Baseball 2014: Stats Geek -- Spoonful of reality hard to swallow


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The Pirates are a good team that didn't do anything this past winter to make themselves better.

There's still a lot to like about the team -- the returning Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen, the returning home run (and strikeout) leader Pedro Alvarez, and opening the year with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano -- but this column is about the team's holes.

Starting pitching

Losing A.J. Burnett is bigger than most think. The most neutral adjective to describe Burnett's personality is "volatile," and he's old enough to have blown out 37 candles on his cake in January. But he also pitched 191 innings (25 more than any other Pirates starter) last year while striking out more per 9 innings pitched (9.85) than any qualifying pitcher in the National League.

In a winter when teams committed a collective $2 billion to free agents, the Pirates opted not to make Burnett the qualifying offer of $14.1 million. That would have netted them a compensation draft pick if he signed elsewhere -- as he did, signing with the Phillies for $16 million.

You know Burnett's "I'll retire or sign with the Pirates" vow, but that wasn't worth the paper it wasn't printed on. Burnett might not do as well in Philadelphia; Citizens Bank Park is tougher to pitch in and the Phillies don't phield (yeah, I went there) as well as the Pirates. But the Pirates aren't likely to have five starters better than Burnett. The $14.1 million wouldn't have broken the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, given its new revenue streams. That offer also might have scared off rival general managers who would be wary of losing a pick.

But Pirates general manager Neal Huntington got two very good seasons out of Burnett at a bargain price. Huntington didn't adjust to the 2014 market, but maybe the soap opera aspects of Burnett's October tantrum for not getting that last playoff start in St. Louis made Huntington decide he'd rather lose the old flamethrower a year too early than a year too late.

Either way, Huntington's work this winter has been underwhelming. The big pitcher signing is Edinson Volquez, 30, who signed a one-year deal for $5 million. The right-hander gets that and the fifth spot in the rotation despite not having a genuinely good year in the past five.

Volquez's first three spring starts did not go well; He gave up 14 hits, five walks in his first nine innings, bad enough to give him a Spinal Tap earned run average (turned up to 11.00) going into his third start. After giving up four runs in five innings, he knocked that back to 9.64.

It's hard to be optimistic there. Spring training stats never have meant much, but if this reclamation project works, Huntington ought to win that Sporting News Executive of the Year award that he finished second in this past November.

With Wandy Rodriguez returning from an injury and Jeff Locke's disastrous second half likely to keep him from seeing any big league innings in April, the back end of the rotation looks shaky. The good news is that Cole, Liriano and Charlie Morton should all be on the opening day squad. They should give the Pirates close to 90 starts among them, up from a combined 65 last year.

First base

The Pirates did nothing over the winter to fix this obvious problem: While Gaby Sanchez crushes left-handed pitching (.291 BA/.405 on-base average/.474 slugging in 327 at-bats the past three seasons) Sanchez turns into Caspar Milquetoast against the common right-hander (.234/.306/.368 in 808 at-bats since 2011).

Andrew Lambo was expected to handle the heavy end of the first base platoon after hitting 32 home runs in just 444 at-bats in Class AA and AAA ball last season. But Lambo managed just one home run in 30 at-bats with the big club last year as he hit just. 233/.303/.400. Worse, he went to Florida and managed just four singles in 42 spring at-bats, earning him a return trip to Class AAA Indianapolis.

That has the Pirates handing his spot to 30-year-old non-roster invitee Travis Ishikawa. The left-handed batter had a strong spring but also has a middling .260/.324/.398 slash line in 774 career at-bats when it counts. That's no slugging percentage for a first baseman. That tells you all you need to know about the slim pickings.

The Pirates certainly could part with a reliever if the right trade for a first baseman came along. Also, as I write, free agent Kendrys Morales is still out there waiting to be signed.

The Pirates are rightly wary of signing this guy who will be 31 in June, given the compensatory draft pick they'd have to give up. Morales also isn't much defensively. That's one of the reasons he's spent more of the past two seasons as a designated hitter than a first baseman.

Even so, he's a switch-hitter who hits right-handed pitchers particularly well (.286/.340/.499). Morales would be very good fit for the Pirates and PNC Park's inviting Clemente Wall, but it's hard to see the Pirates giving up a draft pick for a platoon player on the wrong side of 30.

Right field

Production from right field was woeful last year. Even with Marlon Byrd chipping in a .310/.340/.480 for an on-base plus slugging of .820 for in his 30 games as a Pirate, the team's production from right field was .242/.299/.385/.684. That was last in the NL, where the average right-fielder hit .269/.334/.443/.777.

Byrd, 36, also signed with the Phillies ($16 million over two years). That leaves the Pirates with Travis Snider, who had a few big hits sprinkled among his ridiculous number of outs last year (.219/.296/.308/.604). Snider was compensating for a toe injury. He has had surgery and has changed his diet, but with only six homers in 389 at-bats as a Pirate, patience with him will be wearing thin.

Jose Tabata did fine in right field last year. His .281/.352/.425/.777 slash line in just 146 at-bats at the position matched the NL average OPS. But Tabata is a fourth outfielder on a good team. The man Pirates fans are waiting for is Gregory Polanco.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder tore up the Dominican Winter League. Unnamed scouts quoted by Baseball Prospectus say he's still raw in the field and needs to improve his routes to the ball, but he's as fast as the outfield mates he'll be joining, McCutchen and Starling Marte. (Polanco stole 38 bases in 49 attempts across three minor league levels last year).

BP's Sam Miller made me smile with this predicted highlight reel play on a ball hit into deep right field: "Gregory Polanco pursues it, closes in on it, and just catches up to it, but it bounces off his glove ... but Andrew McCutchen is there, too, and he gets to the deflection just in time to get a glove on it, but it pops out of his glove, too ... but Starling Marte is there, too, and he catches it."

That will be one fast outfield. Polanco, says BP's Jason Parks, has "the potential to develop into an all-star." That just won't likely happen in 2014 as Polanco starts the year in Indianapolis.

It's possible the Pirates take a step back this year but re-emerge as a contender in 2015 when their young players are more polished. The Pirates have seven prospects among BP's top 101 (right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon, 19th; Polanco, 24th; RHP Tyler Glasnow, 42nd; C Reese McGuire, 59th; RF Josh Bell, 77th; RHP Nick Kingham, 80th; OF Austin Meadows, 89th). That puts the Pirates in a four-way tie for second-most players in the top 101 with the Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. Only the Minnesota Twins, with eight, have more.

The top two guys on that list, Polanco and Taillon, both 22, could be helping by June. Some might say that's probable (though Taillon's sore elbow gives one pause). Even with the Pirates' history of early returns from the likes of McCutchen and Cole, putting too much hope on the shoulders of rookies is risky.

The long-term future looks bright but, in the short term, the holes in the batting order and the back end of the rotation might hold the Pirates back.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1947.

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