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.

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