The beginning of spring training brings an end to the offseason, which means it is time for the first-ever Neal Huntington November-to-February Report Card.
The Pirates general manager has taken hits for not upgrading perceived weaknesses at first base and right field and for not doing enough to improve a pitching staff that has lost A.J. Burnett and has a questionable Wandy Rodriguez penciled into the rotation. There’s even been an occasional suggestion the Pirates should have gone after one of the available high-end shortstops to solidify that position.
At first base, Huntington wisely passed on James Loney, overpriced at two years let alone the three Tampa Bay gave him, and decided not to make a deal for the available Ike Davis. It’s possible Davis will become available again, with less of an asking price, later in spring training. Until that happens, by most accounts, the job belongs to rookie Andrew Lambo.
Lambo, 25, is a risky choice. He’s coming off an outstanding power year in the minors but a stalled career before that. Small-payroll teams, though, have little choice but to give deserving prospects an opportunity. Lambo is such a prospect.
There wasn’t much on the free-agent market to improve the Pirates in right field. Besides, Jose Tabata has earned an opportunity based on the fourth best OPS among returning players -- better than Pedro Alvarez, Neal Walker and Russell Martin. No one is complaining about their positions in the projected starting lineup, so it’s hard to complain about Tabata. That does not mean Tabata is any kind of guarantee. But he has earned this chance.
The same can’t be said for Travis Snider, in whom the Pirates saw enough potential to give a $1.2 million contract. The Pirates might regret that move, but they’d regret it even more if he were non-tendered and went on to a Brandon Moss-type career.
Edinson Volquez was a pitcher of promise six years ago. More recently, he's been one of the worst starters in MLB. The Pirates signed him in December for $5 million as is a reclamation project with possibilities -- nothing more. He will not make up for the absence of Burnett.
Jordy Mercer earned his chance at shortstop even more than Tabata in right field. The real concern about Mercer is this: In the crucial games of September and October, more often than not he was on the bench in favor of Clint Barmes.
Fans understandably might be unhappy with Huntington's decision to go with deserving but hardly overwhelming young players. But his decisions have a small-payroll logic to them.
Where there is no logic whatsoever is decisions on the bench, where Huntington maintained his long-standing stance of providing his manager with little help. Working on the assumption Lambo will make the team as the left-handed hitting first baseman and get the majority of the playing time, the Pirates bench looks like this: Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider, Josh Harrison, Chris Stewart and Barmes, who was re-signed out of free agency.
The last four are well below average hitters. Snider and Harrison showed some pop as pinch-hitters last year but there’s nothing in their history to indicate that will necessarily continue. Sanchez has been a poor pinch-hitter and Stewart and Barmes are among the worst bats in MLB.
Where Huntington really failed was to bring in an accomplished right-handed batter to play second base or third base against left-handed pitching in place of Walker or Alvarez. Walker batted .225 with a .510 OPS against lefties and Alvarez was .180 with a .538 OPS.
This isn’t to say either should be platooned to start the season. But it is to suggest there’s a good chance their 2013 numbers will continue and at times they will need to be sat down against lefties. The only option the Pirates have in that regard is Harrison. He had exceptional numbers against lefties last year -- .350/.381/.600 - .981 in 40 at bats. But for his career those numbers are .239/.265/.404 -- .670. The fact Harrison got only 40 ABs vs. lefties speaks to the level of confidence manager Clint Hurdle had in him.
With rookie Kolten Wong scheduled to start at second base this year in St.Louis, the Cardinals paid Mark Ellis $5.25 million to be his backup. With Mercer being thrust into a starting role for the first time, the Pirates' insurance is Barmes. Not exactly the same.
Backup catchers had 176 at bats with the Pirates last season. This season Stewart, said to be a superior defender, will be getting most of those at bats. His career batting line: .214/.287/.288 -- .575.
Not bolstering an area of weakness might understandable. Not bolstering several is far less understandable. The Pirates are a lesser team today than they were at the end of last season. Such downturns cannot always be stopped. But Huntington did next to nothing to stem this possible decline.
Huntington’s off-season grade: D.