As promised here's the first of a few looks on how certain teams can jump tiers. If you have no idea what I'm talking about refer to this piece before reading on after the jump.
Neal Huntington is entering his first trade deadline as a general manager, but his experience with the Cleveland Indians amongst other organizations hardly makes him a novice to the process. His team has delivered a .922 positional players value (GPA+DER), meaning they need to raise to .948 in order to be deemed "competitive". A .026 point gain is going to be pretty difficult to come by, especially when you consider the team's upcoming personnel decisions, but let's take a look at the lineup to see what we can find:
C Ryan Doumit
1B Adam LaRoche
2B Freddy Sanchez
3B Jose Bautista
SS Jack Wilson
LF Jason Bay
CF Nate McLouth
RF Xavier Nady
We'll begin at the top and look at Ryan Doumit who has been absolutely excellent. A .314 GPA is the highest on the Pirates for players with 200 or more plate appearances. Injuries have been an issue with the 27 year old switch hitting catcher including three disabled list trips in the past year for a sprained left wrist, high ankle sprain, and most recently a fractured left thumb that kept Doumit out from mid-May to early June. When Doumit has played the last two seasons he's been nothing short of impressive and as a player who will only enter his first year of arbitration come November, the Pirates have a nice building block behind the plate under control for at least the next three seasons. If Doumit can stay healthy the necessity for anything more than a body as a backup catcher will be eased, but if the Pirates have to rely on Raul Chavez and Ronny Paulino 40% of the time they could certainly stand to upgrade.
Remember when Adam LaRoche out hit Andruw Jones in 2006? Well, I suppose I should preface that by saying remember when Andruw Jones was good and Adam LaRoche outdid him? Since 2006 both have dropped off, and LaRoche went from a pretty decent option at first into a league average baseball player and below average at the conversation base. LaRoche will be a free agent following next season and all indications would figure the Pirates letting him walk. LaRoche's 23% line drive rate seemingly suggests his BABIP is quite low otherwise he seems more like a .800 OPS player rather than the .900 OPS the Pirates initially traded for.
Speaking of unlucky, Freddy Sanchez is incredibly so, I'll take "Proof that batting average is silly" for $300, Alex. Sanchez has a BABIP in the mid-.200s when it should be around .100 points higher. The former batting title champion has a contract that extends through 2009 - a team option for 2010 should be exercised at their discretion - and in all honesty I'd be more concerned about Sanchez' defense rather than his almost positive to return offense. Here's where problems begin to arise - and this is assuming Pedro Alvarez gets signed, which I think he will - Sanchez' defense dictates he should be moved to third base where he would likely increase slightly, but his offense would drop from one of the more offensively sounded two-baggers to just a middle of the pack third baseman. That's without taking Alvarez' position into account, if he sticks at third where does that leave Sanchez? Hurting the team at second still? More on Alvarez in a few moments, but the situation with Sanchez is a sticky one; he's not a particularly good defender and right now he's not hitting, that doesn't make for a good combination.
At third the Pirates have been running Jose Bautista and Doug Mientkiewicz for most of the season with a cameo by Chris Gomez. The first thing that likely popped into your mind was: "Wow, I didn't know Mientkiewicz was still in the league." The next? "Wow, he plays third now?" Bill James once theorized the defensive spectrum as this:
[ - - 1B - LF - RF - 3B - CF - 2B - SS - C - - ]
With the difficulty degree increasing as you progress rightward with slides from the right to left becoming easier and generally successful while the opposite is almost never true. Mientkiewicz went from the "easiest" defensive position over three slots to the mid-range which by all expectations shouldn't go well. Thankfully those expectations were in place because Mientkiewicz' slide has been awful, making three out of zone plays in 180 innings and only possessing a .712 RZR. For perspective Russell Marin has made four out of zone plays in 52 innings and has a RZR of .700.
To Jose Bautista's credit he's been one of the better defensive third baseman, but his bat has been worse than LaRoche and Mientkiewicz and his only saving grace has been leather and some occasional pop. An upgrade at third is needed, Freddy Sanchez very well could do better on both ends, or they could plug Alvarez in here within the next two seasons who should be an upgrade with the bat and at least somewhere in the middle with the glove.
At short you have the Pirates defender and the guy they likely need to trade the most. Wilson's surprising offensive performance last season has sunk back into his norms of sub-.700 yet his defense remains good enough for a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers to pay something worthwhile for a few overpaid seasons of it. For the short term stop gag look at Brian Bixler is a 25 year old who made 11 OOZ in 210 innings, not too shabby, and he's likely to produce similarly mediocre offensive results.
We now reach the outfield where the Pirates would seemingly have to move one of their corner outfielders in order to slide current center fielder Nate McLouth to a corner. Ideally Xavier Nady would be sold at his highest point for an arm or two and the Pirates could field an outfield of Jason Bay, top prospect Andrew McCutchen, and McLouth which would likely be a bit less offensively feared than the current trio, but almost certainly a defensive upgrade by quite a bit.
So we're left with a lineup that looks like this for the rest of the season:
C: Ryan Doumit
1B: Adam LaRoche
3B: Freddy Sanchez
SS: Brian Bixler
LF: Jason Bay
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Nate McLouth
Heading into next season I would make a few moves:
1. Trade Jack Wilson and Xavier Nady to the highest bidders.
2. Sign Brian Myrow and give him 300 at-bats. Remember the goal is to make improvements over pieces all ready on the team. Adam LaRoche's .260 GPA is supremely average, but Mientkiewicz .252 can be replaced here as PECOTA projects Myrow to have a .260 GPA next year between first and third. His minor league numbers have been inflated by the PCL, but there's a chance he could break the .800 OPS mark if his numbers aren't as bloated as they seem.
3. Sign Mark Ellis for two years, with a club option for three worth 17 million. It seems a bit pricey, but consider the Wilson/Nady deals and you still have some excess money from the total spent last season. Ellis takes over at second and gives the Pirates another upgraded piece on defense to go along with the outfield change and Sanchez moving to third. Ellis' GPA is .252, an upgrade over Wilson.
4. Sign Jason LaRue for two years, one and half million. Perhaps go up to two million if need be, but some team will overpay for Greg Zaun, and LaRue isn't a bad backup catcher.
5. Re-sign Jason Michaels
6. Sign Tomohiro Nioka from Japan for three years, 12 million.
This leaves us with this opening day roster on 2009:
C: Doumit, LaRue
1B: LaRoche, Myrow
3B: Sanchez, Batista
CF: McCutchen, Michaels
On paper that's an improved defense I'm unsure how much, but Ellis and Sanchez are plus defenders at those positions and Nioka/McCutchen are reportedly plus defenders. Frankly I don't see how they could be worse than the .674 DER the Pirates are currently fielding. Looking at the GPAs I used the 2008 stats through today as well as assumed that Myrow and McCutchen would perform to their 2009 PECOTA projection and that Nioka would be similar to Akinori Iwamura's first pro season. The team GPA rises from .248 to .255. For a DER estimate last year the Rays were around .670, this season they sit around .710, let's assume the Pirates don't make quite that big of a leap but do go from .674 to around .690, still below league average of .696. That's a .016 point leap, andwhen combined with the GPA increase totals a .023 points increase from .922 to .945, or roughly near the Yankees and Twins.