With a thin rotation and shaky infield, the Pirates should have done more this off-season to bulk up a team that once again fell short last season.
With less than a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Pittsburgh Pirates. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
98–65 (.605), second place in National League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
1B Pedro Alvarez*, LHP Antonio Bastardo, RHP Joe Blanton, RHP A.J. Burnett^, 1B Corey Hart*, LHP J.A. Happ, RHP Charlie Morton, 3B Aramis Ramirez^, RHP Joakim Soria, 2B Neil Walker, RHP Vance Worley
RHP Neftali Feliz, OF John Jaso, LHP Kyle Lobstein, RHP Juan Nicasio, LHP Jonathon Niese, 1B/3B Jason Rogers, RHP Ryan Vogelsong
(*free agent, still unsigned; ^retired)
Off-season In Review
The Pirates’ first order of business this off-season was replacing the retiring A.J. Burnett in their starting rotation. They did so by trading 30-year-old second baseman Neil Walker, who is entering his walk year, to the Mets for 29-year-old lefty Jonathon Niese, who will make $1.55 million less than Walker this year and can be controlled through 2018 via a pair of affordable club options ($10 million for '17, $11 million for '18). That was a solid move, but Niese has never thrown 200 innings in a season and has only twice in six full years posted an ERA+ at or above league average. Barring yet another miracle from pitching coach Ray Searage, Niese is a back-end starter, but right now, he's slotted in as the No. 3 starter in the Pirates' rotation.
With valuable deadline addition J.A. Happ also gone, the Pirates needed to do more than add Niese to patch their rotation, but so far, they’ve only done less. Just before Christmas, Pittsburgh signed 38-year-old Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year deal with a $2 million base and lots of incentives. The team also purchased lefty Kyle Lobstein (3–8, 5.94 ERA in 11 starts and two relief appearances as a rookie last year) from the Tigers and claimed A.J. Schugel off waivers from the Mariners (who had claimed him off waivers from the Diamondbacks just a month earlier). None of those three is a clear upgrade on Charlie Morton, who was traded to the Phillies for righthanded non-prospect David Whitehead, who will be 24 in April and was lousy in high A ball last year. As things stand now, Niese, lefty Jeff Locke and Vogelsong are in line to fill the final three spots in the rotation and fight an in-season battle over who will be bumped by the eventual arrival of top prospect Tyler Glasnow.
The trade of Walker, meanwhile, left a hole at second base that general manager Neal Huntington announced will be filled by Josh Harrison, who led the Pirates in games played at third base last season. With Harrison now at second and veteran Aramis Ramirez now retired, the hope for third base is that Jung-ho Kang will be able to return at full strength from the catastrophic left leg injury he suffered on a takeout slide late last season and man the position, but he is not expected to be ready by Opening Day. With that in mind, the Pirates re-signed utility man/heavyweight cooler champion Sean Rodriguez to a deal similar to Vogelsong’s (one year, $2.5 million with multiple appearances bonuses) to try to pick up the slack for both Harrison and Kang.
On the other side of the infield, the team non-tendered first baseman Pedro Alvarez in early December. Last year, Alvarez was roughly league average at the plate for a first baseman but was awful in the field and due for arbitration yet again after making $5.75 million last year as he entered his walk year. With Mike Morse under control at the league minimum thanks to the Dodgers eating his salary, the Pirates figured they could find a more economical way to keep first base warm for prospect Josh Bell, who will open the season at Triple A.
Part of that solution appears to be the two-year, $8 million contract the team gave to 32-year-old ex-catcher John Jaso, who has played just one inning at first base in the majors and hasn’t played multiple games at the position since 2004. His career as a catcher is over due to concussions, however, and there’s no room for him in the Pirates’ outfield, and while he was primarily a designated hitter for the Rays last year, that’s obviously not an option in the NL. Clearly, the Pirates see him as the second coming of Scott Hatteberg, another lefty hitter with on-base skills who was asked to transition to first base for his age-32 season.
Backing up the proposed Jaso/Morse platoon at first will be Jason Rogers, a soon-to-be 28-year-old righthanded hitter acquired from the Brewers for centerfielder Keon Broxton and teenage righty Trey Supak. Broxton, who will be 26 in May, was expendable, since the Pirates effectively have three centerfielders starting every day and because Jaso, Morse and Rodriguez all have experience in the outfield corners. The Pirates likely sold low on Supak, their second-round pick in 2014 who pitched in bad luck in rookie ball last year, but we won't find out any time soon whether the Brewers fleeced them there. As for Rogers, he hit .290/.372/.466 in the minors and .296/.367/.441 in 169 major league plate appearances as a rookie last year, so don’t be shocked if he leapfrogs Morse in that first base platoon. Rogers can also spot at third base and in the outfield.
Finally, to a bullpen that lost lefty Antonio Bastardo and deadline reinforcements Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton (no, seriously; he had a 1.57 ERA in 21 appearances) to free agency, the Pirates added righties Juan Nicasio (one year, $3 million) and Neftali Feliz (one year, $3.9 million). Nicasio salvaged his career by moving to the bullpen in mid-2014, but his 4.9 walks per nine innings last year undermined his other strong peripherals. Feliz, meanwhile, is still trying to reestablish himself following his August 2012 Tommy John surgery. He got his velocity back up last year but still isn’t missing as many bats and gave up a lot of hard contact on his way to a .351 BABIP and a 4.05 FIP. Both are upside plays, which should come as no surprise; that sort of transaction has been the Pirates’ modus operandi throughout their current run of success.
Unfinished Business: Infield and rotation
The Pirates are on a budget and have some top prospects on the verge in Bell and Glasnow, but there is significant collapse potential in both the infield and rotation. Kang’s return is not guaranteed. First base is a patchwork of question marks. Shortstop Jordy Mercer’s bat is heading in the wrong direction (OPS+ last three seasons: 117, 94, 70). Harrison has never made more than 44 starts in a season at second base at any level and never more than 24 in a season in the majors, and he was only a league-average bat last year after his breakout (and fluky) 2014 campaign. Walker was a crucial stabilizing force in the infield last year; I understand why the Pirates traded him, but not why they failed to replace him.
As for the rotation, if Searage can have the kind of success with Niese and Vogelsong that he’s had in recent years with Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Happ, he’ll go from great to legendary. Those kind of turnarounds have been central to the Pirates’ recent success, but betting on them still seems foolish.
Preliminary Grade: C-
Pittsburgh is a very smart organization that has reached the playoffs three years in a row by taking chances on marginalized and, at times, outright undesirable players, and the Pirates use such strategies, in part, because of their significant financial limitations. I understand that and have seen it work for them before, so they get some benefit of the doubt here. Still, given how competitive their division is, how successful the Cubs’ off-season was and how much talent was available this winter, Pittsburgh had to do more this winter to keep pace.