At 47-43, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit just one game back in the NL Central standings. The club has a winning record after the All-Star break for the first time since Sid Bream slid and Barry Bonds bolted. And for the first time since the 1997 “Freak Show” edition of the club, whose entire payroll was less than what Albert Belle made that year, the Bucs will play pennant-altering games in the second half. The fans are taking notice: attendance is up by 3,000-4,000 per game at PNC Park, and local TV ratings have increased by a third.
But there’s one major weakness that could turn the Pirates’ resurgent season sour: the offense. Pittsburgh ranks 11th in the NL in on-base percentage, 14th in slugging and 12th in runs scored. Outside of MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, no current starter has been comfortably above-average in the batter’s box. It’s going to be hard to keep up with the Cardinals and Brewers with such a tepid lineup.
Today, I’d like to propose some solutions to those offensive woes. The biggest problem spots for the Bucs are first base, shortstop and third base. Right field could be added to that list, depending on how the first base issue is solved, but I’ll leave catcher alone considering the paucity of trade options and the likely returns of Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder later in the season. Without further ado, here are some ways to keep the offense from sinking the Pirates’ division title hopes.
First Base/Right Field
The Pirates signed Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million deal in hopes that he would draw some walks, hit for modest power and provide his typical .330-.340ish Weighted On-Base Average. Instead, the 34-year-old has done little more than slap an occasional single while posting a .298 wOBA. His rest-of-season ZiPS projection calls for a .321 wOBA. So sticking with Overbay would likely produce better results than it has so far, but would still leave the team with a mediocre bat at a power position.
Enter Carlos Pena. The Cubs are woefully out of contention and could look to unload Pena’s remaining salary from a bloated payroll. And, as MLBTradeRumors’ Tim Dierkes noted, Pena’s one-year contract with the Cubs was structured so that $5 million of his salary is deferred until January of 2012. That means that the Pirates wouldn’t have to free up much immediate cash to add Pena.
Also helping the Pirates’ case is the lack of other contenders needing a first baseman. Outside of possibly Cleveland (who might prefer to stick with Matt LaPorta) and the Angels, there aren’t many other teams for whom Pena makes sense. That figures to keep the price in terms of young talent lower. Pena has a .365 ZiPS projection, so his bat could add nearly a win to the Pirates’ cause compared to Overbay from here on out.
If the Pirates don’t add Pena, they could move Garrett Jones (.335 rest-of-season ZiPS) to first base more frequently. Recently-recalled outfielder Alex Presley has gotten off to a nice start filling in for the injured Jose Tabata in left field, but he may fall short of being an everyday option in right field after Tabata comes back (.317 projection). Maybe the Bucs could give the A’s a call about Josh Willingham (.343 ZiPS), assuming his Achilles injury is behind him. Adding Carlos Beltran (.364) seems highly unlikely, given his remaining salary and the possible demand from the likes of San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Texas and Atlanta.
Ronny Cedeno, currently on the seven-day DL with a concussion, has played good defense this year but has posted a wretched .279 wOBA. Triple-A exploits aside, he has never hit at the major league level and has a .290 ZiPS projection. Maybe the Pirates are okay with that if they value Cedeno’s glove, but he does has a negative UZR at shortstop during his career.
The bold and costly move here would be to pursue Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy (I’m going to assume that Jose Reyes is not available). Unlike Pena, Hardy figures to be chased by a handful of contenders, and the Orioles are trying to lock up the impending free agent as well. Hardy has a .334 ZiPS projection, so he also could be an 8-10 run upgrade over the incumbent. The Pirates almost assuredly won’t part with a top prospect, but it’s worth exploring if the O’s are intrigued by a B-level arm like Bryan Morris.
Other, perhaps more realistic trade possibilities include Jamey Carroll (.311 ZiPS projection), Rafael Furcal (.311) and Jeff Keppinger (.321). None is ideal — the 37-year-old Carroll might be stretched at shortstop, getting Furcal would involve a big salary dump on the Dodgers’ part and a prayer that the guy can actually stay on the field, and Keppinger might be brutal at the position. The Pirates could simply choose to continue playing Chase D’Arnaud at short, who is a few years younger than Cedeno and has a slightly better .300 ZiPS projection.
When Pedro Alvarez hit the DL with a quadriceps injury, the Pirates turned to Josh Harrison and Brandon Wood at third base. The two have combined for a .262 wOBA this season, and it’s hard to envision more than scores of outs from either moving forward. Wood is years removed from prospect status and has a .283 ZiPS projection. Harrison doesn’t have a ZiPS forecast, but he’s a C-level prospect whose minor league record suggests some singles and little else.
Alvarez is now healthy, but the Pirates have decided to keep him at Triple-A Indianapolis for the time being. Granted, the number two pick in the ’08 draft has endured a miserable, low-power season and holds a .270 wOBA. And the Pirates’ front office and coaching staff knows the player far better than any of us do. Perhaps an extended stay at Triple-A is the best thing for Alvarez’s long-term development. But can he really not be an upgrade over the likes of Wood and Harrison? ZiPS projects a .339 wOBA.
Maybe the Pirates see a major flaw in Alvarez’s swing right now that makes that projection unrealistic. In that case, the club could give the Royals a call and work out a deal for Wilson Betemit (.330 rest-of-season ZiPS). Betemit’s D is ghastly, which could be more of a concern with a low-strikeout rotation, but he’s certainly a better hitter than either Wood or Harrison and would be a nice stopgap until Alvarez is deemed ready. Betemit is owed less than $500K from here on out, and it would be difficult for K.C. to expect top talent considering that he has been plastered to the bench since Mike Moustakas‘ call-up. The difference between Betemit and Wood/Harrison from an offensive standpoint could be a half-win to a win.
As Dave Cameron said earlier this month, the Pirates should be buyers, albeit cautious ones. Given the team’s position in the standings, the already-increased fan interest and the potential financial windfall of a playoff appearance, Pittsburgh shouldn’t stand pat while 0-fors from weak hitters sink their division hopes. Picking up players like Pena, Carroll and Betemit could mean an additional 20-25 runs scored and a couple of wins without adding a ton of salary or surrendering premium farm talent.