Pittsburgh Pirates Six Fresh Faces With Plenty To Prove

Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle will lead an overhauled roster when Spring Training begins in Bradenton, Florida

The start of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates baseball season is upon us.  The offseason was spent deconstructing the roster and the Pirates have brought in fresh faces.  With the ballclub trying to break a twenty season futility streak, we take a look at who has departed and the players that have been added after the Winter’s Annual Apocalypse to the Bucco roster.

The fact that the season coincides with the return of The Walking Dead allowed us to have a little more fun.

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In order to survive an apocalypse it’s important to understand the science behind what needs to happen for the Pirates to succeed in 2013.  We think it’s important that these five notable arrivals at Fort Bradenton lead the charge.

Catcher Russell Martin was the major get for the Bucs this offseason.  The 29-year-old backstop with a rifle right arm hit poorly with the Yankees last year–his worst performance at the plate in his career.  Unlike Barajas, Martin still got on base and has shown some pop, but the true value might be in his above average ability to frame pitches for his hurlers.  That ability alone added two wins last season according to some advanced metrics.

Without question the sleeper of the Pirates 2013 Spring Training is Russell Martin.  If his offense returns, that’s great, but just how well he meshes with the Bucs pitching staff will be vital to a much needed fast start.  (One important note is Martin will be absent for an extended period of the spring as he will play for Team Canada in The World Baseball Classic.)  The Bucs early season schedule appears to be quite daunting once again and let’s trust Martin’s absence doesn’t impact any of that well documented pitcher-catcher relationship/chemistry stuff.

The Pirates did one thing I really liked this offseason, they acquired left-handed pitchers with upside potential.  Francisco Liriano, Andy Oliver, and Jonathan Sanchez.  Gone are the slender, pitch-to-contact southpaws of the Brian Burres genre.  Arriving on the scene are some southpaws who can strike out the bad guys, but also have issues with throwing strikes.

Lefty starter Liriano is the biggest concern we have.

The stories about Liriano have been endless these past couple weeks.  We know that Frankie can be an upgrade over Kevin Correia, but when will the big lefty be ready to go?  The first week of camp should prove very interesting.

Over or under on the first pic of Liriano being retweeted about 200 times?

Andy Oliver spent the large part of the past two years in the Detroit Tigers farm system.  The 25-year-old had no problem striking out hitters putting up eight-and-a-half per nine innings, but almost walking seven too.  The 6’3″ 215 pounder will compete for a starter job, but Neal Huntington also mentioned if that doesn’t happen, he will work from the bullpen or talk about heading to Triple-A Indianapolis.  The Bucs swapped switch-hitting, vertically challenged catcher Ramon Cabrera to get the big lefty who was the Tigers second-round pick in 2009 out of Oklahoma State. (More here on the Pirates trade for Oliver)

The key for Oliver will be can he learn a third pitch, or simply show confidence in his third pitch.  How that works out will be the deciding factor in whether he becomes a starter or his future is spent doing work out of the pen.

Lefty Jonathan Sanchez signed a minor-league deal after doing some awful work recently for the Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies. Sanchez got less first pitch strikes, his swing and miss stuff dropped from nearly ten percent to just over seven percent.  Also, fewer batters bothered to swing at his pitches outside the zone–and Sanchez slings a lot of pitches outside the zone.  But the Pirates saw a pitcher who was rather effective in the big leagues, and made a smart move in grabbing him.

Sanchez would be the number one project if we had a say in the Bucs decision-making.  Once it’s determined that Sanchez is indeed healthy, look for the Pirates to invest some serious attention on the pitcher many in the organization have drooled over for a couple of years.

We feel the key for Jonathan Sanchez returning to his former strikeout prowess self is can the fastball velocity come back to 2009/2010 levels?  If the heater can return, his changeup can be effective and batters might start chasing those pitches out of the zone again.

The Buccos bullpen did a nice job of not giving up runs in 2012 as they stranded inherited runners repeatedly while piling up 8.4 strikeouts per nine.  Gone from the bullpen are its’ closer Joel Hanrahan, Chris Resop–pitchers who assisted in the pens success but were history before the season ended also included Juan Cruz, and Brad Lincoln who was moved at the deadline.

Enter right-hander Mark Melancon was picked up in the most anticipated trade in years when the Bucs shipped Hanrahan to the Red Sox.  The 6’2″ 215 pounder struggled so badly in 2012 that he was trusted to pitch three high leverage innings for the Sox while Hammer pitched 23.1 innings of high leverage relief.

So, this deal seems odd because a strikeout pitcher in Hanrahan was swapped for a groundball pitcher in Melancon?  That’s just how the deal appears on the surface, but the Bucs feel the best years are still coming for Melancon.   The wild card will be the odds-are-against-us two other players in the deal–Jerry Sands and Stolmy Pimentel.  The Bucs dealt Hammer, saved big payroll dollars and are banking on future production for the big league team.

The key for Melancon in 2013 will be to restore his confidence and get him back to his 137 ERA+ form from the 2011 season when he saved 20 games for the Astros. With a succesful camp, we could see Melancon taking over the role Chris Resop held in recent years.  If camp goes really well, he could be the Buccos setup-man for new closer Jason Grilli.

Let’s trust Melancon can be a little quicker to the plate than Resop, can keep the ball in the park, and this will prove to be another win for the Bucs as they overhaul the bullpen.

1B/OF Jerry Sands has many haters and a few believers.  Looking at his 6’4″ 225 pound frame, it’s hard not to see a baseball-murdering-run producer that could be a cult hero in the Burgh for years to come.  So why did he fail to live up to his big power numbers he put up in the minors with the Dodgers? And why would the Sox not give him any time at the big-league level in 2012?  The 225 pounder has battled with a long swing putting up just a 244/.325/.376 in  those 251 plate appearances with L.A.

The 25th-round pick has always overachieved in the minors where he has consistently been a power hitter with good plate discipline.  Look, he’s 25-years old and has consistently put up big OPS numbers.  How much will it really take to be better than Alex Presley?

We thought about that for a while and it may be pretty challenging considering the spacious, homer suppressing PNC Park which is the fourth hardest ball park to hit bombs.  Sands has nothing left to prove in the minors.  The Bucs have no power hitters that are major league ready in their system, hence the allure of Sands.

We would be thrilled to see the talented Sands breakout in Bradenton and make a push to head north with the Bucs at the end of March.  Still, Sands has a lot to prove just to move to the head of the line in a crowded pool of outfielders that includes Presley, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Felix Pie, and Darren Ford.

The bottom line is Sands is about to start the biggest spring training camp of his career.

The other new additions coming to Bradenton don’t interest me in the least.  They are infielder Ivan DeJesus, right-handed pitcher Jeanmar Gomez and right handed pitcher Vin Mazzaro.

The combination of Martin, Liriano, Sanchez, Oliver, Melancon and Sands makes for one hell of an interesting camp for us.  We are sure some other players will surprise us, but these five players are talented, it’s just time for them to prove it in a new place.

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Like Rick says in The Walking Dead, there is no way you can ever be ready for it.  So here are the notable players who fell victim to the apocalypse:

Stud Closer Joel HanrahanActually, most of us saw this one coming.

The catcher the pitchers loved, but fans despised Rod Barajas is history.

The All-Star-win-collector Kevin Correia signed a ten million dollar deal with the Twins.

Sparkplug infielder Brock Holt was shockingly added to the Hanrahan deal.

Former stud reliever Evan Meek didn’t make it.

Everyone’s favorite Amish look-alike Yamaico Navarro is gone.

Much to the delight of many, the Poster Child for the Pirates Questionable Trade Deadline Chad Qualls is history.

King of the Scrapheap Chris Resop will be fist pumping for the always surprising Oakland A’s.

The invisible lefty Hisanori Takahashi is also history.

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Spring Training is our favorite time of the year.  So many questions to be answered, so much promise for the streak coming to an end.  All that’s left is for the Bucs to, in the words of A.J. Burnett, shock the world.

Topics: Pittsburgh Pirates

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