Monday, January 11, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates:

2009 Record: 62-99

General Manager: Neal Huntington

Manager: John Russell

Organizational Philosophy: Since Neal Huntington took over the reigns as GM in September of 2007, the Pirates have become more focused on gathering and cultivating young talent and properly using their financial resources in an effort to be more competitive in the future.  It sounds like a simple formula but before Huntington was hired the Pirates were notorious for squandering young talent at the risk of signing expensive mid-tier free agents which only slowed the "rebuilding" process.

Today, the Pirates follow a system similar to how teams like the Texas Rangers and the Jed Hoyer-led San Diego Padres operate through detailed scouting and agressive drafting and heavy talent acquisition.  The Pirates know it would be foolish to outspend most MLB teams in the free agent market but by properly evalutating their players in terms of arbitration and future value they can devise a system where they will sell-high on certain players (Xavier Nady, Nyjer Morgan and Nate McClouth) and buy-low on others (Joel Hanrahan, Ross Ohlendorf, and Jeff Clement).  Not every prediction will pay off but it's a system that will give this organization a chance to get back to their early 90's dominance and possibly stay there.

2010 Commitments:

Starting Rotation:

Paul Maholm ($5M)
Ross Ohlendorf ($414K)
Zach Duke ($2.2M)
Charlie Morton ($405K)
Kevin Hart ($407K)

After a promising 2008 season, Paul Maholm was a stat-head favorite to have a break-out '09 campaign.  After struggling during the first part of 2009 with a knee injury, Maholm was able to regain his control and performed up to expectations from August until the end of last season.

Maholm did suffer from a higher than average BABIP and lower strand rate (.325; 69.2%) but he did maintain excellent groundball rates (52%) and saw opponents swing outside the strike zone more (28% last season compared to his average of 24%).  He does have two more seasons left on his contract and it has been speculated that the Pirates may look into trading Maholm, depending on the development of Brad Lincoln and Tim Alderson.

Ross Ohlendorf was shut down after seeing an increase of 100+ innings pitched last season.  After converting as a full-time starter, Ohlendorf showed impressive command (2.70 BB/9) despite the expected dropoff in his K rate (5.55 K/9 last season compared to 7.04 in '08).  His best pitch seems to be his slider as his other offerings measure about average but Ohlendorf is a very intelligent pitcher and should fit nicely in the middle of any rotation for years to come.

The story behind Zach Duke has always been the same; if he had a better defense his numbers would finally reflect his solid skillset.  Last season, Duke saw some positive luck turn his way as his BABIP finally dipped below .300 since 2005.  For the past two seasons, Duke has been successful in getting opposing batters to swing more and more outside the strikezone but his underwhelming fastball and pitch-to-contact style doesn't leave much room for error (since his low K rate necessitates an extremely low BB rate (2.07 BB/9 last season) along with the need to consistently field an excellent defense behind him).

Charlie Morton and his high frequency of groundballs will get a chance as a full-time MLB starter this season.  Morton has always projected as #3 starter and at the age of 26 he has shown the ability to hone his command.  He won't put up any flashy numbers but he should be a steady innings-eater for the next few seasons.

Talk has speculated on whether Kevin Hart or Daniel McCutchen will be the #5 starter in 2010.  Hart is a Cubs cast-off who will be 27 next season and has always been argued as being a better option out of the bullpen since he can focus more on his mid-90's fastball which he tends to abandon as a starter due to his lack of command.

Coming out of college, Daniel McCutchen may have been over-hyped but his decent curve and command is worthy of getting a shot at the starting rotation this spring.  The only problem is, like Kevin Hart, he may be better suited as a bullpen option.  His command and low K rate would benefit in shorter situations but his tendency to give up the long ball makes him a risky option out of the pen.

Due to the uncertainty this team has at the #5 spot it would be foolish to ignore Brad Lincoln and Tim Alderson as likely candidates in 2010.  Both are listed as top 10 prospects in the organization, although Lincoln's time in AAA last season makes him the favorite to be called up first.

Lincoln was a highly touted first round draft pick in 2006 but after falling victim to Tommy John surgery as well as battles with low velocity caused his arrival time to be slower than expected. But his ability to throw consistent strikes and display good command while getting his fastball to average around 93 mph has done a lot to increase his stock. 

Alderson has been disappointing since he was traded from the San Francisco Giants last season.  His major problem have been a sudden decrease in velocity but his age (21) and projectable frame along with a plus curveball and changeup have the Pirates affording to be patient.


Joel Hanrahan ($420K)
Evan Meek ($400K)
Javier Lopez ($775K)
Jeff Karstens ($400K)
Steven Jackson ($400K)
Chris Jakubauskas ($400K)

Joel Hanrahan displayed excellent K rates (10.13 K/9); however he did struggle with his command once he was acquired by the Pirates (5.7 BB/9).  Whether or not Hanrahan is a bonafide closer is up for debate.  Hanrahan ability to only allow 3 HR's in 64 IP last year doesn't look to hold up compared to his previous years (although his HR/9 has dropped from 1.59 in '07 to 0.96 in '08 to 0.42 last season) since his FB% has stayed relatively consistent while his LD% allowed has been alarmingly high during the past three seasons. 

One statistical measure that I like concerning Hanrahan is the low contact % he allows (since 2007 it has declined from 81% to 74.3% in '08 to 70.1% last season) and coupled with the higher than average 29.5% swings outside the strikezone makes him very promising.

Evan Meek has a lot of promise despite being a bit raw in terms of control. His recent spike in K/9 (8.08) along with his high number of GB's allowed (50+%) makes this 26 year old ready for more high leverage situations in 2010.

The recent signing of Javier Lopez is another buy low option.  Last season he struggled mightily with the Red Sox in 11 miserable innings but his prior years as a LOOGY (.247 BA/.688 OPS against lefties) is attractive enough for the Pirates to see what he can do in 2010.

Jeff Karstens and Steven Jackson are two former Yankee prospects now trying to carve some kind of career as middle bullpen options.  Karstens can still be used as a starter (and probably will in AAA) but he is a contact pitcher who struggles with his control and gives up too many FB's to be a serious option. 

Jackson, on the other hand, was decent in 43 IP with the Pirates last season.  His K rate dropped significantly (4.40 K/9) but his ability to induce GB's will give him a shot at making the team this spring.

Th final option I have listed in Chris Jakubauskas who was acquired after being released from the Mariners last season.  He has promising command but is seen as nothing more than an emergency starter or as bullpen depth.
The Pirates have currently expressed interest in bolstering their bullpen by possibly signing Jose Valverde, Kevin Gregg or Octavio Dotel.  Of course, Valverde's asking price may be a bit high but the addition of either Gregg or Dotel would be an added benefit in later innings. 

As of this writing the favorite seems to be Dotel who has put together back-to-back healthy seasons after succumbing to TJ surgery a few years back.  Dotel is an extreme flyball pitcher who attacks hitters up in the zone and succeeds with a healthy K rate of 10.83 despite shaky control (5.20 BB/9 last season).  Signing a reliever like Dotel will be necessary due to the lack of serious depth this team has and the amount of money needed should make him affordable in the 2010 budget.

On the field:

C: Ryan Doumit ($3.6M)
C: Jason Jaramillo ($400K)
1B: Jeff Clement ($405K)
2B: Akinori Iwamura ($4.8M)
2B: Ramon Vazquez ($2.1M)
SS: Ronny Cedeno ($1.1M)
SS: Bobby Crosby ($1M)
3B: Andy LaRoche ($414K)
LF: Lastings Milledge ($450K; arb eligible)
CF: Andrew McCutchen ($400K)
RF: Garrett Jones ($400K)
OF: Brandon Moss($415K)

Missed 100 days in '06 after twice straining his hamstring...
46 days was lost in '07 due to a high ankle sprain and a left wrist sprain...
In 2008 a total of 23 days was lost after suffering a fracture at the tip of his left thumb...
And, finally, a total of 80 days was missed last season after suffering a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist...

The above injuries were all suffered by Ryan Doumit who has missed a total of 272 games in four seasons.  When healthy, Doumit registers as one of the better offensive catchers in baseball.  In 2008 he played in 116 games and hit .318/.357/.501.  His BA was padded by a high BABIP (.333) as he saw his contact rate reach 80% and his K% reduced to 12.3%.

Doumit is a free-swinger as he swings at pitches outside the strikezone at an average of 30% (higher than the MLB average of 25%) and his low BB rate reflects this.  Doumit doesn't have the speed that is necessary to predicate a higher BABIP but his FB trends are slightly rising (35.2% in 2008 and 39% last season).  In terms of power, Doumit did suffer an off-year in '09 but wrist injuries are notorious for sapping a hitter's ability to hit for power as well as bat control. 

Looking over the list of injuries, Doumit has suffered a few that would be classified as freakish and lean towards the side of bad luck.  If Doumit can put together a season of 140+ games played then 20+ HR's and a decent batting average can be expected... He is expected to report to camp healthy but for how long is anyone's guess.

For the time being, Jason Jaramillo is listed as the backup catcher.  He is a switch-hitter who struggles against LHP and hits far too many groundballs to ever register much power but like any true backup catcher, his true value lies in his exceptional defense (throwing out 28% of all baserunners and only allowing 4 passed balls in 520 innings last season).

For the purpose of looking ahead, Tony Sanchez hit well in his pro debut in low/high A and projects to have excellent power along with better than average BB rates.  His defense, they say, isn't too shabby but the Pirates will let Sanchez spend a few seasons in the minors developing his game and could see time in Pittsburgh mid-season in 2011. 

Currently the Pirates have former Mariner prospect Jeff Clement penciled in as the starter at 1B.  Clement was a highly touted catching prospect whose lack of defensive skills kept him in the minors longer than expected.  In the minors Clement has displayed phenomenal power and good plate judgement.  In 219 MLB AB's Clement has been disappointing and his ability to draw walks seemingly disappear; however, with Garrett Jones scheduled to start in RF, the pressure may be off of Clement as he enters spring training with an excellent chance to be an everyday player.

All the talk about middle infield defense and the number of Pirate pitchers who induce a high GB percentage seems to have been a factor in the recent acquisition of Akinori Iwamura.  Offensively, Iwamura shows strong plate discipline by only swinging at pitches outside the strikezone 14% of the time (well below the MLB average).  Power isn't a part of his game (more of a line drive hitter) but his recent knee injury wasn't as serious as originally thought.  This will be important since his speed and how it relates to his BABIP (a stat that has been high for Iwamura and something his speed could be attributing towards) can give us a good measure of how he may perform offensively next season.

Shortstop will be an interesting position this spring as oft-injured Bobby Crosby will compete against the underperforming Ronny Cedeno for a majority of the playing time. 

Crosby, a former AL Rookie of the Year in 2004, will be 30 next season.  Injuries have sapped much of his promise but he still has the skills to be an above-average defender but his offensive skills seemed to have eroded (he hasn't posted an OBP above .300 or slugged above .360 since 2005).  Crosby came cheap and it's my guess that he will be used as a reserve as the team hopes that Cedeno (due to his age (26) and upside) and his excellent defense will finally show the same offensive prowess at the MLB level like he does in the minors

Andy LaRoche ended his 2009 season on good note (.321/.367/.521 in the month of September) but will it carry over and make due on the promises this 26 year old had as a former Dodger prospect?  Looking carefully at his statistics, LaRoche has displayed subtle improvements in his contact percentage (69.3% in '07, 78.1% in '08, 83.2% last season) but his high frequency of groundballs hit and lowish line drive rate hold him back.  His defense is above average and if he can keep his offensive levels around the MLB average for third basemen, he should hold the fort just fine until Pedro Alvarez is ready.

Among the outfielders, let's begin with the enigma that is Lastings Milledge.  Since 2005 when he was a prized prospect of the New York Mets and word came out that the GM of the Oakland A's was publically interested in trading for him, Milledge has both excited and disappointed fans who follow MLB prospects.  Last season's broken pinkie was to blame for his power outage but he has made tremendous strides in increasing his FB% (28.9% in '07, 34.6% in '08 and 37.9% last season) while keeping his line drive rate consistent (20%).  Milledge is a bit of a free swinger (his O-Zone, swings outside the strikezone, hovers around 30%) but his contact percentage is slowly treading upwards (79.4% last season is a career high). 

Defensively, Milledge shows excellent UZR scores in LF.  If he can slightly improve his ability to make contact into the 80% range he could post a decent batting average and as he matures (he'll be 25 next season) and his FB's keep heading upwards he could be a 20/20 hitter.  However, all of these fancy stats may be futile if this keeps happening...

Last season, Andrew McCutchen performed to expectations hitting .286/.365/.471.  McCutchen displayed excellent patience for a 22 year old (11% BB/9, 20% O-Zone) and has the ability to make consistent and hard contact to be a fixture in the #2 or #3 spot for a number of years.  A bonafide star in the making.

After languishing in the Minnesota Twins organization, 28 year old rookie Garrett Jones got Pirate fans excited by posting a line of .293/.372/.567 in 314 AB's.  Where we go from here is anyone's guess, Jones did display a BB rate never previously achieved (11.2% BB/9 last season compared to his previous high of 8.5% in the minors) and an ISO almost 70 points higher than his previous career high (.274 last season compared to .205 in the minors).  I don't doubt that Jones has power but I would be surprised if he reaches 30 HR's next season.  However, with his respectable peripheral stats that suggest a few more respectable seasons he could be quite the find that most front offices only dream about.

Next Season's Forecast:  Pitching seems to be a major question mark especially in terms of bullpen depth.  The Pirates don't have many MLB ready top prospects ready to fill these roles (although Donnie Veal and Jean Machi have pitched well this winter and may be up for consideration) so I expect them to purchase a few of the cheaper options.  Like I said, Octavio Dotel seems to be a favorite but can the Pirates afford to stop there? 

Last season's payroll came in at $48 million and GM Neal Huntington will be given some payroll room this offseason to fill in these gaps (as of this writing the current payroll is a shade below $30 million).  In terms of offense, I expect the Pirates to stand pat as blue-chip prospects like Tony Sanchez and Pedro Alvaraz properly develop and if they can get a good season, offensively, out of Andy LaRoche or Ronny Cedeno, they'll be way ahead of schedule in terms of competing in the future.

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