Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bucs Battered 16-6

The old maxim of working quick and throwing strikes apparently wasn't stressed in the playbook of today's Bucco pitchers. In a game that lasted 3 hours and 35 minutes, the Bucs gave up 14 singles and 15 walks, losing big despite three long balls.

It didn't start off much differently than yesterday's game, except maybe a little uglier, if that's possible. Jameson Taillon put together a couple of decent frames, but gave up a run when SS Josh Harrison threw away a DP ball that would have ended the second inning. Small thing at the time; Jared Goedert smacked a three run bomb into the wind off John Lackey to give the Bucs a 3-1 lead after two.

Then Jonathan Sanchez and Zach Foster put together a not-how-to-do-it clinic in the third and fourth frames. Sanchez had the bases juiced with an out when Harrison speared a liner, but tossed the ball away trying to finish a DP, allowing a pair to score. Sanchez then walked the next three batters and gave up a single to end with a line of 2/3 IP, 4 ER (can't anticipate the DP), 3 H, 4 W. Aye carumba! To add insult to injury, every ex-Buc reached base that frame: Brock Holt singled, and Drew Sutton, Lyle Overbay and David Ross walked. Foster K'ed Jose Iglesias to put a merciful end the inning.

The Bucs went down without making any noise in their half, and it was time for Foster's wheels to fall off. A non-roster reserve, the Bradford-born sidewinder was the Bucs 49th draft pick in 2008. He got two Bosox out, but the others got a hit and four more walks, two with the bases loaded, before Roman Colon, a veteran minor-league reserve, came in and gave up a two-run bloop to right that allowed another pair of Red Sox to score, making it 10-3. The Bucs were shut down again, with Harrison adding to his day with a DP ball.

Colon cooled down Boston in the fifth. Felix Pie kept his nice spring going; he drilled a two-run shot that cleared McKechie Field toward right center. Andy Oliver skipped out of a two-on, two out spot in the sixth by whiffing Iglesias, a player the Bucs were thought to be hot after during the Hanny talks. The Bucs went down with just a Jordy Mercer single.

Oliver ran into trouble again in the seventh, giving up back-to-back leadoff knocks and then walking two guys with one down. That brought in Justin Wilson, who gave up a sac fly and bounce out as Boston added two more runs to the tote board. The Bucs went quietly in their half. Wilson had an interesting eighth; he struck out the side, stranding a runner at third who got there via a walk (of course), wild pitch and passed ball.

Tony Watson caught whatever the other Bucco Hurlers had. After an out, he gave up singles sandwiched around a bopped batter to give Boston a baker's dozen in runs. A K was followed by another RBI knock, and then another...and yep, yet another. Clint Hurdle brought in Bryan Morris for that elusive third out. He got a whiff and became the only Bucco twirler to not allow a runner aboard via walk/hit batter. Mercer homered in the ninth to make the final 16-6.

  • The Pirates used eight pitchers today; six walked at least a batter and one hit another. Zach Foster gave up 5 runs in 1-1/3 IP; Jonathan Sanchez & Tony Watson 4 in 2/3, Andy Oliver 2 in 2/3 and Jameson Taillon 1 in 2.
  • Gaby Sanchez got a shot at third base today, the first time he's hit the hot corner since he was in the minors.
  • Travis Snider had a tough afternoon; he whiffed in all three of his at-bats.
  • Clint Hurdle was on The Morning Show of The Fan 93.7 today, and said “When people ask me a number (of wins), 95 is the number I throw out there, and people go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of-’ and I go, ‘Yeah, you’re right it’s a lot of games!’ I get it, but you know what? If we win 95, we’re going to be in a good place." Hey, aim for the stars and maybe you'll reach the sky, as they say.
  • Will MLB ban home plate collisions at home as it does on the bases? Not right away, it seems, but there is some momentum building toward it, writes John Terbush of The Week.

Bucs - Bosox

OK, the Buccos are ending the month with the Beaneaters at McKechnie Field. Jameson Taillon gets the nod to start on the bump today. John Lackey, returning from Tommy John surgery, takes the ball for Boston. No radio this afternoon.

Lineup: Alex Presley CF, Jose Tabata LF, Travis Snider RF, Brandon Inge DH, Clint Robinson 1B, Jared Goedert 3B, Josh Harrison SS, Tony Sanchez C and Chase d'Arnaud 2B.

Raise your hand if you thought you'd see the day when Josh Harrison bumped Chase d'Arnaud off SS.

Pitchers: Jameson Taillon, Jonathan Sanchez, Justin Wilson, Ryan Reid, Kyle Waldrop, and Tony Watson.

With Taillon and Wilson on the hill, two of Pittsburgh's brighter prospects are on display today. Sanchez has been sharp in camp, too, as he looks to be recovered from an injury-filled 2012 campaign while he looks for a spot in the rotation.

  • Michael Barr of Fangraphs discusses the Pirate pitching depth; doesn't sound as if he's all that impressed with the back end.
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects reports that OF Josh Bell, out with a bum knee all of last season, is 100% now. He started training without limitation in December and looks good to go this year. 
  • Brock Holt, traded to Boston in the Hanny deal, is batting second and is getting a long look as a bench guy for the Red Sox. Drew Sutton is in the lineup, too.
  • Beat reporters Bill Brink and Rob Biertempfel report that MLPA Exec Director Michael Weiner has no problems with Bob Nutting's pocketbook, saying "Over the last couple of years, the Pirates have made a sincere effort to compete, payroll has increased and projects to continue to increase."
  • This day in history, 1903 - Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss and James Potter led a syndicate to buy the Phillies from John Rogers and A. J. Reach for $170,000. It took another seven years before owning more than one team was prohibited by baseball.
  • And in 1986 - Commissioner Peter Ueberroth gave seven players who were admitted drug users, including Pirates Dave Parker and Dale Berra, a choice of a year's suspension without pay or heavy fines (10% of their salary) and career-long drug testing‚ along with 100 hours of drug-related community service as a result of the Pittsburgh Cocaine trial.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bucs Blunder Into 8-2 Loss To Rays

Welp, it sure looked like spring training today - for a liitle league team. The Bucs booted four balls on the way to an 8-2 defeat at the hands of Tampa. 

Neil Walker started the game with a bad throw to let the first runner that AJ Burnett faced this spring, Ben Zobrist, get aboard. Burnett helped himself out of that jam by picking off Zobrist, who he caught leaning, and cruised the rest of the frame. Not so the second.

A couple of ground ball singles, a solid knock, a couple of errors (by Pedro and RF Brad Hawpe) and a wild pitch gave the Rays a 4-0 lead. The Bucs put runners on the corners in their half with one away on a Pedro two bagger and Gaby Sanchez knock, but Jeremy Hellickson whiffed Hawpe and the Fort to end the frame without any damage. Wandy came on and gave up a two-out, run producing double to Luke Scott. The fourth went quietly, with six up, six down.

Gerrit Cole came on in the fifth and walked lead-off hitter Desmond Jennings. It's pretty apparent that Cole has Bucco bloodlines just by watching his meticulous delivery. Jennings stole second and third off Cole and scored on a sac fly to make it 6-0. He worked the sixth, yielding a single to left by Jose Molina. The Bucs got on the board when JT led off with a double and came home after a two down knock through the right side by Matt Hague.

Jason Grilli gave up a pair of runs on three hits and yet another error, a wayward pickoff toss. JT got one of those runs back with another leadoff double, coming around on an Alex Presley knock. Jared Hughes gave up a leadoff triple to open the ninth, but three swinging K kept the Rays at bay. The Bucs left a leadoff walk at first, and Tampa iced an 8-2 win.

That's how spring goes. The guys in competition come in sharp and ready to compete; the guys that are set slowly work their way into game shape. Bill Brink of the Post Gazette tweeted that Burnett was working with just a fastball/changeup combo today, no slurve/curveball, and said he might not mix his breaker in until his third start. That's the kind of luxury the fringe guys don't have.

The Red Sox will close out February with a 1:05 visit to McKechnie Field tomorrow. Jameson Taillon will start for Pittsburgh.

  • Tom Singer in his blog Change For A Nickle examines what kind of offer Pittsburgh might have to make to ink long-term deals with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez along with a couple of potential scenarios.
  • USA Today's Paul White writes that some of the Canadian WBC players (ie, Justin Morneau) are unhappy with Russell Martin's decision to skip the tourney. Martin's reply (warning - crude language alert): "I know people are going to be pissed," he said. "If Morneau is pissed he can go catch and I'll play first base."
  • Martin told Tom Singer of that he feels "much better today," and thought that his soreness was from "rushing warm-ups" on Sunday.
  • ESPN's Buster Olney (Insider pay article) claims the Pirates have the most difficult April schedule of any NL team, just like last year. 33 of the Bucs' first 42 games come against teams that had a record of .500 or better in 2012.

Bucs - Rays

The Bucs were rained out yesterday, so Wandy Rodriguez and Andrew Oliver, the scheduled starters, will join AJ Burnett and Gerrit Cole today against Tampa at McKechnie Field. None have tossed a spring game yet. First pitch is at 1:05; the game isn't on radio.

Lineup: Starling Marte LF, Neil Walker 2B, Andrew McCutchen CF, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Garrett Jones 1B, Gaby Sanchez DH, Brad Hawpe RF, Mike McKenry C and Clint Barmes SS.

This is pretty much the lineup that got rained out yesterday; the big boys get a little work today. Don't expect to see them in the lineup a lot early. Spring training started earlier a bit because it's a WBC year, so the fringe guys will get a longer than normal look in camp before Clint Hurdle feeds the big dogs.

Pitchers:  A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Gerrit Cole and Andy Oliver. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Jared Hughes.

Hey, it's not often you get to see your top two pitchers and #1 minor league prospect go back-to-back-to-back, especially in the same game.

  • C Russell Martin has shoulder soreness and will get a couple of days off. Ron Biertempfel of the Tribune Review said the backstop told him that it's “Just the normal aches and pains of being a catcher”and not related to any incident at camp. Maybe that practice at SS wasn't such a good thing.
  • Clint Hurdle has been working on Starling Marte's command of the strike zone by using hot charts, according to Mike Ferrin of Baseball Prospectus.
  • John Perrotto, writing for the Herald Standard, interviewed the rehabbing Charlie Morton. He says that his the tentative timetable for his return is still sometime in June. 
  • This day in Bucco history: In 1948, 3B Pie Traynor was elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers. The infielder spent his entire 17-year career with the Pirates, where he compiled a .320 lifetime batting average and never had a season where he struck out more than 28 times. Traynor was best known for his glove at third where he recorded 2,288 putouts and started 308 double plays. He was inducted on July 12th.
  • And in 2006, Homestead Gray player, manager and owner Cumberland “Cum” Posey was elected to the Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, along with 1B/3B Jud Wilson of the Grays/Pittsburgh Crawfords and RHP Ray Brown, also of the Grays. Included in the class was OF Pete Hill, born in Pittsburgh and who first played for the Pittsburgh Keystones. They were inducted on July 30th.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bucs Rained Out

The Bucs and O's were rained out today. A.J. Burnett will start tomorrow as scheduled, followed by Wandy Rodriguez, Gerrit Cole and Andy Oliver. Wandy and Oliver were scheduled to go today.

Their opponent will be the Tampa Rays, with game time at 1:05 at McKechnie Field.

Bucs Face O's

Get used to the Baltimore Orioles; the Bucs face them seven times in GL competition. Wandy Rodriguez gets his first spring action at McKechnie Park, opening the first of three consecutive home matches. Today's game isn't on local radio; you'll have to find a computer to follow them.

Lineup: Starling Marte LF, Russell Martin C, Andrew McCutchen CF, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Neil Walker 2B, Garrett Jones 1B, Gaby Sanchez DH, Brad Hawpe 9 and Clint Barmes SS.

Hmmm... Russell Martin is back in the two hole. We don't expect to see much more of that come April, though it is a commentary on how few top-of-the-order guys Pittsburgh has on its current roster. Jordy Mercer hit second yesterday.

Pitchers: Wandy Rodriguez, Andrew Oliver, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Hunter Strickland, Duke Welker and Mike Zagurski.

It's our first peep ay Wandy and LHP Andy Oliver, the power arm the Bucs picked up from the Tigers for C Ramon Cabrero in December.

  • Wandy Rodriguez is slated for one more spring start before joining the Dominican team for the WBC. Jason Grilli (Italy) and Chris Leroux (Canada) are the other active roster players in the tourney.
  • Kyle McPherson only threw 15 pitches in his two inning stint against the Twins, but the Bucs didn't give him a third, as they did for Jeff Locke on Sunday. They're breaking him in genty after McPherson was shut down in winter ball with tendinitis.
  • Jim Krug of Sports Web has the Bucs 2013 preview. He questions the team's direction, saying " least 3-4 AAA prospects with some ceiling will be blocked by veterans with no remaining projection."
  • For you guys that would like a look at what's happening at Pirate City instead of Bradenton, Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects has a complete list of all the minor-league players at camp.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bucs Drop First 5-4

The Bucs and Twins played a see-saw game in Florida today, with the Minnies scoring with two down in the bottom of the eighth. 1B Chris Colabella doubled home Brandon Boggs to score the winner in a 5-4 decision. Kris Johnson took the loss.

The Pirates tried to came back one more time, with hits by Ivan DeJesus and Chase d'Arnaud in the ninth. Unfortunately, they were sandwiched around an around-the-horn DP banged into by Darren Ford after failing to bunt DeJesus to second, and JT's fly to right ended the afternoon's festivities.

Pittsburgh scored first when Anderson Hernandez and Jordy Mercer singled to put runners on the corners and Travis Snider lifted a sac fly to center in the third inning. They added another run the next frame when Felix Pie's two-out knock brought home Garrett Jones.

But Jeanmar Gomez couldn't stand success. After a leadoff single, he walked the next two Twins on eight pitches. Justin Moreau cleaned the sacks with a double to left center and later came in to give the Twin Cities a 4-2 lead.

The Pirates got a run back in the fifth when Snider hit another sac fly, this time after back-to-back knocks by Alex Presley and Mercer. Bryan Augenstine escaped further damaged when Jerry Sands's liner to third was snagged by Jamey Carroll, who caught Mercer off to the races for the DP. Jose Tabata took one yard over the left center field fence in the seventh to tie the score, but it wouldn't be enough.

Kyle McPherson tossed a pair of innings, giving up a hit while hitting 95 on the gun, though his stat line was saved when Jones went up to snare a liner at first and turn it into a DP. So far, Pittsburgh's starting pitchers have thrown seven scoreless innings after the first three Grapefruit League games. Chris Leroux, Phil Irwin, Ryan Reid and Brooks Brown also put up goose eggs in one frame stints today.

Wandy Rodriguez makes his first start of the spring when the Bucs entertain the Orioles at 1:05 tomorrow at McKechnie Field.

Bucs - Twins

Today, the Bucs travel to Fort Myers to take on the Twins. The game starts at 1:05 and will be aired by The Fan 93.7. Kyle McPherson will start for the Bucs against Minnesota's Vance Worley.

The Lineup: Alex Presley CF, Jordy Mercer SS, Travis Snider RF,  Jerry Sands DH, Garrett Jones 1B, Matt Hague 3B, Tony Sanchez C, Felix Pie LF and Anderson Hernandez 2B.

A shook up spring lineup, and we're glad to be getting looks at Tony Sanchez and Jerry Sands.

The Pitchers: Kyle McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez, Phil Irwin, Erik Cordier, Chris Leroux, Kris Johnson, Kyle Waldrop and Ryan Reid will make the trip.

Some interesting guys today. McPherson is battling for a spot on the rotation. Kris Johnson had a breakout year in the minors and winter ball after a journeyman career and hopes to keep the good times rollin'. Gomez was picked up from the Indians and is out of options, while Irwin was last year's pleasant surprise at Indy.

  • Danny Knobler of CBS Sports looks at the Pirate future and specifically Gerrit Cole's role in it. He posts "I'm not saying Cole is Verlander, and I'm not saying the Pirates are going to the World Series. But getting the most out of talent like Gerrit Cole is the way they could get there."
  • Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus is out with its Top 100 Prospects, and the usual five Buccos are on it: Gerrit Cole (3), Jameson Taillon (11), Gregory Polanco (44), Luis heredia (53) and Alen Hansen (66).
  • Minnesota's camp will have a familiar look to Bucco fans. Their 40-man roster has P Kevin Correia, P Tim Wood and C Ryan Doumit on it, while non-roster invitees are 2012 Pirate farm hands P Shairon Martis, C/OF Eric Fryer, 1B Jeff Clement and OF Brandon Boggs. 
  • As bad as they've been over the last two decades, Chris Jaffe of The Hardball Times noted that it's been 40,000 days (August 25th, 1903) since Pittsburgh's all-time cumulative franchise record was under .500. They’re still 104 games over going into this season, though if they continue recent trends, they'll fall back to .500 around 2017 or so.
  • First big injury of the year goes to the Yankees' Curtis Granderson. He broke his arm yesterday when he was plunked by a JA Happ pitch, and may be looking at 10 weeks off. Because of the injury, Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has a lengthy list of potential replacements, which include Jose Tabata as well as former Bucs Gorkys Hernandez and Xavier Paul.
  • Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors wrote of FA pitcher Kyle Lohse "Looking at the field, I'd say that the Cardinals seem like the most logical candidate, with the Pirates, Orioles, Brewers, Indians, Padres, Angels, Rangers and (only because of the Boras factor) Nationals as longshots." Jon Heyman of CBS Sports doesn't believe the Bucs are interested; Lohse is 34 and would cost the club a first-round pick in the draft.

This Week In Pirate History

Happy birthdays, bad contracts and odd 'n' ends:

February 20 - Happy birthday to a couple of Bucco stalwarts, All-Star third sacker and Oakland restaurateur Frankie Gustine (1920-1991), and the guy who put relievers on the map, the Baron of the Bullpen ElRoy Face (1928).

February 20, 1999 - The Pirates signed free agent SS Pat Meares to a $1.5M contract. In April, they extended the deal through the 2003 season for $15M. He broke his hand early in 1999, had surgery, and was out of baseball by 2002, having played 240 games for the Bucs and hitting .238.

February 21, 2011 - Seven new members of the College Baseball Hall of Fame were announced, including Duke and Bucco SS Dick Groat, who became the first player ever inducted into both the college basketball and college baseball halls.

February 23 - Happy birthday to early Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss (1865-1932) and OF Bobby “Bo” Bonilla (1963).

February 23, 1888 - RHP James "Pud" Galvin signed with Pittsburgh for $3,000, including $1,000 in advance. The club offered him $3,500 with no front money, but Galvin needed the grand to carry him through the off season. “Gentleman Jeems” ended up in the Hall of Fame; he was a much better pitcher than financial planner.

February 23, 2000 - The Bucs dealt Al Oliver to the San Diego Padres for OF John Vander Wal‚ and pitchers Jim Sak and Geraldo Padua. Oliver spent a decade with the Bucs putting up a slash of .296/.335/.717, and would play eight more years before retiring.

February 23, 2004 - The Pirates signed free agent OF Raul Mondesi to a $1.15M contract. He left the team in May to fight a lawsuit in his native Dominican Republic, didn’t return, and was released for breach of contract. Mondesi suspiciously signed another deal with the Angels a few days later, but was out of baseball in 2005.

February 24 - Two Pirate greats were born on this date: On the short list of elite shortstops, Hall of Famer Honus Wagner (1874-1955) was born in Chartiers, now a part of Carnegie. And maybe the best Bucco pitcher of all time, RHP Wilbur Cooper (1892-1973), was born in Bearsville, WV. Cooper tossed for 13 years in Pittsburgh, winning 202 games, the most in team history, with a 2.74 ERA. They were teammates for several years toward the end of Wagner’s career and the start of Cooper’s.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Buc Bench Rolls Over Braves 9-2

Well, two games in and the pitching has held its end of the bargain, as should be the case this early in the spring. The Pirates supported the effort from the hill by breaking the game open in the sixth, led by the guys battling for jobs.

Pittsburgh drew first blood in the fifth. After being going scoreless against Julio Teheran and Sean Gilmartin, Clint Barmes opened the scoring with a two run blast to left with Gaby Sanchez aboard off Johnny Venters. Jason Heyward cut the lead in half when he crushed one to straightaway center off Mark Melancon, making it 2-1. And no, they were both legit; the Florida breeze was blowing in today.

The Bucs put it away the next inning against David Carpenter. The regulars were out by that point, and the guys looking to fill out the roster took over. The first five Pirates - Matt Hague, Felix Pie, Ivan DeJesus, Clint Robinson and Brad Hawpe - got aboard and they all scored, with RBI knocks by DeJesus, Robinson, and Hawpe, whose single plated a pair. Darren Ford singled him home two outs later, and it was 7-1, time for the Fat Lady to get off her surfboard and start singing.

The Bucs scored twice more in the eighth on a Ford groundout and a Pie walk with the bases juiced. The Bravos added another run on Tyler Pastornicky's two out infield single off Justin Wilson to make the final 9-2.

Ford, Robinson - who spent time in the cage this morning with Mike Paglirarulo, Indy's batting coach - and Barmes had a pair of knocks. James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez tossed two shutout frames each, while Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson (who gave up a pair of hits) also threw goose eggs.

So far, so good. The Pirates travel to Fort Myers tomorrow to face the Minnesota Twins with Kyle McPherson on the bump. Game time is 1:05, with the contest aired on The Fan 93.7.

GL Home Opener

OK, one down and a bunch to go. The Bucs won their Grapefruit League opener 3-2 against Tampa yesterday with the usual camp mix of good and bad, and will try to build on the victory today at McKechnie Field against the Atlanta Braves. The game starts at 1:05 and will be aired on KDKA-AM 1020.

All eyes will be on RHP James McDonald as he tries to rebound from his post-All Star personal apocalypse. J-Mac told Bill Brink of the Post Gazette that "It's good to have stuff, but if you can pitch, that's way better." Took awhile for that epiphany to occur, but maybe the light has finally flipped on. Atlanta will start Julio Teheran.

Lineup: Starling Marte LF, Russell Martin C, Andrew McCutchen CF, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Neil Walker 2B, Gaby Sanchez 1B, Brandon Inge DH, Jose Tabata RF, Clint Barmes SS.

Interesting lineup, especially with Martin hitting from the two-hole and JT in the eight spot, almost a complete flip from what you'd expect. And Pedro is at cleanup instead of his usual #6 spot. El Toro is also the only lefty in Clint Hurdle's first LHP platoon batting order (which is odd, given that Teheran's a righty; maybe he wants to see what the boys can do against same-side pitching). Spring may be a slog for fans and media, but it's also time for Hurdle to play around with his options in a way he couldn't during the season.

Pitchers: James McDonald, Justin Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Ryan Reid.

  • J-Mac went 9-3/2.37 in his first 110 IP last year; his slash was 3-5/7.52 in his final 61 frames to finish 12-8/4.21. He only got the call once after September 14th, and that was in relief.
  • Tom Singer in his blog Change For A Nickel writes that Russell Martin will forego his roster spot in the WBC. Singer cites both Martin's reluctance to begin the game grind behind the plate so early in the year and the Pirates wish that he stay in camp to work with the staff.
  • Today will be the first game of the year for Cutch, Clint Barmes, Russell Martin and The Kid; they sat out the season-opening scrimmage and yesterday's spring lid lifter.
  • In an oddity, Tom Singer of noted that the Bucs play 32 spring games, and 28 are against AL teams. 
  • The Braves lost to the Mets yesterday 8-3. But former Buc Paul Maholm looked good, putting up two goose egg innings.

Right Field Rumble

The most interesting battle that will be waged in camp is for the right field/fourth outfielder spot. Cucth is untouchable in center, Starling Marte will get a long leash in left, and that leaves Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Jerry Sands duking it out for what are likely two remaining positions; Garrett Jones can serve as the fifth outfielder, if ever needed.

We know what Cutch brings to the table. The 26 year old should only improve, and even if he regresses some at the plate, setting a baseline of .295/25/80 with 90-100 runs and 20-25 stolen bases is reasonable. He has a stranglehold on the three hole in the lineup.

Marte has generated the most heat among Pirate prospects since, well, Cutch.  He showed flashes last season with a .257/.300/.437 line and 12 stolen bases in 47 games. The first full season is a leavening pit for even the most touted rookie, but the Bucs seem prepared to throw him in the fire this year.

That leaves the gang of four. Snider, 25, is said to have the inside track, and last year, after he came over in the Brad Lincoln deal, Hurdle put together a lot of lineup cards with Marte at leadoff and Snider in the two hole. He's not ideal for the spot, and his power numbers took a tumble as his slugging % dropped to an all time personal MLB low of .328, not an average you'd associate with a corner outfielder.

But that may be an adjustment to becoming a top of the order guy - his OBP was his best since 2008 at .324. Still, he has to improve his .250 BA, show lots more gap power, work on pumping his 10% walk rate up a bit and cut down on the 23% K rate he had in Pittsburgh. There is the suspicion that he played hurt with a sore hammy much of the time, and Clint Hurdle didn't give him much down time to recover. So 2013 should be a clean slate for him after a tumultuous 2012 season.

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs wrote of the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh "If he can’t walk or make more contact in the majors, then you like it for the Jays. But if you think that Snider can trim the strikeouts while keeping the power, then you might feel that Alex Anthopolous just made a bad trade." That's what the Pirates need to find out this year.

JT has been going downhill since he hit .299 in 2010, batting .266 in 2011 and just .243 last season. He had a .347 OBP in his first two years, but just .315 in 2012. But he's 24, and his greatest hurdle still seems to be maturity. Tabata was hurt last year - tight legs will likely be a career-long problem with him because of his body build - and commendably tried to play through it, but by reducing his game speed. Playing hurt and going at a trot isn't a very wise path to choose on the MLB road.

The Bucs sent him down and he recovered his wheels. In September, in a very small sample of 39 AB, he hit .333 with a .422 OBP, ideal numbers for the top of the order. Ah, but that maturity thing - he wanted to play winter ball, but the Pirate FO, acting like adults for a change, made him stay home to work on conditioning. We'll see how that pays off this season.

Presley, 27, won the left field spot coming out of camp in 2012, but a line of .237/.279/.405 disabused the Bucs of that notion fairly quickly. He got a pretty good look, getting in 104 games with 370 PA, and kinda confirmed what everyone suspected: he's a MLB fourth outfielder. He brings decent speed, hustle and a good glove to the team, but a 5% walk rate coupled with a 19% whiff rate makes him a tough player to plug into the top of the order with any regularity.

Sands, 25, is a guy the Bucs had an eye on; Clint Hurdle said they tried to get him last year (probably during the short-lived Drew Sutton era) and was a key piece of the Joel Hanrahan trade. The minor league basher is hoped to give the Bucs a RH stick in right field. LA gave him a 61 game audition in 2010, and he was OK, putting up a 103 OPS+ but without the power they expected. He was buried last season by the Dodgers (he had to stay in AAA as a PTBNL), and Boston quickly flipped him to Pittsburgh.

He's not a top of the order player, nor did the Bucs get him to be one. If he plays, Neil Walker has to go back to the two hole, where he hit for a third of the season in 2012, and Sands will likely bat sixth.

The logistics seem to make the final cuts fairly straightforward. All four are on the 40-man roster, but Presley and Sands have an option remaining while Tabata and Snider don't. And don't forget Felix Pie, who is also a capable fourth outfield insurance policy at Indy.

The Pirates have a lot of depth in the position, but a lot of question marks, too - Cutch is the only proven commodity. We expected a couple of minor deals to clear the upcoming logjam, but it looks like the Bucs are gonna sit tight for awhile and see how outfield shakes out before making a move.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bucs Sign Contreras

The Bucs signed 41 year old Jose Contreras to a minor league contract and invite to camp. Oh, he's recovering from UCL and flexor pronator tendon surgery from June, and will rehab during spring training.

In the past three seasons, Contreras has pitched 101 games in relief, with a 3.74 ERA and 9.1 K per nine in 84-1/3 innings. He first hit the headlines in 2003 after defecting from Cuba to sign with the NY Yankees. He was an All-Star in 2006, when he won 13 games for the Chicago White Sox, where he had his best years as a starter, winning 15 games in 2005.

He tried to come back last season after 2011 surgery, but blew out his arm in Philly after a handful of innings. For all his hype, Contreras is 78-67 during his 10 year career, with a 4.55 ERA and 9 K per nine. Maybe the Bucs decided that Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton needed an amigo while on the mend.

Given his age, prior arm blowout last year and the fact he's had two surgeries in two seasons, we'd be surprised if he's ready to go anytime before the All-Star game. But he told Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review that he's already thrown three times off mound. "My arm will tell when I'm ready, and then I'll go from there."

As we've noted, the Bucs love to collect. And we admit that they have a pretty good eye for picking up bullpen arms. Time will tell if Contreras is one of those low cost but useful guys who the FO has used in the past to add veteran depth and deadline trade bait. One thing's for sure - with Liriano, Sanchez and now Contreras, the Buc profile for pitching has made a sea change to adding power arms. The soft-tossing days are a thing of the past.

Bucs Win 3-2

Hey, they say the pitching starts out stronger than the hitting at camp, and it sure looked it today. The Bucs won 3-2 against the Rays, with standout pitching from Jeff Locke and a key three-bagger by Felix Pie.

Locke went three hitless frames with a walk, a whiff and a bunch of ground outs; in fact, none of his 33 pitches went past the infield. Bryan Morris, Mike Zagurski, Duke Welker and Brooks Brown tossed hitless frames, while Chris Leroux worked out of a two on jam.

The runs surrendered came in fairly typical February style. Vin Mazzaro balked after a two-out walk and single to put runners at second and third. Ford lost the third out in the Florida sun to allow the runs. Pirate pitching allowed four hits with three walks and six K over the day.

Pie's sixth inning triple chased Chase d'Arnaud home, followed by Pie plating on a Darren Ford knock. The other run came in on some nice baserunning by Travis Snider, who delayed on the basepaths long enough to allow Starling Marte to score on a Garrett Jones bounce out to first.

The Bucs host Atlanta tomorrow at 1:05.

Grapefruit Opener: Bucs Visit Rays

Today opens the Grapefruit League for the Bucs, as they'll hit the road to visit the Tampa Rays and Roberto Hernandez. First pitch is at 1:05 and will aired by KDKA The Fan, 93.7.
  • The lineup: Starling Marte LF, Alex Presley CF, Travis Snider RF, Garrett Jones 1B, Pedro Alvarez 3B, Brad Hawpe DH, Mike McKenry C, Josh Harrison 2B, Chase d'Arnaud SS.
  • The pitchers: LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Chris Leroux, RHP Bryan Morris, LHP Mike Zagurski, RHP Duke Welker, RHP Vin Mazzaro and RHP Brooks Brown, with RHP Ryan Reid serving as the bullpen. Locke and Leroux, who has lobbied to start, are scheduled for two innings each.
It's early; Cutchen, The Kid, JT, Russell Martin, and Clint Barmes will be spared the bus ride and stay in camp today. Most should debut against Atlanta tomorrow.

  • Kyle McPherson had the same injury as Jeff Karstens, biceps tendinitis, during winter ball. He told Tom Singer of that it took a couple of months for it to clear up and several more weeks to get back to 100% on the mound. 
  • Francisco Liriano told Bill Brink of the Post Gazette that he hopes to start playing catch and running around the first week of March. He's been throwing the ball on level ground, but still needs someone with him to catch it.
  • Michael Barr of Fangraphs takes a look at the Buc outfield, and says "center is obviously sealed, left field is probably sewn up, and right field, which is kind of a mess, is the one to watch."
  • Some old Buccos in Florida to help coach up the club: Mike LaValliere, Manny Sanguillen, Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski. Steve Blass is also around, repping Root Sports.
  • The new McKechnie Field will be on display for the GL home opener against the Braves and Julio Teheran. It's now 2,000 seats bigger, the scoreboard has been renovated, and it has a new boardwalk.
  • Ben Nicholson Smith of Major League Trade Rumors has a table that shows the effect of call-up dates on team control. Gerrit Cole, who was smooth in yesterday's scrimmage, has to cool his heels at Indy til mid-June if the FO wants to avoid having him become a Super Two player and arb eligible for four years rather than three. He'll be under team control through 2018 if he earns an eventual spot on this year's roster.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bucs Get After It Today

The Bucs kick off their spring with a 5-1/2 inning game today at noon in a Black-Gold scrimmage.

The lineups:

Gold: Starling Marte LF, Jose Tabata CF, Matt Hague 3B, Gaby Sanchez 1B, Brad Hawpe DH, Jordy Mercer SS, Tony Sanchez C, Ivan DeJesus 2B. Darren Ford CF, Jameson Taillon RHP. Also set to toss an inning are RHPs Kyle Waldrop, Hunter Strickland and Erik Cordier.

Black: Alex Presley CF, Chase d'Arnaud SS, Jerry Sands RF, Clint Robinson 1b, Brandon Inge DH, Jared Goedert 3B, Josh Harrison 2B, Mike McKenry C, Felix Pie LF, Gerrit Cole RHP. The other pitchers slated to see action are LHP Kris Johnson and RHP Vic Black who get the last two frames.

Interesting match-up to open camp: Gerrit Cole takes on Jameson Taillon in an audition of future top-enders, and they're scheduled to work a pair of innings. Also, as to be expected, the guys that form the core - Cutch, The Kid, Pedro, Russell Martin, Garrett Jones and Clint Barmes - will be cheerleaders today. The game highlights will be broadcast, we assume, by the Twitter gang at McKechnie Field.

(POST GAME EDIT - Cole, 2IP, 1H, 0R, 0BB, 1K; Taillon, 2IP, 2H, 0R, 0BB, 3K. Vic Black walked three guys, not helping his darkhorse chances. Robinson didn't help his cause either with three whiffs. Marte had a two run blast off Waldron, DeJesus tripled, Presley had a couple of hits, and Pie turned a walk into a smallball run thanks to steal and sac fly in the 2-2 tie.)

  • Clint Hurdle has his weekend rotation set. Saturday's exhibition opener, on the road against the Rays, will feature LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Chris Leroux, RHP Bryan Morris, LHP Mike Zagurski, RHP Duke Welker, RHP Vin Mazzaro and RHP Brooks Brown, with RHP Ryan Reid in reserve. RHP Roberto Hernandez, aka Fausto Carmona, will start for the Rays.
  • For Sunday's home opener against Atlanta, RHP James McDonald, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, RHP Jason Grilli, RHP Mark Melancon, LHP Tony Watson, RHP Jared Hughes and LHP Justin Wilson will take the bump. RHP Julio Teheran will start for the Braves. Both games start at 1:05 PM and will be broadcast on KDKA (Saturday on 93.7, Sunday on 1020).
  • Ivan DeJesus has bowed out of the WBC and will work on winning a roster spot in Florida.
  • As we're sure you've heard, Hurdle confirmed that AJ Burnett will get the Opening Day start on April 1st against the Cubs, with Wandy Rodriguez next.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Push For The Pine

It looks like the most spirited competition in camp, at least off the mound, will be for the 2013 bench spots. There are five guys that ride the pine, and three are gimmes at this point: C Mike McKenry, 1B Gaby Sanchez/Garrett Jones, and OF Jose Tabata/Travis Snider.

That leaves two openings, one for a middle infielder and the other for a corner player. Quite a cast is auditioning for those roster slots.

1B Clint Robinson, 28, and OF Jerry Sands, 25, both may have a future in Pittsburgh after putting up sterling AAA lines. But this year, given that they have minor league options to burn and the Pirates have big league options for their positions, both will probably open the year at Indy. They may be part of the Bucco blueprint down the line.

IF Anderson Hernandez, 30, and 3B Jason Goedert, 27, are minor league insurance policies who shouldn't embarrass themselves in any brief MLB stints. And that's their present purpose, to serve as short term stopgaps.

Veteran OF/1B Brad Hawpe, 33, is trying to resurrect his career after an extended layoff, while the thrill is gone from IF Chase d'Arnaud, 26, and 1B Matt Hague, 27.

That leaves returning reserves UT Josh Harrison, 25, and SS Jordy Mercer, 26, and they should be considered frontrunners. Ivan DeJesus, 25, and long-time Tiger Brandon Inge, 35,  are both knocking at the door, though, and could make for an interesting race for 25-man roster claims this spring.

First, they're all pretty similar with the stick, which is to say that's why they're on the bench. Here's their 2012 slashes and their projected 2013 Steamer lines (from Fangraphs):

  • Josh Harrison (.233/.279/.345 - 2012, .254/.296/.374 - Steamer 2013) 
  • Jordy Mercer (.210/.265/..371 - 2012, .231/.282/.350 - Steamer 2013)
  • Brandon Inge (.218/.275/.383 - 2012, .222/.302/.364 - Steamer 2013)
  • Ivan DeJesus (.220/.267/.293 - 2012, .242/..295/.335 - Steamer 2013)

As you can see, there's not much offensive spread (or threat) from the group, at least not enough to separate anyone from the pack, although Harrison does have the edge. The OPS+ are pretty similar - Inge (81), Mercer (76), Harrison (74) and DeJesus (54 - ouch!), all sub-par. Inge wins the WAR wars, too, with a 1.6 in 2012. Mercer had an 0.4, Harrison an 0.3, and DeJesus a -0.2.

D-WAR also breaks in Inge's favor. In 2012, his was 10.1, Mercer's 2.7, Harrison's -0.1 and DeJesus' -0.6.

Judging by the line, it should be a three-way fight for the two spots, with DeJesus' slash and projections making him the odd man out.  But each one has something going for him.

Harrison has been on the roster for two years, and is the kind of high energy, multi-purpose  guy that Clint Hurdle seems comfortable with. Mercer is the only true middle infielder in the group, and he does have some pop in his stick. Inge is a nice gloveman at the hot corner and has a strong split against lefties, making him a perfect caddy for Pedro. DeJesus could make a run with a strong camp; he may just now be at full strength after breaking his leg in 2009 and missing time with a torn muscle in 2012.

And, of course, they all have reasons that they could be sent down. Harrison has improved his fielding greatly, but still is strongest at third; he's below average in range and leather up the middle. Mercer may be better off getting some regular play at Indy to begin the season if he's to compete for a starting spot in 2014. Inge is coming off a season when two teams released him as he descends down the far side of the hill. DeJesus is a proven AAA player (.298/.370/.398 career) but put up those numbers in the hit-happy PCL and western leagues, plus has never quite recovered from his leg injury.

Logistics may play a hand in the decisions, too. All four can be safely sent to the minors, but only Harrison and Mercer are on the 40-man roster. If Inge or DeJesus earn a spot, someone has to go. Inge also, as a MLB free agent signed to a minor league deal, has the right to opt out of his deal on June 1st if he's not on the roster. 

The Bucs haven't really done much to beef up the bench; the heavy hitting will still be done by whichever outfielder/first baseman combo is off that night. Still, they do have some strong glove guys in Mercer & Inge and a proven bench commodity with Harrison. DeJesus is the weakest of the group on paper, but a good spring could earn him a look. It'll be interesting to see what grouping Clint Hurdle prefers. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pitching Notes

Pitching is the name of the game...

  • Jeff Karstens was limited to tossing off flat ground the past couple of sessions and will miss his early live pitching slot because of bicep tightness. Neither he nor the Bucs seem concerned, shrugging it off to pre-season rust and some chilly weather.
  • Mike Sanserino of the Post Gazette reports that the Bucs believe it's Jason Grilli's time to shine.
  • Carson Cistulli of Fangraphs projects RHP Kyle McPherson as the #2 rookie pitcher entering the league this season. If he makes the roster, that is... 
  • Keith Law of ESPN had earlier selected Gerrit Cole as a Top 20 impact rookie.
  • RHP Vic Black, one of the top Pirate back-end prospects who features some nasty heat and an intimidating Mohawk, told Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review that his secret
  • David Miller of Rant Sports wonders if Kris Johnson's moment has arrived. Maybe not yet, but the lefty has put himself on the Pirate radar.
  • John Morosi of Fox Sports thinks Kyle Lohse would be a clutch addition to the Bucs, even as he notes they've shown no interest in the righty. Between the draft pick compensation and his salary (he turned down $13M to become a FA), we don't expect the FO to take the bait.
  • Pittsburgh has five of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects. Three are pitchers - Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia.
  • MLB this year has taken the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff off the books so that now you have to throw directly to third or it's a balk. The O's Buck Showalter thinks it'll have an impact; we're not so sure.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

This Week In Pirate History

AJ trade, lockout, retired numbers,  HoF, Wheaties, Nellie Briles, Kevin McClatchy...

February 13, 1974 - OF James "Cool Papa" Bell was named to the Hall of Fame by the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues. He played for both the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, and was inducted on August 12th.

February 13, 2005 - RHP Nelson Briles, who was part of the Pirates 1971 World Series club, died at age 61 in Orlando, Florida, after suffering a heart attack at a Pirates alumni golf tournament. In his game five start in the Series against the Orioles, Briles pitched a two-hit, complete game 4-0 shutout, also driving in a run with a second inning single. He pitched three seasons for the Pirates, going 36-28 with a 2.98 ERA. Following his retirement in 1979, Briles worked as a color man for the Pirates, and joined the front office in 1986 as director of corporate sales. He founded the Pittsburgh Pirates Alumni Association, and was also the director of the team's annual fantasy camp.

February 14, 1887 - The National Colored Base Ball League, the first attempt at a professional Negro League, was organized at a meeting in Baltimore, MD. Eight clubs were represented, including the Pittsburgh Keystones. The league quickly folded, but set a foundation that would eventually lead to the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays to enter the baseball scene.

February 14, 1996 - Kevin McClatchy and partners purchased the Pirates under the proviso that a baseball-only stadium be built within five years. The sale saved the franchise from being moved out of Pittsburgh by other potential buyers, but was to prove a mixed blessing.

February 15, 1956 - The Pirates and the Kansas City A's canceled an exhibition game in Birmingham‚ AL‚ because of a local ordinance barring black players from playing against white players.

February 15, 1990 - The owners refused to open spring training camps without a new Basic Agreement with the Players' Association, beginning a lockout that lasted 32 days and delayed the start of the regular season by one week.

February 16, 1952 - Carnegie’s Honus Wagner’s number 33 was retired following his retirement as a Bucco coach. Wagner spent 39 years with the team and was rewarded with a pension. Other retired Bucco numbers belong to Billy Meyer (1), Ralph Kiner (4), Willie Stargell (8), Bill Mazeroski (9), Pie Traynor (20), Roberto Clemente (21), Honus Wagner (33) and Danny Murtaugh (40).

February 16, 1996 - General Mills put out a Wheaties cereal box commemorating Negro League stars Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. All three played in Pittsburgh at some point in their Hall of Fame careers.

February 19, 2012 - The Pirates had AJ Burnett drop in their laps. The Yankees sent him to Pittsburgh for farm hands Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones and agreed to pay $20M of the $33M remaining on the last two years of his contract.

Bucs Extend Hurdle

Well, Clint Hurdle doesn't have to worry about being a lame duck this season. Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review reported yesterday that multiple sources confirmed to him that Hurdle will be re-signed through the 2014 season with an option for 2015. Biertempfel expects the official announcement tomorrow (EDIT - The Pirates announced that they exercised Hurdle's 2014 contract option today and added a club option for 2015) when Bob Nutting arrives in camp. Sure beats the days when the FO signed John Russell in 2010 without announcing it.

This was the third and final season of Hurdle's contract. He's put up a slate of 151-173 (.466), winning 72 games in 2011 and 79 last season. That was the Bucs' best back-to-back finish since 1996-7, when Jimmy Leyland in his last year, followed by Gene Lamont in his first, led Pittsburgh to 152 victories. The 79 wins last year matched the team high, joining Lamont's 1997 campaign, since the NLCS club of 1992.

Hurdle was selected after Russell's disastrous 2010 year, outlasting seven other candidates, including Eric Wedge, Dale Sveum and Ken Macha. While the final figures weren't released, the general parameters of that deal were that his pay was $1M+ annually and he was guaranteed through 2013.

Now all he's got to change are the post-deadline, dog day blues. The Pirates have gone 33-73 (.311) during August and September the last two seasons after playing 118-100 (.541) ball during the first four months with occasional stints as the Central's top dog.

We can't really blame Hurdle for those too much. In 2011, his overachievers had a couple of injuries and crashed; if you ever wondered what regression is, that season was its finest example. Last year, the FO fumbled the ball at the deadline more than the on-field product.

They brought in Wandy Rodriguez, but gutted the bullpen by losing Brad Lincoln and adding Chad Qualls & Hisanori Takahashi, watched the rotation crumble when Erik Bedard & James McDonald fell off the face of the earth and failed to land a bat of any impact. A manager is as good as his players, and Hurdle didn't exactly have an army of All-Stars on hand while chasing the Reds.

We have no problem with his extension; it's always easier for a manager to keep the clubhouse in order if the inmates know he'll be around for awhile. And it can't be denied that his clubs have generated interest and spun some turnstiles in Pittsburgh. Yah, tactically he has his maddening quirks, but he seems a good match for the club on and off the field. Let's just hope he finally figures out how to coach up the same results in the dog days as he does during the first four months of the season.

Because if he doesn't and the Bucs string of losing seasons stretches on, both he and Neal Huntington could be looking for new gigs in 2014.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Around the Campfire

Monday notes n'at...

  • Talking on 93.7 The Fan, Zachary Levine of Baseball Prospectus said that while it’s hard to be critical of any individual Pittsburgh off-season move, it doesn’t seem like the Pirates are building towards anything. He added that if they’re not  ready to spend money,  they could be wasting McCutchen’s prime.
  • Brad Inge told Tom Singer of that his shoulder has healed since September surgery, but he's still building his arm strength; that will be a camp project. In the same story, Neil Walker told him "I became a switch-hitter because of Bobby Bonilla." 
  • John Perrotto of the Beaver County Times sat down with Mark Melancon and discussed his tough 2012 season. “I just didn’t pitch well at times last year and then got into a pattern where I was pitching irregularly and had a hard time staying in a rhythm,” Melancon said. “It was a good learning experience. It’s not a cliché when people say you learn more about yourself during the bad times than in the good."
  • Tony Sanchez said to Bill Brink of the Post Gazette "I'm not naïve. I know the chances of breaking camp with the team are slim to none. You play as well as you can now and you go into Indianapolis and get off to a hot start," he said, "...and let everything else take care of itself." Speaking of catchers, Brink also notes that this year, unlike last, the Pirates are putting an emphasis on controlling the opposition's running game.
  • Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review asked Jordy Mercer about his college days as a closer (he still holds Oklahoma State's career saves record). Mercer said “Every since I got to the Pirates, they told me to never go on the mound - and I've listened to them.” Biertempfel also reported that Brandon Inge has a late March opt-out date on his contract if he's not on the MLB roster, as do Jonathan Sanchez and Brad Hawpe, and that the catchers are taking charge of their charges this season.
  • Baseball Prospectus projects that the Bucs will win 79 games in 2013 while ZIPS projects the Pirates to win 75 games. Guess Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano didn't impress them much.
  • The Pirates spring training schedule will be aired on radio almost in its entirety, with Root Sports carrying five games on the tube before the real deal begins against the Cubs on April 1st.
  • The Pirates made a trio of minor league signings, inking C Devin Ivaney, OF Brett Carroll and RHP Roman Colon. None have MLB invites and are considered organizational depth guys.
  • Didja ever consider the logistics of whom to sit by whom in a locker room, especially when you have 60-some ballplayers of various nationalities, experience, positions and temperament in one space during spring training? Clubhouse manager Bones Bonnett, wrote Tom Singer of, has it down to a science. And hey, if you don't the spot where he put ya, Bonnett says "I can get you one at Pirate City (the minor league camp)."
  • For the first time since arb was introduced in 1974, there are no hearings scheduled; everyone settled amicably this year.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Pirates' Team Building

Here's how your top 36 spring camp Pirates made it to Pittsburgh:

Pedro Alvarez: (2008 draft first round)
Clint Barmes: (2011 FA contract)
AJ Burnett: (2011 trade with NY Yankees for minor leaguers)
Gerrit Cole: (2011 draft first round)
Ivan DeJesus: (2012 trade with Boston for Joel Hanrahan)
Jeanmar Gomez: (2013 trade with Cleveland for minor leaguer)
Jason Grilli: (2011 FA contract)
Josh Harrison: (2009 trade with Chicago Cubs for Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow)
Jared Hughes: (2006 draft fourth round)
Brandon Inge: (2013 minor league contract)
Garrett Jones: (2008 FA contract)
Jeff Karstens: (2008 trade with NY Yankees for Xavier Nady, Damasco Marte)
Chris Leroux: (2010 waiver claim)
Francisco Liriano: (2013 FA contract)
Jeff Locke: (2009 trade with Atlanta for Nate McLouth)
Starlin Marte: (2007 international signing)
Russell Martin: (2012 FA contract)
Andrew McCutchen: (2005 draft first round)
James McDonald: (2010 trade with LA Dodgers for Octavio Dotel)
Mike McKenry: (2011 trade with Boston for cash/PTBNL)
Kyle McPherson: (2007 draft fourteenth round)
Mark Melancon: (2012 trade with Boston for Joel Hanrahan)
Jordy Mercer: (2008 draft third round)
Bryan Morris: (2008 trade with LA Dodgers for Jason Bay)
Charlie Morton: (2009 trade with Atlanta for Nate McLouth)
Clint Robinson: (2012 trade with Kansas City for minor leaguers)
Wandy Rodriguez: (2012 trade with Houston for minor leaguers)
Gaby Sanchez: (2012 trade with Miami for Gorkys Hernandez, draft pick)
Jonathan Sanchez: (2013 minor league contract)
Tony Sanchez: (2009 draft first round)
Jerry Sands: (2012 trade with Boston for Joel Hanrahan)
Travis Snider: (2012 trade with Toronto for Brad Lincoln)
Jose Tabata: (2008 trade with NY Yankees for Xavier Nady, Damasco marte)
Neil Walker: (2004 draft first round)
Tony Watson: (2007 draft ninth round)
Justin Wilson: (2008 draft fifth round)

The majority of the guys came to the Pirates via trade (17), followed by the draft (11), free agents (5), minor league deals (2) and the waiver wire (1).

That trades lead the pack isn't surprising, given that the FO dismantled the team Dave Littlefield gave them. AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are the core of the staff, Mike McKenry and Jeff Karstens are useful parts of the puzzle and Charlie Morton, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata may yet pay off. Still, there are no real impact everyday players, which may be due to the FOs preference for high upside guys without a track record; they really haven't turned any of them into value yet.

The draft is supposed to do the heavy lifting for the team, and it's had some success - Cutch, The Kid, Pedro and maybe Marte look like keepers. and Cole isn't far from joining that group. The problem is that of the eight homegrown guys who contributed to the roster last year, six (Cutch, Walker, Marte, Hughes, McPherson and Watson) were Dave Littlefield guys. That's partially because the FO went for high school pitching in 2009, creating a system gap, partially because the emphasis on Latin signings pay off slowly considering the young age that the kids sign at, and partially evaluation. Still, it's not much of a showing after five full drafts.

Of the free agents, Martin and Barmes start, Liriano should, and the other pair - Grilli and Jones - were actually minor league FAs. Some of that has to do with budget, and some with Pittsburgh as a destination. But they've done OK on this road; they've inked guys like Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, Jose Veras, etc. as purveyors of the second and third tier of available talent.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pirate Pitching - A Plan or Seat of the Pants?

Will Pellas, my blogging partner in crime, wondered "what's going on here" with the Bucco pitching, his main bone of contention being the Pirates seem happy to develop guys up to AAA and then forget about them. And ya know what - he's got a point worth arguing.

The Bucs went into the off season thin in starting pitching after letting Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens walk. They were, in justice, the bottom end of the rotation, and it looked like Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke would step in to take their spots, at least until Charlie Morton returned later this summer. And he has to stick; he's out of options once he's finished rehab

That left them Justin Wilson in Indy, and the FO brought in Andy Oliver to bolster the reserves, along with Jeanmar Gomez, all three stronger in potential than performance. It was a staff that could use another vet to solidify the rotation and depth.

Well, they brought in three guys - Karstens found out that you can go home again, Jonathan Sanchez signed a minor league contract, and Francisco Liriano, broken wing and all, finally struck a deal acceptable to him and the pencil pushers.

That leaves Pittsburgh with ten starting pitchers with at least a cup of coffee in the show - AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez and Andrew Oliver. Gerrit Cole and Justin Wilson are waiting to get their call from Indy, with Jameson Taillon, Phil Irwin and a couple of others in the pipeline.

Gomez is the only wanna-be with option problems. But Tom Singer of pointed out an unpublicized fact: Sanchez has an opt out clause in his deal that's triggered on March 24th if he's not on the MLB roster. Given that the Pirates would like two lefties and Liriano won't be ready to go when camp breaks, the Bucs will have to decide between Sanchez and Locke, who has an option remaining, for that fifth spot. Sticky, maybe, but neither of those situations are real problems to open the season.

But there's a domino game that's going to be played as the season goes on. Liriano will be back by May; Morton by July, and Cole whenever he shows he ready. So unless there are a rash of bum wings or bad pitching - which, given past history, may occur - the Pirates will have some real shuffling, and all possibly before the All Star break.

If they get through the year with their pitching intact, 2014 will be a real poser. Rodriguez and Liriano, depending on how the year goes, may vest next season. AJ will be a free agent, and a question mark to return. Even if he repeats his 2012 year, he'll be 37 and coming off a $16.5M deal that those nice New York Yankees helped to pay; that won't be so next season. But he would be a handy and wildly popular head to keep around to tutor Cole and presumably Taillon. J-Mac and Morton will be back and under control, though without options.

Those options will come into play big-time in 2014. Locke, McPherson, and Oliver will be out of them, unless one of them sticks on the 25-man for the entire season. So the FO has put itself in a bit of a pickle for not only this year, but next. McPherson, Wilson and Oliver could use a little Indy time; Locke has about done all you can at AAA. But the Pirates have built a little depth that it's unwilling to tap at the big league level, and it's probably not fair to put the upper level farm guys in a make-or-break spot at camp next season. It puts undue pressure on the evaluation process, too.

It may work itself out; performance, injuries and deals have a way of flattening the curve. Pitching is the coin of the realm, and the Pirates are trying to pay their share of the freight. And of course, there's no guarantee that that sheer numbers will translate into MLB depth.

But to us, it seems like the FO is still wavering on a plan; they just can't seem to resist toying with flawed but upside guys. They're stuck in the limbo of building a future and winning today. Maybe the way the roster is now constructed, that's understandable. They are a couple bricks shy of a load unless everything breaks their way.

But sooner or later they're going to have to strike a happy medium and make a commitment to the minor league system, per their blueprint. They could start by showing a little confidence in the guys they have rather than trawling for help that may in the long run stifle the teams' development rather than foster it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Around the Campfire

A couple of camp notes:
  • Hudson Belinsky of Baseball Prospectus mentioned Travis Snyder as a potential breakout candidate for 2013. However, he didn't exactly give him a ringing endorsement: "It isn’t incredibly likely, but Snider could have a very strong year ahead of him in 2013. The physical ability is there, and if he finds a way to make things work, he could break out this season."
  • The massed media all report that AJ Burnett (who else?) is on track to get the Opening Day start. It would be the first of his career.
  • A small posse of Bucs will leave camp on March 2nd for the WBC - starters Russell Martin, Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Grillli, guys battling for a spot in Chris Leroux and Ivan DeJesus, and minor league players Jameson Taillon, Ali Soltis and Stefan Welch. Clint Hurdle is on record supporting them playing for their countries, though it may have an effect on Leroux and DeJesus if they miss a big chunk of camp time.
  • They also report that Charlie Morton is coming along from his hip surgery. He's thrown several bullpen sessions off a mound, though limited to fastballs; he's tossing soft stuff from level ground.
  • Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review reported that Mike McKenry will be wearing #19 this season. He surrendered his #55 to Russell Martin as it was his old number with LA and NY. The Fort did score a watch in the deal. And while on the subject, happy birthday, Russ. He turns 30 today.
  • Everyone is in camp but RHP Stolmy Pimentel, who is having traditionally frustrating visa issues getting to Bradenton from the Dominican Republic.
  • The New York Times Nate Silver made the Pirate mission for 2013 pretty clear in his tweet: "No pope has resigned since 1415, which is also the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record."
  • Marc Hulet of Fangraphs lists his Top 15 Prospects for the Bucs; it's not a lot different from the other selections so far this season.
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects looks ahead to who may be on the Pirate radar for the 2013 draft.
  • There are all of eight guys left in the minor league system from the Dave Littlefield days. David of the Battlin' Bucs takes a look at them - RHPs Kyle McPherson and Duke Welker are the cream. (The pre-2008 MLB holdovers are Cutch, Neil Walker, Starling Marte, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Alex Presley.)
  • Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post tweeted that the Nats have signed former Bucco reliever RHP Mike Crotta, who was a minor league free agent, to a minor league deal. He tossed for Pittsburgh in 2011, but missed all of 2012 after elbow surgery. It must have been successful; he hit 96 during his Washington try-out.
  • If you're wondering about the Pirates' sizeable collection of starting pitchers, consider the Dodgers. They have eight MLB guys in camp, and Chris Capuano (12-12, 3.72) and Aaron Harang (10-10, 3.61) could be left on the outside looking in. Can't have too much pitching, right?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Camp Drills

All the troops are supposed to report in by today, and by tomorrow the horsehide should be flying. The team still has a few spots that are up for grabs. Here's the quick outline:

Outfield: Cutch is in, Starling Marte is in, Travis Snider is probably in. Jose Tabata has a foot up as the fourth guy. Snider and JT have fairly even L/R splits, so the major question is whether the FO is going to let Snider run with the job or platoon with Tabata. Alex Presley and Jerry Sands both have an option and are likely to join Felix Pie at Indy, giving the Bucs a pretty capable trio in AAA if called upon. Sands has some potential as a boomer, and Presley and Pie have held their own as fourth outfielder types in the show.

Infield: It should look familiar; Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez at first, Neil Walker at second, Clint Barmes at short and Pedro Alvarez at third. The fight will be for the two back-ups. Brad Inge and Ivan DeJesus, both on minor league deals, will try to unseat Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, who both have minor league options remaining. It should be an interesting competition; the decision might be influenced by roster flexibility, as neither Inge nor DeJesus are on the 40-man roster. Even if they start at Indy, both provide MLB options during the season.

Clint Robinson will start at Indy; he's here to serve as Garrett Jones insurance. Chase d'Arnaud has lost his prospect status over the past couple of seasons, and Matt Hague will be in camp, but isn't going to challenge Gaby Sanchez.

Catcher: Russell Martin starts, Mike McKenry backs up, and Tony Sanchez starts out at Indy with Lucas May.

Starting Pitching: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are in, and a big cast will audition for the remaining two spots. Jeff Karstens returns, along with Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. Jonathan Sanchez is in camp on a minor league deal. Francisco Liriano likely has the fourth spot reserved, but his broken arm, according to the current timetable, will probably land him on the 15 day DL to open the season. Jeanmar Gomez was picked up from Cleveland, and he's not only a darkhorse but out of options. He could be in the bullpen mix, too.

The Pirates have a lot of depth - Gerrit Cole, Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver, along with up-and-coming Phil Irwin, will be at Indy, and Charlie Morton will return by mid-summer. With a lot of depth comes a lot of options. The guess is that Karstens and Locke will break camp with the team. McPherson doesn't have much AAA experience, and Sanchez is coming off an injury, so there are reasons to start conservatively with them, though they may be superior stuff-wise. It's a good problem to have.

Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are in, leaving three spots. Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux are likely to land spots, and a good thing, as both are out of options. That leaves the decision to Clint Hurdle - does he want another lefty, like Justin Wilson or Mike Zagurski, or go with a righty like Vin Mazzaro or Jeanmar Gomez? And will Jeff Karstens return to the pen sometime during the year, setting off a domino effect?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

40 Man, Option Shuffle

One sidebar of this year's camp will be the Pirate management of the 40-man roster, which is now full and doesn't have very many holes in it as in seasons past.

There are at least three guys on the non-roster invitee list with a chance of breaking camp with the team: LHP Jonathan Sanchez, 3B Brandon Inge and IF Ivan DeJesus. There are also a couple of other players like OF Felix Pie, RHP Vin Mazzaro and LHP Mike Zagurski that are unlikely to start with the Bucs but as of now are on the short list as replacements if performance/injury issues rear their ugly head. Oh, and some non-roster kid named Gerrit Cole may get a look this year, too.

Another situation to be dealt with is the number of guys that are out of options. OFs Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are in that status, but are both pretty safe bets to make the club. But there are some pitchers that fall into that category who will fighting for jobs, like RHPs Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris and Jeanmar Gomez.

Other Pirates are down to their last option: OF Alex Presley, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Kyle McPherson, 1B Clint Robinson, LHP Andy Oliver, OF Jerry Sands and RHP Stolmy Pimentel, so the Bucs can buy some time with them, but have to figure where they fit in the long term.

The Pirates do have ways to mitigate the roster stress. They could start the non-roster players at Indy and call them up as the situation arises; they all are on minor league deals and can be sent down without consequence.

Charlie Morton will start the year on the 60-day DL, which will free up a spot. If Francisco Liriano is placed on the 15-day DL, that will clear a slot on the active roster spot, but not a 40-man spot.

The Pirate FO has been in collection mode ever since they came aboard because of the dearth of talent in the system, but that era is hopefully coming to a close. They get a pass this year; Indy is thin on position players, so it makes sense to stock up on a couple of low-cost term insurance policies.But the time's nearing when they'll have to start moving guys to both bring in talent and manage the 40-man roster.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bucs Sign Brandon Inge, Per Sources

Dan Knobler of CBS Sports tweeted that long-time Tiger Brandon Inge is near to signing a minor league deal with the Bucs with an invite to camp. (Tom Singer of writes that his sources say the deal is sealed).

It's a low risk (and low reward) signing; unlike a lot of the upside guys the Pirates have brought on, Inge is 35 and a known commodity. He's a vet with a .234 lifetime BA (he hasn't hit .250 or better since 2006 and just .218 last year) with some power. Inge has a decent stroke against lefties, with a lifetime .261/.337/.445 line and 129 OPS+ against them. Even in a down year, he posted a 1.6 WAR and 24.3 UZR/150 in limited 2012 action.

Inge has played third since 2008 and provides strong leather at the hot corner. He also has experience in the outfield and second base in the bigs prior to that, and we suppose he still has those mitts in his bag.

While he's on the downhill side of his 12-year career, he could push Josh Harrison as a bench bat. Jordy Mercer/Ivan DeJesus would handle the middle fielding chores while Inge could give Pedro an occasional blow against southpaws. And if that doesn't work out in camp, he would a nice insurance policy at Indy at a thin position in the organization.

It's not a big move, but does provide a little more competition for the pine players and potentially gives Clint Hurdle another bench option.

Reppin' 2008 In Camp

OK, the boys of summer are working out their kinks in February. We thought this would be as good a time as any to see how the Bucs first draft class of the Neil Huntington era was working out.

You might remember Pedro burning the midnight oil before signing a deal. The Pirates were rebuilding a dysfunctional farm system, and he was their poster boy. But he wasn't alone; the Pirates signed 32 players that year, and 17 of their top 25 picks. So who's around to rep the class of '08 in Bradenton?

Eh, not many. 16 of the 17 picks after the 20th round are no longer in the system, not too surprisingly; the back half generally is farm fodder. RHP Zach Foster, 25, is the last of the tail-enders to collect a Bob Nutting paycheck, and his career is pretty much on track as minor league depth. Five of the remaining fifteen from the top twenty are gone, too - OF Rob Grossman (#6), OF David Rubenstein (#11), 1B Calvin Anderson (#12), LHP Chris Aure (#15) and OF Wes Freeman (#16) have also left.

At least Grossman brought something back, as he was part of the Wandy Rodriguez package, and there's certainly value in that.

Of the ten left standing, half will be working out on minor league fields this spring. SS Benji Gonzalez, 3B Jeremy Farrell, RHP Mike Colla, SS Jarek Cunningham and RHP Quinton Miller didn't wriggle an invite to the MLB camp, although Colla, Cunningham and Miller are all still fringe prospects.

Then there were five. SS Jordy Mercer, SS Chase d'Arnaud, LHP Justin Wilson and 1B Matt Hague all could begin 2013 at Indianapolis, with Mercer and Wilson the only true prospects. Pedro will return as the incumbent starter at third, as befitting the second pick overall and $6M bonus baby.

Off course, there's more to team building than the draft. 2008 is when the Bucs brought in 1B/OF Garrett Jones as a minor league free agent. They turned a couple of their international signings into players; OF Exicardo Cayones went to the Yankees as part of the AJ Burnett deal, and C Ramon Cabrera went to Detroit for LHP Andy Oliver.

SS Jodaneli Carvajal and 3B Yhonathan Barrios, both inked when they were 16, are still bumping around in A ball. SS Gift Ngoepe, their South African pick, is at Altoona and could end up a bench infielder with a good glove, good wheels, and bad bat. 2008 is also when the Million Dollar arms from India, LHP Rinku Singh and RHP Dinesh Patel, were signed after winning a TV show in India. Patel is gone, but Singh is still slinging at West Virginia; pity he didn't get to start out in T-Ball when he was seven.

All in all, it can be safely said that the new FO didn't exactly hit the ground running, though they did pick up two eventual starters, which is a good off-season by most accounts. Still, they didn't lay a very solid foundation from the start, and that's helped delay the building-from-within blueprint.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bucco Notes Heading Into Camp

Liriano out a month, a trio of guys are late, Tyler Gaffney returns to Stanford and football...

  • Tom Singer of has a quick roster run down and other stuff for the 2013 Buccos. He also has feature on Francisco Liriano; the key bit in that post is "it will be at least a month before Liriano steps atop a mound." So he may start off on the DL out of camp, much like AJ Burnett did in 2012.
  • Bill Brink of the Post Gazette reports that as of noon, three Pirates haven't reported - Jeff Karstens, Stolmy Pimentel and Ali Soltis. There are no known problems with the trio, and they're expected to arrive later today. Most of the players checked in Sunday night.
  • Paul Swyden of Fangraphs has a post of trades that were vetoed: one he looks at is the Angels failing to land AJ Burnett, with the Buccos then swooping in.
  • Maybe it's a foreshadowing, but the Indy Indians put out a release of guys they expect to get after camp breaks.
  • The Pirates drafted (24th round) and signed Tyler Gaffney away from his last season of football at Stanford, and he did well at State College, putting up a .297/.483/.441 slash in 111 ABs and getting on the radar. His blip just disappeared; Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects found out that he's returning to the Cardinal for his degree and another year of banging pads.
  • We can finally kill the Joe Saunders rumors; the lefty signed with Seattle for 1 year/$7M. 
  • Ex Pirates catcher Rod Barajas has signed a minor-league deal with the Diamondbacks that will pay him $800,000 if he makes the team.
  • The Washington Wild Things will host the 2013 Frontier League All-Star game on July 17th at Consol Energy Park. A home-run derby and a softball game between several Frontier League all-stars and the Akron Racers, a professional women's fastpitch team, are planned for July 16th.

The Week In Pirate History

Birthdays, spitballs, Dapper Dans, Hall of Fame, contract fracases, fractured skulls, trades, TRS blows up, the King whiffs the Great One...

  • February 6 - Whole bunch of Bucco birthdays: SS Glenn Wright (1901); 1B Dale Long (1926); C Smokey Burgess (1927); LF Richie Zisk (1949) and 3B Pedro Alvarez (1987).;
  • February 6, 2013 - Two-time All Star Andrew McCutchen was honored with the Dapper Dan Man of the Year Award. He hit .327/.400/.533 with 31 home runs in a break out 2012 season.
  • February 8, 1967 - Eddie Feigner, headliner softball pitcher of the King and his Court, appeared in a charity softball game at Dodger Stadium and struck out six MLB players in a row, including Roberto Clemente, with his 114 MPH underhand heater.
  • February 8, 1972 - C Josh Gibson and OF Walter “Buck” Leonard were selected for the Hall of Fame by the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues. Gibson, the Black Babe Ruth, played for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. His statue is at Nationals Park, where the Grays often played, and Ammon Field in the Hill District was renamed after him. The Grays’ Leonard batted behind him and was called the Black Lou Gehrig. The Thunder Twins were inducted on August 7th.
  • February 9, 1945 - Talk about your off season mishaps! Buc LHP Preacher Roe’s 148 strikeouts in 1945 led the NL and he was selected for the All-Star Game. But while coaching high school basketball after the season, Roe fractured his skull in a fight with a referee. His pitching fell off a cliff, dropping from 27 wins in 1944-45 to seven in 1946-47, and his ERA doubled. He was traded to Brooklyn, where he lasted seven seasons, winning 93 games with four All-Star berths. Some credit the comeback to a long recovery; others to his new pitch - the spitter.
  • February 9, 1971 - RHP Satchel Paige became the first Negro League star to be selected to the Hall of Fame. Satch pitched for both the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and was inducted on August 9th.
  • February 9, 1976 - The Hall of Fame Special Committee on the Negro Leagues selected OF Oscar Charleston for enshrinement. He was with both the Pittsburgh Crawfords (as a player/manager) and Homestead Grays, and was inducted on August 9th.
  • February 10, 1920 - The spitball, shineball, and emeryball are outlawed by the AL/NL Joint Rules Committee. Seventeen pitchers, including off-and-on Pirate Burleigh Grimes, are grandfathered so they can continue to toss a wet one. Grimes, who finished his career in 1934 with Pittsburgh, was the last man to legally throw a spitter.
  • February 10, 1975 - 3B Judy Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Negro League Committee. Playing in the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson was a defensive whiz who batted .309 over a 17 year career, including stops with the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. He was inducted on August 18th.
  • February 11, 1928 - Pittsburgh sent RHP Vic Aldridge, who was fishing for a raise from owner Barney Dreyfuss, to the NY Giants for RHP Burleigh Grimes, who they had traded away nine years earlier. Grimes won 42 games in 1928-29 before being sent to the Braves after the Bucs reached a contract impasse with him. He returned in 1934 for his third Pittsburgh stint to finish his MLB career as a Pirate, the team he started with. The Hall of Famer won 48 of his 270 career victories as a Buc. Aldridge also bumped heads over money with Giants, held out and had a terrible year, prompting him to retire from baseball in 1929.
  • February 11, 2001 - Three Rivers Stadium‚ the home of the Pirates since 1970‚ was imploded before a full complement of TV cameras and thousands of onlookers. Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit, Mike Schmidt's 500th home run and a couple of World Series teams are part of the park's legacy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

2013 Questions

Camp starts tomorrow, and the question this the year that Bucs compete? The answer to that question is wrapped up in the answers to these questions:

Can Jason Grilli close? The 36 year old is getting his first crack at finishing games. His eighth inning work has been strong, but will it carry over? Grilled Cheese has 5 career saves, and worked 8-1/3 frames in the ninth last year, so he doesn't have a track record. His eighth and ninth innings metrics were pretty similar in 2012, but whether or not he thrives as the man is yet to be seen. If he falters, Mark Melancon has closing experience, and Buc youngsters Bryan Morris, Vic Black, and Duke Welker have served in the role.

Can anyone lead off? The Bucs are counting on Starling Marte and Travis Snider/Jose Tabata to fill the 1-2 holes in the lineup. In 2012, their OBPs were .324 (Snider), .315 (JT) and .300 (Marte) and they had just 22 stolen sacks among them. The Pirates would like to see better plate discipline and a more threatening presence on the bases (tho Marte is good at swiping sacks, taking 12-of-17 in 2012) to properly set the table this year. There aren't any natural top of the order guys on the roster outside of JT and Marte - Snider is misplaced at the top of the lineup - so there's not much help on the horizon outside of Alex Presley and maybe Felix Pie.

How will the rotation fare? Wandy Rodriguez is the only consistent starter on the staff. We suspect AJ will remain strong, too - the NL Central isn't the AL East, and he seems to thrive in his alpha dog role. After them, Ray Searage has James McDonald, Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez, all with swing-and-miss stuff but frustratingly up and down, steady but fragile soft tosser Jeff Karstens, the summer return of Charlie Morton and pups lining up on Federal Street as the minor league pipeline is finally reaching Pittsburgh. But it's a tough staff to get a feel for - it's as deep as it has ever been in the Neal Huntington tenure, but with a lot of arms that are higher in potential than in performance.

Will right field sort itself out? The Pirates already have Marte in left, and in his first full season he'll be a work in progress as he plays cat and mouse with MLB pitchers. So they'll need some production from right while he learns the ropes, and it looks now like the Clemente Wall will be defended by JT and Travis Snider. It's possible Tabata will have a bounce back season and Snider will perform like a top pick, but the Bucs are in trouble if they repeat their pedestrian 2012 numbers.

What will be the effects of losing the Astros? Yah, they were everyone's punching bag last year; no one in the division had a losing record against them. But Pittsburgh especially owned them; their 12 wins against Houston was the most by any team. The schedule will smooth things out somewhat, but their loss is likely to cost the Bucs at least a couple or three wins during the campaign.

Will the core regress? Neil Walker has been the poster child for consistency over his brief career; his only question is his balky back. But can Cutch have another MVP-type season, will Pedro improve, hold steady, or slip, and can Garrett Jones continue to be a hammer? Those guys are the heart of the lineup, and the Pirate ability to generate runs lies squarely on their ability to square up baseballs.

Will the bottom of the order remain an abyss? We'd bet on a bounce back by Clint Barmes; he hit .254, which is about his upper limit, over the last four months of the season after a dreadful start. Russell Martin doesn't have a very high bar to hurdle, but his average has dropped every season beginning in 2008, from .280 to .211. He's projected to have a .240 BA and .330 OBP with 15 HR in 2013, and if he does, he'll be an upgrade.

Can the Bucs play six months of baseball? In 2011, a not terribly deep team lost both players and confidence over the last two months, leading to a spectacular nosedive. Last year, the pitching, epitomized by J-Mac, tailed off; the starters couldn't go deep and the bullpen wore down. The Buc deadline moves were made with an eye to the future rather than the day, and Cutch played like a mortal for a spell. In 2013, the team looks deeper, at least in pitching, and should be more mature. They are better built for a longer run. The bigger question is will they be in a race come August?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Position Players In Camp

We posted the pitchers and catchers, who will report Monday and get it on the next day. The position players will be checking in on Thursday and drilling Friday. Here's the list of campers vying for a spot on the 25-man roster come April:

Infielders: 3B Pedro Alvarez, SS Clint Barmes, IF Chase d'Arnaud, IF Ivan DeJesus, 3B Jared Goedert, 1B Matt Hague, IF Josh Harrison, 1b Brad Hawpe, IF Anderson Hernandez, 1B Garrett Jones, SS Jordy Mercer, 1B Clint Robinson, 1B Gaby Sanchez and 2B Neil Walker.

The starting infield should be familiar, as the Bucs didn't bring in anyone to challenge last season's gang of Jones/Sanchez, Walker, Barmes and Alvarez. The only possible movement there is if the right field options blow up and Jones has to return to the pasture. The big sidebar is the evolution of Pedro in the lineup.

The real battle will be for bench spots. We like DeJesus and Harrison as early frontrunners, just because Mercer has an option to burn. If he's to get a shot in 2014, he'd probably be better served to get regular work at Indy than to pine away in Pittsburgh. We think Robinson starts at Indy too, as he has an option and Jones is back at first. He's the card up the FO's sleeve if Jones becomes a hot item at the deadline, or sooner.

Outfielders: Darren Ford, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Felix Pie, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata.

Marte will be given a long leash in left in his first full season, and Cutch is an ironman in center. Early smart money has a Snider/JT platoon in right, but Sands, Presley and Pie give them viable options down the road.  All can be safely sent down, while Snider and Tabata are out of options. It's also possible that a minor deal could be swung in March with a team looking for a fourth outfielder; Presley would probably hold the most value of the non-starters, and JT is on the list, too.

C Russell Martin is the only starter the Bucs picked up in the offseason as a field player. They're counting on the growth of their young core to provide the oomph in 2013's campaign.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Liriano In The Fold Finally

Well, it took a couple of months, but lefty Francisco Liriano, 29, finally inked a deal with the Pirates. The timing is about right; we figured he would take his physical sometime around the pitcher's reporting date, which is Monday. The deal will require a corresponding move on the 40-man roster, which was full. (EDIT - Kristy Robinson reported that Vin Mazzaro was outrighted to Indy.)

The Bucs had a lot of young guys penciled in to battle for the last spot or two, but with The Cisco Kid, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Karstens all recently in the fold, it'll make for an interesting spring. A little depth is a good thing, and this is about as deep as the Pirate starting staff has been, even if question marks abound.

As for Liriano, from what we've heard, his contract is still for two years, but with performance markers he has to reach this season to protect the Pirates if his arm ends up being a major issue. (EDIT - the Bucs announced that it's a one-year deal that includes a vesting option for 2014. $1M is guaranteed, but the entire $12.75M can be reached).  He's still a big if until he's mended and ready to fire.

His signing gives the Bucs a lot of options. Assuming he'll not be ready to go at the opening bell, the FO could stick to Plan A, with JK holding down the four spot and Jeff Locke duking it out with Kyle McPherson for the fifth spot.

But they can go a couple of directions:  Karstens could get bumped to the pen (and that's not etched in stone; Vin Mazzaro is a mini-Karstens). Then Locke, McPherson, and Sanchez can go after two open slots (with the caveat that all three can be safely sent to Indy in 2013) along with Jeanmar Gomez, who is out of options, as a darkhorse.

And whatever configuration breaks camp will likely be temporary - both Liriano and Charlie Morton will be back sometime during the season, and it's widely believed that this is the year Gerrit Cole joins in the PNC fun.

The jam will filter through the upper levels - Cole, Justin Wilson (if he doesn't become the bullpen's second lefty, which we think is unlikely), Andy Oliver and Phil Irwin will be starting at Indy with whoever loses out in Bradenton, with some nice young arms behind them at Altoona, led by Jameson Taillon. The Buc position youngsters may be a few steps away, but the pitching prospects are in the MLB pipeline.