Friday, July 31, 2015

Five things the Pirates need to do to catch the Cards

The Pirates enter Friday night's contest against the Cincinnati Reds 5.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards scored three in the bottom of the 9th last night and shrimped their way to a 9-8 win over the Rockies, with the least exuberant walk-off celebration you are likely to see this year, while the Bucs got hammered 15-5 by the Reds.

Despite calls to upgrade the starting rotation, find another lefty reliever and get a right-handed bat to platoon with Pedro Alvarez, it's unlikely Neal Huntington's going to make any more moves before the 4 pm EST trade deadline. Aramis Ramirez, Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria are this year's haul. Upgrades for sure, but not the splash always desired.

So where does that leave the Bucs with 61 games remaining?

At 59-42 they have the second best record in the NL and are five games clear of the Cubs in the race for the second wild card. They have a roughly 92% chance of making the playoffs. The Pirates problems this year have been in the division. At 17-25 they have by far the worst intra-division record, anchored by their 2-8 mark against the Reds. (St. Louis, by contrast is 26-15 vs. the NLC.) The Pirates have 34 games left within the division, nine with the Cards, Cubs and Reds and seven with the Brewers. 32 of the 61 are on the road where the Bucs are 24-25. (Yea, the Cards. Best road record in the league at 27-22.)

So how is this team going to catch the Cardinals who schedule looks incredibly favorable down the stretch, including ten games each with the denuded Reds and Brewers?

The short answer is they probably aren't. But here is the most likely way for it to happen:

1.) Get healthy. The Pirates need to get through this stretch of nine games and hope to win at least five. It starts tonight with three at Cincy, followed by a six game homestand with the Cubs and Dodgers. The bench is a disaster with Rodriguez, Florimon and Ishikawa, but there really is nothing Neal can do about it internally. I'm guessing Josh Harrison will be back by the St. Louis series Aug. 11th and Mercer shortly after that.

2.) Play the right guys. The Pirates infield defense is also a disaster. Kang has been serviceable at shortstop, but when everybody is healthy Kang should be at third (of the four left side infielders, he is the one who should be in the lineup every day) and Mercer at short. Obviously Ramirez and Harrison are going to get starts, but Ramirez off the bench and JHay in a super-utility role is the best lineup.

3.) Get ARam a first baseman's glove. Aramis Ramirez, and when he's healthy Josh Harrison, should be taking grounders at first base. Now. I know Ramirez has never played the position. Neither had Alvarez last year and that didn't stop the Pirates from moving him there to try and keep his bat in the lineup. Yes, I'm shocked at how poorly Pedro has adapted to the switch, but that shouldn't stop the Pirates from doing the right thing. Get Ramirez up-to-speed ASAP.

4.) Quick hooks. Right now the Pirates have two excellent starting pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Don't change a thing with either. Their next best pitcher the last two months has been Jeff Locke, 2.91 ERA, .607 OPS against since June 1. A.J. Burnett has been terrible of late, giving up 10+ hits his last three starts for the first time in his career and Charlie Morton has been bad since his great first month. With the additions of Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria, Clint has to come with the quick hook on these guys the rest of the year. Hope they go six strong and then get to the pen.

5.) Get Lucky. Everything is going to have to go the Pirates way to catch the Cards. Yesterday the Cards put Matt Holliday on the DL with a quad strain. He missed 31 games with a similar injury earlier in the season. The Pirates need to stay healthy, hope the Cards plug-and-play magic wears off and get the starting pitching that they got in the first half. It's a stretch. But not impossible.

Talking Gregory Polanco, defensive metrics and trade deadline with the Great Brian Kenny

One of the most entertaining guys I get to speak with on my show is Brian Kenny, host on the MLB Network. Brian was kind enough to join me yesterday in the middle of the frenzy. I could have talked to him for hours. I'm glad he cut out 12 minutes for me. Check it out.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Neal Huntington, the trade dealine & the Pirates 25-man roster

Things can change quickly. The Pirates entered Sunday seven games back of the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals with both Jeff Locke and A.J. Burnett struggling in their most recent outings. With only 65 games remaining on the schedule, the Bucs appeared destined for their third straight wild card appearance.

And that may still happen, but a lot has gone the Pirates way in four days. Gerrit Cole came through with another sterling outing on Sunday as the Pirates finished their series with the Nationals taking three of four. They then pounded out 18 runs in Minneapolis, the most in back-to-back games all season, and swept the two-game series from the Twins. At the same time, the Cards have struggled. They've gone 1-3, getting shutout in their past two, while only registering four hits in each. On top of that outfielder Matt Holliday who already missed 31 games with a quad strain earlier in the season, suffered another leg injury that most certainly will send him to the DL. Now 24 hours from the trade deadline the Pirates are only 4.5 games behind St. Louis with nine head-to-head meetings still on the docket.

So what does Neal Huntington do, if anything, to increase the Pirates chances of winning the NL Central?

And this is where things get a little more complicated than they might initially appear. Barring a blockbuster trade or trading a player currently on the 25-man roster, the Pirates really only have one, maybe two roster spots to play with.

Let's start with the position players of which there are 13. Last week's acquisition of Aramis Ramirez filled a short-term need following the injuries to Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. With Ramirez at third, Jung Ho Kang at short and Pedro Alvarez at first, the eight starting position players are set. Also sometime in the next month both Harrison and Mercer are due back. I'm guessing Harrison gets back for the first series with the Cards that starts August 11 and Mercer probably two weeks after that. Pedro Florimon and Travis Ishikawa are the two players likely to be sent out when they come back. That puts the roster at 10 position players. Add catcher Chris Stewart and you have 11 guys who are locks.

If you follow my twitter feed @DTonPirates you know how I feel about Sean Rodriguez. Great teammate, great backstory, versatile defender who should not see another at bat the rest of the season. Rodriguez's .201/.227/.302 .529 OPS speaks for itself, but, my god, since May 11, yes arbitrary end points, he's .145/.174/.239 .413 in 124 plate appearances. I'm not much for exclamation points, but damn! Read that again! So the question is do you keep SRod on the roster as Pedro Alvarez's caddy and late-inning defensive replacement? He does have legitimate value in the role. Sunday in the eighth inning against the Nats he made a great play that saved some runs and helped secure the victory. I wrote earlier in the week why trading Alvarez would be a mistake. Apparently the Pirates now feel the same. So, if the Pirates are going to keep Pedro, they almost have to keep Rodriguez for his defense. Reluctantly, that makes twelve.

You'll notice that regardless of how they mix and match Kang, Mercer, Ramirez and Harrison, the bench now consists of four right-handed bats. So this is really the only roster spot that Huntington has available to upgrade. Jaff Decker currently is holding down the spot, and while he's hasn't been anything special in 17 plate appearances, he did draw two huge walks. He worked Max Scherzer for one Friday night as a pinch hitter in front of Gregory Polanco's season-best 12-pitch at bat, I'm-gonna-take-the-breaking-ball-deep home run off Scherzer that followed. And he drew another two-out walk, off of a lefty no less, on Tuesday night in front of Polanco's three-run double that broke things open against the Twins. Decker has been an OBP-machine in AAA and is a solid defender.

So the reality is, there really isn't much for Neal to do. How much do you want to give up for a left-handed bench upgrade that is only likely to get 30-40 at bats (depending on the severity of Polanco's injury)? Probably not much.

On to the staff. The starting rotation of Cole-Liriano-Burnett-Morton-Locke has been fantastic. Certainly some bumps in the road for the last three and if Tyson Ross becomes available Huntington should do everything possible to acquire him. But barring that I'm not sure there is an easy upgrade that makes sense.

The bullpen is where the Bucs need help. Melancon, Watson and Hughes have been great. Worley is the long-man. That gets us to nine. Antonio Bastardo is everybody's favorite whipping boy du jour, but he was excellent in June and is the second lefty in the pen. He's not going anywhere. Arquimedes Caminero was lights out the first two months of the season and has been a disaster since. He had his first clean inning in a month yesterday. But there is no way the Pirates are doing anything with Caminero. He regularly touches 100 mph, he just turned 28 and the Pirates have five more years of control. That gets us to 11.

Last night the Bucs acquired Joe Blanton from the Royals for a bag of balls & a bat. The Pirates saw Blanton up close last week as he threw 3.2 scoreless innings against them and that no doubt impacted their decision-making. Blanton's been effective out of the bullpen, striking out 23 batters, walking just three in 23 innings. He's Just A Guy, but he's a small upgrade over Deolis Guerra who will be DFA'd later today.

(EDIT: 3:30 Thursday. To my surprise the Pirates DFA'd Vance Worley, not Guerra. Obviously they like Blanton more than Worley. It will be interesting now to see how Blanton is used.)

So where does that leave Huntington?

My guess is Neal is done. Sure, he could trade guys off the 25-man roster, but I don't see him DFA'ing anyone other than Blanton. So unless the Pirates do something bold and completely out-of-the-blue, this is it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Talking trade deadline, Pirates with Joe Sheehan 7/28

I had my buddy Joe Sheehan on the show yesterday. I going link to my baseball guests here on the blog so you can easily access them.

If you are a hardcore fan, you should absolutely sign up for Joe's newsletter. Details here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Trading Pedro Alvarez would be a mistake

At this time of year trade speculation becomes the national pastime. It's fun to play GM and think about ways to improve your favorite team. To throw out crazy blockbusters that will never happen. To propose trading three bench guys for another team's superstar. No harm, no foul.

The reality is that no one is in on the GM's conversations and it's virtually impossible to separate rumor from "source." But one storyline that keeps emerging is that the Pirates are trying to move Pedro Alvarez. From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports earlier this week:
This is not new news. It was widely speculated that the Pirates were trying to move Alvarez last offseason as well. Like every trade, a trade of Pedro would hinge on the return. But in reading Passan's tweet you get the sense that the Pirates are almost willing to give him away, "...get rid of him" doesn't suggest they're holding out for the Queen's jewels.

And if that's the case, moving Alvarez would be a big mistake.

Guys who can play first base currently on the Pirates roster include Pedro Alvarez, Travis Ishikawa and Sean Rodriguez. Is it possible Aramis Ramirez or Neil Walker could play first? Sure, it's possible, but neither has played an inning at first in the majors and it's highly unlikely the Pirates would move one of those guys this week to fill a hole left by a departed Alvarez. So the obvious first question is, would some platoon of Ishikawa/Rodriguez or anyone else in the organization be better than the current situation which includes Alvarez? No, it wouldn't. Ishikawa is just a guy and SRod shouldn't get another at bat this season. He is a versatile defender and useful as the 25th man, late-inning defensive replacement. Nothing more.

I understand Alvarez's defense has been terrible. I have said repeatedly the single most surprising aspect of the Pirates 2015 season has been Alvarez's struggles to become an adequate defensive first baseman. His glove at third was fine. In fact, I think Pedro was underrated. He had good hands, was great coming in on balls, had good reactions and decent range. Somehow all those attributes have disappeared. On top of that, his instincts and feel for first base are non-existent. Clearly this is the big knock against Pedro.

But what else is there? While some in the fanbase will be forever critical because of Pedro's demeanor or appearance, there is not a shred of evidence that he is anything but well-liked by his teammates. With the bat? His power is tantalizing as evidenced by his opposite field shot on Thursday night and his massive bomb off Max Scherzer on Friday. But let's look more closely at El Toro's numbers. His career line entering the 2015 season:

.235/.307/.435  .742 OPS  105 OPS+  29.6% SO  9.2% BB

Pedro in 2015 entering Sunday:

.235/.304/.434  .738 OPS  104 OPS+  24.9% SO  8.6% BB

I'm guessing you won't find a player in all of major league baseball whose season line mirrors his career line more closely than Pedro Alvarez. Pedro has delivered exactly what the Pirates and their fans should have expected. Sure it's easy to dream on the 2013 NLCS and hope that Pedro would be that guy on a day-in, day-out basis, but that's not happening. And at this point in his career it's clear that he's a platoon player. Betting that his career line against lefties of .196/.266/.315  .581 in 591 PAs is going to change all of a sudden is playing against the odds. He is what he is.

If the Pirates are looking to just dump Pedro Alvarez and I'm an American League GM, how do I not take a flyer on this guy as the left-handed side of a DH platoon who's under control for one more year? Sure the OBP hurts, but he's still a power bat that can extend a lineup.

But the reality is the Pirates shouldn't move Pedro at the deadline. He's is 17th among all major league first basemen in wRC+. Unless there is a clear upgrade available, (Chris Davis from the Orioles, anyone?) I don't see how "getting rid of" Pedro makes any sense at all. In fact, I think it would clearly weaken the Pirates.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stat of the Day 7/25/15: Lineups & OBP

There have been a lot of studies on lineup construction and optimization. Should your best hitter bat second? Should the pitcher bat eighth? None are conclusive, but if you do certain things your team is likely to generate a few more runs.

But one thing is seen as being pretty straightforward, you want the guys with the highest OBP toward the top of the lineup so they get more opportunities.

Here is the Pirates OBP by lineup spot going into Saturday's game:

#1  .322
#2  .307
#3  .385
#4  .330
#5  .316
#6  .299
#7  .341
#8  .334
#9  .196

Obviously what jumps out is that the 7 & 8 spots are significantly higher than 1 & 2. If you follow the Pirates you know why, but suffice it to say this is one of the reasons they've had trouble scoring runs for significant stretches at various times this season.

The silver lining? The numbers at top have gotten better. 1 & 2 were both around .300 a month ago.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Vintage Frank: Liriano getting better with age

Those of you who listen to my show on 970 ESPN know that I have a somewhat unhealthy man-crush on Francisco Liriano. Saying I view Frank’s work through rose-colored glasses would be understating it by orders of magnitude. So when I talk or write about Frank please keep the prism from which it is coming in mind.

Last night Liriano made start number 19, his first post the All-Star break, and he was as filthy as I’ve ever seen him. Frank is a three-pitch pitcher. He throws a 93-mph fastball and a slider and change that both tend to clock in at 85-86. As with virtually every other pitcher in the game the key to Liriano’s success is fastball command. Last night he had it all going.

Things opened simply enough with Liriano recording assists on the first two batters, making a very good play on a Michael Taylor bunt and then getting Danny Espinosa to ground back to the mound. Then things got interesting. Liriano would go on to strike out 9 of the next 11 batters he faced, blemished only by a five-pitch walk and another comebacker to the mound. Through four innings he recorded nine outs by strikeout and three on 1-3 putouts, allowed no hits and one walk and did it in a surprisingly efficient 57 pitches.

Frank’s work against Bryce Harper stood out. In his first at bat Liriano went right after Harper challenging him with two fastballs up in the zone that Harper swung through and then, after going 2-2, he put him away, swinging, with a slider. Harper’s second time up Liriano again opened with a fastball which Harper swung through but he then fell behind 3-1. At this point you probably don’t want to give Harper anything good to hit, maybe see if you can get him to chase. That’s exactly what Liriano did, getting Harper to chase a slider well out of the zone low and away. At 3-2 he came back with exactly the same pitch with exactly the same result. Harper’s first two at bats, six swings, no contact, 2 Ks.

Things got off the rails for Liriano in the fifth. He threw 33 pitches including three that went to the backstop and the Nats got on the board. He came back with a quick 9-pitch sixth when the first two Nationals batters inexplicably swung at the first pitch, but Harper did make contact this time grounding into a force out. After giving up a double to open the seventh Frank was done for the night. The final line: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 11 K, 103-62.

Most impressive was the 26 swings-and-misses Liriano generated. For me, swings-and-misses is the single best gauge of a pitcher’s “stuff.” I went back through Frank’s game logs and 26 is tied for the second most he’s ever recorded in his career. Liriano recorded more than 20 swings-and-misses for the first time in his career in a start with the Twins against the Brewers in July of 2006 when he registered 25. He recorded 20+ twice more that season, but then missed 2007 with Tommy John surgery. He did not record more than 20 again until June of 2012 when he generated a career-high 30 against the Oakland A’s. (He got traded to the White Sox two weeks later.) That was a bit of an anomaly as it was the only time in 28 starts that season that he had more than 18. 

But since coming to Pittsburgh, and the National League, in 2013 things have changed. In just his third start with the Pirates he generated 20 swings-and-misses on 91 pitches against the Cubs. Two starts later he got 21. He got 20+ two more times in 2013 and did it five times in 2014. Last night marked the third time he’s done it in 2015. So in 141 American League starts he generated 20 or more swings-and-misses four times, only once after his surgery. In three National League seasons he’s done it 12 times in 76 starts. Certainly having pitchers bat has played into that number, but I think we are seeing Liriano at his very best at age 31. The peripherals back it up. Since missing 2007, Liriano is posting bests in WHIP, H/9, BB/9, K/9. I banged the drum hard for the Pirates to re-sign Liriano when he hit free agency this offseason. I don’t think you will find a better signing than the 3-year, $39 million deal which Neal Huntington inked with Liriano. Pirates fans can sit back and enjoy Filthy Frank through 2017.

Come on Joe Sheehan, you still don’t think he’s a front-of-the-rotation starter?

Gettin' Started

Yesterday the Pirates acquired Aramis Ramirez from the Milwaukee Brewers for minor league reliever Yhonathan Barrios, much to the delight of an anxious fanbase roiled by the club’s 1-5 start out of the All-Star break. And with that the drive for the pennant officially commenced. Rather than drop 140 character nuggets on Twitter all day, I’ve decided to blog the last two months of the season here. Sharing my thoughts as the Bucs try to catch the St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the NL Central title and make the playoffs for the third consecutive year. You aren’t going to get simple game recaps here, rather I hope to give you some insights and analysis that you won’t find anywhere else. Thanks for checking in. Come back often.

The Acquisition of ARam

The Ramirez deal was a no-brainer. The 37-year old third baseman, acquired 12 years and a day after the Pirates essentially gave him away to the Chicago Cubs in one of the great salary dumps of all-time, is in the final year of a Hall of Pretty Good career. He still hits for power, his 11 home runs in 302 at bats would rank fourth on the Pirates behind the triumvirate of Alvarez, Cutch and Marte all checking in with 13, and he is still capable in the field. Barrios is a hard-throwing reliever, but he wasn’t among the Pirates top 30 prospects. He's due to become a minor league free agent at the end of the season and it’s unlikely that the Pirates would have found room for him on their 40-man roster.

Ramirez will slot right in as the Pirates everyday third baseman and clean-up hitter, although with Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang scorching hot of late, that could change. Regardless of where he hits Ramirez will extend what has been a depleted Pirates lineup. When everyone is healthy Ramirez will provide the Pirates a solid right-handed bat off the bench, essentially becoming what the Pirates had hoped Corey Hart would be when they signed him in the offseason.

There has been some speculation that Ramirez could eventually be exactly what Hart was slated to be, the right-handed side of a platoon at first base. While I think that’s unlikely given he’s never played an inning at first in his major league career, it could be discussed in September if his bat is hot and the Pirates are still struggling to figure out the position. For now he'll be at third with Kang the everyday shortstop.

I've been critical of Bob Nutting at times for his frugality. In this deal the Pirates gave up virtually nothing, but did take on $3 million in salary from the Brewers. Good on Nutting. Hopefully there are more resources available if Neal Huntington deems them necessary. It's reported the team is closing in on a deal for a reliever. I'll keep you posted.

Ramirez will make his debut with the Bucs Saturday night against the Nats.