Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Winter* is coming

The Pirates have become nearly too strange for serious commentary or scholarly analysis.
On one hand, I want to believe. We all do.

On the other hand, 20 years of crap — including epic late-season collapses in each of the last two seasons — give us the unchallengeable right to be skeptical.

There are a few ways of looking at this, but let’s start with some numbers. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs has a fascinating look at the Pirates, mainly addressing the question of whether or not their success is sustainable.

By pretty much any objective measure you want to use, it is now likely that the Pirates are going to make the postseason this year. At this point, wondering whether or not they’ll stay in contention is something of an outdated question; now, the real query now is just how good is this Pirates team?

Dave Cameron is on board. I dig that. But at the same time, he’s ruling out the possibility that this team will go 29-51 in the second half of the season and finish 80-82. Do I think that will happen? No. But we can’t simply dismiss this as a possibility. Again, we’ve earned the right not to dismiss it as a possibility. But let’s throw that on the back burner for a second.
Cameron points to the Pirates’ run prevention being the best in baseball, which helps make up for the fact that they’re 19th in wOBA, and he attributes this to how absurdly good the Pirates’ bullpen has been.

Sequencing is mostly randomness, but it’s not entirely random. A team with an excellent and deep bullpen is more likely to outperform their expected win-loss record than a team with inferior relievers. There’s a reason the Chicago Cubs record doesn’t match their wOBA differential, and his name is Carlos Marmol. The Pirates bullpen, led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, has been absurdly good this year.

In high-leverage situations, the Pirates top three relievers — Grilli, Melancon and Justin Wilson — have faced 144 batters, and held those batters to .135/.206/.194. In other words, the Pirates bullpen, specifically these three guys, have been historically great through the first half.

After all, did anyone look at Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and Justin Wilson before the season started and say “hey, that’s an all-time great bullpen in the making”? 

All-time? No. But I said in this space at the beginning of the season that the bullpen was going to be this team’s saving grace. Grilli’s outperformed expectations, Melancon has had the bounce-back season I predicted and Justin Wilson is blowing people away.

The Pirates bullpen is going to perform worse in the second half, if only because there’s no possible way for them to be any better. Regression is coming. But can the Pirates offset those losses by making up ground elsewhere?

There’s the rub. It’s not that these guys won’t continue to be awesome, but there’s just no way they can continue to be this awesome. So how do the Pirates compensate for that?
Cameron points to last year’s Orioles as being in a similar situation to this year’s Pirates — carried by unsustainably great bullpen performances with an offense that ultimately needed a shot in the arm to make up the difference. But the Pirates don’t have an offensive prospect anywhere near major-league ready. There’s no Manny Machado, no Chris Davis. There’s no help on the way.

Here’s what we have right now:

All of the Pirates who are contributing offensively are doing so at sustainable levels with the lone exception of Starling Marte. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez and Russell Martin have all been fine, and there’s nothing to suggest that any of them are going to nosedive into the abyss.

But Marte’s .356 BABIP raises concerns, as does the complete lack of production from the rotating cast of dead ponies Clint Hurdle keeps sticking in right field.

The Pirates need a right fielder in a bad way. Travis Snider is not that guy. Jose Tabata is not that guy. Alex Presley is not that guy. That guy is not currently in the organization.

Giancarlo Stanton is probably not that guy. The Marlins seem hell-bent on not trading him this month, and even if they were going to, the cost of acquiring him is completely prohibitive.

Alex Rios is garbage. Not that guy.

The Pirates should aggressively pursue the Twins’ Josh Willingham or the Brewers’ Norichika Aoki.

Aoki may be a long-shot, given that the Brewers probably wouldn’t want to trade him within the division, and they’re likely to want to retain him for next year — that is, if they think they can contend next year. He doesn’t bring much power, but he’s great at getting on base and plays solid defense.

Willingham would be an absolute coup for the Pirates. The Twins refused to deal him last year, which was the first of a three-year, $21 million deal. With just a season-and-a-half remaining on his contract and the Twins seven games under .500 in a division that isn’t likely to produce two wild-card teams, Willingham could and should be available. He’s a career .259/.361/.477 hitter who can play either corner outfield spot, and at $7 million a year, he’s completely affordable and brings exactly the kind of bat the Pirates need.

While this year's club isn't all smoke and mirrors, Jeff Locke and Jeanmar Gomez are. 

What they've gotten out of those two guys is nearly as incredible as how the team has continued to win in the absence of A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Gerrit Cole, who will get his own post soon, is the absolute truth. And it's incredible to look at the Pirates' starting rotation now versus where it was on Opening Day and see that the only constant is Jeff Locke, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The broadcasters doing the FOX game the other night talked about how it spoke to the organization's pitching depth -- it's true, the Pirates have had a lot of pitchers start games, but I don't think that necessarily means the starting pitching is deep. Again, see Cameron's numbers on how good the bullpen has been in high-leverage situations. 

The Pirates need Burnett and Rodriguez back, but just as importantly, they need to acquire a starting pitcher -- that's going to be a tall order ind this trade market. 


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