While examining the Pirates this week, I’ve found myself asking the same question again and again: how important is it for the team to get the .500-record monkey off its back? Put another way, I’ve been wondering what portion of its resources it should use to help the 2011 team for the 2011 team’s sake, and what portion it should use to help the 2012 and beyond teams actually contend. Clearly the focus is on 2012 and beyond, since the goal is contention, not a .500 record. Still, teams have to consider the present for many reasons, including fan interest. If the Pirates continue winning at a reasonable clip, the front office could face some tough decisions in July.
Sell High or Hold On?
The top offensive performer for the Pirates this season, both in terms of rate and counting stats, has been Garrett Jones. A late bloomer, Jones experienced a breakout in his age-28 season, producing a .396 wOBA in 358 PA. But even then it was clear that he’d have trouble handling left-handed pitching. That deficiency came to the fore in 2010, when, as a full-time player, more than a third of his 654 PA came against lefties. It was to everyone’s benefit, then, when the Pirates signed Matt Diaz and placed Jones in a strict platoon.
If this platoon experiment continues paying off through July, and the Pirates continue winning games, can they justify to the fans the need to trade Jones? It would represent an excellent sell-high scenario with a player who will not appear on the next great Pirates team. Yet if he’s helping the team reach modest goals for the 2011 season, trading him could infuriate the fan base. How can the team find balance here?
Thankfully for the Pirates, they have been down a similar road recently. In 2008, the team wasn’t at all flirting with contention, but in early July they were just five games under .500. Leading the charge on offense was Xavier Nady, with a .396 wOBA. Perhaps a losing streak made the move easier, but in late July they traded Nady, along with Damaso Marte, to the Yankees for a package of players that includes current starting left fielder Jose Tabata, reliever Daniel McCutchen, and starters Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens. Of them only Tabata has a solid future with the team, but the other three have played useful roles. Yes, losing one of your top performers can hurt, but as the Pirates have demonstrated before, the players they get in return can soften the blow.
The only question, of course, is of how the situation changes if the Pirates are closer to .500 by the trade deadline.
Finding a Competent Shortstop
The most unsurprising stat you’ll see all day: Ronny Cedeno is the second-worst qualifying hitter in the majors, just a single wOBA point behind (or ahead of) Miguel Tejada. At least Tejada has a recent track record of mediocrity. Cedeno has been a poor hitter his entire career, to the point where his 2010 season, in which he produced a .297 wOBA, represents his apex. The sooner they find a more suitable shortstop, the better.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that a replacement is forthcoming. The Pirates did claim Brandon Wood, and he came up through the Angels’ system as a shortstop, moving to third only when Erick Aybar had established himself. It’s not as though Wood is setting the world on fire since his cross-country move — a .260 wOBA — and it’s questionable whether he can slide back on the defensive spectrum. But at this point it has to be worth a shot. And if that doesn’t work…there’s really not much there.
The best internal option is No. 10 (per BA) prospect Chase D’Arnaud, but he’s a flawed player, too. He looked promising in his first few pro seasons, but he has struggled since reaching the upper levels, hitting .247/.331/.377 in Double-A last year and .219/.310/.368 in Triple-A this year. Beyond him the prospect bin is bare. That is, unless the Pirates can find a willing trade partner, they’re stuck with Cedeno and Co. in 2011.
One sign that it’s not time to contend: when you have no viable outlets to replace your weakest position. Cedeno is the weakest of the weak, and certainly needs replacing. Maybe they can find a competent player in a potential Jones trade. Beyond that, things look bleak.
Replacements on the Farm
One reason the Pirates are making noise this season is because of their young core. They have done a good job in recent years of implementing Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez into the lineup. While their entire roster won’t be composed of homegrown talent, they can certainly use another infusion. With the weaknesses they have elsewhere on the diamond, there should be plenty of opportunities.
As I mentioned yesterday, the Pirates’ catchers collectively have the third-highest wOBA in baseball. Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder have been an excellent, if over-performing, tandem so far this season. Yet neither is a long-term solution. Snyder is 30 and has a $6.75 million option for 2012, one that Arizona won’t be subsidizing. Doumit is also 30 and has a $7.25 million option for next year. Both will in all likelihood reach free agency. Tony Sanchez, Baseball America’s No. 46 prospect, has gotten off to a reasonable, if powerless, start in Double-A, hitting .273/.402/.318. With an expected arrival date of 2012, he could immediately step in when the Pirates lose one or both of their 2011 backstops.
If the Pirates do trade Jones, either mid-season or in the off-season, they could have a few in-house guys to take over the role. At Pirates Prospects, the definitive Pirates blog, Tim Williams writes about Alex Presley, a lefty-hitting outfielder who has impressed so far at Triple-A. He was ranked No. 20 on BA’s Pirates list, but the continuation of his 2010 in 2011 has probably raised his stock. He’s probably not the long-term answer for the Pirates as a corner outfielder, but he’s a young guy who can probably do for them what a second-tier free agent or trade target could. There is always the chance, too, that Starling Marte is ready sometime in 2012. That could really change the outfield situation, as it would in all likelihood push McCutchen to a corner.
That really only leaves open first base, though the Pirates might be keeping it warm for Pedro Alvarez. He can probably stick at third base for a bit longer, and ideally they find a run of the mill first baseman — i.e., a tick or three better than Lyle Overbay — to take over at first while Alvarez stays to the left of the defensive spectrum. Thankfully for the Pirates, it’s easier to find a serviceable first baseman than it is to find, say, a second baseman, which they have, or a center fielder, which they also have.
The real fun with figuring the Pirates’ immediate replacements is with the pitching staff. They have a loaded farm, and some of them aren’t too far away. That will be on the ledger later this week.
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