The off-season: Focusing on pitching and catching

Major League Baseball’s free agency period officially opened today at midnight (or maybe yesterday at 5 PM, or maybe at 2:09 AM, I don’t really know specifically when it happened) and while the Pirates are likely to be mostly inactive until they hear from Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano on their qualifying offers — I assume that both players will reject the offer, though I’m not 100% certain that Liriano will do so — let’s take a minute or two and talk about what the shape of this off-season should be for the Pirates.

The most basic and direct statement I can make about this offseason is this: as a Pirate fan, I should believe on Opening Day 2015 that the Pittsburgh Pirates can win the World Series. They don’t have to be the National League favorites or anything (they won’t be), but it should seem possible. This is something that hasn’t been true of the Pirates since probably 1992; 2013’s team came from out of the blue, and 2014’s team entered the season with a ton of question marks that had to be answered before the team was a legitimate playoff contender. We are officially beyond the point of saying, “Let’s see what we have before going crazy,” with this group of players. The window is open, the clock is ticking, whatever your favorite metaphor is.

That being said, if the Pirates are going to be better in 2015 than they were in 2014, much of that is going to be driven by three players that are already Pirates: Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. No free agent that the Pirates could sign or trade that the Pirates could make is likely to do more for the team than Gerrit Cole finally growing into his talent, than Starling Marte maintaining the level of play from September over the larger course of the season, and Gregory Polanco making the same type of leaps that Marte has made during his career. Those three things would turn the Pirates from a team with one dynamic player and a strong supporting cast into a team with four dynamic players. Even if only one or two of those things happens, it could make a huge impact for the Pirates.

The goal of this off-season, then, is to upgrade that supporting cast to the point that those dynamic players, however many of them there are, can carry the Pirates to a World Series. There is one easy target for the team there, and I think you could argue that it’s the only target that really matters. It’s not Russell Martin, it’s the starting rotation. Last year, the Pirates dealt with injuries to Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. They dealt with ineffectiveness from Wandy Rodriguez. They got occasionally solid performances from Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez, and Jeff Locke in the sort of hard-capped way that you would expect to get an occasionally solid performance from Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley, or Jeff Locke. None of this was anything that was beyond the scope of expectation in the pre-season, and even though the rotation seemed nominally shored up over the season’s last six weeks or so, the Pirates’ rotation finished third-to-last in the NL in WAR according to Baseball Reference and next-to-last in all of baseball according to FanGraphs. Simply put, the Pirates best starters (Cole, Liriano, and I guess Morton) were not great even when they were healthy, and the guys that capably soaked up innings in their stead (Volquez, Worley, and Locke) weren’t good in the sort of reproducible way that indicates great things for the future. Volquez and Liriano are free agents now, which leaves the Pirates with Cole, Worley, Locke, and two question marks (possibly filled by Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, or maybe even Nick Kingham) until Charlie Morton returns from his hip injury and Jameson Taillon first returns from Tommy John surgery, then pitches his way through Triple-A.

I can’t stress this enough: I’m not sure that the “typical” Pirate approach of finding pitchers that are injured or have underperformed or both will do more than put a band-aid on this problem, because I have zero confidence in Morton or Taillon providing a ton of help at mid-season (this isn’t to say that they won’t — it’s to say that they shouldn’t be counted on). It’s fine if the club wants to bring in pitchers like Justin Masterson or Brett Anderson or Brandon League or Josh Johnson or whoever in the hopes that they can get them healthy and straightened out and turned into the next Francisco Liriano, but this team needs to fill a lot of innings this winter. In addition to whoever this winter’s Ray Searage/Jim Benedict projects are, the Pirates need at least one pitcher more proven than a project that for 2015. Bringing Liriano back is an option here, signing Brandon McCarthy is an option here. I don’t really have any strong opinions about which direction they should go here (both Liriano and McCarthy have their problems, to be honest), but what the Pirates need is at least one more vaguely reliable starting pitcher because at the moment they have zero. Hopefully Gerrit Cole makes “the leap” this year, but even if he does, they don’t have much behind him in the way of reliability.

I think that my opinion here is obvious, but the more I think about this the more I think that fixing the rotation should take precedence over re-signing Russell Martin or finding someone to replace him. There is a larger problem with the idea that the Pirates need to find someone to “replace” Martin if they can’t re-sign him — I’m not really sure that even Martin himself is going to be able to replicate the sort of all-around season that he had in 2014 both at the plate and behind it. Martin’s .336 BABIP in 2014 was a career high and he was a below-average offensive player in the five years before his monster 2014 season. I don’t know that he necessarily goes back to below-average again in 2015, but it’s crazy to think that his .400 OBP or his 140 wRC+ are reproducible at his age.

That means that Travis Sawchik’s idea, which is to try to value defense first when talking about replacing Martin, is probably the right approach here. Put more simply, find a player that replaces or approximates the part of Martin’s value that only a catcher can give you (framing, pitch blocking, etc.), and then find other places on the team to make up the difference in value between that catcher’s bat and Martin’s. Sawchik argues that Chris Stewart is the best available defensive analogue for Martin, and I think that that argument holds water. If the Pirates do go with Stewart behind the plate, they obviously need to find other places on the field to make up for the lost offense. We’ve basically already addressed the best places to do that: one would be with Polanco and Marte evolving as hitters, and another would be to have a starting rotation that was actually somewhat trustworthy and good in 2015.

I try and remember to stress this every winter, but there’s no part of baseball that’s a zero-sum game. The drop in value from Martin’s bat to Stewart’s bat can be made up elsewhere in the lineup. The loss of runs scored by the lineup can be made up with a pitching staff that allows fewer runs. The Pirates don’t need to upgrade every position this winter; they need to get better on the whole as a team. If that means letting Russell Martin sign somewhere else and focusing on the starting pitching, well, then so be it. The existing caveat is that that does require actually upgrading the pitching staff, rather than trying to piece it together with paper clips and chewing gum and hoping that the ball of yarn representing by the defensive shifts somehow holds everything together. That’s different than the approach the Pirates have used to the rotation in the past, but then, the Pirates are in a different place as a team than they were in past off-seasons.

Image: Will Jackson, Flickr

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.