Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Off-Season: The Bucs Fought The Odds & The Odds Won

The Pirates took a calculated risk over the winter that their hitters would mature and the starting pitchers wouldn't regress down a steep slope. So far, that looks like a bad bet.

They began with holes in right field and first base, and the brass did address those issues. Right field became an audition for the fourth outfielder after Gregory Polanco turned down a long-term deal, delaying his entry to the show until mid-June. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider weren't exactly an ideally matched platoon pair, but JT has proven competent if not durable in his career, and the hopes were that after his surgery, Snider would flash his first round skill set.

JT has been as advertised, hitting .261 with a .715 OPS, pretty close to his career slash of .273/.715 while Snider appears to taking the Brandon Moss road. But in two weeks, it won't make much difference; Polanco will be here, and that was the plan all along. There was never any reason to bring in someone from the outside for 10 weeks, and Polanco in right with JT on the bench looks solid.

First base was Andrew Lambo's to lose, and he did in spring training. The FO fortunately saw Travis Ishikawa wasn't an answer and pulled the trigger with the Mets to get Ike Davis. Ike hasn't shown himself to be much of a masher (.398 slugging %) , but he is an OBP machine (.377) in Pittsburgh and is capable with the glove. That makes him and Gaby Sanchez a nice first base pairing, especially if Davis recovers enough of his stroke to hit 15-20 HR, which should be within reason.

So far, so good. But the news gets decidedly more gloomy.

The Bucs had hopes that the left side of the infield would stabilize behind Pedro and Jordy Mercer.

But Pedro flunked a second shot at the clean-up spot, and is hitting just .220 with a .382 slugging %. His fielding at third fluctuates between the fabulous and the frustrating; he makes plenty of reaction plays, but then airmails the routine grounder. His UZR is -8.9 and his WAR is 0.0.  Jordy is stuck in a Brian Bixler-like funk, hitting .190 after a .285 season in 2013. No wonder; his line drive rate has dropped 11% and his ground ball rate jumped by the same. His WAR is -0.5.

Plan B? There is no Plan B. Josh Harrison has earned a chance to give Pedro a day off against the rare lefty the Bucs see, and his slugging % of .457 would even be an upgrade. Jordy's only fall back is 35 year old Clint Barmes, who is banging away at a .213 clip.

There is no cavalry to ride to the rescue behind the pair. The Pirates have signed patchwork AAAA third basemen over the years, the latest being Brent Morel, and the best looking SS reserve, Alen Hanson, is at Altoona. Mike Martinez and Blake Davis are the top pair at short for Indy, and neither is hitting over .250 in AAA.

The catching has been fine, as expected, and the bench has been stronger than hoped, thanks largely to JT and Gaby. The FO did its job in filling the identified holes in RF and 1B; but greatly underestimated the left side, crossing their fingers and knocking on wood. Not bringing on someone to push Mercer proved a mistake, as has been the lack of development among their infield prospects, at least at the top level, during the Huntington era.

But the pitching is where the boat sailed without them. Even if you consider Edinson Volquez a fair swap for AJ, the Bucs failed to strengthen their rotation, one that was loaded with questions beyond regression coming into the season.

Wandy wasn't even part of the equation; management never thought he'd be anything but a back-ender when he returned. Jeff Locke had a J-Mac season in 2013. To pile on, Jameson Taillon had TJ surgery and is out until sometime next year, with Kyle McPherson on the shelf until at least then, too.

That pretty much left Brandon Cumpton as the sixth man, and now he's in Pittsburgh, likely to stay.  Locke is behind him, although he's pitching to 3.53 ERA at Indy. He's averaging eight strikeouts a game, showing that his stuff plays, but averages 3.7 walks per nine, showing he still likes to stay off the plate - and batter's eyes are better in the show, as he found out last year. Stolmy Pimentel will be in the mix to start, but probably not until 2015; he doesn't look like he's going to get a chance to stretch his arm out enough to start this year. Casey Sadler is trying to break out from the pack this season at Indy, with Vance Worley hoping to rediscover his glory days.

A bigger predicament is that most of the touted Pirate pitching prospects won't reach Pittsburgh next year, especially with the injuries delaying Taillon and McPherson. The for-sure returning arms for 2015 are Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Cumpton, with Pimentel, Locke, Sadler and Worley looking for spots. That's not much depth, and certainly not much top-of-rotation talent.

They saved $10-12M when AJ shuffled off to Philly; they will almost certainly have to invest in some extra pitching next year, and should have this season.

The FO also over-rated the middle guys in the pen. Jeanmar Gomez and Bryan Morris have looked quite vulnerable, and the entire group, no matter how they're mixed-and-matched are getting mercilessly overexposed because of the short outings put together by the starting staff. Though they have made some inexplicable moves - letting Vin Mazzaro go twice and losing Phil Irwin - we do have confidence that they can cobble together some long help for the bullpen. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson are a pretty solid core to build around.

The winter grade: Not very good; it is harder to sustain success than it is to reach it once. The FO covered 1B and RF adequately, had blinders on to possibility of the left side failing to produce, and made virtually no moves to reinforce the staff, starters and relievers alike. This winter they should take to heart the adage that if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.


David said...

From the way the piece is written I think you missed the news on McPherson. He suffered a set back in the form of a broken bone in his elbow and won't be ready until the start of Spring Training.

Ron Ieraci said...

Thanks, Dave. I thought he had bruised, not broken, his elbow. Makes quite a bit of a diff! I'll change the post accordingly, appreciate the notice.