Pirates Off-Season Preview: Burnett, First Base, and the Walker Problem

The Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs this year, and will largely be keeping the same team together next year. When you add in the continued improvements from young players, and the expected mid-season additions of prospects like Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco, then you’ve got a team that has the potential to be strong once again next year. Because of this, there aren’t a lot of things the Pirates need to focus on this off-season. Here are three of the big topics to watch for when the off-season starts to unfold over the next two months.

Which Pitchers Will Return?

A.J. Burnett is a free agent this off-season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
A.J. Burnett is a free agent this off-season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates have two pitchers who are question marks heading into the off-season. Wandy Rodriguez has a player option for $13 M, while A.J. Burnett is eligible for free agency, and hasn’t decided whether he would return.

The question with Rodriguez isn’t whether he will return. He’s almost certain to pick up his option, considering his injury throughout the 2013 season. The question here is how big of a role he will play when he does return. Will he actually return to the field, or will he only return to the payroll? If he does return to the field, will he be the same pitcher again, or will he struggle? I don’t think he’s a guy the Pirates can count on. They need to view any production from Rodriguez as a bonus. And that brings me to Burnett.

The top of the rotation looks good with Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. But the 2013 Pirates made a transition to a contender. Contenders don’t just have two solid spots in the rotation. They have more than that. If A.J. Burnett returns, that gives them a solid 1-3 in the rotation, and more when Jameson Taillon arrives. If Burnett doesn’t return, the Pirates would be smart to find a replacement.

A prime candidate could be Josh Johnson. He looks like the perfect bounce back player. His ERA was 6.20, but his xFIP was 3.58. His strikeouts actually went up to a career best 9.18 K/9, and his walks didn’t increase that much to a 3.32 BB/9. The problem was his home runs and went way up. That was the result of an 18.5% HR/FB ratio. He also had a .356 BABIP and a 63.3% strand rate.

Johnson got an average amount of ground balls (45%). He also throws a two-seam fastball, but only throws it 13.3% of the time, compared to 45.7% with his four seam fastball. He throws a slider 20.6% of the time. The Pirates have had success with pitchers like Johnson by getting them to rely on their two-seam fastball more often to generate more ground balls.

There is the injury factor to consider. Johnson recently had elbow surgery to remove bone spurs. It was a minor surgery, and there were no issues found with his elbow ligament. He will be throwing again in five weeks, and will probably be looking for a one year deal. Even if they sign Burnett, Johnson seems like the perfect gamble to take to get another potential top of the rotation guy. And if they don’t sign Burnett, Johnson would be a great alternative.

Who’s on First?

Garrett Jones will probably make $6 M in arbitration this off-season. Gaby Sanchez will probably make $3 M. Sanchez did his part in the platoon this year, while Jones didn’t play well and looks like a strong non-tender candidate. Without Jones, there’s not a big need to pay Sanchez $3 M, since he’s only a first base platoon option off the bench. Justin Morneau is also a platoon option, but was a streaky hitter and didn’t do much while he was with the Pirates.

The Pirates need production from the first base position. My personal preference would be Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. Rather than paying Jones/Sanchez $9 M, you could spend a little more and get Abreu. There’s the risk that Abreu doesn’t carry his production over to the majors, but I see risk involved with all of the alternatives, including pending free agents Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart. Abreu’s risk comes with the high reward that he could be a big middle of the order bat if he does carry his hitting over to the majors. Even if they don’t get Abreu, the Pirates need a solution at first.

Solving the Neil Walker Problem

Neil Walker should have a smaller role in the offense next year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Neil Walker should have a smaller role in the offense next year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Neil Walker went 0-fer in the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals. This came a week after he finished the season on fire, helping to lead the Pirates to home field advantage in the Wild Card game. Walker is a streaky hitter who is capable of getting hot like we saw in the last week of the season, then going ice cold just as fast. This year he had a 2.7 WAR, which rated 9th of 17 qualified MLB second basemen. So Walker is about middle of the pack.

The problem is that Walker plays too big of a role in the Pirates offense. He’s not a guy who should be a leader on offense. He’s a support player. He’s a platoon player. The Pirates did well to platoon him with Josh Harrison at the end of the year, and that should continue next season. But they need to do something to move Walker down in the order. At best, he should be a number six hitter. They need someone more consistent setting the table for Andrew McCutchen.

The problem here is that Walker is the best option at the position for the Pirates, but he’s not a good option for his role with the team. For a few years, Walker has been seen as one of the top hitters in the lineup, and has been used like one of the top hitters in the lineup. But Walker shouldn’t be a top hitter in any lineup. If the Pirates added a good first baseman, and a right fielder like Byrd, then it would move Walker down to being the sixth or seventh best hitter in the lineup. That’s more appropriate for his hitting skills.

  • What’s James McDonald’s status and why is no one mentioning him in the 2014 rotation scenario? Or is he even worth mentioning?

  • Clint Barmes will not be re-signed. Huntington knows that if he does, Hurdle will be way too inclined to continue giving him way too many starts and not allowing mercer to continue to develop. I would likely see another defensive minded shortstop added who Clint didn’t already coach before……someone who won’t take time away from Mercer offensively. Just as Walker got better defensively over time, Mercer will continue to as well hopefully given the chance.

    • Mercer is pretty old to be banking on development. He is what he is, a solid hitting middle infield player. I personally like the option of keeping Barmes, and using Mercer in a strict platoon at 2nd, as well as splitting starts with Barmes at SS.

  • Tim isn’t saying we should discard Walker, he’s saying that he’s not the ideal guy to have bat in front of McCutchen. However, suggesting that signing a first basemen and somebody like Byrd would take him out of 2 spot doesn’t make any sense at all really since…well…that’s exactly what we had at the end of the year and it didn’t change anything. My lineup of choice would be
    1. Polanco
    2. Cutch
    3. Abreu
    4. Pedro
    5. Marte
    6. Walker

    Cutch will never bat 2nd though so I guess it’s irrelevant.

    • Pointing to the lineup at the end of the year isn’t a good thing, because there were a lot of issues with that lineup. Not only was Walker batting second an issue, but Justin Morneau was batting cleanup. That was the same Morneau that had a .312 slugging percentage after the trade.

      • Haha couldn’t agree more with that. I would say there’s a cost and reward balance to going righty/lefty in the lineup that we weren’t quite getting right towards the end of the year. As long as you avoid putting pure platoon guys back to back then you’re ok.

    • The best use of Marte’s speed is ahead of Alvarez so Alverez can see more fast balls instead of curves. Alvarez would be in the four hole if he hit for higher average and OBP. My preferred lineup:

      for RHP
      1. Byrd/Polanco
      2. Walker
      3. Cutch
      4. Abreu
      5. Marte
      6. Alvarez
      7. Martin/Sanchez
      8. Mercer
      9. P

      for LHP:
      1. Byrd/Polanco
      2. Mercer
      3. Cutch
      4. Abreu
      5. Marte
      6. Alvarez
      7. Martin/Sanchez
      8. Walker
      9. P

      Let go of Barmes (replaced by D’Arnaud), Jones and Snachez to be able to sign Abreu.

      • It what world would you ever have someone who K’s 150 times a year with little speed as a leadoff hitter?

      • reminds me of a silly computer based lineup for the cardinals in 2008 which highlighted Scott Rolen leading off for no apparent reason

        • Compare Marte and Byrd’s 2013 stats:

          AB AVE OBP BB SO
          510 .280 .343 25 138

          AB AVE OBP BB SO
          532 .291 .336 31 144

          If you scale Marte’s AB up to Byrd’s it is equivalent to 26 BB and 144 SO. So as far as SO are concerned Marte and Byrd are the same. I suppose you also dis Marte as a leadoff man? Byrd isn’t as fast as Marte but he is no slow poke, As far as getting on base they are about the same, except Byrd has a few more walks. Besides, he’ll be replaced by Polanco by end of 2014 anyway, and Polanco has plenty of speed (and where do you bat Polanco?). Marte lacks patience as a lead off hitter and is better suited down the order. His speed in front of Alvarez could really make Alvarez a more productive hitter as the pitcher’s attention is divided and Alvarez sees more fastballs.

  • Josh Johnson = YES. I’ve been saying this on Fangraphs chats for weeks. He’s an NH type of signing.

    Neil Walker is not really a problem. A top 10 2B at arbitration prices is a luxury, even if it means he has to sit for 20 or so games.

    Kendrys Morales would be my choice. His fWAR was low because he was a DH for much of this past season, but he’s shown an average to above glove in the past.

    I could get on board with Abreu, though, if the price isn’t silly. His upside seems so high, as long as his glove isn’t Dunn or Ortiz bad.

  • CalipariFan506
    October 11, 2013 8:55 am

    Another reason I think it would be smart to offer AJ a qualifying offer is that if he does leave and sign somewhere else, that extra draft pick could be in the 33-35 range. That means IF the Pirates are interested in another free agent who comes with forfeiting pick 27, it would be a wash.

  • These are all legit concerns, but Neil Walker is not a problem. He had a lousy 0’fer the NLDS, but he had a VG season for the Pirates – most HR’s in his short career – 16; excellent defensive year; best W/K ratio of his career; and, I pulled up Baseball Reference and he had a 3.0 o’WAR and a 1.2 d’WAR – does that mean 4.2 WAR overall? Seems kind of high to me on the offensive side? He will play 2014 as a 28 year old who is starting to understand what it takes to succeed. I think he is a kid on the rise, and I want to start 2014 with the best up-the-middle D as we can get. Mercer and he meshed well and I look for the Pirates to sign Barmes in a utility IF role. This would be the year to sew him up long term; 5 years – 3 more Arb years, and his first 2 years of FA. Look at possibly $38 to $42 mil.

    The Cuban kid is a RH hitter coming to one of the worst fields in baseball for a RH power hitter? And we will have to pay him like he is already an All Star? That’s the type of move for Texas or Toronto, or Boston, but not the Pirates. Loney has always been a solid contributor, but LA was looking for him to mature as a power hitter and it never happened. Even with a bad year from Jones, the platoon of he and Gaby Sanchez did well offensively. Jones at $6 mil is a bad sign, so I agree he will be traded or non-tendered. My thought is Justin Morneau if he will sign for less than $10 mil/yr. A former MVP and was well on his way to a second MVP in 2010 when he suffered a season ending head injury. The concussion-associated symptoms lasted through the 2011 season and he is just getting back. The average and power were not there for the Pirates but the defense and contact even against LH pitchers was there. Where was he at mentally being traded from the only team he had ever known? Maybe pressing? An MVP and 5 or 6 time All Star and still 32? I definitely try to make that deal.

    The pitching is something that the Pirates need to sit on for awhile. They have arguably the second best lefty in the NL for a very cheap 2nd year, and then he is a FA after 2014. I wonder what the Rays or the Athletics would do in a circumstance like that? Maholm? Locke had a better year as a rookie, and he is under control for 5 more years. The Pirates have to build with guys like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Jeff Locke, and possibly Brandon Cumpton and/or Nick Kingham, and then Tyler Glasnow, Luis Heredia, and a host of other possibilities – nice bunch of LHSP’s we got in the 2013 draft.

    • MJ, I agree Walker’s not the problem. He’s probably not even the problem in the #2 slot (the AVG was career worst but OBP of .339 is just like Marte’s who everyone thinks should be in the #2 hole). I disagree that they should extend him though. He’s above average 2B, but not far enough above average that they need to buy out free agent years. Save that process for guys way above avg like Marte, if he keeps improving. Ride out Walker’s arb years and let him walk at free agency at 31 unless he gives a big hometown discount.

      Overall WAR is a few columns to the left of oWAR and dWAR on baseball reference. It’s not exactly the sum of the two, but very close. They have Walker at 3.9 this year

      • stick: Thanks for the info on the WAR. I am trying to learn the lingo because it does make sense to use any data that can influence a decision such as WAR, Range Factor, and xFIP.

        For the record the Pirates were never the popular team in the city for a number of reasons that have passed for the most part. This team is young, energetic, embraces the city and the people, and that is because of the player mix. Neil Walker is a keeper – you may get something slightly better for 2B, but would the youth and their ticket-buying parents feel just as comfortable? How many times a season does the Root Sports camera lock in on the Walker family? The connection to Clemente? A contract of 5 years and an option for the 6th year takes him through age 32. He was a Super 2 meaning 4 years of Arbitration. He and the Pirates settled for $3.3 mil last year. I know we do not know the potential impact of Arbitration Awards considering the TV Revenue packages, but in past years Walker would get an increase to about $4.5 mil in 2014, possibly $6 mil in 2015, and $7.5 – $8.0 mil for 2016. How high will it be once the TV Revenue bump kicks in? And, it will only get more expensive.

    • Haven’t you heard MJ? The Cuban kid shrinks any ballpark!! Who is he, Rick Moranis? 🙂

  • I am crazy, why am I seeing analysis that says the Pirates should way goodbye to Burnett, he is eligible for a qualifying offer and he should receive one. I am wrong?

    • CalipariFan506
      October 11, 2013 8:53 am

      I think it would be crazy to do two things pertaining to Burnett. The first is not offering him a qualifying offer. he second is negotiating anything with him beyond the QO. If he says no, let him walk for a draft pick.

      • Well Burnett already was publicly quoted to say it was either retirement or resigning with the pirates, so giving him a qualifying offer is pointless since there is no upside in the way of a draft pick. If he wants to play, he’ll play at 10 million and if he wants to retire he’ll retire at 13 million. Sources say he wasn’t happy about being passed up for game 5 though….so we’ll see.!

  • Thanks, Andrew. I was not aware actually. So much for that idea 🙂

    • I wasn’t aware until I looked at baseball reference, I’ll admit it is easy to critique when others throw names out there. I think we will see Barmes resigned and/or addition of utility infielder like MacDonald or Inge. Improvements at 1B and RF will hopefully limit the impact of the lack offense from the shortstop.

  • I would LOVE to see the pirates make a play for Elvis Andrus. He is being pushed out in Texas by Profar anyways and is likely available for prospects (would cost but he solves many problems for us).
    He would be a perfect lead off man. You could move Marte to 2nd and Walker to 7th in the order. He is relatively young and the top third of our order would be ridiculously fast. That rids the Pirates of Barmes and allows them to use Mercer in a platoon with Walker and backup to Andrus.

  • I know this will get a cringe from some readers here, but if the Bucs lose out on signing Abreu, I think they should make a play for James Loney. Compared to the other free agent alternatives, he’s relatively young – entering his age-30 season. He puts the ball in play, which is something the Pirates – who have a lot of swing-and-miss in them – need desperately. He won’t hurt you defensively – better than Jones, not as good as Morneau. He stays healthy. And because he doesn’t hit for power, he’ll come a lot cheaper than the alternatives.

    Loney could fit nicely in the #2 hole, a contact-oriented lefty who will help Hurdle with the hit and run, move Marte first to third, etc.

    I still think Abreu should be the first priority, but failing that I don’t know if any of the other FA options at first would be a better fit than Loney.

    • Yes, Loney definitely draws a major cringe from me. During his NL years, from 2006-12, he had an average WAR of +0.8 per year. Once he became a starter in 2008, he didn’t have one good year. His BEST OPS was .772. During his final few years in the NL, he was one of the worst 1B in baseball – significantly worse than Garrett Jones for the same years. I would rather play Jones/Sanchez or Lambo or Dickerson at 1B than waste any money on Loney.

      • Keep in mind that his NL years came with half of his games at Dodger Stadium. He had good road numbers. It’s not a surprise that he succeeded away from LA.

      • I thought the same thing until I actually looked at the stats more closely. But the truth is Lonely has been a 2.5 win player for 2 out of the last 3 years. The exception was last year when he had a BABIP below .270 – he’d been a .300 BABIP guy before and has been since, so I think it’s more likely that was an outlier season.

        His lifetime OPS – which includes that disaster of a season – is .761. No, it’s not great for a corner infielder, but that’s better than Jones or Morneau provided, and it’s within a few points of what Pedro hit.

        He’s cheaper than Jones+Sanchez will be, and the odds are he will provide better performance, especially with Jones looking very much like the bat is a touch too slow. I actually think re-upping those two would be the waste of money by comparison. If you want to take your chances with Lambo and spend the money elsewhere, I can see that, but what’s the plan B if Lambo washes out? Admittedly Loney is not sexy, his ceiling is low, but he the odds are he beats out the incumbents, does so at lower cost, and has a skill set the Pirates as a whole lack: putting balls in play.

        If there were better frees agent options I wouldn’t have brought it up, but it’s depressing how little there is out there.

        • Obviously,most posters have not seen Lambo actually play first base. Based on what I saw this past season at AA,he is not a Major League option at this time.

    • I’ve been calling for Loney as an option since the 2010-11 off-season.


      Looks like he succeeded as expected after he got out of LA.

  • I believe that Paul Maholm would also be a good free agent option. His ERA was 4.41, but his xFIP was only 3.89, about league average.

    Given his 51% groundball rate, he could benefit from the Pirates emphasis on defensive shifts. He would also benefit from PNC Park, as a left-handed groundball pitcher. His HRs were up this year due to a 13.8% HR/FB rate. In his last three years with the Pirates, his HR/FB rate was under 8%.

    • I always liked Maholm when he was here. I just didn’t like his option price in his final year.

    • Another name to consider is Roy Oswalt. His ERA was terrible, but FIP & xFIP were right around his career averages. Yes he’s 36, but there hasn’t been much wear & tear on the arm the last 2 years (90 some innnings total). Obviously a REALLY BIG risk, but could turn out well. Also there should be way less interest in him league wide than J Johnson. Make it an incentive laden deal to hedge the bet, and away you go.

      Maholm would be fine but probably too expensive to fill the #4 or #5 spot.

      On Loney it all depends on the price. In such a thin free agent market, how much are other teams going to throw at him after a decent season? Who knows, but he’d be a good option in the $5-6 million/ year for 3 years. He’ll probably get more elsewhere though.