Monday, April 7, 2014

Slouching toward greatness: The 2014 FTC Pirates season preview

It's hard to believe we've been doing this for seven years. What? We're a week late? Shut up! Small sample size! Here's our look at your 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pedro Alvarez, 3B

I get that Pedro Alvarez tied for the league lead in home runs last year, but I also get that he finished with an on-base percentage below .300, walked in less than 10 percent of his plate appearances and was team-killingly awful at third base. I don’t know what it’s going to take for people — both management and fans — to realize that this guy’s not going to be Adrian Beltre. Moving Alvarez to first is the best thing the Pirates can do to solve their lack of a lefty power option at first base, then spell him sporadically with Gaby Sanchez and let him play third and hit lower in the order against lefties. It’s a way of getting him roughly the same number of plate appearances while training him at a position where he’s not going to cost the team nine runs a year with his glaring lack of lateral mobility. Equally likely scenario? He winds up in a platoon at third base with Fake Pedro, who as it turns out is right-handed and really knows how to work the count.

Clint Barmes, old utility infielder

I wrote last year that the worst part of Barmes being the shortstop in 2013 was that whoever replaces him probably won’t be as good. Lo and behold, the Pirates have replaced Clint Barmes with Jordy Mercer and replaced Jordy Mercer with Clint Barmes. I like that the Bucs kept Barmes around for defensive depth, and I like the rate at which they did so. I like that he’s not going to be relied upon for 350+ ABs, nor will he ever hit second in the order again, even on Sundays. He’s a good piece to have, so long as you’ve got people who can actually hit ready to come off the bench. More on that later — feel the foreshadowing.

Gerrit Cole, holding it all together

Gerrit Cole is one of the three guys on this team who absolutely does not fuck around, and the only one the Pirates have in their starting rotation. This man is a real, live monster, and he has the potential to be the best pitcher in the history of the organization, which really says so much about nothing at all. Consider this: the instant the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, he became the best pitcher in Pirates history. Then they brought in Francisco Liriano, who certainly can give Burnett a run for his money based solely on talent. Cole has the ability to be better than both. What’s kind of remarkable about this is that the Pirates have been doing this baseball thing since 1887, but until Burnett, never had a pitcher who could rightly be considered elite. If Cole stays healthy, they’ll have had three in two years. The strikeouts will come. Right now, just watch him and be thrilled he doesn't walk everyone.

Jeanmar Gomez, warm body
Jeanmar Gomez was unsustainably good last year, and while he’s nothing special, he could be one of the last things keeping All-Star Jeff Locke out of the rotation when Morton, Volquez and Liriano get hurt. A few years ago when referring to Franquelis Osoria, the humanoid, rubber-armed vagabond of alternative space-times, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said (and I’m paraphrasing) “once we get good pitchers, we won’t need to have guys whose job it is to just eat innings.” To Huntington’s credit, the pitching has gotten better, but Gomez is just Franquelis Osoria without the alien mannerisms and 12th generation Google glasses.

Jason Grilli, living on borrowed time
I’m worried about Jason Grilli and I fear it’s serious. He’s started screwing around with a changeup. No power pitcher starts screwing around with a finesse pitch at age 37 unless something is wrong with his fastball. I was there for all 16 innings on Wednesday night and watched Grilli blow the save from field level on the first-base side. I saw every pitch up close on its way to the plate. The blowing of the save wasn’t what concerned me, though. Grilli barely used his fastball, and when he did, he was sitting in the low 90s. I think he hit 93 once. What he threw a lot of was a changeup between 79 and 81 miles an hour that, when it worked, looked like it stopped twice on the way to the plate. When it didn’t work, it sat there like six-month-old lox in the deli case at Rhoda’s. It was painful. I understand the fastball might still be there, but the fact remains that Grilli's best years are behind him, and I can't imagine a scenario under which the Pirates extend his contract. If the offense tanks and the Pirates are out of it come late July, and maybe -- just maybe -- Grilli starts bitching to the press about wanting to come back next year, he's a great candidate to be traded. Either way, this is the year the dream ends, the wheels come off and Grilled Cheese starts walking people.

Josh Harrison, capable AA player
There was a rumor in the offseason that the Marlins were interested in Josh Harrison. In places like Miami, perception is more important than reality because the team is just so bad. If I was Neal Huntington, I’d have been ghostwriting pro-Harrison sports columns in the Miami Herald and air-dropping propaganda leaflets depicting Josh Harrison beheading Fidel Castro on South Beach every two weeks. Create the market! Alas, no. Position flexibility reigns, and Jay Hay will spend another year deadlocked in a tight battle with the entire bullpen for who can walk the fewest times.

Travis Ishikawa, 1B sometimes
In 2006, the San Francisco Giants played a series at PNC Park, and late in one of the games, someone near me pointed out Celtics great John Havlicek, who was sitting just one section over. “His daughter is married to one of the Giants,” they said. “I think it’s Ishikawa.” Awesome! You never know who you’re going to see at a Pirates game. I’m not a big autograph guy, but I know that John Havlicek was my dad’s favorite player growing up. Surely, he’d appreciate this. Well, he did. The scrap of paper I got John Havlicek to sign is still tucked into the edge of a frame on the wall next to his desk. When I started writing this, I went back to check and see if Ishikawa really is Havlicek’s son-in-law. Turns out he’s not. It was subpar outfielder Brian Buchanan. That said, the time I met John Havlicek at a Pirates game in 2006 remains, without question, the greatest moment of Travis Ishikawa’s career. He's not going to be here very long so they didn't even bother taking a photo of him in a Pirates uniform.

Francisco Liriano, about to be way
too expensive for the Pirates to keep
I’m a stupid, old dope who sometimes engages in Golden Age thinking, so what I’m about to say is subjective, conjecturable and in all likelihood, repetitive. I watched Francisco Liriano pitch against the Pirates months before he fell victim to Tommy John surgery. I watched it at field level. It remains one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Fastballs were dancing in and out of the strike zone at 96 to 98 like wayward electrons. His slider, in the high 80s, fell off the table 59 feet from the mound faster than a mayfly in its 25th hour. Granted, the Pirates lineup was nothing special, but I don’t think most of those guys even saw the ball that day. When the Pirates signed Liriano, he instantly became the most talented pitcher in the club’s history, as well as its greatest reclamation project. He’s on the second of a two-year deal, so you can bet that if he comes anywhere close to replicating the numbers he put together last year, he’ll hit free agency looking for $12-15 million a year on a three-to-five-year deal. The Pirates will not pay this. They should strongly consider it because he fits beautifully with their organizational philosophy and pitchers like this don’t just fall out of the sky, but they’re not going to pay for it. I hope they at least have the decency to throw his name around in trade rumors, make a qualifying offer after the season and demonstrate that they learned something from the A.J. Burnett debacle.

Russell Martin, Catcher
I was colossally wrong on Russell Martin. Not only did he have a passable offensive year in 2013, he had the best defensive season of any catcher since anyone’s been paying attention to that kind of thing. He blocked pitches in the dirt, he threw out runners and he was probably baseball’s best pitch framer. I was skeptical of that as a quantifiable skill, but when you start paying attention to it, it’s obvious there’s a wealth of undiscovered ability there. Martin was brilliant last year, and while it’d be tough to replicate the all-around success of last year, he should have a similar impact on this team. It’s tough to see the Pirates keeping Martin beyond this year — they like Tony Sanchez’s ability to frame pitches and Reese McGuire is one of baseball’s better catching prospects. But man, this was a great pickup. If they wanted to keep him around another year or so, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that. Also, he reportedly broke the front door at a popular local restaurant last year under circumstances which aren’t entirely clear (READ: I know, I’m just not telling you).

Andrew McCutchen's lawsuit of the
Federal Election Commission has thrown
campaign finance regulations into turmoil.
There’s nothing new to say about Cutch. He was the best player in the National League last year and the second-best in the game. He has one of the most team-friendly deals in all of baseball. He has a higher ceiling than most comparable players by virtue of the fact that he’s a patient hitter with power — skills which will serve him well once his speed starts to go and he moves to a corner outfield spot. He’s fully aware of and embraces his role as the face of baseball in Pittsburgh, and he’s just as acutely aware of his public persona and perception. He’s the first nationally recognizable person to wear a Pirates uniform since Barry Bonds, and he seems to love that. He proposed to his fiancée on “Ellen.” I’d say the only thing you couldn’t love about this guy is his arm, but he already looks to have improved his strength from last season (he made no fewer than three dynamite throws to hold runners during Wednesday night’s 16-inning shitshow. Would I love to see Cutch switch places with Marte to reduce his risk of defense-related injury? Sure. But I’m not going to complain. This man is way better than anyone ever thought he would be and he’s been the savior of Pittsburgh baseball. I hope he stays here forever, I hope people name their kids after him and when he dies at the age of 139, I hope he’s buried in PNC Park’s center field.

Man, you know what's a scam? Those marathons that throw paint on women. It's where cheesy women run around in tank tops and shorts, and get sprayed by paint at different mile markers. And they like, pay to do it. And then post pictures of it on Facebook.

Mark Melancon doesn't walk anyone
Mark Melancon is another guy who just doesn’t fuck around. He throws strikes, he gets ground balls, he accrues strikeouts at a more than respectable rate. He doesn’t nibble. He’s stupidly efficient. He’s a guy I would like to see signed to a long-term deal because he can fulfill nearly any role in the bullpen. When Melancon struggles, it’s because he’s getting unlucky on batted balls — an area in which he’s largely found a way to beat luck. This is a guy who could be a stellar relief pitcher well into his late 30s. The Pirates should take advantage of that.

Jordy Mercer, the latest in a series
of placeholders until we figure out
how to clone Honus Wagner
Meet the new shortstop. He's a lot like the old shortstop. I suppose it’s news when any homegrown product makes the major league roster, but there’s just nothing about Mercer which particularly impresses me. He’s a better hitter than Clint Barmes, but so is your deceased childhood pet. This guy is going to be a frustrating stopgap on the order of guys the Pirates have let go for beans over the years; your Jeff Keppingers, your Brent Lillibridges, et cetera. I look forward to the day when this team fields a real shortstop.

Sweet lord, Bryan Morris is fucking terrible. The year-end numbers were passable, but Morris is the antithesis of what you want in a setup man. He struggles to throw strikes, he gives up a lot of hits and his real first name — for those of you who paid attention at the time of the Jason Bay trade — is Avery. The Pirates kept Morris because he came out of camp with no options left, so he’s going to have every chance in the world to fail before they give up on him, which would officially declare the Bay trade a complete bust. I would love for that declaration to come this year. I somehow doubt it will. 

Charlie Morton, Starting Pitcher,
Probably loves Blind Pilot
Last year’s FTC forecast on Morton had him making a handful of rehab starts before getting re-injured in June, then sitting out the year on the shelf until his release. Again, we were WAY off on that one. Relying on what’s turned into an excellent sinker, Ground Chuck had the best year of his career and was rewarded with a contract extension. A starting pitcher with a reliable sinkerball is a valuable asset for any team, especially if they sport the kind of steady infield defense the Pirates have. If he’s healthy, the Pirates should be able to rely on Morton as a third or fourth starter — the kind of guy smart teams get and keep to avoid having to sign stupid assholes like Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ.

Stolmy Pimentel, a good pitcher
about to get a terrible nickname
I’m a fan of Stolmy Pimentel. If he can cut down on the walks and be a little more efficient, he’s a great candidate for the rotation. That seems to be what the Pirates have in mind for him as he threw 4 innings and hit twice during the 16-inning marathon on Wednesday, when he really held his own. While I do like the upside, I cringe at the thought of whatever catchphrase Greg Brown is going to concoct as a play on his name. My nightmares are fraught with phrases like, “A STOLMY’S A-BREWIN’ AT PNC PARK!” following a big, inning-ending strikeout. “Pimentel loaf” is more of a Chris Berman-type thing, but equally horrifying. 

Wandy Rodriguez, Disabled List
Wandy Rodriguez kind of reminds me of Eddie George. This dude was one of the two or three best lefties in the NL for several years before the Astros traded him here, and though we haven’t seen him yet this year, I wonder if he hasn’t hit some kind of invisible wall. Since he was hurt most of last year, the fact that his 2014 option became his prerogative due to the trade was surely to his benefit, as he wouldn’t have gotten anything close to the $13 million said option guaranteed to him. Nobody’s really talked about it, but there’s a very real chance that Wandy’s salary for this year played a role in the Pirates declining to make either a qualifying or a substantive contract offer to A.J. Burnett above $12 million. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what to expect from him this year. He could return to form, throw 190 innings, strike out 175 and be the team’s workhorse, or he could spend half the year riding the pine with elbow pain. His age and injury history probably preclude him from getting any kind of a substantial payday after this season, barring a career year, and he could be a candidate to re-up with the club if he performs so-so and is willing to take a pretty drastic pay cut. Wandy’s kind of a wild card at this point.

Gaby Sanchez, 1B sometimes
Gaby Sanchez would be someone I’d want on my team if I had a capable first baseman who could hit for power. You know, like Prince Fielder, Allen Craig or even Brandon Belt. He’s a great bench piece and his selectiveness makes him a valuable commodity as a pinch hitter. I’m not wild about him playing a major role, but I’m even less wild about Travis Ishikawa playing ahead of Gaby. The Pirates need to get Gaby into the lineup, even if it means he’s hitting lower in the order than they’d like. Despite the lack of power, he’s solid against lefties and unlike Ishikawa, knows how to work the count.

Tony Sanchez, product of
a weak 2009 draft class
If he sticks — unlikely once Chris Stewart is healthy, though the Pirates should definitely consider keeping him up — Tony Sanchez is likely to become a fan favorite. He’s got a big personality, a viable twitter presence and pitch-framing skills which, while not as good as Martin’s, could make him a reliable big-league catcher. He doesn’t bring any power to the lineup but there’s evidence to suggest he can be patient at the plate, which would make him an overall net gain for the Pirates if they choose not to retain Russell Martin. Undeniably, the highlight of Tony’s season will be the walk-off single he hit on Wednesday, followed closely by every time he approaches the plate to “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel, queued up at exactly the 2:54 mark. 

I'm sure he's a nice guy,
he just sucks at baseball
Watching this man play baseball is like watching a three-legged mutt with a skin condition compete at the Westminster Kennel Club. It’s just heartbreaking. I get that part of the roster strategy has been to give second chances to busted former first-rounders, but not all player evaluation systems are equal, and not all of the players drafted in the first round can actually play. This is truer in baseball than in any other sport. It’s time to take Travis Snider out behind the shed and end this experiment, for everyone’s sake. And when we’re pulling the trigger, let us remember that neither team made out particularly well on this trade. Brad Lincoln isn’t even with Toronto anymore, and Gregory Polanco is going to make Pirate fans forget Travis Snider faster than Andrew McCutchen made them forget Nate McLouth.

Chris Stewart, R-Utah
Christopher Douglas "Chris" Stewart (born July 15, 1960) is an American author, businessman, and politician known for his bestsellers Seven Miracles That Saved America and The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World. He currently represents Utah's 2nd congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. Stewart graduated from Utah State University in 1984 before joining the United States Air Force. During his time in the Air Force, Stewart set three world speed records including the fastest nonstop flight around the world. After his service, Stewart began writing novels and became the President and CEO of the Shipley Group. His New York Times bestsellers, Seven Miracles That Saved America and The Miracle of Freedom were published on October 14, 2009 and June 3, 2011. He formally announced his candidacy for Congress on December 6, 2011.

Jose Tabata, husband to an
imprisoned wife, father to a stolen child.
Jose Tabata is a fine fourth outfielder on a competitive team, so I think it tells you all you need to know that he’s a part-time player on this team. On Pirates teams of years past, he’s been a full-time player. His contract is appropriate to his role and ability, and the Pirates would do well to trade him before the rest of the league realizes that he’s lying about both his age and his waist size. Dude is sneaky fat.

Edinson Volquez, this year's
comeback kid
At his absolute best, Edinson Volquez could be this year’s Francisco Liriano. I wrote in the offseason that the steadiness of his fastball velocity and his increasing reliance on and inability to control his curveball could well be the source of his rough patch, and that a return to relying on his fastball and the development of a propensity to get ground balls could be his resurgence. On the other side, he could be a more expensive Jonathan Sanchez, but I’m still leaning more toward the former. I don’t think Volquez will come close to approaching Liriano in effectiveness, but don’t rule out a resurgence to the level of the guy who posted a 3.21 ERA in 196 innings in 2008. The talent is there. It needs to be fostered. I think Ray Searage is the guy to do it.

Does anyone have any idea
where Neil Walker is from?
Like, originally?
When the Pirates opened the season on ESPN, Tim Kurkjian didn’t even wait until the fourth inning to spring the “Neil Walker knows about how much this team means to this city because, well, he’s from here.” So let’s get something straight: “Did you know Neil Walker is from Pittsburgh?” is the baseball equivalent of anytime anyone on a football broadcast says, “Pittsburgh is just a blue-collar town that loves its smash-mouth football/run the ball, stop the run, that’s Pittsburgh football,” or some variation thereof. Everyone who says it should be summarily executed on charges of frivolity and the continuous dumbing down of baseball conversation. HE’S FROM HERE. I GET IT. HE PLAYS FOR THE TEAM HE GREW UP WATCHING. Do you know what’s really amazing? That Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher in the first round, based almost exclusively on the fact that he was from here, and that after three position changes and two spates of being completely unable to hit, he turned into a serviceable major league player. that's amazing. 

Tony Watson, capable relief pitcher
What does Tony Watson have to do to get a contract extension? I’m asking for a friend who totally isn’t Tony Watson.

Justin Wilson, the future
When Grilli’s gone, this man is your closer. Not only does he throw in the mid-to-high 90s, he does so from the left side. He’s better than 2:1 on K:BB, he has a career ERA around 2.00 and he combines a truly live fastball with a plus breaking pitch. Get this man a three-year deal and a pizza with his choice of toppings.

Notes: This team lost a number of pieces in the offseason and did next to nothing to replace them. That represents a lack of urgency on the part of management. They want their cost-controlled, homegrown players to develop and fill out the roster for the time being. I don’t doubt that they’re willing to pay for free agents, but I think they know they’re not as close to being a perennial contender as a lot of people think they are. I don’t fault them for this. The free agent market this year was awful and they were outbid for a couple of players by other teams. That said, they’re going to face the same problems this year that they faced last year.
This team has no bench depth. There isn’t a single player the Pirates can reliably go to as a top pinch-hitting option. There’s nobody on the bench with any power to speak of. I never thought I’d say this, but the Pirates are going to miss Garrett Jones in that regard. Yes, he was a stupid asshole who’d swing at the first pitch after the guy in front of him took an unintentional four-pitch walk, but he matched up well against righties and he had substantial power. There’s nobody like that here now — not from either side of the plate, not at any position. The bench was the main concern last year and Huntington bolstered it in July and August. News flash: it’s worse this year. So is the rotation. You don’t replace A.J. Burnett’s 4.0 WAR with Edinson Volquez, Stolmy Pimentel, Jeanmar Gomez and a wish.

FTC BoldPredictionCast:
Good seasons: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Mark Melancon, Edinson Volquez, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson
Bad seasons: Bryan Morris, Jordy Mercer, everybody named Travis
Progression: Tony Sanchez, Justin Wilson
Regression: Russell Martin
Gonna do what he gonna do: Neil Walker
Perpetually injured: Wandy Rodriguez
Not enough playing time: Michael McKenry
Too much playing time: Josh Harrison, all the Travises
Called up: Gregory Polanco
Sent down: Nobody. Tony Sanchez
Traded: Jason Grilli
Sweet, merciful end: Travis Snider
Released: Bryan Morris, at least one Travis
Projected record: 84-78

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