Here, Clint Hurdle gives his insight on four Pirates, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez. Sometimes referred to as "the core" or "the core four" (although that may just be in my mind), these young Buccos are tasked with leading the Pirates to the playoffs for the first time in two decades. They will need help, primarily in the form of pitching which will hopefully come in the form of top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, but if the core four continues to develop it will make the future very bright in Pittsburgh.
McCutchen's performance speaks for itself. Last year, he put up an impressive 5.7 WAR, so there are no real concerns with McCutchen. Hurdle speaks to how excellent McCutchen is when it comes to plate discipline, “Number one, he’s confident. He doesn’t feel that he’s ever out of a count. There is no panic with two strikes, and that’s one thing you look for in a hitter. After it’s strike two, is it strike three? A lot of it happens in a hurry. Andrew isn’t afraid to take a strike; he’s not afraid to take two. He’s usually looking for something to hit, until he gets to two strikes, and then he’s going to battle." Hurdle is spot on as McCutchen has an excellent 11.7 BB% rate to go with a good 16.3 K% rate for his career. Last year he struck out a bit more, but countered that by walking more. The only real issue with McCutchen is the fact that he only used his blazing speed to steal 23 bases last year and managed to get caught 10 times.
Jose Tabata is another good young player, good enough that the Pirates signed him to a long-term deal last year. The Pirates control his rights through 2019 and should great value out of the deal as long as Tabata stays healthy, which has been an issue thus far in his career.
In the last two years, Tabata has only played a total of 193 games, although he has put up 3.1 WAR over that span. Hurdle speaks about Tabata's other main weakness, his lack of power, stating "“I think that power will show up as he continues to play, and mature. It’s not quite there yet. He can sting the ball, though, including the other way. He hit a few homers last year, out to right field in our ballpark. Any time that a guy has [opposite field] gap power, it plays very well. I think it’s going to play very well throughout his career." If Tabata is able to improve his power, he could end up being a very good player, as he can hit for average at an elite level, has passable plate discipline, and is an above-average to plus defender in the outfield.
Hurdle sums up Neil Walker well with his comment, "“One of Neil’s biggest strengths is his dependability. He takes ownership of each and every at bat." Walker is not going to wow anyone with his tools, and probably will never be more than an above-average player, but Walker plays hard and gets the most out of talent.
That talent includes acceptable contact ability, solid power for a second baseman, and the ability to be nearly average with the glove. He also has acceptable plate discipline. It's not the most exciting package, but Walker has produced 5.0 WAR over the past two years, and that include only playing 3/4 of the season in 2010. In addition, he's a hometown kid, so from that perspective he's even more valuable as a member of the core four.
Instead of saving the best for last, I saved the most interesting for last. McCutchen is an elite player already and there is no doubt he will continue to be an elite player. All signs point to Tabata being an above-average starter for several years, if he can stay healthy. Neil Walker is also an acceptable starting 2B with even a bit of upside past that. Pedro, last year, was simply atrocious.
Pedro, drafted 2nd overall in 2008, came up the Pirates farm system with tremendous hype, similar to McCutchen. Therefore, it stands to reason he would be putting him similar value as McCutchen. Unfortunately, that was not the case last year. Pedro put up an embarrassing negative 0.8 WAR last year in 74 games. He was hurt for part of the season, but even when healthy, Alvarez had all kinds of trouble.
Hurdle sums it up, explaining "One of the biggest challenges for hitters in the major leagues is that after being up for three months, the league has pretty good intelligence on you. Information travels quickly. What you are doing well, they find a counterpunch for. They counterpunched Pedro early in the season and he never really got himself to a position to throw a counterpunch back. He got away from his game. I think he maybe became a little too passive." Hurdle goes on to argue that there is nothing to worry about regarding Pedro, citing his lack of experience. It is true he barely has a season's worth of at bats under his belt, but for Pedro to take the next step, he is going to have to significantly cut down his 30.5 K% rate.
To do that, Hurdle points out that Pedro will need to be selective in choosing which pitches to swing at but at the same time, to attack the ball in the zone and then crush it. He states "We don’t want him to work on having a perfect swing; we want him to have a dangerous swing, an impact swing" and “I think that one of the things Pedro did last year was get into the trap of trying to hit every pitch somewhere, instead of being more selective and looking to do damage in the strike zone.”
Hopefully Pedro can make those adjustments he needs to counter-punch, because it's up to him if the core four excels or becomes only a "core three." Personally, since that doesn't rhyme and since I want to see the Pirates make the playoffs in the near future, let's hope it's the former.