Part six in the hastily completed loosely affiliated compendium of posts you can refer to as the WHYGAVS Season Preview. Photoshop work by bwzimmerman.
Neal Huntington has done good things for the Pirates on more than one front, but one aspect in which he’s repeatedly struggled as GM is in adding established talent to the Pirates over the off-season via the free agent market. The Pirate careers of players like Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz and Ramon Vasquez and Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby and even Aki Iwamura (not quite a free agent acquistion, but close) have been unforgettable, but not for any of the right reasons. Over the course of the earlier parts of this preview, I’ve talked about Jose Tabata and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen and James McDonald and Charlie Morton. There’s no mistaking that those players are the bulk of the Pirates’ core this year. They’re not perfect players, but there’s more talent there than the Pirates have had in the past. If everything falls into place (and I think I’ve done a pretty good job laying out why that’s a big if at this point) the Pirates could end up in a better place than a lot of people expect, but we’re still only talking about four position players and two starting pitchers. That’s not a team.
That’s where Huntington’s off-season acquisitions come in. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes will start and play almost every day, Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett will have regular turns in the starting rotation, Nate McLouth and Case McGehee will have prominent roles on the bench. So are they enough to keep the team afloat if the young guys struggle? Are they enough to compliment the young players if the young players break through?
I’ll be up front. I’m really worried about the offensive abilities of Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes at this point in their careers. Neither guy brings much to the plate besides the ability to hit an occasional home run (career OBPs of .284 and .302, respectively) and even if you throw out the fact that they’re old and on the down slope of their careers in terms of offensive production, they’re right-handed hitters that are moving to PNC Park. Barajas hit 16 home runs last year, 13 were pulled. Barmes hit 12, 11 were pulled. I won’t go so far as to say that I think either player will have a Matt Diaz power outage in 2012, but I’m not afraid to be blunt and to say that I think that both guys will struggle and be worse at the plate than they were in 2011.
Neither guy was signed solely for their bat, though. Barmes almost always grades out as a plus defender and he was good at short for the Rockies in 2010 and the Astros in 2011. Barajas graded as one of the best pitch-blocking catchers in recent years and he’s replacing a guy who was widely renowned as one of the worst defensive catchers in the league. The difference between bad defense and good defense is real and important, as we’ve seen the Pirates fluctuate between the two extremes in past years. The question, though, is whether their defense will be good enough to justify what could be some dreadful offense.
Doumit, Cedeno, and Mike McKenry were worth 3.2 wins above replacement last year. Barmes was 3.1 WAR himself and Barajas was 1.6. Even if you consider WAR to be a pretty rough estimate of value, it’s pretty clear that the Pirates have players in place that were better in 2011 than the players that they had. What’s not clear at all to me is that Barajas and Barmes will hit the same level of performance in 2012. They certainly might, but I’m concerned.
Barmes and Barajas weren’t the Pirates’ biggest acquisitions this winter, though. The biggest acquistions were the pitchers, Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett. As I wrote last night, I don’t know that there’s a lot to say about these guys. Bedard was excellent with the Mariners last year and not as bad as people seem to think with the Red Sox, striking out 124 hitters in 129 1/3 innings, walking 48, and giving up 14 homers to go with his 3.62 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. The problem is that 129 1/3 innings is only 34 2/3 innings fewer than he threw in 2008, 2009, and 2010 combined due to recovery from a torn labrum. It seems like he’s OK now and he looked awfully good in spring training, but it’d be foolish to count on even 150 innings from a guy with his injury history. It might happen, if his shoulder is truly healed, and if it does the Pirates could have an absolute bargain on their hands at $4.5 million. Honestly, though, I’d be happy if he just matched his 2011 performance and made himself attractive at the trade deadline.
Burnett, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same injury problems but does have a huge gopher ball problem. A move out of Yankee Stadium and away from the AL East should help him, but PNC isn’t the best place in the world for him, either, because it’s friendlier to left-handed hitters than to righties and it’s not exactly a herculean task to put the ball over the Clemente Wall from the left side of the plate. It’s also worth noting that Burnett’s 35 now and that his fastball has lost some zip in recent years. Velocity might be the most important thing to watch as he comes off of the disabled list in May. Can he still pop the glove in the mid-90s regularly (his fastball averaged 92.7 last year), or will he lose some more this year?
The key, of course, is that every inning Bedard and Burnett throw, someone else doesn’t have to throw them. That should be an important boon early in the season when the Pirates’ other rotation options are Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln and Jo-Jo Reyes and it provides some key protection for late in the season on the (rather safe, at this point) assumption that Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson and Rudy Owens and Kyle McPherson aren’t ready for the big leagues. On one hand, it’s true that Bedard doesn’t have to throw 200 innings and Burnett doesn’t have to be great for them to be important upgrades for the Pirates, but on the other they do need to see something at least resembling health from Bedard and they need Burnett to reap some positive effects from his shift to the NL Central.
Guys like Casey McGehee and Nate McLouth could end up having a bigger impact on the team this year than people are anticipating at this point in the spring. The Pirates’ biggest problem on offense last year wasn’t that Ronny Cedeno and Mike McKenry didn’t hit, it was that they had no platoon partner for Garrett Jones and no real first baseman before the Derrek Lee trade and no contingency plan whatsoever for the stinkbomb that Pedro Alvarez laid down. McGehee and McLouth are on the team to provide depth for the two position players that I’d say are the likeliest to flame out in 2012; Pedro Alvarez and Alex Presley.
That’s not to say that McGehee or McLouth are guaranteed to be better than the players the Pirates had to turn to last year; they’re both coming off of terrible years and are regarded by pretty much everyone as flashes in the pan who are past their primes. It’s not an ideal situation for the Pirates to be leaning on either guy for 400+ at-bats and if it happens, chances are good that the season has taken a pretty ugly turn for the worse. That said, I think that both players could benefit from being placed in limited roles that maximize their abilities, similar to (but on a smaller scale than) Garrett Jones last year. McGehee can help keep Alvarez out of tough situations and if Alvarez actually does break out, he can give depth to the platoon at first base if Matt Hague can’t keep his hot spring going into the season. McLouth at the very least prevents Starling Marte from having to be called up too soon and keeps Gorkys Hernandez, who I think would be completely lost against big league pitching, from having to be on the roster. Maybe he’ll benefit from a return to PNC Park. At the very least, he can’t be worse than he was last year.
All of the players the Pirates picked up this winter are flawed. That’s why they ended up on the Pirates. The most important thing for the club is to not rely on any of them too much; that was part of the reason that last year’s first place run was a house of cards. As things are set up now, the only ones that the Pirates really have to rely on are Burnett and Bedard, who are the best of the group. That’s subject to change, of course: if Alvarez doesn’t hit, if Tabata and Walker can’t find their way out of the ruts they hit last year, if no one bails Garrett Jones out against lefties, then suddenly it’ll be much more noticeable that Barmes and Barajas aren’t hitting, suddenly McLouth and McGehee will become much more exposed. That’s not why the Pirates signed these players, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to it.