This week I thought I’d address a series of “What if . . . . ?” questions, as in “What would the Pirates do if they needed a (insert position here)?” Major league teams now treat their AAA affiliates largely as taxi squads. It’s rare for a AAA team to have more than a handful of prospects, so rosters are often loaded with players whom the parent club can call up if they need help due to injuries or players not performing. Although the Pirates have more actual prospects (some of them admittedly marginal) at Indianapolis, they also have some taxi squad types there as well. So let’s take a look at what kind of alternatives they have should . . . well . . . some bad stuff happen.
Before I start, though, I should acknowledge that I’m doing this partly because it wasn’t a good week for the Pirates, prospect-wise. Too much bad news — Andrew Lambo has gone back to looking overmatched in AAA; Jeff Locke, Nate Baker and Quinton Miller continued to struggle; Aaron Baker has fallen off a cliff; Jarek Cunningham whiffed fourteen times in six games; and almost nothing good happened at West Virginia (especially not to Zack Von Rosenberg). Hopefully next week there’ll be more good news to write about. So, what if the Pirates needed . . .
They’ll call up Jason Jaramillo, of course, but maybe they should think about that. Dusty Brown has been the Indians’ best hitter this year, putting up a .923 OPS that’s almost exactly 200 points higher than Jaramillo’s. He’s probably not quite as good defensively, but he’s thrown out nine of nineteen base stealers this year.
A Corner Infielder
With Steve Pearce and Brandon Wood both on the bench, there’d probably have to be multiple injuries before the Pirates brought somebody up just to play a corner position. If that happened, at the start of the season the solution might have been Andy Marte, who had a strong spring. Since the AAA season started, though, he’s collapsed, hitting 167/252/333. If they needed a first baseman, it might be John Bowker. Since being outrighted, he’s shown what we already knew: that he can hammer AAA pitching. I suspect, though, that he’s gotten as much of a shot as the Pirates are going to give him.
A Middle Infielder
It won’t be a veteran. We’ve already seen that it’ll be Pedro Ciriaco for any sort of infield opening, but maybe it won’t be for a lot longer. Ciriaco’s demotion at the end of spring training left some people surprised and upset, but the Pirates didn’t think he was ready to hit in the majors and they were right. In fact, his bat isn’t ready for AAA. He’s hitting .190 with little power and, amazingly, one walk in about 140 plate appearances. Chase d’Arnaud, however, has come on strongly after a slow start and now has an OPS of .752. If a starting middle infielder was injured for an extended period, d’Arnaud is getting to the point where it’d be sensible to call him up for a first look.
This of course would be Alex Presley, who’s now hitting 335/381/491.
A Starting Pitcher
The Pirates openly stated that they wanted a couple veterans in the AAA rotation as fallbacks. This turned out to be Brian Burres and Sean Gallagher. Burres was barely adequate as a replacement starter for the Pirates in 2010, but he hasn’t pitched well in AAA this year, mainly due to the fact that he’s allowed a longball every four and a half innings. Gallagher’s been much worse, posting an ERA of 7.61 ERA and struggling in all areas, especially control. In fact, he pitched himself out of the Indy rotation, only to return when his replacement, Garrett Olson, got hurt.
Fortunately, the Pirates shouldn’t have any need for veteran starters. After a rough stretch early, Brad Lincoln has come on strong. Over his last four starts, his ERA is 1.80 and he has 23 strikeouts, compared to six walks. He also hasn’t allowed a HR in those starts. Justin Wilson has also had a strong season, albeit with control problems, and Rudy Owens has recovered from a bad stretch, allowing just four runs in his last 19 IP.
A Relief Pitcher
The Pirates brought up Dan Moskos for a while already, but showed no interest in using him. He averaged barely over an inning a week while he was up, so it appears they don’t think he’s ready for the majors even though he pitched well. Tony Watson is probably in the same boat. He’s having a strong season, with a WHIP of 0.95 and one strikeout per inning. Hitters are batting only .172 against him. A more likely callup may be veteran Tim Wood, who’s bounced back from a bad 2010 season. His ERA currently is 4.32, but that’s misleading as his WHIP is 1.08 and he’s allowed no HRs. He also has a goundout to flyout ratio of over 2-t0-1.
Most of the other veteran relievers the team brought in aren’t looking like options. Blaine Boyer simply hasn’t been able to get anybody out, with a frightening WHIP of 4.00 and an ERA of 19.80. Dan Meyer has walked nearly a batter an inning and has an ERA of 5.93. Justin Thomas has been solid but unexciting, with some control problems leading to a walk every other inning. Olson would have been an option, as he’s pitched well for Indy and did so in his brief time in Pittsburgh as well, but he’s hurt. Cesar Valdez, the PTBNL for Zach Duke, has pitched very well after a bad start. He has an ERA in May of 1.32, with a 1.49 opponents’ batting average. Chris Leroux–who’s on the 40-man roster–has an ERA in AAA of 6.14 and an opponents’ batting average of .323, and was demoted to Altoona until Olson got hurt. Leroux is a much better candidate to be removed from the roster than to be called up to the majors, as he’s never pitched even passably at the AAA level.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.