First Pitch: One Away From A Good Lineup

The lineup that the Pirates put on the field tonight may have been their best lineup of the season. If you look at the upside of each of the players, the lineup looks well from top to bottom. In fact, taking an upside approach, you could argue that the lineup is one piece away from doing some serious damage.

At the leadoff spot you’ve got Jose Tabata. He struggled to start the year, but has been on a roll lately. Tabata had a .320/.358/.460 line in his last 50 at-bats prior to going 1-for-3 tonight. He’s a good leadoff guy, although he’s been a streaky hitter in the past, so there’s a chance that we could see him do a 180 on this hot streak.

Batting second was Neil Walker. Walker has lacked consistency throughout his short career, and his power has been down this year, prior to his two run homer tonight. He’s another guy who got off to a slow start, but has been hitting well. After his first seven games, Walker has combined for a .348/.411/.379 line. Over the long haul he will probably settle in closer to his career numbers of a .279 average and a .338 on-base percentage, which are decent numbers for a number two hitter.

Third is where the lineup really picks up, and where the potential comes in to play. Andrew McCutchen has been the best player on the team the last few years. He’s hitting for a .297 average, although his power is down this year. That probably won’t last, and when he’s on his game, he’s a great number three hitter.

Then there’s Pedro Alvarez. His upside is a middle of the order hitter, and his hot streak recently has Pirates fans dreaming that he’s starting to realize that upside. Just like Tabata and Walker, Alvarez got off to a slow start, going 1-for-24 in his first eight games. Since then he’s hit for a .367/.407/.816 line in 49 at-bats, heading in to tonight. Those are ridiculous numbers, and Alvarez can’t possibly maintain that pace. But that’s not saying he can’t hit like a cleanup hitter should hit.

The “one away” comes in this next spot. The Pirates don’t have a strong hitter in the lineup who can provide some protection for Alvarez. Add a good hitter to the mix, and the 3-4-5 of this lineup looks strong. Casey McGehee took that spot tonight. McGehee is doing the exact opposite of Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker. He started out with a .333/.333/.481 lie in 27 at-bats over his first nine games. Since then he’s hit for a .222/.364/.296 line in 27 at-bats. Good news is that he’s walking. Bad news is that he’s not hitting, or hitting for power.

Garrett Jones hit sixth tonight. Jones has put up good numbers this year, coming in to the night with a .290/.318/.516 line. The Pirates entered the season with a platoon of Jones and McGehee at first base, and that platoon looks to be working out on paper. Jones has a .305/.333/.542 line in 59 at-bats against right-handers. McGehee has a .316/.409/.474 line in 19 at-bats against left-handers. Combined they work out in the number five spot, but the lineup goes down hill after that.

If Jones and McGehee are platooning (and neither of them have shown to be good every day options), then Alex Presley is starting. Presley isn’t a number six hitter, which means you’re likely putting him second, and moving Walker to sixth. Walker also hasn’t been much of a six hitter. And that’s where the problem lies. The Pirates need to replace one of their number two hitters with a number five or a number six hitter. Add some protection for Alvarez, and move the Jones/McGehee platoon down to sixth, which is a strong six hitter with the way they’ve been playing this year.

After that you’ve got Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. I’d expect both to return to their numbers from the last few years, although those numbers don’t profile as more than bottom of the lineup hitters.

The key to the lineup is Alvarez. Without him, you’ve got a lineup with no punch, and only one really strong hitter in McCutchen. With Alvarez, you lighten the load on the top of the order hitters, as they get pitched differently with McCutchen and Alvarez playing up to their potential in the 3 and 4 spots.

Because Alvarez is the key, he’s going to need some protection. Otherwise, eventually teams will just pitch around him, taking the bat away from the biggest potential impact bat in the lineup.

This is probably not something that will happen this year. The Pirates don’t have any such hitters in Triple-A right now. They’re unlikely to add outside help, unless that comes at the trade deadline, like it did last year with Derrek Lee. But it’s something they need to think about for the long term, as they’ll need to protect Alvarez if this hot streak turns out to be legit.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates won 3-2 tonight. Game story here. Pedro Alvarez moved up to fourth for the first time this year.

**Prospect Watch: The starting pitchers in the minor league system combined to allow one run in 29 innings tonight.

**I added four new Draft Prospect Trackers, and updated all of the existing trackers with the mid-season information.

**Pirates Notebook: Jeff Karstens is moving in the right direction with his rehab.

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.
  • wtmiller

    I don’t see the argument that Barajas can be expected to continue hitting at his typical levels. With his age, injury tendencies, extreme slowness and unwillingness to take a pitch, he’s a huge risk to decline and a significant risk to collapse altogether. He’s also moved into a terrible environment for his one limited offensive skill, which is the occasional long ball.

  • Lee Young

    I still think Presley could be another Nate. JMHO. Very disappointed in Walker’s power numbers. I thought he’d do better than he has.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Pitney/100003821683275 Daniel Pitney

      The Pirates could be at least two players away from a good lineup and one of them may (if we’re talking about August or next year) be Starling Marte. He’ll probably bat second so that still leaves the need for someone with enough power to bat fifth. Neil Walker is a good second baseman but he doesn’t have the offense the Pirates need.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    “Protection” in a lineup is a myth. It’s never been proven to create any difference in how people are pitched.  Pitchers aren’t going to pick any other strategy than the most effective way to get someone out, regardless of who is hitting behind or in front.

    • burgh_fan

      I don’t get why you call this a myth? If it doesn’t matter who is hitting behind you why in the world does Rod Barajas have two IBB walks this season?

  • http://twitter.com/RandyLinville Randy Linville

    Taking players who have had average careers or average starts to their careers (at best) and then looking at upside/peak is overly optimistic. Other than Cutch, no one in the lineup on Saturday has posted a career OPS+ of 120 or better.

    So, I agree that if you take everyone’s upside – Tabata’s, Cutch’s, Walker’s and Alvarez’ potential along with the best seasons of Jones, McGehee, Barmes and Barajas – then you might have a solid lineup. One that could potentially contend. Here’s the problem: everyone has to develop and the older guys have to perform at peak level. Plus, no one can get hurt. That scenario won’t happen all too often.

    For example, if we could take the following five pitching seasons:
    2004 Oliver Perez
    2005 Zach Duke (even at half as good as he was)
    2007 Tom Gorzelanny
    2007 Ian Snell
    2008 Paul Maholm

    If we had those five pitching seasons all in one year, then we’d have a pretty solid rotation. Problem is that those seasons weren’t put together in the same actual season. So, we had nothing short of mediocrity season after season as one pitcher would step up while everyone else would regress, stagnate or get injured.

    So, whether this lineup becomes dangerous depends on the four young guys developing and the older players playing at their peak level, plus no one getting hurt. I’m not ready to say that this team is one away from a good lineup. It’s a lot more than that. 

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      You’ve lost me on this. You started talking about hitters, then made your argument based on the inconsistency of pitchers, many of which were just playing over their heads for one season. I don’t know what the pitching argument has to do with the lineups.

      Also, I’m not saying that everyone will play to their upside, or that everyone will stay healthy. That’s never a guarantee, no matter who you are talking about. Therefore, I don’t think it needs to be mentioned that if someone gets hurt, or someone slumps, things won’t work out as expected. That’s assumed any time you’re talking about the potential performance of human beings.

      If you’re focusing on building a lineup, you’re focusing on the upside of the players in that lineup. Your argument seems to be based around “what if Scenario X happens”. That’s more a focus on the depth behind the starting lineup, rather than the actual lineup.

      • http://twitter.com/RandyLinville Randy Linville

        Let me back up: the 2012 lineup is not a piece away from being good. That’s my belief. We are approaching 20% of the way into the season and the team is last place in the league in runs. Even if we said April was an aberration because Tabata and Alvarez were off to a bad start and they have been better of late, the offense is still not good. Through six games in May (with Tabata and Alvarez hitting), the team has scored only 20 runs. That puts them in the middle of the pack in all of baseball. Small sample size – yada, yada, yada. This team has not shown in 2012 that it is a piece away from being good. In the biggest sample size we can take, it is the worst lineup in baseball. In a smaller sample size – the current month – it is average at best.

        That being said, if you take everyone’s peak/upside, then, yes, this lineup could be good, even in 2013. But having a group of aging, average players (McGehee, Jones, Barmes, Barajas) post their best numbers in the same season that young players develop into good players almost never happens.

        The example of the pitching staff was used to demonstrate that. We have had poor pitching in the last decade. But we have had individual pitcher seasons that were pretty solid. Had they all come together in one year, we’d have been in good shape. Some holds true for the hitters – give me the best seasons of Jones, Barmes, Barajas and McGehee all at the same time and the team would be in good shape. Not going to happen. Absent of those four peaking all at once, this club is not one piece away from being good.

        For this lineup to be good in 2013 (because it isn’t good in 2012), that is exactly what we need – the vets have to peak and the young guys have to develop.

        The point is to make the post season. So, let’s look at the offenses for the four NL playoff teams in 2011:

        St. Louis posted a team OPS+ of 111. The worst player who got 250 or more PAs was Ryan Theriot with an 84 OPS+

        Milwaukee had a 103 aggregate with McGehee (now in Pittsburgh) being the worst at 70.

        Arizona was 99 as a whole with Willie Bloomquist (off the bench) as the worst at 79.

        Philadelphia was 95. Wilson Valdez (off the bench) was the weak link at 73.

        The current club – through the largest sample size possible in 2012 – has four starting players (Barmes, Barajas, Presley, Tabata) who are at 75 or worse. There is another bench player (McLouth) trending toward 250 PAs who is also below 75

        Yes it is early. Yes everyone can turn it around and get going. But to suggest this lineup is a piece away from being good in the immediate future (even next year), is, as I stated in my first comment, overly optimistic. This club is currently last in the NL in runs and on base percentage and 15th in slugging percentage. We have one player with an OPS+ of better than 120. And only two players over 110 OPS+.  We are more than a single piece away from having a good lineup.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

          I think it just really depends on your view of April.

          You’re looking at what they’ve done in the SSS this season. Statistically, the offense has been bad in the first month of the season. But is the offense really that bad?

          I’m not really focused on the numbers in April. I’m focused on the actual players and their upside. The April numbers aren’t the baseline for my evaluations. I’d consider those numbers below what the baseline would be. For each player there’s a best case scenario, there’s average, and there’s a worst case scenario. I think a lot of guys were playing closer to their worst case scenario in the early part of the season. So even if they do improve on the April numbers, I think there would be more room for improvement beyond that, since I think the April numbers were unlucky.
          It’s kind of ridiculous to look at the entire season numbers as it pertains to this article, since the focus of this article is a lineup that has only been used once this year, and centers around a strong middle of the order featuring Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates need one more guy to add to that middle of the lineup mix, in my opinion.

  • ecbucs

    we know that Barmes and Barajas are minues on offense.  we know that Tabata and Pressley are average at best for corner outfielders as they need to have high OBA to make up for lack of power.  That is 4 spots out of the line-up.  First base with Jones and MaGahee might be average as a platoon for the position.  So Walker, Alvarez and McCuth have to be way above average to even get the Bucs to an average offense.  IMO, the team needs to get to at least average offense at short and catcher and then add another plus bat at either first, right or left.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    One is a kind estimate.  The Pirates still seem to have one plus player in McCutchen, and so far 2 average players in Alvarez and Walker.  Walker’s been below average but has a track record.  Alvarez has been above, but also has a track record.  Tabata’s played enough, I’d rate him at below average but on the low end of acceptable since he can hit leadoff.  After that it’s question marks.  Jones/McGehee average?  Ok, I’ll buy that.  That give you, at best 5 average players, and 3 minuses. The only thing in Presley’s favor is youth.  Pirates are still very far away from a competitive club.

  • Henduck

    Hanrahan would bring in that protection for Pedro.

  • szielinski

    Unfortunately, the one strong chance the Pirates recently had to get another impact hitter went by the boards. The Pirates took Gerrit Cole instead of Anthony Rendon. Rendon’s latest injury makes that decision look smart or lucky. It depends on how much credit one wants to give to the Pirates’ front office. But he was the guy the Pirates could have had who would have completed the lineup.

    Now, the Pirates will need to manufacture a trade which would bring back that impact bat since the team cannot or, better, is very unlikely to sign such a free agent player who is an impact hitter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    A potential #1 is much more valuable than an oft-injured player whose position is unknown at this point and whose power is doubtful to materialize. Plus, he hasn’t played a game yet.

  • piratemike

    With a little luck and a better GM we could have had a lineup with Cutch, Alvarez,  Wieters and Harper……I hate when I do this.

  • szielinski

     Rendon’s position is not unknown. His power is not doubtful. And he played games this season.

    If Rendon were not injury prone, he was the best player available in the 2011 draft.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    It seems that others have doubts where you do not. Where will he play in Washington? Is he going to move Zimmerman off 3B? Is he athletic enough (not to mention the injuries) to play 2B w/ all the risks associated w/ the same (re: turning double play)?

    If his power is not doubtful, why did it drop off his last year in college? 

    Saying “if Rendon were not injury prone” he’d be the best player in the draft is similar to saying “if Mark Prior wasn’t injury prone, he’d be the next Nolan Ryan”.  Being injury prone or being injured is a huge deal and obstacle to realizing one’s potential.

    Rendon is/will be a fine player, in my eyes, but there are more question marks than you realize.

  • szielinski

     Rendon can play third or second. He’d win Gold Gloves if he were a thirdbaseman, all other things being equal.

    Rendon’s power declined last year because of a shoulder injury.

    Rendon has one question mark: Will he remain healthy.