Organizational Impacts: Pirates

A new feature here at FB365 this offseason will be a series called “Organizational Impacts”. Each article will focus on one organization, it’s stars, it’s sleepers and busts as well as potential impact prospects. Instead of strictly breaking down individual players, I’ll also be looking at influences like lineup construction, defense (for pitchers) and bullpen strength. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up to the World Series champs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have gone a long-long time without winning. The emergence of “The Cavalry” is supposed to mark a turning point for the organization, but is there enough talent in the rotation to turn things around?

Lineup

Andrew McCutchen had a fine follow-up to his rookie season, but he didn’t make the big strides forward as some expected him to. Still, he is young enough to improve in the coming years and a breakout season in 2011 is a real possibility. Helping aide such a breakout will be an improved lineup hitting behind him. The emergence of Jose Tabata and Neil Walker allowed McCutchen to settle in as the everyday leadoff hitter. While both Tabata and Walker had excellent showings upon their call-ups, both ended the year with high BABIP’s (.339 for Tabata and .340 for Walker). A regression in AVG and OBP is likely for both as neither displays great plate discipline. Walker is the better bet to fight off too much regression given his line drive swing and good gap power. For fantasy owners, Tabata will be a commodity for his stolen base potential, but bear in mind that his stolen base success rate (73 percent) needs to improve. If his AVG and OBP regress in 2011, that stolen base potential may not be enough to hold value in mixed leagues.
July 17, 2010 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States of America - 17 July 2010: Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
The middle of the order looks to be anchored by Pedro Alvarez for years to come. Alvarez did some nice things in 2010, like hit 16 home runs in 347 at-bats. However, his strikeout rate was the fourth highest in baseball last season (min 200 PA), ranking with the likes of Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, Adam Dunn and Russell Branyan. I’m sure Pirates fans won’t mind if Alvarez had some Adam Dunn-esque seasons, but the other names have been highly inconsistent over their careers. Alvarez did not fare well against left-handed pitching in 2010, but he should improve with more major league exposure. Given the improved top of the order, Alvarez could have his first 30 home run/100 RBI season in 2011.
Garrett Jones hit the same number of home runs (21) as he did in 2009, but it took him 278 more at-bats to do so. Along with the regression in home run rate, Jones saw a large drop in AVG from .293 to .247. His issues against left-handed pitching continue to hurt his overall numbers and while a slight comeback season is possible, the odds of him being a true impact bat are unlikely.
The acquisition of catcher Chris Snyder will help bring a little plate discipline to the table as no everyday Pirates hitter other than McCutchen had a walk rate over 10 percent. Snyder will likely split time with Ryan Doumit. Both catchers aren’t likely to make much mixed league fantasy impact given the current situation.
Rotation
Jul 18, 2009; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers reliever James McDonald (52) pitches during the game against the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers defeated the Astros 5-2. Photo via Newscom
This is where things get, or should I say stay, ugly. The Pirates rotation is filled with below average strikeout pitchers, only two of which were worth over one WAR (wins above replacement). Those two were Paul Maholm (5.10 ERA) and James McDonald. McDonald is the only real sleeper in this current rotation. After consistently posting strong strikeout rates in the minors, McDonald finally got the opportunity to stick in a rotation and show what he was capable of — he was acquired from the Dodgers in the Octavio Dotel deal. In 71.2 innings in 2010, McDonald posted a 4.02 ERA, 3.12 FIP and 2.34 K/BB rate. His 8.54 K/9 was by far the best of the Pirates rotation and even his command (3.64 BB/9) was good. That being said, McDonald isn’t without his issues. Opposing hitters managed a 23 percent line drive rate against him and didn’t have trouble making contact overall. Given a very small sample size of major league innings as a starter, it is hard to pinpoint whether his 2010 performance is a base to improve upon or destined for a regression. The upside is certainly there to make him a low-end fantasy starter.

Prospect Brad Lincoln finally got his shot at the big leagues in 2010, but he was hit hard to the tune of 6.66 ERA (talk about a bad omen!). He also allowed nine home runs in only 52.2 innings. Given his consistent command in the minors and a 2.56 BB/9 with the Pirates, there is some upside here. His strikeout rate should improve, but it will never be anything more than league average, which is the type of pitcher Lincoln may end up being in the end.
The addition of Jose Tabata adds range to the Pirates outfield, an outfield that already features a slick fielding Andrew McCutchen. Lastings Milledge is working on improving his game in the Arizona Fall League. If he comes back as the starting right fielder, the Pirates will have some very good range in the outfield, which would help a pitching staff that relies a lot on the results of balls in play. The infield won’t be as helpful. Neil Walker is league average at best at second base and Pedro Alvarez is going to be more of a detriment as a third baseman. Garrett Jones posted a -6.2 UZR in extended playing time at first in 2010.
Bullpen
Evan Meek represented the Pirates in the all-star game, but by the end of the season it was clear that Joel Hanrahan was the right man to take over the closers role. Meek’s pre-all-star 3.21 K/BB rate faded fast into a poor post-all-star K/BB rate of 1.47. 
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 07:  Joel Hanrahan #38 of the USA delivers a pitch during the 2009 World Baseball Classic Pool C match on March 7, 2009 at the Rogers Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The USA defeated Canada 6-5.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Hanrahan will likely start 2011 as the Pirates closer and his upside is significant. For the past three seasons, Hanrahan has seen a progression in his strikeout rate. In 2010, he improved his walk rate as well. If he can continue to limit his walks, he can turn himself into a solid number two fantasy closer. 

Both Chris Resop and Wil Ledezma represent good strikeout upside, but both have had largely inconsistent careers.

Prospects
The system’s former top prospects have all graduated to the major league level. The drafting and signing of top ten draft talents James Taillon and Stetson Allie represent a huge step forward for the Pirates organization. While both out of high school arms are far away from any sort of big league impact, they represent plenty of upside in deep roster keeper and dynasty leagues. Taillon in particular has the pure stuff to become a true ace. 

Summation
The Pirates will start the 2011 season as a better team than the 2010 version, but not by a large amount. However, even a small improvement is significant for fantasy owners. Andrew McCutchen is the big winner in that regard as his lineup protection will be better in 2011 from day one, which should result in a boost in runs scored. Pedro Alvarez, with McCutchen and Jose Tabata in front of him, should have a chance to drive in close to 100 runs. Garrett Jones led the team last season with 86 RBI. While both Tabata and Neil Walker should be valuable assets for the Pirates, mixed league owners should be wary of a regression from both in terms of AVG and OBP. The rotation is what it is and that is certainly uninspiring. James McDonald may be the one Pirates starter worth rolling the dice on in mixed leagues in 2011. Joel Hanrahan has upside to be a top 10 closer if he continues to limit his walks and hold a high strikeout rate. Defensively, the outfield has plenty of range, but the infield is well below average overall. There is no more “Cavalry” on the way as far as the minor leagues are concerned, but if the 2010 draft was any indication, the Pirates organization is headed in the right direction.