brewers - [Disciples of Uecker] - [Preview]

St. Louis Cardinals - [Cards Diaspora] - [Preview]

Pittsburgh Pirates - [Part 1 - Position Player] [Part 2 - Pitching] [Part 3 - Observations & Predictions]

Please give a follow to all the blogs that helped me out with this. This is the second year that I have put this together and they all have been overly helpful and knowledgeable and should be your go to for discussion on their respective teams.

Hope you all enjoyed it.

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview - Overall Thoughts and Predictions

So here is the final of the three part Pirates season preview for the 2013 season. I just wanted to round this all out with some general questions about the season and how I feel overall.

At the end I am going to give some predictions for how I think the NL Central will shake out. Here we go.

1) What is an underlying issue that needs to improve in 2013?

For me that is pretty easy, base running. This goes both ways also, not only were the Pirates awful at running the bases as a whole but they were equally as awful when you talk about holding runners on and throwing runners out. The Pirates ranked 28th in the league with 73 stolen bases, which isn't all that great in itself but when you couple that with the fact that they were thrown out 52 times it just makes it that much worse. The major league average on stolen bases is 73% and the Pirates came in dead last at 58% success rate. Nobody else was even close to being that bad as Arizona was just a spot better than the Pirates but they were successful 65% of their chances. Just horrible.

On the other side of the coin you have the inability of the Pirate to be able to hold any runners or throw any base runners out. The Pirates had 154 base stealers against them last year that were successful and they were only able to throw out 19 base stealers. All season. That is good for a league-worst 11% caught stealing rate that is 16 points lower than the major league average and six percentage points lower than the next closest team. This really is on the head of Clint Hurdle for me as in the beginning of the season when he said he wanted his pitchers to focus on the hitters and not the base runners but as the season wore on it turned singles into pretty much automatic doubles and it cost the team runs.

2) What is the biggest worry for 2013?

The biggest worry for me is that the Pirates are just going to completely have a problem getting on base. They ranked 27th in all of baseball with a team on base percentage of .304 and they had a walk rate of only 7.4% which was only good for 25th in the league. Last year only two Pirates players (Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker) finished with an OBP over .330 and that just isn't gong to cut it. The Pirates really struggle in a big way to get on base and that really needs to change. There are some big swing and miss guys in the lineup which will obviously lead to lower OBP but at some point a few guys need to take a walk and set the table for something to happen.

3) What is the biggest unknown for the season?

That has to be the pitching, namely the starting rotation. I know a lot of this team is sort of up in the air right now but with some injuries but when you break camp with Jonathan Sanchez as your number four you are going to be in a lot of trouble. I think up at the top there is some stability with A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez but after that there is a lot of consistency questions. Can James McDonald be somewhere between outstanding (first half of 2012) and awful (second half of 2012)? Can Francisco Liriano come in and walk a few less guys to go with his strikeout per inning career average? Can Jeff Karstens stay healthy at all? Will Burnett be able to come anywhere close to what he was in 2012? These are just some of the questions and while the whole team is kinda in this mold the success or failure this season is going to come down to the starting rotation.

4) Who is most likely to break out in 2013?

I couldn't really break it down to one guys so it will be two for me: Travis Snider and Starling Marte. Marte really has all the tools to be a successful player at the major league level. He still has some trouble with the strikeouts (27.5%) and a low walk rate (4.4%) which really makes his on base percentage mostly all batting average (which isn't a good way to rely on getting on base) but if he could get a little bit of plate deicipline then he could really be a dynamic player. He isn't going to give you a ton of power but he could be a 30 steal guy that can make things happen and if he is going to hit at the top of the lineup then that could be huge.

Snider is a former top prospect that really never got the chance. I think last year he was plagued with injuries that held him back but he has power and some pretty decent bat control. Hopefully with some health and some consistent at bats he can find a grove and give the Pirates what they thought they would get when they traded away Bran Lincoln. He struck out a little much last season but his walk rate was nearly 10% and you can't imagine he will have an ISO of .078 for a full season so I like Snider to break out a little bit this season.

5) When will we see Gerrit Cole and what will we see when we do?

The Pirates sent Cole back to AAA which made a lot of people upset, but it was the right thing to do. Is Cole better than a guy or two in the rotation now? Yes. Should he have been sent down? Yes. Listen, if this was a playoff team last year that didn't collapse and had a shot to do it again this year then I think bringing Cole up at the start of the season might be a good idea. The truth of the matter is that they aren't. Not really close. They could get lucky and have a chance but when that time comes around Cole will be with the big club. I would expect to see Cole sometime in mid June when it is certain that the Pirates will get a full extra year out of him. If you ask me I would rather have Cole for a full extra year than have him this year for a month and a half. Does he probably have to work on some things in AAA? Yea, actually he probably does. He only has six innings at the AAA level and only 132 innings in the minor leagues total. From everything I have heard he is still a little inconsistent so a few more months can't hurt. I would rather him be up a few months too late than a few months too early.

When he does join the team he should be a top of the rotation guy. He brings a wide array of pitches that can reach as high as 100 mph with his fastball and can throw his change up harder than some pitchers throw their fastball. It isn't all about speed as most major league hitters can time a fastball but it sure doesn't hurt to have that. This will be one of the most anticipated call ups in a long time and I really don't think he will disappoint. When he does come up I wouldn't be all that worried if he gets hit around some. He was the top pick in 2011 and really hasn't been around the block a ton. There is going to be a learning curve and he is going to take his lumps but he will also give us some glimpses of the top end guy that he hopefully will be for a long time.

6) What is going to frustrate you the most this year?

There are a number of things that are going to frustrate me this season and to pick out one thing it is tough to do so I will try. Last season the pure ignorance to even acknowledge that other teams stealing bases is a big deal or ignoring the fact that the Pirates are just awful at stealing bases. On top of that the Pirates will attempt to give teams free outs on far too many occasions with just dreadful bunts at the worst possible time. I just can't wait until Josh Harrison gets called in to pinch hit and then squares around to bunt only to pop it straight up into a double play. You know it has a better chance than not of happening. Or not using Jason Grilli in the eighth inning so he can be saved for the ninth inning when it won't matter because Jeanmar Gomez blows the lead in the eighth with the meat of the order up for the opposition. I mean Grilli is only allowed to pitch the ninth and not in a high leverage situation because, SAVES. (breathe Cory, breathe) Yea, I will be frustrated at that stuff.

7) So, how many wins for the Pirates in 2013?

This is the million dollar question isn't it? Four or so years ago when he Pirates were literally the worst team in baseball I thought that 2013 might be the first year that the Pirates could make that move and probably get to .500 and maybe challenge for a playoff spot. Things haven't gone that well during that stretch and while I don't think they have been horrible I just don't think they are ready to make a playoff push. If you are wondering if I care about the 20 straight years of losing, well, I don't. Would it make any difference if the Pirates won 83 games this year and then go back under .500 for the next three seasons after that? Sure people would stop talking about the streak but it would just be a different talking point. Being .500 and not making the playoffs is the same as not being .500 and missing the playoffs.

All that being said I think if some things break right the Pirates could break the streak. I think some things go well and others don't and the Pirates should be around 75-77 wins. I don't think it is going to be like last season where they are hot for half the year and horrible for half the year, rather I think they are pretty consistent throughout the season. We might see a their place finish in the division but I could see the Pirates finishing fourth, behind Milwaukee and ahead of Chicago.

8) How will the NL Central finish?

Here is how I have the NL Central going this season:

1) Cincinnati 92-70
2) St. Louis 86-76
3) Milwaukee 82-80
4) Pittsburgh 76-86
5) Chicago 67-95

There you go people. That is all I got for the season preview series. You can take a look at what I had to say about the position players [here] and then take a read about all the pitchers [here]. It might not be where you want to be if you are a Pirates fan but it is what it is. Baseball is my favorite sport and no matter what I am going to be pumped for the Pirates. Hopefully they surprise us all this year.

You can also take a look at my team-by-team NL Central preview by clicking the links below:

[Cincinnati Reds]
[Chicago Cubs]
[Milwaukee Brewers]
[St. Louis Cardinals]

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Penguins Game 36 Recap - Penguins 2, Islanders 0


-Three games and three straight shutouts. Ho hum. Just another day in the Pittsburgh hockey world and the 15th straight win for the Penguins with a 2-0 victory. The win was also the 11th straight regulation overtime win with only one of those wins coming in a shootout for those people who are going to argue this streak is meaningless because of the shootout. Heh.

 -First ever NHL team to have a perfect month. 15-0-0 in March. Just unreal.

 -Tomas Vokoun. Man. Dude made 35 saves and was rock solid the entire game. With the game scoreless Michael Grabner came down on a breakaway and Vokoun straight stoned him. At the time the offense wasn't getting much going and if Vokoun lets one by it might not go as well for the Penguins but he made the save and the Penguins went on to score a pair of goals, the only two goals of the game. It was his second straight shutout and now the Penguins have shutouts in three straight games where Vokoun has seen action in all three. He was pretty soft during a portion of play right before this winning streak started but he has been absolutely rock solid recently and a huge reason the Penguins are still even in this streak. What a signing by Ray Shero.

 -The big news out of the day was the loss of Sidney Crosby after he took a puck to the face. Now, it wasn't a straight shot to the face, rather a shot by Brooks Orpik that deflected off a stick to the face of Crosby but nonetheless he was left bleeding on the ice. Not a good thing to see. There wasn't much information on it early but just as the start of the second period it was said that he wouldn't return and then a little time later Darren Dreger tweeted out that he was headed to the hospital for some dental work. The shot hit him right in the front of the mouth and I have to assume that he lost at least a few teeth. That dental work is not going to be fun. It will be interesting to see if Crosby wears a full cage when he comes back. If he has to have something like a root canal done then he is going to need some time for that to heal and if he wants to play (and is cleared to play) on Tuesday then he will probably have to wear some sort of full shield. Hopefully it is nothing worse but from what I have seen it seems like he will be OK.

 Here is a video of the incident:


 After I was about to publish it this came up:
No idea what that means.

 -Another interesting happening happened near the end of the second period when Chris Kunitz got hit with a five minute major and a game misconduct for checking from behind. Kunitz hit Josh Bailey semi from behind around the goal line and Bailey went into the boards and stayed down on the ice. He was a little off balanced when he was hit and since it was called hit from behind I believe (could be wrong) that the game misconduct is automatic but it was just the wrong call. I could see giving Kunitz two minutes for the shot but the five and game were just too much. I will admit that it looked pretty bad live so you have to give the officials some leeway because they don't get slow motion replay but after losing Crosby this really put the Penguins shorthanded.

 -So the Penguins had to kill off a five minute power play time which is bad enough but almost three mintues into that power play Brooks Orpik took a bad tripping penalty and made it a full two minute 5-on-3. The penalty kill was nothing short of amazing. Matt Cooke might have played the entire PK and it was probably his best five minutes of hockey of his entire season. It was that good. He was blocking shots and taking 20-30 seconds off the clock after getting the puck on a forecheck and playing keep away. I really can't put into words how good the PK and Matt Cooke were during those five minutes.

 -That penalty kill alone made Cooke the first star in my book but he really sealed the team when he scored a goal 8:10 into the third period to break a scoreless tie. Big faceoff win by Tyler Kennedy and the puck found Cooke who was fairly all alone after he gather the puck and found the back of the net. He then gave a pretty serious fist pump. It was awesome. The best part might have been the following faceoff when Matt Martin tried to chirp him and all Cooke did was lay out Martin on the ensuing shift after the faceoff and the CONSOL crowd was absolutely going nuts. Just couldn't ask for a better game from Cooke considering what the Penguins were missing on the offensive and defensive end.

 -Oh yea, Jarome Iginla. You can absolutely tell that he was sort of lost at times out on the ice but that is to be expected. He landed in Pittsburgh just after midnight last night and didn't get to skate with the team at all and was able to just jump into action. He actually looked better than I thought he would but you can absolutely see he still has it. When he starts to get a better feel for James Neal and Evgeni Malkin watch out.

 -The second line was out of its mind in the second and third period, the third especially. I talk about the first line of Crosby, Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis being able to just keep pucks away from the opponents and that is exactly what the second line did today. Neal was very strong on the puck and Malkin was just about his usual self. It was really great to see since the Penguins were missing two of the top three goal scorers for a vast majority of the game. Really just looked great out there.

 -Pascal Dupuis is just wildly underrated. He has been great on the first line with Crosby and Kunitz but I think a lot of people still don't really give him the credit since Crosby is there to create so much. That is fine because to an extent that is true. On the other side the Penguins don't have a more versatile player that can do nearly everything on the ice. He kills penalties and plays on the top line and today he was on the first power play unit running the point. Just an invaluable player to have on the roster.

 -For all the flack that I (and many others) give Tanner Glass he played a really nice game today. He was winning puck battles and setting up plays all over the place early in the game. They didn't turn into goals but after the first couple of months he had he really needed to play well for a full game and that was today.

Penguins Game 36 Preview - vs. New York Islanders

New York Islanders

1:00 p.m., CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Last Penguins Game:
March 28, 2013 - Pittsburgh 4, Winnipeg 0 [Recap]

The Penguins finally busted out the offense the other night and put up four goals with pretty much no effort against the Jets and they will look to continue their winning streak to 15 (!) games as they play yet another game at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins opened up the year with unlimited road games and now is when they are all starting to come back to them and boy has it been fun to play at home all of these games with the streaks and with the new players and the division pretty much wrapped up.

Word is that Jarome Iginla had all of his work visa things taken care of but he wasn't expected to arrive until today so I would be pretty shocked if he was on the ice. Most likely he will be on the ice with them on Tuesday when he can get a practice in and at least meet his teammates before they go on the ice together. Jarome Iginla will be in the lineup. Whoa.

In other Penguins news they will be missing Paul Martin to an "upper body" injury. No real idea what is wrong with him but he did finish the game on Thursday so I am not sure how bad it would be. There was an unconfirmed rumor/speculation that it might have been a concussion but to be honest I have not sure any specifics on what it was. On the better side of thing Marc-Andre Fleury seems to be OK which is a huge lift. While Tomas Vokoun has played exceptionally well I would not want MAF to be hurt for any amount of time.

Thankfully the Penguins still have the depth at defense. While Martin is just one guy out he represents a huge chunk of why the Penguins have been able to do what they do so far this season defensively. I know having eight or nine NHL defensemen on the roster is a ton but when you have an injury and you don't have to worry about throwing some life long AHL guy in the lineup then that is a great feeling.

It seems like the Penguins and Islanders have played a million times already this season and the Isles are one of the teams that the Penguins play five time and this will be the fifth and final time they will play. It will be the third time in the month that they will play, which is a lot even in a short season.

I think I talked about this a few days ago when these teams played last but John Taveres is about as good as it gets and I don't think anyone notices him for the simple fact that he plays for the Islanders. That sounds pretty bad to say but I think that is the same way that baseball people had no idea who Andrew McCutchen was before last season and that is just kind of how it works.

Taveres has 21 goals on the season and 36 points and it is really being undermined by the Islanders still sitting on the outside looking in on the playoff race. He really has been outstanding and without Martin that is going to put a little more pressure on the backend to check him and keep him under wraps. Outside of Taveres you have Matt Moulson who has 35 points and 11 goals while Michael Grabner also has 11 goals on the season. Moulson and Taveres team up with Brad Boyes as one of the most productive lines in the league with 14 even strength goals which is the 12th most productive line in the league.

A win for the Penguins over the Islanders would lead to a perfect month for the Penguins with only one of those wins coming via the shootout. I don't care how you slice it that would be just an unreal accomplishment. The Penguins are still fighting with the Bruins and Canadiens for first in the Eastern Conference and they are still chasing Chicago (they lead Chicago by one point but the Hawks have two games in hand so I consider them still chasing Chicago) for the Presidents Trophy so this game is still pretty big in the larger picture. It's been a hell of a ride so far so lets keep it going.


Pittsburgh (27-8-0) (via Daily Faceoff)

Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis
Jarome Iginla - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Brenden Morrow - Brandon Sutter - Matt Cooke
Tanner Glass - Craig Adams - Tyler Kennedy

Defense (This is really up in the air. I just subbed in Engelland for Martin)
Brooks Orpik - Matt Niskanen
Simon Despres - Deryk Engellend
Brandon Murray - Mark Eaton

Tomas Vokoun

NY Islanders (16-15-3) (via Penguins website)

Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Brad Boyes

Josh Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Kyle Okposo

Michael Grabner - Keith Aucoin - Colin McDonald

Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Casey Cizikas

Travis Hamonic - Andrew MacDonald

Thomas Hickey - Lubomir Visnovsky
Mark Streit - Radek Martinek

Evgeni Nabokov

The Season Series (Penguins Lead 3-1-0)

March 22, 2013 - Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 2

March 10. 2013 - Pittsburgh 6, NY Islanders 1 February 5, 2013 - Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 2 January 29, 2013 - NY Islanders 4, Pittsburgh 1  The Stats:

Unifying WAR

In a move that most people didn't really notice but was a big deal in the baseball stat community both and FanGraphs worked together to try and streamline the statistic a little more. Baseball-Reference breaks down their end [here] and FanGraphs talks about their side [here] and [here].

For a definition of WAR you can read it on Baseball-Reference [here] and FanGraphs [here]. Basically it is an all inclusive statistic that gives you the number of wins a player is above what an average, everyday bench player or AAA call up.

While the WAR scores are still going to differ between the two sites the gap will be much closer thanks to both sides sliding to a common number on what is "replacement level." FanGraphs explains it as such:

New unified replacement level is now set at 1,000 WAR per 2,430 Major League games, which is the number of wins available in a 162 game season played by 30 teams. Or, an easier way to put it is that our new replacement level is now equal to a .294 winning percentage, which works out to 47.7 wins over a full season. Conveniently, this number is almost exactly halfway in between our previous replacement level (.265) and Baseball-Reference’s previous replacement level (.320), though the number wasn’t chosen solely as an equal compromise.

While this won't significantly change any statistic over any one year (maybe around 0.3 WAR one way or the other in a given year) over a long career it could have a substantial change. For example some players for FanGraphs will lose 15-20 wins over 11,000 or so career plate appearances.

There are still going to be differences between the two sites because both sides have their own fielding views but offensively they are going to be nearly identical from here on out as Baseball-Referenced noticed using the example of B.J. Upton over the last three years where before the change Baseball-Reference had him at a 7.3 WAR while FanGraphs had him at a 13.9 WAR. After the calculations Baseball-Reference still has him lower with a WAR of 7.3 with FanGraphs having him at a 10.7 but that difference is solely on how they value his defense. When you take a look at his offensive WAR from Baseball-Reference is 10.6 and FanGraphs has his offensive WAR at 10.7 so the only true factor that differentiates the two sites is their defensive value for him.

As far as the Pirates goes before the change Baseball-Reference had Andrew McCutchen with a 7.0 WAR and after the change he was at a 7.2. Not overly significant, but a change nonetheless.

Things can be further explained by reading the links above but I brought out a few examples to hopefully help highlight how significant this change is for the statistics community, even if some still don't believe that WAR is a real thing.

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview - Pitching

The Pirates rotation is somewhat of a mess. OK, it is more than somewhat of a mess, it is a mess, but it is also just like the rest of the team in that you could really go from one extreme to the other with what you are going to get. I am going to take a look at the starting rotation and the bullpen and try to piece what we can expect to see from these guys.

First, the starting rotation to enter the season:

A.J. Burnett

When talking about the Pirates rotation most people are going to start and stop with Burnett who came to the Pirates last off season and was an immediate fan favorite and came out and pitched a pretty good season for the team. He was nearly a 3.5 win player last season by cutting his walks and striking out a ton of batters. For a staff that is really unable to strike anyone out it was really a nice change of pace to have someone who could strike a hitter out when you needed him to.

A huge help for Burnett wasn't just the strikeouts but it was his ability to get more ground ball outs. Pitching at PNC Park with a pretty good defensive middle if you can get a lot of ground balls then you are going to be able to be successful. Over his career his GB/FB rate was 1.57 but last season he blew that away with a 2.35 ratio which was his highest since the 2005 season when he was still with the Marlins. That ratio helped him jump his ground ball rate to 57% after he was just over 49% the year before in New York. It also helped his HR/FB rate which was 17% in 2011 which is ridiculously high and got it back down to 12.7% which was much closer to his career average of 11.4%. I am not sure we are going to see Burnett be as dominate he was for vast stretches last season but there hasn't been much of a dip in his velocity so I expect him to give good outings and give the team a chance to win.

Wandy Rodriguez

One of the Pirates bigger pickups last year was getting Rodriguez from the Astros and while he struggled in his first couple starts he was the most consistent starter in the rotation from the halfway point. He is a little older like Burnett but he is about as consistent as it gets. If there is one guy on the staff where you know what you are going to get from a night in-night out basis then Rodriguez is at the top of the list. His strikeout rate has fallen each year since 2008 and is now down to only 6.08 per nine innings but his was rate went down from 2011 and was at 2.45 all of last season with both the Astros and Pirates and is predicted to be right around that by all preseason prognostications.

Nothing is going to surprise you from Rodriguez but he is going to give you a chance to win. Last year after he got to the Pirates he made 12 starts and threw 75 innings and in nine of those starts he gave up three or less earned runs and in two of those starts he didn't give up a single earned run in wins.

The top of the rotation isn't going to flash you with what these guys had early in their careers but both Burnett and Rodriguez are going to give the team a chance of winning and with nobody that is of true ace potential it could be (and has been) a lot worse at the top of the rotation for the Pirates.

James McDonald

McDonald. Man. Does anyone really have any idea what happened to this guy last season? For the first half of the year he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate and in the second half of the season he might not have deserved to make a few of the starts near the end of the season. The first half of the season he made 17 starts and posted a 2.37 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP while walking only 31 batters in 110 innings pitched. Hitters just couldn't figure this guy out either and only hit .196 off of him. After the All-Star break it was like a completely different pitcher. He made 13 starts (61 innings) and had a 7.52 ERA with a 1.79 WHIP and walked 38 batters while hitters were hitting him at a .292 clip. Literally night and day.

What was it then? I am not really sure if it was the innings pitched as he threw the exact same number of innings in 2012 than he did in 2011 (171) and other numbers such as ground ball rate and HR/FB were nearly identical. His walks were down and his fastball stayed at about the same velocity so what was it? Truth be told I don't think anyone has a lick of an idea. He did incorporate a slider that was lights out in the first half and he threw nearly 18% of the time. Were hitter just figuring him out after not being able to do so in the first half of the season? Was it something mental? Hopefully this all gets worked out because if he can give some consistency and give the Pirates more than a hot or cold effort then it could go a long way in what the Pirates do this year. While the Pirates don't have an ace to speak of it would be much better if they had three solid guys (McDonald, Burnett, Rodriguez) rather than just two and would really help soften the blow of the general letdown of the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, at least at the start of the season.

Jonathan Sanchez

Outside of those three options the Pirates rotation is pretty brutal, at least to start the season. On Tuesday morning they named Sanchez as the teams fourth starter and guaranteed him that spot for the start of the season. This is the same Sanchez that earned an 8.07 ERA in 64.2 innings last season between the Rockies and the Royals. It was just brutally bad for Sanchez. The thing with him is that you are always going to get a guy who can strike a ton of batters out. Last season in limited innings he only struck out 6.26 batters per nine but in 2011 with the Giants he averaged over a strikeout per inning and in his career he averages over a strikeout an inning.

The big downside for Sanchez is that he just gives up endless amounts of base runners. Last season he walked over seven batters per nine innings and for his career he walks five batters per nine innings. For those of you that don't know, that is a ton of walks. Even in his 2010 season with the Giants where he was really good he walked 4.47 guys per nine innings. Something you are going to have to deal with and if he can strikeout over a batter per inning that can help, but can he do that? His WHIP is always going to be high (career 1.45) so it is imperative that he fills the strike zone as much as possible and tries to get hitters to chase his slider. His ability to get swings out of the strike zone dropped a ton last season (21.7%, 27.5% in 2011) and he is about even in his ability to get ground balls and fly balls. All in all this is not a good thing for the Pirates. It wouldn't be good if he was their fifth and it is really not good that he is their fifth.

Jeff Locke

The final spot at the season opens will be awarded to Locke almost by default. They have a ton of different guys that are up for the fifth spot but Locke has shown enough (or everyone else just sucked that bad) that he will be on the bump when a fifth starter is needed.

Locke has been up and down for the Pirates the better part of the last couple of years making ten total starts and 12 appearances for 51 innings. His career MLB ERA is 5.82 and he can strikeout a few guys but it isn't something that he is going to do a ton of as his fastball sits around 91 with a curve and a change. In 29 starts in AAA for the Indians Locke has a 2.44 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP with a 156:52 K:BB ratio in 170 innings.

That is really what we are looking at for the start of the season for the Pirates.

Kyle McPherson

They could also have McPherson to throw some inning but he really bombed in spring training. To be honest I am not really sure what to think about McPherson. He has only 18.1 AAA innings and he threw 26.1 big league innings last year and was pretty good for the most part. I would assume he would get the first shot if something were to happen to Locke or Sanchez. That being said having to choose two out of those three means that your rotation is isn't going to be one of your strengths.

Francisco Liriano

As the season moves on the Pirates are going to get a few pitchers back that might make things a little bit better. As you know they signed Liriano and he was supposed to be in the rotation as the number three or four but broke his non pitching hand in the off season. That is another story for another day though.

Liriano should be back around the middle of May or maybe a little later but this is a guy I think can add some solid stability to the rotation. Sure, his consistency has been a little erratic and he hasn't been able to stay healthy but he still have the stuff to be a pretty decent middle to back end guy if he can stay healthy.

Liriano hasn't pitched more than 160 innings since 2010 when he threw 191.2 for the Twins but before that he never threw more than 140 at the major league level. When you look at Liriano you really see the same thing I talked about with Sanchez over the past couple of seasons. Even though have have been riddled with injuries Liriano has walked just over five batters per inning but last season he struck out 9.59 batters per nine innings (!) and for his career he strikes out better than a hitter per inning. What is more comforting to look at is that his career average of walks per nine innings is 3.81 which isn't great but coming off back-to-back seasons of walking five per nine that could be a lot worse. Back in 2010 he only walked 2.71 batters per inning so if he can get somewhere around that with the strikeout numbers that would be huge.

Liriano sat around 93 on his fastball last season which was up from 91.8 in 2011 so that is a pretty good thing to see, especially when you consider that in his good 2010 year he was averaging 93.7 on his fastball. His slider is going to sit around 86 which has been consistent over his career and his change up is a little heavy at 85-86 but who knows. His ground ball rate is only about 44% and last season his HR/FB went up pretty significantly (12.9% compared to 6.3% in 2010 and 9.9% in 2011) but I am not sure how much that has to do with pitching some in Colorado. I am sure being left handed at PNC Park will help him get a little closer to his 2011 numbers, if not better.

Like I said, I was a supporter of the deal to bring him in. I have always been a fan of him and despite some struggles he is a safer bet than Sanchez is, by a pretty significant margin in my eyes. His ERA was 5.34 last year but his xFIP was only 4.14 which might consider him getting a little unlucky with his HR/FB and despite not pitching a ton of innings and having a higher walk rate he was still nearly a two win pitcher. This seems like a lot of what ifs (it is) but if he can be your number four and get a little bit of his control back and stay healthy then it could turn out pretty well.

Jeff Karstens

I guess you have to talk about Karstens but who knows if he will even pitch this season. I know that is me just being overly dramatic but when Liriano was signed a lot of people pointed to his health problems as to why it probably wasn't a great signing. All that being said those same people really wanted Karstens back who has actually pitched about 50 innings less than Liriano over the past three seasons.

Karstens has been a good guy to have on the team because he can be a pretty solid starter and he has value as a swing man. That being said the dude just can't stay healthy. Only 90.2 innings pitched last season and once he was resigned by the Pirates this season (after nobody else wanted him) he had shoulder problems (again) which hasn't let him throw at all this spring. I would love for Karstens to come in and be the fourth or fifth starter because he was really successful in 2011 when he threw 160+ innings with a 1.20 WHIP and a 3.38 ERA. He doesn't walk a lot of guys (2.32 per nine for career) and although he doesn't miss a lot of bats (5.01 strikeouts per nine innings) he just gets outs by throwing a ton of ground balls.

Karstens just can't stay healthy and most of the prognosticators have him throwing anywhere form 100-140 innings but I really can't see him throwing that much this year. When you have shoulder problems for multiple years that is a huge red flag and if the Pirates could just somehow get him taped together for 65-70 innings out of the pen I have a feeling that would be a success. I am not holding out hope. This is exactly why the Pirates didn't tender him and exactly why no other team even gave him a look. I want Karstens to be healthy and pitch in the rotation but I just don't see it happening.

Charlie Morton

The other starter that no a lot of people are talking about and frankly probably forgot was on the team is Morton. If you remember Morton went out last season after only pitching 50.1 innings with Tommy John surgery and he will start the season on the DL and probably won't be back until after June. I have no idea what Morton might come back like. After a pretty horrid 2010 season the Pirates went in and revamped his pitching style and retooled him which made a world of difference in 2011. He morphed into a ground ball pitcher where he got ground balls at 58.5% clip and lowered his ERA from 7.57 in 2010 to only 3.83 in 2011. It was really something to watch.

Last season Morton started off a little slow but was still getting a ton of ground balls but just got hit with the elbow problem. He should be ready sometime around June 1st but I don't think anyone knows where he sits in terms of a spot on the team. He will obviously be on the big club at some point but I would expect the Pirates take it slow in getting him back into the rotation. Obviously his play is going to determine if he gets back into the rotation but while the Pirates have a little bit more power than they have had in some time with Burnett, Sanchez, and Liriano they also play in PNC Park with a good middle infield that would eat up a ton of ground balls. I think only time will really tell on this but it was really a shame to see Morton go down with the elbow last season as we really only got to see one year of him with the new mechanics and motion.

Morton did struggle against lefties in 2011 giving up a .357/.460/.500 line as opposed to right handed hitters who were only .214/.289/.278 which was both really good and really bad since teams that had lefty options (like the Phillies) would load the lineup, but naturally not every team could do that. He also had a problem walking hitters with over four per nine innings in 2011 but I think when he comes back healthy he could push for a spot in the rotation if someone is struggling.

Now that we got the starters out of the way here is what the Pirates bullpen looks like:

The bullpen is a little more what we thought it would look like but it is still still confusing in a few spots. All-in-all I think the pen has some potential to have some upside but they lost a lot from last season and are, in a way, going a little younger with who they have back there.

Jason Grilli

The biggest news is that Grilli is back in the pen as the closer after Joel Hanrahan was traded away over the off season. Grilli has pitched the past two seasons for the Pirates after the Bucs basically got him for free from the Phillies and while he had a pretty decent first year with the club in 2011 he really pitched well in 2012. The Pirates signed Grilli over the off season to a two year, $6.75M deal that probably is a year too long but the Pirates thought they needed to have some stability in the closers roll and with the way Grilli has pitched for the Pirates they thought it was a good move. He is 36 years old so this becomes more than the danger zone of a baseball career, especially for relievers.

The one thing Grilli does is strike dudes out. He averaged 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings last night and posted a 2.91 ERA but he did leave almost 83% of runners on base. He doesn't keep the ball on the ground (31%) so that is a little concerning as a right handed pitcher but he got outs and was one of the most reliable guys out of the pen. The age scares me, as does the second year of that deal, but it is nice to have him back and will be a welcome sight to close out games.

Mark Melancon

Melancon was the main piece that the Pirates got back in the Hanrahan deal and while he didn't pitch very well at all last season he is going to be a guy that can come in and eventually be a top late inning guy at a fraction of both the cost and age of Hanrahan. Last season with the Red Sox he had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings but that was aided by a really high HR/FB rate of 22.2% which was double that of his rate in 2011 with the Astros. According his xFIP was a much more manageable 3.45 so maybe he was a little unlucky with the fly balls. He does strike out about eight hitters per nine innings and in his 2011 season with the Astros where he served as closer he had a 2.78 ERA and got ground balls at a 57% clip. He is going to get his fastball up around 93 or 94 with a cut fastball and a curve that he works in so he has a nice group of pitches and should be good in the set up role which I assume he will be in.

Jared Hughes

Working backwards into the seventh inning guys you would have to assume that is going to go to Jared Hughes against right handed hitters and Tony Watson against lefties. Hughes is a pretty interesting dude as he is super focused on the mound and went through some really good stretches last season. He threw 75.2 innings last season and while he was a replacement level pitcher he got ground balls at a 60% rate. He isn't anything special but it really is what it is.

Tony Watson

Watson is going to be the late inning left handed specialist on the team. Last season he held left handed hitters to a .183/.252/.301 line in 93 at bats while allowing right handed hitters to hit .213/.318/.372. He isn't overly terrible against right handed hitters but his walk rate is much higher against them as it shows in the over 100 point difference in batting average to on base percentage. His fastball improved pretty dramatically since 2011 as that season his average fastball velocity was just over 91 mph while last season he was throwing nearly 94 mph. It was a noticeable difference and he usually paired that with a slider to go with a one-two combo. Watson doesn't ever make me feel overly confident whenever he is in the game and I am not a huge fan of his but he does usually get he job done when called on.

Chris Leroux

The interesting guy, for me at least, in the pen is Leroux. He has had a really up and down career so far where he has thrown only 65.2 big league innings. Last season wasn't very good at the major league level for Leroux as he posted a 5.56 ERA in 11.1 innings but his laughably low 39.7% LOB% certainly has a lot to do with that as did his 12.5% HR/FB rate which was over nine percent higher than his career average. All that played into him having only a 2.81 xFIP and while he will be in the long roll for the Pirates he can be stretched out if he had to be in an emergency situation. His velocity dropped over two miles per hour last season but was still able to strike out about a hitter an inning and in a pinch he could get the job done, and should be able to do a pretty nice job in the long roll.

Justin Wilson

Usually the Pirates don't carry a second lefty (at least they didn't for much of last season) but this year Wilson will be in the fold as more of a middle/long option for the Pirates in the pen. Wilson's big problem is that his control really isn't on point as evidence by his 4.5+ walk rate in nearly all levels of the minors but he posses a pretty heavy fastball that reaches 94-95 and throws a 88-89 mph slider. He is a guy that can get strikeouts (around eight per nine innings) so if he can get his control in order this could be a nice option to have in the pen from the left side.

Jeanmar Gomez

The utterly bizarre keep in the pen comes in the form of Gomez. The Pirates got him from the Indians and to be honest I have no idea why he is on the roster over someone like Bryan Morris. Last season for the Indians Gomez posted a 5.96 ERA with a 48% ground ball rate and a 14.9% HR/FB rate which is right around his career average. I wouldn't say that he got unlucky as both his FIP (5.47) and xFIP (4.95) were right around where his performance was so I literally have no idea what he is doing on the roster other than to frustrate Pirates fans. He doesn't do anything well as he only strikes out 4.67 batters per nine innings and barely breaks 90 on the gun. Really just embarrassing that he is on the roster. If the Pirates rely on him for anything it will be a long summer (it might be anyways).

Not really sure what the deal is with Morris. He didn't really have a good spring but I can almost guarantee he would be better than what Gomez can give you. Morris was a former starter that was turned into a late inning guy last season and threw 81 innings in AAA where he struck out about a batter per inning and walked less than two per nine innings. He can get his fastball up to 94-96 and a cutter at 90-91. I know some have said he didn't really look good in the spring but neither did Gomez and we know Gomez isn't good. Just no idea.

Now that we are done with the position player and the pitchers what is the outlook for this team? Can they get to .500? Can they make a push for the playoffs? Tomorrow I am going to take a look at a few questions that surround the Pirates and give you my prediction for the NL Central so make sure you keep your eyes open for that.

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.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Penguins Game 35 Recap - Penguins 4, Jets 0

-The Penguins made the score 3-0 with a Pascal Dupuis goal just 4:12 into the second period and the game was over at that point. Obviously the game wasn't officially over but the way the Penguins were playing and the way the Jets were playing it was essentially over. With less than two minutes left in regulation Dupuis scored a short handed goal for good measure. Pretty good guys, pretty good.

 -The Penguins were just on another level tonight and it probably didn't help the Jets that they played a pretty horrible hockey game. It is really hard to tell how much was on the Penguins being good and how much was on the Jets being bad but I can tell you that both were true tonight as the Jets looked like an average high school team for portions of the game while the Penguins looked like a team that had come into the game winning 13 straight with two of the best players in the game.

 -The Penguins dominated the shots on goal. After registering 25 shots in two of the last three games the Penguins absolutely went off and put 43 shots on goaltender Al Montoya. After not putting the puck in the net a ton the Penguins got four goals, all in the first two periods before they decided to essentially play keep away the rest of the game.

 -The Jets didn't really pose a threat much of the game but in the first minute of the third period Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik took penalties only four seconds apart which gave the Jets a chance to score a couple of power play goals to get back into the game but the penalty kill was outstanding as they blocked a ton of shots and allowed the Jets only to register two shots on goal on almost a full two minute 5-on-3 power play. The PK has been really outstanding during this streak and tonight was just another example of that.

 -Tomas Vokoun was again really good as that is now back-to-back shutouts for the Penguins and the third shutout in the last seven games. The defense did a really nice job in front of him and he didn't face a whole ton of shots but he did make a ton of saves early that were nice and he earned his 50th career shutout. He is only the 26th goaltender to have 50 shutouts. Marc-Andre Fleury might be a little banged up and this is the exact reason by Ray Shero brought him in this past offseason. Just clutch. 

-The Penguins won 37 faceoffs. The Jets won 19. Whoa. Brandon Sutter won 13-of-19 and Joe Vitale won 7-of-8. 

-The Penguins have given up only nine goals in the last ten games. Just unreal.

 -Jarome Iginla is going to be added to this team. Yup.

-14 straight. Islanders on Saturday afternoon.