The Pittsburgh Pirates are three weeks into Spring Training, and I have yet to write a word about the 2016 Bucs, so it's time to throw out the metaphorical first pitch of the season and talk about our favorite baseball team. In fact, I look forward to, after finishing writing this little monograph and posting it, turning on my TV and watching the Pirates in a little Grapefruit League action this afternoon.
To summarize, let me restate that the Pirates won 98 games last year, but lost in the Wild Card round of the National League post-season. With the exception of that final shut out loss to the Cubs, I can honestly state that the ride that the '15 Pirates took me on was one of the most enjoyable ones that I had in 56 seasons of following the team. So the question becomes - Can the team sustain and build upon a three year run of making the post-season?
Coming back from that 98 win team are....Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco (arguably one of the top outfields in all of MLB), Jung Ho Kang (who, at the time of his injury, was probably the team's second best player), Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Francisco Cervelli, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Tony Watson, Jerrod Hughes, and Mark Melancon. Good news!
Then, of course, there are the important players from last year who are no longer here: A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. In fact, Alvarez, who was unemployed until just two days ago when he signed with the Orioles, is still probably being talked about more on various Pirates social media sites than any current Pirate. It appears that Pedro will continue to cast a shadow over the Pirates for at least the next season.
So, in an effort to keep things Pedro-centric, let's talk about how the Pirates will manage to fill the twenty-six home run hole that Pedro's release created in their line up. All indications are that the Pirates will open the season with a platoon of first base consisting of righthand batter Michael Morse and lefthand batter John Jaso. Personally, I think that a platoon situation can work for the Pirates at first base this season, but will it?
Many people, and people whose opinions I highly respect, are already writing off Morse, who will be 34 years old as of Opening Day, as a stiff and a bum. Based on his 2015 season, split between Miami and Pittsburgh, the prospects are not encouraging. In 256 plate appearances, Morse hit .231 with 5 HR and 19 RBI, and a .649 OPS. However, over a four year period of 2009-12 with the Nationals, Morse complied a .294 BA and .857 OPS with 67 HR and 208 RBI in 1,353 plate appearances. As recently as 2014 with the World Series winning Giants, Morse hit .279 with 16 HR, 61 RBI and .871 OPS. The 2015 season was definitely a downturn for him, but was that season an aberration or a true indication of a career in decline?
The other half of that 1B platoon is 32 year old John Jaso, who is hitting quite well thus far in the Grapefruit League for whatever that is worth. Over a seven year career spent with Tampa Bay, Seattle, and Oakland, Jaso's "162 game average" season would produce a .263 BA, 11 HR, 60 RBI, and a .767 OPS.
Here are some more questions for you:
- Will Morse/Jaso equal or better Pedro's .243 BA of 2015? I think that they can.
- Will Morse/Jaso equal or better Pedro's 27 HR of 2015? Probably not, but they could combine for 18-20 dingers.
- Will Morse/Jaso equal or better Pedro's 77 RBIs of 2015? I think that they can.
- Will Morse/Jaso equal or exceed Pedro's 177 K's of 2015. It is almost certain that they will not, which is good.
- Of course, my suppositions in these four points rest on the fact that 2015 was the aberrant year for Morse. If, in fact, 2015 was the beginning of a career downslide, all bets are off.
What I did not mention, and what I have no way of knowing or proving, is how will an improved defense at first base will prevent other teams from scoring against the Pirates. Even the staunchest of Pedro backers will concede that he was atrocious in the field, and all the advanced analytics folks will tell you that he was the worst defensive first baseman in all of baseball last year, and the next worse guy wasn't even close.
A solid, effective platoon at a given position can work and produce good results (See Bill Robinson/John Milner, 1979 Pirates). I am not sold that it will happen at first base for the Pirates this year, but it is certainly possible that it can happen for them. Remember, we were all hoping a few seasons back that a 1B platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez would do the trick, but it didn't quite work out that way. However, as far as the 2016 Pirates go, it is vitally important that the Morse/Jaso Combo Platter clicks because the heir apparent at first base, Josh Bell, is by all accounts at least a year away from being ready for the big leagues.
Lots more to follow on the Pirates as we wend our way towards Opening Day.