Will Charlie Morton be ready?

The Pittsburgh Pirates Winter of Discontent

The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates lineup will have a brand new look with several new names on the card each night.

Guest post by Joe Luchok:

As we move through November the Pirates are major league team without major league starters at  first base and short stop.  There are also missing pieces in the rotation and possibly 3rd base. 

Yesterday the Pirates signed catcher  Rod Barajas  .  Today the Bucs were reported to be interested in another strong defensive player in SS Ramon Santiago.  This has left some Pirates fans scratching their head. 

Last year at this time they had two major league catchers, a major league shortstop, and a player who looked like a rising star at 3rd base. When Pedro Alvarez came up in 2010 he looked like he was going to be strong at the hot corner.  In 94 games he hit .256 with 16 home runs. Over a full season that would be about 27 home runs, quite good for a rookie.

Unfortunately, in 2011 he could not stay healthy and was awful when he did play, hitting .191 with 4 home runs. If he can return to 2010 form in 2012 it would solve a major problem but if he fails again the Pirates have no good replacement.

Josh Harrison hit .272 last season, but has very little power. Chase d’Arnaud played some third but showed no indication that he is ready to hit major league pitching. Matt Hague has been playing third this winter but has never played in the majors.

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Ronny Cedeno was not a great shortstop but he hit around .250 in his two plus seasons with the Pirates. His fielding also improved dramatically last season. Pedro Ciriaco hit well in very limited action last year but his .231 average in AAA doesn’t bode well. He probably can field the position well enough and may be the best option if they do not sign or trade for a shortstop.

Other options at shortstop are d’Arnaud (mentioned above), Jordy Mercer, and Brian Friday, none of whom appears to be ready for the majors.

At first base, Garrett Jones is a reasonable platoon player. He hit .262 off right-hand pitchers but only .147 off left- hand pitchers. Jones also hit 14 home runs off right handers.

The Pirates seem to want Derrek Lee back, but there he no indication he wants to come back. He hit very well in limited action with the Pirates, but will be 36 next season and only hit .246 with the Orioles last season. The only first baseman in the system close to ready is Matt Hague, but again, he has no MLB experience.

The Pirates began the 2011 season with two major league catchers, Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder. Doumit has never been a great fielding catcher, but has been one of the best hitters on the team. In 2011 he hit .303 with eight bombs in about half a season.

Snyder has been a good defensive catcher with some power, but he hardly played last season. Counting Doumit and Snyder the Pirates used an amazing eight catchers in 2011.

Michael McKenry played 58 games but only hit .222 with 2 home runs.  He might be a good backup catcher, but doesn’t hit like a starter. Jason Jaramillo is a career backup. Matt Pagnozzi has only played 33 major league games and Eric Fryer has only played 38 games in AAA.

The 2011 Pirates were a poor hitting team and adding more dead spots in the lineup is no way to improve team hitting.

The rotation lost Paul Maholm and his 162 innings. If Charlie Morton is ready to go early in the season they only have that spot to fill.  Brad Lincoln is probably first in line to take a spot in the rotation but his ERA and WHIP were both higher than Maholm’s.

 Jeff Locke is the only other pitcher with some MLB experience, but would be better off with more time in AAA.

If Morton is not ready by the end of the first two weeks of the season there will be a need for another starter.

So which needs are the most important to fill?  Last season we saw a team that went as far as the pitching could go. When the pitching faltered, the team faltered.

The best way to compensate for a week offense is good pitching so my first choice would be sign or trade for a solid starting pitcher like Chris Capuano or Jeff Francis. The odds of getting a top pitcher are slim, but an innings eater would help.

Last season Capuano threw 186 innings with a 11-12 record for the Mets while Francis threw 183 while going 6-16 for a bad Kansas city team. Neither are lifesavers but you could do a lot worse.

Jones weakness against southpaws could leave his future in doubt in Pittsburgh.

The next area of need is first base. Jones has problems with lefties and is not a top fielder. A good fielding first baseman can save a lot of runs. If they can’t resign Lee, they could go after Carlos Pena or Michael Cuddyer.

Lee returning to Pittsburgh seems to most fans to be highly doubtful.

The catching position comes next. So Barajas is the starter.  Does the team have confidence in him playing 120 games with McKenry as the backup?  Neal Huntington has said he would ‘feel good’ with either McKenry or Jason Jaramillo.  We wonder if healthy would the Pirates bring back Snyder?  Jason Jaramillo is out of options.  Barajas will be the guy after the Bucs paid him $4 million, but the big question is who will be the guy behind him.

Shortstop comes next because Ciriaco can field and while a shortstop who can hit and field is nice, fielding is the most important skill at shortstop.  Is Santiago that player?  His defense has been stellar as his double digit UZR shows over the past two seasons.

Pedro Alvarez is a huge piece of the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates puzzle.

Third base comes last because of Pedro Alvarez. Unless the brass want Alvarez to spend the season at Indy, they have to give him a chance to fail or succeed. It would foolish to sign a starting third baseman if Alvarez is going be on the team, unless he is moved to first, which seems very unlikely this season.

That leaves trades as the other way to fill holes. The Pirates have some good looking outfielders they could trade, though Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman have not played in the majors yet. Still, Tabata, McCutchen, Presley, Marte, and Grossman all have value and the Pirates can’t start all of them.

The other area with trade value is the pitchers in minors. I can see them packaging a pitcher like Locke or Cain with an outfielder if the right player was available.  Although this is not a move I am advocating.
It promises to be an interesting offseason. The only guarantee is that they will be additions to the Pirates club that aren’t currently in the system.

As Margo Channing said in All About Eve, “Buckle your seat belts; It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

All you need to do is change the word night to offseason.

Tags: Charlie Morton Paul Maholm Pittsburgh Pirates Ramon Santiago Rod Barajas Ronny Cedeno

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