Today, we continue along in the National League Central to discuss potential opportunities for prospects to earn starting jobs at positions currently manned by a player at risk of losing his job if his poor play continues. We’ll move on with the Pirates. Projected for the sixth worst record in baseball, it’s not surprise that the team has multiple potential holes, which could possibly be filled by prospects.
Jacob Stallings will likely hold a starting job due to his defense. But the 30-year-old is no youngster who should be expected to improve his offense. And man does that offense need improvement. He posted just a .297 wOBA last season thanks to a complete lack of power and below average walk rate. He’ll need to keep up that strong defense or he’ll be at risk of losing his starting job.
Andrew Susac has been a journeyman, now with his sixth organization since 2016. At age 30, he’s clearly not a prospect, but the Pirates are devoid of any upper level catching prospects. Susac hasn’t been very good during his various Major League stints. However, he does own many of the skills you want to see from a power hitter, let alone a catcher. He continues to post double digit walk rates, hits lots of fly balls, and posts ISO marks around .200. His strikeout rate has been a bit high, but not alarmingly so. Given his power potential, he’s worth gambling on if given the chance.
While Kevin Newman was solid offensively during his first full season, his defense was brutal. With a contact oriented approach at the plate, he doesn’t swing and miss or strikeout often, which is a good thing. However, he also walks quite infrequently. If his BABIP regresses back toward the league average and his career high ISO proves to be a fluke, his offense will no longer be enough to offset his poor defense.
Cole Tucker made his debut last year to some fantasy fanfare. He flopped in his 159 plate appearances, posting just a .264 wOBA. But, in the minors he has proven to be willing to take a walk (double digit walk rates in three of last four stops) and keep his SwStk% in the high single digits. That should resulted in solid plate discipline rates. His power took a step forward at Triple-A in 2019 and that ISO translated to the Majors. He also played a strong shortstop, so defense shouldn’t hold him back. For fantasy owners, the biggest appeal is his speed, as he has swiped as many as 46 bases in the minors.
Colin Moran has been terrible defensively at third base the last two seasons, which means he’d have to do a lot offensively to justify serving in a starting role. He hasn’t. In fact, his WAR last season was just 0.1, while in 2018, it was 0.7. He has displayed below average power, and last year, his walk rate dipped and strikeout rate rose, both to levels you don’t want to see for a hitter with his power.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is the team’s top prospect, but that’s more because of his defense than his current offense. Hayes doesn’t swing and miss often, which is a great starting point. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown much power, which is typically what you expect from a corner guy. Of course, Moran hasn’t either, so the bar to leapfrog what the Pirates are currently getting isn’t very high. One of Hayes’ appeals for fantasy owners is his rare speed for a corner guy. He stole 13 bases last season and as many as 27 back in 2017. I searched for a potential fantasy comp and quickly discovered that he seems a lot like a future Chase Headley. That has value in deeper leagues, but will bob between replacement level and bottom tier option in shallower leagues.
Bryan Reynolds was one of last season’s most surprising performers. Despite posting league average power and walk and strikeout rates, he managed to handily outperform the league average wOBA thanks to one number — .387. That rate represents Reynolds’ BABIP, which ranked as the third highest among qualified hitters. While his xBABIP of .349 does somewhat validate his strong BABIP skills, that’s still quite the drop from his actual .387 mark. Given the risk his BABIP tumbles, along with the risk his power declines back to his minor league days, and combined with his weak left field defense, there’s far more downside here than some might realize.
At age 34, Jarrod Dyson recorded the most plate appearances in a season at the MLB level. For a hitter who can’t hit, that’s pretty shocking. And now, the Pirates figure to make him their starting center fielder, likely against right-handers. His defense remains solid, but how much longer will it now that he’s 35?
The Pirates are lacking upper level outfield prospects with any sort of chance to make a fantasy impact this year. That gives Reynolds and Dyson a bit more job security than they’d have on most other teams. At age 27 now, Socrates Brito is no longer a prospect. But with a mix of power and speed, I always pay attention when he’s recalled. Sure, he doesn’t walk enough and hasn’t yet translate his strong minor league BABIPs to the Majors, but he’s posted ISO marks over .200 in his last two Triple-A stints. He has also swiped double digit bases during those seasons. If he finds his way into regular playing time, he’s the perfect speculation.
So much for everyone trying to explain Trevor Williams’ .261 BABIP in 2018. Was it simply good luck after all or was 2019 the bad luck and 2018 closer to his true talent level? I’d bet on the former. With poor underlying skills (a career 4.79 SIERA), you shouldn’t be betting on a rebound. Steven Brault owns a 4.88 ERA/5.01 SIERA in his career, while Derek Holland has posted an ERA below 4.91 just once since 2015, and that came pitching half his games in pitcher heaven AT&T Park. It’s safe to say there will be lots of opportunities for prospects to make an impact in the starting rotation.
There’s a reason the projected Pirates rotation is filled with guys projected for an ERA well over 4.00. It’s because they are lacking pitching prospects in the upper levels that have a chance to be any better. So these guys might be given a long leash, but that doesn’t mean you should as well.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.