Pittsburgh Pirates: 5 huge questions heading into 2014

(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
Five questions hounding the defending NL Wild Card winners heading into Opening Day…

1.  Is Travis Ishikawa really GM Neal Huntington’s “answer” at first base?
     I am far from a fan of the longtime Pirates’ GM, but even I was expecting better.  After having an entire offseason with the pressure of returning to the postseason in 2014, Huntington had a league-low payroll with room to add, a myriad of potential high- and mid-range prospects to dangle, and months of time on his hands to broker a deal.  And this is his answer?  THIS?

Bowling his way into the Opening Day lineup; image credit AP

Ishikawa is a 30-year old journeyman whose high season MLB home run total is 9- and that was 5 years ago.  He has a career .721 OPS and 90 OPS+: averages that may be passable for a bench player, but are absolutely unacceptable for a starter/platoon player at the most important power position on the diamond.  And keep in mind, Ishikawa will garner the majority of bats at 1B, as Gaby Sanchez mans the “short side” of the platoon, being highly productive against LHP (.987 OPS in 2013) but useless against RHP (.619).

And unlike RF- where the Pirates have one exciting farmhand in the mix- the fallback options at 1B are slim to none.  AAA OF Andrew Lambo had a promising 2013, and came into camp as the favorite to pair with Sanchez.  But the former Dodger farmhand hit an abysmal .095 this spring, and was returned to AAA to start the season.

To have an entire offseason with resources- and wind up with an Ishikawa/Sanchez platoon as his answer- is spectacular incompetence on Huntington’s part.

2.  Who will be starting in RF come mid-season?
      Again, after an offseason of bringing in 0 (zero, nil, nada) impact players to address multiple needs, the Pirates are giving two fringe players one final audition to solidify themselves as part of the team’s core heading forward.  And if neither does, the Gregory Polanco show will almost certainly begin in mid-June.

A.  To simplify this debate, let’s assume OF Jose Tabata is exactly how old he says he is (25), as his New York Yankees’ farm system of origin has never had an age cover-up, nor has there ever been another player from Venezuela who has been caught altering his age.

Here to stay in 2014? Image credit lesterlegends

Tabata had a very promising 2013 season.  In 106 games, the 5’11” righty posted a .771 OPS (119 OPS+).  So why would the Pirates’ expectations be tempered?  For starters, despite his age, Tabata has already bounced between MLB and AAA a lot, accruing over 1,500 MLB plate appearances already.  While so much experience at such a young age can place many on the fast track to All-Star, 1,500 is also considered the watermark for a player’s potential.  And at 1,500, what the Pirates appear to have is a career .723 OPS hitter, with a season high…of 4 home runs.

Based on his encouraging 24-year old season, the Pirates should absolutely give the Venezuelan import one more opportunity before ceding the position to the highly-touted prospect Polanco.  But it’s understandable why they aren’t sold on Tabata as well.

B.  And then, there’s OF Travis Snider.  Owner of a career minor league .908 OPS, many fans (myself included) were pumped when Huntington landed Snider from the Blue Jays for former 1st round SP Brad Lincoln on the 2012 MLB Trade Deadline.  But since then, the Pirates have seen why Toronto grew frustrated with the mercurial Snider.  The former top prospect rounded out 2012 with a .652 OPS for Pittsburgh, and then a lingering toe injury dropped Snider to an abominable .614 OPS in 111 games in 2013.  Supposedly healthy now for the first time in over a year, Snider popped Spring Training competition to the tune of an .860 OPS, landing him at least a share of the starts in RF with Tabata.

3.  How soon will the Edinson Volquez $5,000,000 offseason extravaganza be put out of its misery?
      In an offseason rife with terrible decision-making, for some reason, GM Huntington chose to THE statistically worst starting pitcher in all of baseball in 2013 a $5,000,000 guaranteed contract.  This. was. awful.  High-risk players with intriguing seasons buried in their career statlines are always available on the cheap (Hello, Vance Worley.  We see you over there.)

Have you seen this man? How long will you see this man? Image credit MLB

Volquez’s career has been in utter freefall since a dominant 2008 (17-6, 3.21 ERA, 206 K, 137 ERA+), shortened by injuries in 2009 and 2010, and ineffectiveness (ERA+ of 69, 87, and 60) ever since.  While many fans are quick to draw comparisons to the similar Francisco Liriano redemption story of 2013, perhaps an even similar player comp is former Pirate Jonathan Sanchez, who was unable to resurrect his potential shown in a San Francisco Giants’ uniform, and was quietly released by the Pirates after only 4 starts (11.85 ERA) in 2013.  But unlike Volquez, the Pirates didn’t have 5,000,000 reasons to keep Sanchez around to see if he could break out of it.

With a 9.64 ERA in 3 volatile Spring Training starts, my prediction is that Volquez will be diagnosed with a phantom injury early in the 2014 season, will disappear on the “DL” (down low errrrr I mean “disabled list”) for a month or two, will return, be ineffective, and finally be released on the opening day of Steelers’ Training Camp, when the attention of the Pittsburgh sports media is elsewhere.  Apologetic fans and bloggers will rush to the Pirates’ defense, blaming the lack of progress on Volquez’s “unwillingness to change”, ignoring the fact that Huntington burned $5,000,000 on one of the statistically worst players in all of baseball.

4.  How will the rotation look sans A.J. Burnett?
      In short, it’s anyone’s guess.  Almost everything turned out in spades for the Pirates in 2013, so it may be reckless to expect such good fortune 2 years in a row.

A.  Pitching coach Ray Searage has worked miracles with NL Comeback Player of the Year Liriano, but it’s also unreasonable to expect the former Minnesota Twin to anchor the staff with another 16-8, 3.02 ERA, 117 ERA+ season.

B.  #2 starter Gerrit Cole could be one of the most exciting young arms in the National League this season, though opposing hitters will certainly begin to develop “books” of their own on the 2nd year player, in the never-ending chess match arms race that is Major League Baseball.  Cole could struggle at times, so it’s reaching to expect dominant starts night-in and night-out from the 23-year old.

C.  The Pirates saw enough in Charlie Morton’s 7-4, 3.26 ERA (108 ERA+) campaign in 2013 to award the 30-year old with a guaranteed contact through 2016 (2017 club option) that will pay $7,000,000 annually.  That figure is certainly in line with the going rate for decent starting pitching these days, although Morton’s career has been erratic, and the towering 6’5″ righthander still only owns a career 82 ERA+.  The Pirates are clearly paying Morton on 2013, rather than his total body of work.  If the former Atlanta Brave farmhand reverts to the latter, the middle of the rotation could be in big trouble.

How effective will his encore be? Image credit Pittsburgh Pirates

D.  And what about the wild card of Wandy Rodriguez?  Cleary, the 35-year old’s obvious decision to exercise his $13,000,000 player option ($5.5MM still paid by the Houston Astros) helped ensure Burnett’s exit from town, as the Pirates’ penny-pinching ownership had to be furious with such a financial outlay.  Rodriguez has declined from a consistent 110 ERA+ performer with the Astros to an injured, 100 ERA+ starting pitcher for the Pirates.  If the other 3 arms above him hold serve, a 100 ERA+ would be more than adequate from the 4th spot in the rotation.  But if Rodriguez can’t meet that level coming off of a lingering forearm injury, the Pirates will be looking at yet more wasted money, with little results to show for it.

E.  The final spot in the rotation could see more rotating visitors than a 1970’s key party.  Jeanmar GomezBrandon “Straight Outta” Cumpton.  Worley.  Volquez.  Jameson Taillon mid-season?  It’s anyone’s guess,  but look for Gomez to get the early nod when the Pirates finally do have to use a 5th starter two weeks into the season.

5.  Will the reinforcement-free offense generate any run support?
      A collection of hitters that was 20th in runs scored in 2013 received no offseason help on the free agent or trade front (thanks again, Neal Huntington), and lost key deadline acquisition OF Marlon Byrd (138 OPS+ as a Pirate) without a fight to the cross-state rival Philadelphia Phillies to boot.  Projecting improvements for younger players and regressions for older, I think the 2014 lineup will produce something like this…

LF  Starling Marte  .270, 12 HR, .785 OPS, 45 SB
2B  Neil Walker (S)  .260, 18 HR, .770 OPS
CF  Andrew McCutchen  .290, 28 HR, .920 OPS
3B  Pedro Alvarez (L)  .245, 35 HR, .810 OPS
C  Russell Martin  .220, 14 HR, .690 OPS
1B  Travis Ishikawa (L)/Gaby Sanchez  .240, 14 HR, .740 OPS (combined)
RF  Travis Snider (L)/Jose Tabata  .260, 16 HR, .760 OPS (combined)
SS  Jordy Mercer/Clint Barmes  .250, 12 HR, .680 OPS (unfortunately combined; why is Barmes here again?)

An offense hindered by too many moments like this; image credit isportsweb

Clearly after the top 4 hitters, the lineup is an absolute mess, with a rapidly-regressing Martin behind the plate (with hopeful cameos by C Tony Sanchez to spell him), power-poor platoons in 1B and RF, and the terrible re-retention of veteran SS Clint Barmes (.558 OPS) who, in the hands of a veteran-philic manager like Clint Hurdle, is going to steal far more at bats from 27-year old Jordy Mercer (.772 OPS, 118 OPS+ in 2013) than he should.

Had GM Huntington acquired even one legitimate solution at either 1B or RF, this lineup would look a lot better than it does.  As it is, this collection of hitters will be hanging on by a thread until either Gregory Polanco is called up and makes an immediate impact, or reinforcements are imported come July.

So what do you think is the most important of these 5 questions?  Please vote, and thanks for reading.  Enjoy Opening Day 2014!


  • Othersideofthemouth

    I think that the biggest question is the writer’s bias and baseball knowledge. You continue to hammer on the moves they make. One year ago, you railed on them spending $48.6M and said they couldn’t produce the 8-9 WAR required to justify the contracts. http://isportsweb.com/2013/03/10/pittsburgh-pirates-wasted-money/. That group of players produced a WAR of 12. In that article, you say the Pirates SHOULDN’T be spending money on one or two year deals for aging vets, yet, in this article http://isportsweb.com/2014/01/28/pittsburgh-pirates-offseason-insulting-fans-players-alike/ you tell us how insulted you are by them not bringing Burnett back at fair market value. There are countless more articles that can be pointed to if need be.

    • James Krug

      Please do. I’m glad you read so many of them. You can also link the articles where I stated that my initial evaluations on Liriano were clearly wrong, but at the same time, it’s a strategy that has now worked a grand total of (drumroll please) one time for the Pirates in the last 20 years. I’m not sure that success rate bodes well for the future, especially with the latest “crop” of Barmes, Volquez, and Chris Stewart.

      • Othersideofthemouth

        How about trading Gregory Polanco and another prospect, as you suggested last summer, for Morales and Raul Ibanez? That’s simply epic!

        • James Krug

          Well now you’re just changing the subject. I guess it is hard to defend the free agent “success” of 1 hit in 20 years. Thanks for reading.