Fixing The Pirates’ Offense

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.

Third Base
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.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on and, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

38 Responses to “Fixing The Pirates’ Offense”

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  1. matt w says:

    Would the Giants be looking to add a 1B, or are they going to wait on Brandon Belt? Huff has been worse than Overbay.

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    • gonfalon says:

      Huff has been much better than Overbay by some metrics… Overbay still has more errors at 1B (8) than home runs (6).

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    • Dufus says:

      Who cares. The article is about the Pirates not the Giants. Move along.

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      • matt w says:

        I was asking (and I didn’t make this clear) because the article said “Also helping the Pirates’ case is the lack of other contenders needing a first baseman.” I’m a Pirates fan, for what it’s worth.

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  2. A guy from PA says:

    I would say that as the strong side of a platoon, Garret Jones HAS been comfortably above average in the batters box. .265/.361/.460 against righties I’d say is comfortably above average. It’s his 26 games against lefties that have brought him down to .248/.335/.434 overall.

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    • Robbie314 says:

      Agreed. So the key here is finding an upgrade over his platoon partner Matt Diaz (.277/.318/.337 against lefties; .289/.308/.382 against righties). Surely a RF who only hits lefties wouldn’t be too expensive of a pickup? Can anyone suggest a name?

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      • MarkInDallas says:

        If Jose Tabata comes back healthy, there’s your answer. I’d like to see Presley and Tabata/Jones in the outfield, pick up Carlos Pena and platoon him with Steve Pearce when he’s ready to come back.

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      • Jake says:

        When Steve Pearce comes back from injury, he’s a career .303/.370/531 hitter lifetime against lefties in the bigs. That’s your answer.

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  3. Jim Lahey says:

    How does Walker grade at 3b? I think he should play 3rd while they get Carroll or keppinger at 2b. Can mike Aviles play SS still? He’s in AAA. Gotta be a low cost upgrade with him.

    I do love the Pena idea for them.

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    • gonfalon says:

      I think it’s very unlikely that Walker gets moved from 2B just yet. The Pirates’ front office want him to dedicate his time to 2B without worrying about a change of position, and he’s much better this year (to my eyes, at least). I read that even though he came up as a C, Walker is not their emergency catcher — that would be Matt Diaz.

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  4. A guy from PA says:

    From what I’ve heard Walker’s a better defensive 3rd baseman than he is a second baseman, BUT Pedro Alverez will be coming back to 3rd base, and I don’t think management wants him to move over to 1st base yet anyways. Moving him to 1st would get rid of Pedro’s greatest defensive strength, his arm too.

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  5. Devon Young says:

    I’d love to just see Pittsburgh stand in 1st in the NL Central for 1 day in the 2nd half. I don’t care what else happens this season, that would rawwk!

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  6. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    if cendeno’s defense is real, and the few Pirates games I watched made it appear so, the the guys you suggest other than Hardy are worse than Cedeno. Hardy would cost a fair price. I probably wouldn’t make that deal.

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  8. Jeffrey Gross says:

    Any Chance the cubs could get Alvarez for Pena+Ramirez if they eat salary?

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    • gorillagogo says:


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    • Steve Zielinski says:

      I’m sure the Pirates would take ARam and Pena from the Cubs as a salary dump.

      The Cubs would need to send a lot more than those two and cash for Alvarez.

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      • Marver says:

        Cubs could also include Ryan Dempster and Reed Johnson (as the OF who can hit LHP). I’m still not advocating that the Pirates do the deal, but I don’t think anyone can argue that it wouldn’t place the Pirates squarely in the NL Central race this season.

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  9. pre1322 says:

    No way the Pirates give up Alvarez for anything. Not at his age/upside and team control.

    I would love a Pena deal. Overbay was a low-cost risk for a team that had money to spend who didn’t pay off. Time to move on. Pena would feast on the Clemente wall in right. I don’t see moves coming at 3B and SS. NH loves Cedeno’s glove too much, and they want to give Pedro every opportunity to win the job back. Hardy is a nice dream, but the time to get him was the offseason when the Twins went another direction.

    Realistically, I can see the Pirates making a run at Pena, and maybe adding a bullpen piece, while allowing the injured players fill the other holes as they come back.

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  10. Antonio Bananas says:

    About Pena, is there any truth to the notion that teams don’t like to trade within their division? I mean, statistically I’m sure you trade with other divisions more just because there’s more teams elsewhere, but is it lower enough to think teams don’t like to trade within?

    Maybe the Pirates could sell high on one of their starting pitchers in exchange for a bat. Pick which one of Karstens, Maholm, and Morton they think will drop off, hope the other 2 don’t and let that carry them.

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    • Dann M says:

      Hendry has Pittsburgh on speed dial, dreaming of the day when the next Aramis-for-Bobby Hill comes along, 8 years on. I doubt the Cubs would be the least bit picky when it comes to moving salary over the next 2-6 weeks, waiver deadline included. Pena to Pittsburgh makes at least as much sense as Jeff Baker’s inevitable move to Boston – although Baker as an inexpensive lefty-killing 1B/2B/3B/corner OF would be useful in Pittsburgh as well. Pena and Baker combined could help swing the division.

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      • Steve Zielinski says:

        Hendry hired the clown who sent ARam, Lofton and cash to Chicago for peanuts. He can just speed dial Littlefield and ask him what he would do. I’m sure Huntington would happily trade away all of his soft tossing starter prospects, nearly adequate relievers and fast outfielders who can’t hit worth a damn.

        I pray that the Cubbies promote Littlefield to the GM slot when they fire Hendry!

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  11. strat-o fan says:

    As a casual observer (and mgr of a team with Alvarez on it), I think the Bucs need to call up Alvarez by the end of the month. ESPN’s player profile update for Alvarez postulates that the Pirates dont want to suffer through his struggles, but forgive me for not realizing that Wood and Harrison were not struggling…? At this point, let Alvarez stew in AAA, work on his swing, get back in rythm, and then call him up. He is the top prospect and the lefty power bat PIT needs right now after all. I wonder how much of this prolonged benching has to do with mgt’s dissapointment with his weight coming into ST…. In any event, the Bucs will have to call him up at some point, and yes, there will be times when he is ice cold, but like last year showed, he can get red hot too–he streaky, but thats the nature of the beast and he’ll only get more consistent with time as the big league 3B.

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    • Steve Zielinski says:

      The Pirates FO probably wants Alvarez to work on his hitting while in the minors. They would rather have Wood and Harrison struggle in the majors because they hold those two in lesser regard than Alvarez. By and large, Alvarez’s development will determine the near-term future of the Pirates. If he falters or fails outright, the team will not contend for a championship.

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  12. I’m a Sox fan that went to Pittsburgh for that 3 game series a few weeks ago and I noticed something about Pirates fans. They absolutely WILL support a winning franchise. I’ve been saying ever since that the ownership should spend whatever it takes this offseason to bring in Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes. It would take the payroll up to $80 million, sure, but the fanbase will love it, and spend money on tickets and merchandise.

    Imagine the lineup –
    SS Jose Reyes
    RF Alex Presley
    CF Andrew McCutchen
    1b Prince Fielder
    2b Neil Walker
    3b Pedro Alvarez (if healthy and playing to his potential)
    C Whichever one is healthy
    LF Jose Tabata

    The Bucs would have the best offense in the National League.

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    • Jeffrey Gross says:

      Sorry, but Fielders a cub, unless resigned by Brewers or Pujols comes to chicago

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    • Steve Zielinski says:

      Sadly, the Pirates will not have the financial means to sign both or either player to $100M contracts.

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  13. Excited says:

    It will be very interesting to see how the Pirates handle the return of Jose Tabata to the lineup. While externally this isn’t the case, internally Presley has been considered their most promising bat in the high minors, and he has continued to smack the ball around at the major league level. Considering there was talk last week of Garrett Jones being traded to the Angels for Jeff Mathis, I wouldn’t be shocked if Jones was moved before the deadline for a 1B or C, with Presley shifting to RF to make room for Tabata in LF, and DIaz becoming a bench bat. That would be an excellent defensive outfield, as well as an exciting, and very productive, 1-2-3 in the batting order.

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    • Steve Zielinski says:

      Look for this lineup when all are healthy:

      1. Tabata (LF)
      2. Presley (RF)
      3. McCutchen (CF)
      4. Walker (2B)
      5. Alvarez (3B)
      6. Jones/Pearce (1B)
      7. Doumit/McKenry (C)
      8. Cedeno (SS)

      A lot depends on Alvarez getting his game back together. The Pirates might make a trade if the FO believes Alvarez should remain in the minors until September.

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  14. baty says:

    A deal with the Cubs could be to the Pirates benefit… I’m sure they’ll do anything to try unloading some of the crazy financial commitments they’ve suffered through, and I imagine they could be forced to sell quite low on a rental/veteran type like Pena.

    The Pirates need to force a mistake from someone. Obviously, they are ahead of schedule with being a competitive team, so it’s crucial they don’t jump the gun.

    Even though it’s a down year for the NL Central, there’s no way anyone should assume that that division can be won with fewer than 89-90 wins. For the Pirates to do this they’d need to make a 42-29 run here on out. After the Astros they have a tough 39 game stretch where they face the Reds, Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Cubs, Padres, Giants, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Brewers, and the Cardinals again… WOW. Luckily I have a feeling they’ll know just how serious they can be about buying rather quickly, with the intention of avoiding a wasteful blunder. If the Pirates even make it past this stretch hovering around .500 it would be pretty amazing, and that would leave them needing up to a 20-10 run to finish the season with 90 wins.

    I still think it’s crazy to think the Pirates should be buyers outside of making a move for legitimate upgrades that will be around to help 2-5 years down the road. The Pirates have had a pretty special season, and it needs to be enjoyed, but realistically, I’m not seeing a miracle jump from 2010 worst team record to 2011 season playoff berth.

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    • baty says:

      “But there’s one major weakness that could turn the Pirates’ resurgent season sour: the offense.”

      “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.”

      This is true, but to compensate for an overachieving starting rotation, I think they’re going to need something a lot more special than band-aid repairs like Pena/Willingham, Hardy/Carroll/Furcal/Keppinger, and/or Betemit.

      I’m not saying they should throw in the towel, but I’d rather see their mid-level prospects put to better use. Even a 2 win offensive upgrade only puts the Pirates offense at middle of the road… Hardly a fix… The result seems more cospetic and maybe for the sake of temporarily appeasing fan interest?

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      • swyck says:

        Pirates winning the division – I just can’t wrap my mind around that concept, but it would be nice. :) I just want to see them break that .500 mark.

        I agree the Pirates shouldn’t break the farm for a run this year. I like some of the names mentioned – Pena, Willingham, Betemit – as long as the asking price is not real high. I’m totally against going after high any salary old guys – Furcal or Beltran.

        I’d like to see an article about the Pirates starting pitching and how sustainable this run is. I think it’s an OK set of arms, maybe 3’s or 4’s at best on a lot of teams. Low K, decent GB% guys. I’m not seeing a lot of luck in those stats so maybe it’s a perfect storm.

        Hey, I just noticed. They are in 1st place, yow! I was still thinking they’re a game back, lol.

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      • Phillie697 says:

        Well for what it’s worth, Pirates have a team ERA of 3.45 while its FIP sits at 3.96 and xFIP sits at 3.99. So you’re looking at half a run worse in the next 70 games, or roughly 35 runs. There is no evidence that the Pirates are a team that can sustain an ERA better than its FIP/xFIP historically. I think baty is right… Adding Pena and someone else would merely make up for the extra runs the pitching staff will give up, on paper anyway. Is that going to win the division? I guess that depends on what the rest of the division does at the trade deadline.

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  15. The Fort says:

    The way the Braves are playing it looks like the WC is out of reach, so the Pirates to make the post season they will need to win the Central. With Pujols back and raking and St Louis likely to acquire an upgrade in the MI this is unlikely. With the Brewers and Reds in contention as well its still a real longshot.

    If the Pirates are to be buyers they should do so because it makes (dollars and) sense. If the revenues from additional attendance, tv revenue, etc can be used to obtain an above average infielder or sign Josh Bell then it’s worth it to be buyers. If a small investment in capital and marginal prospects (and the Pirates have a lot of 4/5 starter prospects) now keeps the team in contention for an extra week or two it will be worthwhile. If the team gets 82 wins that is a bonus. The ultimate target may be the playoffs but the realistic goal should be to get and keep the fans excited about the team.

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  16. baty says:

    I think that’s fine, and It makes sense to try to maximize revenue for the season, but I still think that if the Pirates want to continue doing that, they are going to need to make a move right now, and make that move relatively significant to now and the future.

    It is possible that the Pirates could find themselves back to a few games below .500 as early as August 1st. If the Pirates slip out of contention as they acquire these pieces, and because most of the players named in this article are nearly unknowns to the casual fans you’re trying to keep at the ballpark, it could backfire into something viewed as more of the same half-way management attitude that fans have experienced in the past (not to say that that’s at all a true assessment). The only value in acquisitions like these is that they are supposed to translate into visible wins. It would have to be a loss when they don’t because there’s nothing valuable/marketable about any of these players when it comes to interest/revenue. Fans might just be fine with seeing the Pirates finally as non-sellers. Make a significant splash in the offseason.

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