Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Starting Rotation
A.J. Burnett is back and in the final year of his contract. By Pirates standards, Burnett was outstanding last year. He threw just over 200 innings and struck out nearly three hitters for each walk he issued, and finished with a 3.51 ERA and a 1.241 WHIP. He also produced one of last season's most memorable and inspiring moments. He's probably still the best pitcher the Pirates have had since Doug Drabek. In addition to being the Pirates' vocal leader, Burnett has walked the second-most hitters among all starting pitchers over the last five years. In that time, he's also thrown more wild pitches and hit more batters than anyone else. Seeing as those look to be a major theme with the Pirates this year, I've devised a new statistic: walks (BB) + wild pitches (WP) + hit batsmen (HBP) / innings pitched (IP). We'll call it Nuke Index (NKI). Burnett's Nuke Index over the last five years is .530. That means he averaged a little more than half a walk, wild pitch or hit batter per inning over the last five years. To put that in perspective, Justin Verlander's NKI over the same period is .375. Last year, Burnett put up an NKI of .400. Look for Burnett to post similar numbers this year and lead the league in not giving anything resembling a fuck.
Wandy Rodriguez came over from the Astros last year in a deal the Pirates made because they thought they were contending. Rodriguez, 34, has been one of NL's more reliable left-handed starters the last five years, and performed reasonably well after joining the club last year, despite being visibly upset at having to leave Houston. He's signed through this year at $13 million, but his club option for the 2014 season became a player option when he was traded. Look for Rodriguez to throw about 200 innings, strike out about 140, post about a 3.80 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, and leave town as soon as the season is over, if he's not traded come the end of July.
James McDonald enters the season as the Pirates' third starter. McDonald, who pitched exceptionally in the first half of last year, came so totally unglued in the second half that he was pulled from the rotation and appointed the Franquelis Osoria Visiting Professor of Mopup Duty.J-Mac finished his spring in epic fashion, giving up four runs on three hits, four walks and two wild pitches in an inning of work in the Pirates' 8-6 loss to their Double-A affiliate, Altoona, on Saturday. I'm going to type that sentence one more time. J-Mac finished his spring in epic fashion, giving up four runs on three hits, four walks and two wild pitches in an inning of work in the Pirates' 8-6 loss to their Double-A affiliate, Altoona, on Saturday. The future is just as bleak as the present. Take your own life.
Jonathan Sanchez joined the Pirates as a non-roster invitee to spring training. Formerly of the Giants, Royals and Rockies, Sanchez has a repertoire that includes a low-90s fastball, a curveball, a changeup and a slider with outstanding late break. He's produced the second-best swing-and-miss rate among all starting pitchers over the last four years (12 percent), and the highest walk rate in the same demographic (12.7 percent). His five-year Nuke Index is .662, and came in last year at .408 in limited Major League time. So the outstanding repertoire of pitches he can't control, combined with three guys being hurt and the Pirates having no confidence whatsoever in their organizational depth led to Sanchez "earning" a spot in the starting rotation. If he sticks in the rotation, look for Sanchez to lead the league in wild pitches.
Jeff Locke is in the rotation because a bunch of guys are injured. The Pirates don't think very much of him, so expect him to be demoted, either to bullpen duty or Triple-A Indianapolis once Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens or Charlie Morton are ready to come back.
Lord Joffrey Phillipe Windsor Charles Albert-Heinzbeans Sainsbury Mountbatten, 5th Duke of Glouscestershire-upon-Squishney, Earle of Heathfordshire-at-Brinkmanship-on-Tyne and Lord Protector of the Lands Just East of the Lands to the West and the Southern Isles of Greyside, Flavourshire and Trousertowne (a.k.a. Jeff Karstens) was non-tendered by the Pirates following last season, then re-signed a few weeks later for considerably less money. Karstens, a product of 1,000 years of Western European monarchical inbreeding, was injured during spring training while attempting to eat steak without adult supervision. A timetable for his return has not been established.
Francisco Liriano joined the Pirates as a free agent in the off-season, agreeing to a two-year, $14 million deal. Immediately after agreeing to terms, Liriano injured his non-throwing arm under suspicious circumstances. Despite the injury putting the deal on hold for nearly two months, as well as a preponderance of better pitchers available on the free agent market who commanded similar money, Liriano and the Pirates ultimately agreed on a two-year deal worth $12.75 million. He'll begin, and likely end the season on the disabled list, because that's his move. Before his first major arm surgery, Liriano was an incredible talent. I saw him pitch against the Pirates in 2006, and it remained the damnedest thing I'd ever seen until watching Stephen Strasburg pitch at PNC Park last year. The control just isn't there, though: Liriano's posted a five-year Nuke Index of .547, and put up a .670 in just over 150 innings last year. Look for Liriano to lead the National League in walks issued to opposing pitchers, hit batsmen and season-ending injuries involving strippers.
NB: Between Burnett, Liriano and Sanchez, the Pirates' Opening Day starting rotation contains three of the game's 15 wildest arms, not only according to five-year Nuke Index, but Nuke Totals (BB+WP+HBP).
Charlie Morton underwent reconstructive elbow surgery early last year and missed most of the season. This didn't stop the Pirates handing him a one-year deal worth $2 million, even though he won't be ready to pitch until the middle of this season. Expect Morton to make a handful of rehab starts in Altoona, rejoin the Pirates by late June, fight his sinker for two or three outings, then go back on the DL for the remainder of the season with recurring tightness in his elbow, effectively ending his career with the team.
Jason Grilli takes over as the closer this year. Grilli was great last year, inexplicably adding four miles an hour to his fastball at age 35 and posting strikeout numbers far, far above what his career arc would suggest he’s capable of. Expect him to start walking guys at a normal rate once he’s caught injecting stem cells into his eyelids, then lose the closer’s job after Clint Hurdle deems Grilli’s hair and beard as “lacking the right attitude” for the role.
Born in Montreal, Chris Leroux first gained notoriety as the studio guitarist for alt-country mainstay The Deep Dark Woods. After appearing as a guest musician on Stars’ 2004 release Set Yourself on Fire, Wolf Parade’s 2008 record, At Mount Zoomer, and Patrick Watson’s 2009 release, Wooden Arms — which, at 3.3/10, holds the highest score Pitchfork media has ever awarded a Canadian album — Leroux struck out on his own, recording an eponymous solo EP under the name Trail of Bears. His first full-length LP, Mile’s End, was released in 2011. In 2012, he opened for acclaimed indie-rock duo Tegan and Sara on the North American portion of their world tour. The next Trail of Bears release, Yes Except No, is due out in May of this year.
Back for on the Opening Day roster for a second-straight year, Tony Watson will serve as the Pirates’ late-inning lefty specialist until hitters realize that he’s not capable of throwing faster than 92 miles per hour. Watson has been a serviceable big-league pitcher in parts of two seasons for the Pirates, posting respectable 4.4 and 3.9 K/BB ratios the last two years, and getting everyone in the clubhouse really into The Wire.
True to what the Pirates seem to value in their pitchers, Justin Wilson will either walk or strike out every batter he faces. In 15.2 innings of spring training action this year, Wilson struck out 16 hitters and walked 10. At 6-2, he’s the shortest lefty in the Pirates’ bullpen, which means absolutely nothing. Wilson’s powerful square jaw and soft green eyes are sure to make him a fan favorite in Pittsburgh for years to come.
Mark Melancon came over from Boston in the trade that unloaded Joel Hanrahan’s stupid goatee, slowing fastball and failing control to the Red Sox. He had an abysmal 2012 season, posting a 6.40 ERA in 45 innings, but he barely walked anyone and his strikeout numbers were solid. That, plus the peripheral stats like BABIP and xFIP say he’s as good a bounce-back candidate as you’ll find, and he could wind up the Pirates’ closer if he grows weird enough facial hair or Grilli struggles.
I have never heard of this guy. The Internet says his name is Jeanmar Gomez, and that he’s a 25-year-old righty from Caracas, Venezuela. But until about two minutes ago, I had no idea that this person existed, let alone was on the Pirates’ Opening Day roster. I’m not even going to bother researching him. Expect him to draw more walks as a hitter this year than Josh Harrison.
The Position Players
Advanced metrics that attempt to measure the way catchers frame pitches — how they position themselves behind the plate, where they place the target for the pitcher, how they move to catch the pitch, etc. — say that Russell Martin is one of the best in the game at this, and that his aptitude for it can mean as many as 13 runs per year to a ball club. If true, that’s significant. But signing Martin for $17 million over two years is a huge risk if it turns out not to be the case. Martin, 30, has been in steady offensive decline for the last five years. As was said in this space last week, Martin’s offensive numbers don’t differ too much from Michael McKenry’s — in fact, McKenry might be a better hitter than Martin. I’m eager to see how Martin performs defensively. If he throws out base-stealers better than the Pirates did last year — which he probably will, since it’s not really possible to be as bad as Rod Barajas was — and the framing numbers bear out what the Pirates saw in overpaying to get Martin, this signing could wind up not being a colossal waste of money. That said, “not a colossal waste of money” is the absolute ceiling for Russell Martin.
I wish they’d move Pedro Alvarez to first base already. I don’t care that he’s a streaky hitter, I don’t care that he can’t handle breaking pitches to save his life, and I don’t even care how many better players went after him when the Pirates took him second overall in 2008. I just wish they would do something smart and put him at first base, where his lack of athleticism and lateral movement won’t be as much of a liability as they are at third. I don’t think his walk rate is ever going to creep over 10 percent. I don’t think he’s going to stop being a stupid asshole and swinging at the first pitch. At this point, Pedro’s a known quantity — a slightly above-average player with a high power ceiling. Maximize his output by getting him off of the hot corner and into a position where he’s not going to cost the club half his value by virtue of his being physically unable to play his position.
Good news: This is probably Clint Barmes’s last year as a Pirate. Bad news: Whoever replaces Clint Barmes next year will probably be worse than Clint Barmes is now.
Not many people know this, but three years ago, the Marlins were taken over by Muammar Gaddafi’s nephew Kevin. Kev Gaddafi built the Marlins an ornate new ballpark, hired a batshit insane manager and spent more than $100 million to bring in the best free agents money could buy for the park’s opening last year. The result was disastrous, and the club set about gutting the roster by mid-May, selling off its players like bad credit default obligations to school districts in Iceland. The Pirates got in on the act, picking up Gaby Sanchez in exchange for 100 acres of land on the Moon. At 29, Sanchez is no long-term solution, but he’s an above-average defensive first baseman and a much more patient hitter than the Pirates typically field at any position. Look for Sanchez to outplay the right-handed half of the first base platoon and steal some time away from Garrett Jones, but don’t expect the same power.
Last year, Franco made a deal with Pirates owner Bob Nutting. Every time the Pirates release some stupid asshole, Franco will attend a game. The deal includes a special clause that could trigger Franco to stop by the team store if they release Josh Harrison.
John McDonald is a 38-year-old middle infielder and veteran of 14 big-league seasons who has made a career out of being a defensive replacement. He doesn’t really “hit,” per se — in fact, only once has he amassed more than 300 plate appearances in a season, and that was a decade ago. But he’s a an above-average glove man at second base and shortstop who can also, though not quite competently, play third base or left field. Last year with the Diamondbacks, McDonald tied a career-high with six home runs. Don’t expect that kind of production this year, but keep an eye out for McDonald incredulously shaking his head as he realizes how things are done here over the course of the season.
Hey, did you guys know that Neil Walker is from Pittsburgh? YES WAY! He went to Pine-Richland, he just got his own place and just like you, he LOVES the Steelers, the Penguins and late-night trips to Primanti’s in the Strip! Against all odds, Walker has turned into an alright second baseman, and the Pirates should probably look to sign him to a contract extension if they can do so for a reasonable price. It’s the first instance in decades to which the phrase “hometown discount” might actually be correctly applied.
We went over Brandon Inge a few weeks ago. I'm already sick of him and don’t feel like doing it again.
This lame commercial is a perfect metaphor for our city’s relationship with baseball. On one side, there’s Cutch, just stoically going about his business like the normal, well-adjusted adult he is. On the other side, there is a certifiably deranged lunatic hosting a fake TV show in front of an imaginary camera, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
I’m guessing this will be Garrett Jones’s last year in Pittsburgh. He has one more year of arbitration eligibility, meaning he’s all but guaranteed to make more than the $4.5 million he’s making this season, and a piece the Pirates likely won’t pay to keep. Jones has been a serviceable half of a right fielder/first baseman for the last five years, but if there’s anyone the Pirates would look to spin off to a playoff team at the deadline, it’s him. I’d expect Jones to cede some of his time at first base to Gaby Sanchez, and make up that time in right field, where he’ll take it away from the utterly useless Travis Snider. Speaking of which…
Each day Travis Snider is on the Major League roster is a day the terrorists have won.
Snider made Jose Tabata look good by comparison in the Grapefruit league this year. Tabata put up a slash line of .269/.304/.442. It’s going to be tough for Tabata to follow up on his act from last season, in which apathetic performance got him sent to Triple-A, and further apathy kept him there most of the year. But now, since the Pirates have a free-swinging asshole they like more, Tabata isn’t guaranteed starts. He’ll either respond by picking up his game whenever he gets the opportunity (FTC Possibility Rating: 20 percent) or sulking to the point where he stress-eats two-pound bags of shredded cheese and drinks vodka in the dugout (FTC Possibilty Rating: 80 percent).
Starling Marte has astounding speed and athleticism. He doesn’t walk. He swings at everything. His arm is incredibly strong, and the throws it makes are often ill-advised. It’s an even-money bet that on every fly ball in his direction, Marte will make the catch or be struck in the head and die. You wanted Alfonso Soriano, Pittsburgh? Now you’ve got him. Nobody on this team will tantalize or frustrate Pirates fans more than Starling Marte.
Good seasons: McCutchen, Burnett, Melancon, Gaby Sanchez
Bad seasons: Snider, Tabata, Jonathan Sanchez
Progression: Alvarez, Leroux, Gaby Sanchez
Perpetually injured: Morton, Liriano, Karstens
Not enough playing time: McKenry
Too much playing time: Snider
Called up: Gerrit Cole
Sent down: Josh Harrison
Traded: Jones, Rodriguez
Sweet, merciful end: Morton
Released: John McDonald
Projected record: 78-84