When looking back on the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2013 season and ahead to their 2014 season, there's just one question to ask: How did the Pirates get to 94 wins in 2013 and what do they need to do to get back and beyond in 2014? In the immediate aftermath of the Pirates' loss, there was a lot of goodwill surrounding the Pirates. The general sentiment was that the Pirates good young players, a great farm system, and that that makes them more or less a team on the rise. No individual part of that is untrue, but the reality is that things are more complicated than that. Below, from Baseball-Reference, is a list of every Pirate position player that had a WAR of more than 0.5 this year.
And here are their pitchers with positive WAR:
There are a few interesting things here, but the first is this: the 2013 Pirates were not that young. The only position player contributors under the age of 25 were Starling Marte and Jose Tabata. Russell Martin, Clint Barmes, and Marlon Byrd are all over 30, Barmes and Byrd are free agents now, and Martin is a free agent next year. The pitching staff doesn't look impressive at all if you go by WAR. That really drives home how important defense was to this team, I think. Gerrit Cole and Brandon Cumpton are the only contributors under 25 there, with AJ Burnett, Jason Grilli, Kyle Farnsworth, and Wandy Rodriguez all over 30.
This leads me to this conclusion: there are only three players from the 2013 team that I would say are absolutely indespensible going forwards: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole. That doesn't mean that I think the Pirates can just nuke the other 22 roster spots, of course, just that the other players are players that can be either replaced or upgraded upon over the next six months or year or two years or three years. I think a lot of Pirate fans would put Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez in with McCutchen, Marte, and Cole, but I think that we're seeing both Walker and Alvarez at their respective peaks right now. This is more or less the same as the point that Charlie made right after the season; it doesn't do any good to get attached to marginal players now that the Pirates have a winning team.
That means that our actual question this off-season is this: how do the Pirates get back to the playoffs in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018? I think that this specific Pirate team, the one that we watched in 2013, has a shelf life of one more year. Russell Martin is signed for one more year, Francisco Liriano is signed for one more year, Jason Grilli is signed for one more year, and while I'm not sure that guys like Alvarez and Walker will get better down the road, I'm not saying that they're going to get immediately worse, either. That means that the first concern of the off-season is filling in the gaps with only 2013 in mind. The first two names that immediately come to mind in that regard are AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd.
Without Burnett, the Pirates' rotation next year looks something like this: Liriano, Cole, Morton, Rodriguez, [Locke, Cumpton, Pimentel]. That's not really a bad rotation, but it leaves something to be desired. Liriano has never put two good seasons together. The Pirates have plenty of things going in their favor, of course, because they're the ones that got him to where he was this year and they've still got PNC Park and they'll still have the defensive shifts behind him, but Liriano has historically not been a very consistent performer and it's worth at least noting that. I think Gerrit Cole is probably poised for a big breakout next year and I'm sure the Pirates would agree with that, but Cole is still a young pitcher and young pitchers are scary. Charlie Morton is still Charlie Morton. Wandy Rodriguez will be 35 and coming off of a season in which he missed more than half of a year with an arthritic elbow. The team says he'll be fine and maybe he will be, but how much can you count on him? Locke presents the obvious questions after his second half meltdown. Cumpton was nothing but excellent in a Pirate uniform, but there is littie in his minor league record to suggest that he should get a regular rotation spot. Pimentel has tantalizing stuff and is out of options, so he'll likely be on the club one way or another, but he was pretty uneven across Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. If things go well for the Pirates, we'll have Jameson Taillon to talk about at mid-season, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.
All of this is to say that having another year of AJ Burnett would be a nice stabilizing factor for these Pirates. Burnett had a legitimately good season with the Pirates in 2013; he had the best strikeout rate of his long career and the best K-rate in the National League among qualified pitchers. He had the best K/BB ratio of his long career, and the lowest home run rate. He made some bad starts, but he made more really excellent starts. I have some questions about his durability at this point in his career, but I really don't doubt that Burnett could give the Pirates another 175-200 good innings in 2014. All indications continue to point to Burnet wanting to remain a Pirate if he decides to pitch next year; if he does, that makes things considerably easier for the Pirates this winter. It'd also be to the Pirates' advantage if Burnett decides he wants to go year-to-year; both his age and the Pirates' pitching-rich farm system mean that it's easy to determine Burnett's value to the Bucs in 2014 but it's harder to do so in 2015.
The second, and more difficult question, is how to fill out the two open corner slots on the field. The struggles and/or health problems of Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, and Jose Tabata created a lot of first base and right field problems for the Pirates in 2013, and at more or less the last possible second the Pirates decided to go for outside help in the form of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. Byrd worked out brilliantly; he was arguably the Pirates' best player down the stretch, and his home run off of Johnny Cueto in the wild card game may be the moment from this season that lives on for forever in the memory of Pirate fans. Morneau was more or less Garrett Jones all over again, with a nice glove. Both players are free agents now, so the Pirates have some decisions to make.
I suspect that Byrd will be difficult to bring back. Next year is his age-36 season and he's never signed a big contract. Coming off of a career year, this is absolutely his one and only chance to sign a two or three year deal that would more than double his career earnings to this point (he's made about $22 million in his career). There are a couple of reasons that doing that would be a bad idea for the Pirates. One is simply that Byrd's been up and down over the course of his career. After some great years in Texas, he went to Chicago and struggled, then cratered in Boston and needed to take the long road back to being a productive big league player. He was fantastic both for the Mets and Pirates in 2013, but it's hard to believe that that power surge is going to stick at his age.
The other problem with a long-term deal for Byrd is Gregory Polanco. Polanco has gone from being off of the radar before the 2012 season to being one of the top outfield prospects in all of baseball. At this point in his minor league career, he's essentially Starling Marte with the dials cranked to 11. He's left-handed, he's younger for his levels, he's got a bit more pop, and he's got a really promising eye at the plate. He didn't really excel after his promotion to Double-A this year, but he's blasting the walls off of the Dominican Winter League right now. Obviously toolsy outfield prospects are far from sure things, but there's a chance that by mid-season in 2014, the Pirates have their right fielder of the future in PNC Park. So long as Polanco's waiting in the wings, signing Byrd to anything more than a one-year deal doesn't make sense for the Pirates and a one-year deal doesn't make much sense to Byrd.
If the Pirates do really like Polanco, they could also go with a Tabata/Snider platoon in right field for the first half of the season and make a trade if Polanco's not ready. That tactic didn't really work well this year, but Tabata looked pretty good in September and there might be some reason to think that Snider's toe problems contributed to his absence of power this year. It's not an idea situation, but if Polanco is as good as he's looked thus far in the minors, the Pirates might not need an ideal situation in right, if that makes sense. In that case, though, they really should do something about first base. Garrett Jones seems like more or less of a slam-dunk non-tender candidate at this point (he's due for a raise on $4.5 million through arbitration, so, likely in the neighborhood of $6-7 million). I feel relatively sure the Pirates could have Morneau back at about the same price for a one-year deal as he tries to rebuild value, but I'm not sure that they should want him back at that price. It's certainly possible that every day that passes puts Morneau one day further beyond his concussion and closer to a day when he'll be a 30-homer threat again (and I hope that's true for Morneau's sake whether signs with the Pirates or not) but there's just not evidence to support that hypothesis at this point. I don't think that bringing Morneau back would necessarily be a waste because the Pirates can probably afford to keep Gaby Sanchez for another year and a Morneau/Sanchez platoon would probably be pretty decent at first base, it's just that I think that the Pirates can probably find the approximate contribution of a player like Jones or Morneau on the scrap heap for cheaper than what either of those two players are likely to cost.
There is a danger inherent in bringing Burnett and one of Byrd or Morneau back for a year and playing for 2014, though, and that's that there will suddenly be quite a bit of retooling to do when the 2014 season is over. If the Pirates go ahead with that strategy and that strategy only, Martin, Liriano, Burnett, Byrd/Morneau, Morton, Rodrigez, and Grilli are all likely to be free agents or retired after the 2014 season. As of this winter, it seems like there are logical hypothetical fills for those holes (Tony Sanchez for Martin, Polanco for the outfield, Alex Dickerson for first base, maybe, Taillon, Kingham, and maybe even Glasnow for the rotation, etc.), but none of those are sure things at all.
That means that the big concern, at least for me, this winter is that if the Pirates focus on maintaining where they were in 2013 for the purpose of making a run in 2014, it's possible that they can dig a hole for themselves for the future. It's easy on one hand to say that this is a Pirate team that should be primarily focused on 2014 and that's absolutely true, but watching teams like the Nationals this past season also makes it clear that one good season doesn't guarantee a second, and sometimes it's well beyond a front office's control when things go south. If the Pirates only move to maintain this winter, then suffer a key injury or two early next year, they could be staring at a 75-80 season with a ton of work to do over the next winter. It's true to say that they had good luck on the free agent market and in the bargain bin last winter, but that's been a traditionally unreliable route for the team (look no further than Rod Barajas and Erik Bedard).
I don't really want anyone to mistake what I'm saying here: I do think the Pirates should bring AJ Burnett back, and I do think they should probably try to get Byrd to take a one-year deal, though I doubt he'll be amenable to that. If that's all they do, it won't be a bad winter because their farm system, as currently constructed, is awfully deep and it seems likely that there will be a bunch of help coming starting at mid-season in 2014 and running on indefinitely. It's just that making minor moves to maintain a status quo this winter is the exact sort of thing that makes me nervous; baseball will not stand still and wait for the Pirates to win a World Series. It won't be a bad winter or a disastrous one if the Pirates main focus is on maintaining the 2013 team for another run in 2014, but it won't be an exceptionally good one, either. At this point, I'm kind of expecting a little bit more from this front office. The Pirates have come a long way, but that doesn't mean that the road back to the NLDS is an easy one.
Those pitcher WAR numbers are absurd. Put the 2008 staff (only 12 WAR worse according to BBRef) on this year's team and they win maybe 70 games.
How/why can someone tout much about WAR (unless I'm missing something...)? Jason Grilli and Brandon Cumpton are both 0.8 positive WAR. Isn't this rating with regard to last season or does this somehow predict careers going forward?
Fangraphs is a much better indicator of WAR for pitchers than Baseball-Reference. Per Fangraphs:
Liriano - 3.1 ---- missed beginning of season
Burnett - 4.0
Cole - 2.3 --- called up mid-June, but didn't find his groove until the end of August
Morton - 1.3 --- missed beginning of season and less than 12 months removed from TJ. Much like Adam
Wainright, I think Morton will be much sharper this year and is a prime extension candidate.
Locke - 1.1 --- not as confident in his future abilities, but who knows
While I agree with your overall premise that NH & Co. need to look towards the future with their offseason moves, I think acquiring a bat needs to be a much bigger priority than pitching.
With Taillon and Kingham at AAA, Justin Wilson potentially converting to a starter a la CJ Wilson, Stolmy, and whatever FA reclamation project we pursue (Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Roberto Hernandez, etc), I have enough confidence in the pitching staff.
Why did you pick out the age of 25? Mercer, AMac and Pedro are still considered young, aren't they?
Also, the Pirates will have to 'retool' every year, not just this year. As Tim Williams wrote, our challenge will be sustainability and I, for one, am glad to have this challenge. Beats the "can we get over .500" mantra.
In Neal I trust....:)
I like this. But I would flip around RF and 1B as priorities. I am not sure if you put RF first in your article b/c it is more important , or if it just ended up there, so I guess I can't tell whether you think RF or 1B are bigger priorities. But, my opinion, I think that b/c we are waiting for Polanco right now - and that might be a long term solution, we need to think a little more about 1B.
This would be my priorities for the 2013-2014 offseason - (1) resign AJ Burnett, at the same time (2) figure out the future at 1B, and whether that is a free agent, a platoon, or waiting for a prospect - and while we are figuring out the answer to that question, (2a) see if we can get a short term patch at 1B - beginning with Morneau to form a Morneau/Sanchez platoon, and then (3) look into a one year patch for RF to buy time waiting for Polanco to get ready and/or see how he does at a major leage level - and the first stop is to see if Marlon Byrd will sign for a one year deal, but if he won't then (3a) decide if we want to go with Tabata/Snider or look somewhere else.That didn't work out quite as smoothly as I hoped, but I think those three things are our top three priorities.
my big fear at this point is that too much of the team's success was a result of tactics - notably the shifts and pitching staff construction to take maximum advantage of them. The utility was so clear, I'd be stunned if there isn't mass adoption across the league, killing the advantage we got from them.
I think at first base, the best option this team has now that it's clear we won't be signing Abreau is to give Lambo a shot as the big part of the platoon with Gaby Sanchez, and if he doesn't work out, sign a veteran to platoon with Sanchez. Lambo is risky, but unless the Blue Jays decide not to pick up Adam Lind's option - which would be a major surprise to me - he also represents the best risk/reward balance the Pirates have available to them. As a guy who hit very well and for a lot of power in the minors last year as a 24 year old, he's got some upside. The free agent crop of first basemen beyond Abreau is...uninspiring. Morneau, as mediocre as he was, may be the best 1B on the market. That should tell you all you need to know about why playing Lambo, at least to start the season, is probably the best move for the Pirates.
I would agree with virtually everything you're saying, especially the notion that the Pirates front office can't get all googly-eyed over players because they were part of The Team That Broke The Street; NH and company have to be calculating and cold-hearted bastards going forward. Getting all mushy over guys like Jones, Gaby Sanchez, and Melancon is simply a recipe for disaster.
@azibuck Well, yeah...but (per B-R) the Bucs should have won about 88 games per their Pythagorean projections, so take away the 12 WAR difference, that's not such a inexplicable gap.
One final thought - in negotiations and in planning for the future, a key is to focus on your biggest weakness. I think our biggest weakness is 1B. I think going after AJ Burnett is a bigger priority b/c of the stability he brings t the rotation. But our weakest position for now, and with no obvious answer in sight, is 1B. As you pointed out - there are going to be more problems in a year or two when other players go. It would be nice to focus on our weakness now and get rid of it by implementing some long term stability so it doesn't keep hanging around when other weaknesses emerge.
@Ugarles A lot of teams are hesitant to do it because of a lack of player buy-in. We saw what Burnett thought about the shifts this season. That's pretty much the standard attitude of players. As innovative as we like to say the Pirates are with this, Joe Maddon has been doing this kind of thing in Tampa for several years now, and other teams haven't followed suit.
@njrose Your review of the 1B market undersells Mike Napoli. He is a very good player definitely superior to Morneau. Now I doubt the Pirates actually sign him but he is clearly the best 1B on the market.
@battlingbucs @njrose I suppose I should have been more clear: "The market" in this post refers to the market as it relates to the Pirates. They're not going to sign Napoli. He's going to get the kind of money that would make it an unwise move for them, even though you're right, he is a pretty good player.
As far as options that I see as actually making sense for the Pirates, I'm looking at James Loney, Kendrys Morales, Mark Reynolds, Kevin Youkilis and Carlos Pena. I like Lambo better on the risk/reward scale than any of those guys. I wouldn't be upset if they signed Morales or Loney, though I'd still think Lambo is the better idea, but if their plan is to block Lambo with someone like Reynolds, Pena, or an aging Kevin Youkilis who's now had two bad seasons in a row split between three parks that are all much more hitter-friendly than PNC, I'd rather see Lambo.
@wkkortas @battlingbucs @njrose Worth mentioning that the "one good year" he's posted since 2009 was last year. Lind has always posted good ISOs. He has very good power. Doesnt' strike out a lot for a 1B, walks a decent amount. I think with a little coaching to change his approach to shorten his swing and hit more line drives as opposed to always going for the deep ball, he could be a consistently good hitter.
That said, two caveats: 1, he's a homer pick, as he's from my home town. 2, there's a reason the Jays use him as a DH...he's a terrible defender.