Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Path to Respectability: Pittsburgh Pirates

by Jason Wojciechowski

You've seen this a couple of times before, so you know how it goes. Today, we examine the mediocre team with the best stadium in the game, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They're not the sad-sacks they used to be, what with some young stars and a well-regarded front office that's causing better things to come, but they're not really going to be competitive this year, either.

The Baseball Prospectus depth charts, the place I start, has the Pirates coming out 72-90 this year, fifth in the tall stack of the N.L. Central. Their lineup of position players doesn't look terrible, with no Jimmy Paredeses hanging around, but the pitching, which features such luminaries as Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, and Charlie Morton, is not impressive. Still, I think we're better off trying to squeeze extra wins out of the position players than the pitchers because the former, at least, have some youth and upside to their credit.

As before, I cheat right off the top: we'll count on five wins of run-distribution luck over the course of the season, leaving us needing to find eleven wins on the roster to get the team to the Holy Grail of Respectability, 88 wins.

The pitching, being the harder (and less interesting, frankly) task, is the place to start. I won't insult you by using the phrase "oft-injured" in writing about Erik Bedard because you knew that already. Still, he sits at the top of the Pirates' heap, quality-wise, and PECOTA loves him: the projection system says he'll be worth 2.4 WARP if he can manage 126 innings. Bedard threw 129 last year, but was last over 100 in 2007. Still, with a career ERA of 3.70, he really has been good when he's been able to take the mound. It's complete folly, but here's what I'm going to ask for from Bedard: 180 innings of baseball. If he does that and pitches at the same level of quality that PECOTA expects in 126 innings, he'll be worth an extra win. (These innings can come at the expense of some replacement-level guy like Brad Lincoln.)

With that absurdity out of the way, we can move to Roy Halladay Reborn himself, Charlie Morton. Morton supposedly rebuilt himself as a pitcher last year, trying to emulate Halladay, and got good early results, but by the end of the year, he'd thrown just over 170 innings and been worth 0.1 WARP. His FIP looked good at 3.74, but when you throw in sequencing and all the other elements that go into BP's FRA stat, he wound up being essentially a replacement-level pitcher. PECOTA doesn't like what it sees -- it's got him putting up a 4.83 ERA, good for a below-replacement performance in 156 innings. For the Pirates to be respectable, Morton doesn't have to be good, the way everyone thought he had suddenly become in the first few months last year. He just has to be, well, respectable. If he can pitch like he did in 2009 (relative to his league, that is, since his numbers aren't actually much different from 2011 on the surface), he can add a win to the Pirates' totals.

That's the front and the back of the rotation -- two of the pitchers in the middle are Jeff Karstens and James McDonald. Karstens isn't good: his career ERA is 4.52, and he's never been below a 4.26 FIP in a single season. The hope, though, is that 2011, a career year by ERA, FIP, and FRA (and, consequently, WARP), represented an actual step forward. If he keeps his gains in walk rate (1.8 BB/9, a stellar figure) and continues suppressing BABIP, he can repeat 2011 and be worth half a win more than he's currently being expected to contribute. Another half a win can come from James McDonald, who threw a great 64 innings in Pittsburgh in 2010 before having a poor 2011. His 2010 was surely fueled by an unsustainable homer rate (0.4 per nine despite being a big fly-ball pitcher), but McDonalds walks and strikeouts also took a step back in 2011. If he can return to 2010 form or something approximating it, he can get close to being a two-WARP pitcher.

A.J. Burnett came over from the Yankees in a salary dump and promptly bunted a ball into his eye. He's now being figured for 122 innings of 4.16 ERA ball, which comes out to about one WARP. If he can kick the quality up a small notch (to, say, 2008-2009 level, the pitching that netted him this big contract in the first place and then gave Yankees fans hope that he'd actually live up to it) and throw more innings than the Depth Chart has him throwing, he can certainly add half a win to the total. He doesn't have to be great and he doesn't have to throw 200 innings to accomplish this, note. Maybe 175 innings of four-run baseball would do.

Finally, in the bullpen, Daniel Moskos is slated to play a key role and pitching poorly in it, throwing 52 innings with below-replacement performance. PECOTA is justified in thinking that Moskos isn't what he showed in 2011 because his minor-league numbers do not overwhelm, but I don't think it's too much to ask that Moskos be just replacement-level in his innings rather than horrible. He's got some bat-missing and worm-killing in his background, so adding a half win to his expectation should be reasonable.

On the pitching side, then, I'm asking that the Pirates step their game up by four wins. This leaves seven wins for the position players, a total that I think is eminently reachable.

First up is the young right-fielder Jose Tabata, who signed a 6+3 deal with the Pirates last August despite being in the midst of a disappointing year: the 22-year-old slugged just .362 in 2011 and lost 70 games due to injuries. Still, the Pirates apparently believe in Tabata, and he did put up a 1.5-WARP season in 102 games in 2010. The Depth Chart appears to be, weirdly, taking a huge chunk out of Tabata on defense despite his FRAA figures not suggesting that he's Jack Cust in the field. If you add that defense back in and have his bat take a step forward such that his on-base percentage is not merely good, as it's been, but a true asset (say .370), then, especially if Tabata can also have a small increase in power or base-stealing (or if his defense can be a plus in right-field and not merely average), he can be a two-win player, which is about two wins better than the current projection.

Moving to the other corner, Alex Presley is a gritty white guy who's gone from "maybe he can be a fourth outfielder" to "hey, I guess he's the starting left-fielder." Asking a player like that to be better than his projections isn't necessarily a recipe for achievement of one's goals, but in this case, it's a requirement. Fortunately, he doesn't have to be better all by himself because Nate McLouth is also a Pirate. PECOTA is actually pretty optimistic about him, projecting a .269 TAv that beats Presley's pretty handily. Taken together, Presley + McLouth project to basically one WARP in a 2/3 & 1/3 job share. If one of the two proves his worth or if each has a smaller improvement, two WARP instead of one is plausible. Good defense from either player, an on-base percentage from Presley that approaches league-average for his position, the return of McLouth's power ... there are any number of ways we can find an extra win.

Similar whole-position upgrades can be found at catcher and first base. Behind the plate, Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry both project to sub-.300 OBPs. Barajas hit .254/.306/.466 when he was a 29-year-old Ranger. He's 36 now, so those days are over, but if he can catch a little lightning and Michael McKenry, who hit pretty well relative to his leagues all the way until AAA, can regain the stroke that had people talking about him as a possible major-league starter rather than an all-glove backup, then the catcher position can go the same place left field does: from about one WARP to two.

Meanwhile, it's not entirely clear what's happening at first. Garrett Jones, who's played mostly outfield in his career but does have time at first, is marked down for 50% of the time at the cold corner, while new acquisition Casey McGehee is figured for most of the rest. McGehee was once known as a glove-man with an adequate bat, but then he was a good hitter with a mediocre glove at the major-league level. A horrendous 2011 with Milwaukee leaves significant doubt about what he is, and PECOTA splits the difference between 2010 and 2011, calling for a .311 OBP and .396 SLG. That's essentially replacement level, leaving first base in the now-familiar position of being approximately a one-WARP spot for Pittsburgh. There's upside in them hills, though, and it's not hard to imagine McGehee, at least, tapping into that upside (in the form of a return to bashing) and turning first base into a solid two-WARP place.

Related to McGehee potentially hitting is that he's also slated to be a third baseman, especially if Pedro Alvarez stinks up the joint like he did last year (.191/.272/.289 -- no, really). PECOTA, probably wisely, isn't buying that Alvarez will be that bad -- the man is the former number two overall pick, after all (I'm not sure if the current state of PECOTA knows about that), and he did hit quite well all the way up the minor-league chain, and he's still just 25 -- the current projection for Alvarez calls for 1.7 WARP in 461 PAs. The thing is, Alvarez has to be better than solidish/averageish for the Pirates to ever get anywhere, so starting to tap into his potential and performing a win above that projection is a good start. Simply taking most of the 650 PAs at third will take care of a good chunk of that (since the playing time he's replacing as far as the Depth Chart is concerned is that of McGehee, with his replacement-level projection), but an uptick in hitting from his league-average TAv projection to something a bit above that (.270? .275? These are reasonable figures for a hitter with the physical tools Alvarez is supposed to possess) is probably necessary as well.

If Alvarez can add one win, then the sum of what we've got so far is +10 (which is +15 counting the run-distribution luck), so we're just one win shy of the 88-win goal. For that win, we turn to top catching prospect turned third baseman turned second baseman Neil Walker. Walker hit quite well in his full-season debut in 2010 (.296/.349/.462), though FRAA dinged him massively (-16!) for his defense, which shouldn't be a huge surprise given that he'd never played second base. FRAA showed ten runs of improvement in 2011, but the bat slipped quite a bit. If 2012 can serve as a consolidation season for the 26-year-old, it's easy to see him cracking the two-WARP barrier with a combination of an adequate glove, a solid bat, and good durability.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, you have to squint a little harder to see the Pirate pitching staff improving than you do the offense, which has prospects and former prospects and guys who've hit at high levels running all up and down. The hurlers have, basically, mediocre players and injured players. I can absolutely see the Pirates being a fun team for nine half innings each day, but I might swap over to another game when it's time for Charlie Morton or Kevin Correia to take the mound. This team won't win 88 games, but there's something for all my Yinzer friends to get excited about.

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