My 2 Cents – Happy Baseball New Year for the Pirates!
By Eric Scot
I am at my happiest when the calendar turns to a new year. There always seems to be a sense of new beginnings, a fresh start, dreams of what could be for this upcoming year and baseball season just around the corner. In a little over a month from now, pitchers and catchers will be reporting to spring training, soon after that full squad workouts will begin and not much past that, the first games will be started. Yes, it’s time to get ready for baseball season and I am thrilled for it to be coming back.
Don’t get me wrong, I love football season and it’s been an interesting one for my Steelers but there is nothing like the start of baseball season. I’m sure that most of you are like me and anxiously awaiting that first game as well. There does seem to be a lot yet to occur before that day happens so let’s take a look at where the Pirates stand so far.
We all know about Russell Martin leaving for Toronto and the team trading for Francisco Cervelli to take his place. We know Neal Huntington released both Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez leaving Pedro Alvarez as the primary 1st baseman. We know the team signed former Milwaukee Brewer Corey Hart to fill a role with the team. We know that AJ Burnett was brought back as well as Francisco Liriano brought back to help fill the rotation. The Pirates traded with the Philadelphia Phillies to bring in lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo to help the bullpen. A few minor moves made were the likes of Sean Rodriguez to be a super utility guy. The most shocking move of the offseason was the Pirates winning the highest bid negotiation for Jeong-ho Kang from the Korean Baseball Organization or KBO as most call it. Let’s take a look at where these moves place the team.
Cervelli in for Martin
No question the Pirates will miss Russell Martin for many reasons. He was a clubhouse leader, a leader on the field and this past year, had a career year at the plate and played an All Star caliber defense. The attributes we have heard about Cervelli is he’s an excited player with great pitch framing, a solid defense and he has hit for a nice average albeit in a small sample size. The biggest questions surrounding Cervelli is his ability to stay healthy and what kind of leader will he be? If the answers are positive in both categories, this will make Pittsburgh feel OK with losing Martin.
There is no more warm and fuzzy feelings about the 1st base position as there was the past few years. Sure, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez were not relied upon for their bats but both provided solid defense and both were good late innings options as guys with experience. Now enter Pedro Alvarez who has played 1st base very little, coming off a down year at the plate and a ton of questions as to how much longer he will actually be with the team. This is a true make or break season for Alvarez and unfortunately, the Pirates really don’t win in either case for the long-term although it would be nice if Pedro had a breakout season at the plate. Huntington did bring in Corey Hart as a potential platoon partner or insurance policy if Pedro were to falter but questions surrounding his health have to worry fans if he can endure a whole season. I would have liked to see the team give Andrew Lambo a real shot outside of Spring Training to see what he will really have to show up huge this Spring if he wants a remote chance to make the team. There has also been some mention of Tony Sanchez getting work at 1st base but with Hart in the picture, it seems as though Sanchez will be fighting for a spot as backup to Cervelli.
This has been a strength of the team this last few years and this upcoming season should be no different. No question the Pirates bringing back lefty Francisco Liriano for 3 years will have a huge impact on how far this team can go and opens their window just a little bit wider to compete. AJ Burnett being brought back also helps the team in many ways outside of wins and losses. Burnett could finish the season 10-10 and I would feel it was successful because of his leadership abilities and we have some young guys who can learn from him. Most specifically noting Gerrit Cole being aggressive, Jameson Taillon being a professional, Jeff Locke as a mentor, Vance Worley on how to be consistent and in the clubhouse on how to grind it out all game, every game. The team has some guys who can fill positions if others are ineffective. You have to feel the trio of Cole, Liriano and Burnett at the top will ease the backend of Worley, Locke, Charlie Morton, Taillon, Nick Kingham and Adrian Sampson. Not everyone will work out but when you have this type of depth, it eases failure or injury concerns.
The Pirates have been excellent building bullpens over the past several seasons and while last year wasn’t AS strong as 2013, it was still effective and saw Tony Watson emerge as a solid backend piece moving forward. The team also brought in Antonio Bastardo to help fill the role Justin Wilson had provided after Wilson was traded to the Yankees as part of the Cervelli deal. Last season’s big surprise was John Holdzkom whom literally appeared out of nowhere. While Holdzkom may never be dominant, he will be a fun story to continue to follow.
This could be a real area of strength for the team this season compared to the past few seasons where the team had some re-tread guys fill in spots out of necessity and weren’t the best options especially at the plate. This season, the bench should consist of guys like Travis Snider, Sean Rodriguez, Corey Hart, Andrew Lambo and catcher Chris Stewart and/or Tony Sanchez. There are a few guys who could contribute throughout the year from the minor leagues or other free agent signings who could surprise us but I feel this bench will be very solid for 2015.
No other headline this offseason had as much buzz to it as the Pirates offering the winning bid for KBO infielder Jeong-ho Kang. This is not a team to dig into the international free agent pool like this and attempt to make an impact signing that comes with as much unknown as Kang does. It’s not to say that Kang couldn’t be a huge impact bat for the team, it’s hard to discount in any league a guy with his numbers. Kang is 27 years old which means he is entering into his prime years and sometimes, guys who come from the international market are in their early 30’s. Kang also hit 40 HR’s last season along with a 1.198 OPS and a slash line of .356/.459/.739. The problem is trying to figure out how those numbers could translate to the big leagues. He’s a pretty big guy at 6’0”, 180lbs and there is a lot of question as to whether or not he can stick at shortstop. Most analyst believe he will end up a bench/utility guy who is capable of hitting 15-20 HR’s per season. The biggest question is what type of average would he carry and that is what could be the difference between him being a starter or a bench guy. If Kang can hit close to 300 while popping 20 HR’s per season, he is definitely a starter and a very good one if he were to stick at short. Those numbers still translate to 2nd base but would he be the replacement for Neil Walker or would Walker move to 1st base if he signed an extension? Too many variables to discuss right now. However, it’s nice to see the Pirates take a chance on this kid but the deal still needs to actually be finalized but I expect him to be signed by the January 20th deadline.
In the coming month leading up to Spring Training, I will be detailing each position and looking at all the possibilities for each position and the players who could fill in the best, for now and the long term.
Until Next Time,