Winter Report Card: Pittsburgh Pirates
With little less than three weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 88-74 (.543), second place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
The Pirates weren't quite as successful in 2014 as the year before, dipping from 94 wins to 88 and getting ousted in the Wild-Card Game instead of lasting all the way to Game 5 of the Division Series, but with two straight years of postseason appearances after a 20-year drought, the level of expectations has been raised in Pittsburgh. A smart, forward-thinking front office led by general manager Neal Huntington once again has to find a way to stretch a bottom-five payroll far enough to produce another contender.
The good news is that the Pirates have gotten a buy-in from their players with regards to the culture created by the front office, including a significant reliance on analytics that has manifested itself in the team's focus on groundball-centric pitching, frequent infield shifting and catcher framing. While they couldn't dream of retaining Russell Martin — whose expertise on the latter front helped him land a five-year, $82 million jackpot with Toronto — they retained Francisco Liriano via a hometown discount price (three years, $39 million) and brought back 2012-13 staff staple A.J. Burnett for significantly less money than the player option he rejected in Philadelphia ($8.5 million versus $12.75 million).
Though he missed a month with an oblique strain and saw his ERA, FIP and walk rate all rise relative to 2013 (from 3.02, 2.929 and 3.5 per nine, respectively, to 3.38, 3.59 and 4.5 per nine), Liriano was a better-than-league-average pitcher for the second year in a row, the first time that's happened in the mercurial 31-year-old lefty's career. His two-year total of 4.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference.com version) beats those of Ervin Santana and Brandon McCarthy, similarly-aged free agents who netted four-year deals for $55 million and $48 million over four years, respectively. Likewise, his contract is significantly more economical — and thus has a better chance of panning out — than the deals that Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco received over the past two winters. Whatever Liriano and pitching coach Ray Searage have going, it's working.
It's the same story with Burnett, whose 2012-13 performances under Searage were his best back-to-back seasons since 2008-09, a welcome change from his previous two years of five-plus ERAs with the Yankees. The 38-year-old righty gutted out 213 2/3 innings for the Phillies, and while he led the league in losses (18), earned runs (108) and walks (96) en route to a 4.59 ERA, he pitched the entire season with an inguinal hernia that compromised his control and required offseason surgery to repair. He effectively replaces another Searage turnaround project, Edinson Volquez, who gave the Bucs 192 2/3 innings of 3.04 ERA work, then signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Royals.
You can't keep 'em all, alas, and in the short term, it's likely that no free-agent loss will sting harder — throughout the game, not just here — than that of Martin, who hit .290/.402/.430 for a career-best 136 OPS+, threw out 39 percent of would-be base thieves and was 12 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to 5.5 WAR. Via Baseball Prospectus' metrics, he also ranked eighth in the majors in pitch framing (16.5 runs above average) and was said to have a substantial impact in the clubhouse as well, befitting a player who has reached the postseason in seven of his nine major league seasons.
As the Yankees did in 2013, the Pirates are attempting to replace Martin with a pair of strong pitch framers with weak bats in Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, the latter of whom was acquired in a November trade that sent lefty reliever Justin Wilson to the Bronx. The soon-to-be-33-year-old Stewart set across-the-board career bests by hitting .294/.362/.331 for a 98 OPS+, albeit in just 154 PA, but he was 5.5 runs above average in framing in that limited duty. Likewise, the going-on-29-year-old Cervelli hit .301/.370/.432 for a 127 OPS+, albeit in just 162 PA, and was 6.4 runs above average in framing; he missed a combined 11 weeks due to a hamstring strain and post-concussion problems. Neither of them is likely to maintain those lofty offensive performances, but if they can approximate Martin's defense and staff handling while making just over $2 million combined, it will reduce the sting of that departure.
On offense, some of the slack should be picked up elsewhere. Gone is the unproductive first base tandem of Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, who combined to hit .227/.319/.361 in that capacity; including others, the Bucs had the second-lowest OPS in the league from that position. Davis was sold to the Athletics, Sanchez nontendered. In their place, Pedro Alvarez will get first crack at the job, coming off a frustrating season in which he hit just .231/.312/.405 with 18 homers and dealt with a throwing problem that cost him the third base job, as well as a stress reaction in his left foot that limited him to just five appearances at his new position and one plate appearance after Aug. 26.
Also potentially in the mix, likely as a platoon option, is 33-year-old Corey Hart, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal. After missing all of 2013 due to microfracture surgery in his right knee, Hart slumped to .203/.271/.319 with six homers in 255 PA with the Mariners, missing time with a left hamstring strain and a right knee contusion. The Pirates clearly hope that an extra year removed from surgery can restore the potency of a player who hit 87 homers from 2010 to 2012.
Lefty-swinging Andrew Lambo, a 26-year-old former prospect who spent most of the last two seasons tearing up Triple A while accumulating 72 PA in the majors, could find his way in there if the other options aren't satisfactory. He could also take up some of the slack left by the recent trade of Travis Snider to the Orioles in exchange for A-ball lefty hurler Stephen Tarpley, although the primary purpose of that move was to open up rightfield for 23-year-old Gregory Polanco, who scuffled his way to a .235/.307/.343 showing with seven homers in 312 PA as a rookie.
Alvarez's move means that multi-position breakout star Josh Harrison will settle at third base. What's less clear is the destination of going-on-28-year-old South Korean import Jung-Ho Kang, whom the team signed to a four-year, $11 million deal while paying a $5 million posting free. Kang put up videogame numbers in the KBO last year (.356/.459/.739 with 40 homers) as a shortstop, but it's a pipe dream to expect that kind of production as he moves to a much more difficult league. Huntington expects him to slot into Harrison's vacated multi-position role, in which he could spell others at second, short and third and — as his predecessor's path proves — claim a larger share of playing time if his production merits it. It's an interesting and low-cost gambit, to say the least.
Also in some multi-position capacity is former Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez, who hit a lopsided .211/.258/.443 with a career-high 12 homers in 259 PA. He has experience at every position save for catcher and pitcher and wields a decent bat against lefties (.247/.342/.404 career). Both Kang and Rodriguez will more than offset the loss of light-hitting fielding whiz Clint Barmes, who signed a one-year deal with the Padres.
In the bullpen, the team acquired 29-year-old lefty Antonio Bastardo to replace Wilson, who made a combined 128 appearances in 2013-14 but saw his ERA double from 2.08 to 4.20 in those two seasons. Though he whiffed 11.4 per nine in 67 appearances totaling 64 innings in 2014, Bastardo saw his ERA inflate as well, from 2.32 in 2013 to 3.94, though his FIPs (3.00 and 3.10) were largely unchanged. He's more or less platoon-neutral, so needn't be confined to a lefty specialist role. Meanwhile, gone from the mix is Jeanmar Gomez, who made 44 appearances with a 3.19 ERA but whiffed just 5.5 per nine.
Unfinished business: Pitching depth
With Charlie Morton having undergone his second hip labrum surgery in four years — this time on the right side — the Pirates' starting five stacks up as Liriano, Burnett, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley. None of them besides Burnett made 30 starts in 2014, and Liriano was the only other one to top 162 innings and qualify for the ERA title. Nobody expects the team to go out and sign James Shields (though how about a one-year, $25 million offer, just to see what happens?), but another addition wouldn't hurt.
The best available remaining starter is probably Chris Young, who's generally no picture of health himself but who earned AL Comeback of the Year honors at age 35 by pitching to a 3.65 ERA in 165 innings for the Mariners, overcoming ugly peripherals (1.4 homers, 3.3 walks and 5.9 strikeouts per nine en route to a 5.02 FIP) via a typically low BABIP (.240 in 2014, .255 career, 13 points better than the next lowest pitcher among those with at least 1,000 innings since 2004).
Likewise, the team could stand to add another reliever or two. Their late-gamers — closer Mark Melancon and lefties Bastardo and Tony Watson — are solid, but of their righty setup options, John Holdzkom has all of nine big league innings under his belt and Jared Hughes whiffed just 5.0 per nine. Beyond Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, both likely too pricey at this juncture, the grab bag just got smaller with this week's signings of John Axford and Ronald Belisario. But power arms such as Jose Veras and Matt Lindstrom are still available, and one wonders what Searage might do with, say, Joba Chamberlain. The bottom line is that if Radhames Liz, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2009 (when he was lit for 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings), is on your projected 25-man roster, you need more depth.
Preliminary grade: B+
Given their financial limitations, the Pirates never had a chance to retain Martin, but they did well to secure Liriano and Burnett at below-market prices, and the addition of Kang gives them enough infield depth to set up a possible trade from strength down the road. They still need more pitching, but the same can be said for so many other teams, and the Pirates' recent knack for doing more with less should grant them the benefit of the doubt.