Starting pitching was not a problem for the Pirates last season, a big reason why they returned to the postseason for the first time in 21 years. Pittsburgh starters finished with a 3.50 ERA in 2013, the fourth-best mark in the NL, while an opponents' .667 OPS led the league. The rotation had depth, getting 19 starts or more from five pitchers, with two of them making 30 starts. That could be the case for the Pirates this season as well, yet there's a big question mark at the back end of the rotation that could be a significant concern.
First base was more of an issue in Pittsburgh last year, with Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez splitting time at the position. Overall, the Pirates got decent production, hitting a collective .264 with a .768 OPS. However, the team still felt the need to address — and upgrade — its first base situation enough to trade for Justin Morneau at the waiver trade deadline. Morneau left via free agency in the offseason and the Pirates did nothing to replace him, leaving first base as an apparent major weakness going into the 2014 season.
Volquez was an offseason bargain for general manager Neal Huntington, signing a one-year, $5 million contract. But there's a reason he was available at a low price. Among the 81 MLB pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last season, Volquez finished last with a 5.71 mark. He ranked second-to-last with an 0.4 WAR. No NL starter allowed more than Volquez's 114 runs (108 of them earned). And this was while pitching for the Padres and Dodgers, who play in two of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball, according to ESPN.com's park factors.
His strikeout rate of 7.5 per nine innings was the lowest it's been in his past seven seasons, while his rate of 10.2 hits allowed per nine frames was the highest. Volquez also threw with diminished velocity, losing one mph off his fastball last year. To say he's trending badly would be an understatement. If you're wondering how a pitcher can get a $5 million contract after the way he pitched, you should probably make sure that your son learns how to throw a baseball from a very early age.
The Pirates obviously feel they can fix Volquez, hoping he experiences the same turnaround under their coaching staff that Francisco Liriano did last year. Advanced metrics also suggest Volquez pitched better than his ERA and hits allowed might indicate. He compiled a FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 4.24. That's still not great; it's well below average. Yet it's better than his 5.71 ERA.
A hard thrower who can provide 180 innings and more than eight strikeouts per nine frames certainly has value to a pitching staff. The question is whether or not Volquez can be that pitcher anymore. And if he can't, can he at least be serviceable until either Jeff Locke can take over or Jameson Taillon is called up from the minors?
But at least there's potential help on hand if Volquez doesn't cut it at the back end of the Pirates' rotation. Fixing the team's problems at first base could be a season-long issue.
Gaby Sanchez appears to be the starter at that position for now. Last year, he hit .254 with a .762 OPS, 18 doubles, seven homers and 36 RBI in 320 plate appearances. Why did Sanchez get only 320 PAs? Because he batted .204 with a .619 OPS against right-handed pitching. His slugging percentage was .315. Facing lefties, Sanchez was far more effective, hitting .333 with a .987 OPS. That is effectively the definition of a platoon player.
So who swings the left-handed bat in the Pirates' first base pairing? Morneau is in Colorado, while Garrett Jones signed with the Marlins — both players getting two-year deals that Pittsburgh had no interest in offering. Ideally, that guy would be Andrew Lambo, who showed significant power in the minors last year. Playing about an equal amount of time between Double-A and Triple-A, Lambo slugged 32 home runs with 99 RBI in 501 plate appearances. But he couldn't carry that production to the majors, batting .233 with a .703 OPS in 33 PAs from mid-August through September.
Lambo hasn't hit very well in spring training, compiling an .087/.192/.087 slash average thus far. That creates an opportunity for Travis Ishikawa or Chris McGuiness to win the job. But neither hitter is very good, even versus right-handed pitching, so the Pirates seem better off letting Lambo try to develop on the spot. That is, unless the team truly feels he would benefit by beginning the season in Triple-A and getting regular at-bats.
The obvious solution is for Huntington to sign Kendrys Morales, who's still available on the free agent market midway through March, primarily because of his qualifying offer status. Teams don't want to lose a first-round draft pick for a player largely viewed as one-dimensional and better suited as a designated hitter.
Morales would be a perfect fit for the Pirates' lineup. Against right-handed pitching, the 30-year-old switch-hitter batted .275 with a .780 OPS, 17 homers and 57 RBI. Facing lefties batting right-handed, Morales hit .282 with a .794 OPS. Could the Pirates sign Morales for something resembling the $8 million deal Nelson Cruz agreed to with the Orioles. That's about the same money the team reportedly was willing to offer A.J. Burnett once he decided he wasn't retiring.
But it's about more than the money for the Pirates. Pittsburgh picks lower in the first round with the No. 24 selection, but a budget-conscious club can't afford to pass off the opportunity to acquire a young, inexpensive talent. If Morales is looking to sign a one-year deal to boost his value in next year's free agent market, losing a first-round pick would be even more costly. Even if Lambo, Ishikawa and McGuiness continue to struggle this spring and provide no production, that still likely won't be enough for the Pirates to consider signing Morales — presuming he's still available before the regular season begins.