Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

Category – Trader Neal

Pirates Add John Axford to Bolster Bullpen

The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired relief pitcher John Axford yesterday from the Cleveland Indians. The acquisition was a straight waiver claim. Cleveland had the option of retaining Axford by pulling him off of waivers. Instead the Indians chose to allow Axford to go to the Pirates. The Indians get nothing in return. The Pirates do assume the remainder of Axford’s contract. He is owed a little more than $1 million the rest of this season.

John Axford was once a quality closer with the Brewers. In 2011 he saved 46 games and posted a 1.95 ERA. Since then he has struggled with wildness and gopher balls. This year he posted a 3.92 ERA and a strong strikeout rate of 10.5 K/9. But his control continues to be problematic as this season he has walked over 6 batters per every 9 innings pitched. That is entirely too many free passes. On the surface it doesn’t look like Axford is any better of an option than the other suspects that the Pirates have tried in middle relief this season. However, I still believe this was a decent move. Part of the issue with the Pirates bullpen is the manager just doesn’t trust his middle relievers, and for good reason. They have been pretty terrible this year. But a reliever with a little name recognition like Axford will at least get an opportunity from Hurdle. GM Neal Huntington needed to give Hurdle someone he could show a little faith in. The Pirates bullpen could not continue on with three long relievers that the manager has little trust using in a leverage situation. Jared Hughes can’t be the only reliever to bridge the gap from the starting pitcher to the 8th inning set up man, Tony Watson. Perhaps Axford can be that guy. He might be ok, he might be terrible, but he is worth a shot.

Trade Deadline Blues

The July 31st 4pm MLB non-waiver trade deadline came and went without the Pittsburgh Pirates making any moves. The Pirates were rumored to be involved in discussions for nearly every major top of the rotation pitcher that was on the market. At various points this week the Pirates were considered front runners to land Jon Lester and David Price. In the end they were trumped by Oakland and Detroit. Not only did GM Neal Huntington fail to land an ace, but he also neglected to add any bullpen or bench help. The surprising thing is no major prospects were dealt today. For whatever reason the deadline sellers held out for young proven major league talent instead of prospects. When you look at some of the deals individually you can see why the Pirates might have had trouble matching up. But that doesn’t mean Huntington should be let off the hook for his inaction today. The Pirates are two games out of first place in the NL Central. They are a half game back in the Wild Card standings. There are essentially 6 teams fighting for 5 playoffs spots, and most of those teams look very beatable right now. The Pirates had a golden opportunity. I almost consider it negligence to not bolster this team for the stretch run. I think Huntington is a good general manager, but I’m bothered by his lack of creativity and cojones to make bold moves. Obviously the climate for making trades at this deadline was unexpected. The Pirates are prospect rich. Usually that is gold at this time of year. Today that wasn’t the case. A little more imagination was required. Just because deals weren’t made doesn’t mean there weren’t deals to be made. Huntington didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger, or the charisma and creativity to engineer a three team trade.

“We were engaged on a ton of fronts…stretched beyond comfort level…at end of the day we weren’t able to push any across line” – Neal Huntington

The most frustrating thing about today for Pirate fans was the lack of urgency. This has been a common theme carried over from the offseason in which the Pirates made no real upgrades. Of the 10 teams that made the playoff last season the Pirates spent the least in free agency. Of the teams in contention this season the Pirates were one of the few that stood pat. That isn’t behavior of a contender. Contenders look to add. Huntington says he wants to add but keeps coming up short.

“We wanted to add to this club. We looked at various points at which we could add to this club, and worked hard to add to the club, but in the final decision process, we felt that our best move was to stay as we were at this point” – Neal Huntington

Due to Neal Huntington’s pragmatic approach to this trade deadline the Pirates will continue on as they were with Michael Martinez and Brent Morel still inexplicably holding roster spots. Clint Hurdle will continue to summon Ernesto Frieri from the bullpen. And the team is still an ace short of being true contenders. For these reasons I have the trade deadline blues.


Pirates Need an Ace to Be True Contenders

The Pirates have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the last six weeks. Since June 1st the Bucs are 20-11, a .645 winning percentage. Improved starting pitching has played a large part in the Pirates resurgence. What is unusual is where the team has gotten this bump in performance. Much of it has come from a trio of AAA call ups. Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, and Brandon Cumpton have combined to go 6-2 with a 2.58 ERA in 14 starts since the start of June. As happy as I am about how well this patchwork rotation has performed, I can not envision this group carrying the team to the playoffs. Without an ace the chances of the Pirates to get to the postseason are a long shot. If they were to make the playoffs the chances of actually winning a playoff series seem even longer. There are just too many ace pitchers on opposing contenders that they would have to overcome. If GM Neal Huntington wants to truly give the Pirates a shot at the World Series this year he will have to acquire a legitimate ace pitcher. The A’s acquired Jeff Samardzija yesterday. That takes one ace off the market. Here are the aces that are reportedly still available:

Yu Darvish – The Rangers have had a rough season and the reports are they are willing to listen on offers for Yu Darvish. Darvish is a true ace. He is one of the top 5 starting pitchers in baseball. He could make a big impact on the race. Darvish also has a very palatable contract that runs through the 2017 season. He also appears to be healthy. He has not had any arm issues to speak of, though he has missed time due to back and neck injuries. The problem with Darvish is the prospect cost to acquire him would be enormous. With the way the Pirates value prospects and young talent there is virtually no chance they would make an offer that could land Yu Darvish.
David Price – Price is the most likely ace to be dealt. The Rays have been listening to offers for Price since last season. The Rays are in last place in AL East so the motivation to move Price is at an all time high. Price is under team control for one more season. He will get one more crack at arbitration in 2015 in which his salary will escalate to the neighborhood of $20 million. The payroll concerns alone are enough to likely make Neal Huntington balk at the idea of acquiring Price. But the trade demands from the Rays would be an even bigger killer. The Rays are going to want a package similar to what the A’s paid for Samardzija. To get Samardzija the A’s gave up Addinson Russell, one of top SS prospects in all of baseball, as well as their 2013 1st Round draft pick Billy McKinney. For the Pirates to land Price they will have to surrender two of their top 5 prospects at a minimum. It just isn’t GM Neal Huntington’s M.O. to trade top prospects. He has yet trade a single prospect that ranked among the top 50 in baseball. The highest ranking prospect that Huntington has dealt was Robbie Grossman who was never even considered a consensus top 100 prospect.
Cliff Lee – I think Cliff Lee is the most plausible ace the Pirates could acquire. There are some big ifs though, starting with if Cliff Lee is healthy enough to still pitch like an ace. He has been on the Disabled List since late May with an elbow strain. He is expected to make a rehab start this weekend. If things go smoothly he would be on track to return at the All-Star break. Will he be the same pitcher when he returns? The other issue with Cliff Lee is his contract. He is scheduled to make $25 million next season and he has an achievable performance incentive that could also guarantee his 2016 season for $27.5 million. The Phillies have indicated they are open to eating some salary in order to move players. They would probably need to eat half of Cliff Lee‘s contract to make it palatable to the Pirates’ payroll. But at 35 years old with some injury concerns and a sizable contract I would expect the asking price for Cliff Lee to be less than it will be for Yu Darvish or David Price. I believe the Pirates would be willing to make a competitive trade offer to the Phillies, but again it would hinge on whether Lee proves he is healthy and the Phillies assume a significant portion of his contract.

Pirates Swap Grilli for Angels Reliever

Grilled Cheese is no longer a satisfying late inning menu option for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The swift fall for Jason Grilli from all-star closer to exiled is now complete. Yesterday the Pirates sent Grilli to the Angels for reliever Ernesto Frieri. Much like Grilli, Frieri is a struggling reliever that was yanked from the closer role. Frieri has blown three saves this season and has a bloated ERA of 6.39. But Frieri has some good peripherals that indicate he may have just gone through a tough luck stretch. He has a 3.19 xFIP and has whiffed 38 batters in 31 innings while surrendered just 9 walks. The issue for Frieri has been the long ball. Opposing hitters have tagged him for 8 home runs already this season. Grilli has also been susceptible to the long ball this season, but more concerning has been his control issues and inability to miss bats. Frankly, I’m surprised the Bucs could get anything at all for Grilli. Since straining his elbow last July he just has not been a very effective reliever. He looked like a guy that could be DFA’d at any moment. Moving an ineffective 37 year old pitcher with health concerns for a struggling 28 year old pitcher that still has some upside seems like a no brainer. Perhaps the change of scenery will serve them both well.
I don’t want to disparage Jason Grilli on the way out the door. He has given Pirate fans some great moments since he revitalized his career almost three years ago. Let us say good bye by remembering one his of his greatest performances. On 5/28/13 Grilli struck out the heart of the Tigers order to nail down a 1-0 victory for the Pirates.


Pirates Acquire 1B Ike Davis

GM Neil Huntington finally plugged the Pirates’ hole at 1B by acquiring Ike Davis from the Mets. The Bucs have been attached to trade rumors involving Davis all throughout the offseason and Spring Training. Ike Davis is a Three True Outcomes (TTO) type of hitter. He does not hit for a very high average, but he can hit bombs, he draws quite a few walks, and he strikes out a ton. He mashes right-handed pitching well, but he can’t hit southpaws a lick. That actually makes him a great fit for the Pirates. The Bucs face fewer left-handed starters than any team in baseball. In 2013 the Pirates faced just 31 left-handed starting pitchers. So far this season that have faced just 1 lefty starter in their first 17 games. The Pirates also possess the ideal platoon partner for Davis in Gaby Sanchez. The cost to acquire Davis was minor league pitcher Zack Thornton and a Player to Be Named Later. There is speculation that the PTBNL will be a “significant” prospect from the 2013 draft class. Prospects can not be traded until 1 full year after their signing, so that is one potential reason to have a PTBNL in a deal such as this. That is far from the only scenario, or even the most frequent scenario of a PTBNL. I can’t imagine the Pirates would be parting with one of their top 10 prospects in this deal, however I do believe they will be sending the Mets a prospect with a little more value than Zack Thornton. As it stands today this looks like a pretty good deal for the Bucs. The Trader Neal Trade Tracker has been updated to reflect the addition of Ike Davis.

Pirates Acquire The Vanimal

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.

It Takes Two to Tango: Summary of Neal Huntington’s Trade Partners

Opening day of the 2014 season is only three weeks away, but Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington still might need to make some roster moves before the team breaks from spring training. The Bucs have a roster crunch in the bullpen. Only seven relievers will make the club and Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Justin Wilson are locks. Of the candidates vying for the three remaining spots, Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris, and Stolmy Pimentel are out of options. One of these pitchers are not going to be in the organization on March 30th. They are big league quality pitchers and another team will surely claim them if they were to be DFA’d. Huntington will certainly be entertaining trade offers for a reliever to avoid outright losing one without getting someting in return. The Pirates are also still kicking the tires on a left-handed hitting first basemen. They have been rumored to have interest in Justin Smoak of the Mariners, Mike Carp of the Red Sox, Ike Davis of the Mets, and Mitch Moreland of the Rangers. When it comes to trades, it takes two to tango. Can Neal Huntington find a dance partner? He has done a lot of dancing in the past. Here is the list of the ten teams Huntington has most frequently dealt with and numbers of players he has swapped with those teams since taking over as GM of the Pirates on September 25, 2007:

Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Red Sox 11 16 8
Indians 10 7 5
Yankees 6 10 8
Braves 6 7 4
Diamondbacks 5 4 6
Nationals 5 4 5
Blue Jays 5 3 5
Padres 5 4 3
Mariners 4 7 4
Rays 4 2 3

By far Neal Huntington’s most active trading partner in both number of transactions and players involved has been the Red Sox. These deals entail a number of blockbusters such as the Jason Bay and Joel Hanrahan trades. If the Pirates do covet Mike Carp there is a strong likelihood that Huntington and Red Sox’s GM Ben Cherington can find some common ground to make a deal. Although Huntington has made numerous deals with the Indians the vast majority have been cash or considerations for player swaps. I’m counting these types of transactions as trades, however I’m not including waiver claims in the tally. Now let’s move to the next ten teams:

Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Royals 3 4 4
Orioles 3 3 3
Twins 3 2 4
Marlins 3 3 2
Tigers 3 2 3
Phillies 3 2 2
Rangers 3 1 3
Dodgers 2 3 3
Cubs 2 3 3
Giants 2 3 2

Some interesting things to note here. The Cubs are the first NL Central Division opponent to appear on the list, however those deals predate Theo Epstein’s tenure with the Cubs. The biggest trade in this middle group was the deal that sent Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers in exchange for Andrew Lambo and James McDonald. Now the remaining teams:


Team Transactions Players Acquired Players Traded Away
Brewers 2 3 2
Houston 2 2 3
White Sox 2 1 2
Rockies 2 1 1
Mets 1 2 2
A’s 1 1 1
Reds 1 1 0
Cardinals 0 0 0
Angels 0 0 0

Although Neal Huntington has not dealt with this group of teams frequently, this list does represent two of the most recent major trade deadline deals. The acquisition of Marlon Byrd and John Buck for Dilson Herrera and Vic Black is the only time Huntington has hooked up with Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson to make a trade, but it was a huge deal. The Wandy Rodriguez acquisition was no small potatoes either. It should be noted how infrequently Huntington deals within the division. He has yet to make a single transaction with the Cardinals.

Trader Neal: Jason Bay Trade Retrospective

Now that it appears that Jason Bay is hanging up his spikes for good let’s take a look back at the trade that ended his career with the Pirates.

2008 was Neal Huntington’s first year on the job as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates had flirted with the .500 mark for the first few months of the season, but by mid-July they were fading fast. After falling 10 games below .500 on July 20th it was clear the Pirates were going to be deadline sellers. It also seemed likely that the rookie GM was going to use the opportunity to start a full organizational rebuild. Jason Bay was the Pirates best player and Huntington’s top trade chip. For better or worse, trading Jason Bay would shape the opinion of Huntington held by Pirate fans, the media, and other GMs for years to come.

The Pirates nearly swung a deal the prior offseason involving Bay for Cliff Lee and Franklin Guttierez. Bay and Lee were both coming off bad seasons in 2007. The Pirates Front Office decided to hold onto Bay in hopes he would rebound and rebuild his value. Bay did rebound in 2008. He was enjoying a fine season leading up to the trade deadline. Of course Cliff Lee did too, eventually winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2008, but that is another story for another time. Just minutes before the July 31st trade deadline Bay was sent to Boston in a three team trade with the Pirates acquiring Andy Laroche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, and Bryan Morris. The trade was ultimately proved to be a failure for the Pirates. Jason Bay would give the Red Sox 7.2 bWAR over 200 games before leaving as a free agent. In 2009 he finished 7th in the AL MVP vote. The Pirates essentially got replacement level production from Laroche while Moss completely bombed in Pittsburgh. Moss would later have a resurgence with the A’s. Craig Hansen’s career was ruined by Parsonage–Turner syndrome which caused numbness in his throwing arm. Reliever Bryan Morris is the lone holdover from the trade.
At the time of the trade, the deal actually looked pretty good on paper. Laroche, Moss, and Hansen all had previously been ranked as top 100 prospects by Baseball America. Morris was a 2006 first round pick of the Dodgers. He missed all of 2007 with Tommy John Surgery, but was back in action during the 2008 and showed some promise as a starting pitcher. The problem with all of these prospects though was they were losing their shine at the time the Pirates acquired them. They weren’t slam dunk can’t miss prospects. They had fallen out of favor for various reasons with their former clubs. We found out why when they came to Pittsburgh. I think the take away from all of this is that once a top prospect does not mean always a top prospect. Also it should be noted how difficult these types of deals are, especially for rookie GMs. Neal Huntington hadn’t had the chance to build up years of trust with his scouting and development people. Very likely he was acting on stale and/or inaccurate information. Over the years it seems that the Pirates have actually gotten better returns from prospects they acquired that weren’t top 100 prospects. Just a thought, but perhaps it takes a more experienced GM to rely on the scouts that unearth the hidden gems. Regardless, the Jason Bay trade goes down as one of the more infamous deals in recent Pirates history.

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