First Pitch: It’s Time to Stop Playing it “Safe”

(NOTE: After publishing this, word came out that the Pirates released Erik Bedard. An update is in the links and notes section.)

The Pirates have made some questionable roster moves during their playoff stretch. A lot of those moves seem as if the Pirates are afraid of playing younger players, and are more comfortable with veterans, even if the veterans aren’t putting up strong numbers.

Consider that the Pirates stuck with Kevin Correia up until the trade deadline, even though Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Rudy Owens looked Major League ready in Triple-A. Then, instead of calling up one of the Indianapolis left-handers, they traded Robbie Grossman, Owens, and Colton Cain to get Wandy Rodriguez, who had been struggling since the start of June with Houston.

Forget the Rodriguez evaluation. The Pirates obviously felt the need to upgrade their rotation. They had three guys who have looked ready for most of the season. They could have given Jeff Locke a shot long before the trade deadline to see if a trade was even needed.

Then in the month of August, the Pirates opted to go with a spot starter to give the rest of the staff a break. Once again, they didn’t turn to Locke, but instead turned to Correia. The more baffling move was when they turned to Correia later in the stretch to start on zero days rest, while calling up a fresh Kyle McPherson and Justin Wilson to pitch in relief during that same game. Correia, who had pitched two innings the night before, ran in to trouble in his start. McPherson and Wilson both shined in their pro debuts.

And even if we ignore the rotation, these guys could have been used out of the bullpen. The Pirates quickly sent Locke down after 4.1 shutout innings. They sent Wilson and McPherson down the next day. All three will return in September, or maybe earlier. But in the mean time, the Pirates opted to go with the likes of Chad Qualls, Juan Cruz, and Hisanori Takahashi. Even if they don’t want to convert a starter over to a reliever, they’ve got Bryan Morris, who has been major league ready since April, but hasn’t received the call, outside of a one-day trip to the majors where he wasn’t used in game action.

We’ve seen a similar situation on the offensive side. The Pirates don’t have as many young hitters as they do pitchers. The one top prospect they had — Starling Marte — did get the call and was given a starting role. But some of their other moves have been questionable. Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes continue to get starts, while Michael McKenry and Jordy Mercer put up better numbers on the bench.

McKenry has an .836 OPS, while Barajas has a .622 OPS. It would be fine if Barajas starts when A.J. Burnett is pitching, but McKenry needs to be catching at least three of the other four starters, if not all four of them. It’s a small sample with McKenry, but there’s no reason a catcher with an .836 OPS should be on the bench, behind a catcher with a .622 OPS, especially when you could argue McKenry is better defensively.

Mercer hasn’t been hitting as well as McKenry, but he’s hitting better than Barmes. On the season, Mercer has a .642 OPS, which isn’t overly impressive, but is better than the .559 OPS from Barmes. To his credit, Barmes is hitting for a .687 OPS in August, which is better than Mercer. But based on how this season has gone so far, that seems to be the best case scenario for Barmes. Mercer has been a slow starter at each level he’s played at. There’s a chance he could improve over his current production if given more playing time. And there’s no reason he shouldn’t be getting more time with the numbers we’re seeing from Barmes this season.

The Pirates have relied too much on veterans this year. That’s not a problem when the veterans are performing, but there’s no point in sticking with veterans who are struggling. Teams prefer veterans because they come with a certain comfort level. They’ve done this before. They’ve been in a playoff race in August and September. They’ve put up good numbers in the past. But all of that means very little if the veterans aren’t performing.

On the other side, the prospects aren’t guarantees, but what do you have to lose? Maybe McKenry won’t continue his .836 OPS as a starter. But the alternative is sticking with Barajas and his .622 OPS. Maybe Mercer does worse getting more time. As long as he stays above the .559 OPS from Barmes, with not much of a defensive drop off, he’s not hurting anything. Erik Bedard is looking like he needs to be removed from the rotation. Kevin Correia shouldn’t be the guy to replace him. That guy should be either Jeff Locke or Kyle McPherson. Maybe they don’t come up looking like number three or four starters. But you’re not getting that right now from Bedard or Correia.

The Pirates are in a slump right now. The season isn’t over at all, but if this continues, it could be over soon. The big reason for the slump lies with the performance of top guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and A.J. Burnett. The Pirates are going to have a hard time winning with those guys slumping, even if Barajas, Barmes, and Bedard are replaced. But contending teams aren’t built on two or three top players. Contending teams rely on role players. We’ve seen Garrett Jones step up as a role player. Jeff Karstens has done the same. It would be nice if the Pirates could find some other role players to make up for the slumps from McCutchen, Alvarez, and Burnett. However, they’re not getting that from Barajas, Barmes, and Bedard.

Going with the “safe” veterans isn’t working. They need to shake things up. Go with some prospects who come with risk, but also come with high upside. It’s risky to go with McKenry, Mercer, Locke, and McPherson in a playoff race, but they have the chance to be better than the current options. The alternative is sticking with the same options, hoping for them to improve, and most likely watching the season slip away. I hate the clichéd “definition of insanity” argument, but at this point guys like Barajas, Barmes, and Bedard have struggled for most of the season. Expecting them to turn it around in the final month of the season might be insanity after watching how they’ve performed the first five months of the year. It’s time to make a much needed switch.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost to the Cardinals 4-3.

**Pirates Notebook: Pitching Struggles in August; Sanchez Working on Versatility.

**Pirates Release Erik Bedard.

**UPDATE: Releasing Bedard was the right move. But if the move is being made to get Correia back in the rotation, then it’s the right move for the wrong reasons. Bedard’s spot needs to go to one of Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, or even Chris Leroux.

**Prospect Watch: Leroux Continues Slump; Sanchez and Lambo Homer.

**Cole Labors as Curve Fall 4-1 to Akron Aeros.

**Fifteen Hits, Homers By Sanchez And McPherson Boost Leroux For Indians’ Win.

**Alex Dickerson Named FSL Player of the Year.

**Top Pirates Minor League Pitching Performances: Week Ending 8/26.

**Top Pirates Minor League Hitting Performances: Week Ending 8/26.

**Jameson Taillon Named Eastern League Pitcher of the Week.

**Minor League Schedule: 8/28/12.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Brian

    After the Pirates were clearly done in 2011, members of management made statements to the effect that established veterans were still owed playing time because if veterans were benched it would affect the ability to make future free agent signings. This was given as a reason why Ludwick started last September, even though he was playing poorly and was clearly not in the organization’s future plans. Nothing like that has been said this year but it sure looks like the same philosophy is in place – and it makes even less sense to a contending team.

  • leadoff

    Tim, I agree with the overall theme of your post, just don’t agree with all the detail items.
    I do believe that the Core group of this team is not mature enough to carry them at this point, certainly talented enough. Barmes is far from a problem at this time of year, in fact he is one of the few vets that is doing what he should be doing.
    IMO, they can’t win because Hurtle is in denial, he won’t accept the fact that he needs to do something to shake his young players up a bit, (Bench for a short while, maybe?) They seem to be babying McCutchen, more than taking some other type of action to get him to produce.
    Hurtle needs to accept the fact that he needs the offensive catcher more than the defensive catcher right now, in fact I would cut Barajas and get myself a catcher that could hit at least .250 or hit at all, they are around.
    Huntington needs to quit worrying about Indy winning a Championship and more about taking players from Indy to help the major league team compete for a Championship.
    Hurtle needs to play players when Huntington does bring them up, players like Mercer, McHenry, how can anyone say that McHenry won’t hit if he plays 5 days a week, where is that evidence available?

  • john.alcorn

    Well said Tim, very much in line with my thoughts. Except for Barmes who has a .727 ops this month while playing the 2nd best SS in MLB.

    My current theory is that NH is so protective of his prospects that he is hesitant to give them opportunities in fear that they may fail.

  • st1300b

    I don’t think Cutch should be held to a standard that the other crappy veterans aren’t being held to. Are you seriously going to bust on him when you got .180 at bat and starting regular at Catcher and also haven’t thrown out but 3 of 70 all year? C’mon.
    Clearly what needs to happen to motivate Cutch is to provide him with the most talented help that you can.. IE: Put the most talented 25 on the roster, bring in the big arms and or best that you have positionally. Barajas is a great guy, but clearly this is his last hurrah. McKenry should catch every game except for AJ’s games which can go to Barajas.
    I agree with leadoff that Barmes is doing a journeymans job at SS – frankly I like seeing him get the majority of PT there while letting Harrison and Mercer battle for the backup role – both have done a fair job along with D’Arnaud showing potential.
    The Arms are where we have the real talent though.
    I see 5 arms in the minors who are better than 5 arms we have in the majors. Period. And that’s a problem in my mind when you’re fighting for a playoff spot.

  • Tim Williams

    Barajas and Barmes have been struggling all year. Yet the team was winning for most of the year. They’re losing now because guys like McCutchen, Alvarez, and Burnett are slumping. And as I pointed out, it would be nice to have other role players to step up when those guys slump. Barajas and Barmes aren’t those role players right now.