Thursday, April 20, 2017

With Little Opportunity for Financial Gain, Why Did Starling Marte Use PEDs?

Six-foot one, 190 pounds, strong, lithe, fast, quick, powerful, graceful, it doesn't matter what sport you are designing the perfect athlete for--soccer, tennis, baseball, hockey--Starling Marte would be the universal, can't-go-wrong mold. The Statue of David feels like covering up when Marte's around.  

Much has been written in the last 48 hours about Marte and the 80-game suspension that was handed down by MLB Tuesday afternoon. Having digested all the hot takes (Buster Olney has an habanero-hot one), having talked to people in the industry, I keep coming back to the same thought: It doesn't make any sense--largely because it doesn't make any cents.

In 2014 Starling Marte signed a 6-year, $31 million contract with the Pirates that includes incredibly team-friendly options of $11.5 and $12.5 million that are virtually certain to be exercised in 2020 and 2021. Coming into this season Marte had made about $5.5 million in his major league career. This year he stood to make another $5.3 million of which he will now forfeit roughly $2.5 million. He is locked-in to making $18 million the next two years, which is really $42 million over the next four. Whether Marte were to morph into Mike Trout or Jose Tabata those numbers weren't going to change. (If he morphed into Tabata it's possible the Pirates wouldn't pick up his options, but even the first of those decisions won't be made until October 2019.)

So why put any of that at risk? With virtually zero possibility of financial gain in the near future, why use PEDs, particularly the "kiss-of-death" drug nandrolone, an old-school steroidMarte's explanation and public apology were not well-received. Nobody wants to hear about "neglect and lack of knowledge." It's disingenuous at best and an outright lie at worst.  

So what happened?

Victor Conte, founder of the infamous Bay Area Labrotory Co-Operative (BALCO), in commenting on nandrolone, noted that it can stay in a person's system anywhere from six to eighteen months and can be detected at parts-per-trillon levels. With today's more sophisticated testing methods that virtually guarantees a positive test. How could Marte possible be this negligent or just this plain dumb?

As Conte speculates it is very possible that Marte was using another banned drug, likely testosterone, that was manufactured in a lab that didn't have the necessary levels of quality control and in reusing equipment the newly-manufactured substance was tainted. With Marte in his native Dominican Republic in the offseason and the failed test having taken place upon his return to the US for spring training, that seems like a plausible scenario.

Ok, that may be how Marte potentially got caught using a banned substance, but the question of why still remains.

The impact of a failed test on a baseball player is much different than the impact on participants in other professional sports. Jeff Passan wrote an excellent piece discussing MLB's unwillingness to have an open and honest discussion about performance enhancing "drugs" and how the game needs to move forward from a policy that obviously doesn't serve as a strong deterrent, particularly at the minor league level. As Jeff points out, rather than take the lead and try to advance understanding and control of the issue, MLB has taken the opposite approach, enforcing increasingly harsh penalties and forcing any discussion on the topic back into the basement.

I'm fascinated by the question of why sports fans generally look at PED use in baseball very differently than in other sports. PED suspensions handed down by the NFL are seemingly quickly forgotten while those handed down by MLB brand a player with a scarlet letter. And we rarely even see suspensions in the NBA, Joakim Noah the recent exception, or the NHL. And let's not be naive enough to believe that with just as much money and fame at stake, athletes in those sports have somehow subscribed to and accepted the idea of fair competition. Either they are smarter than their brethren or their leagues are less inclined to shine the white hot spotlight of negative publicity that comes with failed tests onto themselves.

The answer that most resonates as to why the societal perception of baseball players running afoul of the rules is the argument about individual records and their significance in baseball versus football. Joe Sheehan, one of the game's best writers and a guest on my show every Tuesday, wrote about home runs and baseball's duplicitous history. The games stars were never more celebrated and the sport never more popular than at the height of the Steroid Era. But the game got burned by Congressional investigations and the Mitchell Report and now is determined to whitewash its image to appease all critics.

The result is a game stuck in the middle, unable to move forward into a more enlightened era, driven partly by players who often call for the most Draconian measures of all, and fearful of a return to mass use and public scorn.

Which brings us back to Starling Marte.

It made me think of Theodore Roosevelt's speech Citizen in a Republic, where he talks about The Man in the Arena. Roosevelt wonderfully encapsulates the nobility of effort and the quest to achieve. He talks about failure and daring greatly. What he doesn't talk about is fear. The fear of failure. And when trying to understand why Marte chose the path he did, it's that fear of failure that seems like the most plausible explanation. 

This spring Starling Marte was going to represent the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic for the first time. In April he was going to take over for Andrew McCutchen in center field for the Pirates. His contract was escalating. He was on the cusp of superstardom. The pressure on Marte this offseason was probably different than anything he had known. I'm guessing in wanting to take that last step forward, to ensure he was up to the task, he turned to PEDs to make sure he didn't fail. We look at Starling Marte and see the gifts. We wonder why PEDs are necessary, particularly when tangible proof of the positive effects on baseball performance are limited at best. It's harder to see uncertainty or even imagine fear in one so talented. But I'm guessing that is what drove him.

That answer, and it's my speculation, nothing more, doesn't make what Marte did any less wrong. He ended up hurting himself and his team far more than any PEDs likely would have helped. But, at least for me, it gives a plausible answer to the question. 

I don't view Starling Marte as a bad person through all this. I can't get on that moral high ground. He made a mistake and he's getting punished. He's still a fantastic baseball player who is tremendously entertaining to watch. We'll have to wait awhile to see him again, but I'll root for him when he's back on the field in July.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Dozen Pirates Thoughts 13 Games In

Last Thursday afternoon the Pirates blew a 3-1, 8th inning lead in Fenway Park, lost 4-3 and dropped to 3-6. They were in the midst of a four-game losing streak which started with being swept by the lowly Reds at PNC Park where they were outscored 22-5. In nine games they had scored 28 runs and given up 47. And they looked as bad as the numbers suggested.  As the headed out on a six-game road trip to Wrigley and Busch it was fair to ask if they were going to be relevant in May, let alone September.

On Sunday the Bucs finished a three-game sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley, coming back to win games in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings, evening their record at 6-6. So much for drawing conclusions two weeks into the season. After Monday night's 2-1 loss to St. Louis the Pirates are 6-7. Some thoughts:

Starting Pitching

1.) The starters have been better than expected. The Braves are second in the NL with a 3.41 ERA, the Pirates are fifth at 3.48. In the 11 games not started by Tyler Glasnow the starters have compiled a 3.16 ERA and Glasnow certainly looked much better after a rough first inning last time out.

2.) A lot has been written about Pirates pitchers working up in the zone more often this season. While the eye test and Francisco Cervelli's bobbing up-and-down behind the plate suggests it's true, the Bucs starters have registered a slightly higher GB% so far this year, 48.3% (5th in MLB) vs. last year, 47.6%.

3.) Two numbers to pay attention to:

HR/9: The starters have the 5th lowest HR/9 rate in MLB at 0.72. Last year's ML-leading Mets staff averaged 0.94 HR/9. The regression will occur at some point.

K/9: The starters K/9 rate of 6.48 is 27th in MLB. While Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are often viewed as strikeout pitchers because of their mid-90s heat, that hasn't ever really been the case. Cole has never averaged a strikeout/inning and his strikeout numbers are red-flag low to start this season (more on that later this week). Much of this may be the Pirates emphasis on efficiency and trying to finish ABs in three pitches, but it's worth keeping an eye on. Glasnow is the only member of the rotation likely to register gaudy K numbers.


Pirates starters have only worked 75 innings. It's hard to draw many intelligent conclusions or trends from that. The relievers have worked 42.1 innings with no individual going more than 8, so there is even less substance to any analysis.

4.) As mentioned here before the start of the season, I'm higher on the Pirates bullpen than most. In Felipe Rivero the Pirates have the opportunity to use a guy much like Terry Francona used Andrew Miller last year. With Tony Watson slotted into the closer role, similar to Cody Allen, Clint Hurdle is free to use his best reliever in the most-optimal way. Nate Silver's article on Monday introducing the Goose Egg, lays out the best ways to leverage a team's best relievers, eschewing the save stat. #FreeRivero

5.) Trevor Williams has looked surprisingly good transitioning to the bullpen. An 8:0 K:BB ratio in his first five innings is impressive. When the Pirates inevitably need a sixth starter it will be interesting to see if Williams gets an opportunity or if one of the guys stretched out in Indy gets the first crack at it.


It's been a bad two weeks, Wrigley not withstanding. The Bucs are 13th in the NL in runs, 14th in home runs, 14th in total bases and last in RBI. Their slash line is an anemic .228/307/.347, ahead of only the struggling Cardinals in team OPS.

6.) Josh Bell and Jordy Mercer have gotten off to horrific starts with both hitting below .200 and OPSing around .500 and none of Marte, McCutchen or Polanco has picked up the slack.

7.) The Bucs would most certainly be a better team with Jung Ho Kang, but it's unlikely he would have been any better than the two guys replacing him, David Freese and Adam Frazier. Freese has a 1.010 OPS, is 4th in the NL in OBP at .467* and has 10 walks in just 45 plate appearances. I pounded the table for Frazier to be an every day player before the season and he appears to be hitting his way into just that. His OPS+ of 133 is second on the team.

*Former Pirates farmhand Robbie Grossman, now with the Twins, leads MLB in OBP.

8.) Last year Francisco Cervelli was last in all of MLB among players with 300 PAs in ISO.* I don't know if it was the hand injury or something else, but he was unable to drive the ball. This year he leads the team in ISO at .233, up from .058 last year and his exit velocity is up for 86.6 last year to 89.9 this year. He looks like a completely different hitter.

*ISO = SLG - Batting Average

9.) The Bucs are tied for the ML lead in HBP with 9 and Josh Harrison must have set some kind of record by getting hit in four straight plate appearances Sunday and Monday. This is nothing new to the Bucs. In 2013 they led the majors in HBP (Reds were 2nd), in '14 they were second to the Cards, in '15 they lead again and in '16 they were second to the Cubs. NL Central: the beanball division.

Defense/Base Running:

It's hard to imagine anyone has been worse than the Pirates defensively and on the bases so far this season. Starling Marte is seen as an elite defender, but as the Statcast data has shown us, most of his value is tied to his arm. Harrison, Mercer and Cervelli probably pass for average at their positions, but the rest are below average. The Bucs are 24th in DRS at -3 and tied for last here.

10.) Their is a strong perception across baseball that the Pirates have a good defensive outfield because they have "three centerfielders" out there. This has existed for a couple years now. It's not accurate. Statcast data shows the Pirates OFs don't make many of the tough plays and in 2016 they were next-to-last in percentage of flyballs turned into outs at 88%. This year they are worse, 82% going into Monday's game. Route efficiency doesn't appear to be ideal for any of the three outfielders. I'll dig deeper into the data as the season goes on.

11.) On Saturday the Pirates gave SS Jordy Mercer his first day off starting Frazier in his place. Frazier booted the first ball hit to him in the first inning leading to two Cubs runs. The team doesn't have a backup SS on the roster. Frazier, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson and even Harrison can stand there for a few innings or a game when needed, but if Mercer were to miss any extended time the Pirates would have to make a roster move.

12.) The Pirates are 9/17 in stolen base attempts. Their 56% success rate is 14th in the NL. That doesn't include numerous runners who have been picked off. On Saturday the Pirates had three runners thrown out on the bases and an attempted sacrifice bunt turned into a double play. It's been open season to run on the Pirates as well. Opponents are 15/16 on the year.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Managerial Decisions: Clint Hurdle bats Wade LeBlanc Twice with the Bases Loaded

The Pirates lost 7-1 to the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night. Tyler Glasnow dug a deep hole right out of the chute. After giving up a leadoff single to Billy Hamilton and getting Jose Peraza to fly to center, Glasnow walked four straight batters. 1-0 Reds, bases loaded and Glasnow's already thrown 38 pitches. The Pirates' win probability has already dropped below 25%. There has only been one out recorded in the game.

Glasnow manages to get out of the first giving up only one more run. In the Pirates half of the first the first two batters reach, but a flyout and two strikeouts leave the runners stranded (watch the pattern emerge). 

Glasnow runs into more trouble in the second. After getting an out he gives up two singles. Joey Votto, who walked in the first, comes to the plate. Glasnow strikes him out on a nasty 0-2 curveball.* The two runners on base steal second and third on the strikeout. Adam Duvall steps to the plate. The Reds' win expectancy is 79%. Duvall lines the first pitch to left for a 2-run single giving the Reds a 5-0 lead and increasing their win expectancy to 89%. After another stolen base, the fourth, and a walk, the fifth, Glasnow's night is done. Wade LeBlanc comes in and gets the final out and the Pirates go to the bottom of the second down 5-0.

*Silver lining on Glasnow? Coming into the game Votto had swung and missed at two pitches so far this season. Glasnow tied him up with a great fastball on the hands in his first at bat and punched him out with the curve in his second. Unfortunately there wasn't much else good in between.

The Pirates opened the second with a walk, single and a walk to load the bases. Their win expectancy jumped back to 25% as Wade LeBlanc's spot came up in the order. 

LeBlanc threw four pitches to end the second inning. He was the team's designated long-man for this game. The Pirates other long-reliever, Trevor Williams, pitched two innings on Sunday and got loose on Saturday so was not deemed available by manager Clint Hurdle. Felipe Rivero had pitched the three previous days so was also not available. That meant the Pirates had four available relievers: closer Tony Watson, set-up man Daniel Hudson, Juan Nicasio and Antonio Bastardo to cover 21 outs.

On the bench the Pirates had backup catcher Chris Stewart who was not going to be used to pinch hit in the second. That left a slightly injured Josh Harrison, John Jaso, Phil Gosselin and Alen Hanson. Hurdle chose to stick with LeBlanc in a no-out situation knowing he had the top of the order with Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte after LeBlanc. LeBlanc hasn't been an automatic out at the plate. He sported a .250 batting average and .276 on base percentage coming into the game, but all but one of those plate appearances took place before 2014.

LeBlanc who struck out swinging, dropping the Pirates' WE 6%. Mercer followed with the same result and Marte grounded to short to end the inning, each dropping the WE another 5%. The Pirates went to the top of the third with a 9% win expectancy. 

After an error allowed the first batter to reach, LeBlanc retired the Reds in order. The Pirates went to the bottom of the third with a 10% WE. Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco both singled and David Freese and Francisco Cervelli both walked (that meant nine batters had reached base in the first three innings before an out was recorded and the Pirates had one run to show for it). With the bases loaded, no outs and down 5-1 Josh Bell came to the plate and Michael Lorenzen replaced starter Brandon Finnegan. The Pirates WE has soared to 32%.

Bell hit a shallow pop flyout to center and Polanco stayed at third. One out. Adam Frazier dribbled one up the first base line and Polanco was forced out at home. Two outs and the Pirates WE is back down to 18%. Hurdle is again confronted with the decision whether or not to bat LeBlanc with 18 outs still to cover with his 4-man pen. He again chose to bat LeBlanc who again struck out swinging on a 1-2 count. The Pirates WE dropped to 12% and they didn't put another runner on base. The Reds bullpen retired all 21 batters they faced in order.

Did Hurdle make the right decisions?

I can't see an argument for pinch-hitting for LeBlanc in the second inning. Had Glasnow gotten out of the second and the same situation arisen, it's a easy decision. Pinch-hit Harrison for Glasnow because you aren't burning your long-man. But, with no outs and 21 more outs needed from the bullpen, giving LeBlanc a shot and passing the burden to the top of the order was the right decision. The fortuitous thing in that situation is that LeBlanc didn't bounce into a double play. Unfortunately for the Bucs, Mercer and Marte failed to deliver.

The decision as to whether to bat LeBlanc in the third inning isn't very different, but the fact that there are two outs may give the feeling of greater urgency. Let's assume LeBlanc's career OBP of .276 is outdated and it's more like .175. The lefthanded hitting Jaso is probably the Pirates best option off the bench at that point and he increases the chance to reach base by about 20%. 

Hurdle then also needs to assess how much using some combination of the four remaining guys in the bullpen potentially decreases the Pirates chances to win games in the upcoming days. With the rescheduled game on Thursday the Pirates were scheduled to play the next nine days before getting another day off. Again I think Hurdle made the right decision. Had it been the fifth inning, he probably plays things differently. Had the score been 3-1, maybe he plays things differently. But being the third, he still has to get 18 more outs and pulling LeBlanc there probably means the Pirates have to shuffle the roster today to get a fresh bullpen arm to the majors.

I think Hurdle made the right decisions considering all the variables. Wade LeBlanc batted three times and twice struck out with the bases loaded. His outs, to some degree made his pitching performance moot. But he did pitch 5.1 innings, providing a big assist to the bullpen and giving Hurdle continued flexibility for the time being.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tweets from Last Night: 12 Takeaways from the Pirates Extra Inning Loss

The Bucs lost 3-0 in 12 innings to the Red Sox Wednesday night. Here is what you need to know:

1.) Jameson Taillon was outstanding. He opened the game by going up the ladder to strike out Dustin Pedroia and generally showed a fastball that sat mid-90s.  But the key for Taillon was his ability to consistently get his curveball over for strikes.
In the fifth Taillon flashed his repertoire. With runners on first and third, no outs he struck out Pablo Sandoval with a 96 mph fastball. He K'd Sandy Leon with an 82 mph curve and he got Pedroia to bounce harmlessly back to the mound. He finished the night 7IP, 5H, 0R, 3BB, 6K, 95-59.

2.) Chris Sale was even better than Taillon and will challenge for the American League Cy Young Award.

He finished the night 7IP, 3H, 0R, 1BB, 7K, 104-69 and induced 14 swinging strikes. Sale showed four different pitches, consistently mixed speeds and had Pirates hitters off balance all night. The Pirates didn't have a base runner reach second base. Enough said.

3.) The Pirates flashed some leather. Andrew McCutchen, who looked out-of-sorts in the opener on Monday, made two good defensive plays. The big one was gunning down Leon at home after a sharp Pedroia single to right with two outs in the third. Leon ran through a stop sign and Cutch fired an 89-mph strike to Francisco Cervelli for the out. Cutch's throw will get most of the attention but it was Cervelli's short-hop scoop and tag that really deserves the gold star.
In the fourth inning Cutch also made a good catch at the wall on Mitch Moreland on a ball that might have gone out while earlier in the inning David Freese made an excellent barehand pickup and throw on a slow roller to nail Xander Bogaerts. The play ended up being reviewed and was too close to overturn. The replay took a relatively painless 1 minute and 15 seconds.
4.) I'm going to continue my years-long battle with ROOT Sports.
ROOT refuses to leave the K-box up on the side of the screen. I don't know if this is because they have a sponsor that they like to feature when they show replays or something else, but with today's technology, I basically find this inexcusable.

5.) Not much offense on display by either team the first two games of the season. The Bucs and Red Sox have played 41 frames and put up runs in 3 of them.
The were some swings, almost exclusively by the Sox, where off the bat they seemed to be trouble--Moreland's was a prime example--but the ball didn't carry.

6.) The Pirates finally got a leadoff batter on in the ninth for the first time all night when Jordy Mercer reached on a Pablo Sandoval error. Starling Marte, arguably the team's best hitter, strode to the plate. Only one thing went through my mind:
Hurdle bunted with Marte. He popped it up to Sandoval for an easy out. (EDIT: From the postgame comments it sounds like Marte bunted on his own. Hurdled said there was no bunt sign on, but didn't want to criticize his player "...when he says he's trying to help you win a game." This type of thing happened multiple times last season. If Marte did bunt on his own that's on the staff too. They have to better educate the players to game situations. Either way, not good.)
Cutch and Polanco followed with groundouts to second. The Pirates best chance was by the boards. The 27 outs are your most precious assets. Don't give them away!

7.) I really like the Pirates bullpen. I wrote about it on Opening Day. I'd love to see Hurdle utilize Rivero and Nicasio as Andrew Miller, multi-inning guys. Rivero's stuff is filthy and I think he may end up being one of the dominant relievers in the game sooner rather than later.
Typically we kill managers for leaving their best relievers in the bullpen on the road in the ninth inning as they wait for the save situation. (See playoffs 2016 Buck Showalter, Zach Britton.) The Pirates may find themselves in a similar situation to the Indians last year. Cody Allen was set as the closer while Andrew Miller, an equally good if not better reliever, could be used in all sorts of ways. The Pirates are set with two solid relievers in Hudson and Watson as their backend guys. Be creative with Rivero and Nicasio. Hurdle didn't use Watson in the ninth, choosing to go with Rivero instead. Was it because he was following Showalter's manager's handbook or was he using his best reliever? Either way, I was indifferent. That is a good problem to have.

8.) There have been very few offensive positives from the Pirates performance in Fenway thus far, but Francisco Cervelli, yep Cervelli, has been a bright spot. Cervelli sported about as empty a .377 OBP as you could possibly have last year. He slugged .322 and had an ISO of .058. Of players with 300 plate appearances, he was dead last in ISO. Hard to know how much of that was a result of injury, but so far this year, so good.
9.) There was lots of commentary about the Pirates defensive shifting after their Opening Day loss. Travis Sawchik had an excellent piece at Fangraphs called The Embattled Shift discussing the issue. Take note last night. The Pirates shifted against Chris Young, a righthanded batter, moving Jordy Mercer over into the hole to open the 10th inning. When Young pulled a Tony Watson fastball into the hole, off-the-bat I assumed it was a hit because I had yet to see the defensive alignment. When the camera changed, there was Jordy deep in the hole making a relatively routine play for the first out. Nobody, and I mean nobody, mentioned this. Well, that's not completely true:
Jackie Bradley, Jr followed with a single and after a Sandoval strikeout, Leon singled. Do with that what you will.

10.) Tony Watson's tenth inning may not look pretty in the boxscore, but it was better than advertised.
He gave up a bloop single and then got badly squeezed by the umpire and ended up walking Pedroia. With the bases loaded and game on the line he got Andrew Benintendi on a broken bat, soft grounder to second.

11.) Starling Marte got a 2-out single in the 11th.
12.) The Pirates lost the game in the 12th on another 3-run homer, this time by Sandy Leon off of Antonio Bastardo. First I have no idea why Hurdle didn't use Juan Nicasio for more than one inning. Earlier I talked about the versatility and flexibility afforded by having Rivero and Nicasio in the pen. In the 11th Nicasio threw 13 pitches and struck out two of the three batters he faced.
I don't know if the Pirates were ever going to score, but trotting Nicasio out there for the 12th seemed like a no-brainer. Didn't happen. Bastardo got the first out, but then walked Chris Young. With a 2-2 pitch coming Bastardo caught Young running on his pickoff move to first. Phil Gosselin had replaced Josh Bell at first.
Gosselin's inexperience at the position showed. Rather than step forward and toward second to catch the throw earlier and give himself a better angle, as a righty, to throw to second, he waited at the bag. When he got the ball he made a terrible throw to second and Bradley was safe. Sandoval walked three pitches later and Leon took Bastardo's second pitch deep into the Boston night, over the Green Monster, to end it.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Pirates Opening Day Roster: The Relievers

Neal Huntington took away any potential Opening Day roster drama surrounding the Pirates pitching staff Friday night by announcing that Tyler Glasnow would start the season in the rotation and Trevor Williams had won the seventh spot in the bullpen. Last week I previewed the position players and the starters. Now let's take a look at the relievers.

The Bullpen (7): Tony Watson (L), Daniel Hudson (R), Felipe Rivero (L), Juan Nicasio (R), Antonio Bastardo (L), Wade LeBlanc (L) and Trevor Williams (R)

Ever since Joel Hanrahan took over as closer in 2011 the Pirates have gotten somewhere between good to dominant work out of the back end of their bullpen. During that time the mantle of closer has been passed fairly consistently. Once the setup guy appears capable of handling the job, invariably at a cheaper cost, the Pirates have moved on from the proven closer™. Out of nowhere Jason Grilli emerged as a dominant reliever in 2012 so at season's end the Pirates traded Hanrahan to Boston for a package that included Mark Melancon. Grilli held the closer role for a year as Tony Watson and Melancon developed into a shutdown 7th-8th inning tandem. When Grilli struggled at the start of the 2014 season he was shipped out and Melancon stepped up, with Watson bumped to the 8th. For three seasons the pair was as good a backend bullpen duo as existed in the majors. Last season, with Melancon's impending free agency, the Pirates moved him at the deadline for a package highlighted by Felipe Rivero.

This year Watson inherits the closer role. It's one he took over for two months after the Melancon deal and it's one he'll likely only hold for a year before he becomes a free agent. After three outstanding seasons, Watson took a slight step back last year almost completely due to the long ball. In the previous three seasons the lefthanded Iowan gave up 13 home runs in 235.1 innings. In 2016 he gave up 10 in 67.2 with six coming in just 23.1 innings as closer. Since 2013 Watson has pitched more innings than any reliever in baseball racking up 292.0 frames (Melancon is second), but he only registered 20 saves. Do you believe there are unique attributes to being a closer? If so, Watson's performance at the end of last season probably raised at least a cautionary flag.

Daniel Hudson was one of the Pirates' two notable free agent signings. Hudson's an easy guy to root for gaining notoriety as one of the feature subjects in Jeff Passan's excellent book The Arm. Hudson has undergone two Tommy John surgeries and has transitioned from starter to reliever. His 2016 ERA was an unsightly 5.22 due to a 15 games stretch where he gave up 31 runs in 9.2 innings--downright Hutchisonian. The Pirates have enough confidence in Hudson that they have slotted him as the setup man with the task of getting the ball to Watson.

The most interesting guy in the Pirates bullpen, by far, is Felipe Rivero. If you want over-the-top crazy, wild optimism about what Rivero is going to be, I'm your guy. Rivero is a legit three-pitch pitcher who would be perfect in an Andrew Miller-type role if Hurdle chooses to use him that way. He can work multiple innings and has shown no platoon split. Rivero struck out 28.1% of the batters he faced last season. The concern is free passes. Rivero had an outstanding spring with 13 strikeouts while giving up only one walk and two hits in 10.0 innings. It would not surprise me to see Rivero strike out 35-40% of the batters he faces and approach 100 Ks in 70+ innings. It will be interesting to compare his performance with that of Melancon the next few years.

Juan Nicasio has dynamite stuff. The problem is he is a two-pitch guy who struggled against lefties last season giving up a .934 OPS vs. .638 for righties. It is worth nothing that Nicasio's OPS out of the pen was a solid .715 after posting .827 as a starter. Nicasio was outstanding again this spirng with a 15:0 K:BB ration in only nine innings. The difference is this season the Pirates weren't tempted to move him to the rotation. Last season he struck out 31% of batters faced out of the pen and in 13 of his first 23 relief appearances he went more than an inning before being used more conservatively after rosters expanded in September.

Antonio Bastardo was re-acquired by the Bucs at the trade deadline after signing a 2-yr, $12 million deal with the Mets after a productive 2015 with the Pirates. Bastardo's walk rate of 4.3BB/9 is his achilles heel. But he has an odd career pattern of being much better in odd-year seasons posting an ERA under 3.00 in '11, '13 and '15 while never being below 3.94 in '10, '12, '14 or '16. The Pirates are hoping the pattern continues. In just about 400 career innings the slow-working lefty has shown very little platoon split which should give Hurlde great flexibility.

Wade LeBlanc and Trevor Williams round out the bullpen. LeBlanc gives Hurdle a fourth lefty. Williams, who turns 25 this month, is a converted starter on his first OD roster. He will be the Pirates long-man and mop-up guy. The most interesting thing to watch with Williams is whether the Pirates will try to use him to piggyback Tyler Glasnow's starts. Watch that early on as Glasnow as been inefficient with his pitch counts throughout the spring.

Rule 5 pick Tyler Webb was returned to the Yankees. A.J. Schugel, Pat Light, Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana are all likely to work out of the pen at some point this season.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pirates Opening Day Roster: The Starting Pitchers

The decisions made the last days of spring training aren't as clearcut as usual this year. There are still 28, maybe even 29 guys who could potentially make the Opening Day 25-man roster. And, according to GM Neal Huntington, the last few decisions may not actually be made until the morning of the first game--a clear attempt to try and increase the chances that those who have to clear waivers actually do. (While I don't actually believe this makes a difference, the general thought is that with so many players being waived, teams are more likely to stay with their own guys unless there is a clear and obvious upgrade. Toss your guys in with the masses and they are going to be less scrutinized. Like I said, I don't buy it. With the sophistication in today's front offices, nothing slides by, but there is no reason not to do it this way.) Earlier this week I wrote about the position players. Today, the starters.

Note: This is how I expect the Pirates to construct their rotation on OD.

Starting Pitchers (5): Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Steven BraultDrew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow

I'm sure eyes immediately darted to the fifth starter spot. And while it is the least significant, most fungible of the five and is certain to be occupied by various players over the course of the season, it is the lightning rod topic for many fans. 

But let's start at the top. The Pirates 2016 OD rotation consisted of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio (who beat out Ryan Vogelsong in spring training). You get what you pay for. Out of 15 NL teams, the Bucs starters were 13th in innings pitched, 11th in ERA, 13th in WHIP, 13th in strikeouts and 9th in HRs allowed. Not good.

Every team in baseball had at least one starter give them 174.0 IP in 2016 except the Padres and the Pirates. Christian Friedrich gave the Padres a team-high 128.1 innings. Jeff Locke led the Pirates with 127.1 IP, but only 106.0 as a starter. Gerrit Cole led the team with 116.0 innings as a starter. By comparison the Cubs had five starters throw at least 165 innings and the Cardinals had four. If your starters throw as few innings as the Pirates starters, your season is, well, a non-starter. 

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are the key to the Pirates relevance. The Pirates need to get 350+ top-level starter innings from the two to be a contending team. Key in on the K-rate for both. Cole struck out a career-low 19.4% of batters last year, a big drop from the 24% of each of the previous two seasons. He also posted career-high numbers in BB%, XBH% and LD% while only going more than six innings in six of 21 starts. Cole needs to stay healthy and find his 2015 form that saw him place fourth in NL Cy Young voting. 

Taillon was all the Pirates hoped for coming off two missed seasons. He showed excellent control, walking only 4.1% of batters faced and showed maturity, poise and pitching-sense that you don't often see in rookie pitchers. He threw 165 innings between AAA and the majors and if he can bump that up to 180-190 and continue to improve, the Pirates will be set at the front of the rotation.

In an ideal world Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl would be your fourth and fifth starters. Nova basically replicated J.A. Happ's sensational 2015 performance when he came over from the Yankees at the trade deadline last year. For Nova, a RHP, going from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park in the last months before free agency was a winning lottery ticket. (Although I think everyone was surprised at the relatively cheap terms he agreed to with the Pirates.) His HR/FB ratio went from 15.1% with the Bombers to 4.5% with the Bucs. His walk rate went from a good 5.9% to an absurd 1.1% walking just three batters in 64.2 IP, and he went deep in games tossing three of the Pirates five complete games in just 11 starts. If he takes just a small step back from the 3.06 ERA (2.52 FIP) he posted with the team last year and does it over 30 starts, he will be the biggest bargain in this year's free agent class.

Lump Kuhl in with uber-prospect Glasnow, Brault, Hutchison**, Trevor Williams and eventually Nick Kingham as the Pirates young hopefuls. The team came to spring training looking to fill two rotation spots from this group, with the assumption Kuhl would get one. He did. The battle for the other has been the talk of spring training. Coming in I ranked them Hutchison/Brault, Glasnow, Williams. Halfway through camp I gave Hutchison the edge. In his first three appearances he went 9 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 9 K. The job was his if he didn't implode. Even after two terrible outings, if he had pitched well on Tuesday against Boston I still think he would have been the guy. Instead he gave up 10 hits and nine runs in 3.2 IP. In his last three outings he posted this: 11.2 IP, 27 H, 21 R, 6 BB, 9 K. That's incomprehensibly bad. He left the Pirates no choice, getting optioned to AAA Wednesday morning. 

(**Hutchison, through no fault of his own, wears the stigma of being the return in the Francisco Liriano deal. It was assumed by many in the fanbase and media that Huntington would give him the job to try to "save face" and justify the transaction even though he repeatedly said that would not be the case. Even if he had pitched well the shouts would have been that putting Hutchison in the rotation was a trade-justifying move. But instead Hutchison pitching terribly, screwing himself over. But, in some perverse way, he enhanced the view of Huntington with many fans/media. Huntington, rather than being criticized for acquiring a pitcher who doesn't appear to be of value, is now being praised for "trying to win" because he sent him to AAA. As ridiculous as it sounds, it's 100% true.)

The bigger surprise, with Hutchison performing so badly, was that Brault was optioned to AAA earlier this week. Brault has pitched reasonably well this spring and last year made seven starts with the Pirates while the other three rotation-contenders combined for six. He would provide the Pirates with a lefthanded starter in an otherwise all-righthanded rotation, a nice option at PNC park. It's still not clear to me why he is out of the running. But he is.

That leaves Glasnow and Williams. Obviously Glasnow is the prospect with the top of the rotation/ace ceiling while Williams' ceiling is more 4th/5th starter, situational bullpen/swing guy. Based on potential, the choice is obvous. But I'm convinced the Pirates would prefer Glasnow make 6-10 starts in AAA in order to continue working on his change up, continue getting comfortable with the 2-seamer, which he added back to his repertoire this spring, and work on controlling the running game. On top of that Williams has actually pitched better than Glasnow this spring and may give Bucs a better chance to win the first 6-10 times through the rotation. 

So which way does it go? To me it's a toss up. I'd probably go with Williams and let Glasnow dominate in AAA until May 15-June 1 and then bring him up assuming all goes as planned. I've said many times that Glasnow is the most significant piece/wild card to the Pirates playoff hopes the next couple of years. If he develops into a frontline starter, the Pirates rotation is set for the next 3-5 years and a good bet to repeat their 2013-15 playoff seasons. If not, there is a gaping hole.

If Glasnow can replicate what Taillon did last year, over 20-25 starts, I think the Pirates can be an 85-88 win team. If not, the Bucs are likely to be closer to the 2016 version. I'd still let him marinate in AAA for a 6-8 weeks, but I'm guessing the Pirates make him the 5th starter and the Glasnow Era begins Saturday, April 8 against the Braves at PNC Park.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pirates Opening Day Roster: The Position Players

The decisions left to be made with less than a week of Spring Training remaining aren't as clearcut as usual. There are still 28, maybe even 29 guys who could potentially make the Opening Day 25-man roster. And, according to GM Neal Huntington, the last few decisions may not actually be made until the morning of the first game--a clear attempt to try and increase the chances that those who have to clear waivers actually do. (While I don't actually believe this makes a difference, the general thought is that with so many players being waived, teams are more likely to stay with their own guys unless there is a clear and obvious upgrade. Toss your guys in with the masses and they are going to be less scrutinized. Like I said, I don't buy it. With the sophistication in today's front offices, nothing slides by, but there is no reason not to do it this way.)

Note: This is how I expect the Pirates to construct their roster on OD.

Position Players (13): 

Catchers (2): Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart

Straightforward. Cervelli is the starter, Stewart the backup. Both have a history of injury so Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings are virtually certain to see major league action again this year. Diaz may even start the season with the team with Stewart currently nursing a groin injury.

Infielders (8): Josh Bell, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese, Adam Frazier, John Jaso, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson.

I expect the infield to be influx the entire season. Similar to last year, the Bucs will open the season without Jung Ho Kang. Unlike last year, their is no timetable for his return. Josh Bell will be the first baseman, Jordy Mercer the shortstop. The rest is now up in the air. 

Adam Frazier's solid 2016 and torrid spring may cause the team to act more quickly than I ever expected. Flashback to 2014 when Josh Harrison forced his way into the lineup, slashing .315/.347/.490 and finishing with a wRC+ of 137 that was third best on the team and top 20 in the NL. Hurdle had to find a spot in the lineup for Harrison and ended up settling on a rotation of 4 starters for 3 positions. Gregory Polanco was struggling in right field and Harrison ended up playing almost every day bouncing between second, third, and right. Like Harrison, I expect Frazier to force the Pirates hand. In fact, regardless of the Kang situation, I expect Frazier to be an everyday starter by the All-Star break, if not May 1. His defense is still below average, but he is already a better hitter than either Freese or Harrison and he is clearly the team's best option to bat leadoff. Harrison and Freese will end up alternating at third with Freese and Jaso backing up Bell at first.

I expect Phil Gosselin to make the team and play a role like Sean Rodriguez last year. Unfortunately I expect Gosselin to be much more 2014 SRod rather than 2016 SRod. He is probably the backup shortstop when Mercer needs a game off every three weeks, but like SRod, he isn't well-suited to the position. If Mercer were to go down for an extended stretch, Huntington might be actually be forced to turn to Gift Ngoepe or look for help outside the organization. Kang was originally slated to get 20-25 starts at shortstop this year, but that obviously isn't happening.

That leaves the 13th spot to Alen Hanson. If we have learned nothing else during Neal Huntington's tenure as GM, it's that he is very reluctant to willingly give up assets. Hanson is out of options. After a breakout minor league season in 2012, Hanson shot up the prospect rankings. But he has yet to break through. His inconsistent glove forced him off shortstop and now his best opportunity is likely to come with another organization. That this is only his age 24 season still works in his favor, but time is running short. Last week it was reported the Pirates were shopping Hanson, but no team is going to trade anything of value knowing the Pirates predicament. At some point this year, the Pirates are going to DFA Hanson and he probably gets claimed. I just don't think it will happen in the next week. He'll be on his first Opening Day roster on Monday. And I'm guessing it will be his only one with the Pirates. I don't see him getting any meaningful playing time barring multiple injuries.

Jose Osuna is the odd man out here. A bat-first, corner guy (all corner guys are bat-first, right?) Osuna has torn it up for the second straight spring. The schedule makers could have done him a favor by giving the Pirates two days off the opening week. Then the team could have skipped its fifth starter and taken Osuna north to Boston where they will open the season using a DH. Alas it is not to be as the Bucs will need their fifth starter in week one. Two months younger than Hanson and never considered a big-time prospect, Osuna has opened eyes with his bat over the past year. He'll make his major league debut this season, it just won't be on Opening Day.

Outfielders (3): Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen

It's a helluva trio and if all had performed to their ceilings it could have been one of the best outfields the game had ever seen. Alas, that appears wishful thinking as this is almost certainly their last season together. This year the defense has been realigned. I don't see how that can be anything but positive. But it is the trio's offense that will likely determine the Bucs' playoff chances. Polanco was en fuego during the World Baseball Classic and arguably the Dominican's best player, but is currently nursing a shoulder injury. He struggled big-time in the second half last year and has yet to put together a full season. Marte is one of the most athletically-gifted players in the game, but can he take that next step and be the top-5 MVP candidate I've been predicting the past two years? McCutchen's story has been the most-documented in the game the past nine months. His dropoff last year was unprecedented as Dave Schoenfield noted. But Dave's article coincided almost exactly with Cutch's return from a three-day unplugging (benching) Clint Hurdle gave him in Atlanta. From that point on he hit .284/.381/.471, virtually identical to his career numbers. The performance bell curve for this group is flatter than you might think.

My thoughts on Neal Huntington are well-documented. I think he's done an outstanding job overall, particularly with the limited resources he's been allocated. But, this is a spot where I'm sure he'd like to undo a trade he made after the 2015 season. Huntington traded outfielder Keon Broxton and reliever Trey Supak to the Brewers for Jason Rogers. I'm sure the Pirates viewed Rogers as a mix of Jose Osuna and Phil Gosselin. A bat-first player with some major league pedigree who could give them some right-handed power off the bench. It didn't work out. Rogers never did anything with the team last year, was DFA'd and signed with the team on a minor league deal. He's been injured most of the spring. Broxton had a great second half for the Brewers posting a .937 OPS with eight homers and 16 stolen bases in 169 plate appearances before fracturing his right wrist mid-September. He would be the ideal fourth outfielder for this team. Last year Matt Joyce fell into their lap and gave them outstanding, cheap produciton. Now they are going to be throwing utility infielders out there when the Big 3 need a day off. Not ideal.

Next Up: The Pitching Staff

Twitter: @DTonPirates