Monday, April 22, 2013

Are The Bucs Built For A 2013 Run?

The initial doom and gloom regarding the Bucs has been replaced by April optimism.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.

Their baserunning 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 sleeves.

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.

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