Friday, November 30, 2012

Bucco Goners: Karstens, Resop

Well, the long suspected non-tender of Jeff Karstens became official today. He was DFA'ed to make room on the roster for Russel Martin, and became a FA at midnight.

Neal Huntington told Tom Singer of that "We worked hard to come to a pre-tender agreement with Jeff and his agent and also attempted to work out a trade for him but were unsuccessful." All JK said, aside from sending some Twitter love to the fans, was "...please don't believe everything you read. I can tell you it's not all true."

So it doesn't sound as if any reconciliation is in the air. We're a bit baffled. If he was tendered and got $4M, we think that's a low price for an insurance policy for a staff that only has two dependable guys on it right now, AJ and Wandy. And if the Pirates do bring in a couple of arms during the off season - which they may have cornered themselves into doing now - they surely could have found someone to deal him to at that point and recover something. For a team so obsessed with team control, it seems like they gave up not only control but future value with JK.

The FO did swap out RHP Chris Resop, who was in line to earn $1.25M or so in arbitration after being a waiver wire pick-up in 2010. The Bucs sent him to the Oakland As for RHP Zach Thornton. Thornton, 24, pitched for High A Stockton. He was 4-0-16 in 48 appearances with a 4.53 ERA, but averaged nearly 12 K per nine with a sinker/fastball combo. Intriguing numbers, but he is awfully old to be pitching A ball. As a secondary point, the 40-man roster is now at 39.

But that was the extent of the losses. The Bucs did tender Joel Hanrahan, Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, James McDonald and Gaby Sanchez. They signed Charlie Morton to a reported $2M contract; he won't be ready to pitch again until late in the summer.  So Karstens is the only head scratcher, although Hanny and maybe Jones may be shopped next week in Nashville.

In another move, the Bucs also sent DFA'ed Yamaico Navarro to the Orioles for 19 year old RHP Jhondaniel Medina, who was used mainly in the short-season GCL last year and posted a 4.14 ERA with 9 K and 3.6 walks per nine in 50 innings of work. The Pirates got Navarro last year from KC in exchange for 2009's second round draft pick, RHP Brooks Pounders, so that pretty much works out as a three-team Medina-for-Pounders deal.

Some other players you might recognize that were non-tendered today: LHP Tom Gorzelanny of Washington, RHP Jair Jurrjens of Atlanta, LHP John Lannan of Washington, LHP Manny Parra of Milwaukee, RHP Mike Pelfrey of the Mets, 1/3B Mark Reynolds of Baltimore, OF Nate Schierholtz of Philadelphia, LHP Daniel Schlereth of Detroit, C Geovany Soto of Texas, 3B Ian Stewart of the Cubs, OF Ryan Sweeney of Boston and RHP Brian Wilson of San Fran.

Russell Martin Joins Bucs

Well, the Bucs needed a catcher, and went after another good glove guy in Russell Martin. Martin signed a two-year, $17M deal with Pittsburgh, with a $2M signing bonus, a $6.5M salary in 2013 and an $8.5M salary in 2014 (he earned $7.5M last season). It's the richest contract awarded by the Pirates, eclipsing Clint Barmes $10.5M deal last year.

Martin was said to be on good terms with Clint Hurdle since a 2008 All-Star meeting, and he told Martin Weinstein of the NY Times that “My boy A. J. Burnett is there, and I really like the direction they are going with a lot of good young talent. It'll be fun."

He hit .211 with 21 HR and 53 RBI last season, and that's kinda a good news, bad news number. Like Rod Barajas before him, he's a below average stick (he hasn't hit over .250 since 2008) with some power. The good news is that his BABIP last year was .222, so that should regress upward. The bad news is that he's a right handed pull hitter, and PNC Park is not a good place to be one of those.

Still, the Pirates needed a catcher, and limited their exposure to two years by overpaying for him, although that would be true of virtually any FA who inks a deal with the Bucs. They do get a physical guy who is a decent defender and has over 7,500 innings behind the dish.

He's played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (2006–2010) and New York Yankees (2010-2012), and is a three-time MLB All-Star (2007–2008, 2011).

Martin was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Chelsea, Quebec. Naturally, beside playing baseball, Martin played hockey, too. But he stuck with spikes instead of skates and went to Chipola College in Marianna, Florida after high school, where he played 3B.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected Martin in the 17th round of the 2002 draft, and the Blue switched him to catcher. He went a step at a time in the minors, and was a Florida State League All-Star  in 2004 and Baseball America 2nd Team Minor League All-Star and Southern League All-Star while with the Class AA Jacksonville Suns in 2005.

He got a month in with AAA Las Vegas before getting his call to the show when Dionner Navarro, LA's starting catcher, hurt his wrist. Martin took it from there, putting up a slash of .282./355/.436. Navarro was traded and Martin became the everyday guy behind the dish for the City of Angels. He held the spot for five years.

His first three seasons were monsters, as he was selected to the All-Star team twice while taking home a Silver Slugger trophy and Golden Glove award in 2007. But he tailed off offensively starting in 2009, and the slide has continued. After two years in the .250 range, LA didn't tender him in arbitration (ironically, Rod Barajas replaced him), and Martin became a FA. He signed with the Yankees, which needed a replacement for Jorge Posada. In his two Big Apple years, he hit .237 and .211.

Martin's BA went from .250 to .211 and his OBP slipped from .352 to .311 in those four years. And that's why he's here now, pending tomorrow's physical.

The Pirates are banking on him still having some gas in the tank, inking him for his age 30 and 31 seasons. He is a good defensive catcher, especially at framing pitches, with a 30% lifetime toss-'em-out rate (24% in 2012), although his pitch calling has sometimes been questioned. Martin caught AJ in 2011, and beside that connection, he threw out 24% of runners when catching him; it was 5% with Hot Rod as his battery mate last season.

Bill James predicts his 2013 BA to be .242, not great but certainly achievable as Martin has kept up a pretty steady 19% line drive average over the years. James also looks for a bounce-back in OBP to .340, and that's probably in line too, as Martin has walked at a 10-11% rate the past two seasons. The question will be his power; PNC isn't nearly as friendly as the new Yankee Stadium, where Martin had two of his best three MLB HR years.

At 5'10", 205 pounds, Martin is sturdy and fairly athletic. Per Weinstein, he'd like to play on the Canadian World team as an infielder, and has played 3B a bit in the majors, so the Bucs can possibly work him in on his off days at the hot corner to give Pedro a blow against lefties. Even if they don't, he's caught 125 games or so the past two seasons, and except for a hip injury in 2009 has stayed healthy during his career.

There will be some moaning about his price tag; many think it should have been invested in another pitcher. But catcher was a black hole on the roster, and he buys some more time for Tony Sanchez to develop. The move doesn't necessarily mean the Bucs have given up on Sanchez; otherwise we think they may have taken the trade route rather than plunge into the more expensive FA market. It also shows the Bucs are willing to dig a little deeper into Bob Nutting's wallet, as his signing means the payroll may hit the $65M mark this season.

If Martin bats in the .240 range with a dozen homers, 50 RBI and some walks to go with his defensive mojo, it'll be a good contract. He and Mike McKenry should be a competent pairing behind the dish. But there is risk; as we mentioned, his offensive numbers across the board have been in decline, and the facts that the Yankees let him go and the Bucs got him on a two-year deal are indications of that downhill slope. So the Pirates are rolling the dice that Martin can hold the fort until...if...Sanchez is ready.

Oh, if only Dave Littlefield would have passed on Daniel Moskos and taken Matt Weiters in 2007...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clint Robinson

After starring at Northview High School in Dothan, Alabama, Clint Robinson moved on to Troy University. He was injured in his 2006 junior year, costing him a shot in that season's draft. Robinson took off in his senior campaign, hitting .364 with 17 HR and earning All-America honors. During his four years with the Trojans, he set team records for games played, at-bats, runs scored, hits, total bases, and even hit-by-pitches.

With all that, the Royals didn't draft the then 22 year old until the 25th round of the 2007 draft, signing him for $1,000.

He was assigned to Idaho Falls of the rookie Pioneer League, and put up a slash of .336/.383/.563 with 15 homers and 66 RBI in 67 games. Robinson took home the Pioneer League MVP, and earned Postseason All-Star and Idaho Falls Player of the Year honors.

In 2008, the "Alabama Slammer" went to Class A Burlington in the Midwest League, where he returned to earth. He hit .264, though he still banged 17 HR. A dead pull hitter in college, he began to work on using the whole field.

Robinson moved up to the next level in 2009, to High A Wilmington in the Carlina League. He hit .298 as his all-fields approach began to pay off and he won the Carolina batting race, beating out Lynchburg's Matt Hague though his long balls dropped to 13. Robinson took home that season's Mike Sweeney Award, given to the player that best represented the Royals organization both on and off the field

The big lefty really broke out in 2010, when he won the Class AA Texas League Triple Crown with NW Arkansas. He hit .335 with 29 HR and 98 RBI, and led the league in doubles (41), total bases (298), slugging percentage (.625) and OPS (1.035). Robinson put together a franchise record 21 game hitting streak, and practically ran the board for awards: he was named a Texas League mid and post-season All-Star, Player of the Month twice and Player of the week three times.

The big enchilada evaded him, though. The Texas League MVP went to teammate Mike Moustakas, who had a .347 BA, 21 HR and 76 RBI before being promoted to AAA Omaha. That became a way of life in the KC organization for Robinson, who could never escape the shadow of the highly touted prospects the Royals had seeded throughout their deep farm system.

In 2011, he continued his step-at-a-time progression and was promoted to Omaha in the Pacific Coast league. Robinson kept on hitting with a line of .326/.399/.533 with 23 HR, 35 doubles and 100 RBI. He was named to the PCL mid and post-season All-Star teams.

But all that got him was a chance to tread water with the Storm Chasers again in 2012; the Royals had Eric Hosmer at first base and Billy Butler DH'ing, and they pretty effectively blocked Robinson. The 27-year-old hit .292 with 37 doubles, 13 home runs, 67 RBI and 70 runs scored in 131 games, and again was All-PCL. He got a brief call to the show, getting four at-bats as a pinch hitter for the big club.

In truth, even with those numbers, he did slip some. He put together his worst batting average since 2008 and tied his career low in bombs with 13 home runs. And he's in the Billy Butler mold at first base, which means hitting a baseball is much less a challenge to him than catching one. In scout-talk, he's not very athletic; not many 6'5", 250 pound guys are.

Clint Robinson was clearly a man in need of new scenery, and KC set him free when they DFA'ed him on the 20th and packaged him to the Bucs. The Royals signed former As first baseman Kila Ka'aihue to a minor league deal to replace him as their insurance policy.

As Aaron Gleeman of NBC Sport's Hardball Talk wrote "As a 27-year-old first baseman Robinson was never going to get a chance in Kansas City behind Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, but he’s consistently crushed minor-league pitching and offers 20-homer power with good strike zone control. Robinson hit .309 with a .396 on-base percentage and .493 slugging percentage in two seasons at Triple-A, so it’s nice to see him go somewhere he might actually get an opportunity."

Robinson has a .308/.382/.520 batting line over six seasons in the minors and clearly can wave his wand. But he turns 28 in February, and no one really knows if he's a true big league hitter or a AAAA stick. It's hard to tell, with no MLB sampling to speak off. He does have a great eye - he averaged 71 K and 46 walks per season - and pounded out 30 doubles and 18 homers per year in the minors. But he's always been old for the levels he played at, and never cracked the Royal's Top Twenty prospect list.

From what we've seen, his discipline should translate into decent offensive production given some regular at-bats in the show. Our concern is with his glove; his tool kit points to DH'ing, and he was traded to the wrong league if that holds true. But the Bucs are looking for someone to push Garrett Jones, and it won't take much leather to do that, but a lot of lumber. And that's what Clint Robinson brings to the table.

It's The Scouts, Not The SEALS...

After all the SEALS training noise, Bob Nutting said he was taking a close post-season look at Pirate operations. While the effect on having farm hands carry logs and frolic through obstacle courses isn't known yet, it is apparent that the owner found one area that he felt was needed a good boot in the behind - the scouting department, the lifeblood of every small revenue club.

First, in early November they brought aboard 72-year-old Bill Livesey, who worked as a scout with the Yankees from 2008 until the Buccos came a'calling. He was also a pinstriper from 1978-95, and one of his positions was vice president of player development and scouting. In fact, except for a spell at managing, everything he's been involved with from the Bronx Bombers has related to scouting and development.

In between, Livesey was Tampa Bay's Special Assistant to GM Chuck LaMar and Director of Player Personnel. Then he moved on to the Toronto Blue Jays as a Special Assistant to General Manager J.P. Ricciardi in 2003 before joining the Mets as a Special assistant to GM Omar Minaya from 2004-06.

The grizzled hunting dawg is old school; he believes sabermetrics have a place in scouting, but thinks eyeballs should count as much in evaluations as iPads, and that's a change of direction for Pittsburgh.

Then on Wednesday, the Pirates have announced the hirings of four new pro scouts: Ricky Bennett, Carlos Berroa, Ron Hopkins and John Kosciak. Bennett and Hopkins were both scouting directors, Kociak is a long-time seat-of-the-pants scout, and Berroa adds more cred to the Latin operations.

Bennett had been with the Astros since 2005. He was in his second full season as director of professional scouting after previously serving as assistant general manager and director of player development. Bennett oversaw the club's Minor League affiliates from 2005-10.  Prior to that, Bennett also served as Director of Minor League Operations for the Detroit Tigers from 2002-04 during his eight year stay with Motown.

The Pirates didn't say where he would be assigned, but Bennett seems like a copacetic replacement for recently departed scout Mike Leuzinger, who was the area supervisor for North Texas and Oklahoma, as could Ron Hopkins, too.

Berroa joined the Pirates from the Miami Marlins, where he had 15 years of experience working as a Puerto Rican area scout based out of San Juan. He's also the baseball director of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy & High School, unique in that it's both an academic and sports school. One of its players, SS Carlos Correa, was the first overall pick in this year's draft.

Hopkins spent the 2012 season as a national crosschecker with the Baltimore Orioles and has over 30 years of scouting experience. He was considered a  candidate for the Orioles scouting director position before Dan Duquette hired Gary Rajsich for the job in November. Rajsich canned Hopkins in June, citing the dreaded philosophical differences, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Before that, he was the Director of Scouting for the Texas Rangers for six years from 2004-2009, spending his last season as a Special Assistant to GM Jon Daniels. Prior to joining the Rangers, Hopkins spent eight years with the Oakland Athletics after also working in the Kansas City, Seattle and New York Mets scouting departments. He's known as a strong talent evaluator.

Kosciak was the northeast area supervisor for the Astros last year. He's a long time scout who had ties to the Dodgers for 14 years and Padres for nine before joining Houston. Kosciak is one of those guys you find huddled together in the stands with stopwatches and radar guns at the high school and college fields, taking notes before hopping into the Buick and heading off to the next game.

Hey, an organization is as strong as its weakest link. And it looks like the Pirates are trying to make sure that scouting and evaluation, often times questioned during the Huntington era, won't be that link for Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bucs Deal For More Depth, DFA Hague & Navarro

The Bucco FO is on a neverending search for controllable pieces to add to the Pirate package, and hit the trade market today to collect a few more. They took Zach Stewart from Boston for a PTBNL after dealing for RHP Vin Mazzaro and 1B Clint Robinson from KC for DSL'ers LHP Luis Santos and RHP Luis Rico.

Stewart, 26, was once a hot prospect and is already pretty well traveled: the Reds selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft, then the Blue Jays acquired him in the deal that sent Scott Rolen to Cincinnati; Toronto traded him to the White Sox in the three-team trade that sent Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays; the Red Sox acquired him in the deal that sent Kevin Youkilis to Chicago, and now he's in Pittsburgh.

According to Sox Prospects, the scouting report on him is "Sinker/slider pitcher that has been used both as a starter and a reliever in his brief major league career. Fastball sits in the low-90s and induces a lot of grounders. Mid-80s slider is currently his best pitch. Also mixes in a changeup that needs more development. Doesn't walk many batters. Mediocre strikeout rate. Has allowed home runs at a much higher rate in the majors than the minors."

The righty went 1-4 with a 8.58 ERA in 20 appearances for the White & Red Sox in 2012 and was 3-5 with a 3.94 ERA in 11 starts for the Triple-A Pawtucket Sox. In his career, he's 3-10 with a 6.82 ERA in 33 games, 103 IP of work, 64 K and 2.2 HR/nine innings. He has an option left, so spring training isn't do-or-die for him.

Both of the guys the FO traded for from Kansas City, Mazzaro and Robinson, were also DFA'ed. 

RHP Mazzaro, 26, is another journeyman who has spent four seasons in the show with 15-21/5.22 slash compiled in 66 appearances, including 45 starts. He's a wild child, averaging nearly 4 walks per game with a low 5.5 K per nine rate. He put up a 4-3/5.73 ERA in 44 IP for the Royals in 2012 during six starts and 12 bullpen outings.

He made the record books in May, 2011, when he became the first player in MLB history to allow fourteen runs in less than three innings against the Indians, though he did rebound after that melt-down, with a 4.15 ERA the rest of the season. The righty was a 3rd round pick of the As in 2005.

Mazzaro is a good change of scenery candidate, although his peripherals don't indicate very much upside beyond MLB long man/spot starter. He throws a 91 MPH sinker as his bread-and-butter, and gets in the low-to-mid 40% of his outs in the dirt. Mazzaro and Stewart both indicate a bit of a shift in Pirate thinking; now they're not only going for the big trees with power arms, but adding sinker-ball types to the mix.

1B Clint Robinson, 27, made his major league debut with the Royals last season, (it was at PNC Park on June 8th when the lefty struck out against Hanny to close out the Bucs 4-2 win) but only got four at-bats in the show, K'ing twice. He spent the bulk of the season at Omaha in the hitter heaven of the PCL, where he batted .309 in his two AAA seasons with an OPB of .396, a K rate of 14%, 72 doubles and 36 HR, showing some discipline and pop.

He's the most interesting of the trio; maybe the Bucs think that Garrett Jones-type lightning can strike twice (and if so, the irony would be Robinson could replace Jones in 2014). John Sickels said of him going into 2012 "I know he's old, but I think he can hit, and would be a useable DH/1B bat for someone in the majors." The FO was looking for a bat off the bench, and at worst shored up a position that's thin at the upper levels of the organization.

The Bucs sent a couple of DSL arms to the Royals for the pair. Rico, 19, was awful while Santos, 21, has a three year slash of 8-4/2.51 with 10 strikeouts and three walks per nine and a good ground ball rate, but is a little long in the tooth for his level.

They also had to clear a couple of spots on the 40-man roster, and did so by DFA'ing 1B Matt Hague and IF Yamaico Navarro. Now the roster is filled, so the Bucs look like they're going to pass on the Rule 5 Draft this year.

While they are edge-of-the-roster moves, the FO could possibly be reinforcing themselves for arbitration. Mazzaro in particular and Stewart join the small posse of arms the Pirates have recently signed, making them possible internal replacements if Jeff Karstens, as rumored, is non-tendered. We'll see how that plays out by November 30th.

Martin Rumors, Bucco Bits

A little more Bucco news, led off by some warm Russell Martin rumors...

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said "The free-agent catcher Russell Martin is drawing significant interest from the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates, according to major-league sources." The Yankees are trying to bring him back in the fold, too. He's asking for, according to Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York, a four-year contract worth $9-10M annually. He won't get that but...

Per Jon Heyman of CBS' Baseball Insider "Word going around is that the Pirates might come in with the high bid, perhaps for three years and close to $25 million. The Yankees are not believed to be offering anything close to that, but the bidding isn't over and it has been thought likely that Martin would prefer to stay in New York." David Manel of Bucs Dugout points out that "If Martin stays a 2+ WAR player, (1 WAR = $4.5M value), the Pirates wouldn't be overpaying at $8.3M/yr. The question is, should they spend on other needs first?"

Apparently the FO doesn't have a lot of faith in Tony Sanchez at this point. The 29 year old Martin hit .211 with 21 HR and 53 RBI last year, and had a 24% throw-out rate, about league average. He has a rep as a strong defensive catcher and one of the best at framing pitches.

Bucco Bits:
  • Jim Bowden of ESPN highlights five underrated free agents, and has two of them as good fits for Pittsburgh - SS Stephen Drew and a guy the FO is already pretty familiar with, Jason Grilli. Wonder if the Buc brass agrees?
  • According to one Vegas book, the Bucs have a better chance of signing Josh Hamilton than do the Dodgers.
  • The Pirates signed LHP Philippe Valiquette to a minor league contract, per Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects. The 25 year old Montreal-born reliever was banged around in the Brewer's mid-minors last year, but played in the All-Star Futures game in 2010 before tearing a pectoral muscle and missing all of 2011. He had a mid nineties heater, said to touch three figures a couple of years ago, and those kind of arms, especially coming off an injury, are worth a shot.
  • Troy Renck of the Denver Post said that the Rox are looking at Kevin Correia. He wrote "Colorado is looking for a pitcher to fill the role it cast Guthrie in last January: a reliable arm, capable of giving the team a chance to win every five days. Correia fits that profile."
  • Jeff Clement became the third Indy minor-league free agent to sign with the Twins, joining RHP Tim Wood and C/OF Eric Fryer.
  • Not real surprisingly, no Bucco pups were named to the Arizona Fall League All-Prospect team.
  • Remember RHP Todd Redmond, who the Bucs traded to Atlanta after the 2007 season for reliever Tyler Yates? Last year, the Braves sent him to the Reds for SS Paul Janish, and Cincy has just inked the 27 year old to a MLB contract.
  • And another oldie, SS/OF Brent Lillibridge, who the Bucs traded to the Braves with LHP Mike Gonzalez for 1B Adam LaRoche and 1B/OF Jamie Romak in 2007, is now a free agent after being dropped off the Indians 40-man roster. Since leaving Pittsburgh, he's played parts of five seasons for four clubs with a .213 career BA, living up to his good glove, bad bat rep. As for the others, LaRoche and Gonzo are also FAs this season while Romak just signed a minor league deal with the Cards.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ramon Cabrera

The Pirates signed Ramon Cabrera out of Venezuela in April of 2008. He's the son of Alex Cabrera, who played for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000 and then went on to become a Japanese legend, hitting 356 homers and winning the MVP in 2002 when he clobbered 55 long balls. Sadly, the name is where the similarities end; Ramon is a 5'7" contact hitter and his dad is a 6'2" slugger. Guess he took after mama.

The fireplug converted to catching right around the time the Buccos inked him as an 18 year old, and he spent the season with the VSL Pirates, hitting .264. He had a good eye, with an equal amount of walks and Ks, and tossed out 40% of attempted base stealers.

He opened 2009 in the VSL, and after 20 games (.312/.400/.468) was send to El Norte to play in the GCL, where he put up a slash of .291/.372/.417. He did OK behind the dish, especially considering it was just his second season there, gunning out 35% of the VSL runners and 29% in Florida.

The next season, he took over the catching duties at Low Class A West Virginia in the Sally League and hit his first speed bump, putting up a line of .269/.312/.342. The average was just OK, and his K-to-BB ratio went up to 2:1, not because he whiffed much but because he wasn't drawing walks, while his usual gap power was missing as he posted his first under-.400 slugging % (.342) in the pros. Cabrera worked 90 games, and his caught stealing rate dropped to 21%. But he was still named a South Atlantic League mid-season All-Star, and was about to break out.

He was assigned to High Class A Bradenton in the Florida State League in 2011 and tore it up at the plate, being named to the All-Star team. Cabrera's slash was .343/.410/.471 and he won the batting title by 20 points. He drew 38 walks, whiffed just 29 times in 379 PA and his doubles stroke was back. More good news was that Ramon hit both lefties and righties equally well.

Every rose has its thorns, and for Cabrera, his were on the defensive side. His caught stealing rate continued to plummet, down to just 13%, and guys took off early and often on him. By comparison, Carlos Paulino, the other Marauder catcher, threw out 29% of the runners. Cabrera also allowed 14 passed balls in 78 games.

It was hard to ignore his stick, though, and he was a non-roster invitee to camp in 2012. Cabrera was then sent to Altoona to be Tony Sanchez's caddy. He didn't get much work behind the plate, though the Curve tried to mitigate that by penciling him in as their as the DH.

Cabrera started off slowly, but the Pirates moved Sanchez to Indy in June. His average was uncharacteristically low at that point, but he was making contact, and in July and August he went on a .346 spree, finishing the year with a slash of .276/.342/.367. That hot spell netted him a spot on the Eastern League All-Star club.

His defense got better, too, as he put up a low but improved 20% throw-'em-out rate, and allowed just five passed balls in 85 games. He moved up to Indy when Jose Morales was injured, but only got into one game (he went 2-for-5) before spraining his ankle.

The Bucs just added him to the 40-man roster, and he'll probably spend his 23 year old season at Indy, backing up Tony Sanchez again, a nice level for his age.

On the plus side, he's a young switch-hitter that makes line-drive contact, has good plate discipline with a resulting high OBP, and has no discernible L/R split who plays a premium position that Pittsburgh is kinda thin at in the upper levels. Cabrera has been an All-Star catcher at three different levels and has a batting title as part of his resume, and has moved up each level without much problem in transition.

And he does have baseball in his blood, and not only thanks to his dad. Venezuela is a hotbed of catchers, the home of Victor Martinez, Ramon Hernandez, Miguel Montero, the Torrealba brothers and a couple of dozen more guys that have strapped on the tools of ignorance for MLB clubs.

But he has never hit more than 3 HR in any season, and is a doubles guy at best. His catching skills as a pitch caller and receiver are actually coming along at an OK rate, but it's unlikely that he'll ever be strong at stopping the running game.

We've seen varying reports on his arm strength, and we admit that the minors are a tough barometer to gauge a catcher's ability to stop runners. But at the last two stops, Paulino and Sanchez have had considerably higher toss out percentages, so most of the problems seems to lie with Cabrera. None of the scouting services have him among the top prospects, and John Sickels has pups Wyatt Mathison and Jin-De Jhang rated above him.

Of course, the big knock is that he's a munchkin. Scouts everywhere seem to like the big 'uns. He's listed as 5'8", 185 pounds by the Bucs, which means he has to look up to Mike McKenry. Call us old school, but that's not something we'd be concerned about. Catchers should be close to the dirt, and so far in his career he's shown no tendency to get overly banged up because of the position.

His lack of a big bat and his troubles tossing out base stealers limit his upside, but with that consistent stick he could easily become a #2 catcher. The only caveat is that gives him more value as an AL player than NL catcher, ala Dewey.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Arbitration Approaches...

The next deadline on the Bucco calendar is fast approaching. By November 30th, the Bucs have to decide which of their arb-eligible players to tender. The list for 2013 consists of eight names: Joel Hanrahan, Neil Walker, Garrett Jones, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Resop and  Charlie Morton.

RHP Joel Hanrahan (third year arb): Hanrahan has dodged the trade bullet for two years running now as the Bucs were buyers at the deadline in 2011-12. But this off-season could well be his last in Pittsburgh. The 31 year old has become one of the elite closers in the past two years, collecting 76 saves for a team that's won 151 games over that span; Hanny has saved over half their victories.

That kind of performance comes at a cost, and it's expected that Hanrahan would pull in a salary touching $7M through the arb process, a nice hike over 2012's $4.1M deal. Given that price tag, his performance, the Pirate FO's preference to not allocate much payroll to the pen and the team holes going into 2013, Hanny is the likeliest Bucco to be dangled as trade bait. We haven't heard many rumors yet - the closer market has yet to take off - but we expect that to change when the baseball meetings begin on December 3rd. The Bucs are sure to tender Hanny to maintain team control long enough to move him.

2B Neil Walker (Super 2; first year arb): The Kid, 27, has steadily made himself into one of the NL's better second baseman since being tossed into the fire in 2010, with his fielding getting into the positive range and putting up 3+ WAR the past two seasons. His expected arb value is around $2.5M, and the Bucs will gladly pay that sum.

His storyline will be whether the Pirates and he find common ground on a contract. The Bucs have him under control through 2016, his 30 year old season, and so have no urgency other that price certainty to strike a long-term deal now.

1B/OF Garrett Jones (Super 2; second year arb): Jones gives the Bucs a sorely needed middle-of-the-order presence, but unfortunately the 31 year old is a righty basher but pretty meek against southpaws (career splits: .279/.189). Still, 27 homers is nothing to sneeze at, and his 2013 arb range is $4.25-4.5M, not an unreasonable salary though double his 2012 paycheck of $2.25M.

Even with that power, he's not an everyday player and still has two more years of arb ahead of him as a Super 2 player. They'll sign him this year, but move him before 2014 if they can find someone to play first base in his stead.

RHP James McDonald (first year arb): The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Bucco staff looks to be in line for an arb award in the area of $3M. That's a bargain for the pre-All Star game J-Mic, but an overpay for the guy who took the hill for the last three months. The Bucco rotation needs arms to fill the top three spots, at least for the time being, and McDonald has shown too much upside for the Bucs to give up on him yet, even if he's showing early signs of Ollie Perez-itis.

RHP Jeff Karstens
(third arb year): JK leads off the second half of the list, consisting of the guys the FO may be thinking of non-tendering. In the past two years, his performance has been solid, but he has a history of injuries, working 162-1/3 frames in his breakout 2011 season and just 90-2/3 last year. He also has the biggest spread among possible arb outcomes, with some guesses in the $4M range, others coming in at $5M.

With a staff that's unsettled, logic would dictate that the Pirates keep all hands on deck. But the FO may well be considering putting that $4-5M into a bottom end FA with a history of eating innings rather than investing in a 30 year old who will be a free agent in 2014. Does that translate into another Kevin Correia?  Probably, but remember that the $7M KC was paid over two years turned into 54 starts, 325 IP and 24 wins. Over the same span, Karstens made 41 starts, worked 253 innings and won 14 times.

1B  Gaby Sanchez (first arb year): The Pirates just traded for Gaby and have no one behind him in the minors. But Ben Nicholson Smith of MLB Trade Rumors thinks he may be considered for a non-tender because his price tag should in the $1.8M range, given his solid performances in 2010-11, and that's high given his 2012 results. 

That may be so, but unless they're looking hard at the FA market, which does have some bodies available, we think they sign Sanchez for 2013. After all, they gave Casey McGehee $2,537,500 last year. And it's a tolerable price to allow him to audition for a full season. As we mentioned before, Jones is on a short leash, and Pittsburgh may add first base to the wish list, so they might as well see what they've got.

RHP Chris Resop (second arb year): Resop was plucked off the waiver wire and has given Pittsburgh a couple of decent enough years as a middle man. His question is cost; he's expected to earn $1.25M through arb, and the Pirates usually spent that amount for back-end guys. They have a couple of minor league arms who will pocket minimum wage on the horizon, making Resop somewhat redundant for his 2013 pen role.

RHP Charlie Morton (second arb year): Do the Bucs cut their losses and let Morton walk? After all, he's not due back from surgery until the late summer and there are several farm arms ready to take their turn in Pittsburgh. Our speculation is that they tender him and look for a discount (arb guys can be given a max 20% cut from the prior year, which was $2.445M) or sign him to a contract, and keep him around as an insurance policy; he was intriguing before his wing went bad. 

But they have a good argument to let him go, too, so his decision will show just how highly the Bucs consider his upside. If they consider him a back-ender, well, they have enough of those. But if they think he could be a mid-rotation pitcher, he still has some value.

That's this years class. In 2014, the current roster will have a slew of arb eligible players. All the above guys except for Hanrahan and Karstens have another grab at the brass ring, and Pedro Alvarez, Travis Snider, Alex Presley, Mike McKenry, Josh Harrison, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Chris Leroux and Yamiaco Navarro all could join the party with another season in the show.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kyle Kaminska

Kyle Kaminska has been in the news lately, after coming over from Miami, being converted back to a starter and performing well in a few weeks' work in the Pirate system and Arizona's Fall League.

He was born in Wauseon, outside of Toledo, Ohio, but the good folk of Naperville, Illinois, are quick to claim him as one of their own. And no wonder - after his family moved to the Land of Lincoln, Kaminski help lead Central High to its first state championship as a junior, going 10-1, and ended his career with a Redhawk record 24 victories.

The Florida Marlins noticed, and took the righty in the 25th round of the 2007 Draft. He lasted that long because the scouts believed he was going to honor his commitment to Michigan State, but the Fish gave him 120,000 long green reasons to forego the Spartans and reeled him in. The teen got some work in the GCL, and held his own, going 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA and 14 K in 19 IP.

Kaminska was promoted to the Class A Sally League Greensboro team the next season, and began learning his pro lessons. He went 5-7 with a 6.54 ERA, giving up 13 long balls in 85-1/3 innings with 84 K. He has always had a reputation as a control pitcher, and was being taught, even at that level, that occasionally you have to fire a heater at chin level or drop a ball in the dirt to keep the hitters honest instead of just serving strikes. In spite of that mark, he got a cup of coffee at High A Jupiter at the end of the season.

He returned to Greensboro in 2009 and became more of a workhorse than racehorse, going 9-9 with a 4.16 ERA in 142-2/3 frames with 112 K, though he did cut down on balls leaving the yard, surrendering just 10 blasts.

In 2010, KK started at Jupiter in the High A Florida State League, once earning the FSL's Pitcher of the Week award. He only went 1-4, although with a decent 3.51 ERA, but was shut down with ulnar nerve irritation in his elbow with less than 50 IP under his belt.

Kaminska began the next season in Jupiter again, and was converted to the bullpen, maybe to ease the load on his arm. It worked wonders, as he went 5-2 with a 2.58 ERA and fanned 81 in 94-1/3 innings as a long man for the Hammerheads and then at AA Jacksonville.

But 2012 was to be a roller coaster ride, both in performance and addresses. He lost his mojo with the Fish, going 6-4 with a 5.24 ERA in 33 games between the AA Suns and AAA New Orleans as a reliever. Again, the home run ball hurt. He gave up nine in 53-2/3 innings, and a .328 opponent BA wasn't helping the cause, fueled by an unlucky .359 batted-ball-in-play BA.

Kaminska was acquired by the Pirates at the deadline from the Marlins along with Gaby Sanchez. The initial reaction was that he was a throw-in with a future as a middle reliever if he made it to the show, but more likely a depth guy for the system.

GM Neal Huntington didn't see it exactly the same way. He told Kristy Robinson of Baseball Prospectus that “We’ve liked Kyle for a couple of years as a projectable pitcher based on his body, arm, and pitch package. As we looked for a fit in our trade with Miami this summer, we felt like he offered us some upside to go along with Gaby to balance out the deal.”

The Bucs flipped Kaminska, 24 (he has an October birthday, so that'll be his playing age next season), back to the rotation. So far, so good: he went 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA between High A Bradenton and AA Altoona, made four starts in seven outings and whiffed 22 in 28 IP. To build on the conversion, the Bucs sent him to Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League.

He turned a few heads there, becoming a surprise AFL success story. In six Scorpion starts, Kaminska went 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA in 28 IP, with 24 K to go against just 4 BB, a 0.930 WHIP and opponent BA of .208. He started six games (with a strict pitch count not to exceed 70), and gave up one earned run or less in the final five. Pretty good stuff; the AFL is a hitters' league, even if it's AA competition at best.

Kaminska is a lanky 6'4", and while he may not be a power pitcher, his bod fits the Bucco mold of going after the tall trees with a downward plane to their delivery. The righty is a sinkerball pitcher who works fast, makes a living catching the plate, isn't afraid to come inside, gets into pitchers counts, actually works at holding runners (yah, we know - give him time *sigh*), and gets about 45% of his outs on the ground.

Like most guys, Kaminska works off his fastball, which is not overpowering and sits in the 87-91 range. But the Bucs are trying to convert him back to a starter because he does have a three pitch package, with a slider and change to go with the heat. He's learning to use his slider as a swing-and-miss pitch. None of his stuff is overwhelming, so he depends on location and drop to get by.

Is that enough to overcome the tag of middle reliever? Well, that has yet to be seen, and the Pirates haven't indicated whether he'll start 2013 at Indy or Altoona yet (we'd guess the Curve, depending how the MLB roster shapes up in 2013). So far as his upside goes, the Pirates didn't add him to the forty man roster this year and John Sickels didn't include him among the Bucs' top forty prospects, so that's telling in its way.

Right now, he appears to be another in the queue of potential back-end Pirate starters in the system, with a chance to someday fill in the bottom of the rotation or join the pen as a middle/long guy. So 2013 is big for him; he needs to replicate the success he had in his small Pirate sample to hang with and maybe separate himself from that gang.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

John Sickel Picks Top 20, Other Bucco Bits

A little afternoon bits & pieces post:
  • John Sickel picked his Top 20 prospects for 2013. The first five are RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Jameson Taillon, SS Alen Hanson, OF Greg Polanco and RHP Luis Heredia. Oddly, three of the guys the Pirates just placed on the 40-man roster (C Tony Sanchez, C Ramon Cabrero and RHP Hunter Strickland) went unranked, and were mentioned as part of the "others" list. RHPs Victor Black and Phil Irwin, also newly added to the roster, were rated #15 & #17. Sickel must believe the best is yet to come for Pittsburgh. None of his Top 10 picks are on the 40-man yet.
  • Some ex-Buccos on the move, per Baseball America: RHP Daniel McCutchen signed with the Orioles, LHP Jo Jo Reyes with the Angels and 1B Nick Evans with the Dodgers. Oldies that inked farm deals were 3B Josh Fields with the Phils, RHP Ronald Uviedo & 2B Jim Negrych with the Blue Jays, RHP Eric Hacker with the Giants, LHP Justin Thomas with the As and C Luke Carlin with the Angels.
  • The Bucs announced their promotional schedule for 2013, which includes Neon Trees, Kool & the Gang, fireworks, bobbleheads, free T-shirts and other stuff. Tickets are now on sale for single games.
  • Happy birthday to Bob Friend, who hit the big 8-2 today. The righty went 197-230 with a 3.58 ERA in a 16 year career, 15 spent with the Pirates. He appeared in four All Star games, whiffed 1,734 batters, led the Senior Circuit in wins in 1958 (22) and finished in the NL's Top Ten for ERA five times. Friend and Vern Law anchored the 1960 WS rotation, although Bob also pitched for five last-place teams, making his stats even shinier. Friend also was active off the mound - he was a player rep, insurance VP, Allegheny County Controller and a Freemason, mentioned just in case any old Yankee fans believe there was a 1960 conspiracy.

Hunter Strickland

The Pirates always have a surprise up their sleeve when they put together their off season 40-man roster. Last year, it was Kyle McPherson and Duke Welcher. This year's who-dat name is 24 year old RHP Hunter Strickland.

He entered pro ball in 2007 when the Red Sox drafted him in the18th round (564th pick overall) from Zebulon, Georgia's Pike County HS and signed him to a $123,250 bonus. Strickland was beat up in the GCL that season, but in 2008 did pretty well at Lowell in the NY-Pennsy League, averaging 7.5 K/nine with a slash of 5-3/3.18.

The righty was working for Greenville in the Sally League when Pittsburgh picked him and SS Argenis Diaz up from Boston in exchange for 1B Adam LaRoche in 2009. At the time, his heat was in the high 80s-low 90s range, and he wasn't listed as a prospect by Baseball America. The Beantown gang thought he had some upside despite BA's disdain, and so did Pittsburgh - heck, he was 6'5", how could they resist?

The Bucs kept him in the same Low A league, assigning him to West Virginia. He was pretty steady there, even combining with Diego Moreno on a no-no. Strickland finished the year with a combined 9-6/3.49 slash line, but with a red flag - his K rate had dropped to 5.3, though his WHIP was a solid 1.156. That was a head scratcher, as his velocity jumped into the 90-94 range, but he couldn't pump that heat past anyone.

He began 2010 back with the Power, but without the same success. Strickland was 0-4 with a 5.86 ERA, averaging just 3 K per nine and with a WHIP of 1.535. Surprisingly, when an opening popped up at High A Bradenton, he got the call to fill it. Not surprisingly, he was toasted there, too, going 2-1/4.50. Between the two levels, he gave up nearly a dozen hits per game. The he went on DL with an elbow strain and didn't return.

In 2011, the Pirates put him on a rehab regimen. It didn't work, and he had rotator cuff surgery in August. So apparently he tried to pitch through a bad wing in 2010 and paid the price in his stat line.

Strickland was healthy in time for spring camp in 2012, and was assigned to Bradenton. He started nine games, and went 2-2/2.98 ERA with a 1.213 WHIP, though his K rate was still below par at 5 K per nine. In June the Pirates moved him up to Altoona, where he worked from the pen. That probably isn't a permanent conversion, but just a way to keep his innings under control; we believe that they still see him as a starter at this point.

He really wasn't all that for the Curve, with a 2-2-2/4.46 line. His K rate returned to a more acceptable 7/nine innings, though his walks jumped up to three per game. Strickland surrendered 10.6 hits per match, especially having problems with lefty batters, and had a 1.535 WHIP.

To add him to the 40-man roster, the Pirates must see some upside that his performance hasn't shown yet. Strickland is young, tall, and as the scouts like to say, projectable with a clean and easy delivery. His fast ball sits in the 92-94 range, and he can spot it pretty well. His two-seamer has some movement, and he tosses an average slider and change with good control. And 2012 was his first full season back from surgery.

And that's all promising. But he's given up 10 hits per nine innings and his K rate is under six per game in his minor league career. The Pirates may be expecting a breakout year for him in 2013. But certainly an argument can be made that the Pirates put him on the 40-man at least a season early. It appears that the last spot came down to Strickland and Kyle Kaminska, and they went for projection over performance.

Hey, we know both are fringe guys, at least at this point in their careers, and it's probable that both would have been safe from the Rule 5 draft this year (we'll find out about KK on December 6th). But it does awaken that little voice that sometimes (OK, more than sometimes) questions the FO's evaluation protocol.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shopping List - The Bullpen

The bullpen has been a group this management team has managed to do a pretty fair job of assembling year after year on the cheap. Already gone are Jason Grilli, Hisanori Takahashi, Chad Qualls, Juan Cruz, Daniel McCutchen and Evan Meek, and they're sure to be replaced by guys off the waiver wires and off the discount rack later in the hot stove season, as the Bucs continue to stick to their mantra of value.

Grilli will be the hardest arm to replace; he has swing-and-miss stuff and often faced the heart of the order in set-up situations before Hanny came on to claim the save in the ninth. The righty was a bargain at $1.1M in 2012, compiling a 3-7-3/2.76 slash in his Pittsburgh time with 127 K in 91-1/3 frames.

Building on that success, the 36 year old free agent will look for a multi year package - last season was his first seven figure payday in six full MLB seasons - and his agent says eight teams have shown interest in him, including the Red Sox.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors wrote that "the floor for Grilli is a one-year deal with a base salary in the $3-5MM range. I expect a two-year deal in the $10MM range, (since he won't be) tied to draft pick compensation. He’s pitching at an elite level and that’ll be reflected in his next contract." And that's steep for a team that doesn't like to tie up money in the bullpen.

His back end running mate, Joel Hanrahan, is almost certain to be traded this off-season. He's survived the last two deadlines, when his trade value would have been higher, only because the Pirates were improbably in contention and were buyers. But this is his last year of team control, and his salary in year three of arb is likely to approach the $7M mark.

The Bucs don't like to pay that amount for an entire bullpen, much less one arm. So for both payroll and team-building purposes, Hanny will likely move on and the Pirates should get a MLB player in return, though we're sure their game plan will be to look for someone that offers team control for awhile. He could, alone or maybe packaged, bring a young catcher to Pittsburgh.

The other returning reliever on thin ice is Chris Resop. He's been a fairly dependable middle man since being claimed, but is in arb and will probably earn $1.25M, maybe a smidge more, and the FO may consider that steep for his role.

Returning for sure are Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Chris Leroux. Bryan Morris, Victor Black, Chris Beck and Duke Welker are all in the wings waiting for a shot, too, and maybe Justin Wilson and Hunter Strickland eventually. Morris, 25, is almost certain to make the club this spring; he's out of options and coming off a 2-2-5/2.67 slash at Indy with 79 K in 81 IP. In mystifying limited work during September, he whiffed six in five frames.

He and Black have a shot at becoming back enders, though we expect the Bucs to pull in a vet for the late innings as the off season wears down and the bargains begin to pop up. That's their MO and the time when they've inked pitchers like Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, Jose Veras and Juan Cruz, all who proved useful to various degrees. We're thinking they may kick the tires of Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Jason Frasor or Matt Lindstrom this off season.

The glaring hole again is the lack of a lefty, but that didn't seem to bother them a whole lot last year, and dependable non-set up southpaws are an expensive lot. But that problem will have to get in line behind finding back-enders, addressed most likely through minor league deals ala Doug Slaten, Justin Thomas, et al.

Whether through waivers or the market, the Bucs will cobble together their usual fire-sale pen, although it will be more challenging this season because of escalating costs and because they have to replace both their closer and set-up man.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bucs Stock Minors

Well, Felix Pie was just the lead man for a burst of Bucco signings as the Pirates restock their Indy club. They announced five other additions to the farm system today.

The only other position player the FO inked was IF Alex Valdez, 28. Valdez has spent most of his time at third, but has played all four infield positions in the minors since signing with Oakland in 2004. The Dominican has a lifetime .269 BA in nine seasons in the A's, Nats and Red Sox organizations. That number is inflated by his 2012 year at Ciudad del Carmen in the Mexican League, where he had a slash of .359/.411/.597 with 19 HR and 78 RBI, all far and away career highs.

RHP Brooks Brown, 27, was taken from the Detroit system after entering pro ball as a first round pick of Arizona in 2006. The Bucs should have a good book on the sinker/slider hurler; he's toiled for AA Erie in the Eastern League and AAA Toledo in the International League since 2009. Brown's a starter with a career 43-59/4.33 slash with no standout peripherals and fits the Pirate mold of being tall - 6'3" - and a former top draft pick, which earned him an invitation to camp.

RHP Erik Cordier, 26, was a second round pick of the Royals in 2004 straight from high school. He missed 2007 after shoulder surgery, and looked like he had bounced back in 2009-10 after the Braves acquired him in the Tony Pena Jr. trade. But the last couple of seasons haven't been that kind to him, as he's compiled a 6-12 record and 5.34 ERA as a spot starter and long man, mostly at AAA Gwinnett. The 6'4" righty also got an invitation to camp. He features a mid-nineties heater and an above average slider, but has some serious control issues.

RHP David Bromberg, 25, was a late pick of the Twins from high school in 2005. He's spent the last three years yo-yo'ing between AA and AAA, with a 45-33/3.68 slash and an interesting 644 K in 699-1/3 IP. Bromberg is another big guy at 6'5", and with the usual Bucco drawback - he averages 3.6 walks per nine. He was a starter until last season, when he worked both as a spot starter and out of the pen as he regained arm strength.

The righty led his Class A leagues in strikeouts in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and was named the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, throwing in the mid-nineties. His performance tailed after making the jump to Double-A in 2010, especially his ability to miss bats, and he sat out most of 2011 when a line drive broke his forearm. Still, at one point he was considered a potential mid-rotation guy, and maybe a change of scenery will help.

RHP Luis Sanz, 25, came from Detroit's organization. He's never pitched higher than A ball in his seven minor league seasons and his peripheral stats don't show much promise; his K-to-BB ratio is 426-223 in 563 IP, not even 2:1.

Felix Pie

Hey, the Bucs just signed Felix Pie! A handful of years ago, that would have been big news. He was touted to have five tools and be a rising with a bullet prospect earlier in the decade. Pie was included in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects for five straight years (2003-’07), peaking at #27 spot in 2006, and was Top 50 for three years running. But that was then; now it just means that Indy's roster is getting restocked, not reloaded.

The Dominican was signed in 2001 by the Cubs, and was inked on the cheap, receiving no signing bonus from Chi-town. After a year in the DSL, he was brought stateside to the rookie Arizona League and hit .321 for Mesa.

The next season, he was advanced to the Class A Lansing Lugnuts, where he hit .285 with 4 home runs and 47 RBI. In 2004, it was onward and upward to the High A Daytona Cubs, and Pie hit .299 with 8 home runs and 47 RBI.

The Cubbies moved him a step at a time - they were already smarting from criticism, probably justified, that they had rushed top pick Corey Patterson through their system - and in 2005 Pie joined the Class AA West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx. He had another solid season, banging away for a .304 BA with 11 home runs. It could have been better, but a broken ankle limited him to 59 games and cost him a possible call up during the season. Even though he missed most of the year, BA picked him as Chicago's top prospect.

After a slow start in 2006, Pie recovered to hit .282 in Class AAA Iowa with 15 long balls and an OBP of .341, and BA again rated him as the Cubs #1 prospect, ahead of LHP Donnie Veal. Pie played 55 games of the 2007 season with the Iowa Cubs as he yo-yo'ed between AAA and the show.

He was called up early, on April 17, 2007, and plugged into left field to replace the injured Alfonso Soriano. Pie got his first MLB hit that day, too, doubling off Greg Maddux. He was sort of a "player of the month" for the Windy City that season, spending May in Iowa, June in Chicago, and July back in Iowa until August 8th, when he made it to Wrigley for the rest of the season thanks to Cubbie injuries. Pie hit just .215 during his maiden voyage with the Cubs, getting 196 AB, and .362 with 9 HR in 250 PA for Iowa.

Still, the Cubs were impressed by the toolkit. With Patterson imploding, they traded CF'ed Jacques Jones, leaving the pasture job to a winner-take-all battle between Pie and Sam Fuld. Pie didn't help himself by being injured. Originally thought to be a groin injury, he ended up with a twisted testicle, ouch!

But it didn't cause him to miss much time, as painful as it sounds, and Pie won the job, starting on Opening Day. But he didn't get much chance to get a grip on the spot. Chicago had brought in Reed Johnson from Toronto as insurance just before camp and gave him the job short-term; Pie became primarily a defensive replacement by May. In the middle of the month, the Cubs signed Jim Edmonds, and sent Pie back to Iowa to get everyday at-bats. In 96 PA, he hit .241 for the Cubbies and again was solid in AAA, batting .287 with 10 HR.

On January 18, 2009, Pie was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for LHP Garrett Olson and Single-A pitcher Henry Williamson. He wasn't getting much playing time with the impatient Cubs, and many believed his potential was being wasted. At least the Orioles did.

In the 2009 season, Pie started in left field for the Orioles for most of April and part of May. But it looked like the Cubs were right; he started slowly and was bumped out of a starting role by rookie Nolan Reimold. Pie worked hard on the bench, though, going through drills with hitting coach Terry Crowley. Injuries to CF Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold gave Pie a chance to get back into the lineup, and he had a better second half. He ended up hitting .266 for the Birds.

He won the starting job in 2010 after a strong spring, but ended up on the DL when a back muscle separated from the bone. He didn't return until July, but ended up hitting a respectable .274. Pie's .305 OBP and 4:1 K-to-walk ratio were red flags, but Baltimore avoided arb with him by inking him to a one-year, $985K contract.

But he didn't play everyday in 2011, and hit just .220 with a sub-.300 OBP as Reimold reclaimed the job. Pie was DFA'ed in August and finished the year at AAA Norfolk. After the season, he opted for free agency and signed with the Indians. They released him in April when he didn't make the final spring cut.

Pie caught on with the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League, and a dozen or so games later signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves and was sent to Class AAA Gwinnett. He hit .285 there, and a couple of days ago he signed a minor league deal with the Pirates with an invitation to spring training.

"The Cat" isn't the worst gamble a team could take. He's 27, has 1,051 PA and a .249 BA. He's not an instinctive outfielder, but he does make the occasional great running, wall crashing catch and has a strong arm. Pie also has good speed, but that hasn't translated into creditable base-running mojo; he runs the paths more like a playful puppy than a pro.

He has a 20% K rate and .298 OPB in the MLB, and as a projected top-of-the-order guy, those numbers clearly don't cut it. Pie's another lefty, and so he's in competition with Travis Snider and Alex Presley for an outfield spot.

But the Bucs love their highly-drafted reclamation projects. Pie can play all three positions, so he does profile as a LF'er for Pittsburgh, and that's a hybrid critter because of PNC Park's zigs and zags.

His minor league slash of .298 BA and .355 OBP also has to be teasing the Pirate FO, as it did with Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland and Atlanta. His problem could be, like many ballplayers, that it's easier to put up numbers while in the lineup everyday, but a much tougher task to learn the discipline to platoon or come off the bench and be productive.

At worst, the Bucs have added another AAAA player to their organization and plugged an outfield hole at Indy. At best, they've inked an upgrade of Lastings Milledge with a bit of a Latin temper.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bucs Add Five To 40-Man Roster

The Pirates added RHPs Victor Black, Hunter Strickland and Phil Irwin along with Cs Ramon Cabrera and Tony Sanchez to the 40-man roster today, bringing it to 39 players (yes, they can dive into the Rule 5 pool again!). The team can still make moves on the 40-man roster, but only those players added today are protected from the December 6th Rule 5 draft.

Sanchez, 24, was the Bucs top pick in 2009 and the fourth overall. His glove is considered MLB quality, but his minor league BA is .268. He hit .277 at Altoona, but with no long balls and some gap power, then was moved up to Indy where he batted .233 but with 8 HR in 236 PA.

Black, 24, was a sandwich pick in the 2009 draft and the 49th overall pick. He has a career 3.28 ERA in four seasons He closed for Altoona last year and went 2-3-1.65 with 85 K in 60 outings. Black had a couple of god-awful appearances in Arizona, but overall was effective; it was all feast or famine for him. He'll probably start at Indy next season, with an outside shot at a roster spot, depending how the off season shakes out.

Irwin, 25, was a 21st-round draft pick in 2009, the 625th overall selection. He came out of the woodwork this year, going 4-7 with a 2.93 ERA in 16 starts for Altoona for Altoona and 3-0/2.57 ERA in four starts with Indy. Irwin K'ed 111 in 135-1/3 frames, and has a career 3.02 ERA and 1.100 WHIP lifetime. Like most of the upper level Buc starters, he has stuff that's considered average but with excellent control. He should start 2013 at Indy.

Those were the automatic picks. Cabrera was borderline, and Strickland was more or less out of the blue.

Cabrera, 23, was signed out of Venezuela in 2008. He spent the year at Altoona, where he hit .276 but without much extra base thunder. The 5'7" fireplug was sent to Indy for the playoffs and went 2-for-5 in his only game. He does have a good stick, with a career BA of .292 and a .360 OBP. Cabrera is a decent receiver, but doesn't excel in throwing out runners (20% in 2012), and that combined with his lack of power limits his upside. He should be Sanchez's caddy at Indy.

Strickland, 24, was part of the 2009 Adam LaRoche trade with the Red Sox, which took him in the 18th round in 2007 from high school. He missed all of the 2011 season, eventually having rotator cuff surgery in August. Strickland did well at Bradenton, going 2-2 with a 2.58 ERA but with poor peripherals, then went to Altoona, where he was converted to the pen. The he was 2-2-2 with a 4.36 ERA, and his strikeout ratio improved some to 33 K in 42-1/3 IP, featuring a low nineties fastball. Still, he was a surprise selection; the Pirates must see some upside since his injury.

That leaves RHP Kyle Kaminska, received in a deadline deal with the Fish, and IF Gift Ngoepe on the outside looking in.

Kaminska, 24, has had a spotty minor league record, so either the Bucs gambled that would keep him from being claimed in the draft or determined he wasn't worth tying up a spot. Either way, he was one of the iffy keepers. But his strong performance in the Arizona Fall League may have put him on a couple of radar screens, and the Pirates did send Miami a couple of assets - particularly the comp pick - that would seem to indicate that the FO saw something in him. So we're surprised some that he's off the roster and Strickland is on it.

As Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects notes, "Ngoepe signed with the Pirates in late-2008 at the age of 18. This would have been his fifth Rule 5 draft since he signed, which is the first draft an 18-year-old signee would be eligible for. However, because he didn’t play in 2008, the 2008 season and the 2008 draft don’t count. He would still be eligible for his fifth Rule 5 draft, but that count begins with the 2009 draft, not the 2008 draft." In essence, he signed a contract that started in 2009, so the 22-year old shortstop isn't, as we had thought, eligible for this year's draft.

And now we're set for the official start of the hot stove league, the December 3rd baseball meetings.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday News and Rumors...

Some Bucco mentions in the news:

  • According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Gary Sheffield, Jason Grilli's agent, said “We’ve got eight teams interested right now. We have three offers right now.” He added “We’re not in a hurry (to sign). There are some things we want to look at a little further. We’re not sure the market has fully developed for Jason.” So while Sheffield is still trying to fan a bidding war, the set-up spot looks like one role the Bucs will have to fill in 2013.
  • Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic says this about the Pirates and D-Backs making a deal for Justin Upton "...the Pirates were said to be pushing for Upton at this year’s trading deadline. They have a slugging third baseman in Pedro Alvarez – although questions about his defensive ability could dissuade the Diamondbacks – and have a couple of solid starters in A.J. Burnett and James McDonald (to offer)." They're still pretty far down on the list of suitors he's compiled, though.
  • John Dreker of Pirates Prospects reported that Jose Tabata was willing, and even eager, to play winter ball, but Bucco management shot down the idea. His agent, Carlos Rios, was quoted as saying “We respect the decision of the Pirates but we totally disagree. Tabata needs to play to mature as a player.” Interesting choice of words, we thought.
  • Tom Singer of recapped the Arizona Fall League performances. He posted that the three guys eligible for the Rule 5 draft - Vic Black, Kyle Kaminska, and Gift Ngoepe - all made their cases for inclusion, and noted among the younger players, both Brandon Cumpton and Tyler Waldron made smooth transitions from starting to bullpen roles.
  • The Negro League Museum gave out its Legacy Awards, and Cutch added some more hardware to his collection. He won the Oscar Charleston Award as the NL's MVP after coming in third in the Baseball Writer's vote. Mike Trout took the AL honor.
  • We've questioned the way the Bucs handle their injured players, especially guys that are nicked up, but last week Baseball Prospectus found that the club lost the fewest days to injury according to TAWL - Team Adjusted Wins Lost - that measures lost WAR performance. The squad had 39 players either on the DL or listed as day-to-day, losing 764 games to injury in 2012. Neil Walker's balky back was the major blow during the season.
  • Ex-Bucco watch: RHP Octavio Dotel stayed with Detroit, LHP Paul Maholm re-signed with Atlanta, LHP Ollie Perez went to the Mariners, IF Brandon Wood signed with KC and IF Brian Bixler with the Mets.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Forty Man Roster - Rule 5 Draft

On Tuesday, the Pirates have to make some decisions about who to include on the 40-man roster in preparation for the Rule 5 draft, held at the end of the baseball meetings in Nashville on December 6th. And they've done a pretty fair job of housekeeping this season, getting the list in trim to take on a few new players. Here’s the current 40-man roster, which is now at 34 players:

Pitchers: Chad Beck, A. J. Burnett, Joel Hanrahan, Jared Hughes, Jeff Karstens, Chris Leroux, Jeff Locke, James McDonald, Kyle McPherson, Bryan Morris, Charlie Morton, Chris Resop, Wandy Rodriguez, Rick Van den Hurk, Tony Watson, Duke Welker and Justin Wilson.

Catchers: Mike McKenry.

Infielders: Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes, Chase d’Arnaud, Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Yamaico Navarro, Gaby Sanchez and Neil Walker.

Outfielders: Garrett Jones, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata.

This year, high school players picked in 2008 and college players chosen in 2009 are eligible for the Rule 5 draft. In a good news, bad news scenario, there aren't all that many hard decisions to make because neither draft has exactly churned out very many MLB ready guys. In fact, Holt, who was selected in 2009, is the only prospect from those classes already on the 40-man, and he was just added in September.

Three minor-league guys are no brainers to be included on the roster: C Tony Sanchez, RHP Phil Irwin and RHP Victor Black, all who could land in Pittsburgh sometime during 2013.

There are three others that are quite likely to be seriously considered - SS Gift Ngoepe, who has the legs and glove to stick as a bench warmer in the Pedro Ciriaco mold, RHP Kyle Kaminska, who was strong in a small sample size as a starter in the Pittsburgh system and in the Arizona Fall League after joining the club from Miami, and C Ramon Cabrera, who can hit and plays a premium position. All three could make the cut; we'd give Cabrera the best chance and Ngoepe the least of the trio.

Six guys, six spots. Seems pretty cut and dried. Well, not exactly. The FO may have a couple of guys that underperformed in the minors last year but are still on the radar. The Pirates also have to leave a space if they want to roll the Rule 5 dice again, and they haven't missed taking a shot in the Huntington era - remember Evan Meek, Donnie Veal, John Raynor, Josh Rodriguez and Gustav Nunez? So there's that.

Plus necessity requires the FO to bring in some new guys - RHP Chad Beck has already joined the roster, claimed from Toronto, and C Ali Solis, formerly of San Diego, was on the roster for a minute before being waived to the minors. There will certainly be a call for pitchers, particularly for the bullpen, Mike McKenry is the only returning catcher, there's no veteran bench presence...the Pirate to-do list goes on and on.

So Tuesday's 40-man roster will just be a snapshot in time; there will be several alterations after the draft is done. There are still a handful of players that are hanging on - Chase d'Arnaud is somewhat redundant, Rick Van den Hurk was hammered in his September outings, Matt Hague missed the September call-up, and a couple of others are marginal - and transition will be the storyline before the Bucs finalize their roster for 2013.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shopping List - Corner Infield

As far as players in place and under team control, the Pirate corners are covered for 2013 with the same three guys they ended 2012 with - Pedro, Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez.

The Pirates picked up Alvarez's $700K option (he'll be arb-eligible in 2014, voiding the Pirate option for that season). The 25-year-old hit .244 with a career-high 30 home runs and 85 RBIs in 149 games. El Toro's home run total was 10th best in the NL, though he also led Senior Circuit third basemen in errors with 27 and finished second in strikeouts with 180, whiffing at a 31% rate.

The Pirates will plug him in everyday at the hot corner, though he hasn't solved lefties yet. He had a 50 point split spread in BA and 65 points in OBP last season, roughly following his career lines. But when he's hot, he can carry a club. From June through August, he banged away at a .280 clip, but just hit .209 the start and end of the year.

It didn't affect his power numbers quite as much. During his summer streak, he 18 homers and collected 46 RBI, with a dozen dingers and 39 RBI during the months when his bat was icy. But even if it did, the Pirates sport an organizational black hole behind him. The depth chart lists Josh Harrison as his MLB back-up, and journeymen Yamaico Navarro and Dallas McPherson carried the 3B load at Indy.

There are some free agents available - Eric Chavez, Mark DeRosa, Alberto Gonzalez, Orlando Hudson, Brandon Inge, Adam Kennedy, Jeff Keppinger, Jose Lopez, Placido Polanco, Scott Rolen and Ty Wigginton are all looking for work - but we'd expect the Bucs to seek a multi-role vet for a bench spot to give Pedro an occasional blow against southpaws.

The Pirates, as we all recall, were supposed to be in on Chase Headley before the Padres pulled him off the market. His price will only go up in the off season, but he'd be an interesting addition if the Buccos are serious players for him.

First base is all about regression. Garrett Jones had a breakout year and Gaby Sanchez a breakdown season; are they trending or due to regress to their norms?

Jones, 31, made $2.25M in 2012, and earned it by hitting .274/.317/.516 with a career-best 27 homers and tying his personal high of 86 RBI. He's arbitration eligible and will at least double his salary and probably more. And there's the rub.

The 31 year old hit .289 against righties and just .189 against lefties, and that matches his lifetime splits pretty well. His age hurts him a little, but big bucks for a guy that's a 500 AB player probably strokes the FO's fur the wrong way. We'd be stunned if he wasn't tendered this year, but 2014 is another question.

The Bucs do have a couple of options. Sanchez, 29, is hoped to have a bounce back year. After a couple of seasons in the .270/19/80 range, he hit just .241 as a Bucco and .217 overall with big drops in the production department, with just 7 HR and 30 RBI in about half the at-bats he usually sees during 2012.

His splits aren't as outrageous as Jones', but he does have a 40+ point gap in BA and a 70 point gap in OBP in his lifetime slash line with a jump in power against lefties. So he and GI look like the tag team for 2013 right now, though we thought the same thing about Jones and Casey McGehee going into last season.

The joker in the deck is that Sanchez is arb eligible for the first time, and based on his strong 2010-11 years, he's likely to get an award in the $1.5-2M range. The team is expected to tender him, especially after just trading for him, but it's certainly not a slam dunk for the cost-conscious Pirates after his less-than-auspicious audition over the last two months of the season.

We think he'll be signed because the top RH first baseman in the Pirate system, Matt Hague, didn't even rate a September call-up. Matt Curry and Alex Dickerson, who should open at Indy and Altoona respectively next season, are both left-handed bats and neither appear ready for the show yet, if ever.

First base, unlike third, has a lot of options if the FO decides to wade into the market. Adam LaRouche, Nick Swisher, Mike Napoli, James Loney, Aubrey Huff, Travis Ishikawa, Casey Kotchman, Kevin Youkilis, Carlos Pena, Lance Berkman, Miguel Cairo, and Carlos Lee (maybe even Derrek) are free agents.

Names that have been tossed out on the trade market include the Angels' Kendrys Morales, Mets' Ike Davis and Boston's Mauro Gomez. The trade market looks more promising than the FA cattle call, but it's problematic that the Pirates will dedicate any large assets into improving the corners this year.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bucco News - Cutch Third, AFL Final Stats, & More

A little news on the Buccos while we wait to see who they sniff out on the market...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shopping List - Middle Infield

The Bucs have their starters penciled in up the middle for next year, with Clint Barmes at short and Neil Walker at second. Barmes had a second half resurgence to go with his $5.5M contract, and The Kid had another steady year at the dish before his back gave out in the season's closing weeks.

Barmes, 33, batted .229 with a 66 +OPS and 1.2 WAR during the season, but was a Jeckyl and Hyde, hitting .170 in the opening two months of the campaign and a more representative .255 over the last four. His glove was dependable all year, earning a career high 14.4 UZR and falling barely behind MLB SS leader Brendan Ryan's 14.7. Barmes, 33, is under contract for the 2013 season, without an option.

Jordy Mercer is the Pirates' top organizational player at the spot after Chase d'Arnaud's star dimmed, but like Pedro Ciriaco ahead of him, Clint Hurdle would rather eat nails than play him. Josh Harrison and Yamiaco Navarro are also in the mix.

Outside the organization, the battle to find a starting SS is pretty competitive. Stephen Drew and Marco Scutaro, who seems likely to re-up with the G-Men soon, are easily the head of the class. Jason Bartlett, Brian Bixler, Ronny Cedeno, Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Gonzalez, Cesar Izturis and Munenori Kawasaki are also looking for 2013 gigs.

The trade market has more upside. Elvis Andrus of the Rangers, Yunel Escobar  of the Jays, Jed Lowrie of Houston, Josh Rutledge of the Rox, Paul Janish of the Braves and Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians are all said to be available to varying degrees, and there may be a couple of possible, though unlikely, opportunities available.

Neil Walker, 27, hit the jackpot when he reached Super 2 status and will have four years of arbitration ahead of him. He could well land a $3M award for the coming season; his offensive production ranks him in the NL top five at his position while his UZR of 1.4 is his first positive fielding rating since he began his OJT in 2010.

Like Barmes, there's no one from the Pirate system ready to push him. Harrison, Mercer, Navarro and Brock Holt make up the depth chart behind him. While Walker is still on the sunny side of the street age-wise, he does have a cloud - just how bad is his back? If the Bucs are looking for outside insurance, well, the market isn't exactly overflowing.

The FA field consists of Yuniesky Betancourt, Mike Fontenot, Orlando Hudson, Kelly Johnson, Adam Kennedy, Jeff Keppinger, Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Theriot. Most would make a nice vet back-up for the Bucco bench, but there aren't very many "play everyday" names available. Chris Getz of KC, Darwin Barney of da Cubbies and Tyler Greene of the Cards are the early names thought to be on the trade block.

The middle may be set in the Bucco minds, but it's razor thin and both guys have question marks coming into 2013 - can Barmes keep his stroke around .250, and can Walker's back hold up? Hurdle may have to give up his aversion to young guys and give Mercer/Navarro some time at short and Harrison/Brock at second because there's no guarantee the infield glue will hold together for long. Walker's contract situation could play into the equation, too - if he sticks to the arb route, he could get expensive in a hurry.

We don't think the Bucs will address the middle in a meaningful manner this season, though we wouldn't be surprised to see them kick a couple of tires for a shortstop. It's more likely that they find a competent vet to plant on the bench to give the pair a break if the FO is down on the organizational guys they have.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shopping List - The Outfield

The only set piece in the Bucco outfield is Cutch, who had a breakout season and is collecting trophies like he's back in high school. He's tied up for awhile after inking a deal last season, and will earn $4.5M in 2013. The All-Star is just 26, and his $51.5M deal runs through 2017, with a $14.75M club option for 2018. 

The Pirates have Starling Marte, 24, Travis Snider, 24, Jose Tabata, 24, and Alex Presley, 27, all vying to flank Cutch. 2013's question will be if any of the four can step up and claim the positions. JT has a contract that runs through 2016 with three option years, and the others are all under team control for at least four more seasons.

They're all young, but at least a couple of them will have to grow up soon. The Bucs are hoping that Marte and Snider especially mature in a hurry.

Marte hit .257 in 182 PA, and showed some power and speed. He also had some scary splits, mauling lefties but hitting just .238 with 34 K in 132 PA against righties. The Pirates need him to develop into an everyday player, so he's going to have to learn some patience against same-siders. Hopefully, the Pirates will show some patience, too, and let him get his cuts this season as a starter.

Snider is the other upside guy that the Pirates swapped from Toronto in exchange for Brad Lincoln. But he's been in a two-year slump, with just 7 HR in 385 PA and a .236 BA. His career splits aren't all that wide, and in fact he had a reverse split last season in a barely measurable sample size against lefties. The Pirates hope that he can become an everyday guy, too, but would be satisfied in 2013 if he can rediscover his eye against righties and free up Garrett Jones to play first as a platoon team against RHP.

That leaves JT and Presley as the options for the fourth outfielder. Both have pretty even splits, with Tabata better with OBP and Presley with slugging. That gives JT an edge, as the Pirates are looking for top of the order hitters. Tabata's .315 OBP isn't ideal, but it sure beats The King's .279. Still, it should make for an interesting sidebar in the spring and may come down to JT being out of options while Presley still has one to burn.

And there are no reinforcements within hailing distance from the farm. Greg Polanco, Josh Bell and Barrett Barnes are the future in the outfield. Last year, Polanco was at Low A West Virginia, Barnes at short season State College, and Bell was hurt all season and has yet to play but a handful of pro games. The first pair will probably start 2013 in High A; it's not certain if Bell will be ready by the spring. If so, he'll start in Low A. All three should be fast-tracked if they perform, but still are looking like 2015 arrivals.

Pittsburgh is looking at a limited, as always, budget during the off season, and there are more glaring holes than the outfield to plug. So Justin Upton and Shin-Soo Choo rumors to the contrary, they'll stick with last year's dance partners in 2013 unless they package a couple of them as part of a hot stove deal. And that's unlikely, as three are minimum wage earners while JT will take home $1M.

The Pirates shopping list for the pasture will be to reach into the cupboard and cook up an outfield from existing ingredients. Three of the five are just 24, with Marte and Snider both having some potential upside as regular players. Management is going to have to decide how to break those eggs this season, unlike 2012.

The Bucs took an odd approach to the corner outfielders last year, sharing time rather than determining a pecking order during the last two months of the season. Some of it had to do with performance and some with nagging injuries. We look for Clint Hurdle to establish a routine for the guys by the time camp breaks.

The plan for 2013 doesn't include new blood, but establishing an everyday rotation for the young and controllable OF crew in black and gold, one that can carry them through the next couple of seasons or longer.