In a series like Pressing Questions, where our mission is to explore the biggest unknowns facing each team, the Pirates are a nightmare to write. This is a dumpster-diving team that collects unknowns, that seeks out reclamation projects. For years, the Bucs have been picking from the MLB discard pile. A few seasons ago it was Andy LaRoche, then Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement. Then it was James McDonald, Erik Bedard, AJ Burnett, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider. This year, it's Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon, Francisco Liriano, Felix Pie and Jonathan Sanchez.
Pittsburgh is basically the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? of Major League Baseball. Thus, the Pirates are a tricky team to consider in a feature that's supposed to focus on uncertainties.
[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
An unusual team like this requires an unusual approach. Today I'm scrapping the Q&A gimmick, because this squad has an unlimited number of Qs and very few obvious As. We're simply going to go position-by-position, with a few thoughts on the Bucs' excellent farm system sprinkled in along the way. Let's dive in...
Catcher — Back in November, Pittsburgh signed Russell Martin to the richest free agent contract in team history, a two-year, $17 million deal. Every detail in that last sentence seems ridiculous, yet it's all true. The largest financial commitment ever made by this franchise to a free agent is $17 million over two years. And they bought a 30-year-old catcher coming off a .211/.311/.403 season.
You'll probably want to avoid Martin in fantasy, unless you're involved in a two-catcher and/or N.L.-only format.
First Base — Garrett Jones gave us a useful fantasy season in 2012, banging out 27 homers (25 vs. RHPs), driving in 86 runs (76 vs. RHPs), and hitting .274 with an OPS of .832 (vs. RHPs, .289 and .888). Over the course of his career Jones has hit .279/.348/.504 versus right-handers and .198/.237/.353 against lefties. So yeah, a platoon makes sense. Jones is a respectable late-round option despite the splits. Gaby Sanchez figures to get the light end of the first base platoon here, though he's coming off a terrible season. The Marlins actually demoted him to Triple-A twice before dealing him to Pittsburgh.
Second Base — Someone in your league is probably going to own Neil Walker, because second base is a brutal position, fantasy-wise. (How brutal is it? It's Rickie-Weeks-in-the-top-10 brutal. It's really bad). Walker isn't exceptional in any category, but he's tolerable in all of them. If healthy, he can give you a 15-10-.275 season, and there's little chance he'll be a complete disaster. The key with a player like this — someone adequate but not great — is to get 'em cheap. Don't enter a bidding war for Neil Walker.
Third Base — Pedro Alvarez produced a decent post-hype season in 2012, hitting 30 homers in his age-25 season. This is still a deeply flawed player — he's a strikeout machine (180 last year) with zero speed, and he can't hit lefties — but the power is real enough. He's certain to be a liability in batting average (perhaps a severe liability), but at least he has one useful skill. Third base is a deep position in 2013 (ranks here), so I can't call Alvarez a must-draft player. If there's a spot on your team for a guy who's likely to hit .245-.260 with 28-32 homers, then feel free to go get him.
Shortstop — You probably don't need a fantasy expert to tell you to avoid Clint Barmes. If you do, you're terrible at this stuff. Barmes is a career .249/.298/.390 hitter coming off a .229/.272/.321 season, and he turns 34 soon. He's an all-category liability, not to be owned in any format.
Thankfully, one of the better prospects in the Bucs' system happens to be a 20-year-old shortstop, Alen Hanson. The switch-hitter had a terrific season at Single-A West Virginia last year, delivering a .309/.381/.528 line with 33 doubles, 13 triples, 16 home runs and 35 steals. He probably won't arrive in the big leagues this season or next, but he's a nice name for the dynasty files.
Outfield — Finally, we get to the real talent on this roster. Andrew McCutchen is a first-half-of-the-first-round outfielder, a 26-year-old who delivered spectacularly in all five categories last season. He scored 107 runs and drove in 96. He homered 31 times, he swiped 20 bases and he hit .327.
McCutchen's batting average was supported by a ridiculous .375 BABIP, so it would be a fairly large surprise if he didn't lose a few (dozen) points in 2013. But a drop in average won't kneecap his value — again, he did everything well last season. Even if his AVG were to drop 50 points this year, which no one is predicting, he'd still be a strong candidate to go 25/25 with 90-plus runs and 90-plus RBIs. Don't be scared off by the saber villagers, with their pitchforks and torches and "REGRESSION!" chants. McCutchen is great.
Starling Marte figures to be the Pirates' everyday left-fielder and lead-off hitter in 2013. The 24-year-old earned a late-July call-up last year following a promising partial season at Triple-A Indianapolis (388 at-bats, 12 HR, 21 SB, .286/.347/.500). He managed to tread water in the bigs, swiping 12 bases and hitting .257/.300/.437. Marte hasn't demonstrated a great willingness to draw walks — in the minors, he took just 101 free passes in 1994 plate appearances — so he seems unlikely to provide the sort of OBP you'd prefer in a top-of-the-order hitter. Still, the fantasy community will appreciate his speed and modest power. We could get a 15/30 season from Marte in 2013.
Multi-year disappointment Travis Snider is penciled in as the starter in right-field, and we shouldn't completely write him off as a power source. It may seem like he's been around forever, but he just turned 25. Snider is one of those guys who has nothing left to prove in the minors — he's a career .333/.412/.565 at Triple-A — and everything left to prove in the majors. Strikeouts have been a major problem for Travis over the years (career 26.7 K%), and the power surges haven't come as often as we'd expected. There's no obvious reason to target this player in mixed formats this year. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley are lurking, just in case the Snider experiment is a bust.
The thing with Pittsburgh is that when one bad idea doesn't work out, this team always has a back-up bad idea.
Speaking of which...
Starting Pitchers — You can have these starters, all of 'em — even AJ Burnett, the guy who just gave us a 16-win season with 180 Ks and a 3.51 ERA.
To no one's surprise, Burnett enjoyed the transition from the A.L. East to the N.L. Central last year, finishing as a top-30 fantasy starter. I can't claim he was unusually lucky (.294 BABIP, 3.40 xFIP) and I won't criticize anyone for landing him at his current ADP (169.7). To me, Burnett is kind of like a carnival ride you decide to quit before it makes you vomit. Last season was great, a special memory. This year, I'm moving on. Burnett is entering his age-36 season and he's lost velocity each of the past five years. I'm out. If he gives us another solid stat line, I won't benefit from it.
James McDonald was a roller coaster in 2012 (sticking with the carnival theme), mostly brilliant in the first half (0.97 WHIP) and terrible in the second (1.79 post-break). He leaned heavily on a slider for the first time in his career, and the early results were stellar. But in the end, he pitched the same number of innings as he threw the year before (171.0) and allowed the exact same number of earned runs (80). You can feel good about the dip in hits and walks if you like, but he was truly a disaster in the final months. Splits right here. If you want to snag him in the last round of a draft this spring, I'll look the other way. I don't expect to own him myself (although that position is subject to change).
Newly signed Francisco Liriano is an absolute fantasy plague, occasionally excellent, mostly horrifying. He does stuff like this...
I've had very little luck predicting Liriano's highs and lows. Thus, I'm gun-shy where this dude is concerned. He's also dealing with a broken right (non-throwing) arm right now, so he'll be delayed this spring.
Wandy Rodriguez will deliver pitching ratios that are fairly close to the N.L. average, in all likelihood, with an uninteresting strikeout rate (6.08 K/9 in 2012). In mixed leagues, he's a guy you'll sometimes stream, not a pitcher you'll own from April to September. Similar story with Jeff Karstens. (I trust you don't need anyone to talk you out of a Jonathan Sanchez pick, right? Good).
The Bucs have two of baseball's better pitching prospects in their farm system, right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Both guys have top-of-rotation potential. Cole made 26 starts last season across three levels, finishing with a 9-7 record and 2.80 ERA. He whiffed 136 batters and issued 45 walks in 132.0 innings. The 22-year-old will likely open the season at Triple-A, but he has a clear chance to finish it in Pittsburgh. Taillon is a hard-thrower, a year younger than Cole, and he closed 2012 with three strong starts after making the jump to Double-A (3-0, 1.59 ERA, 17.0 IP, 1 BB, 18 Ks). Cole will probably arrive in the big leagues earlier, but these guys have similar long-term upside. Both should be on the radar for dynasty leaguers.
Bullpen — In December, the Pirates dealt 31-year-old closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston for a package that included Sands and Melancon, a pair of semi-interesting buy-lows. Jason Grilli will get the ninth for Pittsburgh in 2013, if things go according to plan. Grilli, 36, is substantially cheaper than Hanrahan, he's signed for two years, and he's been outstanding since joining the Pirates. Last year he struck out 90 batters in just 58.2 frames, earning 32 holds and posting a 1.14 WHIP. He looks like a nice bargain closer for the Bucs, and for fantasy owners.
And that's all I've got to say about this club, at least for now. Feel free to spread some Pirate love in comments, where TedBell is giving out Stargell stars.