Monday, October 13, 2014

Pittsburgh Infield - 2015

The Pirates' Opening Day lineup across the infield was 1B - Travis Ishikawa, 2B - Neil Walker, SS - Jordy Mercer and 3B - Pedro Alvarez. It sure looked different in October, and will morph again in 2015.

The fielding: One Josh entered the lineup (or perhaps when Pedro left it) the Pirates solidified in the infield. Jordy was a pleasant surprise, proving he not only could hit at the MLB level, but more importantly hold his own with the glove. He and Josh provided a solid left side in the final few weeks of the season, and their glovework was one of the reasons the pitching staff improved down the stretch as they converted grounders into outs.

The right side, though, wasn't nearly as strong. Neil Walker was steady, but didn't show much range.  That's not unexpected - he is 6'3", 210 lbs and a converted catcher. Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez were competent with the leather, but neither was very nimble.

UZR/150 (250+ innings)
Josh Harrison 3B (7.0)
Jordy Mercer SS (0.5)
Gaby Sanchez 1B (-3.2)
Ike Davis 1B (-8.1)
Neil Walker 2B (-8.4)
Pedro Alvarez 3B (-12.4)

The Ultimate Zone Rating confirms the tale: the left side was pretty good, the right side, not so much.

The hitting: The infield sticks proved to be much better this season than in 2013. Jordy outpaced Clint Barmes' production, Josh and The Kid had career years, and first base...well, that was a bit disappointing.

OPS+ (250+ PA)
Josh Harrison 134
Neil Walker 127
Ike Davis 104
Pedro Alvarez 102
Jordy Mercer 95
Gaby Sanchez 91

So the Bucs had a couple of guys performing well above league average in Josh and Neil, a couple at league average and a couple just beneath (with Mercer's OPS+ about mid-range for his position). First base is the sore spot; it's a premium offensive position and the Pirates are decidedly so-so with the bat there.

What to watch for in the offseason: Neil Walker has two arb years remaining; if the Pirates are going to make him an offer, it will be this off season. Alen Hansen is on the horizon, so The Kid's heir-apparent should be honing his game at Indy this year and ready for prime time in 2016.

Walker is under team control during that timeline, and the Pirates may feel no urgency to ink him past arbitration. So while many expect his long term future to be at third base as his range diminishes, the truth is that he may not have a long-term future in Pittsburgh.

The real donnybrook will be at first. Pedro has two years of arb left, and Scott Boras has let it be known that his client would rather be at the hot corner than first. A ploy to move him? Maybe, but it's no secret that the right offer, and El Toro will be Pittsburgh history.

Logic would dictate that despite similar slashes (Ike has an average 111 OPS+; Pedro 105; Ike's career WAR is 5.8; Pedro's is 5.9), the Bucs would keep Pedro over Ike because of upside, if nothing else. He'd also, oddly enough, probably provide a defensive upgrade - Alvarez may have trouble throwing, but he has a better glove and superior range than any other Pirate 1B candidate.

But if he becomes a distraction and they could get a little value back, they would move him. A deal would likely, but not absolutely, assure Ike the first base spot. Andrew Lambo should again get a spring camp look, and he looked a lot more poised this September than he has in past MLB auditions.

While many have written off Gaby, our guess is that the Pirates will try to keep him if he meets their price. All the first base pieces in the Bucco jigsaw are lefty, and the market isn't all that alluring, so he could remain in a 200-to-250 at-bat, platoon/bench role. Tony Sanchez will catch if Russ walks, and the odds seem to favor that scenario.

First base has been a developmental problem spot for the Pirates seemingly forever. And it's still the same. There is no real in-house help ready; maybe Josh Bell or Stetson Allie will one day be the answer, but neither are now.

Jordy has taken shortstop and made it his after a dismal April, and we give the Pirates credit for letting him play through the early jitters. His 2015 job is to repeat his performance and give the Bucs some confidence that he will be a consistent hitter with some pop and steady defensive skills.

Ditto with Josh at third. His job will be to prove he's an everyday bat in 2015; he proved he can handle the hot corner defensively. We don't expect expect another run at a batting crown, but a .285 BA is certainly attainable. And he does have to keep on hitting; he had a 4% walk rate, so all his value comes via counting numbers.

Another issue will be a reserve middle infielder; Clint Barmes was hurt for a few weeks and didn't get much time when healthy. Michael Martinez has opted for free agency, Chase d'Arnaud will likely join him, while Brent Morel is entering his first arb year and is unlikely to be tendered.

So it looks like another year of Clint, and he's fine for the role. Behind him, JaCoby Jones is making the most noise. Whether he can challenge for a starting MLB spot or is a utility guy down the road is the question; he has the speed and pop to earn a big league check, but was a college player at the A level, so he's still got challenges ahead of him.

The outlook: The infield is solid but not very deep, and the left side is held by two young guys who have to prove they can repeat an impressive first-year campaign. There's not much in the way of help in the pipeline for 2015, but there are a couple of guys coming up that could be just a couple of seasons away. Once the Bucs decide what to do with Pedro, the pieces should fall together.

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