Justin K. Aller
Players like Jerry Sands, Francisco Liriano, and Travis Snider are the kind of reclamation projects with enough upside to be worthy of the risk.
The Pirates' 2012 campaign ended in disappointment. Despite being 16 games over .500 to begin the second week of August, they finished at 79-83. This continued a streak of sub-.500 seasons dating back to 1993, giving them 20-consecutive losing seasons. Nevertheless, there were things to like about 2012 and what the Pirates managed to accomplish in that calendar year. With a little of the luck that the Bucs have been missing for two decades now, their progress might even pay off with an ever-elusive winning season in 2013.
That long-awaited season is no sure thing, but that's basically the story of the Pirates squad that's been constructed for this year. Shut off from spending well over slot in the draft in order to build from within, general manager Neil Huntington seems to have resumed his focus on an old operation that's akin to finding treasure in another club's garbage. While those kinds of trades and signings haven't worked out often enough in the past, there are reasons to believe they have assembled a squad capable of surprising, one that can actually achieve that goal -- plus, it beats the plan heading into 2012, which, A.J. Burnett aside, was mostly a mix of uncreative spending that did Pittsburgh little good.
The move to acquire Burnett, and his subsequent (and predictable) success in an environment that better-suited him than New York, should be seen as the model for the rest of this collection of players who have been given up on by their previous clubs. Whether they all work out that way or not is to be seen, but the Pirates are going all-in with this approach in order to buttress their core building blocks like Andrew McCutchen.
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Travis Snider: The first of the group was actually acquired last July in exchange for Brad Lincoln. Snider has already disappointed a bit, as he hit just .250/.324/.328 in 50 games, but there are a few reasons to think this could still work out. For one, despite the fact it seems like he's been around forever, Snider is still just going to be 25 in 2013. He's only played in 292 major-league games over the course of the five years since he's hit the bigs, and, considering he hasn't been fully ready for that level yet, his career OPS+ of 94 isn't all that bad.
Granted, relative youth will only carry him so far -- say, to a chance to start in right field for the Pirates until he either shows he still isn't ready, or, more depressingly, will never be. It's hard to glean too much about his level of readiness from his minor-league statistics, since the Blue Jays had their Triple-A team in Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League, where left-handed hitters like Snider can have an absolute field day. The average right fielder in the NL hit just .260/.329/.439 in 2012, though, so if Snider can improve on his power production even without raising his on-base levels much, he could be useful to the Pirates in right while Garrett Jones holds down first base. The chances of that happening aren't necessarily great, even given the above, but Snider wouldn't be the first post-hype prospect to break out in his mid-20s when given an everyday shot, either.
Francisco Liriano: The Liriano acquisition isn't perfectly analogous to the pre-2012 trade for Burnett, but there are some similarities here worth mentioning. For one, the switch to the National League should help Liriano out just because it's the weaker of the two leagues. While Target Field leans pitcher-friendly and US Cellular is neutral minus the homers, PNC Park is actually a great place for left-handed hurlers with platoon issues, like Monsieur Liriano. In his career -- one that hasn't been getting any better with age -- Liriano has allowed righties to hit .254/.335/.409 off of him. PNC cuts into home run power from right-handed batters considerably, with Stat Corner showing a park factor of 68 (where 100 is neutral), and overall, run scoring is down about 15 percent for righties. Considering that, even in his awful 2012 state, Liriano still held his fellow lefties to a .221/.310/.293 line, his home starts could be very productive ones for the Pirates.
There are problems, of course. The NL Central is probably a tougher division, especially post-Astros, than the AL Central. There is no park in the AL Central that could harm Liriano in the same way that Wrigley Field on a windy day, or Miller Park on any day, could. All told, though, this is an improvement in environment for Liriano. If his slider -- the pitch he lives and dies on in each start -- returns to form, then the Pirates are going to have themselves more than just a decent back-end option. It's more likely that Liriano stays at the rear of the rotation, but even that would be a positive given some of what has been utilized in that role in Pittsburgh the last few years.
Mark Melancon: Pittsburgh dealt last year's closer, Joel Hanrahan, to the Red Sox in order to free up salary and add some potentially useful pieces to the roster. Melancon is one such piece, and, given his poor 2012, fits the bill as one of these change-of-scenery/rebound types. Melancon's 2012 struggles were the result of a mechanical issue: he was pitching with his front side flying open, and it hurt his command enough that he gave up five homers and 11 runs in his first four games, totaling just two innings in the process. After returning from the minors, he once again could locate in the lower portions of the strike zone and stopped missing up over the plate nearly as often. The results were not perfect, but the signs were there that Melancon was rounding back into form. A September in which he struck out 13 batters in 10 innings while allowing one walk and inducing more grounders than fly balls, while not confirmation of a return, helped that perception.
Despite good omens, the Red Sox had a serious logjam in their bullpen and on their 40-man roster, so when the opportunity arose to deal Melancon along with others to Pittsburgh, both sides happily took it. In addition to what appears to be Melancon finally pitching like the guy the Red Sox expected to get a year ago in their trade with the Astros, the Pirates can expect PNC to do Melancon some favors if his command remains a work-in-progress, and, as with Burnett, the simple act of leaving the AL East for the NL should also help. Melancon isn't the team's closer, but if he's actually back, the Pirates have themselves a legitimate setup man still under team control -- pre-arbitration, even.
Jerry Sands: Sands was another piece of the Hanrahan trade, one with even more questions surrounding him than Melancon. Like the others here, Sands is a player on whom the Pirates can afford to take a chance. He's shown prodigious power in the minors, power that many feel will translate to the majors, and is able to handle left field defensively if his bat can't work at first. However, Sands also has a long swing, and there are questions about whether or not he's going to be a platoon bat when he doesn't get to beat up on Triple-A pitching any longer. These aren't simply Red Sox questions, either, as the Dodgers suffered through James Loney multiple times rather than give Sands, who has been at Triple-A since 2011, a real shot to take the first base job.
Sands is cheap, under control for at least six more years, and the Pirates are loaded with left field questions despite the presence of both Starling Marte and Jose Tabata. Pittsburgh's Triple-A team is in the International League rather than the PCL and plays in a park that's actually a little below-average for righties like Sands. That could be to both Sands' and the Pirates' benefit, as they can get a better look at what he's capable of when he isn't in an environment that's so pro-hitter it's amazing any pitchers make it to the majors with their self-confidence intact.
Gaby Sanchez: Sanchez is Sands insurance -- or maybe Sands is Gaby insurance. As with Snider, Sanchez was acquired in 2012 and wasn't all that exciting in his time with the Pirates (.241/.323/.397 in 50 games). However, park effects mean that was actually an average line. It won't cut it at first base regardless, but if there are issues in the outfield that requires Jones to move off the position and Sanchez can continue to look more like the pre-2012 Marlins version of himself -- the one that hit .269/.346/.440 for the then Florida Marlins -- then the Pirates will be in a decent place at the position. Those aren't simply ifs to be tossed out there, as Sanchez was horrible to start the year with Miami in 2012, but overall, that's not how his career has looked. If the "worst" comes to pass, and all of Sanchez, Sands, and Jones are productive by July, the Pirates will have some pieces to make a move.
The real worst-case scenario is that neither Sands nor Sanchez develops into anything and the outfield also falters. The thing is, the Pirates need to take chances on players like this if they aren't going to be able to attract or afford major free agents or abuse the slotting system like they so effectively did during the previous collective bargaining agreement. Given just how many wild cards they have taken on, and the fact that most of them do have more than a modicum of upside left, the Pirates' bets might even pay out overall, even if they don't all individually do so.