Over the offseason, the Pirates signed shortstop Clint Barmes to a two-year deal, and catcher Rod Barajas to a one-year contract with an option for 2013.
The Pirates entered Grapefruit League action on Sunday with a team .278 batting average this spring. The club has seven active players that are hitting for a .300 clip or better. Two of those seven — Andrew McCutchen (.327) and Alex Presley (.333) — are expected to be in the starting lineup.
“I thought that was something that we needed to take care of and become much better at this spring,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s the only opportune place we have to work and see it. So I was very encouraged by the way we’ve gone about following a game plan offensively. The way the individuals have paid attention and ramped up their individual offensive games, and then connected the dots to an overall team offensive perspective. I’m very encouraged by that, we’ve done a good job of that.”
The Bucs ranked seventh in the National League with 108 bases stolen in 2011, marking the first time the club swiped more than 100 bases since 1999 (112). Andrew McCutchen lead the club with 23 swiped bags. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley each had 16.
” I think we improved from last year,” Presley said. “Some good acquisitions were made. We got some good older guys joining up, and some young talent. I think we’ve got a good combination to do some good things.”
“I do think we’ll score more runs [this season],” McKenry said. “Our team in general, just the way we’ve kind of taken our at-bats in the spring. Just in general we’ve been swinging the bat really well. I think it’s going to be a good year offensively. No. 1 is pitching and defense, and I think we’re going to do a much better this year. It’s going to be a special year.
2012 Projected Lineup
1. Alex Presley LF
2. Jose Tabata RF
3. Andrew McCutchen CF
4. Neil Walker 2B
5. Garrett Jones/Casey McGhee (platoon) 1B
6. Rod Barajas C
7. Pedro Alvarez 3B
8. Clint Barmes SS
Presley, 26, has hit for a .333 clip this spring with 12 runs, a double, triple, two homers and has swiped four bags. Presley is one of three Bucs with the green light on the base paths. The others? Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen, who follow him in the lineup.
Presley swiped 31 bags combined with Triple-A Indianapolis and Pittsburgh during the 2011 season. After working on leads and breaks during the Fall Instructional League over the offseason, expect that number to improve.
“I like the green light because it shows that [Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle] has confidence that I can decide to do things on my own,” Presley said. “If he wants me to go, he’ll give me the sign. So I get kind of the best of both worlds.”
The speedy outfielder is expected to bat leadoff for the Pirates this season. He hit for a .298 average with 27 runs, 12 doubles, six triples and four home runs over 52 games in Pittsburgh during the 2011 season.
“It’s super important,” Presley said on being aggressive on the bases. “We’ve got a lot of fast players and we’ve got to take advantage of what we’re good at. That’s going to be one of our big things –being aggressive on the bases. Cutch showed it. We just want to go a bunch and get used to going.”
Tabata, 23, has hit .306 this spring with six runs, three doubles and two stolen bases over 20 games during Grapefruit League action. The right fielder looks to bat second in the Pirates lineup this season.
Over the offseason Tabata said he worked hard on getting his body into shape — especially his legs. Tabata spent nearly two months on the disabled list in 2011 with a left quad strain. He knows the importance of needing to stay healthy the entire 162 game season.
“I worked on my legs,” Tabata said of his offseason workouts. “I’ve had problems with my legs [last year]. I worked out in Venezuela and a little bit at Pirate City. I worked on my whole body, my upper body, because it’s very important in this game, the body.”
A big thing for Tabata this season is being consistent. The 23-year-old is coming off a .266 average, 53 runs, 18 doubles, four homers, and 16 stolen bases over 91 games in Pittsburgh in 2011.
“I’m looking to be consistent everyday,” Tabata said. “I got to be on the bases for [Andrew] McCutchen, [Garrett] Jones, [to] score a lot. I’m that base hit guy. I’m not a home run guy. I want to be consistent this year.”
McCutchen, 25, has hit .327 with 11 runs, four doubles, three home runs, 11 RBI and four stolen bases over 18 games this spring. The All-Star center fielder signed a six-year, $51.5 M contract extension (with a club option for 2018) in early March.
“It still somewhat feels like a dream to me,” McCutchen said during his press conference on March 6th. “It’s almost like getting drafted all over again. It’s almost like being married, and renewing your vows. I feel like that’s kind of how it feel for me, right now, at this moment. It’s one of those things where they ask you how you feel about the situation, and right now, I just can’t give an explanation to it. It just hasn’t set in to what’s happened. But I know that it’s definitely amazing.”
“God has blessed me with the ability to perform at a Major League level, and to be able to have this,and to be able to work this deal out. I’ve always said I definitely want to be here. I always wanted to be here.”
The 25-year-old McCutchen established career highs in games (158), at-bats (572), home runs (23) and RBI (89) during his second full season in the Majors in 2011. McCutchen also became the eighth player in team history to have at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases the same season.
“He plays hard. He plays with enthusiasm, passion. He can hit, run, throw. The five tools are there in front of him,” Hurdle said on what makes McCutchen special. “Teammates rally around him. He can be a force in the game. He can win you game on a number of different ways. The speed definitely. The way he plays the game…He just loves to play, a nod that shows up more often than not, like a sore thumb in today‘s game. You get guys that go out there and play like they’re six in the backyard, it really stands out.”
Walker, 26, has hit .269 with five runs, three doubles and six RBI over 17 games this spring. Not a typical cleanup hitter, Walker will most likely hit fourth or fifth in the Bucs lineup, depending on who is riding the hotter bat.
Walker may not hit for a high home run total (12 during the 2011 season) but he does drive in runs. Walker’s 83 RBI were the most by a second baseman in the National League last year. Walker also led the team in hits (163) and doubles (36).
The second baseman also provides an improving glove. Walker improved from a -17.1 UZR/150 to a -2.5 UZR/150 from 2010 to 2011, in only his second year at the position. He also finished the season with a 56-game errorless streak. It was the longest such streak in one season by a Pirate since Freddy Sanchez went 82 straight to end the season in 2008.
Jones, 30, has hit .245 with four home runs (which ranks second on the club), and a team-leading 16 RBI this spring. He will be a part of a platoon at first base to start the 2012 season. He and Casey McGehee are expected to split time at first depending when a lefty or righty starter is on the mound. With right-hander Roy Halladay of the Phillies the Opening Day starter against the Pirates on April 5, Jones will be in the starting lineup.
The first baseman Jones said his main focus is to improve his consistency. With Pittsburgh last year, Jones hit .265 in April, .179 in May, .297 in June, .183 in July, .284 in August and finished with a .235 average in September.
“Just having that mental focus day in and day out and being more consistent on a day-to-day basis,” Jones said. “I think I’ll be a better player. Just really maintain that focus throughout the season.”
Jones, who last season played primarily right field is expected to spend the majority of his starts at first base. Jones said over the offseason he focused on keeping things more simple at the plate.
“Not beat balls to death by hitting in the cage every single day and hitting for quantity, just trying to hit for quality,” Jones said. “I think that’s definitely going to help me this year…As far as thinking less about mechanics at the plate right now, just trying to get the feel of using my hands and staying through the ball, staying back and that’s really all I’m focusing on. Right now, I’m feeling good. I feel like every game I’m improving to where I want to be heading into the season.”
Barajas, 36, has hit .295 with four doubles, a home run and four RBI over 15 games behind the plate this spring. Barajas, who has spent the parts of 13 seasons in the Majors, will be the starting catcher for the Bucs. His significant role will be handling the pitching staff.
“It’s knowing each individual, knowing their strengths, knowing their areas they need to work on. And always having a plan B or a plan C if they don’t have their particular sharp stuff that day,” Hurdle said. “What can they go to? How can they recreate the during the game? Sometimes how can you put a Band-Aid on an inning just to get through the inning and reset the button when they get back inside. It’s knowing personalities as well. Sometimes you can go to the whip, sometimes you got to put an arm around them and work them through it. We’re also expecting some offense from our guys, situational hitting, driving runs in, moving runners. They want to be the complete package, but obviously selling out to the pitching staff is No. 1.”
Barajas hit. 230 with 13 doubles, 16 home runs and 47 RBI over 98 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2011 season.
Alvarez, 25, will start the season in the Majors despite struggling at the plate during spring training. Over 18 games during Grapefruit League action, Alvarez has hit just .163 with two home runs, three RBI and has struck out 22 times over 49 at-bats.
Despite rumors swirling during spring that Alvarez could start the season at Triple-A Indy, General Manager Neal Huntington shot that rumor down.
“The rumors of him starting in Triple-A have never came from the Pirates,” Huntington said. “It’s been an outside speculation. It’s not what we’ve thought of [doing]. We’ve asked him to do some things coming into spring training. He’s done those. He’s going through a tough stretch right now. Are we going to be able to get him out of it? We believe we will.”
Alvarez hit just .191 with Pittsburgh last season over 74 games. His disappointing 2011 season followed after being named N.L Rookie of the Month in September of 2010, when he hit .311 with five homers and 26 RBI over 29 games. Alvarez is able to hit in the minors. The organization believes it will be more beneficial for Alvarez to hit through his struggles at the Major League level.
“It’s not the first time he’s going to go through a tough stretch,” Huntington said. “It’s not the last time he’s going to go through a tough stretch. Andrew [McCutchen’s] going to go through tough stretches at some point this season. Neil [Walker] is going to go through tough stretches at some point this season. The microscope just happens to be a lot sharper on Pedro right now. He just needs to relax and play. The ability is there. He’s going to be a good big league player. He’s going to be a threat when he walks into a batters box. He’s just got to let that play.”
Barmes, 33, has hit .288 with nine runs, three doubles and four RBI over 18 games this spring. Barmes was brought in to replace shortstop Ronny Cedeno, who hit .249 with Pittsburgh last season.
Since 2003, Barmes has posted a 7.2 career UZR/150 at shortstop in over 3700 innings.
“Barmes is just a dependable defender,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Very, very dependable. Very solid. He’s going to make our third baseman better, our second baseman better. He’s going to make our staff better. He’s very active, and very vocal in the diamond.”
“Clint is outstanding at shortstop back there. You know he’s going to make some good plays for you,” said right-hander Kevin Correia, who is known for being a ground ball pitcher.
Barmes hit .244 with 47 runs, 27 doubles, 12 home runs and 39 RBI over 123 games with the Houston Astros in 2011.
by Tim Williams
The two prospects to make the most noise in Spring Training were Starling Marte and Matt Hague. Those two have the best chance of making an impact in the starting lineup this year, although neither are choices to start the season.
Hague put up great numbers this spring, and is still in contention for a bench spot. However, his career minor league numbers don’t give much credit to his Spring Training power being legit. The first baseman has always hit a lot of doubles, and has shown decent power, but he’s never hit more than 15 homers in a season, and hit 12 at the Triple-A level in 2011. He did make an adjustment this year, lowering his hands to help improve his load, but the odds of that adjustment turning a 12-15 home run hitter in to the power hitter we saw in Spring Training are very slim. That’s especially true when you look at how many other players have put up strong power numbers in Spring Training over the years, only to see that power disappear once camp breaks.
If Hague enters the season showing signs that the power increase is legit, the Pirates should start him at first base, scrapping the Jones/McGehee platoon. If Hague doesn’t improve his power, then his profile remains a James Loney/Casey Kotchman type. The platoon could provide more value than Hague in that scenario, although Hague serves as a great plan B if a spot in the lineup opens.
Marte also put up great numbers this spring, although he has yet to see time at the Triple-A level. The outfielder will start the season in Indianapolis, but could force his way in to the lineup by mid-season if he hits like he did in Altoona during the 2011 season. There are a lot of variables for a Marte promotion. The performances of Alex Presley and Jose Tabata will play a role. If Tabata and Presley are hitting well, that could allow Marte more time in Triple-A to focus on his plate patience. But Marte is good enough that he could force himself in to the lineup no matter how good Presley and Tabata are playing.
The Pirates have several middle infield options who can play shortstop, and no long-term solution at the position. Clint Barmes is under contract for two years, but if something happens to him this season, the Pirates will have to choose between Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Yamaico Navarro, and Josh Harrison.
A long shot to make the team this year is Tony Sanchez, who will return to Double-A. Sanchez has shown improvements this spring, which isn’t just my opinion. I spoke with an opposing scout who offered the same opinion without the subject being brought up. But Sanchez will have to really improve if he wants to jump to the majors. It’s not an impossible jump. Eric Fryer made it last year, speeding from Double-A at the start of the year to the majors at mid-season. Sanchez will need to really turn his hitting around if he wants to make the same jump. Speaking of Fryer, he could also make an impact this year, although he needs more time hitting at Triple-A.