Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ranking the Pirates MVP Through the first 100 Games

After seemingly not having an off day for months, the Pirates have three in eight days going into Monday's trade deadline, so plenty of time to kill. Rather than propose 50 different unlikely-to-happen trade scenarios, I thought I take a stab at an MVP vote for the Pirates to this point in the season. I'm sure there will be plenty of different opinions on this, but one thing is for sure. Nobody's list is going to look remotely close to what they would have predicted at the beginning of the season.
From 10 to 1, here it is:
10B.) Jung Ho Kang:
The sexual assault allegations that surfaced on July 5th undoubtedly are weighing on Kang. It's unclear exactly when he was made aware of them, but since the time they were made public he's slashed .184/.262/.289, for a .551 OPS. He's now splitting time with David Freese at third. Kang has made a nice recovery from his injury and is playing an excellent defensive third base. Maybe his three-run double on Wednesday will lead to better things down the stretch.
The change in Sean Rodriguez in his age-31 season is pretty remarkable. SRod came into the season with a career slash line of .228/.295/.371, a .666 OPS and an 85 OPS+. Last season with the Pirates he drew five walks in 240 PA. This year in 207 PA, he's hitting .247/.330/.495, .825 with a 117 OPS+ and 19 walks. He's played excellent defense at five different positions and his ability to adequately handle shortstop means the Pirates don't have to carry an extra glove, as they have in years past, to give Jordy Mercer the occasional day off. If he's higher on your list I won't argue.
9.) Matt Joyce:
I didn't think Joyce should make the club out of spring training. I was more interested in seeing Jason Rogers off the bench even though that would have meant the Pirates lacked a left-handed bat for that role. Wow was I wrong. Who saw this coming? .283/.412/.559, .971 OPS. The only thing keeping Joyce from being in the top half of this list is he only has 177 PA. What a bounce back season at age 32. Along with SRod, David Freese and Adam Frazier, the Pirates the best bench in baseball.
8-7.) Neftali Feliz and Tony Watson:
Placing relievers on a list like this is always the most difficult decision for me. Both of these guys have been outstanding but I'll give Watson the slight nod because he has pitched 44.0 innings vs 39.1 for Feliz. After back-to-back rough outings on June 4th & 5th Watson has made 20 appearances and given up one run in 20 innings. Opponents are hitting .186/.240/.229 during this stretch.
It's hard to chose between Joyce, Freese and Feliz as Neal Huntington's best free agent offseason acquisition. At $3.9 million Feliz seemed to be a bit of an overpay. He's been worth all of that and more. From day one Hurdle slotted him into the seventh inning role and he's delivered with 45 Ks in 39.1 innings and a WHIP under 1.000.
6.) David Freese:
Another great offseason pickup by Neal Huntington. I'm not sure who the Pirates starting third baseman is right now. Freese is putting up his best numbers since this All-Star 2012 season and has been a capable corner infielder. The fact that he's had about 100 more PAs than Kang, SRod and Joyce moves him above them.
5.) Jordy Mercer:
This for sure will be the most-controversial ranking on the list and if you wanted to move Mercer back, I'd understand. While the defensive metrics aren't as kind to Jordy this year as they have been in the past, he continues to be a very consistent, reliable glove at the most important defensive position. Jordy's also having the best offensive season of his career. After posting a 69 OPS+ last year, he's at 103 this year and continues to rake against lefties with a .889 OPS. I think he's the most underrated player on the team.
Cole was equally difficult to place on this list and before Wednesday's superb first career complete game I might have put him behind Watson/Feliz. My knock on Cole this year is that he hasn't given the Pirates the innings you would expect from a front-of-the-rotation starter. In 15 starts he's only thrown 87.1 innings, an average of less than six an outing. But he's put up good numbers and the Pirates are going to need him to be dominant down the stretch and in the wild card game if they make the playoffs.
Apparently the Pirates are at least exploring the idea of dealing Melancon (which they now have done). While I understand the logic, anyone is available for the right price, it still would surprise me if it actually happens. Melancon's peripherals don't stack up with some of the other names on the market, but his results stack up with anyone's. It's hard to put a guy who has only pitched 41.2 innings this high on any list, but Melancon continues to be outstanding. The strikeout numbers aren't impressive, but he doesn't walk anyone, generates a ton of soft contact and has a WHIP under 1.000. There is zero chance the Pirates offer Melancon a qualifying offer at the end of the season, in my opinion, but think it will be fascinating to see what kind of offers he gets. Regardless of whether he's traded or leaves in free agency, he is in the books as having maybe the best four-year run by a reliever in Pirates history.
A breakout season for Polanco at age 24. It was pretty much a coin flip between he and Marte for the top spot. From day one of this year Polanco has show great plate discipline and a much-improved ability to handle lefthanders. He looks to be a perennial All-Star and top 10 MVP candidate for years to come.
Marte is slightly improved plate discipline away from being one of the ten best players in the NL. Although his home run numbers are down this year he is a legit five-tool star. He got the nod over Polanco due to defense and base running. His 36 stolen bases lead the majors and are just five off his career high. I still don't think Marte has tapped his full potential, but he's close. He and Polanco will form the core of this team for years to come.
At the beginning of the year every list ranking the Pirates best players would likely have included Andrew McCutchenFrancisco CervelliFrancisco Liriano and Josh Harrison. The fact that none of those guys made the list and the team is still four games over .500 bodes well if at least a few of them revert to form.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Podcasts with Joe Sheehan and Tim Williams

Joe and Tim are weekly guests on my show. Joe, author of the Joe Sheehan Newsletter and contributor to Sports Illustrated and others, at 5:00 on Tuesdays and Tim, editor of Pirates Prospects, at 5:00 on Wednesdays. (Of course they both joined me at 4:30 this week, so that is not etched in stone.)

On Tuesday Joe and I discussed the Chapman trade, playoff probabilities and how teams should view the buy/sell decision and what the Pirates should do going into the trade deadline on Monday.

On Wednesday Tim became the first guest ever not only to stay through one break, but two. Pirates Prospects released their updated Top 50 list and we took an in-depth look at the list and also debated our differing views as to whether the Bucs should look to move so-to-be free agent Mark Melancon even thought they are only a couple games out of a wild card spot. (Part 1, part 2, part 3)

I hope you enjoy the conversations as much as I did.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Quick Look at the Dominating Run by the Pirates' Bullpen

The Pirates bullpen provided another solid outing yesterday, 6 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 8 K. Not quite as good as the dominating stretch we saw right before the All-Star break, but still very good. Over the last 30 days, from June 24, the Pirates bullpen has been the best in baseball. With the Pirates starters continually failing to go deep in games, the Bucs pen has pitched 104.1 innings in the 24 games played over that stretch, an astounding average of 4.1 innings/game, the most of any team.

During this run they have posted a 1.98 ERA (2nd), a 3.15 FIP (3rd) and a 3.55 xFIP (5th). The reason the Bucs are a little lower on the list in xFIP is that they have done an excellent job of keeping the ball in the park, allowing only 8 HRs, 0.69 HR/9 (3rd) during the current stretch with a GB% of 48.7% (5th). They've also done a great job of preventing batters who reach base from scoring with a league-best LOB% of 88.6%. (League average tends to come in around 70-72% depending on the season.) They have accumulated 1.6 WAR (1st) and are 9-1 (if you care about assigning wins & losses) with 11 saves (1st). Their 23.9% K-rate ranks 8th and their 6.6% BB-rate is 5th. Looking at some of the more advanced metrics, the Pirates also lead in WPA and RE24.

Here is a look at the individiual performances of the ten relievers who have seen action during this span. What stands out is how good a job Clint Hurdle has done of spreading out the workload among the group:


Juan Nicasio                             11      18.1        5
Jared Hughes                            11     13.2        3
Tony Watson                             13      13.0        1
Arquimedes Canminero            11      12.2        2
A.J. Schugel                              11      12.2        5
Mark Melancon                         13       12.1       2
Neftali Feliz                               13       12.0       3
Jon Niese                                    3        7.1        2
Jeff Locke                                    1        2.1       0
Kyle Lobstein                               1        0.0       0

Currently the Pirates are 50-47, 8.5 back of the Cubs in the NL Central and 3.0 games back of the second wild card spot with 65 game to play. With the trade deadline 8 days away it is going to be interesting to see if Neal Huntington seeks to add to the bullpen. The Pirates should have plenty of options once rosters expand September 1, but will Huntington look to supplement this group before then? One thing seems certain, the continuing struggles of the Pirates starters mean the bullpen may well decide the team's playoff fate.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Decent (Contract) Proposal: The Pirates and Gerrit Cole

The May 10th announcement that Stephen Strasburg had signed a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Washington Nationals was about as surprising as news gets in the world of major league baseball. The 27-year old righty, the number one overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft, was due to be a free agent at the end of the season. Strasburg was going to be the jewel in an otherwise dreadful crop of scheduled-to-be free agent pitchers. Zack Greinke's six-year, $206 million deal and David Price's seven-year, $217 million deal, both signed this past offseason, were expected to be baselines for his agent Scott Boras, the agent known as being the most aggressive in having his clients pursue free agency, in any negotiation. Instead, when Nationals owner Ted Lerner reached out to Boras about a long-term deal and Strasburg expressed interest, a deal got done.

Strasburg's career has had its ups and downs. He debuted June 8, 2010 against the Pirates striking out 14 and walking none in a 5-2 Nationals win. But he only made 12 starts that year, tearing his UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. A year later he made five September starts and then was famously shutdown the following September during a dominating 2012 season (197K, 48BB, 15 HR, 2.83 FIP in 159.1IP) when he reached the Nationals self-imposed innings limit, not pitching in the postseason as the Nats were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals. Strasburg pitched a career-high 215 innings in 2014, but various ailments limited him to 127.1 innings last year. This season Strasburg has been fantastic and is on pace to put up the best numbers of his career.

Like Strasburg, Gerrit Cole was a number one overall pick, selected by the Pirates in 2011. Like Strasburg, Cole is represented by Boras. Like Strasburg, Cole has experienced big success, he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting last year, but has also had difficulty staying healthy. So does the Strasburg signing now make the unthinkable idea of a Cole extension possible?

I think it does.

We can go through a list of players who might be viewed as comparable to Cole and try to triangulate a first-year arbitration award in 2017. If you look at the numbers of Alex Cobb, Jose Fernandez, Garrett Richards and Jake Arrieta among others I think $5 million seems a reasonable guess today for Cole's projected arbitration salary this coming offseason. (The idea here is to present a general framework rather than get bogged down on the specific numbers for each season.)

Using that as a starting point and assuming Cole is able to sustain front-of-the-rotation type performance (and why would the Pirates do the deal if they didn't believe that), $9-11 million and $14-16 million would seem to be reasonable projections for 2018-19. The estimates may slightly skew to the high-side for Cole even though we are continuing to see a rapidly-increasing pay scale for starting pitching, but they seem reasonable.

Simply using $5M, $10M, $15M for the next three seasons means Gerrit Cole would make $30M from 2017-2019 if he is able to maintain his level of performance.

From this point it's more art than science. The Strasburg deal has certain levels of complexity that the Pirates are not likely to propose. Under the terms of his deal with the Nats Strasburg gets paid $18.333M in each of the next two seasons, what would have been his first two years of free agency, and then $38.333M in 2019, after which there is a player opt-out. The deal is uniquely structured over the final four years as well if Strasburg elects to stay in DC giving him the opportunity to realize the full $175 million.

I am proposing a far-simpler deal for Cole and the Pirates. A five-year, $70 million deal. It would pay Cole $20 million for each of his two free agency seasons, 2020 and 2021, in addition to the $30 million outlined above.

Why the Pirates Do the Deal
  • Cost certainty. Much like the deals they have done with McCutchen, Marte, Harrison and Polanco this gives the Pirates cost certainty through Cole's arbitration years while buying out his first two years of free agency.
  • Below-market free agency seasons. $20M is well below-market for today's front-line starters and will be even more so four years from now. If Cole pitches like he did in 2015, in 2019 and 2020, $20M will be a steal. 
  • Revenues are continuing to skyrocket. The vast majority of MLB's new national television dollars will be paid out over the next five years and the Pirates local television deal will come up for renewal. They can afford this deal.
Why Cole Does the Deal
  • $70 million is a lot of money. Guaranteed. Cole was given an $8M signing bonus when he signed a minor league deal with the team five years ago after being drafted number one overall. (Boras and Cole turned down an $8.5M major league deal running through 2016 at the time because they projected the deal they signed to be worth an additional $1.4M. Turns out it will be closer to an additional $2M.) But $70M is generational-changing wealth.
  • Pitchers get hurt. The old line about there being two kinds of pitchers, those that have been injured and those who will be injured seems more true today than ever before. Coming back from Tommy John seems almost routine today, but even that isn't guaranteed. Cole hasn't suffered a serious injury, but he has been on the disabled list in two of his three full major league seasons.
  • He would still hit free agency at the relatively young age of 31. Greinke just got $206M guaranteed in free agency coming into his age-32 season. Cole will still get a monster contract if he performs.
Why the Pirates Don't Do the Deal
  • The team operates on a very tight, self-imposed budget. Cole would stand to make well over 10% of total payroll in 2019 when he's making a mere $15M. The Bucs have already committed $11.5M to Francisco Cervelli, $10.3M to Starling Marte and $6.1M to Gregory Polanco in '19 so that means they would have over $40M tied up in four players.
  • Pitchers get hurt (see above). A career-ending injury to a player on this type of deal could derail the Pirates' financial plans for years.
  • They have a full pipeline of good young pitchers. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault all made their debuts in the last two months. They are affordable and controllable and there appear to be more talented young starters behind them.
Why Cole Doesn't Do the Deal
  • While $70M is a helluva lot of money Cole will be seriously underpaid in 2020 and '21 if he is a front-of-the-rotation starter.
  • While pitchers do get hurt, Strasburg is just the latest example of a pitcher to hit the mother lode after Tommy John surgery.
  • This will have no bearing on a deal getting done one way or the other.
  • I've presented this deal to a bunch of people in the industry. The response has been mixed, which is exactly what I expected. There isn't a consensus that the deal is overly favorable for either side. Those generally are the type of deals that have a chance to get done. With Cole coming back from injury and still three-plus years away from free agency, now might be the perfect time for both sides.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Pirates Upcoming Roster Crunch

The Pirates return to action Friday against the Washington Nationals. After having virtually no days off in the two month run-up to the All-Star game, the Pirates will have three days off leading up to the August 1st non-waiver trade deadline and they will be off that day as well. The schedule and the impending roster crunch provide Neal Huntington opportunities and challenges in dealing with the 25- and 40-man rosters. 

Let's take a look at the current roster and speculate on how things may play out over the next 16 days. Here is the Pirates current active roster, players on the disabled list and some others who have been active this year as of Thursday:

Catchers (2)Eric Fryer, Erik Kratz

Infielders (7): John Jaso, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Jung Ho Kang, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, Josh Bell

Outfielders (5): Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Matt Joyce, Adam Frazier

Starting Pitchers (4): Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Jon Niese, Chad Kuhl

Relief Pitchers (7): Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio, Arquimedes Caminero, A.J. Schugel, Jared Hughes

Disabled List (6):
Francisco Cervelli (15-day DL, currently eligible to be activated), Chris Stewart (15-day DL, eligible to come off July 18), Elias Diaz (60-day DL, currently eligible to be activated)

Pitchers: Gerrit Cole (15-day DL, currently eligible to be activated), Jameson Taillon (15-day DL, eligible to come off July 16), Ryan Vogelsong (60-day DL, eligible to come off July 23)

In Indy, Been Up This Year and on 40-man (5): Alen Hanson, Jason Rogers, Steven Brault, Wilfredo Boscan, Kyle Lobstein

That's 36 players in total and means there are hundreds of different scenarios as to how things can play out going into the trade deadline. Let's take a shot. This is not necessarily exactly how I would do things, this is what I expect Neal Huntington and the Pirates to do.

Thursday the Pirates announced their starting rotation for the weekend series. Francisco Liriano will start Friday, Gerrit Cole will be activated from the disabled list and start Saturday and, in a bit of a surprise, Chad Kuhl will start on Sunday. Kuhl is a complete head-scratcher. He has not been impressive in his first three career starts. The only rationale behind the Pirates decision that I can come up with is they want to start a RHP versus the Nationals who have a team OPS of .835 vs. lefties and .732 vs. righties. Okay, so that rules out Locke/Niese, but why choose Kuhl over Taillon who is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday? I'm guessing the Pirates don't want Cole and Taillon pitching back-to-back in the rotation. I'll come back to that in a second.

The Pirates will have one important decision to make before playing any games against the Nats. They'll have to determine if Gregory Polanco is able to play or if he needs to go on the 15-day DL retroactive to Saturday, July 9. I'll guess Polanco is refreshed by the week off and remains active and starts in right field over the weekend.

When the Pirates activate Cole Saturday it will get them back to their preferred 12-man pitching staff, meaning a position player will be sent down (If Polanco goes on the DL, Cole will take his spot and the following discussion is moot). There are only two choices here, Bell or Adam Frazier. Bell's weekend debut was the stuff of lore, but my guess is he is sent out Saturday. Frazier has been solid in his time up with the club. Remember it was his 8-pitch walk off of Jake Arrieta that preceded Bell's first career hit that ignited the Pirates winning rally last Friday against the Cubs. Frazier provides more versatility than Bell (although he is an outfielder in name only, probably no better than Bell, but for obvious reasons the Pirates aren't going to use Bell in the outfield after two years away from the position) and can be used as a pinch-runner. I know this will disappoint Pirates fans, but I think that's the likely move.

The next move comes after the Pirates day off on Monday. As mentioned Jameson Taillon is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday, July 15. Taillon, along with Liriano and Cole are the only three starters guaranteed to be in the Pirates rotation on August 2. I expect the Pirates to activate Taillon Tuesday for the start of the series against Milwaukee. This will then situate Liriano between Taillon and Cole in the rotation, which is the desired alignment, the lefty between two hard-throwing righties. With Taillon active another pitcher has to go and Chad Kuhl is the obvious answer. Reports suggest the Pirates are actively trying to move both Jeff Locke and Jon Niese, but I don't expect other teams to bite this early for such marginal guys, so Kuhl's gone. Taillon-Liriano-Cole start versus the Brewers.

Now let's look at the position players. Next week is going to be the week of the catcher, with there likely to be a complete shuffling of the depth chart at the top of the organization. Francisco Cervelli started a rehab stint at Triple-A Indianapolis Thursday night going 2-for-4 with a walk and catching seven innings. I would imagine Cervelli will get today off and then catch seven-nine innings on Saturday and then see if he can come back and catch again Sunday. If things go smoothly, expect Cervelli to be activated on or around Tuesday for the Brewers series.

That leads to the easiest of the various roster moves, DFA'ing Erik Kratz. Kratz has had a few good moments during his second stint with the Bucs, but his -27 OPS+ in 50 plate appearances (and at bats, since he has no walks) means he's gone, which also opens up a spot on the 40-man roster. With the open spot, the Pirates can activate Elias Diaz, rehabbing with Class-A Bradenton, from the 60-day DL and send him to Indianapolis.

Catcher Chris Stewart will also be eligible to come of the DL by the time the Brewers come to town. Stewart's season goes one of two ways: his knee is good enough that he can play through the pain the rest of the season or he has season-ending knee surgery. Let's assume Stewart is good-to-go. That leads to a tough decision. My best guess is the Pirates will send Stewart to Indy for his own rehab stint when Cervelli is activated. If Cervelli proves he is healthy and can be the everyday catcher, then the Pirates activate Stewart sometime between now and the trade deadline. This will lead to the swapping out of the other catcher recently acquired, Eric Fryer. While I'm sure the Pirates would love to somehow keep Fryer in the organization until the rosters expand on September 1, I don't think they will be able to do it. And with Diaz now back, Fryer becomes expendable. I also don't think the Bucs will entertain the idea of carrying three catchers when Stewart comes back. So Fryer is the next to go, creating another 40-man roster spot, and the Pirates have their top three catcher back and active for the first time since early April.

Back to the pitchers. Now the most difficult decision. Tyler Glasnow is scheduled to start in Indianapolis on Monday. I expect him to make that start. At the major league level the Pirates need a starter not named Taillon, Liriano or Cole for the first two games against the Phillies next Friday and Saturday. If he's on the roster I think Jeff Locke gets the ball Friday night. Saturday is the big decision. If no trades or other roster moves have been made to that point the Pirates will have the option of starting Jon Niese or recalling Tyler Glasnow and making a corresponding roster move. The complicating factor here is the Pirates will only play six games in the following nine days, with days off Monday, Thursday and the following Monday. After the Saturday start they could comfortably operate with a 4-man rotation until Saturday, August 6th against the Reds, but they may prefer to give the starters as much rest as possible.

So that becomes the big question. Do the Pirates bring up Tyler Glasnow, essentially for good, a week before the deadline and make a corresponding roster move, (DFA'ing Jon Niese would appear to be the most obvious although they could option Jared Hughes to the minors and put Niese in the pen), or do they give Jon Niese the ball one more time and hope for the best? I'd prefer Glasnow, but I'm guessing it will be Niese as Huntington tries to manage his assets as aggressively as possible until the deadline without having to give anything away.

If the Pirates were to DFA Niese and he did clear waivers they could outright him to Indianapolis and look to recall him September 1 when rosters expand, or earlier if needed. As a six-year veteran Niese would have the right to refuse the assignment and become a free agent and the Pirates would still be obligated for the remainder of his salary.

After that decision it would appear to be relatively smooth-sailing until the deadline. Ryan Vogelsong will be eligible to come off the 60-day DL on July 23. If Fryer is DFA'd there will be an open 40-man spot for him, but there wouldn't appear to be a spot on the 25-man unless someone goes down with an injury or a trade opens things up. Vogelsong pitched for Altoona on July 10. so the Pirates have 30 days from that date to activate him. I'd expect Neal to use almost all of that time to make a decision.

The last question is what to do with Josh Bell. If he is sent down on Saturday, he'll be eligible to come back up July 27th. I'll leave that one to you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A recap of the Pirates first half

For the six months immediately following the 2015 season I talked continually about how assembling a team for 2016 would be the biggest challenge Neal Huntington faced to-date as the Pirates general manager. Coming off three straight wild card berths the Pirates were a team in transition. I'm sure to his regret, Huntington used the term "bridge year" in the offseason to describe the upcoming '16 season. While Huntington made it clear that "bridge" did not mean taking a step back, he had to deal with the continuing reality of a draconian, self-imposed budget by owner Bob Nutting and an organizational depth chart loaded with young talent, but talent not ready to immediately contribute. If things were to play out as Huntington envisioned, he'd have to continue his Rumpelstiltskin-esque run to get the Bucs to the All-Star break as a contender.

The Pirates entered the offseason with a roster that was mostly set with its starting eight, needed to add depth to the bench and bullpen and, most importantly, had serious questions about its starting rotation. The complicating matter was that the Pirates had two minor league starting pitchers viewed as two of the brightest prospects in the game in Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. In addition, prospects Josh Bell, Elias Diaz and Alen Hanson were all expected to be ready at some point in 2016. The problem was, and it was clear in December, none of those prospects would be ready to head north with the Pirates out of spring training. They all needed at least a couple more months of development in AAA and, of course, the Pirates were going to manage the service-time of Taillon, Glasnow and Bell. That made an early June call-up the earliest any of those three would contribute.

The young starters created the biggest challenge for Huntington. It was easy back in March to look forward to the '17 season and ink Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Taillon and Glasnow into the rotation. The problem was getting from here to there. How was Huntington going to cobble together a back-end rotation for 2016 and make sure not to block his star prospects and the other talented starters moving up through the system?

One obvious answer was to re-sign J.A. Happ. The 32-year old Happ was acquired from the Seattle Mariners at the 2015 trade deadline. After a rough first start with the Bucs, Happ was Kershaw-lite the rest of the way going 7-1 with a 1.37 ERA and 63 strikeouts against 11 walks in 59 innings with a .525 OPS-against. No one expected a repeat performance, but the rejuvenated Happ pitching in PNC Park seemed to be a perfect fit for the starter-starved Bucs. Happ instead signed a 3 year/$36 million deal with Toronto and is having an excellent season.

After Happ signed Huntington talked about the price for mid-rotation starting pitchers "blowing up." He was likely being a good employee. I'd be shocked if Huntington was taken aback by MLB's contract escalation. More likely Huntington didn't have the financial resources to shop at the mall, let alone the high-end boutiques. He was forced to go to again to the thrift stores. But even mid-level talent, understandably, wasn't going to sign with the Pirates on the one or two-year deals the Bucs were seeking in order to not block their young pitchers, so they likely never had a chance with Happ.

The Pirates ended the offseason with a smorgasbord of Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Nicasio, Kyle Lobestein and Wilfredo Boscan to go with their established starters. After trading Charlie Morton and his $8 million salary in a straight salary dump the opening day starters were penciled in as Cole, Liriano, Niese, Nicasio and Jeff Locke. The results have been even worse than expected. The Bucs starters finished the first half 14th out of 15 in NL fWAR, 14th in HR/9, 13th in BB/9 and 12th in ERA, IP and K/9. Cole has been injured and Liriano has massively underperformed. Niese was acquired in a trade for Neil Walker in a virtual match of salaries. The logic behind the deal for the Bucs was they had a surplus of middle infielders and could replace Walker with Josh Harrison and hope that Niese would be the latest Liriano-to-Volquez-to-Happ baton-carrier in the rotation. Hasn't happened. Niese has been terrible with a 7.92 ERA and eight of his 20 home runs allowed in his last six starts. The Pirates are floating his name in the trade market, but he's more likely to be DFA'd then bring any return at this point. Of the rest, Vogelsong has been injured, Nicasio was miscast as a starter, but now should supplement the bullpen, and Lobstein is in AAA where he belongs. The Pirates have turned to their rookies over the last month, but the results have been lackluster so far:
Since Gerrit Cole went down on June 10 the Pirates have played 29 games. Their starters have gotten past the sixth inning only three times while failing to get to through five an astounding 12 times.

But as bad as the starters have been, the bullpen has stabilized and is coming off a dominant three week stretch. Aside from All-Star closer Mark Melancon everyone in the Pirates bullpen has had their ups-and-downs. After separating the wheat from the chaff (relievers who appeared for the Pirates this season and are not currently on the 25-man roster pitched 80.2 innings and gave up 52 runs), the roles appear set and the pen was the team's catalyst behind their strong first half close. Starting with an 8-6 win over the Dodgers on June 24 the bullpen went 35.2 scoreless innings and only gave up one run in 46.0 innings through a 7-5 July 6 win over the Cardinals. The Pirates went 10-2 and during that stretch the Pirates starters only got past the sixth inning one time. A.J. Schugel, Arquimedes Caminero and Juan Nicasio have stabilized the middle relief and the closing trio of Neftali Feliz-Tony Watson-Mark Melancon have locked down late Pirate leads.

The Bucs offense has intermittently been very good despite a tremendously disappointing first half from Andrew McCutchen. Young stars Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, a solid second season from Jung Ho Kang and the best bench in baseball have fueled the run production. Marte earned his first All-Star berth this week and is putting up career-highs in all three triple slash lines and is second in the majors with 30 stolen bases. Polanco, a deserving All-Star, is having a massive breakout season. The contract he signed in April sets him up for life but may prove to be the biggest feather in Huntington's cap, exceeding the massively team-friendly deals signed by Andrew McCutchen and Marte. Kang has mostly continued to impress, although he slumped into the break and has serious allegations hanging over his head.

The most surprising offensive contributions have come from the bench. While Huntington's offseason foray into the starting pitching market was a disaster, his position-player signings were just the opposite. Holdover Sean Rodriguez, re-signed to a 1-year/$2.5M deal, has picked up where he left off the last two months of last season with a completely different approach at the plate. After earning five walks in 240 PAs last season, SRod already has 18 in 188 PAs this year. The 31-year old super-sub is blowing away his career numbers and is second on the team in OPS at .870 and playing excellent defense at five different positions. Matt Joyce, signed to a minor league deal in February and making $1M this season, leads the team in OBP and SLG slashing .295/.420/.558 and is tied for the NL lead (min 150 PA) in wRC+ with Anthony Rizzo. David Freese, signed midway through spring training to a 1-year/$3M deal, is replicating his 2012 All-Star season,
At this point it probably isn't fair to call any of the of three bench guys as they are all deservedly (and often necessarily) starting 2-3 games/week. In fact, it might be time to ask whether Rodriguez should supplant Josh Harrison, who is proving to be more the 2011-2013 Harrison than the 2014 JHay All-Star, as the starting second baseman. Like Harrison, Francisco Cervelli was also having a very disappointing season offensively before going down with a broken hamate bone. Cervelli's OBP is actually slightly better than last's year .370, but he has been devoid of any power, slugging a hollow .293 with no homers in 201 PAs. Cervelli's various replacements have been adequate defensively but brought even less to the offense, although recent acquisition Eric Fryer has been a bright spot in limited duty. Shortstop Jordy Mercer and newly-signed first baseman John Jaso have provided league average offense at their positions while being sound defensively.

That leaves Andrew McCutchen.

Cutch has been, arguably, the most disappointing player in baseball this season. The fact that there are still questions as to why his performance has tailed off so dramatically reinforces the view that nobody actually has a good answer. Disappointment with his contract, his spot in the batting order, a lingering thumb injury that effected his swing plane are three of the many ideas that have been suggested with the last being the only one that would seem to have merit. Players of McCutchen's pedigree and skill-set rarely fall off the performance-precipice the way he has. After four straight seasons finishing in the top five of the NL MVP voting, Cutch wouldn't be in the top five on his own team to this point. The Pirates can only hope he has a Robinson Cano-like turnaround in the second half.

While it wasn't ideal, the Pirates managed to get to the ASB with a 46-43 record and currently sit just 1.5 behind in the wild card race. This, without significant contributions from Cole, Liriano, McCutchen and Cervelli four of their six or seven best players entering the season. Now the outlook for this team is completely different. Jameson Taillon is up to stay. Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow figure to have significant impacts. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Cervelli, along with Taillon, will return from the disabled list shortly after the ASB and the Pirates will play 39 of their remaining 73 games against the Brewers (15), Reds (11), Phillies (7), Braves (3) and Padres (3) who have an aggregate winning percentage of .408. I think 89 wins will get them to the playoffs. That means 43 more wins, .589 baseball. It all starts Friday.

I'll be back at the end of the week with a look at the important personnel decisions and roster management issues confronting Neal Huntington with just over two weeks to go until the trade deadline.

*Photo courtesy of Getty Images. Josh Bell celebrating his first career home run, a grand slam in a win over the Chicago Cubs, July 9th. Certainly the highlight moment of the Pirates first half.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Free Passes: Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco

There is an old Dominican baseball adage that says "You can't walk off the island." Dominican baseball players are known as free swingers who rarely walk. The Pirates Starling Marte is the personification of the adage.

Last night in Oakland Starling Marte walked twice, once intentionally. It was the first time Marte has walked twice in one game since August 9th of last year against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Marte was also hit by a pitch in the game against LA. The Pirates other corner outfielder Gregory Polanco, like Marte, is also from the DR. In fact, both were born in Santo Domingo, Distrito Nacional, Marte three years the senior. Polanco also walked twice in that August 9th game against LA. But, unlike Marte, Polanco wasn't hit by a pitch. Apparently nobody was telling Polanco old Dominican adages while he was growing up.

Let's take a look at what's happened since then:

Starling Marte     509     473     13     4     16
Gregory Polanco     542     486     43     6     0

The career numbers are even more striking:

Starling Marte     2231     2035     96    8    73  
Gregory Polanco     1284     1147    110    12      1 

In about a thousand fewer plate appearances Polanco has now passed Marte in walks. But, in terms of free passes, Marte still has the lead because he's a human cowhide magnet. This ratio will never not amuse me:

BB:HBP Marte 1.3:1. Polanco 110:1.

Both are having outstanding seasons. Polanco leads the Pirates (min 200 PA) with an OPS of .872. Marte is second at .860. Marte has the slightly better OBP, .374/.370, while Polanco has the slightly higher SLG, .502/.486. Both are striking out at just over a 20% clip. But at 24, it's Polanco's plate discipline and increased walk rate that has contributed to his breakout 2016 season. His walk rate has increased from 8.8% to 11.5%.

In contrast Marte is swinging more than ever, sporting a career low walk rate of 3.6%. While Marte has shown that he has developed an HBP "skill," averaging 20/yr over the last three seasons and right on that pace with 10 at the midpoint of this season, one can only imagine the player he could be if he, at the mature age of 27, was as disciplined as his fellow Dominican.

With Andrew McCutchen struggling it's these two who have been focal point of the Pirates offense. It doesn't feel like either has reached his ceiling. It will be entertaining to watch how they progress in the second half.

*Image Courtesy of Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Pirates Flip the Calendar. What it Will Take in the Second Half

June was not pretty for the Pirates. An 8-1 win in Seattle Wednesday closed out the Pirates worst month since the start of the 2013 season. The Bucs finished 9-19,  for a .321 winning percentage. It was only the team's second losing month since the start of 2013 and their worst month since the dramatic collapses of 2011 when they went 8-22, .267 in August and 2012 when they went 7-21, .250 in September.

Vegas certainly hasn't liked what they've seen from the Pirates of late. Bovada had the Pirates as 20:1 shots to win the World Series on May 3. By June 1 those odds had risen to 28:1. The disaster that was June has reset the number at 66:1. (Hey wasn't that Mario's number?) But all is not lost. Coming into today's action the Pirates still only find themselves 3.5 games out of a wild card spot with 83 games to play.

Looking back at history, only three World Series Champions in the last 16 years have gone the entire season without a losing month, so stretches of subpar play are not uncommon. However only three of those teams endured months below .400, the 2015 Royals (11-17, .393 in September), the 2014 Giants (10-16, .385 in June), and the 2006 Cardinals (9-16, .360 in June) and obviously none did as poorly as the Pirates did in June.

The Pirates have a big 10-game stretch starting tonight heading into the All-Star break. They open with three in Oakland against the A's, go to St. Louis for four with the Cards and close with three at home against the Cubs. Any result .500 or above would be a good start heading into the four-day break.

After the break the schedule turns a bit more favorable for the Bucs. My on-going mantra on the show is "Beat the bad teams, play .500 against the good teams and it will all work out." Of their remaining 73 games the Pirates will play 16 vs Milwaukee (.449), 11 vs Cincinnati (.363), 7 vs Philadelphia (.438), 3 vs Atlanta (.342) and 3 vs San Diego (.418). That's 40 games against teams with an average winning percentage of .412. If the Bucs are able to win two-thirds of those games that would be 26 wins. If they win half, 17 of the remaining 33, that would be 43 wins after the break. If they win six of their remaining ten before the break, that's 49 wins which would leave them with a record of 87-75.

My guess is that might leave them a game or two short of the wild card. I think 89 wins will get them into the wild card game for the fourth consecutive year. The rest of the season starts tonight. Enjoy the ride.