Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates TWIBB Notes for Week of 4-20-15 to 4-26-15

Here are your This Week in Buccos Baseball Notes for 4/20/15 thru 4/26/15, the 3rd week of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 regular season.
 

Weekly result: 5 Wins and 2 Loss, 33 Runs Scored and 23 Runs Allowed
 

Hero of the week: Gregory Polanco. Polanco flashed a lot of tools this week. His bat, arm, and legs all factored into Pirate victories. Polanco was 8 for 27 at the plate including 3 doubles and a home run. He picked up 4 RBIs and scored 7 times. On the base paths he swiped 4 bases this week. Polanco also gunned out a runner at the plate. While in the minors Polanco was once dubbed a “walking toolshed”. It is weeks like this that make you understand what that really means.
 

Zero of the week: Andrew McCutchen. Cutch had just 3 hits in 21 ABs and struck out 7 times. Seldom do you see McCutchen scuffling this much. He did draw 4 walks and made some solid contact during the weekend series in Arizona. McCutchen is too good for the bat remain this quiet. The breakout is forthcoming.
 

How do you spell relief? T-O-N-Y W-A-T-S-O-N. The “save” might be the most poorly named statistic in all of sports. A closer being called into the 9th inning to protect a 3 run lead is not “saving” the game. But every once in while you have a situation where a reliever has to be more than just adequate to spare the team from defeat. That was the case for Tony Watson on Wednesday night against the Cubs. Watson was summoned in the 8th inning with no outs and the bases full of Cubs and the Pirates holding a 4-2 lead. The Pirates’ bullpen was a day removed from brutal a meltdown that cost them a victory on Tuesday. They could ill afford another game to get away from them. Watson was up to the task. He shut down the Cubs in the 8th and then finished them off in the 9th inning to pick up a rare two inning save.
 

#HURDLED: I understand that Pedro Alvarez has trouble hitting left handed pitchers. I also understand he is defensively challenged. But pinch hitting Corey Hart for Pedro in the 7th inning of a tie game like Hurdle did on Friday night is just way too early. Not only does it remove the best power threat from the lineup but it also burns the best pinch hit option available on the bench.
 

Cannonballs: Starling Marte (2), Josh Harrison, Gregory Polanco, Sean Rodriguez
 

The little things that matter: Pedro Alvarez is still learning to play first base. Some people would like you to believe that first base defense isn’t really a big deal. But lack of experience at the position has cost the Pirates a few runs already this season. One such occurrence cost Gerrit Cole a run on Friday night. Yasmany Tomas squirted a ball through the right side of the infield because Alvarez let the ball go for second basemen Neil Walker to field. It is was well out of Walker’s reach. Alvarez needs to be more aggressive on these types of plays. He is often deferring on these types of playable ground balls.
 

It must be Hidden Vigorish: Andrew Lambo has been robbed more times this season than a ghetto liquor store. Finally a ball dropped in for him when he roped a double on Thursday against the Cubs for his first hit of the season. Lambo is just 1 for 18 this season.
 

Stats that blow my mind: Pirate hitters rank dead last with just 36 base on balls. Last season they led the National League in walks. Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco have drawn just two walks a piece.
 

Records and Milestones: Jung Ho Kang recorded his first extra base hit and RBI when he cleared the bases with a double on Tuesday.

 

He said what: Mark Melancon thinks people are way too concerned with his velocity drop and general lack of effectiveness.

I blew one save — one save. Should anybody lose confidence after one save? That’s for them to decide, I guess.

 

Tweet of the week:

 

Front Office Notes: All was quiet this week with the BMTIB.

 

On The Farm: Through the first 15 games of the season the Altoona Curve starting rotation has allowed just 6 earned runs in 82.1 innings. That is a 0.66 ERA. Not too shabby!

 
Highlight of the week: With the score knotted 4-4 on Thursday afternoon, Gregory Polanco was locked into a battle with Cubs LOOGY Phil Coke. Polanco fell behind in the count 0-2. He laid off a couple of chase pitches and then wasted a few really good 3-2 pitches from Coke. Finally Polanco was able to squirt a ball through the left side of the infield to give the Pirates a 5-4 lead.

 

 

Pirates TWIBB Notes for Week of 4-13-15 to 4-19-15

Here are your This Week in Buccos Baseball Notes for 4/13/15 thru 4/19/15, the 2nd week of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 regular season.
 

Weekly result: 4 Wins and 2 Loss, 22 Runs Scored and 14 Runs Allowed
 

Hero of the week: Gerrit Cole started the week by holding the red hot Detroit Tigers to just 1 hit in the first 6 innings on Opening Day at PNC Park. Cole would run into trouble in the 7th, but the bullpen held on to give him the W. Cole finished the week with another solid 6 inning outing on Sunday to earn a win over the Brewers. For the week he pitched 12 innings allowing just 3 runs and 8 hits while striking out 14.
 

Zero of the week: Try as I might I could not find a truly deserving candidate this week. Jordy Mercer was only 2 for 17. But he played stellar defense and did enough of the little things that I don’t think it is warranted to label him the zero. In a TWIBB first I will give the zero award to an umpire. David Rackley was downright awful calling balls and strikes on Wednesday night. Rackley ejected Hurdle when the skipper argued this missed call in the 8th inning.


 

How do you spell relief? J-A-R-E-D H-U-G-H-E-S. Jared Hughes was dropped into a hornet’s nest in the 7th inning on Opening Day. The Tigers had the bases loaded with no outs and were on the cusp of erasing the Pirates 2-0 lead. The Pirates needed a double play in the worst way, so manager Clint Hurdle summoned his ground ball specialist from the pen and told him to roll a pair. Hughes did just that on his very first pitch by inducing Nick Castellanos to hit into a 6-4-3 double play. In took Hughes just three pitches to get three outs and slam the door shut on the Tigers. Hughes would go on to pitch three more scoreless innings this week. His final line for the week – 4 innings, 0 Runs, 1 Hit, 0 BBs, and 5 Ks.
 

#HURDLED: Knowing the right moment to pull a starting pitcher is always tricky for a manager, but there should be a few absolutes. Any time after the 6th inning that a starting pitcher walks two hitters in an inning it is time to go to the bullpen. On Tuesday night with the game scoreless A.J. Burnett issued two straight free passes to Tiger hitters in the 7th inning. Hurdle allowed Burnett to try and get out of the inning on his own. The plan backfired. Rajai Davis squirted a single up the middle to drive in the only run the Tigers would need to defeat the Bucs 1-0.

 

Cannonballs: Josh Harrison, Corey Hart, Pedro Alvarez (2), Starling Marte
 

The little things that matter: Andrew McCutchen allowed Jose Iglesias to take 2nd base because he did field a base hit with enough urgency in the 9th inning of a 2-0 loss to the Tigers on Wednesday night. Iglesias was hustling out of the box and took advantage. McCutchen’s mistake cost the Pirates a run.
 

It must be Hidden Vigorish: When the Brewers intentionally walked Pedro Alvarez in the 6th inning on Friday night it snapped a string of 44 straight innings that Pirate hitters had gone without drawing a walk. It wouldn’t take nearly as long for the Bucs to get their next walk. Andrew Lambo would draw a walk an inning later.
 

Stats that blow my mind: Jordy Mercer has a streak of 158 games and counting without making an error on a throw to first base. His last throwing error to first base was on September 20, 2013.
 

Records and Milestones: When Corey Hart deposited a baseball into the left field seats on Opening Day it marked his 1000th major league hit.

 

He said what: The Pirates were shutout by the Tigers in two straight games this week, but Clint Hurdle was was never too concerned about pressure affecting his hitters.

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Playing ball) is not a fistfight; it’s more of a dance.”.

 

Tweet of the week: Do you remember that god awful trade that sent Rajai Davis to the Giants for a washed up Matt Morris? This guy certainly remembered after Davis knocked in the only run in a 1-0 Pirates loss on Tuesday night.

 

Front Office Notes: Chris Stewart completed his rehab assignment which means there was little choice but to send Tony Sanchez back down to AAA.

 

On The Farm: Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire are both off to great starts to the season for the Bradenton Marauders. Meadows is slashing .381/.314/.500 thru his first 10 games. McGuire already has 4 doubles. But the big bopper in the early going for the Marauders is JaCoby Jones. Jones already has 7 extra base hits – 3 2Bs, 1 3B, and 3 HRs.

 
Highlight of the week: Josh Harrison did not make the Pirate fans wait long to give the home crowd at PNC Park something to cheer about. He drilled the very first pitch in the bottom of the 1st inning of the Opener for an opposite field home run.

 

 

Is it Time to Worry About Mark Melancon?

The lifespan of a closer tends to be very short. Very few closers maintain effectiveness year after year. And when they do fall from grace it is often very swift. I’m looking at you Ernesto Frieri, Chris Perez, and Jim Johnson. So as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates it causes me great concern to see Mark Melancon get hit so hard by the Tigers in the Pirates’ home opener. We saw this story last April with Jason Grilli and it wasn’t pretty. Lucky for the Bucs that Melancon had a four run lead to work with in the 9th inning. He needed every bit of that lead to just barely survive the Tigers’ onslaught. The Pirates need the backend of the bullpen to be effective. Any closer can have a bad day, so it shouldn’t be that alarming to see Melancon get roughed up. But there is something about Melancon’s early season appearances that portends to trouble ahead – a precipitous drop off in his velocity.
 
chart
 
As the chart above shows Melancon has lost more than 3 mph off of the Cutter – his bread and butter pitch. Last season Melancon averaged 91.9 mph with his Cutter. This year it has dropped to a very hittable 88.7 mph. Melancon has only made three appearances thus far, and in only one of those games did he enter in a high leverage situation. But this is an alarming drop off. A 3 mph loss in velocity is no small drop, and velocity changes tend to stabilize very quickly. Something is going on here. Either Melancon is injured or he really is losing steam from his Cutter. Perhaps he will gain some of it back, but gaining back 3 mph seems very unlikely. Can Melancon pitch effectively at this velocity? I have my doubts. The Pirates might need to switch closers in the near future.
 

Pirates TWIBB Notes for Week of 4-6-15 to 4-12-15

Here are your This Week in Buccos Baseball Notes for 4/6/15 thru 4/12/115, the 1st week of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 regular season.
 

Weekly result: 2 Wins and 4 Loss, 24 Runs Scored and 23 Runs Allowed
 

Hero of the week: Andrew McCutchen did not have the best of weeks statistically, but he did hammer two huge home runs at critical junctures in ball games. On Opening Day he blasted a game tying opposite 2-run homer in the 8th inning against the Reds. On Sunday Cutch erased a 2-1 deficit with a three-run bomb in the 6th inning against the Brewers.
 

Zero of the week: Starling Marte would probably like to take a mulligan on the first week of the season. In 22 ABs this week Marte struck out 12 times. Ouch.
 

How do you spell relief? A-R-Q-U-I-M-D-E-S C-A-M-I-N-E-R-O. Arquimedes Caminero came out guns-a-blazin’ this week. Caminero reached triple digits with his fastball 6 different times. He was summoned from the pen on four different occasions this week working 2.2 scoreless innings. He allowed 1 hit, 1 walk, and struck out 3.
 

#HURDLED: Some people want to complain about the bullpen management in the Cincinnati series, but not me. I do question why Hurdle would not pinch hit for Gregory Polanco late in the game when he was matched up against a LOOGY on 4/12. He struck out on a slider a foot off of the plate and in the dirt. Polanco is clearly struggling against southpaws. I do not want Polanco to become a platoon player, but shielding him from lefties makes sense in the near term.
 

Cannonballs: Andrew McCutchen (2), Pedro Alvarez (2), Starling Marte, Neil Walker
 

The little things that matter: Relief pitchers that can not find the strike zone immediately when entering the game put themselves at a huge disadvantage. Rob Scahill fell behind the red hot Todd Frazier and then grooved a 2-0 pitch that Frazier drilled for a leadoff double in the 9th inning on 4/9. Frazier would later score the winning run when Gregory Polanco short line drive.

 

It must be Hidden Vigorish: The Pirates acquired Antonio Bastardo because the southpaw is so damn tough on left handed hitters. In his career lefties are hitting just .187 against him. On 4/8 Bastardo was summoned from the pen to make his first appearance with the Pirates. He was tasked with getting Joey Votto out. Votto delivered a game tying single and the Pirates eventually lost the game 5-4 in extra innings.
 

Stats that blow my mind: Starling Marte is on a pace to strike out 324 times this season (Yes, I am aware pace is meaningless this early in the season).
 

Records and Milestones: On 4/12 Casey Sadler recorded his first major league win and Jung-ho Kang recorded his first major league hit.

 

He said what: After a long rain delay on Wednesday that pushed the start of the game back to 9:45 PM Clint Hurdle asked A.J. Burnett if he wanted to go back to the hotel to rest up for his Thursday afternoon scheduled start. Burnett refused. His rationale was he wouldn’t be able to get any rest anyway.

All I’d do is lay in bed and watch the game.

 

Tweet of the week: The Pirates dropped the first three games of the season, but there is no need to jump off the Clemente Bridge just yet.

 

Front Office Notes: Josh Harrison was signed to contract extension that guarantees him at least $27.3 million. With two team options the Pirates control JHay thru the 2020 season.

 

On The Farm: The full season minor league affiliates kicked off on 4/9. Cole Tucker led the way in the opener for West Virginia by going 3 for 5 with 3 RBIs and 2 SBs. The Power won the game 7-6.

 
Highlight of the week: Cutch’s three-run bomb off of Kyle Lohse that sparked the Pirates’ in a 10-2 victory over the Brewers on Sunday.

 

 

Prospect Report: Level Repeaters

The Pirates four full season minor league affiliates got their seasons underway last week. One of the things I look for when I analyze the rosters at the beginning of the minor league season is which players are assigned to repeat a level. Repeating can be a sign that a player’s development is not going so smoothly. In other cases repeating is simply the result of being blocked by other players at the same position in the upper levels of the system. I do not consider it repeating if a player received an end of season promotion in the prior year in which he played less than 30 games or pitched in less than 12 games. I ignore repeating at the AAA level as this is almost always because the player is being blocked at the major league level. Here are the repeaters on the season opening rosters of the Pir ates minor league affiliates:

 

    Sebastian ValleDemoted from AAA – Valle is a 24 year old catcher that the Pirates signed as a minor league free agent this offseason. He bounced between AA and AAA in the Phillies organization last season. He will split duties with Jacob Stallings at Altoona. Valle could be a late bloomer, but he is most likely destined to be organizational depth.
    Dan GamacheRepeating AA – Gamache is a 24 year old IF. He hit well in 39 games with Altoona last season posting a triple slash line of .275/.340/.486. He missed the first three months of the season with a foot fracture. He should be a regular in the Altoona lineup splitting his playing time between 2B, 3B, and DH.
    Gift NgoepeRepeating AA – Ngoepe is a 25 year old slick fielding SS whose bat has failed to develop. This will be the 3rd straight season Ngoepe has spent at AA Altoona.
    Edward SalcedoDemoted from AAA – The Pirates acquired Salcedo from the Braves in an offseason trade. He is only 23 years old so it is a little misleading that he is being demoted to AA. The Braves advanced him to AAA very quickly where he struggled mightily last season. He has hit 56 home runs in his minor league career so he does have some pop. He played 3B and OF with the Braves. Reports are the Pirates intend to use him at 3B, RF and occasionally 1B with Altoona.
    Willy GarciaRepeating AA – Garcia is a toolsy corner OF with a lot of power but with some serious plate discipline flaws. He hit an impressive 18 home runs with Altoona last season, but also had a K:BB ration of 6 to 1.
    Keon BroxtonRepeating AA – Broxton had a breakout season last year at AA posting an .853 OPS, and the Pirates gave the 25 year old CF an extended look during at invite this March to Major League Spring Training. He is repeating AA because he is organizationally blocked. He deserved a promotion to AAA and will likely get there as soon as a spot opens in Indianapolis.
    Stetson AllieRepeating AA – Allie’s story is pretty well known. Drafted as a pitcher and converted to 1B, he has big time power but a lot of swing and miss in his bat. He improved his walked rate last season which is encouraging. 21 Homers and 71 walks in just 117 games last season at Altoona is pretty impressive. He has potential to be a three true outcomes short side platoon hitter in the major leagues. The Pirates plan to transition him to RF this season to increase his versatility and to open playing time at 1B for top prospect Josh Bell.
    Zack Dodson - Repeating AA – Dodson, a southpaw starting pitcher, continues to be stalled at AA. This will be his third straight season at Altoona. The Pirates drafted him in the 4th Rd of the 2009 draft and gave him a $600K signing bonus. It is hard to classify him as any thing other than a disappointment at this stage of his development.

    Angel Sanchez - Repeating AA – Sanchez is a RHP that spent time at AA last year with four different organizations. The Pirates briefly had him on their 40 man roster. He is 24 years old and has good velocity. In all likelihood he will work out of the Altoona bullpen this season.
    Matt Benedict - Repeating AA – Benedict is a RH relief pitcher. He had a 5.77 ERA in 53 innings last season with Altoona. At 26 years old with little upside his days in affiliated ball appear to be numbered.
    Jin-De JhangRepeating A+ – Jhang is a catcher with good defensive skills, but struggled offensively last season at A+. To be fair he was given an aggressive promotion – last season was a “skipper”, bypassing West Virginia. He will split time behind the dish this season at Bradenton with Reese McGuire.
    Jose OsunaRepeating A+ – Osuna is a 22 year old 1B that will be repeating at A+ Bradenton for the 3rd straight season. In some cases that might be red flag, but not in this case. Osuna was given an aggressive promotion to A+ in 2013 at just 20 years old. Last season he repeated at A+, but posted a solid .804 OPS. He would be at AA this season if not for being blocked by Josh Bell. Osuna should receive a promotion to AA by mid-season. He is still age appropriate for this level.
    Jordan SterankaRepeating A+ – Steranka is a 25 year old 1B with little power and is repeating at A+. That is all you really need to know about him.
    Justin MaffeiRepeating A+ – Maffei played half the season at Bradenton last season and posted a strong .303 AVG in 49 games. It was likely a mirage as he has never shown that kind of ability before. The 23 year old should see fairly regular time in CF for the Marauders this season.
    Ryan HafnerRepeating A+ – Hafner is a very tall RHP that pitched exclusively out of the pen for Bradenton last season. the 23 year old posted a 4.31 ERA in 77.1 innings.
    Jake BurnetteRepeating Full Season A – Burnette has been stalled by injuries. This is essentially his 3rd straight year at West Virginia despite having pitched in only 7 games previously for the Power.
    Dovydas NeverauskasRepeating Full Season A – Neverauskas had a rough season last year in the West Virginia rotation. He made 26 starts and pitched 123.2 innings with the Power 2014. He was hit hard (allowed 151 hits) and struggled with his command. He is 22 years old and well seasoned for this level of play. I believe this is a make or break year for Neverauskas.
    Francisco DiazRepeating Full Season A – Diaz is a 25 year old catcher who has been playing in West Virginia since 2012. He is nothing more than organization filler as a backup catcher in the lower ranks.
    Elvis EscobarRepeating Full Season A – At just 5’8″ Escobar is the shortest player in the system. He is a lefty hitter that has shown neither an impressive hit tool nor great plate discipline thus far in his career. He started last season with West Virginia but was demoted to Jamestown at mid season after posting a paltry .239 OBP thru 55 games with the Power. Escobar is only 20 years old and plays very good defense in CF.
    Jeff RoyRepeating Full Season A – Roy is another smallish left-handed hitting OF with below average plate discipline and no power. He is three years older than Escobar and a lesser defender. He is settling in as an organizational filler extra OF. Last season he split time between West Virginia and Bradenton.

 

Blaming Hurdle for Opening Series Bullpen Failure is Misguided

The Pirates had a very rocky series with the Reds to open the 2015 season. Three games, three rain delays, three losses, and three times the bullpen failed. Hopefully bad things come in threes and this series will soon become a distant memory. The opening series disaster in Cincinnati culminated with manager Clint Hurdle being heaped with a fair amount of scorn for electing to use reliever Rob Scahill in the 9th inning of a game tied at 2-2. The #hurdled hashtag on twitter awoke from hibernation as fans came out in full force to question why the skipper would withhold Mark Melancon, his best reliever, and place the game in the hands of the pitcher who is essentially the 12th man on the pitching staff. It mattered not that 95% of managers will never use a closer in the 9th inning of a tie game on the road. It also didn’t seem to matter that Gregory Polanco dropped a short fly ball on the last play of the game and was a far bigger goat than Scahill. When people want to blame the manager there is no stopping them.
 
There is a time and place for a manager to go off script from the traditional usage of a closer. But I’ll be damned if it is in April in the third game of the season. Lord knows I don’t agree with how managers use bullpens in this era. I think closers should be used in the 8th inning more often. I loathe the fact that the majority of relief pitchers have been conditioned to be 1 inning specialists. Instead of having the four best relievers on a team be available to pitch 1 inning nearly every day I would prefer to split them up so that two pitchers can go multiple innings every other game. But defined bullpen roles are what they are, and no matter how much me or you bitch about those roles the baseball establishment will not be changing them anytime soon. Clint Hurdle is certainly not the manager I am expecting to redefine the modern usage of bullpens. So let’s judge Hurdle under the proper lens. I will do that by rationally explaining why Rob Scahill was the appropriate 9th inning choice yesterday.
 
At the time that Scahill was inserted into the game the Pirates’ best relievers not named Mark Melancon had already been used. The options left were Scahill, Melancon, Radhames Liz, and Jared Hughes. Hughes threw 29 pitches in a 1.2 inning outing the previous night. Any manager would be reluctant to use him on back to back games after that many pitches this early in the season. Liz melted down the pervious game and has a track record no better than Scahill. So that leaves Melancon as the only other choice in a game in which the Pirates still need at least 6 outs to win. In all likelihood the Pirates were still going to need to rely on Scahill or Liz. The only way that could have been avoided is if Melancon pitches the 9th, the Pirates score in the top of the 10th, and then Melancon continues for the bottom of 10th. Those are not great odds. Is that really how you want a manger to handle the bullpen in the third game of the season? If this was a playoff game, or even an important game down the stretch against the Cardinal, then I would agree that the manager should deviate from the script and go with the clsoer. But managing like that now is just going to burn out your best reliever before we even get to the all-star break.
 
What I find odd is that so many people agree with not making payroll investments in the bullpen yet they want to ride one or two arms in every tight situation all season long. It was not Hurdle’s fault that he put the game in Scahill’s hands yesterday. The fault lies with whomever felt the team should roll with three reclamation projects in the bullpen. I am fine with having a few projects in the bullpen. And I agree that spending too much on middle relievers is silly. But I also recognize that doing so means the manager has to throw them into the fire. You can not hide that many inferior relief pitcher options. So if you found yourself asking, “Why Rob Scahill” the question needs to be directed at GM Neal Huntington instead of Clint Hurdle.
 

Bucco Prospect Report: Level Skippers

The Pirates four full season minor league affiliates announced their Opening Day rosters yesterday. One of the first things I look for when the minor league rosters are released is which players are given assignments that bypass a level in the system. Skipping a level can be a sign that the team is high on a player and would like to fast track his advancement. Other times a player might be asked to skip a level due to a roster crunch at a particular position. I also look closely at which players are being asked to repeat a level. I will address those players in a future post. Without further ado here are the players assigned to the Opening Day minor league rosters that are skipping ahead this season:

 

    Kawika Emsley-PaiFrom A to AAA, Skipping both A+ and AA – Kawika Emsley-Pai is nothing more than an organizational filler as a backup catcher. He is a 26 year old non-prospect with a career minor league average of .201. He did play 3 games at AA last year, but saw most of his playing time last season as the backup to Reese McGuire at West Virginia. There is a good chance Emsly-Pai will be shuffled around between the affiliates this season as catching needs develop due to injuries.
    Frank DuncanFrom Short Season A to A+, Skipping Full Season A – Duncan pitched well last year in his first pro season with Jamestown of the NYP League. He displayed excellent control issuing just 11 walks in 65 innings. But because he was drafted as a college senior he will be 23 years old this season. This right hander does not have a lot of time on his side so the Pirates are giving him an aggressive push to find out about him as quickly as possible.
    Tyler EpplerFrom Short Season A to A+, Skipping Full Season A – Eppler also is a RHP that pitched well in his first pro season with Jamestown of the NYP League. However, Eppler is a year younger and has a better pedigree than Duncan. Eppler was the Pirates 6th Rd draft pick last summer.
    Julio VivasFrom Rookie Ball to A+, Skipping Short and Full Season A – This is a very aggressive push. Vivas did post exceptional numbers last year in Rookie Ball. The RHP struck out 29 and issued just 2 walks in 26.2 innings last season. Vivas is only 21 years old.
    Yeudy GarciaFrom DSL to Full Season A, Skipping GCL and Short Season A – This is another very aggressive push. I don’t recall any other cases of the Pirates’ foreign prospects making their debut in the states at West Virginia. But Garcia is not a particularly young prospect. At 22 he is older than most of the Dominicans playing in the DSL. The Pirates obviously feel the need to test him in order to find out what they have in this kid.
    Cole TuckerFrom Rookie Ball to Full Season A, Skipping Short Season A – This is the big one. The Pirates are promoting their 1st Rd Pick from last year’s draft to play SS for West Virginia in the competitive South Atlantic League at just 18 years of age. This is an aggressive push reminiscent of last season when Reese McGuire made the same jump.
    Tito PoloFrom Rookie Ball to Full Season A, Skipping Short Season A – Polo is a Colombian OF that has shown a solid hit tool in the DSL. Last season in the GCL he slashed .291/.374/.475 in 44 games. Polo is only 20 years old. If he does reasonably well at West Virginia this season he will likely break into the rankings as a top 25 player in the system. An excellent year would make his stock soar even higher.

 

Final Analysis of the Pirates Offseason

On the eve of a new baseball season it seems an appropriate time to take a final retrospective of the Pittsburgh Pirates offseason. The 2015 Pirates will return most of the core from a team that has qualified for the playoffs as the NL Wildcard each of the last two seasons. The lone exception is star catcher Russell Martin who signed with the Blue Jays.
 
Because the Pirates’ core players are relatively young, productive, and cost controlled there were few glaring needs that needed to be addressed by GM Neal Huntington. That is not to say he didn’t have plenty of work to do. Upgrading a good team is harder than upgrading a mediocre one. Huntington started the offseason by attempting to retain his best free agent pieces. He extended 1 year qualifying offers (and later made multi-year contract offers) to Martin and starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. He failed to sign Martin, but he did ink Liriano to a 3 year $39 million offer which may well have been the coup of the offseason if not for A.J. Burnett‘s decision to return to the Pirates after a one year stint in purgatory….I mean Philadelphia. Burnett essentially replaces Edinson Volquez in the rotation who left via free agency to sign with the Royals. After filling the needs in the rotation the front office turned its attention to finding a catcher to replace Russell Martin. The Pirates did so by acquiring Francisco Cervelli from Yankees in exchange for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. This was followed by a series of moves aimed at strengthening the bench and the bullpen with a heavy emphasis on positional versatility and power arms.
 
One of the important things to keep in mind when evaluating an offseason trade is how they fit into the whole offseason plan. Often we get carried away with looking at individual trades and declaring an immediate winner or loser. I am guilty of this too. I certainly felt dealing a promising prospect like Buddy Borden to the Rays for utility player Sean Rodriguez was an overpay. Joely Rodriguez seemed a bit steep of a price for southpaw reliever Antonio Bastardo too, though in my opinion the need for another quality lefty in the bullpen justified that move. Later in the offseason OF Travis Snider was dealt to the Orioles for Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault – a pair of promising left-handed pitching prospects. Many fans and members of the Pittsburgh media criticized this deal as well. Some even accused this of being nothing more than a salary dump. If you look at all of these trades together and focus on the net returns you see a much different picture
 

The Pirates traded the following major league players this winter: Ike Davis, Travis Snider & Justin Wilson. Combined 2015 salary: $6.15 million
 

The Pirates traded the following prospects this winter: Buddy Borden, Joely Rodriguez, and Shane Carle
 

The Pirates acquired the following major league players this winter: Sean Rodriguez, Francisco Cervelli, Antonio Bastardo, Arquimedes Caminero, and Rob Scahill. Combined 2015 salary: $7.0 million
 

The Pirates acquired the following prospects this winter: Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault
 

There were a few other depth pieces (such as Steve Lombardozzi) and cash that changed hands in these trades, and the Pirates also picked up some International signing slot money, but at the end of the day we can summarize the net of all these deals in this way: The Pirates got a starting catcher, a utility bench player and several bullpen pieces in exchange for two left-handed platoon players and a promising lefty middle reliever. The salaries are basically a wash, talent is close to equal, but the players acquired are better fits for the roster this year. That is what offseason trading is all about – moving pieces around to find better fits. As for the prospects, in my opinion the Pirates have come ahead in these deals. Stephen Tarpley is the best prospect that changed hands in any of these trades.
 

Of course the trades were only half of the story in the Bucs’ quest to build a better bench and bullpen this season. The team bid farewell to Gaby Sanchez and Clint Barmes and signed Corey Hart as a free agent. They made a surprise addition by signing pitcher Radhames Liz to a guaranteed MLB contract despite the fact he hasn’t pitched in the majors in 6 years. Whether Liz turns out to be any kind of upgrade is yet to be determined. However, the scouts were impressed with the upper 90′s velocities he was posting in the Dominican Winter League, and if the Pirates feel he is a worth a flyer I am more than willing to trust them on this given their track record of fixing pitchers. And the final free agent addition was the one with the most upside – shortstop Jung-ho Kang. Kang has mashed for several seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization. He blasted 40 homes with a 1.198 OPS in the KBO last year. Kang’s power is intriguing, but what he can do against MLB pitching is still a big question. He is making an unprecedented jump from a position player in the KBO to the major leagues.
 
So did the front office do enough this offseason to improve on a team that last year won 88 games? It is to tough to say because all of the improvements are on the margins. It may even be fair to question if the team is better at all. I do believe the rotation, bench, and bullpen are marginally better. But there is no clear cut certain upgrade that was added to the team this offseason. Perhaps more should have been done. The Pirates had the resources to do more. According to the latest Forbes estimates the Pirates raked in $43.6 million in profits last season – 5th highest in all of baseball. The Pirates are capable of competing for top free agents. Russell Martin was signed away by the Blue Jays. James Shields signed with the Padres. The 2015 Pirates would be better with either of those two players, yet they were signed by two teams that had lower revenues than the Pirates did last season.
 
Despite the lack of a truly big free agent splash or blockbuster trade, I think Neal Huntington mixed and matched well this offseason. I am bullish on the Bucs in 2015. I predict a 91-71 record and their first division title since 1992.
 

Expect A.J. Burnett to Return to his 2013 Form

It is understandable if A.J. Burnett would like to take a mulligan for his 2014 season. No veteran pitcher wants to waste one of the final seasons of his career getting tagged with 18 losses on a last place ball club. Last season started with a regrettable decision to leave the Pittsburgh Pirates and their analytic approach to defending ground balls in favor of an opportunity to make more money in Philly and be closer to his home in nearby Monkton, MD. He got off to a good start to the season, but lost effectiveness after a hernia injury in April. His strikeout rate dropped from 9.85 K/9 in 2013 to 8.00 K/9 last season. His ground ball rate dropped from 56.5% to 50.9%. To his credit he pitched the entire season with the injury and amassed 213.2 innings. That speaks to the competitor that Burnett is. Not many pitchers would gut out an injury like that for a team having such a miserable season. Yes, there were escalator clauses in his contract based on the number of starts he made. But he proved it wasn’t about that when he exercised his option to opt out of his deal with the Phillies in 2015 so that he could return to the Pirates. That sets up 2015 as a do-over for the 38 year old Burnett. Now the question becomes can he return to the form he displayed in his first stint in Pittsburgh?
 
Despite his age A.J. Burnett is a pitcher I think you can count on for a bounce back. His hernia is now repaired. I believe the injury was the biggest factor in his struggles last season. Burnett’s GB% plunged after the injury. He started the season by posting a very A.J. Burnett-like 56% GB% in the month of April, but the rate dropped to just 42.6% in May and 47.1% in June. The only month in which he posted a GB% below 50% in his entire two year stay with the Bucs was April of 2012 when he made just two starts because he missed the first few weeks of season while recovering from a fractured orbital. As the season wore on his ground ball rate began to rise as Burnett became more acclimated to pitching with the injury. But he was never really quite the same pitcher. Now the injury is repaired and it appears Burnett is back on track. Burnett said he feels great this Spring. There does not appear to be any lingering effects from his offseason surgery. As long as Burnett is healthy there is no reason he can’t be as effective as he was in his previous go around with the Pirates. That means high ground ball rates with plenty of Ks too. At the very least he will be better than what he was with the Phillies last season. Even with the injury last season Burnett had value. He chewed up valuable innings and posted a 1.5 fWAR. That was more than the 1.0 fWAR Edinson Volquez contributed for the Pirates. A healthy Burnett can be a significant upgrade.
 

The Best Ground Ball Pitcher in the Pirates Farm System

In recent seasons The Pirates have built a defensive strategy around positional infield shifting. This strategy requires pitchers that can pound the lower half of the strike zone to induce ground balls – something the Pirates have been exceptionally good at as Travis Sawchik of the Trib pointed out in is this excellent piece, “Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone”. As a staff the Pirates 51.5% ground ball percentage was tops in baseball by a wide margin. Individually Charlie Morton ranked 8th best (55.7%) and Francisco Liriano ranked 9th best (54.4%) in GB% among starting pitchers with a minimum of 100 IPs last season season. In the bullpen Jared Hughes posted a 64.6% ground ball rate, good enough for 6th best among relievers with at least 30 IPs. The Pirates clearly have been able to create ground ball pitchers at the big league level. But what about the next wave of pitchers coming up from the minors? Are there any high percentage ground ball specialists emerging in the farm system? The answer is yes, and his name is John Kuchno.
 

John Kuchno is a tall 6’5″ RHP drafted by the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2012 draft after his sophomore season at Ohio State. His control is fair, he doesn’t miss many bats, and as a late round pick he doesn’t come with a pedigree. But of all the pitchers in the Pirates farm system none do a better job of keeping the ball on the ground than Kuchno. Last season Kuchno produced a 58.1% GB% with Bradenton of the Advanced A Florida State League. The previous season with the West Virginia Power he posted a 55.2% rate. In fact, Kuchno has gotten better at rolling ground balls at every stop in the minors. That is notable because ground ball rates decline league wide the further up the ranks of the minors. Last season the GB% in the AAA International League was 42.0% compared to 43.6% in AA Eastern League and 44.6% in The Florida State League and the South Atlantic League (the two full season A ball leagues in which the Pirates have affiliates). Here are Kuchno’s ground ball rates compared to league averages during his first three minor league seasons:
 

Year League Level GB% League AVG GB% Diff
2012 NYP A- 53.3% 45.0% +8.3%
2013 SAL A 55.2% 44.6% +10.9%
2014 FSL A+ 58.1% 44.6% +13.5%

 

John Kuchno does not miss enough bats to be the kind of prospect anyone should get too excited about. Last year he struck out just 3.88 batters per 9 innings. His career minor league rate is just 5.19 K/9. And he did not rack up tons of Ks in college either. However, with the Pirates emphasis on ground balls it would be foolish to dismiss Kuchno. There is simply no one better than Kuchno in the Pirates’ farm system at inducing ground balls.
 

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