Pittsburgh Pirates: A Positional Breakdown Between This Spring and Last
The 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates lost an abominable 105 games en route to the worst record in the Major Leagues, and a shot at drafting either Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon or UCLA hurler Gerrit Cole with the first pick in June's draft.
This year, however, while they won't be playoff contenders, the Pirates are unlikely to finish as badly. Here is a breakdown of how the Bucs look to stack up this spring, on paper, compared to last.
First Base: Jeff Clement (2010) Vs. Lyle Overbay (2011)
After being acquired for longtime shortstop Jack Wilson in 2009 as part of a seven-player deal, Clement was given a scholarship to start the year at first base by general manager Neal Huntington. The knock on Clement going into the season was that, as a former catcher, he would be unable to adjust to play first base at an acceptable level.
Clement surprised, though, and handled the position well. The crashing and burning of his career came at the plate, where Clement showed decent power but struck out in over a quarter of his at-bats, supplementing the strikeouts with a microscopic walk rate. He played below replacement level before being removed from the lineup a quarter of the way through the season.
Overbay was signed to a one-year deal worth $5 million during the offseason. He's below average offensively for a starting first baseman in the Majors, but he's unlikely to be nearly as bad as Clement. He offers plus-defense that Clement could not, is a good bet for 20 home runs, and walks at a more respectable clip than Clement did. That said, it's a certainty that he'll be far outdone by fellow NL Central first basemen, guys with names like Pujols, Votto and Fielder.
Analysis: Overbay is a legitimate big leaguer, while Clement was not. He's a fairly substantial upgrade, even if not a long term answer at the position.
Second Base: Aki Iwamura (2010) Vs. Neil Walker (2011)
Iwamura was acquired before the 2010 season for reliever Jesse Chavez. He was thought to be an acceptable stopgap for the also-traded Freddy Sanchez, moved to the Giants in 2009. Boy, were the Pirates wrong. Iwamura showed signs of age and injury throughout his two month reign as the Pirates' starting second baseman before Walker replaced him. He was putrid both offensively and defensively, earning the right to become a very expensive AAA infielder.
Walker, a former top prospect, had all but fallen off the map after several mediocre years at AAA. He began his career as a catcher but moved to third base after a short time in the farm system, in part to get around the catching blockade formed by Ryan Doumit. Walker played second base after his recall in 2011 for the first time in his career, and his lack of experience showed.
He was a terrible fielder last year, but it's likely he'll improve with an offseason of instruction at the position. Offensively, Walker slugged very well but was aided by a high batting average on balls in play, which allowed him to get away with not taking enough walks.
Analysis: His plate patience and defense will need to improve a bit, but Walker should be an above average starting second baseman in 2011. Iwamura was arguably the worst player in baseball while he started their for the Pirates, so Walker would have to do some exceptionally bad work not to be an upgrade.
Shortstop: Ronny Cedeno (2010 and 2011)
Cedeno is a pretty lousy player all the way around. He'll likely be the same this year as he was last year, as he's basically a finished product at this point. He has decent pop, but he doesn't show it often enough, and he's only a decent fielder (depending on whether or not you judge with an eye test or defensive metrics).
Analysis: Cedeno's a complete mediocrity. He'll play at a similar level to last year. However, thanks to Milwaukee acquiring Yuniesky Betancourt, he's not the worst shortstop in his division.
Third Base: Andy LaRoche (2010) Vs. Pedro Alvarez (2011)
LaRoche was putrid last season both at the plate and hot corner, dissolving what were pretty hopes on the part of Pirates management that he'd develop into a quality starter. He hit for weak contact every time up and botched balls at third base.
Alvarez replaced LaRoche in June, entering the Majors as the most celebrated Pirates prospect since Barry Bonds. Alvarez went through a rough adjustment period upon being called up, something that's happened with him at every professional level. After hitting for a .152 average in June, Alvarez picked his game up to finish the year with a .256 number. He still struck out way too much (34%), but his numbers were skewed by a bad first month.
He has a great chance to bust out this year as a premier offensive third baseman, maybe only behind Ryan Zimmerman in the National League. His defense leaves less cause for optimism; his range is shoddy at best, and he often throws high to first base, where he should wind up playing permanently in a few years.
Analysis: Alvarez is a giant step up on LaRoche offensively, and he's probably no worse in the field. The Pirates should be four to five wins better just by virtue of this swap over a full season.
Left Field: Lastings Milledge (2010) Vs. Jose Tabata (2011)
Milledge is a brutal defender in the outfield, taking indirect, circuitous routes to balls. In spite of his athletic build, Milledge is too slow to make an impact on the basepaths and hits for no power. His disappointing career has him with the White Sox this spring on a minor league contract after flaming out with his third team and being non-tendered in the offseason.
Tabata does everything Milledge does not, except hit for power. Tabata, like Milledge, is probably a single-digit home run threat moving forward and nothing more, although Tabata's apparent offseason bulking-up might add some to that total. He could use to improve his walk rate, but other than that, Tabata is a quality offensive player. His power numbers will be well below average for left fielders, but he makes up for it with his average and defense.
Analysis: Tabata is substantially better than Milledge now, and he has the upside to widen the gap in the future. His defense will make the Pirates' pitch-to-contact rotation look better.
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen (2010 and 2011)
McCutchen has been dazzling since replacing Nate McLouth midseason in 2009. A former first round pick and top prospect, he's more than lived up to his billing since being recalled. His athleticism and speed stunning, plate discipline impressive and power good, but still developing, he should be the best center fielder in the league in 2011. His defense is typically excellent, too, although he lapsed with several mistakes last year that hurt his metric ratings (ultimate zone rating called him one of the worst center fielders in baseball, which is simply not true).
Analysis: McCutchen is heading into his third season, which would seem to have him primed for further progression. Watching him have success will be the most "fun" aspect of this season in Pittsburgh. He'll improve on his first two seasons.
Right Field: Garrett Jones (2010) Vs. Jones/Matt Diaz Platoon (2011)
Few players were better than Jones after being recalled to replace the traded Nyjer Morgan in the middle of 2009. He belted 21 homers in that half a season, raising his name as an interesting possibility for future employment. Jones was mediocre last season, though, losing his full-time gig in right field in exchange for a platoon role with Matt Diaz. He hit just .220 against southpaws, whereas Diaz is a career .334 hitter off of them.
Analysis: The platoon will be unspectacular but unquestionably better than when Jones worked solo. Together, they should cover up each other's weaknesses a little bit.
Catcher: Ryan Doumit (2010) Vs. Chris Snyder (2011)
Doumit remains on the roster for 2011, but only as a backup catcher and potential fallback option in right field and at first base. His bat is above average for a catcher, but has proven utterly inept at throwing out base stealers. Doumit's offense doesn't make up for the lousy arm and passed balls that accompany it.
Snyder was pretty bad himself upon coming to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last year. He didn't show the ability to take a walk that he did in his career in Arizona, and he made three errors behind the plate. He is a threat to throw out runners, though, which will be important with a vulnerable pitching staff. Snyder has decent power in his bat.
Analysis: Snyder vs. Doumit is likely a push, and the two may wind up splitting duties throughout the season if Doumit isn't traded.
The Pirates went north last year with a rotation of Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen. Out of that group, Duke, Morton and McCutchen totally flopped and contributed nothing but misery. Maholm was no good by his standards, either, and Ohlendorf was a hard luck 1-11, pitching better than his record when he was healthy, but getting hurt all the time. They relied on launching pads like Jeff Karstens and Brian Burres throughout the season, to give you an idea of how bad it was.
This year, James McDonald and Kevin Correia replace Duke and McCutchen. McDonald is the best talent on the staff, while Correia's a wild card. Worst case-scenario for him is that he pitches like Duke did last year, so that move shouldn't be any worse than lateral.
Analysis: No one knows how good the unit will be, but it's nearly impossible to be as bad as last year's, which gave up more runs than any other rotation in the game and looked bad doing it.
Huntington signed Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, D.J. Carrasco, Brendan Donnelly and Jack Taschner to form a patchwork bullpen that wound up being pretty effective. Of course, the group's two best pitchers were already in-house: Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan. Meek was an All-Star after a first half with an ERA nearly in negatives, and Hanrahan was money all year in a setup role, striking out a monstrous 13 batters per nine innings. Dotel, Lopez, Donnelly and Carrasco were all gone by the deadline, and the team added Chan Ho Park and Chris Resop, both of whom pitched pretty well.
The team added Joe Beimel and Jose Veras on the cheap this offseason. Both are decent options for low prices who will work with Hanrahan, Meek, and Resop to form what should be a formidable back end to the bullpen. The pen will also feature long reliever Karstens, plus maybe Olsen.
Analysis: The bullpen will be solid behind Meek and Hanrahan. Other pieces will fall into place around them. The biggest issue could be overuse if the rotation fails.