The Pirates cut 11 players from the major league camp roster today, the most notable of which was sending Andrew Lambo down to the minor league camp. It was presumed Lambo would occupy the left-hand side of the 1B platoon. He was the front runner for that role coming into spring training, but going 4 for 42 in Grapefruit League action did him in. This opens the door for Travis Ishikawa. Unless the Pirates can trade for a 1B in the next 6 days Ishikawa will make the roster. Many prominent bloggers, and a large contingent of the fanbase, felt Lambo should make the club regardless of his spring stats. The argument has been that his 2013 breakout season in the minors in which he clubbed 32 home runs warranted him being given a “real” chance. I couldn’t disagree more. Players of Lambo’s ilk must continue to earn playing time. That also goes for Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, and even Jordy Mercer. They have not proven to be consistent productive players for more than a few months. This isn’t like the Pirate teams of the past 20 seasons that had a ceiling of about 75 wins. This is a team coming off the playoffs in 2013. They should be playoff contenders again this season. I don’t believe Spring Training stats are all that meaningful, but it is clear that Lambo was struggling. The Pirates can’t afford to turn over the job to an unproven player that is also struggling. I don’t believe Lambo is the answer for 1B. I didn’t think that prior to camp either. But I’m also not writing Lambo off. If Lambo gets hot at AAA Indy he will earn another shot. The key word here is EARN. There can’t and shouldn’t be any handouts to unproven players on a contending team. And that is the most positive thing that can be said about this roster move.
It is no secret that Gaby Sanchez tears up left-handed pitching and struggles against righties. We all know that Neil Walker has become a liability when he hits from the right side of the plate. It is a well know fact that Andrew McCutchen rakes against all pitching, but absolutely destroys lefties. Here are some lesser known platoon facts for the Pirates. All stats are from 2013 unless otherwise noted:
The Pirates faced 131 right-handed starting pitchers and just 31 left-handed starting pitchers last season. The league average was 48
The last team that faced fewer than 31 southpaw starting pitchers was the Colorado Rockies in 2006 (29)
The Brewers and Cardinals will open the season with no lefties in their rotations. The Reds have just 1.
Gaby Sanchez started 30 games against left-handed starting pitchers and 30 games against right-handed starting pitchers
Gaby Sanchez faced a right-handed pitcher in 96 different games. In those games he amassed 196 plate appearances against RHPs, or 2.04 PA/GM vs. right-handers
Gaby Sanchez faced a left-handed pitcher in 64 different games last season. In those games he amassed 126 plate appearances against LHPs, or 1.97 PA/GM vs. southpaws
Neil Walker made just 16 starts against left-handed starting pitchers
Pedro Alvarez led the Pirates in plate appearances against left-handed pitchers with 147
Pedro Alvarez had just a .310 OBP against right-handed pitchers
Jose Tabata had a ground ball rate of 60.8% and 12 infield hits off of righties
Jose Tabata struck out 11 times and walked just once against left-handers
Brandon Inge struck out 12 times and walked zero times against left-handers
Starling Marte had a .523 BABIP against southpaws
Neal Huntington’s big offseason bets are busting – GM Neal Huntington made two big gambles this offseason. The first gamble was to spend $5 million on free agent starting pitcher Edinson Volquez in the hopes that the Pirates’ coaching staff could work their magic on him the way they did with Francisco Liriano in the season prior. If Volquez turns out to be half as good as Liriano, he would make a nice back end of the rotation starter. The second gamble was to not address the hole at 1B and trust that rookie Andrew Lambo could fill the position. Both of these bets are not looking good. It is only Spring Training, and the numbers mean nothing yet, but that doesn’t make them any less scary. Volquez has an 11.00 ERA this Spring. The Pirates have used 35 pitchers in Grapefruit League action. Volquez’s ERA ranks 35th on the team. Andrew Lambo is hitting just .065. Of the players with at least 10 ABs, only Chris Stewart has a lower batting average than Lambo.
Tony Sanchez is Pittsburgh bound – Chris Stewart injured his knee last week. There appears to be some significant damage. Stewart is likely headed for surgery and a lengthy DL stint. It sucks for Stewart, but in the long run this probably benefits the Pirates. I didn’t like the Stewart acquisition to begin with. I understand he is very good defensively, but it is time for Tony Sanchez to become a major league contributor. His bat offers way more than Stewart’s does. I think Sanchez can fine tune his craft better by working as a backup to Russell Martin. I just hope manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t let him rot on the bench. Sanchez needs some playing time, and Martin needs to be rested more often than he was last season.
I do not put a whole lot of stock in spring training stats, but one stat I am paying close attention to is the number of times Pedro Alvarez has struck out. So far in Grapefruit League action “El Toro” has struck out just 4 times in 28 plate appearances. Yes, the games are meaningless and the sample size is small, but this is still a positive sign. What he is doing in spring training looks a whole lot more meaningful if you allow the possibility to enter your mind that Pedro is building off of the end of his 2013 season. Pedro has struck out at an alarming 30.6% rate throughout his career. But the final month of 2013 he K’d just 22 times in 103 plate appearances. That is a very palatable 21.4% K percentage. In fact, that was the lowest K% he has posted in any month during his career. Beyond the numbers, Pedro is passing the eye test. He just looks more comfortable and in control at the plate this spring. I’m not some Pollyanna Pirates fan. I give you the straight scoop. I think Andrew Lambo is going fail and Edinson Volquez is going to bomb, but I also believe Pedro is going to be quite good this season. I think he is going to have a career year and will likely outperform the early projections I made for him last month. If Neal Huntington has any desire at all to lock up Pedro with an extension, now would be the time.
Wandy passes his first test – Wandy Rodriguez took to the hill to pitch in a game for the first time since straining his elbow 9 months ago. That he pitched an inning inning against the Rays without feeling any ill effects is the best thing that has happened for the Bucs in the first week of Grapefruit League action. A healthy Wandy would go a long way towards the Pirates having a successful 2014 season.
The 4th OF spot is one of the few positions on the roster up for grabs, and the battle is heating up – Chris Dickerson is off to a great start and has an excellent chance to win the 4th OF job over Travis Snider and Jaff Decker. I was a big fan of the Dickerson signing, and the more I see of him the better like his chances of making this team. He just offers more as an extra OF than Snider does. Dickerson is a plus defender at all three OF positions, but his biggest asset might actually be his base running skills. The Pirates have given him a chance to showcase those skills in the first few games of the spring. He has already swiped a pair of bags. This is really an area that Dickerson excels at. Going back to 2010 he is 16 of 17 on stolen base attempts in the major leagues. In the minor leagues during that same time period he has 42 steals in 51 chances. This guy knows how to take a base.
Hurdle really wants to use Martin in the two-hole – Clint Hurdle indicated back at PirateFest that Russell Martin was an option to hit second in the batting order. Martin made three starts this week and batted second in the order in all three games.
The future is so bright, I gotta to wear shades – The Pirates did a little showing off by scheduling Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to work back to back in an outing against the Blue Jays. According to Jayson Stark the scouts on hand were raving over the future aces.
Taillon wasn’t the only prospect invited to camp that has flashed against major league players this week. Gregory Polanco homered earlier this week in a game vs. the Yankees. On Sunday he greeted ex-Pirate A.J. Burnett by ripping an opposite field double.
While the news has been relatively sparse this winter for the Pirates in regards to acquisitions for the major league roster, the Pirates’ minor league system has generated a lot of buzz for its strength and depth. Baseball America ranked the Pirates’ farm system as the best in baseball in their recently released 2014 Prospect Handbook. There are two things that should be noted that makes this ranking even more impressive. First, Gerrit Cole has already graduated to the majors and no longer has prospect status. Secondly, the Pirates have been trade deadline buyers the past three seasons. Talented prospects Robbie Grossman and Dilson Herrera have exited the system in trades.
Gregory Polanco -13th
Jameson Taillon – 16th
Tyler Glasnow – 27th
Austin Meadows – 45th
Alen Hanson – 67th
Josh Bell – 74th
The Pirates collected more accolades earlier this week when MLB.com released their updated top 100 prospect list. The following six Pirates made the list:
Nick Kingham apparently just missed the cut.
I’m extremely high on Kingham. Some have suggested Kingham could be dealt to the Mets to acquire 1B Ike Davis. No way would I do that deal. Personally I feel Nick Kingham is going to be better than Jameson Taillon. I see Taillon being a much higher injury risk than Kingham.
The Pirates’ farm system has created a strong foundation that should serve them well moving forward. Travis Sawchik wrote on the Trib Bucco Blog about how having a top ranked farm system correlates with qualifying for the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates leverage their bounty of prospects. Having a strong major league a team and a strong minor league system at the same time has the Bucs positioned to be contenders for the NL Central along with the Cardinals for the foreseeable future. But the competition for the supremacy of the division is about to get a little more crowded. The Cubs are an organization on the come. They placed seven prospects in the MLB.com top 100 prospect list. The Cubbies also have the financial resources to outspend the other NL Central Division teams. So keep an eye on Chicago. They may be down now, but they won’t be there for long.
The Pirates have started taking some criticism from their fans and the media for a lack of spending on the payroll of the MLB roster this winter. This has also led to a number of defenders of the front office to voice their opinion in support of the Pirates’ spending. Some have not just defended the front office, but they’ve also taken an apathetic stance. Tim Williams of PiratesProspects.com says he doesn’t care about the payroll. I find that odd considering he often discusses the payroll advantages that high revenue teams have and how that aids them in building championship contenders. I agree with Tim that high revenue teams create an imbalanced economic structure that puts low revenue teams like the Pirates at a clear disadvantage. But I also believe if you care about the overall economics of the sport you should also care about how the team is operating within the economic climate of the industry. That means caring that the Pirates are using their available resources as best they can comparatively to the rest of the sport. That means also caring about payroll.
For years owner Bob Nutting and the rest of the front office has told the fans that the Pirates would make a greater financial commitment to the team payroll when it made sense to do so. We were told when the team was a contender payroll would rise significantly if the fans were supporting the team. The fans have held up their end of the bargain. Last year was the second highest attendance in Pirates history. The team has already stated that they expect a new attendance record will be set in 2014. Ownership on the other hand has not held up their end of the bargain.
It is true that the team payroll has risen in recent years, but that is very misleading. The Pirates’ financial documents from the 2007 and 2008 seasons that were leaked by Deaspin showed that as a percentage of revenue, the payroll of the Pirates’ major league roster was 36.7% in 2007 and 34.9% in 2008. As a point of comparison MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred stated that players received about 52% of league wide revenue during the 2008 season. The Pirates were spending much less of their piece of the revenue pie on payroll than other teams. If Nutting was true to his word the percentage of team revenues used on payroll should be rising. It is not.
According to estimates by Bloomberg the Pirates had revenues of $185 million in 2013. Most insiders consider the Bloomberg estimates to be quite accurate. Many MLB teams have confirmed the estimates to Bloomberg. The $185 million estimate for the Pirates does not include the playoff windfall from 2013, as those had not yet been tallied. We have a pretty good idea that the Pirates generated an extra $5 million to $10 million in revenue from their playoff run. That lines up with other documents Deadspin leaked of the Rays and Angels during years they qualified for the playoffs. We also know the Pirates are getting an extra $20 million this year due to new National TV contracts that are going into effect this season. It is a fair estimation that the Pirates are working with revenues of around $215 million. The Pirates opening day payroll as it stands right now is estimated at $73 million. That works out to just 33.9% of the estimated revenues. That isn’t higher than 2007 and 2008. I’m not seeing any great financial commitment, are you? People often say they want the Pirates to be like the Rays. In 2010 The Rays stretched payroll to more than 47% of revenues. Do you think the Pirates would ever do that?
Why should I care about this? Well, because I love the Pittsburgh Pirates. I know their resources are much more limited compared to other teams, but I want them to use the resources they have the best they can. In my opinion sitting on $10 million dollars is just as bad as wasting $10 million on a bad signing. There is no indication money saved from the budget today will go towards the roster down the road. This is a good team. They are a contender now. Even marginal improvements could make a big difference. 1 or 2 extra wins could be the difference between just barely missing the playoffs or making the playoffs. It would be a big mistake for the Pirates to fail to upgrade a position over a difference of just a few million dollars when the money appears to be there.
The Pirates may have won 94 games last season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1992, but they are still a team looking at the future. Their farm system is regarded as one of the most talented in baseball. The Bucs have a number of young players in their pipeline that look to be future stars, but none that shine as bright as Gregory Polanco.
Pirate fans simply can’t wait for Polanco to arrive in Pittsburgh. Looking ahead to an outfield consisting of Polanco, Andrew McCutchen, and Starling Marte has the fan base giddy. It could be the most athletic outfield ever. Polanco has been ripping the cover off the ball this off season in the Dominican Winter League which has added fuel to the notion that the young super prospect is ready to join McCutchen and Marte now. That would be premature.
Winter League Baseball needs to be put in the proper context. It is a great place for players to get a quantity of ABs that need it. Players that missed time during the year use it for some added conditioning or to prove their health to prospective MLB teams. Marlon Byrd was a good example of that last year. His 2012 season was almost a complete wash out due to a PED suspension and injuries. So Byrd went to the Mexican Pacific League last Winter and put up a .318/.394/.595 slash line in 57 games which earned him a Spring Training invite with the Mets. But winter ball stats tend be pretty meaningless. It is nice that Polanco is second in the Dominican League with a .924 OPS until you realize the player he trails is Yamaico Navarro. Yes Bucco fans, that is the same Yamaico Navarro that hit .160 for Pittsburgh in 2012. And if Navarro ends up still leading the league in OPS at the end of the season he will join this illustrious group of players that have led the Dominican Winter League in OPS in the last 5 seasons: Juan Francisco (2012 & 2008), Brian Bogusevic (2011), Hector Luna (2010), and Wilson Betemit (2009). Not exactly a star studded group.
That isn’t to say young future stars like Gregory Polanco haven’t been helped by winter ball. A number of players recently had breakout seasons in the majors following strong campaigns in winter ball. Starling Marte had a slash line of .304/.381/.464 just last season in the Dominican League. Jean Segura of the Brewers and Junior Lake of the Cubs also put up strong numbers in the Dominican League last winter. And in the 2012 season of the Venezuelan Winter League Evan Gattis had a monster year in which he tied for the league lead in home runs and posted a .960 OPS. Gattis followed that up with a strong rookie campaign for the Atlanta Braves in 2013. But don’t get the idea that it was the strong competition in the Venezuelan League that helped Gattis become a breakout player in the majors. This was the same league that Gorkys Hernandez had a slash line of .367/.436/.469.
So how meaningful is it really that Gregory Polanco is tearing it up in winter ball? In my opinion not much. Andrew Lambo has been terrible thus far in the Venezuelan Winter League. He has just a .175 batting average and has struck out 14 times through 12 games. But Lambo has more to gain because he is getting some work in at first base. Lambo adding some versatility is really the most meaningful thing to come out of these winter ball seasons for the Pirates. It is time to put winter league baseball in perspective. Gaudy stats are nice, but no player is earning a place on the roster of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates by the stats they put up in winter ball.
Yesterday the Pirates acquired catcher Chris Stewart from the Yankees and designated Michael McKenry for assignment. Unless McKenry signs a minor league deal to stay with the organization it appears his tenure with the Pirates has come to an end. Michael “The Fort” McKenry is one of those players that is just impossible not to like. He wasn’t an ideal backup catcher. His defense was subpar. His offense was just so-so. But you knew he was giving 100% at all times. He did have some pop in his bat. 17 home runs in 2+ seasons is pretty good for a backup catcher. Let us pay tribute to Michael McKenry’s career with the Bucs by relieving his greatest moment. This was his first career homer, a game winning blast against the Cubs on 7/8/2011.
As for the acquisition of Chris Stewart, I’m not a fan of the move. This means that rookie Tony Sanchez will likely start the season in AAA. Stewart is a superb defender, but his bat offers little. He career OPS is just .575. I believe starting catcher Russell Martin played too much last season. He wore down late in the season. I would like to see Martin limited to around 110 games started. That leaves 50+ games for the backup catcher to start. That is too many games with another hole in the lineup if they use Chris Stewart. My preference would be to allow Sanchez to cut his teeth in the majors by serving as the backup. I just don’t think he has much more left to prove in the minors.
Remember a few short years ago when baseballs where flying out of ballparks at record paces and every other game was a 10-9 slugfest? Well those days are gone. Offense has been in decline for the past several years but in 2013 it reached lows not seen in two decades. Teams scored just 4.17 runs/game in 2013. The last time scoring was that low was 1992. Hitters in 2013 posted the lowest composite batting average and on base percentage since 1972. Not since 1992 have hitters had a lower composite slugging percentage. Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36. Not since Fred McGriff led the NL with 35 homers in 1992 has a league leader had so few. So what has happened to all the offense?
It would be easy to chalk up the decline in offense to the crack down on performance enhancing drugs. The game now has a drug testing policy with some real teeth. There is no doubt the game is cleaner than it was a decade ago. However, it wasn’t just hitters using steroids. Pitchers were getting busted too. The raw power that hitters were displaying during the steroid era appears to now be missing from the game, but the same can’t be said for pitchers. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. In 2013 there were 3 times as many pitchers averaging 95 mph with their fastballs than in 2007. Pitchers this season fired 100 mph fastballs 469 times. That is 4 times as many as 2008. It isn’t just relief pitchers bringing the heat either. Gerrit Cole topped 100 mph a whopping 22 times in 2013. Andrew Cashner, Danny Salazar, Nathan Eovaldi,and Matt Harvey were other starting pitchers that hit triple digits this season.
Throughout the history of baseball hitting has gone through up and down cycles. But this may be different. 1968 was considered the year of the pitcher. Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ERA of the liveball era. The league batting average in 1968 was just .237 which was the lowest of all time. But pitchers today put way more pitches by hitters. The strike out rate in 1968 was 15.8%. In 2013 hitters whiffed an historic 19.9% of the time. And as if pitchers needed any more help, the fielders behind them are increasing more efficient defensively. The .985 fielding % in 2013 was an all-time high while the 0.57 errors committed per game was an all-time low. Add it all up and it is easy to see the deck is stacked heavily against hitters.
With offense so difficult to come by it begs the question, how much will the cost to acquire it rise? Quality hitters are a scare commodity. There are rumors that Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista are on the trade block. They could certainly fill needs for a team like the Pirates. The Pirates have been kicking the tires on high end bats for quite a while now. The Bucs were linked to trade rumors for Giancarlo Stanton and Trumbo prior to the trade deadline last season but nothing came of it. Sticker shock was the likely culprit. I don’t see that changing soon. Offense is in short supply so teams are going to hoard their premium hitters. Any team that wants to add a legitimate hitter via a trade is going to have to give up an awful lot of talent in return to make it happen.