It’s back! After the long cold winter Opening Day is finally here!
Is there a better day for a baseball fan than opening day? We can now put all the discussion points of the offseason to bed and focus on what happens on the field. The Pirates will start 2014 with a 0-0 record, just like every other season. But this one feels much different. It has been a long time since the Bucs started a season with this much hope and these many expectations. This is a good team that should have a good year. With a little luck it could be a great year.
Just a few programming notes for the new season. Every Sunday evening during the season I’ll post a weekly roundup titled TWIBB Notes. TWIBB stands for This Week in Buccos Baseball. I’m also going to follow and post frequent farm reports of the Pirates minor league affiliate, the West Virginia Power. Several Sally League teams are within a few hours drive of where I live, and I will attend a few games when the Power visits. I will be writing first hand reports of the games I attend. These are just a few of the ideas I have in mind. I will posting often, so keep coming back. Enjoy the season. I know I will. Let’s Go Bucs!
I had planned on writing up a very long and thorough post to preview the Pirates’ 2014 season. It was going to be full of sabermetric projections and all sorts of goodies for just about every player on the roster that I have not yet profiled. Unfortunately, I had a family emergency this weekend and didn’t have the time to get to it. But I still want to put some of my thoughts on the blog before the season starts. This will be a little scattered and not as thorough as I want, but it will be here for posterity.
Starting Rotation: I like rotation with the exception of Edinson Volquez. I think Volquez is going to be an utter failure. I think he’ll be cut before the all-star break. There a lot of amateur sabermetric hacks that point to Volquez’s 4.07 xFIP as reason to be hopeful that he can rebound. What they fail to mention is that Volquez often under pitches his xFIP. His career ERA is 0.58 higher than his career xFIP in 850 innings. That is no small sample. The lack of a proven innings eater in the rotation is worrisome, but the Pirates do have plenty of depth to cover for that. I expect Gerrit Cole to be one of the top 20 pitchers in the league. I think Charlie Morton is going to have the best year of his career. Francisco Liriano is likely to regress some, but I fully expect he will still be an asset in the rotation. Wandy Rodriguez is the wild card. If he can stay healthy and return to form this could be an excellent rotation. Wandy’s spring training performance was promising.
Bullpen: Last season the Pirates had one of the best bullpens in the league. Little has changed with that group of arms. Vin Mazzaro is out and Stolmy Pimentel is in. Bullpens are highly volatile from year to year. I do fear some regression is going to bite the Bucs’ bullpen this season. I’m also concerned that Jason Grilli might not regain the velocity or the effectiveness he lost after straining his elbow last July. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if manager Clint Hurdle has to turn to multiple closers. This is just a hunch, but by the end of the year I have a funny feeling that Tony Watson will be the guy being leaned on to finish games.
Outfield: Any group that has CF Andrew McCutchen is going to be good. Pair him with LF Starling Marte and you have one of the best in the league. The only question is RF, and when Gregory Polanco gets called up the Pirates’ outfield could be one of the best that baseball has seen in more than a decade. Until Polanco arrives Travis Snider and Jose Tabata will split time in RF. Both are often injured. Both have failed to live up to expectations. Both could still be key contributors. I think Travis Snider might be ready to take the leap forward. He seems like the more motivated player of the two.
Infield: Let’s get the dark spot of this team out of the way quickly. 1B is an obvious hole. Gaby Sanchez is a quality alternative against southpaws. The options against right-handed pitching is just bad. Travis Ishikawa is not a long term answer. He better get off to a hot start or he won’t be here long. I think the team will give Andrew Lambo another shot as soon as he strings together a good week of hitting at Indianapolis. Not that I think Lambo is much of an answer either. I expect him to flop too. GM Neal Huntington better be active at the trade deadline to fix this problem. The rest of the infield looks solid. Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker are both top 10 players at their positions. Both have had issues hitting against left-handed pitching. Last season they posted an OPS of under .600 against southpaws. I think they will improve those numbers a bit this year. They have to or they will end up losing playing time. Jordy Mercer could put up the best offensive season from a Pirates’ shortstop since Jack Wilson won the Silver Slugger award in 2004. The question with Mercer is can he play adequate defense at SS over a full season? I think he will be acceptable. He better be because this pitching staff knows how to roll ground balls.
Catchers: Catching is another strength for this team. Russell Martin is an elite defensive catcher and an excellent pitch framer. He earns his money just by what he does behind the dish, though he is no slouch in the batters’ box either. He is by far the Pirates’ most selective hitter. I do believe Martin may regress some this season. He is on the wrong side of 30 and has caught more than 1000 big league games. That tells you his career is on the backside of the mountain. Hopefully there is no cliff there yet. I hope Hurdle gives him more rest this season. I would limit him to 100 starts. Tony Sanchez is the backup for the time being while Chris Stewart recovers from a knee injury. Sanchez could play Stewart right off the roster.
Prediction: Record of 86-76. Second place in the NL Central behind the Cardinals. I have a bad feeling they are going to fall a game or two short of the final wild card spot.
The Pirates locked up OF Starling Marte this week to a 6 year, $31 million contract extension that also includes two option years. This entails all of Marte’s pre-arbitration and arbitration seasons, as well as three of his free agent years. This deal is certainly a coup for GM Neal Huntington. There is nothing to not like about this contract. It gives the Pirates control of the dynamic young outfielder thru the 2021 season at quite a discount. Just how much of a discount? According to Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory and the creator of the ZiPS projection system, the discount is pretty steep.
It is true that Marte’s greatest skills, speed and defense, are a bit undervalued in the arbitration system. But even if you trim his arbitration valuations by 20% from the ZiPS projections, this deal still represents nearly a $10 million discount for the Pirates. And that is before we even begin to look at the potential surplus values of the option years. This was a great deal for the Pirates. It was also a good deal for Starling Marte. This was a poor kid from the Dominican Republic that was given a small signing bonus as an amateur free agent signing. His career earnings to date are under $1 million. Now he has the kind of financial security that sets him up for the rest of his life.
Huntington even deserves credit for the structure of this contract. He bought himself some extra payroll flexibility in future seasons by using some of the available cash hoard from his unspent payroll budget this winter to include a $2 million signing bonus into Marte’s contract. That kind of front loading keeps the salary in later years lower. In year 6 of the contract Marte will be making just $10 million. But let’s not pat Neal Huntington on the back too hard. This is how most MLB baseball teams operate in this era. Locking up young talent very early is not an option for small market teams. This is a necessity. This should be considered BAU (business as usual). As great as this deal is for the Pirates, it was low-hanging fruit. Huntington got a 3-0 cookie right down the middle of the plate and he hit it out of the park. Future contract negotiations with extension candidates will not be so easy. Will Huntington be able to convince Pedro Alvarez or Gerrit Cole to sign a similar extension with the Pirates? Probably not. Those players are represented by agent Scott Boras and he is almost never willing to postpone free agency. For players that Huntington can’t lock up long term will he be able to make the hard decision to hold them or trade them at just the right time? Will Huntington be able to move an asset from a contender and get the kind of returns necessary to keep the machine running without missing a beat? Trading a star player during a rebuilding period is a completely different animal than dealing a star from a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. It has become in vogue for bloggers to insist the small market Pirates need to replicate the Tampa Ray model of baseball operations. Personally, I don’t agree with that. The Pirates can’t be the St. Louis Cardinals, but they don’t have to be exactly like the Rays either. Why can’t they blaze their own trail somewhere in between? Regardless, at some point in the future Neal Huntington is going to have to deal a player simply because he can’t be signed and he has too much value and can fetch too much of a return, much like the Rays did when they dealt James Shields to the Royals for Wil Myers. Can Huntington make that sort of deal? Your guess is as good as mine, but this much I know. That will be significantly harder to do than signing Starling Marte to a contract extension.
The Pirates acquired pitcher Vance Worley from the Twins yesterday for cash considerations. This move has AAA depth written all over it. The rotation in Indy looks to be a little unsettled to start the season. Jeff Locke has battled an oblique strain this spring and is not yet completely stretched out. Top prospect Jameson Taillon is shut down with elbow discomfort.
Here is your Vance Worley scouting report. He has a douchey nickname, “The Vanimal”, and he wears douchey glasses. I saw him quite a bit when he pitched for Philly. He has very average stuff, but good control. His bread and butter pitch is the cutter. When he first came up with Phillies he missed a lot of bats with it. Worley started having issues with his shoulder towards the end of the 2012 season. He has not been the same since. He was dealt to the Twins prior to the 2013. Worley got rocked last season to the tune of 82 hits in just 48.2 innings. He was terrible this Spring as well. The Twins cut him and he cleared waivers. I think Worley is going to have to remake himself. His cutter just isn’t effective any longer. Perhaps the Pirates can turn him into a successful two seam fastball/sinker pitcher.
The all new Trader Neal Trade Tracker has been updated to include the acquisition of Vance Worley.
The Pirates cut 11 players from the major league camp roster today, the most notable of which was sending Andrew Lambo down to the minor league camp. It was presumed Lambo would occupy the left-hand side of the 1B platoon. He was the front runner for that role coming into spring training, but going 4 for 42 in Grapefruit League action did him in. This opens the door for Travis Ishikawa. Unless the Pirates can trade for a 1B in the next 6 days Ishikawa will make the roster. Many prominent bloggers, and a large contingent of the fanbase, felt Lambo should make the club regardless of his spring stats. The argument has been that his 2013 breakout season in the minors in which he clubbed 32 home runs warranted him being given a “real” chance. I couldn’t disagree more. Players of Lambo’s ilk must continue to earn playing time. That also goes for Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, and even Jordy Mercer. They have not proven to be consistent productive players for more than a few months. This isn’t like the Pirate teams of the past 20 seasons that had a ceiling of about 75 wins. This is a team coming off the playoffs in 2013. They should be playoff contenders again this season. I don’t believe Spring Training stats are all that meaningful, but it is clear that Lambo was struggling. The Pirates can’t afford to turn over the job to an unproven player that is also struggling. I don’t believe Lambo is the answer for 1B. I didn’t think that prior to camp either. But I’m also not writing Lambo off. If Lambo gets hot at AAA Indy he will earn another shot. The key word here is EARN. There can’t and shouldn’t be any handouts to unproven players on a contending team. And that is the most positive thing that can be said about this roster move.
It is no secret that Gaby Sanchez tears up left-handed pitching and struggles against righties. We all know that Neil Walker has become a liability when he hits from the right side of the plate. It is a well know fact that Andrew McCutchen rakes against all pitching, but absolutely destroys lefties. Here are some lesser known platoon facts for the Pirates. All stats are from 2013 unless otherwise noted:
The Pirates faced 131 right-handed starting pitchers and just 31 left-handed starting pitchers last season. The league average was 48
The last team that faced fewer than 31 southpaw starting pitchers was the Colorado Rockies in 2006 (29)
The Brewers and Cardinals will open the season with no lefties in their rotations. The Reds have just 1.
Gaby Sanchez started 30 games against left-handed starting pitchers and 30 games against right-handed starting pitchers
Gaby Sanchez faced a right-handed pitcher in 96 different games. In those games he amassed 196 plate appearances against RHPs, or 2.04 PA/GM vs. right-handers
Gaby Sanchez faced a left-handed pitcher in 64 different games last season. In those games he amassed 126 plate appearances against LHPs, or 1.97 PA/GM vs. southpaws
Neil Walker made just 16 starts against left-handed starting pitchers
Pedro Alvarez led the Pirates in plate appearances against left-handed pitchers with 147
Pedro Alvarez had just a .310 OBP against right-handed pitchers
Jose Tabata had a ground ball rate of 60.8% and 12 infield hits off of righties
Jose Tabata struck out 11 times and walked just once against left-handers
Brandon Inge struck out 12 times and walked zero times against left-handers
Starling Marte had a .523 BABIP against southpaws
Following a wildly successful 2013 season, the Pirates entered the offseason with an obvious hole at 1B, and question marks at RF, SS, and in the starting rotation. I had very modest expectations for GM Neal Huntington this winter. If he could resign A.J. Burnett or a comparable starting pitcher, and upgrade the 1B position I would consider that a successful offseason. I don’t believe I am alone in that line of thinking. But here we are a little more than a week away from the start of the 2014 season and the same questions exist. Here is how each position in question was addressed:
Shortstop: Huntington chose to resign free agent Clint Barmes. Barmes will take on a supporting role this year while Jordy Mercer will now get the lion’s share of the playing time. It does not appear the Pirates gave any thought to signing another starting caliber free agent SS like Stephen Drew who is still on the market. The team is essentially sticking with the status quo. I can’t fault Huntington for sticking with the internal option at SS. Mercer performed well last season and has room to improve. As long as manager Clint Hurdle does not overuse/misuse Barmes this should turn out to be an acceptable solution.
Right Field: Huntington showed little interest in resigning free agent Marlon Byrd, despite how well he performed in his short tenure with the Bucs. Byrd got a generous offer from the Phillies and flew off to Philadelphia. The Pirates appear set to hand the RF job once again to a platoon of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider. Huntington did acquire minor league OF Jaff Decker in a deal with the Padres. He also signed Chris Dickerson to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. Both players give the team some depth in case of injury to any of the Bucs’ outfielders. Given the injury history of Tabata, Snider, and Starling Marte there is a pretty good chance that Decker and/or Dickerson are going to get opportunities to contribute this season. With top prospect Gregory Polanco knocking on the door to take over the RF job soon, it didn’t make a lot of sense to commit to another player outside the organization. The internal options are more than adequate for the short term.
Starting Pitcher: In my opinion Huntinton erred in not offering A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer. He then swung and missed in an attempt to sign Josh Johnson. He also kicked the tires on Bronson Arroyo, but the interest seemed to be tepid at best. Ultimately he overpaid Edinson Volquez, one of the most erratic pitchers in baseball over the last several seasons. I don’t have an issue taking a flyer on a pitcher like Volquez. But paying him $5 million in early December and virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the rotation made no sense. There were still many good starting pitchers available at the time. Quite a few signed for far less than what the Bucs paid Volquez. The only positive move made was to lock up Charlie Morton to a three year extension.
First Base: This position pretty much defines the Pirates offseason. Huntington came up short in his effort to sign James Loney. Loney decided to stay with the Rays. Reportedly the Pirates offered him a similar deal. I understand he liked the Rays and wanted to return. But the Pirates should have the financial resources to convince a player they truly want to choose Pittsburgh over Tampa. Instead of bolstering the position, they went backwards. Garrett Jones was released and Justin Morneau signed as a free agent with the Rockies. Jones and Morneau are no great shakes, but considering how questionable the remaining suspects that play the position are it would have made sense to retain one of the veterans. Instead the Bucs acquired minor league 1B Chris McGuiness from the Rangers, and brought in Travis Ishikawa on a minor league deal with a spring training invite. McGuiness and Ishikawa are competing with Andrew Lambo for the left-handed hitting 1B platoon role. Yikes! That is a whole lot of AAAA type talent the Pirates are banking on to bolster the position. The other option that the team has hinted at is to give the the right-handed hitting Gaby Sanchez a chance to once again be an everyday 1B. Sanchez rakes against left-handed pitchers, but he has just a .700 OPS in his career against right-handed pitchers. No way around it, Huntington deserves an F for how he addressed the team’s 1B need.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, the Bucs’ front office had a pretty terrible offseason. A contending team like the Pirates needs to do more than what they did. The Pirates spent just $7 million in free agency this winter. That was least of any team in baseball. On top of the inactivity, Huntington made a slew of confusing comments starting with this one made in November:
If he or others want a market-value deal, they’ll sign elsewhere
A few months later Huntington told Travis Sawchik of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he had $17-$19 million in his budget to spend on free agents this winter. If there was that much money available in the budget why couldn’t Neal Huntington pay market-value for a decent starting pitcher or a 1B upgrade? If you are hungry for a pizza and you have $20 in your wallet (or man purse for you non-traditional types) do you not order a pizza simply because you couldn’t find a buy one get one free offer? A lot of fans want to rip owner Bob Nutting for the Pirates’ lack of spending. I too have complained in the past that Nutting should open the pocketbook more. But I can’t fault Bob for this offseason. The statement Huntington made indicates he has a sizable budget increase to work with. By his owe admission he had $19 million to spend on free agents. He only spent $7 million of it, quite poorly I might add. Bob Nutting gave the GM enough cash to fill the shopping cart half full with groceries. Huntington came back with a pack of gum.
There are a lot of excuses why Huntington couldn’t do more. One of the biggest excuses is the free agent market just wasn’t that great and the Pirates shouldn’t overpay for mediocre talent. A lot of fans and bloggers laughed at the Rockies for clearly overpaying Justin Morneau. Morneau looks to be about 1.0 WAR player at this point of his career. The Rockies are paying him $6.25 annually over the next two seasons. The Pirates spent $7 million on a pair of free agents that combined for 1.0 fWAR in 2013. How is that any better? The other excuse I heard this winter is that the Pirates made competitive offers to players such as Johnson and Loney that chose different teams because of either location or familiarity. My response to that is why should the front office get a pass for a crummy sales job? This is a contending team coming off a 94 win season. PNC park is the most pitcher friendly park in the league. A good salesmen should be able to close on that. The bottom line is that the excuses are worthless, and the front office laid an egg this winter. Whether that ultimately hurts the Pirates is yet to be seen. Games are won on the field in the summer, not in the office during the winter. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Front Office missed on nearly every opportunity to make this team stronger. That is why I’m giving them a D grade for the offseason. Frankly, I think that might be generous.
Rob Biertempfel of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported yesterday that the Pirates are shopping outfielders Jose Tabata and Travis Snider.
Prior to the 2009 season Snider was rated as the 6th best prospect and Tabata was rated as the 27th best prospect by Baseball America. Neither has lived up to those lofty expectations. Both players will be 26 years old this season. Fans of the club have rather mixed opinions on whether or not to move either of these outfielders. Many people have seen enough from these two players and have no issues with the Pirates purging them from the roster. Others point to the resurgence of Brandon Moss in Oakland as the reason not to give up on talent like Snider or Tabata too early. Moss was also a former top 100 Prospect that the Pirates arguably gave up on too early. Last season he slugged 30 homers and posted an .859 OPS. Did the Pirates give up on him too early? Maybe, maybe not. It did take almost two seasons after the Pirates released him until he resurfaced and established himself as bonafide major league hitter.
The Pirates have a history of cutting bait on former highly touted prospects once they pass age 25. Let’s compare what two Pirates from the not too distant past did in their tenure with the team:
Player A – #72 top ranking – 195 games – 569 ABs – .667 OPS – Cut at age 26
Player B – #09 top ranking – 171 games – 599 ABs – .718 OPS – Cut at age 25
Now compare those with Travis Snider:
Travis Snider – #06 top ranking – 161 games – 389 ABs – .627 OPS – Age 26
Player A was Brandon Moss. The organization said goodbye to him once and for all following the 2010 season. Player B was Lastings Milledge. He was also released after the 2010 season. Many Bucs fans still lament the loss of Moss, but no one seems too upset that Milledge was let go. Milledge played just two games in the majors after the Pirates released him. The last couple of seasons he has played in Japan. What is interesting is that the Pirates appear to have a longer leash now with these types of players despite the fact that there is much more talent in the organization than when the decisions were made to move on from Moss and Milledge. Maybe what Moss has done in Oakland has taught GM Neal Huntington a lesson on the valuation of former top prospects. Or maybe it is just a coincidence. Regardless, knowing the right time to cut bait on a player isn’t always easy. Getting the decision right 50% of the time will not be good enough to appease the critics. The one that got away will always hurt no matter how many turds were properly flushed.
Neal Huntington’s big offseason bets are busting – GM Neal Huntington made two big gambles this offseason. The first gamble was to spend $5 million on free agent starting pitcher Edinson Volquez in the hopes that the Pirates’ coaching staff could work their magic on him the way they did with Francisco Liriano in the season prior. If Volquez turns out to be half as good as Liriano, he would make a nice back end of the rotation starter. The second gamble was to not address the hole at 1B and trust that rookie Andrew Lambo could fill the position. Both of these bets are not looking good. It is only Spring Training, and the numbers mean nothing yet, but that doesn’t make them any less scary. Volquez has an 11.00 ERA this Spring. The Pirates have used 35 pitchers in Grapefruit League action. Volquez’s ERA ranks 35th on the team. Andrew Lambo is hitting just .065. Of the players with at least 10 ABs, only Chris Stewart has a lower batting average than Lambo.
Tony Sanchez is Pittsburgh bound – Chris Stewart injured his knee last week. There appears to be some significant damage. Stewart is likely headed for surgery and a lengthy DL stint. It sucks for Stewart, but in the long run this probably benefits the Pirates. I didn’t like the Stewart acquisition to begin with. I understand he is very good defensively, but it is time for Tony Sanchez to become a major league contributor. His bat offers way more than Stewart’s does. I think Sanchez can fine tune his craft better by working as a backup to Russell Martin. I just hope manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t let him rot on the bench. Sanchez needs some playing time, and Martin needs to be rested more often than he was last season.
#hurdled. It is a running joke on twitter among fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates during baseball season. Anytime manager Clint Hurdle makes a suspect tactical move during a game the #hurdled hash tag rears its head. Criticizing a coach or manager is practically a birthright of any fan. Clint Hurdle has one of the more unfortunate names and is leading a team that just had an historic streak of 20 straight losing seasons. So there was no way Hurdle was ever going to escape criticism. No manager can, especially not one in Pittsburgh. I’m also often critical of Hurdle’s in game management. For a guy that says he is a big proponent of data and sabermetric analysis he still makes a lot of terrible old school managerial decisions. But this post isn’t about to become a bash Clint Hurdle piece. Nor will it be about managers calling sacrifice bunts too often or being too slow to adopt changes for lineup optimization and bullpen usage. The subject of this post will concern the human element of management and how few managers in the game have mastered it as well as Clint Hurdle. This post is by my growing appreciation for Clint Hurdle, and why I feel he is the perfect manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review posted an article this weekend that chronicled the development of Gregory Polanco from a 16 year old in the Dominican Republic with a small signing bonus to one of the brightest prospects in the game. The most interesting thing I learned from the article was Clint Hurdle’s involvement. According to Sawchik, Hurdle takes a few days each spring to check out the prospects at the minor league camp. During Spring Training in 2012 Hurdle plucked Polanco from the minor league camp and gave him a cameo in a Grapefruit League game with the major league squad. He had not yet appeared on any of the lists of top 100 prospects. He was a 20 year old kid that hadn’t yet broken out as a prospect. Few scouts had him on their radar. The previous season he hit just .237 in the Gulf Coast League. Up to that point in his career Polanco had never played in front of a real crowd. The Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League are sparsely attended events on fields surrounded with chain link fence. They are nothing like what you envision when you think of a professional baseball field. Imagine how excited Polanco was to be given a chance to play in front of a crowd of thousands on the same field with major league baseball players. Imagine how grateful he was to Clint Hurdle to be given an opportunity like that.
It is stories like this that make you realize how perfect Clint Hurdle is for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clint Hurdle gets it. He knows how important it is for a small market team like the Pirates to have a strong minor league farm system that continues to develop talent. Most MLB managers don’t pay much attention to what goes on down on the farm. They certainly aren’t taking extra time to help cultivate players in low A Ball. Hurdle doesn’t run from the small market label of the Pirates. He embraces it. But the thing is, Clint Hurdle isn’t just doing this to help the team succeed. He does it because he genuinely cares about people. His players know this. They trust him. They seek him out for guidance. It is nothing you can see in the bottom of the 8th inning of a tie game in the middle of a playoff race. It is way more important than that. It is what makes Hurdle a great leader of men. Clint Hurdle gets it. He knows what makes his players tick. He knows what makes people tick. It is the reason I’ve come to love Clint Hurdle. Even if he does waste too many outs sacrificing.