Posted February 03, 2014

Winter Report Card: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates, Winter report cards
A.J. Burnett, Pirates

Even if A.J. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh, the Pirates have a lot of uncertainties in their starting rotation. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

With less than two weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 results: 94-68 (.580), 2nd place NL Central, lost Division Series (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: 1B Justin Morneau, RF Marlon Byrd, 1B/OF Garrett Jones, C John Buck, C Michael McKenry, RHP A.J. Burnett* (* = free agent, still unsigned)
Key arrivals: RHP Edinson Volquez, C Chris Stewart

Well, this has been disappointing. Coming off a franchise-altering season which brought Pittsburgh its first winning record and playoff berth since 1992, the Pirates have reverted to being non-factors this offseason, failing to upgrade their roster in any obvious way. In fact, several key pieces have already departed, and more may be yet to come. Rightfiedler Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau, two key late-season additions, have already left via free agency, and A.J. Burnett, who led the team in innings pitched last season, could soon do the same.

The biggest new name is Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year deal worth $5 million. Volquez has put up a 5.09 ERA (71 ERA+) while walking 4.8 men per nine innings over the last three years with the Reds, Padres and Dodgers. The Pirates are clearly hoping that pitching coach Ray Searage can have the same success with Volquez that he had last year with Francisco Liriano, who went from posting a 5.23 ERA (79 ERA+) and walking five men per nine innings in the two years before joining the Pirates to walking just 3.5 per nine and posting a 3.02 ERA (117 ERA+) with Pittsburgh last year. That kind of attempt to catch lightning in a bottle might have been compelling as an afterthought to an otherwise successful offseason, but as the team’s largest expenditure this offseason, it’s disconcerting.

The only other free agent the Pirates have signed to a major league contract this offseason is Clint Barmes, whom they re-upped for $2 million to provide a slick-fielding backup to sophomore Jordy Mercer, reuniting the shortstop duo that hit a combined .250/.295/.375 last year.

Pittsburgh’s offseason has admittedly been complicated by Burnett, who initially said he would either retire or re-sign with the Bucs only to have the news come out last week that he was not only going to play in 2014 but was going to listen to offers from other teams. Burnett is no ace, but he has been the anchor of the Pirates’ rotation over the last two years, averaging 197 innings pitched while striking out nearly a man per inning and posting a 107 ERA+ in both seasons.

As currently comprised, the Pittsburgh rotation, while talented, contains few sure things, from sophomore Gerrit Cole coming off a 52-inning increase and heading into his first full major league season; to Charlie Morton hoping to make 30 starts for the first time in his career at age 30 and two years removed from Tommy John surgery; to Liriano and Volquez; to Wandy Rodriguez attempting to come back from a forearm strain that ended his 2013 season in early June; to Jeff Locke coming off a brutal second half in which he went 1-4 with a 7.25 ERA in his final 10 starts.

However, Burnett’s indecision is no excuse for the Pirates’ inaction. Their 2013 season was supposed to be the start of a new era of winning baseball in Pittsburgh, not just a one-year fling with relevance.

Unfinished business: First base, rightfield

The Pirates knew they needed upgrades at these positions. That’s why they went out and got Byrd and Morneau in August. Yet, here we are in February and the only first-basemen on the team’s 40-man roster are Gaby Sanchez and Chris McGuiness. McGuiness, who was acquired from the Rangers this offseason in a minor trade for righty reliever Miles Mikolas and will be 26 in April, made his Triple A debut in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year and hit .246/.369/.423.

As for rightfield, the Bucs have reverted back to Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, having added only Jaff Decker, a former Padres prospect acquired with Mikolas for minor league outfielder Alex Dickerson in November, and veteran quadruple-A journeyman Chris Dickerson, the latter on a minor league contract. Decker won’t be 24 until later this month and has a career .402 on-base percentage across 2,282 plate appearances in the minors, and Dickerson, a .264/.341/.423 hitter in 607 major league plate appearances against righthanded pitching who offers speed and defense, has long been underappreciated. Neither, however, profiles as a regular rightfielder on a playoff team from the National League’s strongest division.

Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz are still available. Both are poor fielders who will cost the Pirates a draft pick, but Pittsburgh will be hard pressed to find sufficient upgrades elsewhere at this late date.

Preliminary grade: F

Here’s what I wrote about the Pirates in November’s Hot Stove Preview:

As they proved with the additions of Byrd, Morneau and Russell Martin, and the March 2012 extension for Andrew McCutchen, the organization is willing to expand payroll to get and remain in contention. Its fans have then rewarded those decisions with increased attendance, which has thus increased revenues. It’s a very positive cycle, but it’s now the organization’s turn to keep that wheel spinning by adding the bats necessary to keep Pittsburgh in contention in 2014.

The Pirates have very clearly failed to hold up their end of the bargain this winter.

15 comments
BBWeekly
BBWeekly

This is a very poor analysis.   The only point of agreement is in the starting rotation, where everything now depends on A.J. Burnett.  The Pirates need to step up and sign him, because we're going to need more depth.   But Brandon Cumpton deserves a shot as well, given his performance last year.


In right field, Tabata plays well when healthy and it did not make sense to sign anyone with top prospect Polanco ready to step in at mid season.   Expect a platoon with Tabata and Snyder.


The top candidate at 1B, Andrew Lambo, isn't even mentioned.  He's a power bat with a 30 hr season last year in the minors.   He'll get every shot to win the job in the spring, alongside Sanchez.   And if someone else signs Morales maybe that frees up a player who is more interesting and who won't cost a draft pick, like Adam Lind or Ike Davis.  We have a glut of relief pitchers out of options who could be traded for a 1B with several years of control.


If Burnett returns, I will be very satisfied with Pittsburgh's offseason. 


pros9938
pros9938

There was nothing really worth the cost for them out there, and they are building from within, as anyone who knows anything can see.  Amazing people make a living with these silly musings.


Father_Ahab
Father_Ahab

The past two years, the Pirates have gone out and gotten bats at the trade deadline when needed. If they have young players coming up, I don't see the need to bring in mediocre veterans until the need is definite. One thing about the Pirates: first base has been a weakness for years.

OatesBobby
OatesBobby

THEY HAVE THE #1 RATED FARM SYSTEM!!!!...WHERE IS THAT IN YOUR ARTICLE...THEY WILL GREGORY POLANCO (RF) AND JAMESON TAILON (SP) WITHIN MONTHS

NickCipollina
NickCipollina

The funny thing is people said the same thing about this team last year when they didn't make any "significant" moves.  People also forget that they were in a playoff spot before trading to acquire Byrd and Morneau.  So basically they are returning the same team that was competing for their division for the lion's share of last season, but not making any moves warrants an F?  This is why I don't like prognostication.

danielp.keil
danielp.keil

Worst article ever. So you would rather have the Pirates overpaid for a 36 year old RF in Byrd who was coming off a career year when they one of the best OF prospects in Polanco coming up soother rather than later, just to say they "did something"? As you mentioned, they are on a tight budget, so why are they going to throw almost $20M/ year to 2 players in Morneau and Byrd who shouldn't have gotten paid b/c of their age and recent stats, just to appease writers who said they, "didn't do anything." Why are they going to hemorrhage their future by trading and signing FAs for a shot at a good year, when they have an opportunity to build a real winner for the next 7-10 years. Great research. Schmuck. 

Glassman
Glassman

I give Cliffards reporting a F-!!!

DanielPendry
DanielPendry

I don't understand these grades.  I'm not a Pirates fan, either, but he fails them for not making any significant moves, while giving my team (the D-backs) a D- for making moves that address the team needs.  If you're not even going to mention the farm system, what's the point of the article; you have lost all credibility.  You can't expect a team that just ended a long playoff drought to be a World Series contender overnight; it's still a process.

LeeYoung
LeeYoung

Of course, Beer Temple doesn't tell us what we should've done. Overpriced and marginal first basemen were the only ones out there. No sense getting a long term RFer because of Polanco.


And, as far as pitching goes, nothing but overpriced Free Agents wanting too many years.


Really shoddy writing.

LeeYoung
LeeYoung

The news that Burnett will or will not play in 2014 was denied in a retweeted tweet by Burnett "sources/schmources, don't believe anything until you hear it from me".



oasis1994
oasis1994

An F? Really?


I am not a Pirate fan, but you fail to mention the farm system of the Pirates. One does not need to spend millions when you have a farm system and guys that are ready to come up and make an impact. I know they are prospects and unproven, but over the past few years we have seen a lot of younger guys come up and make an instant impact. I give this team a B for being smart. No need to blow millions on another player when you have a great farm system. The Pirates have built from within for the most part and are following the plan.


Another bat would help and the off season is not over. 

ndoyl77
ndoyl77

It's an offseason report card, not a farm system report card. Also--stop screaming.

realFrankBrank
realFrankBrank

@oasis1994  he went the entire article without mentioning Polanco and Taillon, both top 15 prospects in all of baseball.

Davos1
Davos1

Prospects often fail.