Monday, December 14, 2015

And The Crowd Goes "Meh".

Maybe I was in some parallel universe this weekend, or I accidentally stumbled upon a bizarro Facebook, where 99% of the posts revolve around video recipes for [insert something with four pounds of cheese here] and pictures of Christmas Trees, but I noticed that for every hundred Pirates fans that expressed their dismay and disgust over the Neil-Walker-for-Jon-Niese trade, exactly zero expressed similar dismay/disgust (maygust?) over this weekend's trade of Charlie Morton for...hang on, let me look it up...oh, right, David Whitehead.

Actually, exactly zero expressed any sort of emotion.  Including me, as I wasn't even aware of the trade until around 1:00 today, when I read about the Phillies picking up Mark "I'm too good to get drafted by the Pirates" Appel for Ken Giles and thought I wonder if the Pirates did anything new.

Charlie Morton was never burdened with quite the same bravado as Neil Walker, despite both having just about the same tenure with the Pirates.  In fact, Walker's first action as a major league player was pinch hitting for Charlie Morton.  Like Walker, Morton struggled with injury, except on a much larger scale, having never made 30 starts in a single season.  Unlike Walker, Morton's career never really had a trajectory; it felt like he was reinventing himself each and every off-season, whether the need to do so was injury-related or performance-related.

I remember a LOT of discussion prior to and during his 2011 campaign, when he very blatantly copied the pitching motion of Roy Halladay.  Imitating a perennial Cy Young candidate is never a terrible idea, but it was...confounding...that a grown man thought I wish I was Roy Halladay and then he and the coaches got together and decided "well, try throwing exactly like him."  And the crazy part?  IT WORKED.  I mean, kinda.  10-10 with a 3.83 ERA isn't exactly Halladay-esque, but it was his best season by far.

Morton will never be a top 3 starter, except maybe on the overhauling Phillies, where he might make his first 30 start season and provide some stability while management sorts out their prospects...barring injury.  That little phrase could very well be the title of his biography.  Charlie Morton: Barring Injury.

I'm sure I know as much about David Whitehead as either the Phillies or the Pirates do.  He's tall.  He was drafted out of high school.  He appears to be pretty good at striking out A ball hitters, but he's better at walking them.  I don't expect much out of Whitehead except to cost the organization $8 million less in 2016.

Morton's departure was 99% cost-based, with a smattering of "we have some internal pieces to replace a #5 starter".  $8 million could mean a lot to the Pirates in an offseason where they still have a few major pieces in arbitration -- Cervelli, Watson, etc. -- and a few holes on offense to fill.

So, it's time to say goodbye, Charlie.  Thanks for being a pitcher that was good enough to trade for an A ball nobody and free up $8 million, but not good enough to keep for $8 million.

Maybe the Phillies will allow Morton to wear "Halladay" on his jersey.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Au Revoir, Neil Walker...N'at.

I have a hunch that Neil Walker is going to miss Pittsburgh just as much as Pittsburgh misses Neil Walker. 

Unlike football and – to a lesser extent – hockey, we aren’t a city known for grooming baseball talent.  The list of active players who grew up in around here reads like a list of Dave Littlefield gems: Dave Bush, J.J. Hoover, Josh Wilson, Ryan Garko…oh wait, he’s out of baseball.  Until Walker’s arrival in Pittsburgh the most famous Pittsburgh-born player to put on a Pirates uniform was “the original” Frank Thomas, followed by John Wehner. 


Neil Walker probably won’t cobble together a hall of fame career.  Six full seasons in and he’s managed a silver slugger and not much else.  But his combination of power (gauged against other middle infielders) and above average defense will keep him in the top tier of second basemen for at least the next few years, injuries nonwithstanding.  It’s that certainty that’s going to make a lot of people scratch their heads after hearing that Walker was dealt to the Mets for Jon Niese.

Who is Jon Niese?

A 7th round pick out of high school, Niese is left-handed, #3/#4 starter with a low 90s fastball and a Ground Ball/Fly Ball ratio above the league average (1.02 vs 0.82).  I know.  I know.  The Pirates traded a homegrown 2B with some pop for a sort-of-#3 starter?  Are we sure Littlefield was fired?  Within the framework of his limitations, Niese is very good at what he does.  He'll never be an ace, and he'll likely never eclipse 200 strikeouts in a season, but give him the ball every third day behind Liriano and Cole and he'll probably get you at least 6 innings of 3-4 run ball.

What else do the Pirates get?
  • A little bit of budget certainty.  Niese is guaranteed $9 million this season, Walker stands to make at least $11 million in arbitration.  Niese has $10 and $11 million club options for 2017 and 2018, respectively, with $500k buyouts for each.
  • A little bit of pitching certainty.  While J.A. Happ performed out of his mind for the Pirates down the stretch (and turned it into a pricey deal with the Blue Jays), Niese has a longer and steadier track record.  Throw in the marginal chance that the Pirates coaching staff works their magic on veteran pitchers, and there's an outside chance that Niese is a bargain at $9 million.
  • A slightly clearer outlook on the infield situation. While Jung Ho Kang's rehab puts his 2016 return into early summer, Clint Hurdle won't have quite as many Legos in the box (suggestions on more appropriate idioms are always welcome), meaning that Jordy Mercer, Kang, and Josh Harrison can all be on the field at the same time, at least until Alen Hanson joins the fray from the minors, or unless the Pirates throw some money at Daniel Murphy (although I'm certain he's going to leverage his postseason stats into an extremely bloated contract).
But...it's Neil Walker!

True.  It's definitely disheartening that the first major deal the Pirates managed this offseason was trading away one of their more popular players -- from his hometown, even -- for a pitcher that may or may not be better than Happ...and nothing else (as far as we know right now).  But, knee jerk reactions aside, the Pirates did at least keep the aggregate tenacity of their rotation in tact with the move, and traded a way a player who was, yes, solid, and valuable, and popular, but also a player who was inching his way towards being paid a disproportionate amount for his services.

On its own -- and that's really all we have to go on, since the Pirates haven't made any other moves -- this seems like a win for the Mets.  But with the Pirates' recent track record of personnel moves, wins, and promotion from within, I have a feeling that they know what they're doing.


Monday, February 16, 2015

The Pirates' State of the Union, Part VII: Starting Pitchers (sans Belly Itchers)

In David Schoenfield's spring training rankings (where he placed the Pirates 3rd), he muses about the team's lack of an ace, citing Clint Hurdle's tendency to play the shift as well as cobbling together a staff that coaxes an insane amount of ground balls as proof that having an obvious #1 starter isn't necessary.

A healthy Gerrit Cole is a solution to that pseudo-problem, though.  Through 41 starts Cole has a 3.45 ERA, 238 Ks, and a 1.191 WHIP, along with 21 wins.  Translate that to a typical 32-35 start season and Cole is, at least, a 17 game winner (more on a team that gets early leads, which unfortunately is not the Pirates' modus operandi).  The Pirates will likely continue to "protect" Cole, monitoring his innings and occasionally giving him six days off as preventative measures to keep him off the DL.  A healthy Gerrit Cole means everything to the success of this team, which is saying a lot, because this is one of the more dangerous rotations in the league.

Ignore Francisco Liriano's W/L column in 2014, and you have a 3.38 ERA, 175 Ks (9.7 K/9), and a 1.300 WHIP.  Similar numbers to his 2013 Comeback-Player-of-the-Year campaign.  So why did he end up at 7-10?

- 13 HRs surrendered, up from 9
- 81 walks, up from 63
- A 2.16 K/BB ratio, down from 2.59

Liriano eclipsed 1000 innings at the very end of the 2013 season, leaving open the possibility that his arm is on the very tip of the tail-end of its career.  Still, between Searage's tutelage and Liriano's fluid motion, he can easily stick around as a productive pitcher for the next 3-4 seasons before there's any significant drop in talent.  12-15 wins seems likely, provided he can cut back on the walks and coax more ground balls than fly balls.

Since we're ignoring things...let's also ignore the somewhat acrimonious departure of A.J. Burnett after the 2013 playoffs and focus on what Burnett did for the Pirates (besides win 26 games).  From a PR perspective, Burnett's publicly displayed excitement at joining the team may not have had a measurable impact, but it was the first time since 19forever that a player acquired via trade was so bubbly about putting on a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform (or at least it was in stark contrast to Derrek Lee's "meh" attitude after being picked up from the Cubs, and Darren Lewis's "I'd rather retire" attitude).  It's really hard to say if other high-profile players now see the Pirates in a different light (although wins and dollars probably mean more than quotes), but it was nice to see a player anticipating a season in Pittsburgh.

The 2015 model is an obvious downgrade from what the Pirates picked up from the Yankees a few years ago, coming off a season where he led the NL in losses, earned runs, and walks, but the Pirates are banking on the combination of pitching coach, clubhouse, and Burnett's still lively arm to once again turn him into a double digit winner.  Burnett's problem has always been walks, which he combats by striking out the side with a runner on (thank goodness, too, since A.J. has the slowwweeeesssst pitch-from-the-stretch in baseball).  In a perfect world, Burnett will end up somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 numbers, 14 wins and a sub 4.00 ERA.  Realistically, he's more likely to pitch to his career average, which still is worthy of the third spot in the rotation.

Someday, the Pirates will believe in Jeff Locke.  It's still mildly mind-boggling that a pitcher worthy of an all-star spot was so quickly jettisoned from the rotation, and started the next season in the minors, only to return out of necessity.  

Locke may never be more than a #4 starter, but he has a chance to be a damn good one.  Walks are an issue, but he's well above the league average in ground ball to fly ball ratio (1.06 against 0.83), and for a pitcher that pitches to contact, his stats against are reasonable (.254 BA, .332 OBP).  Even though Locke has been on a pretty short leash in his two "full" seasons in the majors, he can still very easily make the leap to reliable 4th starter.  If not, he's an upgrade over Brandon Cumpton in the role of "guy that gets dumped to Indy as soon as someone gets off the DL".

I hope Vance Worley wins 20 games so everyone wears those Rec Specs.  Worleymania.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?  

The Pirates love reclamation projects, and Worley's a prime example of the kind of scrap-heap success that really defines this regime.  Right now Worley is basically keeping a spot warm for Charlie Morton's inevitable return from labrum surgery, and acting as proof that the Pirates really don't ever think five starting pitchers is quite enough.  Depending on Worley's output at the start of the season (assuming Morton's not quite ready for opening day), he may find some work as a long reliever out of the bullpen.  He did a fantastic job covering the team's collective ass midway through 2014, coming in and managing 8 wins with a 2.85 ERA.  







Speaking of Morton, he's working on yet another new pitching motion, which is supposed to be more efficient and probably less Roy Halladay-esque (maybe in reverence to his retirement).  He's on track to make the Opening Day roster, but given the changes to his motion as well as recovering from a pretty serious surgery, I bet they bring him along slowly.











As for the Bob Evans prospects (Down on the Farm...get it?  GET IT???):

Tyler Glasnow is like Gerrit Cole, Jr.  95 mph fastball and scary curve.  He's a changeup away from becoming a dangerous pitcher, but as a 21 year old that will probably make the leap to AA in 2015, he has time to work on his craft.







The Pirates continue to bring Jameson Taillon along slowly, moreso now that he got that pesky Tommy John surgery under his belt.  He'll start the season in Indy and has an outside chance at making his MLB debut sometime this season, although with the new elbow ligament they may just take it easy.













Nick Kingham is being groomed for a #3/#4 spot in the rotation.  Steady and reliable but nothing too flashy.  He'll probably need a full season at Indy before the Pirates consider him for the rotation, but 2016 will be a good year to shove him into the majors to see if he sinks or swims.




Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Pirates' State of the Union, Part VI: The Outfield

Part V
Part IV
Part III
Part II
Part I

It's already in my head, so I might as well start with the classic 80s anthem:



Starling Marte wins my award for "most underrated Pirate".  And that's saying something, because he is a pretty popular player, and it's not as if people consistently downplay his productivity.

Fans (and the team, to some degree) were hoping that Marte would be the anchor at the top of the lineup, getting on base enough to set up shop for Walker and Cutch (and Pedro, in the pipe dream days) to get some RBIs early in the game and take some pressure off of the starting rotation.

But then the strikeouts came, and a "traditional" manager like Clint Hurdle couldn't justify leading off with Marte when he'll likely go down swinging 130 times a season.  Ignoring the fact that Marte has, in two seasons:

- Posted an OPS+ of 121 or higher.
- Put up an OBP of at least .343.
- Hit at least a dozen HRs.
- Stole at least 30 bases.
- Scored at least 70 times.

Maybe I'm misrepresenting Hurdle, and his philosophy is more along the lines of "I can play this kid anywhere and he'll put up numbers."  Which is true.  He split his time among leadoff, 2nd, 5th, and 6th in 2014.  At the top of the order he didn't hit as many home runs, but he got on base more.  In the 5th and 6th spots he sacrificed some OBP for a higher slugging percentage.  If Marte really does adjust his offensive production based on where he's batting, then he's one of the most talented players on the team.

And he came into the league with a bang...



There's not a lot I can say about Andrew McCutchen that hasn't already been said, from a baseball perspective.  So here's the Us Weekly version:

McCutchen was born to two high school students in Florida. They eventually married, but his mom would not marry his dad until he agreed to become a church minister.  I wonder if she could have just named ANY career as a deal-breaker.  "I'm not marrying you until you become a tobacco lobbyist".  "Yes, dear."

Cutch proposed to his girlfriend on The Ellen DeGeneres Show (she said yes).  They got married in November, in Pittsburgh, which I think is really proof of their love, because November sucks in Pittsburgh.

He's not a big fan of getting intentionally hit by other pitchers (because, you know...who would be?)

Cutch prefers DiBella's over Primanti's, and Sheetz over Wawa (naturally).

His favorite TV show is "Devious Maids".  I had to Google it.  Apparently Suan Lucci is on it, for all you soap opera fans.

Gregory Polanco rounds out the "outfield of the future...TODAY!"  Polanco was born in 1991, which makes me feel like the oldest man alive.  His height makes him look like he has a loping gait on the base paths, but in fact he's one of the fastest players on the team.  It only takes him maybe six long strides to get him to first base.

Polanco has the tools to be the next Daryl Strawberry, minus the drug abuse.  And he already has a great nickname: El Coffee.

A 2015 season with a more patient Polanco, then Marte, then Cutch at the top of the order is dangerous, and ideal.


Down on the farm...

Austin Meadows is the next big thing.  A solid 6'3, 200 lb outfielder from Georgia, Meadows put up a .322/.388/.486 line in the Sally league, slowed somewhat by injuries.  In just two seasons he's jumped through three levels.  He'll start 2015 in West Virginia, with a chance to make it to Bradenton before the season's over.







Harold Ramirez shared the field with Meadows in 2014 and put up a .309 BA while showing off his speed, at least when his hamstring behaved.  Ramirez is in the Marte mold, hitting a lot of line drives that are doubles right now but could clear the fence if he develops some more power.






Barrett Barnes struggled in his transition from the rookie league to A+ ball in 2014, but still has shown a valued blend of power and speed.  Injuries appear to be a problem among ALL outfield prospects for the Pirates, and Barnes is no exception.  At 22 he'll need to prove himself worthy of a promotion to Altoona to maintain his high-ranking prospect status.






Willy Garcia has a very marginal chance at seeing the majors this season, but only if there is an absolute disaster in the outfield.  At 21 he's a little ahead of the curve in Altoona, and puts up impressive power numbers but also equally impressive strikeout numbers.  He may end up being nothing more than a 4th outfielder, but if he improves his average while maintaining his HR count he's at least a valuable trading chip.





Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rapid Reaction on the Travis Snider Trade

The deal smacks of Huntington forcing Clint Hurdle's hand.

I'll talk about the situation in detail in a few weeks, but right now the right field job is Gregory Polanco's to lose, with Snider as the safety-net, and Andrew Lambo as the odd man out, although he was still likely make the roster as a 5th OF and occasional starter at first base.  The Pirates are going to miss Snider's talents as a pinch hitter, going .250/.350/.404 in 60 at-bats in 2014.

Or are they?

Snider's role as first slugger off the bench was necessary last year, as depth was at a premium, chalked up to injuries or underwhelming performances.  I mean...Jayson Nix and Brent Morel saw significant playing time.  If that's not a telling fact...

But, this year, assuming Polanco solidifies his presence in the everyday lineup, the Pirates will always have either Pedro Alvarez or Corey Hart on the bench.  And now they'll have Lambo, who is a bit younger, with a higher ceiling, and a scarier bat than Snider.

The Pirates sold high from a position of depth and acquired a highly-touted pitcher from the Orioles (a team that has a lot of prospect depth at pitcher).  Don't let Stephen Tarpley's pedestrian statistics fool you.  He was John Sickels' #12 prospect in the Orioles system for 2015, and Sickels had this to say:

Age 21, third round pick in 2013, another Sleeper Alert choice, live-armed lefty posted 3.66 ERA with 60/24 K/BB in 66 innings in short-season ball. Inconsistent but athletic with good fastball and curve, finished the season very strongly after some mechanical adjustments.

Imagine how well Tarpley will progress given the Pirates' dedication to developing arms.

The deal mirrors the Nate McLouth trade on a smaller scale.  Snider was a fan favorite but never considered a cornerstone of the franchise like McLouth was.  Still, reaction to Nate's departure to Atlanta was tepid, at best.  In the end the Pirates received Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton, while McLouth fizzled until his career arrival in (coincidentally) Baltimore.

Snider was never going to be a full-time player in Pittsburgh, not with Marte, Cutch, and Polanco in the mix.  And Tarpley adds depth to a position that is lacking, especially in the lower levels.  The franchise has Glasnow, Taillon, and Kingham all ready to go over the next two seasons, but nobody worth mentioning in A ball or lower.  

In the end, the fans will miss Snider's all-out attitude and the occasional spark he'd bring to a game, but his numbers will likely be compensated, if not improved upon, by the rest of the team.  Hurdle will have to make do with what he has on the roster (Lambo), which is what Huntington wanted all along.

Still...this catch...my goodness.


So long, Lunchbox.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Pirates' State of the Union, Part V: Third Basemen

Part IV

Part III

Part II

Part I

You heard it here first (note: this declaration was not validated against other Pirates-related blogs for the rights of "firsties"): The success of the Pirates' offense hinges entirely on Josh Harrison.
Harrison spent most of the season at the top of the lineup, out of necessity...which appears to be a running gag for the Pirates since 1993 or so.  Where Harrison hits is irrelevant, but his presence in the lineup, with similar production to his 2014 numbers, gives the Pirates three hi-octane hitters (along with Walker and Cutch), taking a bit of the pressure off of youngsters like Starling Marte and Greg Polanco.

And, obviously, a fun dude to watch on the basepaths:



Let's be honest, Harrison IS fun, in general.  He's short and stocky, built like a catcher, but with the agility of a cornerback.  He's exuberant, hopping around the field like an 8th grader playing hooky.  I actually look forward to road games in Cincinnati, for the inevitable shots of Harrison's mom, whooping it up in the stands.

Pedro Alvarez the backup at third.

...ahem...

MOVING ON.

Wyatt Mathisen was the Pirates' 2nd round pick in 2012, making the transition from catcher to third base.  Mathisen was projected as a big power guy coming out of Corpus Christi, but hasn't shown much pop in three minor league seasons (4 HRs, 29 2B in 196 games).  I think the power will come, over time, given his 6'1, 210lb frame and gaudy high school stats (.441 BA, 29 HRs in 160 games).  He doesn't have the ceiling of an Alvarez in that department, but I think 15-20 HRs a season is doable, and more than enough to justify a quick rise through the minors.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Pirates' State of the Union, Part IV: Shortstops

Part III
Part II
Part I

Jordy Mercer is an average shortstop.

Among the 21 shorstops that qualified for the batting title in 2014, Mercer was:
- 13th in BA (.255)
- 15th in Hits (129)
- 9th in HRs (12)
- 15th in OBP (.305)
- 12th in OPS (.693)

But that's okay, you know?  As fans, we still tend to think of premium shortstops in the A-Rod/Jeter sense: sluggers that had enough range to play the position, although few would consider them defensive wizards.  But the power-hitting shortstop was a fad, not a sign of things to come.  Sure, people will tend to prophesize Starlin Castro as the next A-Rod, but in his first year of "turning things around", Castro managed two more HRs than Mercer and five more doubles.  Hanley Ramirez, who put up gaudy HR numbers early in his career with Florida...er...Miami...hit 13 HRs in 2014 in 128 games with LA.  He's also 31 now, which was mildly surprising.

Mercer regressed from his 2013 numbers, but he's still the incumbent, and for good reason.  He's no slouch on the field (4.40 RF/9 against the league standard of 4.30), has the power to drive in a few runs, and the patience to let the defense pitch around him to get to the pitcher.


But, if any player has a shot to usurp Mercer's title as starting shortstop, it's Jung-ho "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos" Kang.

Kang has the honor of breaking the streak of pitchers from South Korea that have landed in the majors, although none, to my recollection, went through the posting system that's typical of overseas acquisitions.  The last Korean-born position player to reach the majors in Shin-Soo Choo, who's still kicking ass in Texas as one of the more dangerous leadoff hitters in the game.

Choo, however, is a product of the Seattle Mariners' farm system, not the KBO.  Kang put up gaudy numbers in 2014 (40 HRs, 117 RBIs, .356 BA, 1.198 OPS), but there's no agreed-upon conversion factor that could project how those numbers would look in the majors.

Still, after years of rallying against the wits of Pirates' scouts under the Bonifay and Littlefield regimes, I can say that I trust Huntington when he says he saw enough to be intrigued.  He signed a very team-friendly contract (even with the posting fee), so the pressure's on Kang, and not Hurdle, to work his way into the lineup.

Barring the expectation that Kang ends up as the second-in-command behind Mercer, there's Sean John Rodriguez (middle name included for chuckling purposes).  Considering the tendency of both Mercer and Neil Walker to land on the DL, Rodriguez offers up decent defense at both spots (although he's slightly better at 2B) while putting up Kevin Polcovich numbers at the plate.  Basically, if Rodriguez is in the everyday lineup...there's been a catastrophe.

Guy's handsome, though.  I'll give him that.




Down on the farm...

Cole Tucker turned 18 about 10 months ago, so maybe it's a bit too soon to consider him a "top prospect" at shortstop.  Still, the former 1st round pick did pretty well for himself in the GCL, hitting .267/.368/.356 in 48 games.  Also, he may be 18, but dude can't be older than 9.

JaCoby Jones (along with Tucker), made John Sickels's list of top 20 Pirates prospects for 2015.  Jones is more of a free swinger than one would like to see out of a shortstop, putting up an impressive 132 Ks in the Sally League, but 23 HRs and a .347 OBP make his high strikeout rate a little more forgiving.

'