The initial doom and gloom regarding the Bucs has been replaced by April optimism. No question the Bucs are playing good ball now, but hey, can they keep it up?
This is the most fundamentally sound club, at least in the early going, that Clint Hurdle has put on the field. Defensively,
they're in the top half of MLB teams in making plays in the zone and
top ten in plays made outside the zone, and that's with keystone Clint
Barmes ranking 19th
in UZR/150. Russell Martin has shored up the plate; he's tossed out 36%
of the base stealers that have challenged him. Starling Marte and Cutch
are highlight films.
has been more than solid, even though their base stealing remains
abysmal. Aggressiveness and taking the extra sack have been Hurdle points
of emphasis that began to take root last season, and the cries for Nick
Leyva's head have calmed down considerably as the system sinks in.
The lineup is getting better, although the first week's woes have them struggling to reach mediocrity statistically.
The top of the order is in the best shape it's been in for awhile.
Travis Snider seems to be converting well to a two-hole guy instead of a
big bopper, and that fits the Pirates' needs. Marte will never draw
walks, but he is showing more discipline. As we noted in the preseason,
though, we still think his performance will be a roller coaster ride as
the league adjusts to him and he to the league. Remember, it took Cutch a
couple of years to work through everything the pitchers had up their
The middle with Cutch, Garrett Jones and Neil Walker has been effective.
The bottom of the order is more problematic. Pedro should be a platoon
player, but the Pirates haven't found a RH complement for him. Martin,
though on fire now, is probably going to be a low BA but decent OBP guy
that takes pitches as advertised, and that's fine for a seven hitter. We
have to believe the Bucs are ready to turn the page on Barmes, even if
they don't trust Jordy Mercer as an everyday SS.
The bench is a small piece of the puzzle, but with a couple of platoon
guys in the everyday lineup, it's key that the true subs be able to
contribute. Gaby Sanchez, Mike McKenry and Jose Tabata are seeing
limited at-bats but will come into their own when lefties start popping
up; only five have stared against the Bucs in 19 games.
Alex Presley and John McDonald are there for a purpose - a lefty bat and
a glove-first middle infielder - but we're not sure that serves the
bench that well. A lefty bat is called for, but a fifth outfielder who
doesn't play infield corners or wield a power bat is an extra wheel that
limits late inning moves. And we think McDonald's spot might be better
served to groom, or at least audition, a replacement for Barmes. So
we'll see how that plays out.
It's a lineup that could use more power and whiff less, but it's
workable, especially if the bench gets a little more versatility.
But pitching will be the key, and that's still a transitional project.
AJ and Wandy have been all that, but the next three guys, James
McDonald, Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez, haven't carried their weight;
J-Mac is the only one we think will stick around. The names will change
soon enough when Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and maybe Gerrit
Cole are ready, but that's no guarantee the performance will.
The bullpen has borne the load for the back end of the rotation, and its
fallen flat on its puss in the dog days of the last two seasons. That's
not a case of suddenly forgetting how to pitch, but overuse. You can't
blame Hurdle for that, but on starting pitching that can't get into the
sixth and seventh innings; its 91-1/3 IP are the fewest in the NL this
year. They already carry Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro as long guys
while Justin Wilson is called on as a multi-inning, low leverage arm
because of need to sop up innings. That's not the best way to build or
use a relief staff.
The Buc pen already leads the NL in innings tossed,
and their collective .211 BABIP and 88% strand rate just aren't
sustainable. The sabermetrics note this - the bullpen ERA is 2.03 while
the FIP is 3.80, and that spread will certainly close. The 4.32
walks/nine need trimmed, too. Their saving grace is their location; the
pen's 54% ground ball rate has bailed them out of several jams already,
as has its 22% punchout rate.
We think this year that the team should remain competitive; we'll stick
with our pre-season guess of 80-85 wins. The squad can use some tweaking
around the edges, but the big roadblock is the pitching. The starting
staff is in transition (again), and how they finish games is how the
team will finish in the standings.