Article By: Jim Falbo | @BuccoSharkTank
For my first series of articles I will do a brief position by position analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates will open 2014 with the same infield as they finished with in 2013. Gibsonia resident Neil Walker will man 2B for the Pirates. Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes will handle the SS duties. “El Toro” Pedro Alvarez will play the hot corner, and Josh Harrison is the favorite to win the final utility infield spot.
Neil Walker returns as the second sacker, where he’s manned 521 out of 548 career games. Walker has made great strides defensively, and while he’ll likely never win a Rawlings Gold Glove, Walker has given the Pirates positive defensive value over the past two seasons. Walker ranked 10th with a 2.7 fWAR among the 27 second basemen made 400 PA in 2013. Offensively he posted a line of .251/.339/.418, a career high 16 HR, and a 114 wRC+. Though Neil has put up steady offensive number for a second baseman, he has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. In 406 PA against LHP’s since 2011, Walker has put up a putrid batting line of .251/.310/.304, 1 HR, and a 72 wRC+. What’s really odd about his line is that he actually strikes out less (14% K rate) against LHP, than he does against RHP (18.2%). That rate coupled with the respectable .251 batting average against lefties tells that he’s able to put wood on the ball, however the egregiously low slugging % shows that his power and offensive value is completely neutralized when facing a southpaw. Because of this, many have suggested that Walker abandon switch-hitting and try his hand at facing LHP as a left-handed batter. However, there is no evidence suggesting that Walker plans to do this.
Look for “The Pittsburgh Kid” to sit more often against LHP than he has in the past. Josh Harrison could take those starts away at 2B when there is a LHP starting. In 2013 Harrison had 42 PA against LHP’s and hit at a clip of .350/.381/.600, with a 175 wRC+. Although that’s a small sample size, since 2011 Harrison has hit minor league LHP’s at a clip of .352/.405/.585, suggesting that he could have continued success in a 2B platoon role. Harrison also saw time at 3B, SS, RF, 1 inning in LF, and even made a pitching appearance out of the Pirates vaunted “Shark Tank” bullpen. Unless he sustains a spring injury, “J Hay” should start the season as the Pirates utility infielder.
Pedro Alvarez will return as the Pirates everyday third baseman. He earned his first All-Star invitation, participated in the Home Run Derby, and won a Silver Slugger in 2013. Alvarez is best known for his prodigious home run power and is coming off a season where he tied the D’Backs Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead with 36 home runs. Over the past two seasons, “El Toro” has hit more HR than anyone in the NL, and has tied for 5th in MLB with 66 bombs. Since the beginning of 2012 Pedro has a batting line of .238/.307/.470, with a 112 wRC+. He also has stuck out at a rate of 30.5% (2nd in MLB) totaling 366 times (3rd in MLB) over that span. The K’s will always be a part of the Alvarez package, but if he can cut his K rate down, he’ll be able to do more damage to opposing pitchers.
When the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez with the #2 overall pick in the June 2008 amateur draft, he was the consensus choice as the best hitter in the draft. Pedro probably will never live up to that billing, but to improve from being a one dimensional slugger, Pedro must sharpen his plate discipline. His 2013 OBP of .296 was so anemic that it ranked 129th out of the 140 hitters who qualified for a batting title. Part of the problem is that Pedro’s walk rate decreased to 7.8% last year, down from his 2010-2012 rate of 9.6%. Because his MLB walk rate dipped so much and because Alvarez’s career MILB walk rate is 12.9%, Pedro’s OBP should see an increase to his career norm in 2014. Another concern is Pedro’s lack of production against LHP’s. In 479 career PA against LHP, his line is .200/.272/.332, 12 HR, and a 67 wRC+, while striking out an astonishing 38% of the time. 2014 could be his last opportunity to prove that he’s not a platoon player. He could be spelled by Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and/or Gaby Sanchez. Newly acquired Brent Morel could factor in, and Matt Hague also has taken reps at 3B, and handles LHP well.
Defensively Pedro led MLB third basemen with 27 errors, leading many to believe that he is a butcher in the field. However among MLB 3B, Pedro made the most plays in his zone, had the 5th highest % of plays made on balls hit in his zone, and made the most number of out of zone plays. This was accomplished by a combination of his naturally quick reflexes, strong arm, and the Pirates innovative defensive infield shifts. These factors outweighed the damage from his errors, and made him a positive defensive contributor for the first time in 2013.
Jordy Mercer seized much of the playing time at SS from Clint Barmes in 2013, and when he was in the lineup provided a much needed offensive upgrade for the Pirates. Mercer stands to receive most of the playing time in 2014, with Barmes playing in a complimentary part time role.
Mercer put up a strong batting line of .285/.336/.435, 113 wRC+, and is considered more of an offensive SS. His is rated at below average to average as a defender at SS, but should improve as he gains more experience at the position. Remember that Mercer shared SS in the minor leagues with the recently DFA’d Chase D’Arnaud, and routinely played other infield positions. Look for Mercer to get extra PA spelling Neil Walker or Pedro Alvarez, as Jordy blasted LHP’s for a .410/.460/.692, 223 wRC + line in his 89 PA against them. Though those lofty numbers are unsustainable, he should continue to perform at a heightened level against southpaws.
Barmes is a throwback to the days of good-field no-hit shortstops. As a Pirate, Barmes has hit just .221/.263/.316, 13 HR, and a 58 wRC+. Various defensive metrics place Barmes among the very best defensive shortstops in baseball, making him valuable as a part time player. Barmes will likely get most of the starts when an extreme ground-ball pitcher, such as Charlie Morton, toes the rubber, and when Jordy Mercer shifts to 2B or 3B against a left-handed starting pitcher. He also will see time as a late inning defensive replacement.
Depth Options, 2B: Josh Harrison, Michael Martinez, Robert Andino, Blake Davis, and Brent Morel.
Depth Options, 3b: Josh Harrison, Brett Morel, Gaby Sanchez, Robert Andino, Michael Martinez, and Matt Hague.
Depth Options, SS: Josh Harrison, Robert Andino, Michael Martinez, and Blake Davis.
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Article By: Jim Falbo | @BuccoSharkTank