Sunday, July 21, 2013

POTP: Your 2013 Pirates: Contenders? Not Quite

For a third consecutive summer, the Pittsburgh Pirates are near the top of the NL Central Division at the halfway mark. Unlike the preceding two seasons, it would appear all but certain that an epic collapse of historical proportions is not in the cards in 2013. But are the Pirates true contenders? The answer to that question is, Not Quite. Or perhaps, Not Yet.

The first reason for this is that this year's team simply does not hit enough. It is at least one, and really, two legitimate bats short of a playoff spot, even in the watered-down, two wildcards format unfortunately adopted in the latest cringeworthy "innovation" that comes down to us from the Commissioner's office.

Your 2013 Pirates are currently a putrid 26th in major league baseball in runs scored. Other than the badly disappointing Washington Nationals, the only teams below Pittsburgh are this year's bottom feeders: the DisAstros, the White Sox, and the Marlins.

All across the statistical columns, the Pirates are significantly less than contender status. Team batting average? A woeful .243. Home runs? 92, which ranks 18th in MLB. OPS? A middle-infielder-ish .699 mark, "good" for 22nd. Only in stolen bases are the Pirates anywhere near the top, where their 68 swipes are the 7th best figure. But that is largely the work of tow men, Starling Marte and Cutch. Even there, the team is not particularly outstanding in a top to bottom sense.

So, at least one trade - and ideally, more than one - must be made if this year's edition is going to stay in the race and claim a playoff spot. The first and most likely place to look in terms of an upgrade is, obviously, right field, which has unfortunately been a black hole all season long.

Travis Snider, formerly thought to be an elite hitter in the making when he was in the Blue Jays organization, has instead continued his death spiral from minor leaguer rising with a bullet to tarnished prospect to journeyman. In fairness, Snider has shown flashes, hitting two of the more clutch home runs this season and also showcasing a strong and accurate throwing arm, but over 250 at bats has managed a putrid .229 average with just three long balls and 22 RBI. His OPS? You don't want to know.

Garrett Jones, who hasn't played as much in right as at first base this season, has had a subpar year by his solid-but-not-spectacular standards, with a .257/8/35/.731 mark to date. More on Jones in a moment. All of which left Jose Tabata - remember him? - as the de facto starter, at least until his next in a seemingly endless procession of leg muscle injuries.

Tabata has looked...okay...all things considered, but continues to post numbers that would be fine for a versatile fourth outfielder type, but that are simply not good enough for a starter, particularly at a corner outfield spot. The suspicion is that he might be playing every day at this point as much to showcase him as trade bait as because of the failures of Snider and Jones.

As for where this leaves Alex Presley, he is getting The Ciriaco Treatment from the current regime. What is that, you ask? A player is "getting The Ciriaco Treatment" when he is 1) plainly the best option currently available to the organization on either the major or minor league levels, but 2) nevertheless somehow gets the short end of the stick and never gets the kind of extended look that would otherwise be a no-brainer given the situation. In other words, I'm not saying that Presley is bound for Cooperstown or even for the All Star Game, merely that he is clearly better than what has been taking the field ahead of him and there doesn't appear to be a logical reason for his lack of playing time.

Thus, we return to the idea of a trade for a right fielder. If you follow the Pirates' blogosphere, you have probably already heard the cast of characters being bandied about. These are names like Alex Rios, Michael Morse, the ageless Raul Ibanez, and so on. There are also some other guys who may not be as sexy but who might actually be better fits. Mostly these are below-the-radar-but-quite-capable veterans such as Chris Denorfia and Nate Schierholtz. My guess? I think the Pirates will bring in one of the latter type and won't empty the farm system for one of the big names.

Now, on to the other position of obvious need, which is first base. As mentioned above, Garrett Jones is having a mediocre year. His batting average is about what you would expect, or at least is not too far off what he usually does. It's his power that has been a real disappointment, especially given that he was coming off a career high 27 bombs last year. Jones might be feeling the pressure of trying to produce in what amounts to a walk year, as he is getting quite expensive in arbitration and it is highly unlikely that the Pirates will offer him arbitration again this coming off season. But whatever the reason, he is eminently replaceable in 2013.

Nor is his platoon partner, Gaby Sanchez, showing much of anything. Sanchez, once a solid-average starting first baseman for the Marlins, has been pretty bad since a fairly hot start. Thus even a stretch run rental player such as Justin Morneau of the Twins would be highly appealing if his price tag was not too high, which it ought not to be, given that he is in the last year of his contract. In any case, right field or first base or both must be upgraded for the Pirates to increase their legitimate chances at a playoff spot.

Nor are these the only holes for this much-improved but still significantly flawed team. The bench has been very bad all season. Brandon Inge, who on paper would figure to be an ideal multiposition part timer and platoon partner for third baseman Pedro Alvarez, is either still hurt from a shoulder injury in spring training, or finished due to age, or both. Backup catcher Mike McKenry, whose glaring inability to throw out opposing baserunners was sort-of tolerable because of his better than average power in 2012, has seen his hitting plunge to the level of his defense, which is to say, he's been pretty bad. Josh Harrison, who has ridden the escalator up and down between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis all season, long ago proved to my eyes that he is not a major league player, even as a utilityman.

In short, this is nowhere near the bench of a true contender.

The only realistic reinforcement from within would figure to be former number one draft choice Tony Sanchez, currently having a fine if still streaky season as an All-Star catcher in Triple A. He could be promoted and McKenry sent down so he would still be available later in the year if the Pirates opt for a more veteran presence in the hoped-for playoff push. But Inge and Harrison must be flat-out replaced. They are not good enough.

That leaves the rotation and the bullpen. The relievers have been the strength of this team, and even though they have been heavily used overall, the workload seems to have been pretty well spread out, all things considered. Although a capable veteran would be welcome, one is probably not necessary.

The rotation, however, could definitely use another arm. Even though the starters have performed well overall - remarkable when you factor in long term and/or season-ending injuries to Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Phil Irwin, and Kyle McPherson, as well as the flameout by former Giant and Royal Jonathan Sanchez - they have not, in general, gone deep into games and "phenom" Gerrit Cole has looked a lot more like a decent, 3/4 mid-rotation guy than an ace in the making, no matter how hard he throws. A veteran starter like Jake Peavy, who might be available from the rebuilding ChiSox, would be a major and much-needed upgrade at this point in time.

Stand pat, and the Pirates would still figure to end their all time major professional sports record of consecutive losing seasons. But they won't be contenders, not really. 85 wins would be a fine achievement for this crew as the team is currently constructed. Add in one or two legitimate hitters to go with a veteran starter and at minimum promote Sanchez to replace McKenry, and at least the wildcard is within reach. We will soon see if General Manager Neal Huntington can produce the necessary upgrades while facing the pressure of increased competition and increased expectations.

Our partner in the blogsphere, Will Pellas, hasn't had his fair share of at-bats this year; his PC landed on the DL. But he's back in time to give his state of the Pirate nation post.

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