Generally speaking when people suggest team “X” competing at a lower of the same sport could defeat team “Y,” they’re full of crap and their argument riddled is with holes. We hear it almost annually in football. Could the #1 college team in the country beat the 0-8 NFL team midway through the season. Duquesne fans hear it in basketball after appallingly bad losses to low level D-I teams when some argue and honestly believe, the Dukes would lose to Chartiers Valley. In reality, the Dukes and that low level D-I team that it was a complete affront that they lost to would put a beat down on any public high school program in the country.
When things were bad with the Pirates, we never heard that their then AAA affiliate Nashville could beat them, but rather that the major league was a glorified AAA team. Of course, that would have been a ludicrous point as their AAA of lean years would have simply matriculated to the big club if it were in fact better than the major league team. However, AAA is considerably closer to the level of competition than college football is to the NFL or high school basketball is to the NCAA. Over 130 games against AAA, the current Pirates would even wear some losses along the way. The thought that a bad major league team could beat a glorified minor league team is considerably more plausible. When you actually start breaking teams down though, you realize it’s considerably more than you would think.
The Pirates fielded an exceptional AAA team last Friday night. It had quite a few players that belonged in the majors in some capacity and some who should get their chance in the very near future. I didn’t want to look back too far in the annals of suck, but I wanted to find a relatively recently bad Pirates team who last week’s Indians could not only beat, but outperform over an entire season. This was considerably more difficult than one might think and only one, the 2005 Pirates, stood out as even a remote possibility. That said, it’s still probably unlikely that it would.
In 2005, the Pirates had something of a transitional year where they were moving from one group that provided insufficient talent to another promising looking group who would also prove to simply not have enough in the tank. They were a couple of years removed for their big sell down that saw Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez among the biggest names shipped out and they were floating by on the returns from those deals until help could arrive from the minors. This was a bad team that lost 95 games and started the year 8-14. Tike Redman was the number three spot of the lineup for a brief stretch. Below is the computer that created the model that suggested he should hit there.
So I want to compare the meat and potatoes of these two teams. I’m only going to look at who Baseball Reference says was the lineup, the rotation, and the top five bench bats. I’m not going to consider who was traded away. I’m also going to look at what the players were when they played that season. If they were young and inexperienced then I will consider that when comparing the two teams. If they were aging and in full decline, I’ll consider that as well. I’ll break the teams down position by position and provide an overall grade at the end.
Note: Not comparing relative hitting environments. 2005 probably better for hitters worse for pitchers.
Humberto Cota vs. Elias Diaz
Cota was the 2005 Pirates primary catcher and served as a stopgap between Jason Kendall and Ryan Doumit. Both he and Diaz are defense first catchers, but Cota had already been given the opportunity to drink a cup of coffee in the majors by the time he was 24 as Diaz currently is. At the same age and level of the minors, Diaz outperformed Cota slightly at the plate though Cota had demonstrated a better bat in his 22 and 23 seasons at the AAA level. Cota was a .4 fWAR catcher that season, his career best. While I think Diaz could provide strong enough defense at the majors to at least be a replacement level catcher, I don’t think the bat will play much better than that. I have to give the 2005 Pirates a slight advantage at catcher, though I think long term Diaz will prove to have the better career.
Slight Advantage 2005 Pirates
Darryl Ward vs Josh Bell
Ward had his moments earlier in his career as an Astro, but as a Pirate but he provided a -.5 fWAR in 2005. His bat played better in the later seasons of his career, but at 30 in 2005 it really felt like this was the best you would get. When I saw him in Altoona, Bell looked like one of the most major league ready bats I’d seen at the AA level. I think Bell could step in and provide at least replacement level hitting over a full season if not more.
Advantage 8/21/15 Indy Indians
Jose Castillo vs Alen Hansen
This is a very similar situation to the catcher in that I think the Indy player will have a considerably better career, but at the time is currently as prepared for the major league level. Castillo flashed a sad career high of .1 fWAR in 2005. Hansen was named the top defensive second baseman in the International league, so he’d likely provide a huge upgrade at that position. However, it’s unlikely his bat will play at the level of Castillo’s over an entire 162 games. Even saving runs with his glove, Hansen would likely be a slightly below replacement level player.
Slight Advantage 2005 Pirates
Freddy Sanchez vs Dan Gamache
That’s right folks. Freddy Sanchez played more at third than second in 2005. I bet you forgot that just like I did. He broke out in 2005 on the back of excellent defense and excellent contact that season. While it’s a no-brainer that Freddy Sanchez would contribute more to our hypothetical than Dan Gamache would right now, it’s worth noting that the two are pretty similar. Both play third and second. Both have fringy prospect status and even if Sanchez was a year away from winning the batting title, no one would have guessed it heading into ’05. You sacrifice contact for power with Gamache in the long run, but he’s one of the more underrated and closest-to-ready bats in the system right now.
Big Advantage 2005 Pirates
Jack Wilson vs Jordy Mercer
Ok, so I’m cherry picking here a little bit, but we’re probably not even having this conversation if Jordy didn’t play Friday. Here’s why I don’t feel dirty including him. With the way the major league team is currently composed, Mercer doesn’t have a clear role with Pirates. Personally, I’d like to see the Pirates stash him in Indy until they absolutely must add him. Not because I don’t think he’s a solid major leaguer, it’s just that I don’t see an obvious player for him to replace. Jack was excellent with the glove, but his bat regressed back closer to career norms in 2005. When he’s on, Mercer’s the better hitter and he’s not a slouch in the field. I don’t see a huge difference between the two.
Matt Lawton vs Willy Garcia
Lawton is a weird case. He was good as a Pirate, got traded and was terrible the rest of the season. He OPS’ed .752 over the entire season in Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York as well, but rough defense led to an all around -.1 fWAR. Garcia wouldn’t hit as well, but improving contact, a second half return of his power, and excellent defense might make him as valuable if not slightly better.
Tike Redman vs Keon Broxton
Here is the thing about Tike Redman. Heading into 2005, he actually looked like a decent option in center. Certainly not a three hitter, but before his slump in his second year as a full time player, one would have expected more than a -.7 fWAR. Broxton isn’t the ideal top of the order hitter due to poor contact numbers, but he’s stepped up the walks and stolen bases in 2015. While I don’t love his ceiling right now, I’d be surprised if Broxton can’t at least OPS in the low .600’s given regular ABs, while setting the table when he gets on.
Slight Advantage 8/21/15 Indy Indians
Jason Bay vs Travis Snider
I don’t need to spend much time on this. Jason Bay was an All Star and a budding star. Travis Snider at his best has been a semi-solid platoon semi-regular. He’s an excellent AAA player, but he ain’t no Bay.
Big Advantage 2005 Pirates
There were quite a few of these Indians bench players on the injured reserve, but I wanted to illustrate a point. Quite a few of these players have had stints in the majors this season and technically, Corey Hart is on a rehab assignment even if he’s likely to get warehoused for a couple of weeks. They’re not as good as the 2005 group, but they’re an unlikely AAA bench for sure. Of the ten bench bats, Jaff Decker might be the most interesting as he managed to OPS near .600 in a small sample with a .125 BABIP. That’s crazy bad luck.
Advantage 2005 Pirates
1. Oliver Perez
2. Mark Redman
3. Kip Wells
4. Josh Fogg
5. David Williams
1. Tyler Glasnow
2. Rahamedes Liz
3. Vance Worley
4. Chris Volstad
5. Wilfredo Boscan
When I reflect on the 2005 Pirates lineup, it’s not nearly as bad as I expected to be. The rotation is where the wheels fall off. Oliver Perez’s abrupt decline from elite starter to fringe back end blew us all away, but there’s no denying what he had he lost in 2005. Redman somehow managed to post a 2.1 fWAR, but I’m still not buying it when you see his 4.90 ERA and 4.19 xFIP.
While I’m not huge on Tyler Glasnow in the majors right now, I think he could easily outperform the 2005 menagerie of back end at best starters. When I saw him a month ago, he looked like he had some work to do, but he’s beginning to dominate in AAA. I think he could be solid #4 right now and a fringe #3 which would put him head and shoulders above the competition. I think he could post an ERA in the 4.10-4.40 range, but Steamer projects him even lower at 3.86.
Vance Worley got punted from the Pirates’ strong rotation for numbers that would top the 2005 staff in ERA, while coming in second in xFIP. Worley’s sunk in the minors but could easily match the productivity of Wells or Fogg. Liz is the wild card. He pitched Ok out of the pen in the majors and has been excellent since joining the Indy rotation. I’d have to think he’d do better than much than the old group.
Anyone still accusing me of cherry picking on Mercer, the bench or in the bullpen, keep in mind I could have easily have included a tanker full of injured pitchers who should be pitching for the Indians (or the Pirates) right now. Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, and Angel Sanchez. If you’ve had Tommy John recently or even just an owie in your forearm recently, I’m not including them here.
Big Advantage 8/21/15 Indians
Gotta hand it to Dave Littlefield. He mostly sucked as a GM, but he could put together a halfway decent bullpen. The top end of the pen is easily better than anything in Indy right now with guys like Torres and Gonzalez and there was an Ok supporting cast behind them. After that, there are a number of players who could or have performed better over a full season than the Indy group. Scahill looks like he could be a decent late inning guy and Guerra performed well in the majors until he got completely blown up in his final appearance. LaFramboise has also pitched well in stints and might outperform the 2005 version of Grabow. After that you have some big arms that haven’t stayed healthy like Inman and Holdzkom this year. The Indy pen might not be as strong at the back end with fewer clear options, but it could be stronger in all other facets.
In the end, the 2005 Pirates are better, as Friday’s Indy team simply can’t match the best that bad team had to offer like Bay, Gonzalez, Sanchez and Torres. Outside of those four, the teams are shockingly similar in terms of talent and ability to win. The 2005 Pirates avoided the 100 loss season, but even with considerably better pitching and defense which in the end is what matters, I have a difficult time seeing the Indians match that. Other than a roster full of players with 45-50 power, I just don’t see where the offense comes from. Both are bad major league teams, but the 2005 Pirates would be slightly better.
That said, this is probably much closer than it should be. What makes this exercise interesting is that it does explain the relative position of the franchise in two points in history. The fact that the minor league club is even in the ballpark of the major league one speaks volumes for the organization’s improvement and current depth.
Edited 8/28/2015 — change to Darryl Ward after some Randall Simon confusion.