The Bench and the Flux
It is, perhaps, normal that a team rebuilding from the lowest levels would start adding significant pieces to its major league roster last. When a team does this, it is, inevitably, trading off between the public dissatisfaction at having to watch their beloved city be represented by a group of individuals not good enough to contend at the present time and stocking the farm system. Of course, along with the public dissatisfaction, there might also be the embarrassment of watching a replacement-level team play on the field, as was the case with the Pirates after the 09 trades with Delwyn Young in at 2B, Cedeno at short, Jones in RF, a sputtering offense, and a terrible bullpen. Similarly, the process of stocking the farm system often takes a few years when it has been laid as bare as by Dave Littlefield and Bonifay, who had multiple draft classes go bust- occasionally due to bad luck, as with Bonifay in the mid 1990s (specifically 1995 and 1996), and occasionally simply due to poor scouting/resource management, as with Littlefield in 2007.
Nonetheless, while the talents in the farm now start to rise through the levels, the big league team tends to be a work in progress, with cheap talent acquired in the hope of career years, so that they may be flipped for more talent, or in the hope of breakout years so they may be retained for a while. At this stage, relatively few members in the big league lineup are untouchable, because the team is not likely to contend, and there is a farm that could be stocked. Thus, there is a perpetual state of uncertainty over the lineup, and the flux in the clubhouse is the only constant. I would have liked to start by discussing the position players and starting rotation, but there seem to be at least a few players involved in trade talks, and I’d prefer to wait till Spring Training to see where the roster stands. Nothing, however, is as much fun as speculation, and with position players somewhat settled (at this point), let’s start with the bench where there are at least 7-8 candidates for 5 spots.
The candidates, at this point: Ramon Vazquez, Bobby Crosby, Delwyn Young, Brandon Moss, John Raynor, Jason Jaramillo, Steven Pearce, Neil Walker, Brian Bixler.
To start with, let’s note Pearce, Bixler and Walker all have options left, which means the team doesn’t risk losing them, if they are not on the roster. Simply option them and you are left with 6 options. However, let’s dig a little deeper.
Vazquez has a year left at $2M, can play all the infield positions (although he’s said to have declined at shortstop) and is unlikely to be released, according to Dejan Kovacevic. In my opinion, if Crosby plays well enough in Spring Training, then the Pirates will first try to trade Vazquez for a bag of balls, and then release him. We have Garrett Jones, Steve Pearce and Jeff Clement who could play 1st, Delwyn Young and Iwamura who could play 2nd, and possibly Andy LaRoche headed that way in a while, Crosby and Cedeno for SS and LaRoche and Walker for 3B with Alvarez headed there soon. While it never helps to throw money away, I think the Pirates would be better served by keeping a younger player in there if only to see what he can do.
Bobby Crosby is almost certain to be in there, in spite of his value having taken a big hit after his Rookie of the Year 2004. His average is in the .240 range, doesn’t walk a great deal and doesn’t slug much, with a best case OPS expected around 0.650. He is average defensively and adds marginal value over replacement, but his ability to play short and the fresh contract should keep him on the roster.
Delwyn Young was good off the bench last year, pretty bad in the field, and his bat took a hit when he was starting regularly at 2B. It’s unclear whether the drop in his bat was because of his energy spent in learning to play second base, or whether it was regressing to the mean after a pretty good start in PNC Park. Off the bench, he OPSed .782 in 39 at-bats, and .698 as a starter. He is likely to be on the bench when the 2010 season starts.
Jason Jaramillo did well as the backup catcher, and is almost a certainty to be on the bench in 2010, unless Doumit is traded, in which case he might have a starting job.
Brandon Moss should be battling with John Raynor for a job in Spring training, and its not clear who will win out. Raynor, a Rule 5 pick, needs to stay on the roster all year, or be offered back to the Florida Marlins. Raynor had 3 pretty good years through AA with OPS close to or above 0.900 in A and AA. He hit a bit of a wall in AAA offensively, but he has plenty of upside, is extremely fast, and can handle Center Field. Brandon Moss has had a couple of down years, but has some pop and is considered a good defender, so it might come down to whether the Pirates feel he can turn it around and be useful to them going forward. He doesn’t seem to be doing better against RHP either, so his offensive value is limited. If the Pirates cannot carry both Moss and Raynor, I could see Moss missing out here.
Neil Walker (Stats): A first round draft pick, Walker might have been pushed through the system too fast. He finally OPS-ed above 0.800 in Altoona, where he also had his best K/BB ratio. His performance in AAA has been far worse, though, and after 2 full seasons in AA, he might be looking at going back there, with a terrible K/BB rate, and average-at-best OPS. He has some pop though, and is considered a good defender, but with Andy LaRoche in the big leagues, and Alvarez climbing through the minors, its unclear where Walker fits in with the Pirates. His Winter League was productive, but I expect he’d go back to AAA, where they’ll try him in different positions to prepare him for a utility role.
Brian Bixler has been given a couple of shots in the big leagues, and has disappointed with bat and glove, with a horrendous K rate. He might get a last shot, or be tried as a utility player. I imagine he was retained on the 40-man purely because of the pop in his bat. His time with the Pirates is running out.
Steve Pearce is my favorite to take the final bench spot, and might even work well in a platoon with Jeff Clement or Garrett Jones at 1B. Pearce has also disappointed in limited playing time although his pop and record against LHP (Stats) might make him a useful player.
To sum up, then, I expect that the Pirates will let Vazquez go, and have Young, Jaramillo, Crosby, Raynor and Pearce on the bench. It’s possible both Moss and Raynor stay on, too. Of course, if Vazquez is retained, one of Moss and Raynor is going to miss out, and Bixler, Walker and Pearce go to AAA (again).