Saturday, March 29, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Overall Thoughts and Predictions

So here is the final of the three part Pirates season preview for the 2014 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 the underlying issue that needs to improve in 2014?

For the 2014 season the Pirates just have to hope that they can repeat some of what they did last year. They got some big time innings from the bullpen and while that was good at the time I think it took a little out of them later in the season. Mark Melancon looked tired and Jason Grilli just didn’t have it after the arm injury he sustained late. The improvement? The starters have to log some more innings. The Pirates bullpen threw the fourth-most innings last season (545.2) and while the bullpen was one of the best in the league you can’t expect to have that happen every season. Here is a breakdown of how the Pirates bullpen threw by month:

March/April: 100.1 IP, 2.96 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 83.3% LOB
May: 92.2 IP, 2.62 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 80.4% LOB
June: 101.2 IP, 3.01 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 80.8% LOB
July: 70.2 IP, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 82.9% LOB
August: 90.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 74.2% LOB
September/October: 90 IP, 3.40 IP, 1.31 WHIP, 71.1% LOB

In March/April the Pirates were second in the league in innings pitched, in May they were eighth, and in June they were first. That is a lot of innings and as you see in the data above they really started to pitch much worse in August/September/October than they did in the earlier months. The league average WHIP for relievers in baseball was 1.29 so while the WHIP for the final three months for the Pirates were league average the fact remains that they put more guys on base and left a lot less guys on base. That isn’t good.

This isn’t to say that this is totally on the guys in the pen. I think the underlying issue here is that the Pirates starters just don’t get deep enough into games. This isn’t really just a Pirates problem as there were only 124 complete games across all over MLB last season (Pirates had three) but the average start for a Pirates starter was 5.71 innings while the league average was 5.91 innings. That doesn’t seem significant but the Pirates aren’t doing their bullpen any favors by making them throw significantly more innings.

2) What is the biggest worry for 2014?

I think there are a few things that are going to be wildly worrisome this season. I talked about the starting pitching getting deeper into games above and I won’t touch on that anymore. The other thing that has me worried for this year is right field at the start of the season. I think Jose Tabata is going to do just fine and doesn’t need to be platooned with but I have a fear that he isn’t going to be able to stay healthy and if he doesn’t the Pirates don’t have much of anything behind him.

If Tabata were to go down I think that Travis Snider would be given the chances but what is the probably that he stays healthy? Other than that can Snider cut it against left handed pitching? Over his career he is a .223/.272/.355 hitter against left handed pitching and that isn’t very good.

Outside of Snider the Pirates could go with Andrew Lambo but if that is an option then who is going to play the other end of the first base platoon? They could go with Jaff Decker who the Pirates got from San Diego in exchange for Alex Dickerson. In the hitter friendly PCL last season he hit .286/.381/.443 but struck out 94 times in 415 plate appearances. He appeared in 13 games for San Diego last year and hit .154/.233/.269 in 3 plate appearances.

The Pirates are most likely going to wait until Gregory Polanco comes up but that likely won’t be until mid-June when they can pass the Super-Two status. That is something to look forward to but with prospects you never know what you are going to get. I think Polanco will turn out fine but what if he doesn’t?

Right field could turn out to be alright if Tabata stays healthy and plays like he did last year and then Polanco comes up and plays like we think he can. If some of those things don’t happen though then things could get really ugly, really fast.

3) What is the biggest unknown for 2014?

The biggest unknown here is absolutely the pitching depth. The Pirates lost A.J. Burnett who was a big piece of the turnaround in the last two years and they replaced him with Edison Volquez. That clearly is a downgrade but how much of a downgrade? Volquez has seemed to pitch a little better than his numbers but can he be consistent enough to where the Pirates don’t have to use five other guys to get starts if he falters?

The other unknown is first base. I should clarify that, the biggest unknown is what kind of production the Pirates are going to get from the other half of the Gaby Sanchez portion of the platoon? With the Pirates sending down Andrew Lambo that means that Travis Ishikawa is going to start the season as the other portion of the platoon.

As I talked about in the player portion of the preview Ishikawa is a marginal hitter and a marginal defensive player. He doesn’t seem like he will do anything of note and when he is going to be playing more than Sanchez because he can hit right handed pitching and there are far more right handed pitchers than left handed pitchers.

I assume that the Pirates will be looking to trade for a first baseman if they really think Lambo can’t be that guy. I mean I am sure Ishikawa is a nice guy but I don’t really have all that much confidence that he is going to be able to do enough. If that is the case then how long before Lambo comes up? What does he have to do to get some time there? How long do the Pirates go if things start to go South? Huge question marks still there, much more than any other position.

4) When will we see Gregory Polanco and what does he bring?

That is the big question as Polanco got sent down the second week of March. Pat over at WHYGAVS did a nice piece in early March about Polanco and what it means for him to be read. If you haven’t read that yet then you should absolutely go over there and read it, it’s well worth your time.

I agree with much of what Pat goes into. I think that you really could defend either side of the argument with wanting to bring him up at the start of the season but then you could defend sending him down to AAA for a few months.

I think I probably side with the Pirates on this one. I know that some are going roll their eyes there but the fact remains that Polanco has only nine plate appearances above AAA. Last season for AA Altoona, where he played 68 games which is all but two of the games he’s played above A+ he hit .263/.354/.407. Polanco had a pretty outstanding stint in winter ball and hit very well in Spring Training but getting some plate appearances at AAA to start the year isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Polanco is an outstanding athlete and from all accounts he seems like he is one of the top-25 but there are other ramifications to bringing Polanco up right away. The first deals with years of control and the other are monetary. Most people are going to be up in arms with the idea that Bob Nutting is pocketing the money and using it at Seven Springs but once you get past that there are some practical purposes to keep him down a few months.

Tim Williams over at Pirates Prospects talked about this a few weeks ago and broke down the reasons. The first is this:

The MLB season is usually about 182 days long, but a year of service time is counted as 172 days. Teams only control players until they have six years of service time. That means if you wait a few weeks to call up a player in year one, you’ll end the year with less than one year of service time.

Far be it for me to want to keep a player for an extra year. The other is the financial part:

MLB players receive three years of arbitration, which take place in years 4-6 of service time. However, MLB designates a percentage of players as “Super Two” players, giving them an extra year of arbitration, which replaces their final year of league minimum salary. The “Super Two” players are the 22 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years. It’s hard to project an accurate cutoff here, so teams usually play it safe and call up players around the middle of June or later to avoid this status.

Breaking this down doesn’t really do much now but an extra year of arbitration could cost the Pirates somewhere in the neighborhood of $15M. Baseball is a business and when your payroll is going to be around $80M-$100M then $15M is a pretty significant chunk.

The Pirates still have Tabata in right and after the year he had last season I don’t think that it is Polanco or something horrible is going to happen in Pittsburgh. Obviously if Tabata and/or Snider bomb or both get hurt that will change the situation but at this time I don’t think it is unreasonable for Polanco to get a little bit of time at AAA. There have been players who have come up with minimal time in the minor leagues but I think that is probably the exception and in my mind you never make significant decisions based on the exception.

Would I like to see Polanco sometime in April after he passes the service time threshold? Hell yea. Will it bother me if the Pirates don’t bring him up until a safe date based on past Super-Two timelines? Not at all. I would expect to see Polanco in the middle of June unless something drastic happens.

5) When will we see Jamison Taillon and what does he bring?

In terms of seeing Taillon I think you can just read what I wrote about about Polanco and then just translate that to Taillon. I think in the overall view is that Taillon has more to work on than Polanco and therefore I think that we might see Polanco a little before Taillon. That might not matter a whole ton but the Pirates have a plan when they are brining their prospects through the system and they are going to make sure Taillon is ready when he comes up.

There are a few concerning things with Taillon coming into 2014. Some of it has to do with Taillon and some of it doesn’t. The stuff that does is that I think there is going to be an unrealistic expectation that Gerrit Cole set last season. Cole came up and really blew the doors off once he got settled in and with Taillon and Cole being linked so closely through the minors I really think people are going to be disappointed. Mike Ferrin and Jason Parks on the Fringe Average Podcast actually talked about Taillon for about eight or nine minutes starting at the eight minute mark.

What those two touched on was that while Taillon doesn’t have the overall pitch arsenal that Cole does he is two years younger and that really illustrates what Taillon can bring if he is ready to debut this year. He still has some work to do developing the changeup the working on the control but once he is ready he can have an impact on the 2014. While it might not be to the extent that Cole did last season I am not sure he really has to be that good.

Last season Taillon pitched 149.1 innings and posted a 3.68 ERA with a 3.27 FIP. He struck out 8.80 hitters per nine innings and walked 3.19 per nine. If you look through the stats from Taillon thus far you might not see the eye-popping strikeout numbers from a guy that throws hard but that has been typical for Pirates pitches, especially Cole, as their philosophy doesn’t reveolve around giving the prospects the ability to rack up big numbers but rather work on fastball command and working the bottom of the zone.

Overall Taillon is going to rely on the fastball that sits in the mid-90’s while he has a very good curveball for his secondary pitch. While those are two great pitches if you only have two pitches as a starter you aren’t going to fair very well. He is working on a changeup which Parks and Ferrin talk about on the podcast above and that will mostly be what they work with in AAA. There is a lot of talk that Taillon has a very hittable fastball and that underscores the importance for him to be down in the zone and hit his spots. By hittable they mean that hitters are able to see his fastball well out of his hand and while you can get a few balls past hitters throwing hard any MLB hitter can time a fastball and pepper it around the park.

Those are a few of the things that will be centered around the decision of when to bring Taillon up but if he can continue to improve like he has so far in his career then he should be able to help out the Pirates down the stretch and sure up the rotation.

Recently it was noted that Taillon had some pain in his elbow. This was not a good thing to hear as a Pirates fan. What is good is that it seems if his ligament was intact and unless there is something pretty drastically different in the second opinion then it just means that he is going to miss a couple weeks of throwing. I am not sure if this really push his timetable back but here is to hoping it is just a few weeks and he is back to throwing the ball.

6) How many wins can we expect from the Pirates in 2014?

A lot of things went right for the Pirates in 2013 and that led to 94 wins and the top Wild Card spot. This year in order to win 94 games a lot more is going to have to go right and while the Pirates are better this year at the start of the season than they were last year they are not as good entering the season as they were at the end of last year. That makes predicting the Pirates a little hard.

I could see this team building on the success of 2013 and winning around the same number of games but at the same time it is really hard to win 94 games in a season. Only two National League teams won more games than the Pirates and only two American League teams won more so it’s not like the Pirates did something that a lot of other teams were able to do.

Before I get into what I think here are what some of the other prediction systems have the Pirates finishing the season:

FanGraphs: 84-78
PECOTA: 78-84

No matter what you look at the Pirates are projected to lose more games in 2014. That isn’t necessarily a horrible thing as you can’t really be expected to win 94 games every season. Actually the highest projected win total by FanGraphs in 91 (Dodgers) and by PECOTA it is 98 wins by the Dodgers then 90 wins by the Rays.

I think the Pirates are going to be right in the NL Wild Card race. Right now it looks like the Cardinals are favorites to win the division and for good reason, they are an amazingly skilled team with an outstanding minor league system and a track record of winning. The Pirates will be fighting for the Wild Card spot, probably with Cincinnati. I don’t see two teams coming out of the NLC again this year so it will probably take 90 wins to get there. I don’t necessarily think the Pirates get 90 win, probably more around 85 but that might be enough to fight for a playoff spot.

7) How will the NL Central finish?

Last season the NL Central was one of the best divisions in baseball if not the best. They had three teams go to the playoffs, capturing both National League Wild Card spots. They were the only division in baseball with three teams that had 90 wins and the other two NL divisions didn’t even have multiple teams with 90 wins. It was a good year all around.

While the Brewers and Cubs were really bad last year I think that they are going to be better this year. The Cubs are going to be a really good team coming up. They aren’t there yet but they are well on their way with a good far system and a few pieces in place. The Brewers might not improve all that much but they always give the Pirates good series and they will be getting Ryan Braun back.

The Cardinals are the class of the division. They are really good and there isn’t much else to say about it. The Reds are really like the Pirates. They have good talent but they still have some holes they need to fix. They have good starting pitching and one of the best players in baseball (Joey Votto) so it will be a dogfight between those two teams.

Here is how I see the NL Central finishing up:

St. Louis – 93-69
Pittsburgh – 85-77
Cincinnati – 84-78
Milwaukee – 77-85
Chicago – 68-94

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] and then take a [read about all the pitchers].

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

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

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