Bob Smizik: Rating the Pirates

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With the opener four days away, time to evaluate the Pirates. Today the 13 position players, tomorrow the pitching staff.

Catching: Russell Martin might bring with him a perennially low batting average, but also a fairly unusual ability for a catcher to draw walks. So while a .226 BA doesn’t look like much, his .327 OBP was considerably better and sixth among NL catchers. He also hit 15 home runs and has consistently shown decent power throughout his career. A downside was a .192 batting average with runners in scoring position, although he seemed to come up with quite a few big hits. Defensively, he is all the Pirates could want. He’s an expert handler of pitchers and threw out 40 percent of the runners who tried to steal.

Rookie Tony Sanchez will open the season as the backup. He’s questionable defensively and has had trouble throwing in his minor-league career. He looks to be at least adequate offensively. When Chris Stewart returns from knee surgery in about a month, he will replace Sanchez. Stewart is excellent defensively and threw out 31 percent of runners stealing last year with the Yankees. He is a weak hitter with a career OPS of .574 in 645 at bats. GRADE B

First base: Although nothing definitive has been laid out by manager Clint Hurdle, and the team is probably trying to upgrade the position, for now it looks like Gaby Sanchez, a right-handed hitter, will get most of the at bats. His backup is Travis Ishikawa, a left-handed hitter. Sanchez was one of the best hitters in the league against left-handed pitching last season. But there were only a couple of lefty starters in the Central Division and not significantly more throughout the NL. At best, Sanchez is only adequate against RHP and more recently has been less than that, which poses a large problem. First basemen are usually expected to be middle-of-the lineup hitters and Sanchez cannot fill that role against RHP. Ishikawa has never distinguished himself in his MLB career. GRADE D

Second base: This is a case where the lack of left-handed pitching is a benefit to the Pirates. Neil Walker, a switch-hitter, does well against right-handers. He had an .805 OPS against them last season, which is very good for a middle infielder. Facing left-handers, his OPS was .518, with a .246 slugging percentage. Walker’s bat will be needed in the middle of the lineup against right-handers. There’s been talk of platooning him and it might come to that, particularly since Josh Harrison did so well against left-handers last year. But that’s a path the Pirates would prefer not to go down until absolutely necessary. Walker will get plenty of chances to face LHP early in the season. He is not a flashy fielder and doesn’t have great range but he makes the routine plays. GRADE B-

Shortstop: The job belongs to Jordy Mercer, but he’ll likely be looking over his shoulder at Clint Barmes. Mercer lacks range at shortstop but he’s earned this chance and will get most of the starts at least early in the season. Offensively, he was spectacular against left-handed pitching last season with an 1.152 OPS, which was second only to Miguel Cabrera among player with 75 or more at bats. His .410 BA was the best in MLB. But his OPS against right-handers was only .654. His numbers against lefties will decline. His numbers against righthanders need to increase. Even though he is aging, Barmes, 35, possesses a solid glove. In the big games of September and October last season, Hurdle showed a strong preference for Barmes. GRADE: C-

Third base: Pedro Alvarez drew acclaim last year for his 36 home runs, which led the National League. Less noticed were his batting average of .233, down 11 points for 2012, and an on-base percentage of .296, down 21 points. His .333 strikeout percentage isn’t likely to change -- ever. The Pirates are hoping for an uptick in his batting average and that may come. It’s just as likely, though, that what you see is what you’ll get. He continued to struggle against lefties with a .180 batting average. Alvarez led MLB in errors with 27. But he also led all National League third baseman in chances, which speaks to the surprising agility he has for a big guy. His arm is among the best, but can be erratic. Grade: B-

Left field: Starling Marte is the player who could make the greatest leap forward for the Pirates. His abundance of talent has yet to produce the numbers projected for him and in his second full season it might be too much to expect. Andrew McCutchen’s breakout season was in his third full season. Marte is miscast as a leadoff hitter, but he is the Pirates best option. His .343 on-base percentage was 25th in the NL and 11th among outfielders but it was more a factor of being hit by 24 pitches than an ability to draw walks. The HBP stat is likely an aberration and that’s probably a good thing. Marte had 15 more strikeouts than Shin Soo Choo and 84 fewer walks. Defensively, he is the Pirates best left fielder since Barry Bonds. GRADE: B

Center field: Largely unnoticed in his MVP season is that McCutchen’s home run total declined by 10 and his OPS by 41 points. There’s no reason to believe he can’t deliver those 2012 numbers in 2014. He established himself as the best player in the National League last year and lacks only the high-caliber arm to be called a five-tool player. He sets a tone of quiet leadership on the team, with example not words showing the way. GRADE: A+

Right field: The job belongs to right-handed hitter Jose Tabata and lefty Travis Snider. Indication are that it will not be a straight platoon and it shouldn’t because Tabata had the far better season in 2013 and even hit right-handed pitching much better than Snider. Manager Clint Hurdle will play this day-to-day but there’s little doubt the team believes Snider has a higher ceiling and he will get his chances early. This is an important season for both players Tabata needs to build on his .282/.343/.420 -- .771 season. Snider needs to show he belongs in MLB, something he’s not done despite 1,224 career at bats. Combined they hit a home run every 48 at bats -- abysmal for a corner outfield slot. GRADE: D+

BENCH: It figures to consist of Josh Harrison, Barmes, Ishikawa, Snider/Tabata and the backup catcher. For reasons not altogether clear, general manager Neal Huntington often has given short shrift to the bench. This year looks to be more of the same. Ishikawa has been a good career pinch-hitter, although with little power. Harrison and Snider had good seasons last year, but based on previous performance those could be aberrations. There’s not a bat in the bunch that would concern an opposing manager or pitcher. GRADE: D

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