Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cutch Is Golden

Andrew McCutchen had a breakout year in 2012. He hit .327 with 31 home runs, 107 runs, 96 RBIs and 20 stolen bases while playing in 157 games for the Bucs. Cutch was picked as a NL All-Star for the second straight season, this time as a player's choice, and was part of the State Farm Home Run Derby during the KC festivities.

You can add a Gold Glove to his 2012 trophy case. And if he doesn't have a hardware cabinet, no problem: USA Today reported that Cutch even got a $25,000 bonus for the award, so he can afford to go out and get one.

The Gold Glove Awards are selected by the managers and coaches, who can't vote for their own players. Cutch outpolled the other two finalists, Cincinnati's Drew Stubbs and Atlanta's two-time Gold Glove winner Michael Bourn (Houston 2009-10), to take the honor. Cutch led all NL center fielders with a .997 fielding percentage, charged with just one error in 371 chances, and finished the season with a 135-game streak without a boot.

Roberto Clemente won a MLB record 12 Gold Gloves and Andy Van Slyke won five, while Bill Virdon and Nate McLouth each earned one. Other Pirate outfielders to be voted a Golden Glove were Dave Parker and Barry Bonds, with three each. Add Cutch to the Golden Bucco club.

Of course, we know that Golden Gloves are predicated on golden bats; hence Nate the Great's gold mitt in 2008 and Clint Barme's non-consideration this season. Chase Headley won the award ahead of David Wright in the NL and Adam Jones won the vote over human highlight reel Mike Trout in the AL this year to bolster that thought.

Michael Bourn blew the doors off Cutch defensively in most stat-head categories: his UZR was 22.4 to Cutch's -6.9. Bourn made 113 plays out of the centerfield zone to McCutch's 78, and both had 3 assists. Cutch did beat him in RZR, which measures balls hit into the zone that were converted into outs; Cutch turned .933 of those into sit-downs, while Bourn wrapped his mitt around .913 of balls in his area.

We'll defend Cutch from the Sabremetric slap down a little. We've watched him enough to know he still freezes sometimes on his initial jump and hitting the cut-off man is a concept that hasn't quite sunk in yet. But he's improved leaps and bounds since his 2009 debut.

Cutch has run down more than his fair share of gappers and slid under quite a few CF lobs. And since he's been here, his zone rating has been crimped by the Bucs double-CF defense, using center field talent in left to better cover PNC's Notch acreage, so that UZR is artificially low to us.

All in all, we consider Cutch an above average fielder with plus speed who plays better than the defensive metrics show, but not elite with the leather or his arm. Heck, he may well pass the torch to Starling Marte one day. But hey, 31 dingers and 194 hits make that glove look a little bigger, at least in the eyes of the guys watching plenty of dinks and drives disappear into his web.

And he may not be quite done. Cutch is in the final five for the upcoming NL-MVP award. His (and the club's) late fade probably cost him that shiny bit of metal, but we'll see November 15th.

Coaching, Player Moves

The Pirates today named former shortstop Jay Bell, 46, as their hitting coach. Rick Sofield, 55, last season's West Virginia Power manager, was given the first-base coaching position and Dave Jauss, 55, a scouting adviser to Neal Huntington and a former bench coach for several clubs, became the Major League coach.

Bell filled the vacancy created when Gregg Ritchie left to become manager for George Washington University. He played 18 seasons in the show, eight of them in Pittsburgh from 1989 to 1996, where he was an All-Star and Gold Glover in 1993.

He retired in 2003 and was the D-Backs’ bench coach during 2005-06, then went into semi-retirement, spending three more campaigns with the organization as a spring training advisor. In 2012 he returned as the hitting coach for the Mobile Bay Bears, Arizona’s AA club. Bell's now coaching the New Zealand national team which hopes to the qualify for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

Sofield was a former first round pick (13th overall) of the Minnesota Twins in 1975. Between 1979-81, the outfielder had a slash of .243/9/66 for the Twin Cities.

He retired to college coaching, and later spent 12 years in the minors for the New York Yankees, Montreal Expos, Los Angeles Dodgers, Rockies and Pirates as a manager and minor league coordinator. In 2007, he took over the head coaching reins at South Carolina - Beaufort.

Sofield and Clint Hurdle go way back to their minor league playing days, and the pair worked together in the Colorado Rockies organization (2003 with Triple-A Colorado Springs) and at the Baseball Factory, a development camp for high school players. When Hurdle took over, he brought in Sofield as the manager of Low Class A West Virginia Power last season.

Beside coaching first, he'll be in charge of base running and outfield work. Former first-base coach Luis Silverio was reassigned to become a senior advisor to Latin American operations.

Jauss was a special assistant to general manager Neal Huntington in 2012, generally serving as an advance scout. He was a college coach in the eighties before he got the call from the pro ranks. Between 1988 and 1994, Jauss managed in the Expo system and was the Eastern League Manager of the Year in 1994 at Harrisburg.

He also managed winter baseball in the Dominican Republic and led Licey to the Caribbean Series title in 1999, when he was named DL Manager of the Year. (He also was suspended for two years from the DL for bumping an umpire, chasing after another & ordering a pitcher to bean a batter).

Jauss broke into MLB with Boston from 1997-2006 as a first base coach, minor league coordinator, bench coach, head of player development and chief scout. Jauss was a bench coach for the Dodgers, Orioles and Mets from 2006-10, then was hired by the Pirates in 2011. His dad, a long-time Chicago sportswriter, got him involved in sports, and it doesn't hurt that he has a degree in psychology; there are a lot of psyches that need massaged on the roster.

Jauss interviewed for the Mets' job in 2011 that was won by Terry Collins and was a candidate for the Bucco job in 1997 that went to John Russell.

  • The Pirates released LHP Hisanori Takahashi, who they picked up on waivers from the Angels in August.
  • RHP Daniel McCutchen was DFA'ed and becomes a minor league free agent on Friday if unclaimed. As reported earlier, 1B Jeff Clement and OF/C Erik Fryer were also DFA'ed and can be come free agents (Fryer has already declared for FA status).
  • 3B Pedro Alvarez's $700K option for 2013 was exercised. He'll start his arb years in 2014 and be under team control through 2016. C Rod Barajas' $3.5M option was declined, as expected, and it doesn't look like he'll be back. 
  • Kristy Robinson of Pirates Prospects reports that RHP Vic Black, Altoona's closer, was selected to the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Roster. 
  • Corey Giger of the Altoona Mirror broke the news that PJ Forbes, the Altoona Curve manager, won't return in 2013. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Young Guns - Victor Black

Victor Black, 24, was a catcher at Amarillo through his junior year, switching to the mound his senior campaign. The position swap worked out pretty well, as he ended up drafted by the New York Mets in the 41st round of the 2006 draft after his prep career.

He opted instead to go to Dallas Baptist University. He was their ace by his junior year, going 6-4 with a 4.16 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 88-2/3 innings. And Black didn't just work against the Patriots' Heartland Conference foes. He got the ball mid-week against Big 12 teams during the non-conference portion of DBU's schedule. Pirates scouts liked what they saw, especially his ability to miss bats.

RHP Black was selected as a supplemental pick (49th overall) following the first round of the 2009 draft by the Bucs, using the slot they were awarded for not being able to sign Tanner Scheppers the year before. He was rated by Baseball America as the #50th prospect, so he fell right about where expected. The Texan signed for around slot money, collecting a $717,000 bonus and joining the system quickly.

The Pirates started him off at State College, limiting his workload after a full college season. Although many scouts saw his big league meal ticket as a back-end reliever, the Bucs first worked him as a rotation guy, a position with more value. Black went 1-2/3.45 for the Spikes, working 31-1/3 IP with 33 K and 15 BB. His control, which had been a problem at DBU, and his big splits were early caution flags, but Baseball America still ranked him as the #6 prospect in the short-season NY-Penn League.

But that promising start fell apart in 2010. He started just two games for Low A West Virginia before he was shut down. Black had shoulder problems, and when he tried to work through them, he developed biceps tendonitis. Not only did he lose the season, but he went into the next year needing to get the strength back in his arm.

The Pirates moved Black to the bullpen to protect his shoulder. He still wasn't 100% at the start of the year, and the club kept him in extended spring training for a couple of months to rehab. He returned to West Virginia, and wasn't the same guy.

His velocity was erratic, as was his control - Black walked five batters per nine innings, and his strikeouts dropped to seven per game. He was given a late ticket to High A Bradenton, and he looked a bit, but not dramatically, better. His combined line for the year was 3-1-1/5.05 with 28 whiffs and 20 walks in 35-2/3 frames.

So in 2012, the Pirates had a 23 year old high draft choice entering his fourth season in the system who had worked just 71-1/3 innings, and not too successfully at that. In a swim-or-sink move, they assigned him to AA Altoona. Finally healthy, Black finally lived up to his projections.

He won the closer role, with his heater back in the mid-nineties and his slider again nasty. The Texan put up a slash of 2-3-13/1.65, with 85 K in just 60 innings. Black held opposing batters under the Mendoza line, and his splits, a problem earlier in his career, smoothed out. His control was still an issue, but he did cut down his walks to 4.4/nine innings.

He was a late addition to Eastern League All-Star team. Making up for lost innings, the Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he's been spotty.

Black is expected to begin 2013 at Indy, and will be added to the 40-man roster soon. If he stays healthy, he stands a good shot at becoming a Pirate sometime in 2013, depending on the ultimate fates of Hanny and Jason Grilli.

The righty throws three-quarters, and at 6'4" has a good downward delivery, generally keeping the ball in the bottom half of the zone. He's only given up four homers during his minor league career. Black works off a fastball/slider combo, shows a change up, and is experimenting with a two seamer in the AFL. His big goal should be first pitch strikes to prevent guys from laying off his stuff.

With the Pirate bullpen likely to undergo some reconstruction at the back end in 2013, it wouldn't be surprising to see Black and Bryan Morris staking a claim on the late innings some time next season.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Young Guns - Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole, 22, was born in Newport Beach, California, and went to Orange Lutheran High School. After being unscored on as a soph JV pitcher, Cole was promoted to the varsity. And no wonder; the scouts lined up to watch a junior prep pitcher who could hit 94 on the gun. As a senior, Cole had an 8–2/0.47 slash with 121 strikeouts in 75 IP.

He was named an AFLAC All-American, USA Today All-USA high school player, first-team EA Sports All-America selection and a second-team Baseball America All-America. Cole was ranked as the top high school prospect by Perfect Game Crosschecker and the fourth-best high school player by BA, and polished those accolades by hitting 96-97 on the radar while on the high school showcase circuit.

Baseball America rated him the 17th best prospect available in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft, and the Yankees made him their #1 draft pick that year with the 28th overall selection. Cole was a pinstripes fan, too, with the Bronx Bombers lore drummed into him by his dad, who was raised in Syracuse. But he never seriously negotiated with New York, determined and comfortable with his decision to attend UCLA, even if it left a reported $4M sitting on the table.

Cole put up a line of 4-8/3.49 in his freshman year as a Bruin, and in 85 frames whiffed 104, walked 38 and yielded a .191 OBA. He set UCLA's freshman single-season record with 104 strikeouts, earning All-Conference and Freshman All-America honors from the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. The righty also claimed a spot on the 2009 US Collegiate National baseball team, and was chosen as the top prospect on the team by Baseball America after posting a record of 4-0/1.06 with 46 K in 34 IP.

In 2010, Cole and Trevor Bauer may have been the best one-two punch in college baseball, leading the Bruins to 51 wins, the most in school history. They were ranked second in the nation, and finished that way, advancing to the finals of the CWS before South Carolina took the crown. Though smacked around by the Gamecocks at Omaha, Cole posted an 11–4/3.37 slash with 153 K in 123 IP, third best in the nation for collegiate strikeouts.

He was again named to the Collegiate National Team roster, going 2-0-1/0.72 ERA in five games (four starts) with 23 strikeouts and four walks in 25 frames and was named the top team prospect for the second consecutive summer by Baseball America.

In his junior year, Cole went 6–8/3.31, with 119 strikeouts in 114-1/3 innings for the Bruins, struggling during the second half of the year. His pitches were delivered up in the zone, and were flat. But those problems were thought to be mechanical due to overthrowing, and he was considered one of the top two choices to go #1 in the upcoming draft, along with Anthony Rendon.

The Bucs ended the suspense quickly when they made Cole the first overall pick in the 2011. As a Scott Boras client, it was de rigueur to sign at the deadline, and with fifteen minutes to spare, Cole chose a minor league contract with an $8M bonus over the Bucs other offer, an $8.5M major league contract running through 2016, because of the length of the payouts.

The Pirates didn't assign him to a team after that late August 15th signing, but did the next best thing when they rostered Cole with Mesa of the Arizona Fall League after working on his delivery a bit at Pirate City. He was 2-0/3.00 and whiffed 16 in 15 IP with the Solar Sox. The rookie was selected to start the AFL Rising Stars game, where he didn't last an inning because of a high pitch count (and two homers/five runs surrendered).

Cole was invited to spring training in 2012 by the Bucs as a non-roster player just to get a feel for the ropes. He was optioned early in March to High Class A Bradenton, where he joined RHP Jameson Taillon, who was drafted #1 the year before. Cole was named a FSL Mid-Season All-Star after going 5-1/2.55 with 69 K in 67 IP in 13 starts for the Marauders.

He jumped to Class AA Altoona on June 15th. He made 12 starts for the Curve and went 3-6/2.90, striking out 60 batters in 59 frames. Cole became the first pitcher in franchise history to throw 100 mph, hitting triple digits numerous times. He also gave Pirate fans palpitations when he got smacked in the puss with a liner while pitching against Harrisburg. Not only did he escape with just a bruise, but picked himself up and finished the frame.

But he did have trouble finishing off batters and innings. Cole was too often at the 90 pitch mark by the fifth or sixth inning, and only got through the seventh one time. That's a situation they hope to work out next season.

Cole was a member of the 2012 All-Star Futures Game, and had a mixed outing, striking out a pair but giving up a two-run homer to Cubs prospect Jae-Hoon. He did give the fans what they wanted, though, when he hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

On August 29th, Cole was just a step away when he was promoted to Indy. He allowed the first three batters he faced to score, then tossed five shutout innings with seven whiffs after the settled down. But there was no great comeback in the playoffs, when he gave up eight runs in two innings against the Charlotte Knights. The Buc FO likes its prospects to weather a storm; Cole's ship took on a lotta water at Indy, so it'll be interesting to see how quickly he can plug the holes.

His repertoire consists a four-seamer that he throws between the mid-to-upper nineties, touching three figures occasionally. He also serves a sinking two-seam fastball, slider and changeup. The hard slider is his out pitch while his changeup is improving. It's also reported that Cole played with a slurve last year, after ditching his high school curve ball during his Bruin years.

The 6'4", 220 pound hurler likes to pitch inside, something the Pirates work on constantly at the lower levels, and so using both sides of the plate shouldn't be a problem. His home run rate was excellent, giving up one long ball every 19 innings. Cole did give up 3 walks per game, but K'ed nine, and his 3:1 ratio was pretty strong. His toolkit is filled.

But Cole's still not a sure ace, although he has all the upside to become a number one. For all his hype at UCLA, Cole went just 21-20 in college and 9-7 during his minor league tour last year. He likes to work upstairs with his fastball, which is fine, but he has to keep his mechanics in line to keep the ball from missing in the middle of the plate. His pitches are sometimes flat, and that's usually caused by overthrowing.

He has such a good heater that he often gets by with just pumping it down the middle and getting some weak flies or blow-by strikes, but can stand to polish his command within the strike zone. Cole also needs to develop a better game plan, but that should come with experience. He has only worked 132 pro innings, and the pitching coaches and his catchers will help focus him to both get him deeper into games and to keep him from hitter's counts. So he has a punchlist to complete before he's ready to step on a MLB mound.

Cole will start next season at Indy. The ideal timeline is to bring him up in late June or early July, so as not to start his clock too soon. That, of course, depends on how the Bucco rotation shakes out and how Cole progresses. The Pirates' hope is for him to be established in 2014, and have Taillon, who should start in Altoona in 2013, take his spot and be ready to join him sometime that season.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Young Guns - Bryan Morris

Avery Bryan Morris, 25, attended Tullahoma High School in Tennessee, where he was named a Louisville Slugger All-American following his senior season in 2005. He went crosstown after he graduated and became a Motlow State CC Buck (RHP David Weathers, 19 year MLB vet, is their only other big league alum).

The teen was drafted by the Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2005 draft, right out of high school, but begged off to attend Motlow. The freshman ended up having one of the top seasons in Buck history, posting a 10-1 record with 122 strikeouts and an 0.82 ERA. He re-entered the 2006 draft and was chosen in the first round this time (26th overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers, inking a deal worth $1,325,000.

He was sent to the short-season Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League. Morris was a talented but wild child. His record was 4-5/5.13 in 59-2/3, fanning 79 and walking 40. Swing and miss stuff is sexy, and he was voted by Baseball America as the top prospect in the League. Morris didn't get a chance to live up to that rep right away, as he missed the entire 2007 season after Tommy John surgery.

In 2008, Morris played for the Dodgers A farm club, the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League. The righty was 2-4/3.20, with 72 K in 81-2/3 IP. In July, he was traded to the Pirates as part of the three team trade that sent Jason Bay to the Boston Red Sox and also netted Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss and Chris Hansen for Pittsburgh.

The Pirates, who saw enough to believe his arm was back after the TJ surgery, sent Morris to their Class A club at Hickory in the South Atlantic League. He made three starts for the Crawdads, walked 12 guys in 14 innings, and was shut down with pain in his right shoulder that was affecting his range of motion. The Pirates said it wasn't anything serious, but it would bite Morris the following year.

Morris was assigned to the Lynchburg Hillcats, the Pirates' Carolina League A team, but it took him a while to get on the mound.  He had to recover from surgery for a torn ligament in his toe and from tendonitis in his right shoulder, last year's late-season pain. It took nearly two months to get him pitching.

While in Lychburg, he posted a 4-9 record with a 5.57 ERA, but the 'Cats made the playoffs and Morris won the fifth and deciding game of their first-round series. It was a frustrating year for Morris, who was suspended indefinitely in August for unprofessionalism after getting snarky with a man in blue. Much of the frustration came from the Bucs rebuilding his motion to try to protect his shoulder, and having him serve up a heavy dose of stat-busting heaters until he was where they wanted him to be mechanically.

Morris was the Opening Day starting pitcher for the Bradenton Marauders during their first game in franchise history in 2010, playing alongside Starling Marte, Tony Sanchez, Brock Holt, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In eight starts, he went 3-0/0.60 in 44-2/3 innings, with the lowest ERA among starters in minor league baseball. On May 16th, Morris became the first Marauder in franchise history to get promoted when he was called up to AA Altoona.

He went 6-4/4.25 for the Curve, and by mid-season was working out of the pen. It wasn't because of pitching problems, but because the Pirates wanted to limit him to around 130 IP, and he was starting to show signs of wearing down after 100 frames. He stayed healthy for the entire season and threw for a career-high 133-2/3 innings with 124 strikeouts. Baseball America ranked him at #6 on the Pirate Top Ten Prospects list entering the 2011 season.

Morris was invited to camp in 2011, and eventually was sent back to the Curve. He spent the entire season in Altoona, which was a setback to his timetable. He also was converted to the pen. The righty started three games and then went on the DL with an oblique injury. Morris came back in May, first from the pen to build up stamina, then started three more times with disappointing results, and by June became a permanent reliever. He seemed to thrive there, pitching better and adding a couple of ticks to his heater. His line was 3-4-3/3.35, with 29 of his 35 outings from the bullpen.

He began the 2012 season with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He joined the Pirates for the first time on June 24th, watched a game, and went back down when Jeff Karstens came off the DL. Morris was 2-2-14/2.67 with the Tribe, collecting 69 K in 71 IP. He was recalled again on September 10th after Indy's playoffs, and made his MLB debut on September 14th, tossing a scoreless inning against the Cubs.

Oddly, Clint Hurdle didn't use him much, as Morris just worked five innings in five appearances, giving up one earned run on two hits with two walks and six whiffs. He should have been in line to have gotten a pretty heavy dose of work, as he enters 2013 out of options and so has to be on the roster, because if he's not, he'll surely be on someone else's. 

Morris' fastball averaged 93-94 during his brief Pittsburgh audition. He features a cutter/slider combo with a show-me curve, which was his go-to pitch as a starter, and got 20% swinging strikes with a 30% K and 10% walk rate during his brief stay in Pittsburgh. Converted starter Morris seems to be the logical candidate to replace Brad Lincoln as a multi-purpose arm, capable of being a set-up guy or tossing a couple or three innings if needed, although it's possible the Bucs see Chris Leroux in that role.

Though he didn't get a lot of work, he's a cinch to be on the roster when the Bucs break camp in the spring. Beside his lack of options, there should be a couple of holes in the pen that need filled no matter what bullpen scenario the FO decides on in 2013.

Bucs Claim Pair, DFA Clement & Fryer

The Pirates claimed RHP Chad Beck from Toronto and C Ali Solis from San Diego off waivers yesterday. They designated 1B Jeff Clement and C/OF Eric Fryer for assignment to make room on the 40 man roster.

Solis, 25, is an interesting pick-up for the Pirates. He signed with San Diego in 2005 as a Mexican free agent, and last season he played at AA San Antonio, putting up a line of .283/.307/.419 in 329 at-bats with six homers and 40 RBI.

He was selected to both the mid-season and postseason Texas League All-Star teams, throwing out 28 % of runners trying to steal (29 of 104). Solís appeared in the All-Star Futures Game as a replacement for minor league teammate Yasmani Grandal on the World team. He was behind Jason Hagerty, Grandal, Nick Hundley and John Baker on the Padres depth chart.

Beck, 27, has 18 innings in the majors, with a 5.50 ERA, 12 strikeouts and five walks. In AAA Las Vegas in 2012 he posted a 2-0-18/1.31 slash, with 24 K and 13 BB in 48 IP from the bullpen. Beck became the 51s closer after spring training Bucco RHP Ryota Igarashi was waived. His K rate is a red flag; while strong at the A level, in the past two years at AA and AAA, he averaged just 5.7 strikeouts per nine.

He was a 14th round draft selection of the 2006 Diamondbacks, and joined the Blue Jays in 2008 in a straight-up deal for David Eckstein. Beck has four pitches: a four-seam fastball at 94–97 mph, two-seamer at 92–95, slider and changeup in the high 80s.

Fryer, 27, came to the Bucs in 2009 from the Yankees for Eric Hinske, and was viewed as a utility guy in the outfield that could catch in a pinch. Clement, 29, the number one draft choice of the Seattle Mariners in 2005, became a Buc as part of the 2009 Jack Wilson trade. He fought a gimpy knee for most of his Bucco career, and went just 3-for-22 (.136) as a pinch hitter for the big team in 2012 after a bounce back year at Indy, sealing his fate.

These moves before the forty-man roster is set prior to the Rule 5 draft are always problematic. Last year the Bucs made several early claims that they ultimately cut free, so we'll see what the shelf life is for these guys in the coming weeks.

Edit - this afternoon, the D-Backs said they claimed Rule 5 pick Gustav Nunez from the Pirates. The SS spent most of the season injured with an ankle problem.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Young Guns - Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson, 25, was born in Anaheim and played his prep ball at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California, where he was a heavily scouted pitcher/first baseman. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Wilson in 37th round (1126th overall) of the 2005 draft after he finished playing for the Bears, but instead he opted to accept a Fresno State scholarship.

After his frosh year, when he pitched 25 innings and saw time as a bench hitter, he moved to the mound full-time as a sophomore in 2007, and went 8-5 with a 3.19 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 101-2/3 IP. Wilson led the Western Athletic Conference in ERA and was named to the All-Conference team.

As a junior, he was 8-5/4.34. The Bulldogs were on a roll that year, and made a run at the national championship with Wilson picking up some late year and playoff slack when ace Tanner Scheppers went down with a bum shoulder.

In the third and deciding game of the 2008 College World Series, Wilson struck out nine, walked one and held Georgia to five hits in eight shutout innings to set up a 6-1 victory on three days rest. He was selected to the All-Tournament Team, leading all CWS pitchers in strikeouts (20) and innings pitched (20-1/3) and went 2-0 with a 2.21 ERA in three starts in Omaha.

The Pirates chose Wilson in the fifth round (144th overall) of the 2008 draft, maybe a bit of an overdraft as Baseball America considered him to be a 6th-to-10th round pick and didn't include him among their Top 200 draftable players. (The Bucs also selected his more highly touted teammate, the injured RHP Schleppers, in the second round but couldn't sign him).

Wilson played chicken with the Pirate negotiators pretty much to the wire, but signed a couple of days before the deadline for $195,000, just about at slot value. With the late date and the innings he had worked in college, the Bucs decided to hold him out of competition that season. Without tossing a pro pitch, he was ranked the Pirates #29 prospect after the season by Baseball America.

In 2009, he was assigned to High A Lynchburg to begin his pro career, aggressively bypassing West Virginia. Wilson's ERA soared into the mid-sixes after a few weeks of play when he couldn't find the dish. But he settled in well during the last two months and playoffs, finishing 6-8/4.50 with very so-so peripherals.

The Buc FO continued to move him along a fast track, sending him to Altoona the following season. Wilson adjusted well, going 11-8/3.09 for the Curve with 134 whiffs in 142-2/3 innings. But he also walked 71, matching the prior year's line of a free pass every other inning. It cost Wilson some games as he was plagued not only by the walks, but also by high pitch counts that shortened even effective outings. Still, like Mae West, when he was good, he was very good, and he was selected as the Eastern League's Playoff MVP while BA ranked Wilson as the Pirates #15 prospect going into 2011.

He was promoted to Indianapolis in 2011, and Wilson started off en fuego, but the more experienced AAA hitters waited him out. He ended the year 1-8 with three saves and a 4.13 ERA; he had been so frustrating as a starter that the Pirates bumped him to the pen in August. The good news was that as a short man, his heater touched 99; the bad news was that he still wasn't throwing strikes. The Pirates added him to their 40 man roster after the season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, even though BA dropped him a couple of notches to the #17 prospect.

Wilson returned to Indy in 2012 and on some days was literally untouchable; he tossed two no-hitters for the Tribe. On April 29th against the Durham Bulls, Wilson pitched the first 7-1/3 innings of a combined no-hitter, closed out by Jose Diaz and Doug Slaten. Then on August 9th, the lefty tossed his second no-hitter, a rain-shortened, eight inning no-no against the Charlotte Knights.

Still, in early August, the Bucs talked about putting him in the bullpen to get him ready for a LOOGY (lefties hit .129 off him at Indy in 2012) or set-up role in Pittsburgh, but it was just talk. He started the next three games, but still got his call-up on August 20th, one day after the Pirates won a 19 inning arm-killer against the St. Louis Cardinals

Wilson made his major league debut the same day against the Padres, relieving Kyle McPherson, who had taken his own MLB bow a couple of innings earlier. Wilson struck out the side, alternating whiffs with a pair of singles. He and K-Mac were shipped back to Indy the next day as the Bucs reinstated Chad Qualls and called up Daniel McCutchen.

Then the Tribe put him in the pen, and his next four outings were as a reliever, including back-to-back appearances at the end of the month, his first ever consecutive day outings in the pro ranks.Wilson gave up a run on three hits in 4-1/3 innings of relief work, with a walk and eight K. He was called back to Pittsburgh on September 1st, finishing 9-6/3.78 at Indy, tossing 135-2/3 frames (25 of his 29 appearances were starts) with 138 K and 66 walks. His International League opponents hit just .189 off him (.129/LH, .214/RH).

He throws a fastball that averaged 94 in Pittsburgh and touched 96. But its strength is also its Achilles Heel - it moves so much that he has had career-long problems spotting it. He also tossed a slider, showing batters the usual power pitcher combo. The lefty works both sides of the plate. Wilson did have a 27% K rate for the Pirates, but also an 11% walk rate, 53% line drive rate and 13 of the 26 batters he worked against got aboard. He didn't exactly present a compelling case for himself in the few innings he threw, with a shiny 1.93 ERA but a more telling 2.786 WHIP in 4-2/3 frames.

The Pirates FO dangled him during the deadline as a closer-in-the making. After all, Hanny averaged 5+ walks per nine this season and still saved 36 games, as did John Axford, who iced 35 wins. Other wild child finishers like Tyler Clippard, Jose Valverde and Carlos Marmol aren't exactly considered among the elite, but the trio did save 87 games among them, so control isn't the end-all factor in the ninth inning.

But we think that's a back-burner option for Wilson. Even the brass emphasized that the late-year move to the pen was just to slot him into the Pirates immediate 2012 needs. He still has a couple of options left, and he's flashed some real ability as a starter, with the stuff to become a two or three rotation guy if he can harness his command. That's the big if, and Pittsburgh will likely start him out at Indy again in 2013 as part of the rotation to see if Wilson can find the light switch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hoka Hey Part 2

This morning, Dejan Kovacevich of the Tribune Review took the Bucs to task for running a "Hell Week" during the Pirate City instructionals. It's supposed to be a continuation of Pittsburgh's SEALS training, although it seems to us to be more closely related to the old fifties fraternity hazing. At any rate, the episode has created a tempest in a teapot among us Bucco blogger types and the fans who follow the club, with twitter and comment post zingers being lobbed back and forth among web aficionados.

Our take? The purpose is team building, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it appears that the design could be considerably more player-friendly, with more baseball emphasis built into the fun and games.

GW went through boot camp during the old Vietnam era (yep, he is old school!), which is above and beyond what the puppy Pirates got a taste of last week. Sadly, it did not improve his arm or batting eye one twit, though he did learn to run out every grounder - or else.

The Bucs woke their guys up at 5AM and had them doing various zany things, like run relays with buckets of sand, slosh through ice-watery pools and slide into bases before the sun came up with their coaches hopping over them. Now we're not sure of the specifics, although sleep and physical deprivation don't really seem to bolster any baseball related skills.

And that's where you have to be careful about integrating military team-building into other professions. A soldier, cop or fireman may depend on his homies to keep him out of harm's way, but rest assured that no matter how often the cliches are mouthed, no baseball player ever shared a foxhole, took a bullet or pulled a teammate out of a flaming building. Additionally, the army process often made its recruits resent the DIs who put them through it, and that doesn't bode well for the coaches who run the drills.

Having said that, there are certainly aspects of military training that can be successfully superimposed onto sports. One is certainly PT, within reason (baseball guys generally don't have any rationale to crawl under barbed wire with live ammo whizzing over their heads, unless the guy happens to be a GM).

Running a bucket race or carrying a telephone pole are examples of team building that sound off-the-wall but are generally harmless and call for a group purpose and effort. So is shaming someone who screws up by having everyone who did a drill right do it over, which reinforces the weakest link philosophy shared by both the military and sports teams. In fact, that's often done in practices across sports' gamut when everyone on the team runs after an individual goofs up.

Maneuvers under blank fire are the military version of practices that blare mega-volume crowd noises over the speakers. The army also made some drills competitive, among squads, platoons and companies. The Pirates could easily do this by breaking the players into like groups - infielders, outfielders, rookies, whatever, during their drills.

And as for the injury factor, well, how many times have you heard of a player that missed a week because he slept funny? They happen, and none incurred during hoka hey days seem to be more than a minor sprain. Do mommies and agents complain? Well, sure, but that's part of their job description.

We have no problems with coloring outside the lines, and colleges, Olympians and other pro sports have adapted military training to suit their needs. And that's the key - adaptation.

The Pirates seem to have taken SEALS training straight off the shelf, and the one-size-fits-all isn't the way to go. There's no need for early wake ups, obstacle courses, ice baths and other such things. But there are plenty of exercises that can be incorporated that require team work and foster competition. If they're handled in the spirit of breaking up the monotony of daily drills and games without the life-and-death overtones, they could actually be sorta fun while building some esprit de corps and yes, leadership, among the farm hands.

We understand that baseball and hidebound go together, and anything non-traditional is looked at as if it's rabid. We also understand that the current Bucco braintrust has a rep for their way or the highway, so in a sense we're pleasantly surprised that they tried something so unorthodox, and at the same time aren't surprised at their unbending defense. But for it to succeed, they'll have to adapt the military-style training to make it mesh within a baseball system. That's their challenge: to use the right mix of drills to turn out ballplayers, not troopers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Young Guns - Jeff Locke

Jeffrey Alan Locke, 24, graduated from Kennett High School in New Hampshire in 2006 and pretty much ran the table for NH prep baseball. By the time he was awarded his sheepskin, he was the career leader in wins for the Eagles, an All-State player and the New Hampshire High School Player of the Year.

He even earned a cool nickname when a local writer dubbed him "The Redstone Rocket," referring to Locke's fastball and his hometown of Redstone. The Rocket picked up an even nicer bit of recognition when the Atlanta Braves selected him in the second round (51st overall) of the 2006 draft, signing him quickly by waving $675,000 under his nose.

Locke was sent to the short-season Gulf Coast Braves, where he went 4-3/4.22. Pitching in 10 games with five starts covering 32 IP, he whiffed 38 and walked just five. That performance earned Locke the nod as the Braves #17 prospect going in 2007 by Baseball America.

He moved up a notch in 2007 to Danville in the Appalachian League and ate up the college-level rookie league, going 7-1/2.66 with 74 K and eight walks in 61 frames. Locke was named to Baseball America's Rookie All-Star & Appalachian post-season All-Star squad. It also bumped him into the Braves Top Ten, as BA ranked him #8 in their system.

In 2008, he continued his journey upward by being assigned to the Low-A Sally League Rome Braves. He met reality there, posting a 5-12/4.01 record. His K's dropped to about seven per game while his walks went up to 2.5/9 in 139-2/3 IP. But his FIP was nearly a full run lower than his ERA and he continued to show fine control, an ability to get ground outs and a tiny home run rate.

The next year, in High A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League, he was off to a fairly rough start. Locke was 1-5/5.52 into early June and his peripherals were a mess - his walks doubled to 5 per 9 and his WHIP was 1.599, although his whiff rate remained strong. Then came the news.

On June 3rd, 2009, the Braves traded Locke to the Bucs along with Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernández in exchange for Nate McLouth. The Pirates assigned him to their High Class A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, also in the Carolina League. He scuffled there too, with a 4-4 record, 4.02 ERA and some shaky peripherals. It sure looked like the Braves soured on him for a reason. But a new year with a new team brought a new beginning.  

In 2010, Locke was assigned to High A Bradenton (which replaced Lynchburg). He found his mojo and anchored the Marauders, ending up with a 9-3/3.54 slash and being named a Florida State League mid-season All-Star. Locke was promoted to the AA Altoona Curve in mid-July.

He looked sharp there, too, and ended the year with a combined 12-5/3.56 line with 139 K in 144 IP with 26 BB. Baseball America ranked Locke #8 on their Pirates Top Ten Prospects list and rated him as having the Best Changeup in the Pittsburgh system, while the Bucs added him to the 40-man roster during the off-season.

Locke returned to Altoona to begin 2011 and was a workhorse, going 7-8/4.03 with 114 K in 125 IP to earn a EL mid-season All-Star spot. He went to Indy, and after five solid starts was called up to the majors in September. He made his MLB debut on September 10th, and started four games. The lefty didn't impress, going 0-3 with an ERA of 6.48 and issuing twice as many walks (10) as strikeouts (5) in 16-2/3 innings of work. Still, Baseball America ranked Locke #10 on their Pirates Top 10 Prospects list.

He spent 2012 in Class AAA Indianapolis, where he posted a 10-5/2.48 line in 141-2/3 innings with his usual solid peripherals (BA chose him as the #9 IL prospect after the season). Locke made two appearances for the Pirates in early August, pitching 4-1/3 scoreless innings in relief as a call-up for Alex Presley, and before that had spent a couple of days in May with the big club, but wasn't called on.

Locke got his expected September promotion to Pittsburgh, and was handed Erik Bedard's old role. He finished the MLB season with a 1-3/5.50 mark, averaging about nine K's and three walks per nine with a WHIP of 1.369. His bane was the gopher ball; he gave up six homers in 34-1/3 frames. The 24 year old did finish on a high note, though, beating the Braves in his last start 2-1 for his first big league win.

He's a three pitch guy. His fastball sits at 90-91 and touches 94. He has a good curve and change, both big-league quality though neither is a consistent plus pitch yet. The lefty uses his off-speed stuff regularly, as 34% of his deliveries are soft serves. He's a groundball pitcher, but has been hurt pretty badly by the longball in the show. His 2012 fly ball/home run rate was 16.7%, and he gave up 1.57 HR/9.

Locke's reliance on off speed stuff has drawn comparisons to Zach Duke, but we think a fairer likeness is to Paul Maholm. Locke’s K rates in the upper minors and from his brief sample in the show are higher than Duke's, and he's shown more swing-and-miss stuff than Maholm, too. Like Kyle McPherson, he probably profiles best as a number four pitcher, although he'll have to become more efficient (his average 2012 line as a starter was was 5 IP, 3.5 ER, 6 H, 2 W, 5 K and 82 pitches) if he hopes to eat some back-end innings.

From an eyeball perspective, he needs to nibble less - he never got past the sixth inning - and trust his stuff enough to start aggressive and get ahead in the count. Locke fell into a rhythm of good game, bad game, and while he'll still be in the mix for whatever open spots there may be in 2013's rotation, that inconsistency cost him a golden chance to break out of the pack before spring camp.

More News And Notes: Arb Figures, Catching Market

While we're waiting for the World Series to get going and the Baseball Meetings to convene...

  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has Matt Swartz's arbitration salary projections for the Pirates. They range from $7.5M for Hanny to $1.3M for Chris Resop. He also discusses who's likely to stay and who may not be tendered.
  • Just a couple of possible catching scenarios: On the trade market: The Blue Jays have J.P. Arencibia behind the dish now, but Travis d'Arnaud's time is about due. Toronto is looking for pitching, so there may be a match up. Overpriced and underproductive Geovany Soto of the Rangers and Nick Hundley of the Padres should be available, too. Potential FAs: Mike Napoli, Russell Martin, Miguel Olivo (who has an option) David Ross (who was a Bucco briefly in 2005) and Kelly Shoppach.
  • Tom Singer of has a feature on prospect Victor Black, a power closer drafted in 2009. Singer writes that "Black is hoping to use his time in Arizona to build off a dominant season with Double-A Altoona. The 24-year-old appeared in 51 games out of the bullpen, boasting a 1.65 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 60 innings." 
  • Here's the Pirate's Top Twenty Prospects.
  • Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review wrote that "Neil Walker also hopes the club will add some established impact players this offseason. 'I think there needs be a good balance,' Walker said. 'We’ve brought in guys like A.J. (Burnett) and Wandy (Rodriguez). Adding a couple more pieces like that could really benefit us.'" And Casey McGehee told Tom Singer that "...truth be told, I think the time to look at things to build on is starting to run out. I think it's starting to get time to do it instead of having building blocks." Should stir the pot for an interesting hot stove season.
  • Old Bucco lefty reliever Sean Burnett, according to Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors, will turn down his option with the Nats and look for a multi-year payday.
  • State College Spikes GM Jason Dambach was named NY-Penn League Executive of the Year.  Wonder if that has anything to do with swapping out the Bucs for the Cards?

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Young Guns - Kyle McPherson

Kyle McPherson, 24, started his baseball career at St. Paul's Episcopal High School in his home town of Mobile, Alabama, moved on to Faulkner State CC, and then was off to the University of Mobile.

He was an athlete, which is a nice way of saying that he played the field and pitched some, appearing at third base more often than on the hill at UM. McPherson hit .302, but as a hurler was just 1-7 with a 6.07 ERA during his junior year of college as a 19 year old.

But area scout Darren Mazeroski (who also signed Alex Presley & Clay Holmes) saw a part-time pitcher that tossed between 90-92 with a couple of offspeed pitches and had good control, and thought he may be a sleeper that could be developed, a sort of poor man's version of John Van Benschoten with hopefully better results.

So the Pirates took him in the 14th round of the 2007 draft, and he signed within the week. He split his time between the GCL Pirates, where he was 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA, and the State College Spikes, where he was ineffective in three starts, going 0-1 with a 6.28 ERA. K-Mac worked 66 innings combined, and didn't get a lot of whiffs - just 41 - but only walked 18.

He pitched for the Spikes in 2008, and went 1-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 15 games, working both in the rotation and out of the pen. His command was excellent again (41K/5BB), but he gave up 10 homers in just 55-2/3 IP.

McPherson started 2009 at SC and showed better stuff, going 4-3/2.99 in 75-1/3 innings with 57 strikeouts against just 11 walks. He was promoted to the Low A West Virginia Power, and posted a 5-2/4.94 line in 51 frames. His K rate wasn't promising and he was 21 years old, but his command and resulting 1.108 WHIP between the two teams kept him on the radar a little longer.

He worked again for the Power in 2010, and suddenly found a way to get some swings and misses. He went 9-9/3.58 for WV, whiffing 124 batters in 117-2/3 innings while walking 31. That earned him a sip of coffee at High A Bradenton, where he threw four innings at the end of the season, fanning seven, working from the pen to keep his innings down. Maybe Kyle Stark's "Fastball Academy" training was finally kicking in. And the performance got him more than notice. In November, the Pirates added McPherson to their 40-man roster.

In 2011, he started the year at Bradenton. In a dozen starts, he went 4-1/2.89 with 60 K and six walks in 71-2/3 IP. That earned him a trip to Class AA Altoona, and he kept dealing, going 8-5/3.02 with 82 K and 20 BB in 89-1/3 innings.

Beside finding a way to miss bats, K-Mac finally put up fairly even numbers between fly and ground outs. He was a fly ball pitcher, and that hurt him with modestly high HR rates. The improvement netted McPherson the Pirates’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.

He didn't start 2012 at Indy, though, but rather on the minor league disabled list with shoulder stiffness, first noticed when his velocity took a nosedive during camp. McPherson recovered from his dead arm in mid-June, and reported to Altoona. K-Mac went 3-5/4.02 with the Curve, but his fastball was back and his control was as sharp as ever, so he was moved to Indy. In three games there, his ERA was 0.98 and he K'ed 17 in 18 frames.

McPherson was promoted to the big club on August 20th, after the Pirates had run through the pitching staff in their 19 inning win over the Cards the day before. He made his MLB debut the same day and pitched two scoreless innings against the Padres. After a handful of mainly effective outings from the pen, K-Mac made his first major league start on September 19th, replacing James McDonald in the Pirate rotation.

He finished 0-2/2.73, working 26-1/3 IP with 21 whiffs, seven walks and a WHIP of 1.177. His old bugaboo, the long ball, hurt him some as he gave up three round trippers. But all in all, it was a pretty impressive outing for Mobile's old third baseman.

The Bucs will take a long look at the righty for a rotation spot next season. He's pitching for Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Republic this winter, trying to make up for the innings he lost at the beginning of the season.

His fastball sits in the 92-94 range, and he can crank it up a couple more miles per hour on occasion. K-Mac doesn't back off throwing inside, and he can spot his heater just about anywhere the catcher sticks his mitt. His change looked like a plus pitch, and he also has an average curve.

K-Mac averaged a little over seven whiffs per nine and 2.4 walks, so along with his WHIP (which was 1.078 in the minors), his good peripherals carried over in the few frames he worked. And he did coax more grounders than flies in his opening round of MLB ball. Except for his dead arm episode, he's been a workhorse for innings, as befits a 6'4", 215 pounder.

But McPherson does have a ceiling. He's a three-pitch pony and could use a slider or cutter; now he works off mainly a four seamer. He's also a guy that looks like the longball will bite during his career, which fits in with his fastball profile - his control is excellent, but his stuff isn't quite that good to get away with mistake pitches. His ERA is a little misleading, too. He had an 87% strand rate and a 4.01 FIP.

Still, even if McPherson isn't ace material, his first few outings offer promise that he's an MLB arm, and probably slots as a four guy in a strong rotation. And that's something the Pirates could use next season.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Young Guns - Starling Marté

Starling Marté grew up outside Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. His mother died when he was 10 and he was raised by his grandma. She brought him up right. Starling became a pretty decent ballplayer, modeling himself after Vlad Guerrero, and signed with the Pirates as a teen in 2007 for $85,000.

After a couple of seasons in the Dominican League, Marté got the call to come stateside. The 20 year old zipped through the levels, starting at the Gulf Coast Rookie League, moving to Low A West Virginia, and then getting a cup of coffee at High A Lynchburg. The plan was to get him some playoff experience with the Hillcats, but a sprained ankle during his first game killed that idea. He hit a combined .309 at his stops with 24 swiped sacks

Marté started 2010 in extended spring training for some work, then joined the High A Bradenton Marauders, where he played in 60 games and hit .315 with 22 stolen bases. He missed a big piece of the season with a wrist injury, having hamate surgery in May and not returning to action until August.

He moved to Altoona the following season. In mid-year, Marté made the cut to play in the All-Star Futures Game, where he hit leadoff and went 1-for-3. He won the Eastern League batting title with a .332 batting average and was selected to both the mid and post season All-Star teams while named the EL Rookie of the Year. He also had an OBP of .370 and a slugging % of .500 with 12 HR as his wrist was back to normal, he bulked up some and was a bit less free-swinging.

Marté was a Baseball America AA All-Star, a Topps AA All-Star, and a organization All-Star.  Not too surprisingly, he was added to the Pirates 40 man roster on November 18th, 2011. Going into the 2012 campaign, Marté was ranked # 73 by Baseball America, #56 by Baseball Prospectus and #32 by on their prospect lists.

The Dominican was promoted to Indy, where he hit .286 in 99 games, and went through and recovered from a couple of slumps, apparently satisfying the FO that he could deal with adversity, part of their call-up punchlist. His OBP remained good at .347 and he hit 12 more homers with a slugging % of .500 again.

On July 26th, 2012, Marté was promoted from the Indians to the big club, becoming the first graduate of the Pirates' Dominican Latin American Baseball Academy to reach the show. No one was quite sure if he'd debut in Pittsburgh. Beside the brass' reluctance to rush him, Marté was such a hot prospect that he was rumored to be in play during discussions for Justin Upton, Hunter Pence and Shin-Soo Choo before the deadline. But he made Bucco fans forget about hot stove rumors in a hurry.

Marté drilled a home run on the first pitch he was served, a fastball from the Astros' Dallas Keuchel. He became the third player in club history to homer in his first big league at-bat and the first since Don Leppert in 1961. Marté  was the first Pirate to homer on the first MLB pitch of his major league career since Walter Mueller did it 1922, and just the 28th player in MLB history to perform the feat.

He was batting .253 with four homers in 101 PA before he felt a tweak. On August 19th, he went on the DL with an oblique issue and returned September 7th. He started 17 games after his return, hitting .264. Marté's first MLB slash was .257/.300/.437 with five HR, 17 RBI, 18 runs and 12 SB in 17 attempts (71%) with an OPS of 104 in 182 PA. In the field, he ended up with an UZR of 6.3, the best of any Bucco OF'er, with 3 assists.

For Pirate fans, he was the most heralded rookie call up since Cutch, and the Bucs tout his four-tool package. But while the homies are willing to be patient with him, other baseball guys see a darker cloud.

John Sickel wrote in his Prospect Preview that "...So far, Marte is exactly the player we should expect him to be based on his scouting reports and track record: physically talented, exciting to watch, a fine defender, but with significant flaws that crimp his offensive value. He...still has time to work his problems out, but there is no guarantee that he will. Many similar players have failed. My take is that Marte will scuffle along for another year or two at his current level of inadequate offensive performance, then make some adjustments and have a run as a solid hitter in his late 20s..."

The flaws Sickel referred to can be boiled down to one major deficiency - plate discipline. Marté fanned 50 times, and that's a 27% K rate, tolerable for Pedro but not for a guy who the Pirates hope to pencil in at the top of the order. He hit leadoff or in the two hole for all but seven pinch-hitting or late inning sub appearances for Pittsburgh. Marté walked just eight times, a 4% rate, the same as Clint Barmes and the result was a disappointing .300 OBP.

We're not as hard on him as is Sickels. Marté had lots of trouble with off speed stuff, but he also has a history of improving his pitch recognition over time; we'll see if that holds true at the MLB level. He showed enough power - he had the best slugging % of any Buc outfielder not named Cutch or Jones - and proved he's a threat on the bases and can cover some ground in left. He should only improve in those areas.

While we thought the Bucs could have called him up sooner, he does only have 99 AAA games under his belt and 129 at AA. 2013 should be his first full season playing cat-and-mouse with MLB pitchers, and we'd expect some rough sailing and inconsistency. But from what we've seen, Marté is a keeper. The only question in our mind is whether he will ever become a top of the order hitter.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Pirate Outfield - 2013

The Bucs went into the past season wondering who would flank Cutch, hoping that Jose Tabata and Alex Presley could hold the fort with an occasional hand from Nate McLouth and Garrett Jones plus the eventual emergence of Starling Marte. Well, guess what - swap Travis Snider for McLouth, and you have the same situation in 2013.

We won't go on about 26 year old Andrew McCutchen. A line of .327/31/96 with 31 homers, 107 runs and 20 stolen bases netted him another All-Star nod, and his 194 hits led the league. Did he fade down the stretch? Yep. But it wasn't realistic to think that he'd continue to hit .391 like he did over a three-month span, nor was it realistic to think he'd finish August and September by hitting .253, either. That's how high expectations for him have risen now that he's entered the elite player club.

All you can hope of Cutch is to play at a more consistent level, smoothing out the highs and the lows. He carried the team during the summer months with his scorching bat and his mates fed off it, but the squad couldn't pick it up on their own when he returned to earth during the dog days. Our main concern is that he also had a September swoon in 2011, which makes us wonder if he couldn't use a couple of two-day breaks when getaway game scheduling allows for it during the season - and some help in the lineup.

But McCutch isn't the question in the outfield; his running mates are. Both JT and Presley were shipped to Indy by mid season after virtually being handed the corner outfield spots, with Drew Sutton, Josh Harrison, Yamaico Navarro and company taking over until reinforcements Starling Marte and Travis Snider arrived, and they both promptly lost considerable time with injuries, making their evaluations problematic.

Jose Tabata, 24, got a contract guaranteed at $15M and the starting RF job during a 2011 season that saw him hit .266 but with a .349 OBP, making him a fit at the top of the order. In 2010, he batted .299, and led NL left fielders in range factor/game (2.09). He tied for 8th in the voting for NL Rookie of the Year.

But injuries have been his bane. In 2011, he tore a quad and in 2012 he tweaked a hammy, which led to some half-speed play and his demotion to Indy, where he spent most of July and August. He came back with a vengeance, hitting .284 after his return and drawing a dozen walks in 94 PA for a .376 OBP. Still, Tabata finished the season with just a .243 BA and .315 OBP.

He's got to prove to Clint Hurdle and the FO that he's dependable; JT only got 15 starts from August 19th onward. His speed is no longer plus, lost to body type and tightly wound wheels. Tabata should spent the winter stretching his body and his mind; his conditioning and attitude will be keys to his 2013 season. He's still young and a top-of-the-order guy when he's right, and it's on him to be right next season. His age and affordable six-year deal, with options until 2019, should make him attractive as trade bait, so this could be his make-or-break campaign in Pittsburgh.

Alex Presley, 27, was the feel-good story of 2011, when he put up a slash of .298/.339/.465 in 52 games, and earned the 2012 LF spot out of camp. After a decent April, he hit .208 from May-July, and The King was yo-yoed back-and-forth with Indy, eventually leading to Starling Marte's promotion.

He ended the season a .237 average, with an OBP of .270 but again with a slugging % over .400, as he did show a little extra-base bop with the bat. Presley had a reverse split at the plate last season, and career-wise has a pretty equal performance against righties and lefties. With that even split, decent speed and the ability to handle all three OF spots, he's looking more and more like a MLB fourth outfielder.

Starling Marte, 24, was freed from Indy on July 26th, and played in 23 consecutive games before he went down with an oblique injury. He put up a line of .257/.300/.437 with 12 stolen bases and an OPS of 104 in 47 games his rookie season. Oddly, he hit more homers (5) and triples (6) than doubles (3), but proved to be pretty much as advertised.

Marte has a rifle arm, great range, plus speed, and some power. He also is raw - why do so few of the Bucco farmhands seem to have any polish when they hit the show? - showing an erratic command of the strike zone, some dizzying route running, and attacking the bases like he was at Magee Field instead of PNC Park.

We're not sure exactly how the Bucs plan to handle him. They delayed calling him up, even when they had to send Drew Sutton to the pasture, and didn't start him regularly after he returned from his injury. Logic says he should be the everyday left fielder in 2013 and begin learning the MLB ropes full time instead of being treated with kid gloves.

Travis Snider, 24, came over on a deadline deal with Toronto for Brad Lincoln, and was considered a long-term investment, not a rent-a-player. Unfortunately, his hamstring didn't cooperate, and the Pirates didn't get a very good look at him during the stretch.

He hit .250 with a .324 OPB but a very disappointing .328 in slugging as a Pirate. We're willing to concede that he may have been trying to fit into the two hole, where the Bucs have been at loggerheads, trading power to reach base. It also may just be a case of Snider playing through a bad leg. Maybe it was adjusting to a new team/league. It's hard to tell, as he's never had 300 AB during a season and just one double digit home run year, and the 145 PA he had as a Bucco provides an awfully slim sample.

The Pirates pulled the trigger to get him because of his upside, and hopefully he'll be fit when he reports to camp. In his career, he's been protected against lefties, but has a lifetime .238 BA against them, so he's not quite as totally at sea against southpaws like Pedro or GI Jones are. He'll be arb eligible after next season, so the Bucs have four years of team control, and would very much like him to take command in right field.

He's another guy who will have to emphasize conditioning in the off season. Aside from the hammy, he's had wrist problems for years. Another sidebar will be to see if he can adjust to using the whole field. Early in his career, the Blue Jays made him a pull hitter to take advantage of his power, but Pittsburgh uses an up the middle approach for its hitters, so we'll see how the conflict between the Clemente Wall and his BA works out.

And, of course, there is old standby Garrett Jones. We've discussed him plenty in prior posts, and believe the Pirates would very much like to be able to use him at first base against righties instead of playing in the shadow of the Clemente Wall.

Par for the course, the Bucs' future in the outfield is at the lower levels, where Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Barrett Barnes and Mel Rojas are all prospects to different degrees and all years away from the show. But with a 27 year old, a 26 year old and three 24 year old players on the roster and all under team control for years, that's a bearable situation.

The blueprint, as we see it, is to man the outfield with Cutch, Starling Marte and Travis Snider doing the heavy work, using JT and Alex Presley (one of which would become redundant under that scenario) as the insurance policies.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Notes And News

 A little news to keep the baseball fires lit:
  • Tom Singer of wrote that Domincan rookie Starling Marte cited Vladimir Guerrero as the ballplayer he most looks up to.
  • Steve Stevenson of the Steel City Sports Report wrote "The Nationals Show The Pirates How Not To Handle Gerrit Cole."
  • It's a week old bit of speculation, but Jeff Moore of Rant Sports suggests that Nick Swisher might be a fit for the Bucs.
  • Tristan Cockroft of ESPN listed the early fantasy line on top 75 starting pitchers for 2013 and included AJ Burnett (48), James McDonald (60) and Wandy Rodriguez (73) among them.
  • Matt Eddy of Baseball America picked the Top Ten minor league free agent signings of the past season, and three have Pirate connections: Brandon Moss of the As, who thrived in a platoon setting at first base, along with infielders Pedro Ciriaco of the Red Sox and Luis Cruz of the Dodgers, both of whom look like solid bets to claim at least bench, if not starting, spots in 2013.
  • Kristina Kahrl of The Sweet Spot posted "Leyland Uses Every Bullet," showing how he used his NL managerial toolkit to steer the Tigers through the season and to the World Series.
  • Some old Bucs that were waived or are free agents: OF Ryan Ludwick (who is seeking a longer-term deal with the Reds), OF Nate McLouth, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, C Ronnie Paulino, SS Brian Bixler, RHP Kip Wells, RHP Ryota Igarashi, LHP Justin Thomas, LHP Garrett Olson, LHP Dana Eveland, C Carlos Maldonado, C Luke Carlin and C Steve Lerud. Pirate farmhands RHP Evan Meek, LHP Doug Slaten and UT Drew Sutton declared for minor league free agency after the season ended.
  • Hard to believe, but Neal Huntington is the second-longest tenured GM in the NL Central, behind only the Brewers' Doug Melvin, who was hired in 2002.
  • Upcoming signing dates: 12 days after the World Series is the deadline for arbitration; November 30th to tender contracts; the 40-man roster has to be set by December 3rd, and the Rule 5 draft is on December 6th.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pirate Catching - 2013

Well, there was some good news regarding the Bucco catchers in 2012. It only took two of them, Rod Barajas and Mike McKenry, to get through the year, compared to the eight that donned the tools of ignorance in 2011. And they did have a little punch at the plate, finishing fourth in the NL in long balls with 23, placing behind Colorado, Atlanta and Philadelphia, and in the middle of the pack with 70 RBI.

On the other side of the coin, their combined .218 BA was the worst of any Pirate position players. The pair did draw 57 walks, bringing their OBP to .299, for what that's worth. Their wRC+ (weighed OPS) was 86, ninth in the NL, and they finished with a 1.7 WAR, tenth in the NL. Pittsburgh wasn't the only NL team that struggled at finding offense behind the plate, as just a half dozen senior circuit teams were strong (wRC+ 100>) with the bat at the position.

Defensively, you shouldn't be surprised to find that their ball-receiving abilities were actually pretty solid. Their RPP (runs by passed pitch) was 4.9, with 5 being considered excellent, and just by eye, both guys dug out or blocked bounced baseballs above and beyond the call of duty.

But we all know the 800 pound gorilla, and that showed up in the stats, too. The duo had a rSB (runs by stolen base) of -12; no one else in the NL was worse than -3. Barajas threw out just 6% of the base swipers this season (6-99) and McKenry tossed out 18% (13-74). The team caught 11% of the stealers in 2012 while the MLB average was 27%, so ouch. Heck, even Dewey has a lifetime 24% throw-out average.

There's plenty of blame to be shared in that area, from organizational emphasis to the batteries, so we won't dwell on the cause. But when teams turn walks into doubles within a couple of pitches, it's obviously an issue to be addressed.

Barajas, 37, is the man in the hot seat. He has a $3.5M option that certainly won't be picked up after hitting .206. The question is whether he'll return at all, even under a much more friendly deal. The Pirates credit his institutional knowledge and defensive skills with improving the pitching staff, but even Clint Hurdle admitted his status is blowin' in the wind.

When asked of Hot Rod's future, he answered Tom Singer of with "Is he a No. 1 or turning into a No. 2? Is it Michael McKenry's time to be a No. 1? Is there another No. 1 out there? We've had those conversations with Rod, and he understands very honestly where he is at this point of time in his career." So if Barajas does return in 2013, it's very likely as a 60-game, 250 AB back up to McKenry at best.

The Fort, 27, was picked up from the Red Sox last year when Pirate catchers were dropping like flies, and hit .233/12/39 in 275 PA with a .320 OBP during this campaign. He proved a streaky hitter, batting over .300 in June-July but fading badly in September. He has an option remaining, but he's a safe bet to be on the 2013 roster. McKenry also has at least one more season before reaching his arb years, maybe two depending on where the Super Two cutoff falls after next year.

McKenry, barring a trade or FA signing, should start for the Pirates next season. We'll visit those options later in the hot stove season after the 2013 contracts have been settled post-World Series to see who's available; the FA market doesn't look very promising and there should be a lot of demand this season. (Charlie Wilmoth at Bucs Dugout has an early look at some possibilities.)

The athletic Eric Fryer, 27, was called up in September, but every appearance he made in the field was as an outfielder in 2012. If he fits into the Pirate plans moving ahead, we'd guess it would be as a utility or organizational guy, not as a candidate to catch.

Unlike many positions on the team, the cupboard isn't entirely bare in the upper levels. Tony Sanchez, 24, split the season between Altoona and Indy. He struggled at the plate, hitting an OK .277 at Altoona but without a homer in 162 PA, and .233 at Indy, but with eight homers in 236 PA. Defensively, Sanchez seems to be all that and getting better as he moves along and gains experience. Last year, he threw out 29% of attempted base stealers (31-107) after a couple of subpar seasons in 2010-11. He blocks balls in the dirt well and by all reports is becoming a strong pitch caller for the staff.

The Pirate preference would probably be to get Sanchez a full AAA season behind the dish, especially as he missed considerable chunks of time with back-to-back years with a broken jaw. However, depending on how the big league battery holds up, he could be a summer reinforcement. He has a slim shot of showing up sooner, depending on his spring performance, the ultimate fate of Barajas and the FO's marketplace results.

Ramon Cabrera, 22, at AA Altoona has shown himself to be a good on-base, contact-type hitter (.272 BA, .342 OBP) whose skills behind the plate are improving enough to make him a big league prospect, at least as a bench guy. And there are two interesting backstops just starting their pro baseball journey in Wyatt Mathisen, 18, and Jin-De Jhang, 19, but both teenagers were in rookie leagues and have miles to go before proving themselves to be MLB caliber.

For the short term, Pirate catching is perhaps the club's weakest position, and both returning guys have big questions marks, one because of age and the other because of inexperience. We'd expect the FO to kick a few tires to strengthen the spot in the off season. But in the longer view, the Pirates do have a couple of players in the pipeline, and if they continue on, the position should be at least adequately manned by 2014.

Then again, the blueprint was set with Benito Santiago, Ronnie Paulino, Ryan Doumit and everyone else that squatted behind the plate in the post Jason Kendall era. So we'll see...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pirates Middle Infield - 2013

The middle of the Bucco infield, much like the corners, will look the same in 2013. Neil Walker and Clint Barmes will man 2B and SS, but with more questions this season than last.

Walker, 27, continued his string of consistent years at the plate, putting together a line of .280/.342/.426 with 14 HR, 69 RBI, an OPS+ of 114 and a WAR of 3.3. He also adds versatility in the lineup, batting anywhere from 2-5, and is a switch-hitter, both pluses. His fielding has been more than adequate, too. His range the last two seasons has been a bit above league average, and his UZR was in the plus zone for the first time at 1.4 in 2012.

The questions? His contract and his back. Walker is a Super Two player, and will be in line for arbitration during the next four seasons. The big debate is whether to sign him to a contract that would extend into a year or two of free agency, or whether it's better to just go through four seasons of arbitration, which eliminates cost certainy but does keep The Kid under team control until he's 31.

The salary figures we've seen thrown about are in the $3M range for 2013. That number will escalate each season afterward, but probably within a predictable range. Walker's numbers, as we've noted, are consistent, and he's likely established his general offensive production norms. So unless he has an unlikely breakout year, he'll remain an above-average but not elite second baseman, and shouldn't hit the Bucs with sticker shock if they decide to take the arb route.

His health will play into the contract decision. Walker is a big galoot - 6'3" and 205 pounds - and that lanky frame isn't ideal for the position. He went down with lower disc problems in late August and played just eight games afterward, providing a real concern for somebody who spent his first three pro seasons as a catcher. A herniated disc is not an uncommon baseball injury, and can often be treated by medication, injection and/or exercise, with surgery as a last option. But it can also be recurring and quite limiting to play through.

Given that, it's hard to see how the Pirates would offer Walker a deal that's not extremely team friendly, and it's just as hard to see how Walker would accept one with arbitration leverage, unless he decided to opt for a security blanket. But at any rate, if he stays in one piece, The Kid is the Bucs' everyday second baseman, though he may lose his ironman's role and get a blow from Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer or Brock Holt during the 2013 grind.

Shortstop will also go to Clint Barmes, 33, both by default and by virtue of the $5.5M he has coming to him in 2013. The Pirates got what they wanted out of his glove; his 14.4 UZR was a career high. But his offensive stats were the worst he compiled since 2006. That is somewhat misleading, though. He got off to about as miserable a start as possible in the early weeks of the season, then in the final four months played more like the SS the Pirates expected, hitting .256/6/37 over 314 AB, but still without an OBP worth noting.

He also showed a pretty big split at the plate, hitting .274 against lefties but just .217 against right handers (.240 lifetime). Worse, he K'ed 88 times in 383 PA against righties; his 2012 OBP of .243 was barely higher than his whiff rate of .230 against same side tossers. Both Josh Harrison (.270) and Jordy Mercer (.231) hit righties better, so we'd expect to see Barme's at-bats cut down, especially against RHP, in 2013.

Like most positions, the Pirates don't really have any internal competition to push the starters. Josh Harrison, 25, is the bat sub and Jordy Mercer, 26, the glove guy. Brock Holt, 24, showed some ability with the stick but not much with the mitt; possibly the staff can rework him into an adequate defender like they did with Harrison. Chase d'Arnaud, 25, has fallen off the map; he's hit .208 in the show and .255 at Indy, and those numbers have knocked him off his prospect perch. Alen Hansen, 19, is the bright star of the system, but he just completed a year in the Sally League and has a ways to go before reaching the bright lights.

The middle infield could be a strength if Walker is healthy and Barmes stays steady throughout the season. But both spots are wafer thin and there's no help in the immediate pipeline. We'd be surprised if the Pirate FO doesn't take a long look at a veteran backup to add to the bench next season.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pellas on the Pirates: Sobering Realities

Much ink, both real and virtual, has already been spilled by many people in various corners of the media regarding the Pirates' alternately thrilling and exasperating 2012 season. Rather than continue to analyze the factors---and they are many---that led to the worst collapse in major league history by any team that was as far over .500 as the Pirates were at one time during the season, I've decided to take a closer look at some of the sobering realities the team and the organization will face going forward.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #1: Your 2012 Pirates were the beneficiaries of not one, but TWO 100-loss teams in the same division. Think about that for a moment. The Cubs and the DisAstros both lost 100 games last season. Since major league baseball went to the current six division-plus-wildcard playoff format, what Chicago and Houston "achieved" has only happened one other time: in 2002, when the Tigers and Royals both hit the century mark in L's.

In spite of such generosity from two of its arch-foes, the Pirates still managed just 79 victories. The Astros are about to depart for the American League, and the Cubs don't figure to be woebegone for very much longer. If Pittsburgh couldn't manage to contend or at least break .500 in a season in which two division foes went over the century mark in losses, how in the world are they going to contend going forward?

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #2: The starting rotation looks surprisingly bad or at least unsettled heading into 2013. Given how well the rotation performed over the first two thirds of 2012, this state of affairs is all the more alarming. Right now, only two spots are locked up. Fortunately one of them is number one starter A. J. Burnett, who showed he had plenty of gas left in his tank with a sterling first year in black and gold, and the other is number two starter Wandy Rodriguez. Both are better than average veterans who will definitely anchor the starting five next season as long as they don't break down, but the cupboard is surprisingly bare behind them.

James McDonald's career is at the crossroads. If the Pirates had some indication that they were getting the first half of 2012 edition of McDonald going forward, then the top 3 starters would be no worse than second in the division, behind only the Reds. But McDonald was so horrid after the All Star break that he was banished to the bullpen. He barely played at all over the last month of the season. Both he and team management swear he wasn't hurt; if it's a case of a fragile psyche then things could go either way. In any case he is definitely in the doghouse 'til further notice.

Charlie Morton will presumably be back at some point next year after going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, but recovery from that operation often takes more than a year, and Morton was no sure thing even before he got hurt. Erik Bedard, who did quite well for the first two months of 2012 before failing so badly that the Pirates simply cut him, must be replaced; ditto for underrated veteran Kevin Correia, who will almost certainly leave as a free agent. Top pick Gerrit Cole should be up from the minors for the second half of 2013, but fellow first rounder Jameson Taillon is probably still a year or two away.

That leaves a handful of pitchers who have nothing left to prove in the minor leagues but whose major league experience to date is either limited, or underwhelming, or both: Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson. The only other potential reinforcement on hand at the moment is veteran Jeff Karstens, and while he figures to return via the arbitration process, he has never managed to get through an entire major league season without missing significant time due to injury.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #3: This team still can't steal bases or otherwise manufacture runs with small ball to save its life. As good a fine young veteran player as Andrew McCutchen is, and as great a season as he just had, the truth is that he would be even better if he could just translate his outstanding footspeed into successful basestealing. But for whatever reason or reasons, McCutchen simply is not very good at swiping bags. In fact, he's getting worse at it as his career heads toward its peak, not better.

Beyond him, Alex Presley can run a little but is more of a pick-your-spots guy than a true threat, and Jose Tabata has lost it due to his ongoing and never-ending series of leg injuries. Starling Marte, fresh off a fitfully effective rookie half season, can definitely run, but in spite of his obvious and impressive physical talent, he is still very raw and far from a finished product; a return to Triple A for more seasoning is not out of the question for him.

None of this would matter much if the Pirates were the kind of heavy-hitting, American League style of team that General Manager Neal Huntington seems intent on building, except that the Pirates, as currently constructed, resemble nothing so much as they resemble a pale facsimile of that sort of club. In other words, they look like the Cleveland Indians, which is fitting since that's where Huntington was working before he was hired by the Pirates.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #4: All of which leaves plain ol' hitting and home runs as the only way this team, as currently built, can score. To be sure, the Pirates do have some hitting, and they do have some power. Just not enough. And if Neil Walker's late season back injury becomes chronic, or if the holes in Pedro Alvarez' swing continue to result in prolonged slumps of mammoth proportions, or if Travis Snider continues to spend more time setting world records for steak consumption and less time on his conditioning, the offensive shortfall could go from noticeable to overwhelming.

Cold Bucket of Water To The Face #5: And of course, neither the team's catchers nor its pitchers did much of anything to slow down enemy basestealers. This became a major problem as the 2012 season wore on, and it will continue to be a major weakness going forward until and unless it is addressed.

The bottom line is that while the Pirates did manage to tie their, uh, "record" for most wins (79) in any season during the current, 20 year run of losing, continued improvement is no sure thing, and significant regression is possible---if not probable---unless management takes action this offseason to address the team's considerable weaknesses. A lot can happen between now and the opening of spring training in February 2013, and a lot must happen if the Pirates are to continue their climb back to respectability and, ultimately, to true contender status.

(Will Pellas is a regular contributor to the blog, and today points out that if the Bucs stand pat, all will not be kumbaya come next season)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pirate Corners - 2013

The Pirate corners look pretty well set for next season if this year's lineup is any indicator. Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez will hold down first, while Pedro has a stranglehold on the hot corner.

Jones and Sanchez bring their own set of different dynamics to first base. GI had his strongest season as a Pirate, hitting .274 with 27 HR and 86 RBI and providing decent play as a right fielder, adding to his versatility. But he's pretty much proved himself to be a one way player.

GI grades out well against righties. In 434 PA against them in 2012, he put together a line of .289/.332/.556 with 25 of his dingers. Clint Hurdle tried to protect him against southpaws, but in 81 PA, Jones hit just .189/.235/.297, which fits with his lifetime lefty slash of .198/.237/.353.

He's also 31, not particulary gifted in the field at first, and earned $2.25M this season with three more years of arb ahead of him as a Super Two player. Will any of this be a problem in 2013? Nah. But it does point out that GI isn't likely to be a long term answer at the position.

Gaby is another of Neal Huntington's reclamation projects. He does have a history of being productive at first, and like Jones is stronger player against the opposite arm. Unlike Jones, he's never been protected against guys tossing from his bat side, having been an everyday player in 2010-11 for the Marlins before nosediving in 2012.

He didn't set the world afire last season, even as a Pirate, hitting .240 with four homers. But he does have a career slash of .291/.385/.484 against southpaws, showing more gap power than long ball muscle, averaging a long ball every 30 PA. Sanchez is also a decent fielder, and we'd expect the Pirates to work him at third in the spring to add to his versatility.

Gaby is 29 and just entering arbitration this off season. His ceiling has pretty much been determined, but he's due for a bounceback year, especially if limited to 250 or so at-bats against lefties. And he has seen righties plenty of times, with a lifetime .248 BA facing them, so a bench role would seem to suit his toolkit. It doesn't look like they'll be pressured by any up-and-comers from the system.

Matt Hague didn't impress in his Pirate stint this year, hitting .229 in a small sample in the show and .283 at Indy, but with just four HR. He'll be hard pressed to hold off Matt Curry at Indianapolis and Alex Dickerson behind him.

Third base is Pedro's job to lose after hitting 30 long balls last year with 85 RBI, albeit with a .244 BA and 180 K. Alvarez has the same problem as the other corner guys; lefties are his kyrptonite. El Toro's .207/.270/.349 slash in 2012 against southpaws with 58 K in 152 PA was his Achille's Heel.

But unlike Jones/Sanchez, there are no plans to platoon Alvarez; he'll sink or swim against lefties. He likewise doesn't have to look over his shoulder. Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Brock Holt offer various strengths, but none come close to profiling as a classic, power bat at third or one-swing difference maker at the dish.

The Pirate system doesn't have anyone groomed for the spot, either. Alvarez's arm and range are strong enough to keep him at third, but his 27 errors, half throwing misfires, keep the pot stirred regarding an eventual shift to first. Pedro is only 25, though it seems he's been around forever, and the Pirates have a $700K option for him this upcoming season which they'll surely exercise.

The corners aren't the strongest suit of the Pirates. But it does provide a middle of the order presence for the lineup card. Given the other holes in the team, it doesn't look like a spot where there will be much tinkering over the off season, unless a stud like Chase Headley comes onto play.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arizona Fall League - Taking A Look

The Arizona Fall League will play ball today as a showcase league of younger prospects, a testing grounds for fringe guys, and a chance to get in some innings for players that missed time during the season. The Pirates will stock the AFL's Scottsdale Scorpions with seven players that fall somewhere in those three categories.

RHP Victor Black, 24, was a 2009 sandwich round pick and is definitely in the prospect category. As the closer for Altoona, he picked up 13 saves with an 1.65 ERA. Black appeared in 51 outings, covering 60 innings with 85 K and a 1.150 WHIP. He's a power guy, with a mid-nineties heater and slider, the Hanny combo. He'll be added to the 40-man roster this year.

IF Gift Ngoepe, 22, has been considered by many fans as kind of a novelty as the first black South African signed to a MLB contract, like the Indian Million Dollar Arms, but is still young and progressed quite nicely through the system. He's shown speed and is a great glove guy, but his bat is weak - he hit .just 232 at Bradenton, although the .330 OBP does indicate a decent eye. Ngoepe is basically a lower-level Pedro Ciriaco. The Bucs are giving him a little longer look; a guy that can run and field could find a spot on someone's roster, and this is the year Pittsburgh has to protect him on the 40-man or expose him to the Rule V draft.

RHP Kyle Kaminska, 23, came from the Marlins as part of the Gaby Sanchez trade. He wasn't having a very good year in the Fish system, but pitched pretty well in Bradenton and Altoona, though with a quite tiny, 28-inning sample size. So the Bucs are just padding the notebook on KK, who has only been in the organization for a few weeks and is a soft tosser. He got through Rule V last year for Florida, and is likely to slip through it again this year.

RHP Brandon Cumpton, 23, started 27 games for Altoona and posted a 12-11/ 3.84 line with some very so-so peripherals - 5.2 K and 2.7 BB per nine innings with a 1.280 WHIP. They don't have to protect him this year, but are still deciding on his future, so he's another guy that the FO just wants to collect more information on. Cumpton is a low K guy, but he does get a lot of groundouts, which makes him a possible back-end starter. He can also hit the mid-nineties in short bursts, which makes him potential bullpen material, so he's in evaluation mode.

RHP Tyler Waldron, 23, really hasn't shown a whole lot in his three years in the organization, although the Pirates must think there's something to tease out of him.. He's 23-24 with a 4.62 ERA in his minor league career, with just 5.6 K per nine and a 1.330 WHIP. Waldron was drafted as a project, and has proven so far to be one.

1B Matt Curry, 24, hit .285/.352 /.480 at Altoona, adding 11 HR, 34 doubles and 76 RBI. He missed about two months with a hammy injury, so he's just getting a little more work in. The lefty will probably push Matt Hague into the Steve Pearce career path next season as he's due to land at Indy for 2013.

OF/DH Adalberto Santos, 25, is a sort of Brock Holt type, but in the outfield. He's got a .322 career BA in the minors, with a line of .340/.425/.433 at Altoona last year, but with little power. Santos missed a couple of months with a knee injury so he'll be getting a few extra swings and the Bucs will get an extra chance to determine if he's a potential bench stick.

So the Bucs are sending two prospects (Black and Ngoepe), three take-a-look guys (Kaminska, Cumpton, Waldron) and a pair of players who had short seasons due to injury (Curry, Santos) to Scottsdale. It's actually kind of a down year for prospects suiting up in the fall.

They had a much more prospect-filled AFL roster last year, with OF Robbie Grossman, IF Brock Holt, 2B Jarek Cunningham, LHP Nathan Baker, RHP Mike Colla, RHP Phillip Irwin and RHP Gerrit Cole. Holt was in Pittsburgh at the end of the season, Cole and Irwin are both top gun arms, Grossman was used as part of the Wandy Rodriguez deal and Cunningham and Baker are still prospects to varying degrees. It'd be nice if this year's AFL class developed as well.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pirate Bullpen - 2013

Last season, the bridge and back end of the Bucco bullpen was its strength, with Hanny, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Chris Resop all doing a pretty decent job of keeping the last three innings clean. But that old gang is quite likely to be broken up next season.

Joel Hanrahan, 31, is in his last arbitration year and on borrowed time. Being in the race at the trade deadline the last two years was his reprieve; the Pirates couldn't move him while they were in contention without risking a clubhouse and fan revolt. An argument could be made that they held on to him too long, given the team's summer swoons; he picked up 61 saves before August in 2011-12, but just 15 in August and September during those campaigns.

In his final arb season, he's probably in line to see his $4.1M contract jump into the $7M range for 2013. Add in his value as a trade piece, combined with some Pirate holes that the market isn't likely to satisfy, and all the tea leaves point to his departure this winter.

Jason Grilli, 35, was pulled from the Philly farm system in late July 2011 - and that's one FA signing Neal Huntington should get a gold star for - and put up a 2.76 ERA, 1.161 WHIP and 12.5 K/per nine working 92 outings covering 91-1/3 IP. His 2012 deal was worth $1.1M, and he'll get a lot more expensive now that he's in his walk year.

The Pirates have a pair of options regarding Grilli - either let him hit the marketplace, where they are unlikely to compete, or offer him a deal to become the closer on the assumption that Hanny is history. The fact that he often faced the heart of the opponent's order would bode well for a switch to closer, while his age and the Pirates reluctance to put a large hunk of the payroll into the bullpen work against his return to the club.

Jared Hughes, 27, is in line to be promoted to the back end. He had a breakout year as a set-up guy, with a 2.85 ERA and 1.150 WHIP. Hughes did have a pair of saves and finished 20 games in 2012, but he's probably better suited to a set-up role. He averages 6 K/per nine but with a 60% ground ball rate, which is why he's brought in so often in mid-inning, runners-on situations. Hughes is also under team control for a long time, not reaching arbitration until 2015.

Tony Watson, 27, is another converted starter, ala Hughes, who has put up a pair of solid seasons with Pittsburgh. He's a lefty, but with a bit of a reverse split so he doesn't fall into the LOOGY mold. He hasn't been the workhorse that Hughes has, working just 53-1/3 frames in 2012, but has a much better K rate of 8.9 per nine and a 1.125 WHIP. Both have career FIPs of around four. Watson will remain a bridge and situational arm just because the Pirate don't have southpaws in the pen, so by default, he's the match-up guy. And like Hughes, he's team friendly, not reaching his arb years until 2015.

Chris Resop, 29, has been competent as a mid-inning guy, appearing in 159 games over three seasons with a 3.88 ERA. But his K rate dropped to 5.6/nine in 2012 after 10+/nine in 2010-11 (he issued two fewer walks per nine, too, so it may have been a trade-off). But he made $850K last season, and is up for arb this year for the second time, looking at $1M contract or maybe better. That makes him iffy for 2013.

The Pirates do have a couple of probable internal additions in Bryan Morris, 25, and Chris Leroux, 28, both righties who are out of options for 2013. Leroux has made a couple of stops in Pittsburgh, with a 3.95 ERA and 1.293 WHIP, both tolerable figures for a long man/spot starter. Morris, the last man standing from the Jay Bay trade, was effective in a handful of September outings. He whiffed six in five innings, matching his strikeout-per-inning pace at Indy, where he was a back end reliever. The possibility that Justin Wilson, 25, is flipped to the pen exists, too. Evan Meek is out of the picture; he just declared for free agency last week.

Victor Black, 24, and Duke Welker, 26, a pair of power arms, are also in the upper levels and should be considered as possibilities sometime during the 2013 shakeout.

There's a couple of holdovers, too - Chad Qualls, Hisanori Takahashi, and Daniel McCutchen, who was called up briefly. Qualls and McCutchen are longshots at claiming a 2013 position, while Takahashi and his $4.2M contract will be shed.

But we don't expect the Bucs to be shorthanded in the pen next season. The FO has a history of cobbling together a viable pen and there could be several new faces added to the relief corps in 2013. The concern is that the backend could lose both Hanny and Jason Grilli, and they may prove to be a difficult pair of arms to replace, especially for a team that by design won't tie up any serious money in the bullpen.