I have a love/hate relationship with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke. I love to call him Mr. Nibbles, but I generally hate how he pitches. With that said I’ve always seen the value that Locke has brought to the Pirates. He is better than the 5th starter that most teams are forced to use. And it is hard to deny that the guy tends to pitch well early in the season. His first half splits over his career are marked with a stellar 3.25 ERA. It is the second half of the year when Locke historically wilts. While many fans wanted to see Mr. Nibbles jettisoned last offseason after a particularly horrendous stretch run in 2015 (5.07 ERA after August 1st), I was happy to see the Pirates keep Jeff Locke in the fold for 2016. Heading into 2016 the Pirates were an organization eagerly awaiting to the arrival of high end pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. Due to financial implications, further seasoning, and workload management Taillon and Glasnow were not expected to make their way to Pittsburgh until June. Is there a better bridge to this high end talent than Jeff Locke? He is almost a perfect fit. The Pirates could run him out to the mound every 5th day for the first few months of the season when he historically pitches well. And just before he historically hits the wall he could be yanked from the rotation in favor of Taillon or Glasnow. So far Locke has delivered on his end. He is coming off perhaps the finest outing of his career…. a three hit complete game shutout of the Marlins on Memorial Day. Over his last seven starts Jeff Locke has a 3.47 ERA. Among Pirate starting pitchers only Gerrit Cole has been better. But don’t be fooled, Jeff Locke is not loaded! This is his M.O. In all likelihood the wheels are going to fall off for Locke. Just like they did last year. Just like they did in 2014. Just like they did after he earned an all-star bid with a stellar first half in 2013. In the next few weeks Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and perhaps Chad Kuhl will be ready to make their MLB debuts. And when they do that should be the end of Mr. Nibbles in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates are set to embark on the 2016 baseball season in which it is widely believed they will once again be the bridesmaids of the NL Central. The Pirates have been strong contenders for three years running, but none of those season were quite good enough to claim the NL Central Division Crown. If the Pirates are going leap frog the Cardinals, stave off the Cubs, and avoid the Roulette Wheel that is the Wild Card Game they will have to overcome a few soft spots in the make up of this year’s squad. GM Neal Huntington has built another deep team that should be able to weather the rigors of a long baseball season. But this team still has a few flaws. The most glaring is the middle of the rotation.
If Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano can remain healthy the Pirates have a formidable one-two punch at the front of the rotation. And the Bucs have a plethora of options at the back of the rotation that are competent major league pitchers. It is frustrating watching Jeff Locke reprise his role as Mr. Nibbles, but Locke is better than what most of the teams in baseball are using as a 5th starter. Where the rotation is soft is in the middle. Huntington chose to address the rotation during the offseason by compensating for it. Instead of acquiring a strong middle of the rotation pitcher (and I do not consider Jon Niese to fit that description), Huntington chose to invest in high end middle relievers that throw hard. The plan makes a lot of sense. Limit the exposure of your soft tossing middle rotation pitchers by only expecting 5 innings from them. Then turn the ball over to guys that throw gas like Arquimedes Caminero and new acquisitions Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz. But a funny thing happened in Spring Training – Nicasio dominated while getting his work in as a starter early in Grapefruit League action. The Pirates wisely reconsidered Nicasio’s role. Nicasio will start the season in the rotation.
Nicasio goes from being a key piece in the new plan to use high end middle relievers to build a bridge earlier in the middle innings to now being the best hope of executing the old blueprint the Pirates used over the past several seasons to build a formidable rotation. The Buccos have gotten a lot of mileage by acquiring starting pitchers that have struggled with command but have swing and miss stuff. The coaching staff has done a tremendous job of fixing these types of pitchers and turning them into front line starters. Examples include A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ… and now Juan Nicasio fits that mold. If Nicasio can become the next Burnirianoquez that soft spot in the middle of the Pirates rotation gets much firmer. That could make all thee difference in whether or not the Pirates are bridemaids once again or if they will be saying “I Do” to a NL Central Division Crown in September.
Last week the Pirates wrapped up one of the last formalities of the off-season by settling the contracts of all their arbitration eligible players. There are still a few more weeks left before the team commences with Spring Training. Perhaps GM Neal Huntington will make another addition to the club before then. But in all likelihood the opening day payroll of the club looks to be set just short of $100 million. 18 players on the roster will earn salaries of $2 million or more in 2016. They combine to account for $93 million of the club’s major league payroll. Filling out the 25 man roster with near minimum salaried pre-arbitration players pushes the payroll to about $97 million to start the season. That is slightly higher than the payroll at the end of last season, and represents a bump of about $9 million over the start of 2015. Given their history of making in season additions over the past 4 seasons it is safe to speculate Neal Huntington has another $5M to $10M of maneuverability left with the payroll. So a 2016 payroll budget of $105 million sounds about right. There are certainly good arguments to be made for why Pirates Owner Bob Nutting should be giving his General Manager even more financial resources. But that is not the purpose of this post. Instead of criticizing the club for how much they should be spending I am going to criticize them for what they actually are spending for.
The club took a big hit this winter from a certain segment of the fan base that likes to call the Pirates cheap. It was basically two moves that drew their ire. The first was not retaining J.A. Happ (or not signing a comparable mid-rotation pitcher to replace him). Happ signed with Toronto for a 3 year deal worth $36 million. Toronto may have slightly overpaid for Happ, but $12 million per annum for Happ is not exorbitant by any means. The second move that got the fan base rankled was dealing hometown boy and fan favorite Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for Left handed starting pitcher Jon Niese. Both of these decisions were viewed as the Pirates choosing to cut costs over building a championship. But in reality Neal Huntington had more than enough money in the budget to retain Walker and resign Happ. The Walker for Niese swap was very nearly an even money trade. Jon Niese is set to earn $9 million this coming season. Walker is estimated to earn about $10.5 million in his final year of the arbitration. Yes, we can chalk this move up as a slight savings for the Bucs. But it is a savings that easily could have been accounted for just by the amount of money Huntington chose to commit to free agent signings. All told Neal Huntington spent $21 million on free agent signings this winter, $17 million of which applies to the 2016 payroll. That is enough to cover the slight savings that was actualized by dealing Walker, as well as the $12 million in salary that Happ will earn in 2016. So these moves that were criticized by the fan base as cost cutting measures were far more about budget allocation than the actual size of the budget.
Of course it is not fair to criticize what the club chose not to spend on without considering what they did spend on. This is where the plan of the front office this off-season really breaks down for me. Of all the signings the team made I see just one upgrade – John Jaso to replace Pedro Alvarez as the left handed hitter in the 1B platoon. Jaso lacks Alvarez’s power, but Jaso is still an overall better hitter than Alvarez. And although Jaso lacks much experience defensively at 1B he can’t possibly be as bad of a defender as Pedro who was downright awful with the glove. So I’m a big fan of the Jaso acquisition and his $4 million salary. But the rest of the free agent pickups and the more than $12 million committed to them in 2016 leaves me shaking my head. The club chose to commit $7 million combined to a pair of relievers in Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz. Those are odd signings for a team that never spends on middle relief and usually does a great job of finding quality middle relievers for league minimum salaries. Then another $2 million was spent on Ryan Vogelsong who is a quintessential 5th starter. Add another $2.5 million to bring back Sean Rodriguez and another $1 million guaranteed salary in Major League contracts to a pair of AAAA players that are just org depth and probably won’t even make the roster (Trey Haley and Jake Goebbert). I am confused why Neal Huntington would pay so much for all these bit parts. These are the kind of roles that should be filled by cheap talent in the system and Spring Training Invitees that prove to be bargain bin finds. And I am especially confused by the allocation of the budget on the bullpen. The team already had a significant portion of the payroll tied up with relievers Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes. Adding Nicasio and Feliz means that $22 million (nearly a quarter of the payroll) is being allocated to just 5 relief pitchers. So either Nicasio and Feliz are being pegged for bigger roles which means other changes could be imminent (like a Melancon trade) or the front office is less bullish on their ability to back fill the bullpen with cheap talent going forward. Either way this off-season doesn’t sit right with me. I feel it would have been far more prudent to keep Neil Walker and sign a mid-rotation starting pitcher instead of committing so much cash to the bullpen to cover for the inadequacies of the rotation.
It has been a little more than two months since the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season ended at the hands of Cubs in the Wild Card Game. And we are still about two months away from the start of Spring Training. That puts us at just about the half way point of the offseason. The good news is that still leaves plenty of time for GM Neal Huntington to strengthen the club to make a run at 2016. The bad news is he has so much work left to do that it feels almost inevitable that the team will take a step back next season. Even worse is that the club seems almost resigned to that fate. The actions thus far by the front office this offseason do not resemble a confident contending baseball club that senses they are on the cusp of winning a championship. Instead the team has been focusing on controlling costs almost to the point it appears they are content with punting on the 2016 season. It is one thing to trim the fat of overpaid and underperforming players such as Pedro Alvarez and Charlie Morton. Sure, those moves were to some degree salary dumps. But those decisions have potential to help the team by addition from subtraction.
More troubling are the plans to jettison solid performers just because their salaries have risen to an “uncomfortable” level. The Pirates are rumored to have been shopping closer Mark Melancon all winter. They have already dealt 2B Neil Walker to the Mets for Jon Niese. I actually like Jon Niese as a 4th starter. And Niese’s salary obligations are not that far below what Neil Walker was set to make in 2016. From that standpoint the trade wasn’t a salary dump. But wouldn’t this team be better had they kept Neil Walker AND SIGNED a competent left handed starting pitcher? They actually had one of those at the end of last season. His name was J.A. Happ and they chose to watch as he was signed away by the Toronto Blue Jays.
It hasn’t been all bad moves for the Bucs this offseason. They did make an intriguing acquisition by dealing for 1B Jason Rogers from the Brewers. Rogers has some positional versatility and he has hit at every level in the minors. He acquitted himself quite well in his first taste of big league action last season. I also like the free agent signing of pitcher Juan Nicasio. Nicasio could be a nice piece in the bullpen. He also could get another crack at being a starting pitcher. But these are really nickel and dime type moves. A strong contender like the Pirates should be moving beyond just thrift signings in the offseason. It is time the team gets a little “uncomfortable” with their payroll instead of just making the fans of the team “uncomfortable” over the thought of punting on the 2016 season.
The Pirates parted ways with Vance Worley this week after he was outrighted off the 40 man roster and claimed by the Orioles. That closes the book on the Vanimal’s two years stint with the Bucs. During that time Worley posted a 12-10 record with a 3.31 ERA and a 3.59 FIP. The way the Pirates handled Worley this past season still perplexes me. His production was never valued by the club. He was relegated to AAA at midseason while Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke continued to pitch like garbage for much of the second half of the season. That Worley was so easily discarded is not so hard to understand. From a pure stuff standpoint Worley has limitations. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats and he doesn’t roll a lot of ground balls. The Pirates aren’t the first team to throw Worley on the discard pile. The Phillies and Twins didn’t hold him in high regard either. The question that is begged to be asked following Worley’s exit from the organization is not about Vance Worley at all. The real question is why does Charlie Morton get so much love?
The Pirates coaching staff have always raved about Charlie Morton’s stuff. He does have great movement on his sinker. He does produce elite ground ball rates. The affinity for Morton can be seen in the nicknames Morton has been tabbed with over the years. Electric Stuff. Ground Chuck. These are great labels for a pitcher. Unfortunately, Morton is no where near a great pitcher. Morton’s production doesn’t come close to matching his hype. He has a career 4.54 ERA and 4.12 FIP. His career best FIP was in 2013 when he posted a 3.60 FIP in 116 innings. Morton pitches like a back of the rotation starter, and that is only when he is healthy enough to pitch. He has spent time on disabled list in each of the last four seasons and has never pitched more than 172 innings in a season.
Vance Worley was discarded after pitching to a 3.59 FIP over parts of two season with the Pirates. Charlie Morton was given a 3 year contract extension worth $21 million guaranteed dollars after posting a career best 3.60 FIP in 2013. And that my friends is a curiously un-Pirate like thing to do. The Pirates staff and front office are too enamored with Morton’s stuff and that has clouded their judgment on his value and role with the team. It is time the Pirates start treating Morton as his production warrants. He is producing like a back end starting pitcher and back end starting pitching is something that a contender like the Pirates should look at as a potential spot to upgrade.
This is will be my last post for a little while. I need a break. I can not handle the misplaced angst and over the top negativity many fans have right now towards my Pittsburgh Pirates. But I need to vent a little so here goes…
The Pirates finished with a better record than the Cubs. They lost in the Wild Card game to a pitcher that makes less than half the salary of Charlie Morton. The Cubs core is largely minimum salary rookies. In fact, it was one of those rookies that drove in 3 of the 4 runs the Cubs scored in the Wild Card game.
Eventually I’ll appreciate this season, but right now I can’t.
Misplaced angst over the team’s salary is driving me nuts. Needless to say I lay very little blame on the feet of the GM or the owner. Case in point:
The Pirates lost the NL Central division to the Cardinals by two games. The two highest salaries on the Cardinals’ roster, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, spent most of the year on the DL. Did the Cards spend money to fix the holes? No. The five members of the starting rotation the Cards used to win the division were paid about $18.3 million in salary. The Pirates starting rotation was paid just over $31 million. It was Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty that filled the void for the Cardinals offensively while Holliday was on the disabled list for a large chunk of the season.
Meanwhile the Pirates added more salary to this year’s payroll at the trade deadline than any team in baseball. Sorry to burst your bubble folks, but the complaining over the team payroll is misguided angst. The Pirates have failed to advance for the simple reason that their players choked.
But GM Neal Huntington and owner Bob Nutting should be on notice that they must continue to work and spend to improve the roster. Frankly, the best spending may just be trimming fat. Eat whatever salary you need to just to make Charlie Morton go away. And take some more damn risks. They gambled on Jung Ho Kang and won. I’d rather gamble on risky yet high ceiling players than safe high floor players. And that includes turning to high ceiling prospects sooner if need be.
This is just like the 90-92 playoff years all over again. Players choked. The bats of the core players went silent in an elimination game. This is largely the problem in the playoff exits in each of the last three years. Neil Walker and his 2 hits in 31 postseason ABs has now replaced Barry Bonds as the most disappointing postseason performer of any Pirate in my lifetime. Meanwhile opponents’ aces have out shined ours. Three of the last six complete game shutouts in an MLB postseason “winner advances” game have been thrown against the Pirates. They belong to Jake Arrieta 2015 NL Wild Card Game, Madison Bumgarner 2014 NL Wild Card Game, and John Smoltz 1991 NLCS Game 7. The bats came up small and so did our ace. Gerrit Cole spit the bit when we needed him most. No other way to sugar coat it….THE PLAYERS FAILED.
This is what I’ll lay at the feet of the coaching staff. The teams that know the Pirates best continue to exploit their weaknesses. For as great of a pitching coach that Ray Searage is, his neglect at emphasizing and teaching how to control the running game has been an ongoing problem in games within the division. And Clint Hurdle can’t allow the team to be so damn predictable that NL Central Division teams can almost script their wins against the Pirates.
I know eventually I’ll look at this season fondly. I find enjoyment in Pirates baseball during 100 loss seasons, so there is no way I can hate a season in which my Bucs won 98 games. But as Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote about the game, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart”…and right now I am heartbroken.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are mathematically alive for the NL Central Division crown, but realistically that dream ended when they dropped the first game of a pivotal series to the Cardinals at the start of the final week of the regular season. It is time to look ahead to a show down in the Wild Card Game with the Cubs. The Pirates are on a collision course with the force that is Cub’s starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. Arrieta has been masterful since the all-star break. He is 15-1 with a 0.89 ERA in his last 19 starts. He also has been terrific against the Pirates, and if his last start on Sunday Night is any indication the Pirates are in some real trouble. He was perfect through 6 innings. A Gregory Polanco single and an Andrew McCutchen HBP in the 7th inning were his only blemishes on the night.
There is hope that this time around things could be a little different, but only if the Pirates can change the venue. The Pirates were facing Arrieta on the Sunday Night ESPN game of the week at Wrigley Field. Arrieta is better at home and he is better at night. Night games at home he is practically unhittable. I have always hated the lighting at Wrigley Field and I think opposing batters feel the same. I don’t think road teams see the ball well at night in that park. A guy with Arrieta’s stuff is just unfair for hitters that already have enough trouble picking the ball up out of his hand. So just how good is Arrieta under the lights at Wrigley? This is a small sample size for sure but the numbers are still eye opening:
37 strike outs
It is crucial the Pirates maintain the lead over the Cubs for the first wild card spot. They currently hold a three game lead in the loss column. The Pirates stand a much better chance against Arrieta in the familiar hitting environment of PNC Park. If the Pirates are going turn the Lights out on Jake Arrieta and the Cubs they must do it at home.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to catch the St. Louis Cardinals in the standings Clint Hurdle is going to have to do a much better job of managing the back end of the Pirates rotation. Last night he continued a post All-Star Break trend of leaving back of the rotation starting pitchers in the game to give it away in the middle innings. Last night with the Pirates leading 3-1, Jeff Locke started off the 5th inning by issuing two walks to Cardinals hitters. The writing was on the wall – Locke was about to blow this lead. Yet Hurdle stubbornly refused to activate his bullpen. Locke would manage to finish the inning, but not before handing the lead over to the Cardinals. The Pirates lost the game 4-3 to fall 6 games behind the Cardinals in the standings.
It was painful to watch how Hurdle managed that 5th inning. It was so apparent that Locke should be lifted. If this was an early June game I would understand giving Locke some rope. If the Pirates were AHEAD 5 games in the standings over the Cardinals then it would be ok to try to let Mr. Nibbles chew his way out of the 5th inning. But the Pirates are in chase mode and these head to head match ups with the Cardinals are precious. The way Hurdle managed that game last night was flat out negligence.
Jeff Locke is not an ace. You can’t trust him in the middle innings of a close game in a playoff chase like you would Gerrit Cole. Clint Hurdle is obviously struggling with these kind of managerial decisions. Since I am more about solutions than criticisms I have created this Flow Chart to help the Pirates’ skipper know when to lift Jeff Locke:
It is hard to not view the first three months of Gregory Polanco‘s season as anything but disappointing. On July 5th the talented young RF of the Pittsburgh Pirates was saddled with a 231/300/330 triple slash line. The Pirates were facing a crossroad. Not only was Polanco struggling, but the team had just lost leadoff hitter Josh Harrison to a thumb injury that would sideline him until September. With the trade deadline looming less than a month away this was a crucial time for Polanco. The Bucs had to be considering the possibility of acquiring a replacement for Polanco in the near future – one that could possibly hit leadoff. Instead of continuing to bury Polanco at the bottom of the lineup manager Clint Hurdle decided on July 6th to instead pencil Polanco into the leadoff spot. The Pirates lineup had been very inconsistent much of the season and Polanco’s struggles were a big reason why. It seemed a curious move to put a hitter with a .300 OBP in the leadoff spot. But the young OF has responded to the challenge.
Since Harrison’s injury Polanco has served as the team’s leadoff hitter almost exclusively (the lone exception was July 12th against the Cardinals when he hit 8th). Since returing to the leadoff spot Polanco has hit safely in 16 of his last 18 games. He has reached base via a hit or a walk in all 18 of those games. Polanco is slashing a robust 288/366/466 during that time and has scored 11 runs. He has been exactly the table setter that the Pirates have needed. The lightbulb has turned on for Polanco. Maybe that his breakout happened at the same time as his return to the leadoff role is just a coincidence, but it sure seems like that was the spark. Now that the Pirates’ questions over the leadoff spot and lack of production from RF have been answered by Polanco, GM Neal Huntington can direct his attention at the trade deadline on more pressing needs.
There is no question the Pittsburgh Pirates were dealt a bit of a bad hand coming out of the All Star Break. The break could not have come at a worse time for what had been the hottest team in baseball throughout the first two weeks of July. Thanks to a pair of dramatic come from behind walk off wins over the Cardinals in the last two games prior to the All-Star Game the Pirates were set up for all kinds of momentum heading into the second half. But the four day layoff effectively poured cold water on the red hot Bucs. The timing of the break was bad for the club as they headed to Milwaukee to start the second half, but injuries sustained soon afterward was even more troublesome. Francisco Liriano was scratched minutes before a start paving the way for an unprepared Vance Worley to take the hill in the second game of the series in Milwaukee. Worley was staked to an early 3-0 lead. By the time he exited in the 4th inning the lead was gone and the Brewers had pulled ahead. The Pirates would go on to lose the second straight game of the series. But the worst turn of events was the loss of SS Jordy Mercer with a sprained knee. The Pirates infield depth was already depleted since Josh Harrison went on the DL earlier in the month. Now the Pirates are cobbling together a punchless lineup that includes the likes of Sean Rodriguez and Pedro Florimon. It is little wonder that the Bucs went 1-5 in their first road trip after the break.
Make no mistake, this team is feeling a palpable malaise, and A.J. Burnett admitted as much:
If you want to know the truth, and I mean this honestly, I don’t think we responded too well to the All-Star break, coming off all the good stuff that happened before, then being off for four days like that. – AJ Burnett
But before we chalk up the poor performance to bad luck and poor timing we should also put the skipper under a microscope. Clint Hurdle deserves a significant amount of blame for how poorly this Pirates team has played in the last week. He is the man that decided to set up the back of the rotation to toe the rubber in Milwaukee. Earl Weaver once said that “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher”. The Pirates decided to hold their best out for the first three games in Milwaukee. What kind of message does that send to your team? What does that say about the urgency of the second half for a team that is still fighting uphill to catch the first place Cardinals?
If that was Hurdle’s only sin it would be excusable. It was perfectly legitimate to reason that Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett could use an extended break. However, this was far from the only piece of mismanagement that Hurdle has been guilty of in the last week. In 6 straight games a Pirates’ starting pitcher has faltered in the middle of an inning. Hurdle hung on far too long with Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton. The most egregious example was allowing Morton to pitch to Mike Moustakas last night for the 4th time in the game with Pirates trailing the Royals 2-1 in the 7th inning. Moustakas has some extreme platoon splits. To not bring in a southpaw reliever in a game that was close and late in that situation was negligent. The result was predictable – Moustakas smashed a 3-Run Homer that ended all doubt that the Pirates would take yet another loss.
The Pirates are in a tough spot. They are undermanned and face a daunting schedule over the next few weeks. There is still plenty of season left, and eventually some help will arrive – either via trade or the return of injured players. In the mean time if the ship is going to stay afloat the skipper needs to do a better job of steering it.