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Pirates' Team Preview: On the Brink?

John Toperzer

John Toperzer

John Toperzer writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Had the Pirates gone 26-26 after starting 63-47, they would have finished with 89 wins, one more than St. Louis, the second NL Wild Card team. Instead, Pittsburgh accomplished the near impossible, becoming the first team in major league history to finish with a losing record (79-83) on the heels of being 16 games over .500.

The team believes it has shored up a major weakness, signing free-agent catcher Russell Martin to replace Rod Barajas (who threw out 6-of-99 baserunners). Another year in the majors should help young players like Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez. They help to form a nucleus along with veteran Neil Walker and All-Star Andrew McCutchen. It remains to be seen whether Jason Grilli can take over the closer role from Joel Hanrahan, who was traded to Boston, but the move makes sense financially and from a sabermetric perspective.

Top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are not far away from debuting in the big leagues. The two right-handers could give the Pirates a glimpse of the future in 2013. As with any team, the team’s fortunes depend heavily on its starting rotation. Right now, those pitchers include a pair of veterans in their mid-30's (A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez), a pitcher that had a roller coaster season worthy of The Little Dipper (James McDonald), and a pair of unproven youngsters (Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke).

Offseason Moves

Signed C Russell Martin.

Just about anyone represents an upgrade over the 2012 version of Rod Barajas. Martin signed a two-year, $17 million deal in November. He’s expected to take over everyday catching duties in Pittsburgh. While Martin won’t likely hit 23 homers or steal 19 bases, as he has in the past, the Pirates will be counting on a batting average closer to .250 than .211 and solid defense behind the plate.

Signed Jason Grilli.

The Bucs will pay Grilli $6.75 million over two years to serve as the team’s closer, at least for the start of 2013. An off-the-charts 13.8 K/9 and an increased fastball velocity (93.6 mph) give Pittsburgh confidence that the 36-year-old will continue to get the job done. Mark Melancon will be waiting in the wings if Grilli, who has five career saves, should stumble.

Signed Jeff Karstens, Brad Hawpe and Felix Pie.

Pittsburgh allowed Karstens to walk as an unrestricted free agent because of his proneness to injury, but then turned around and signed him when an apparent lack of market interest dropped his price tag to $2.5 million. He’ll put up a decent ratio while starting the season in the rotation. Don’t be surprised if he gets moved to the bullpen, however, as he did in late August. The last time Hawpe played in at least 100 major league games, Clint Hurdle was his manager in 2009. Although it seems like Pie has been around forever, he is still just 28 years of age. He offers Triple-A depth.

Re-signed Charlie Morton.

Morton underwent Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected back until June, at the earliest. The sinker-balling righty put up decent numbers in 2011, when he fashioned a 3.83 ERA and a league-leading 0.3 HR/9 mark in 171.2 frames. Until he figures out left-handed hitters, who hold a career slash line of .331/.406/.920, he’ll be little more than a spot starter against righty-heavy lineups for fantasy league purposes.

Acquired OF/1B Jerry Sands and 2B Ivan De Jesus and SP Andrew Oliver and SP Stolmy Pimentel from Boston for RP Joel Hanrahan and 2B Brock Holt.

After an uneven, 61-game trial with Los Angeles in 2011, Sands excelled in hitter-friendly Triple-A Albuquerque to the tune of .296/.375/.524 in 452 at-bats last summer. He’s expected to start the season in Triple-A. De Jesus went unclaimed after being designated for assignment by Boston and ended up in the Hanrahan deal. The infielder led his winter ball league with a .364 batting average in 143 at-bats. Oliver could get a look in the rotation in 2013, provided he improves upon a 5.0 BB/9 mark in the minors. The Pirates have been after Pimentel since the ill-fated Jason Bay deal of 2008. Boston finally moved the 23-year-old after six years in the organization without getting over the Double-A hump. He’s thought to have the upside of a possible No. 3 starter.

Acquired RP Jeanmar Gomez from Cleveland for OF Quincy Latimore.

Gomez bounced between Triple-A Columbus and the Indians for three seasons before coming to the Pittsburgh organization. In 90.2 innings for Cleveland, the 25-year-old righty posted a 5.96 ERA and 1.42 WHIP – and that was his lowest WHIP in three big league seasons.

Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B/Gaby Sanchez, 1B
5. Pedro Alvarez, 3B/Russell Martin, C
6. Travis Snider, RF/Pedro Alvarez, 3B
7. Russell Martin, C/Jose Tabata, RF
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Newcomer Russell Martin figures to be a wild card and could see action at the top of the order. Pittsburgh will mix and match at first base and right field, depending on whether it’s facing a righty or lefty. Starling Marte is by no means an ideal leadoff hitter, but he’s the best Pittsburgh’s got. Alex Presley could slide back into the top spot, but he’s not even guaranteed a place on the Opening Day roster.

Projected Rotation

1. A.J. Burnett
2. Wandy Rodriguez
3. James McDonald
4. Jeff Karstens
5. Jeff Locke

Gerrit Cole is the one to watch. Provided he pitches well at Triple-A, he’ll likely get the nod sometime after the “Super Two” arbitration time passes in June. Charlie Morton could return in the second half of the season. Francisco Liriano may or may not pitch for the Pirates in 2013: He would be the team’s No. 3 starter if he did. Locke and Kyle McPherson will battle for the bottom of the rotation. Locke holds the advantage as a lefty, but the injury-prone McPherson has better stuff.

Closer: Jason Grilli – Grilli was signed with the sole intent of getting the keys to the closer’s job. In two seasons for Pittsburgh, Grilli has compiled a 2.76 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 12.5 K/9 ratio. He has only five career saves and if he stumbles, then Mark Melancon, who notched 20 saves for Houston in 2011, will be at the ready. It’s possible that lefty Tony Watson or even Justin Wilson could see some save opportunities. Victor Black saved 13 games for Double-A Altoona and possesses a mid-90s fastball – he’s worth keeping an eye on, too.

Key Bullpen Members: Jared Hughes will again serve as a setup man. After registering first-half ERA of 2.09, Hughes struggled to a 3.86 ERA in the second half. Hughes allowed 17 stolen bases without his catcher throwing out a runner. Righty Bryan Morris debuted in September. He’s out of options and looked good in a September callup. Chris Leroux and possibly veteran Vin Mazzaro, round out the bullpen.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Will Pedro Alvarez become a consistent fantasy producer?

Funny that questions surround a batter who hit 30 homers and knocked in 85 runs, but Alvarez struck out a whopping 180 times while drawing only 57 walks. On one hand, 2012 represented a drastic improvement over 2011, when injuries and slumps defined his season. On the other hand, his pedigree as a 2008 first-round draft pick and glimpses of his mammoth power – especially to the opposite field, continue to tease fantasy owners. His monthly OPS splits -- .767 (in March/April), .635 (May), .926 (June), .820 (July), .969 (August) and .632 (Sept./Oct.) -- highlight his inconsistencies. Another full season in the major leagues should prove beneficial for the third baseman nicknamed “El Toro,” but questions will abound until he strings together a complete season.

Can Gerrit Cole make the jump to the majors in 2013?

The seventh-ranked prospect in the Rotowire Top 100, Cole is thought to be close to the majors. A polished prospect after three years of starting for UCLA, the righty moved up three levels in the organization last summer, culminating with a single start at the Triple-A level. He has three major league pitches and figures to get a look on a team devoid of starting pitchers with upside. Fellow 2011 first-round draft picks, Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy, have already seen major league action with varied results. A solid start at Triple-A Indianapolis – even in an organization which typically promotes prospects conservatively -- figures to give Cole his shot in 2013.

Will the real James Zell McDonald please stand up?

How does a pitcher go 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 100:31 K:BB ratio before the All-Star break finish with a 3-5 mark, 7.52 ERA, 1.79 WHIP and 51:38 K:BB ratio after the All-Star Game? Batters quit biting on his slider and sat on a flat fastball. Pittsburgh is counting on him as its No. 3 starter, but he won’t have the same leash the team gave him a year ago.

Who will start in right field for the Pirates?

The leading candidates include Travis Snider, Garrett Jones, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata. Pittsburgh traded its best defensive outfielder, Gorkys Hernandez, to the Marlins in the Gaby Sanchez deal. Travis Snider is out of options and will make the team barring a trade. Snider posted a terribly disappointing .652 OPS in 128 at-bats for Pittsburgh in 2012. He’s only 25, however, and battled hamstring injuries which doubtedly robbed him of power. Snider has compiled some monster numbers in the Toronto organization, but it’s put-up or shut-up time for the outfielder. Jones is a lock to rotate between right field and first base. Presley saw his batting average drop from .298 as a rookie in 2011 to .237 last season. A popular 2012 fantasy pick, Presley will likely come dirt-cheap in drafts. Tabata was demoted to Triple-A in 2012, just like Presley. He became tentative in the outfield, due to injuries and the threat of further injuring himself. While his fantasy stock is at a three-year low, Tabata is still only 24 (in Latino years) and remains a possible stolen base threat.

Strengths

Andrew McCutchen gives the Pirates a mulligan for other areas in which they come up short. McCutchen can’t do everything by himself, but he takes the pressure off of the rest of the lineup. Imagine if the team found a way to surround the star hitter with another power bat.

Weaknesses

The starting pitcher is comprised of two veterans and three hopefuls. A.J. Burnett will be hardpressed to have another season as successful as 2012. Wandy Rodriguez no longer misses bats and will continue his transition into a pitcher relying more on guile than stuff. James McDonald’s forecast is equivalent to guessing the weather. His second half was embarrassing to watch. Jeff Karstens doesn’t scare anyone and youngsters Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson have less than one major league season between them.

Rising: Starling Marte - Marte's offensive ceiling may be as high as another other Pirates positional player not named Andrew McCutchen. His first foray with the Bucs proved to be a bumpy ride, but he gave glimpses of why the organization values him highly. The outfielder, who homered on the first big-league pitch he ever saw in Houston, never played above Double-A prior to 2012. WIth Triple-A Indianapolis, Marte hit .286/.347/.500 with 13 triples, 12 homers and 21 steals in 99 contests. A season after winning a Double-A batting title, not even a 28:91 BB:K ratio could hold him down. Marte then hit six triples, five homers and stole 12 bases in 47 games for Pittsburgh, despite an oblique injury. Plate discipline will likely always be an issue for the free swinger. He heads into 2013 as the odds-on starter left fielder, but he will be pushed by the several others and Pittsburgh management showed in 2012 that it can be quick to pull the trigger on a struggling left fielder -- see Alex Presley. The scenario for a breakout season is real, but the chance that he gets sent back to Triple-A for additional seasoning is also a distinct possibility. Marte represents a high-risk, high-reward offering, especially in one-year leagues.

Declining: Charlie Morton - Morton isn't expected back until June or July after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late May. Before getting hurt, he registered a 4.65 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 50.1 innings. When he's on top of his games, the right-hander utilizes a sinking fastball that seemingly coaxes groundballs at will. His 2.20 GB/FB ratio followed up a 3.17 mark in 2011. Left-handed hitters have historically fared well against Morton. They hold an .806 career OPS against him and are typically stacked in lineups when he starts. He engineered his best season with Pittsburgh in 2011, when he put up a 3.86 ERA while striking out a career-high 110. Even then, his WHIP was an ungainly 1.53, thanks to 77 walks. When he comes back, he'll likely slot in as a back-end rotation man, but his lack of strikeouts and risk of injury push him down low on fantasy totem pole.

Sleeper: Mark Melancon - Melancon flamed out spectacularly in April last season and was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket before the month was over. He pitched better in his stay with the PawSox, and was eventually recalled to Boston in June. He had a sneaky good September, while closer Andrew Bailey finished poorly. Making things more interesting, Melancon was sent to Pittsburgh in December as part of the Joel Hanrahan deal. It's expected that Melancon will be the next in line for saves if Jason Grilli is unable to handle the ninth-inning role for the Bucs.

Supersleeper: Gerrit Cole - Regardless of whether Pittsburgh keeps its front office intact moving forward, Cole has a decent chance of cracking the team's rotation by the end of 2013. Not even the stingy Pirates could keep the top overall draft pick from 2011 at High-A for all of 2012. Cole began the year with Bradenton, where he compiled a 2.69 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 67 innings. His 69:21 K:BB helped make the decision to promote him to Double-A any easy one. Pitching for the Curve, Cole registered a 2.90 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 59 frames, to go along with a 60:23 BB:K. He hasn't looked elite in big showcases such as the 2011 AFL Rising Stars Game and 2012 Futures Game, but he's proven otherwise consistent. To think that his 100-mph fastball (which borders on the flat side) might be no better than his third best pitch is a good problem to have.

Top Prospects

Gerrit Cole, SP - (see above)

Jamison Taillon, SP - Taillon persevered through an up-and-down Low-A season in 2012 well enough to earn a late promotion to Double-A. The hard-throwing righty compiled a 3.82 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 125 innings for Bradenton, including a 98:37 K:BB ratio. In three Altoona starts, Taillon limited opponents to three runs in 17 frames with 18 strikeouts and one walk. His potential is tremendous. It's easy to forget that Taillon went straight from high school to the minor leagues, but he's still learning on the fly. He's far from a finished product but has the stuff to be a staff ace. The 21-year-old will likely begin 2013 in Altoona. Pittsburgh remains conservative with its promotions, but it's possible Taillon could see his first major league action in September.

Gregory Polanco, OF - A breakout 2012 has put Polanco squarely on the map as one of Pittsburgh's top two offensive prospects, along with Alen Hanson. Plate discipline sets the center fielder apart from others. He compiled a 44:64 BB:K ratio in 437 at-bats for Low-A West Virginia. More remarkably, the left-handed hitter registered a 1.087 OPS against southpaws, better than his fine .850 mark versus righties. Polanco hit .325/.388/.522 with 16 homers and 40 stolen bases (in 55 attempts) as a 20-year-old. He suffered an ankle injury that forced him out of the lineup in late 2012, but he played winter ball and is expected to be 100-percent healthy for 2013. He'll likely start the season with High-A Bradenton, but could move up to Double-A Altoona by season's end.

Alen Hanson, SS - Hanson's scant build (5-foot-11, 152 pounds) belies a promising blend of power and speed. The 20-year-old infielder moved front-and-center in 2012 with 16 homers and 35 stolen bases for Low-A West Virginia. A 55:105 BB:K ratio and 40 errors are areas of concern, but whether he settles in at shortstop, second base or even the outfield, it won't affect his offensive potential. Pittsburgh is in dire need of prospects who can flat-out hit and may have found a hidden gem in this young Dominican. Hanson will likely start 2013 with a promotion to the Florida State League (High-A). He's a ways off, but should be grabbed in dynasty leagues.

Josh Bell, OF - Bell entered 2012 as the team's brightest and best paid ($5 million bonus) offensive prospect in the low minors. He played in only 15 Low-A games, however, before suffering a knee injury that cost him his season -- not exactly the best way to start a pro career. Inflammation in his left knee lingered throughout the summer to the point that he was unable to participate in the fall Instructional League. Hopefully he'll find a way to get back on the field for 2013 because he's one of the organization's best power prospects. The switch-hitter, who remains years away from the majors, makes for a strong pickup in dynasty leagues assuming that he makes it back from his knee issues.