The Pirates Are Good, But Is Their Infield?

So, the Pirates are good now, you guys. It’s going to take some getting used to, probably, but the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates were really quite good at baseball. They won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time in approximately 800 years. With that success, however, it’s important to take note of the areas in which they excelled and the areas in which the they struggled. In other words: Pittsburgh had the third best ERA in baseball last season, but was 16th in wOBA. It was an elite pitching team, but an average offensive one.

The team was successful, and it’s still good, but that doesn’t mean much to fantasy owners. And so we come to the Pirates infield, and the cast of characters there for 2014 who may (or may not) be of use to fantasy owners.

Russell Martin

Michael Barr covered Martin’s fantasy relevance in fantastic detail back in October. In short: after posting a .274/.344/.560 triple slash through April, Martin was barely worth rostering in most leagues. He finished the year at .226/.327/.377. Most of his value stems from his durability behind the plate, as he’s racked up at least 475 plate appearances each of the past three seasons. His strikeout rate has increased for five straight seasons, though, and there’s plenty of reason for concern.

Still, he won’t cost much, and because of his immense defensive value he’ll find his name in the lineup a lot, and should be able to compile a little bit, and provide pop from a position packed with mediocre options. There are worse fates than ending up with Martin (especially in a deep league) but he should be nobody’s Plan A.

First Base
Gaby Sanchez
Andrew Lambo

At this point, on the eve of spring training, an interesting platoon appears to be setting up at first base.

If every pitcher in Major League Baseball was lefthanded, this wouldn’t be a discussion, because Gaby Sanchez would be a superstar. Against lefties, the former Marlin has a career .388 wOBA. Unfortunately right hands exist, and against pitchers who throw with them, Sanchez has a much less impressive .309 career wOBA. Sanchez is all but a lock to make the team, and could provide good value against lefites if fantasy owners can rationalize rostering such a specialized player.

Lambo is not quite a lock to make the team, but he would make a fine platoon compliment to Sanchez, and he’s capable of playing in the outfield as well, which is flexibility the Pirates may covet when they break camp. Mike Podhorzer wrote about Lambo last August, and is optimistic about the former Dodger prospect’s power potential. It didn’t quite show up in his brief big league stint last year, but he’s shown flashes of power in the minor leagues, and with an opening on the roster for a first baseman capable of hitting right-handed pitching, Lambo is an intriguing player to watch as teams convene for spring training.

Second Base
Neil Walker

It’s clear that Walker is not the sexiest second baseman in the league, and it’s mostly because he isn’t elite in any one, single way. He walks a lot, and makes contact, and hits for some power, but not (at an aggregate level) more than elite options like Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Carpenter, Jason Kipnis, and so on. His value derives itself from the fact that he figures to play a lot, and be good enough to compile decent stats. That is admittedly not very exciting, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had.

Over the past three years, Walker’s walk rate has been between 8.2 percent and 9.1 percent. His strikeout rates have been between 15.4 and 19.6. His ISO has ranged from .134 to .167. His batting average dropped last season to .251, down from .273 and .280 in 2011 and 2012, but that was mostly the result of a dip in batting average on balls in play, which was just .274 last year, and should be closer to his career mark of .312 this season. In the wild world of baseball statistics, Walker’s profile is one marked by dependability.

Some people didn’t love where Walker was picked in our recent mock draft, and that’s fair, but it is also true that the stability Walker offers has value for teams speculating elsewhere. Ignoring that in drafts may be a mistake.

Third Base
Pedro Alvarez

Alvarez has established himself as an elite power option after smashing 30 home runs in 2012 and another 36 last year. He’s going to come with an ugly batting average, and an uninspiring on-base percentage, so owners buying here will have to be content with home runs and RBI, and the price for those might be prohibitive based on name value, but at least you know what you’re getting.

This post is about the depth chart, though, and there’s little question where Alvarez sits there, so let’s move on to a more interesting discussion.

Jordy Mercer
Josh Harrison
Clint Barmes

It’s kind of crazy that a 94-win team gave 330 plate appearances to a shortstop with a .558 OPS (.558!) but such was the case in 2013 with the Pirates and Clint Barmes. He’s signed through this season, and if he plays, fantasy owners should have absolutely nothing to do with him.

However, Mercer worked his way into the mix last season, and despite never being a top prospect, he posted strong results. He hit for average, walked a bit, limited strikeouts, hit for some pop. There’s a lot to like from a player with a bargain basement price. Of course, his upside is limited, and he’s no sure bet to win the starting gig outright.

Harrison is listed as a shortstop here, but he played all over the diamond for Pittsburgh last season. League-specific rules will matter a lot, but he played 11 games at second base, 7 at third base, 4 at shortstop, and 15 in the outfield. Positional flexibility matters a great deal in deeper leagues, especially those that allow daily streaming, and that alone makes Harrison a player worth watching. He doesn’t walk much (just 2.6 percent over 575 career plate appearances), but he does put the ball in play a lot (12.3 percent strikeouts over that same span. His .117 career ISO (.159 in 2013) is poor for an outfielder, but for a shortstop? It plays. If you made it to this point of the post, it’s clear you’re desperate, so Harrison bears watching in spring training, and is one to keep in mind as a streaming/injury replacement option.

We hoped you liked reading The Pirates Are Good, But Is Their Infield? by Jack Weiland!

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Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.

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How much do you think one would have to pay Hurdle to give McCutchen a dozen starts at 2B or SS and move him to CF after an inning on defense?