About three weeks ago (before my committee meeting consumed my life), I sat down and tried to plan out a way to do a longer series of season previews that would be relatively short on time to write, but still be informative to a general reader. It occurred to me the long-term blogging — the sort that goes on here at WHYGAVS — creates a really strange metanarrative, where I’m constantly writing posts that build off of each other and connect to each other in ways that make sense in my head and make sense to anyone that checks the page every day, but that might not make a whole ton of sense to someone to reads bits and pieces of the site or to someone that jumped on during the playoff run last year. When I take long breaks, which I did a couple of times this winter, that complicates things even more. My solution to that was to run a post or series of posts in which I just laid out the important players for the Pirates in 2014, their situations, and my interpretations of those situations. Basically, to say the really basic stuff that it’s easy for me to left unsaid. It sets the stage nicely for longer previews, and it’s a nice reference piece for me to have to point back to. Let’s get started, shall we?
Andrew McCutchen — I tried to think of the most negative thing possible that I could say about Andrew McCutchen, and what I came up with was this: He’s not the best outfielder in baseball. That’s it. That’s the most negative, and really, there’s only Mike Trout standing between him and there at least being a discussion about it. Andrew McCutchen is that mythical player that we all dreamed about for years; the one that would first live up to the hype, then blast it away in a blaze of glory on the path to a Pirate playoff team.
Starling Marte — There is basically one question about Starling Marte that’s unanswered for me, and it’s his ability to swing his K/BB ratio from ~5.5/1 to something a little bit more palateable. In 2013, he made up for his inabilty to walk by getting hit by a ton of pitches (24, second in the NL). That got his OBP up to .343 and made him a really useful offensive player for the Pirates (his 121 wRC+ was the second best of any Pirate regular). That being said, cutting down his strikeouts and adding some walks would be great on a number of fronts. He was awfully streaky last year due to his propensity to swing and miss, more balls in play would mean more hits because of his great speed, and getting hit by pitches so often opens him up to injury. Out of any position player regular the Pirates had last year, I think Marte’s the most likely to have some headroom to improve, though, since he’s 25 now and didn’t play a full season of baseball until 2011, when he was 22. You know everything else about him, though; he’s fast, his defense and arm are great, he’s got good gap power, and the North Side Notch play to both of those things. Honestly, I think if he can refine his approach at the plate, he can be a star.
Pedro Alvarez — For a few years in a row now, Pirate fans spend much of the winter talking about how the Pirates need to sign Pedro Alvarez to an extension and how they won’t do it because they’re too cheap/Scott Boras is a jerk/etc. Signing Pedro Alvarez to an extension terrifies me. His power is great, but he strikes out way too much for my comfort (he’s been right around 30.5% of his plate appearances in each of the last three years). So long as he whiffs like that and has an on-base percentage around .300, he’s going to be in danger of turning into a pumpkin at literally any minute. That said, it’s not unreasonable to think that his contact rate (and hopefully, his general judgment at the plate) could improve this year, which could morph him from a hitter with good power into a good power hitter. I’m still worried about the length of his peak, but in general I think he’ll be useful (and maybe a little bit more) for the Pirates in the here and now.
Neil Walker — I think that what you see is what you get with Walker at this point, and there’s not really anything wrong with that. It seems like each summer Walker goes on a tear and everyone wonders if he’s turning a corner, but he’s 29 now and his lines in each year from 2011-2013 are awfully similar in terms of OBP and slugging. There are some real injury concerns that may be bigger problems in a couple of years down the road, but if he can just continue on with that ~.750 OPS and solid enough defense for a couple more years (he’s not bad at second, though I suspect that the Pirates’ shifts make up for quite a bit — same goes for Alvarez, actually), the Pirates will probably have Alen Hanson ready to take his place.
Russell Martin — As difficult as it is to quantify catcher’s defense, you’d have to be blind to not see the impact Martin’s glove (and chest protector, and arm) had behind the plate for the Pirates last year. His bat has been fading in the second half in recent years, but it’s still more than good enough because of his defense. I can pretty much guarantee that the AJ Burnett qualifying offer scenario is going to repeat itself in full form with Martin this coming winter.
Gaby Sanchez — Gaby Sanchez is a first baseman that’s really great at hitting left-handed pitching (.333/.448/.539 last year). This means that he’s a useful player, but useful in the way that a third arm is — it’s good for ski boxing and not much else. Seriously: think for one minute and try to name another player that picks up the small end of the platoon and is only able to play first base in the field. That’s to say that Sanchez is nice to have around, but there will hopefully come a day when the Pirates won’t need to have him around, and that’ll be OK, too.
Jordy Mercer — Mercer was one of 2014’s most pleasant surprises, but I’m not completely sold on him as a long-term starting shortstop. He improved bit-by-bit through the minors; he started off as a really poor hitter, then developed some pop in the mid-minors, and finally rounded out as a complete hitter in Triple-A in 2012, as a 25-year old. What really concerns me about his long-term prospects is that his solid line in the big leagues was driven by a disproportionate split (.247/.297/.357 against righties and .410/.460/.692 against lefties — yes his SLG against lefties was higher than his OPS against righties). I don’t know that he can keep that sort of unconscious hitting against lefties up, and I don’t know if his defense is good enough to carry him if he doesn’t hit well. It’s not that he’s bad defensively, necessarily, it’s just that he seemed like he had trouble getting out of his own head on occasion.
Clint Barmes — Clint Barmes’s glove actually might be as good as his bat is bad, which is really saying something.
Travis Ishikawa, Andrew Lambo, and left-handed first basemen in general — Here’s a secret: the Pirates made the playoffs last year despite getting absolutely zero production from their left-handed first basemen. Obviously I’d rather that be an exception and not a rule, but neither of these guys are inspiring. They’re not terribly likely as a combo to be a whole lot worse than Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau were last year, though, so at least there’s that.
Jose Tabata — Jose Tabata is a nice fourth outfielder. When he’s healthy, he hits pretty well without a platoon split. There’s not a lot of pop, but he can occasionally drive the ball and he’s proficient enough at getting on base. The general problem for his trade prospects is that he hits like a center fielder but probably shouldn’t play anywhere but left (the Pirates keep him in right but only because of PNC’s weird dimensions, otherwise I don’t think his arm really plays in right). I’m guessing he’ll be the odd-man out when Gregory Polanco comes up, because he’s right handed and Jaff Decker and Travis Snider are left-handed.
Jaff Decker and Travis Snider — One of these two will likely be the Pirates’ fourth outfielder after Polanco comes up. That seems fine by me. Snider probably has a little more pop, but it’s hard to separate out what sort of hitter he might be in the big leagues from all of his injuries. Jaff Decker kind of sounds like a guy you’d meet in the cantina in a Star Wars video game. Anyone up for a game of Pazaak?
Tony Sanchez — I want to tell you that I think that Sanchez’s ceiling is to do a rough approximation of Russell Martin. I think Sanchez would ultimately be a slightly better hitter and a little bit worse as a defender, but it’s hard to say because he’s 26 now and the Pirates seem adamant about keeping him in Triple-A for now.
Chris Stewart — The Clint Barmes of catching.
Josh Harrison — This is what a perfectly good utility player looks like; he can play a lot of positions and he can hit a little bit even when he’s not playing regularly. He’s not a great hitter, but then, if he was, he wouldn’t be a utility player. His walkoff homer last year was pretty special.
Gregory Polanco — Look, I try not to get too caught up in prospect hype. I try to not oversell guys because I know what the failure rate of prospects is. I have also heard the stories that my dad and my uncles tell about Young Dave Parker. I’m just going to stop right here.