Poor intros aside, I dive into my subject. The Pirates have scored 6 runs in 5 games. They are 2-3. No matter the small sample size issues, the fact that the Buccos pitching has been good, and also fact that the pitchers the Pirates have faced have been phenomenal. The sky is falling and the season is doomed! (Update: since I started this post, the Pirates have won one more game and are 3-7 on the year; the sky is most definitely falling) (Second Update: The Pirates have won 2 straight against the Diamondback and are back to 5-7; however, the sky is most likely still falling). Therefore, we must look onward and into the future. Now, I am being facetious, don't worry. I would love to see the Pirates succeed - playoffs more than .500 - and I realistically think they have a shot, although it is an outside shot. That said, I admit I have a problem with being obsessed with the future, a possible side-effect of being a Pirate fan. Despite defining it as a problem, I will give into my vice and try and peer into the future. My methodology will be as follows. I will identify the pieces of the puzzle the Pirates have. I will identify the pieces they don't have. I will identify possible avenues of acquiring said missing pieces. Sounds simple and hopefully it will be.
Now, before I delve into my identifying process, I must set some parameters. My end game is the 2014-2015 two-year period. In a way, that's depressing. That's still two, maybe three years away. There will be calls that Neal Huntington should be fired. That's a 7 year rebuilding plan that isn't guaranteed to work. Well to answer that, I respond by saying I believe 2014-2015 is when a competitive Pirates team is virtually inevitable. I will expound on that by saying that the Pirates can be competitive between now and then, including this season, and they can do it without sacrificing much, if any of their future. I will also explain why I do think it's inevitable. In the past, predictions have been made for when the Pirates would be competitive. 2012 was a popular choice and then 2013. Delaying it until 2014 or 2015 seems to be ignoring a problem. I disagree. I believe 2012 was predicated on a perfect world scenario. That was the type of young talent/farm system the Pirates had. Bryan Morris needed to be an ace or a #2 starter, rather than the 7th or 8th bullpen guy he's turned into (closer if he excels). Charlie Morton needed to be a #2 starter. Gorkys Hernandez needed to be this, Pedro Alvarez needed to be that. There couldn't be any failures. I contend that the same is not true for the Pirates to be successful in 2014/15. I sincerely believe that will happen in spite of the inevitable attrition that will occur between now and then because the Pirates farm system is set up to be able to weather that attrition. That will be explained further during the identification process
Current Puzzle Pieces
By current puzzle pieces, I'm talking about what the Pirates have and will have through 2015 with almost certainty. I'm also talking about guys who will be regular starters. For the Pirates, I believe we have the following locked down pretty hard for the 2014-2015 seasons.
The Entire Outfield
A bit premature? I say nay. Between McCutchen, Tabata, Presley, Marte, Grossman, and Bell, and then to a lesser extent Gorkys Hernandez, Evan Chambers, and Mel Rojas Jr., I think the Pirates are going to manage to field three good outfielders, led by Cutch. In fact this is a huge strength for the Pirates. The depth should ensure the Pirates can get an outfield that overall is well above-average and have a surplus from which to deal, which will apply in the "Acquiring Missing Puzzle Pieces" section.
Update: Since I started drafting this article, Mel Rojas Jr. has indeed had a solid start to the season while Gregory Polance is on fire right now, seemingly on his way to unlocking his mammoth potential. That simply adds to the Pirates outfield depth. I'll also add that Jarek Cunningham, who I'll consider a 2B and possible 3B for now, may be forced to a spot in left or right field. That should be no problem for his bat if he meets his offensive potential, so he simply adds even more to the Pirates outfield depth.
Neil Walker isn't going to be a star, but he's contractually a Pirate through 2016 barring a contract extension and even without one, the hometown could shouldn't be hard to retain. That adds up to a strong possibility that the Pirates will have a starting second baseman that hovers from being slightly below-average to slightly above-average. A perfectly fine piece on a playoff baseball team.
The Back End of the Rotation
Also arguably premature considering the aforementioned example of Bryan Morris who now looks like a reliever at best. Still, I'm only talking about the Pirates producing two starters - a #4 and a #5 - that can man the back end of the rotation from 2014 on for at least three or four years. That may seem like wishful thinking, but the Pirates have a glut of pitchers than can fill that role. In no particular order: Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, Kyle McPherson, Colton Cain, Zach Von Rosenberg, Zach Dodson, and Nick Kingham. That's 9 pitchers so maybe it's not too optimistic to believe that 2 will survive and thrive enough to fill the back-end of the Pirates rotation in the near future. Let's add some numbers. Using a semi-arbitrary time frame - from 2009 to 2011 - I looked at two statistics: fWAR and ERA. For each, I looked at pitchers who ranked 91-120 to "identify" a #4 starter. A crude determination no doubt, but the numbers are as follows.
For fWAR, the average number compiled per 3 year period was 3.80 WAR. That's an average of 1.27 fWAR a year. For those same players, the average ERA was 4.51 and the average number of innings pitched was 417.2 innings, which calculates to approximately 139 innings a year. For ERA, the average ERA for players ranked 91-120 was 4.54 ERA. The average fWAR was 5.28 WAR over a 3 year period for an average of 1.76 WAR per year (Note: the potential mathematical inconsistency that seems to arise is due to fWAR being based on FIP instead of ERA). Those pitchers averaged 454 innings for the 3 year period or 151.1 innings per year. That means, to be a successful "#4 starter," a pitcher will have to roughly average 1.5 fWAR and 140-150 innings per year with an ERA in the mid 4's. A #5 starter will have slightly lower expectations. Though it's not as concrete at the outfield and second-base, looking at that list - Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, Kyle McPherson, Colton Cain, Zach Von Rosenberg, Zach Dodson, and Nick Kingham - I'm confident the Pirates will find the back end of their rotation, even in the face of attrition.
Missing Puzzle Pieces
These are the positions inside the Pirates organization that have a hazy future. Per position, the "missing-ness" ranges from minimal uncertainty with plenty of options to no viable option in sight. Either way, the Pirates will need to address these positions to become a contender, either internally or externally. Luckily, I believe that's entirely possible.
Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be the Pirates third baseman, a star along side McCutchen, and a prototypical cleanup hitter. It hasn't happened. It still may, but to this point it's far from a guarantee. That's simply a fact. Since that's a fact, third base has to be listed under the missing puzzle pieces.
Let's move left on the diamond. Under Neal Huntington the Pirates have penciled Jack Wilson, Ronny Cedeno, and Clint Barmes into the opening day lineup. Considering Clint Barmes is the worst thing since.. something really bad, at least according to some Pirates fans, (I kid, please don't kill me) the list is far from inspiring. Barmes is an older veteran with a 2 year deal, so there's a definite hole at shortstop for the Pirates going forward.
The Pirates have only played 10 games this season and have already started 3 different players at first base. This list is also not particularly inspiring: Casey McGeehe, Garrett Jones, Matt Hague. The thought for some fans was that Pedro Alvarez would end up here eventually as a slugging first baseman due to his projected defensive woes, but Pedro's bat has been a much larger issue than his glove to this point in his career.
Due to injuries, Michael McKenry was forced to play 58 games at catcher for the Pirates last year and that was after a mid-season trade. That speaks volumes. Dusty Brown started games at catcher for the Pirates last year. That speaks even louder. Rod Barajas is the starter this year, but he's got a one year deal with an option, so he's not the long term answer.
Front end of the Rotation
The one, two, and three starters in a rotation. Yes, the Pirates have three really good pitching prospects - Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Luis Heredia - and a few others with plenty of upside - Stetson Allie, Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes. Still, our best pitchers in our staff are arguably Erik Bedard and Charlie Morton and neither pitcher is a true top of the rotation pitchers, at least at the moment, and more importantly, neither pitcher is contractually tied to the Pirates for the years after 2014 (2013 for Bedard). Considering the attrition rates of prospects, this isn't the same case scenario as the back end of the rotation. Simplifying it too much, I've named 6 pitchers for 3 spots compared to naming 9 pitchers for 2 spots. The front end of the rotation is most definitely a hole, although that does tend to be a league-wide phenomenon.
Acquiring Missing Puzzle Pieces
This is pretty straightforward. To form a contending ball club, Pirates brass will need to fill positions that are currently void of talent, or at least shallow on it, with solid puzzle pieces. There are several methods to do that. One is with pre-existing internal options. Trades, the draft, and free agency are also all options.
Third Base - Well Pedro Alvarez is still certainly option. The chances are low at this point, but he can't be dismissed completely yet. Alvarez is under Pirates contractual control through 2015 (I believe). Another option is Casey McGehee. Thus far this year he's looked solid and he's been a good player in the past (read more about that here). One issue is McGehee's contract. He will be a free agent after 2014, but considering his age and his potential (which is limited to an average to slightly above-average starter rather than a superstar), it would seemingly be a distinct possibility to sign 2 or 3 of his free agent years in an offseason extension, assuming that is a prudent move. Another internal option is Jarek Cunningham, although I'm not entirely sure he has the arm for third base.
Another option is the draft which features corner infielders Richie Shaffer and Stephen Piscotty. While they currently would each be an over draft, it would only be a slight overdraft (currently ranked 18th and 20th in Baseball America's rankings; this would not be Sanchez at #4), and there's enough time between now and the draft that one could catch helium and make even more sense for the Pirates at #8. Shaffer has less defensive skills and more swing-and-miss in his game, but also comes with more power Personally, I'd avoid him and take Piscotty who's a better defender (although he will need to work to stick at 3B and will never be a gold glover) and has better plate discipline. A last option, which to me might be the most intriguing is via trade. The Rangers are a good trade partner. In fact, they are a great trade partner in every sense of the notion. The Rangers are in win now mode, have plenty of blocked prospects, have an incredibly deep farm system so they can afford to trade prospects, and are becoming a major market who can spend on the free agent market which decreases their reliance on prospects. At third base, the prospect is Mike Olt. He's blocked by Adrian Beltre - one of the best third baseman in the game - who's signed through 2015 with an option for 2016. Olt is a plus defender with plus power. He does strikeout a bit, but it's not out of control and he counters that with elite walk rates.
The immediate replacements that come to mind are AAA prospects Chase D'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. Either could become an average major league starting shortstop, which would be perfectly acceptable, especially since both might have a bit more upside than that. Yamaico Navarro is another option. Brock Holt, Alen Hanson, and Dilson Herrera are all options for further down the road and each player is intriguing for various reasons and at varying degrees. Via the draft, Deven Marrero stands out as a polished college shortstop with good defense who will be ready quickly. However, his stock has slipped dramatically recently due to struggles at the plate and he now would be considered an overdraft. Carlos Correa is a prep shortstop who might be an option. He has massive potential at the plate and would have the chance to move quickly. He's not guaranteed to stick at shorstop, but reports indicate he looks better defensively than Manny Machado at the same stage and Machado is still at shortstop in AA.
Trading is also an option. The partner again would be the Rangers. Ian Kinsler just signed a contract that will keep him in a Rangers uniform through 2018. That locks up one half of the middle infield. From there, the Rangers have Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor, and plenty of other middle infield depth that the Rangers may consider a surplus. That surplus could equate to trade bait and at some point between now and 2014, the Pirates and Rangers could make a swap. Starlin Castro may be another option, although that would require an inner-division trade. Castro is under team control through 2016. In the free agent market, there are no superstar shortstops like Jose Reyes available over the next few years, but there are a few intriguing names such as Stephen Drew and Yunel Escobar. Neither would be incredibly expensive, but they might be the type of target the Pirates could afford that would actually make a splash and somewhat significantly improve the ballclub.
There are several internal options - Pedro Alvarez, Casey McGehee, Matt Hague, Matt Curry, Alex Dickerson, and to a lesser extent, Jose Osuna - but unfortunately none of them have significant upside sans a career 180 from Pedro Alvarez. Even though that's a fairly extensive list, there's still no guarantee any of these players becomes even an average first baseman. That's especially true considering the offensive demands often associated with first base.
Another option is acquiring the Pirates future first baseman via trade. There are plenty of options. The Mets probably will need to continue to rebuild, so Ike Davis is a possibility if he proves he is healthy. If the Padres still need to build for the future in a few years, Yonder Alonso may be an option. Brandon Belt and Mark Trumbo are also options as both have struggled to earn playing time with their current teams. There are limited options in the draft and via free agency. In the draft, Adam Brett Walker and Victor Roache are possible options, and the Pirates may be able to get one of those guys in the supplemental first round this year. Adam Lind, James Loney, Michael Morse, and Kendry Morales are the most intriguing names in free agency, although none look like a particularly good fit.
Tony Sanchez was supposed to be the catcher of the future, but offensive struggles and injury woes have derailed his career thus far. That said, he's still a solid prospect and Ramon Cabrera and Eric Fryer offer extra depth. Mike Zunino is an option in the draft if he falls that far. No trade targets or free agency signings really stand out, but it doesn't seem to be super hard to fill the catcher position with an acceptable player from year-to-year. I'd classify catcher as the missing puzzle piece category to worry about the least.
Front end of the rotation
Taillon and Cole are the first line of reinforcements. Luis Heredia provides back up. The free agency market will probably provide little help considering the price of front end starters, although there are plenty of intriguing names that are scheduled to be free agents over the next few years. Trading will also be hard, although doable if the Pirates can find the right partner. More likely is adding another big arm in the draft. Lucas Giolito and Kevin Gausman stand out as elite arms that could drop, although it's unlikely. Kyle Zimmer has grabbed huge helium, and it's hard to tell what his prospect status really is, while Michael Wacha is an intriguing sleeper. Of those four pitchers, Giolito is the only prep pitcher, but is lauded for his polish.