Thursday, October 31, 2013

Buc's Halloween History: Fido, Bobby Bragan, Lee Tunnell, Jim Bibby, Ian Snell, Jerry Reuss, Jim Leyland, and more...

Fido, Bobby Bragan, Lee Tunnell, Jim Bibby, Ian Snell, Jerry Reuss, Jim Leyland, and more...

  • October 29, 1893 - P Mark “Fido” Baldwin was born in Homestead. He only pitched two years and some change for the Pirates (1891-93) but the club got its money’s worth. Between 1891-92, Fido started 104 games, went 47-55, and worked 878 IP with a 3.14 ERA. He was known as one of, if not the fastest, thrower of his era. He also was sued by St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe for trying to influence his players to skip leagues (which he did), and was arrested for participating in the Homestead steel strike (he was freed, claiming to be just a spectator). Baldwin later became a doctor and associated with Homestead’s Municipal Hospital. He’s buried in Allegheny Cemetery. 
  • October 29, 1944 - RHP Jim Bibby was born in Franklinton, NC. The big guy worked five years (1978-83; he was out all of 1982) for Pittsburgh, and won 19 games in 1980 in his All-Star season. He was 50-32/3.53 during that span. Bibby started three games in the 1979 championship run (1 NLCS, 2 WS) and while not getting a decision in any of them, put up a 2.08 ERA. His career highlight was in 1981, when he gave up a leadoff single to Atlanta’s Terry Harper and retired the next 27 batters. A shoulder injury suffered later that season eventually led to his retirement in 1984. 
  • October 30, 1981 - RHP Ian Snell was born in Dover, Delaware. He spent parts of six seasons (2004-09) as a Pirate starter, showing promise but never quite getting over the hump with a line of 33-46/4.75, and was traded to Seattle. 
  • October 30, 1884 - Financially troubled despite finishing second to New York in the American Association‚ the Columbus Colts sold its players to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys for $6‚000 and disbanded. The Alleghenys could use all the help they could get; they finished the 1884 season 30-78 and 45-1/2 games behind the AA champion NY Metropolitans. 
  • October 30, 1917 - Manager Bobby Bragan was born in Birmingham, Alabama. The former big league infielder managed the Bucs just before they turned the corner in 1956-57, with a record of 102-155 (.397) before Danny Murtaugh took the reins.
  • October 30, 1960 - RHP Lee Tunnell was born in Tyler, Texas. The Baylor righty was the Bucs’ second pick in the 1981 draft. He arrived in Pittsburgh the following September and then went 11-6/3.85 in 1983, but his four year run (1982-85) produced just a 17-24/4.06 line overall.
  • October 31, 1973 - The Astros traded Jerry Reuss to the Pirates for Milt May. Reuss ended up 61-46 with a 3.52 ERA as a Buc and was a rotation mainstay for four seasons. The lefty worked six campaigns in Pittsburgh (1974-78, 1990) and spent his last MLB season as a Pirate. 
  • October 31, 1990 - Jim Leyland was selected as the NL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He guided the Bucs to 95 wins and a division title, and easily outdistanced the Cincinnati Reds’ Lou Piniella.
  • October 31, 2011 - The Pirates lost four veterans to free agency: C Ryan Doumit, C Chris Snyder, SS Ronnie Cedeno and LHP Paul Maholm. Late season acquisitions OF Ryan Ludwick and 1B Derrek Lee declared themselves FAs the day before.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Andrew Lambo

Andrew Lambo was selected by the Dodgers in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB Draft out of Newbury Park HS, about 50 miles outside of LA. He had been ranked as a sandwich or second round pick (#49 overall by Baseball America), but an Arizona State commitment, a high school marijuana bust, and questions about his maturity kept him on the board longer.

He played for the rookie GCL Dodgers in 2007 and started 2008 with the Class A Great Lakes Loons, where he was named a Midwest League All-Star. Lambo was promoted on quite a fast track to the AA Jacksonville Suns for a cup of coffee at the end of the year.

In 2009-10 he was with Class AA Chattanooga. He repped the Lookouts at the 2009 Southern League mid-season All-Star game, and Baseball America rated him as the organization's top outfield prospect of 2009.

He entered the 2010 season as the Dodgers' #7 prospect per BA, and things were lookin' rosy. But on May 1st, 2010, MLB suspended Lambo for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance, identified as a non-PED "drug of abuse," thought to be weed. With that and continuing concerns about his attitude and maturity level, he and James McDonald were traded on July 31st to the Pirates for reliever Octavio Dotel. At first, J-Mac looked like a keeper; Lambo, not so much.

He struggled in 2011 at Altoona/Indy (.236, 11 home runs, 58 RBI) and then missed all but 35 games in 2012 with a hamate injury. “I wasn't mentally there,” he told Bob Cohn of the Tribune Review. “I didn't understand what was going on, wasn't playing the game the right way.” The epiphany had arrived.

Starting with the Curve in 2013, Lambo hit for the cycle on April 8th, 2013, and by early June he was promoted to Indy. He hit .284 with 24 doubles, 5 triples, 31 home runs and 97 RBI in 117 games between Altoona and Indianapolis, and would eventually be named 2013's Minor League Player of the Year by the Bucs.

His greatest recognition was when the Pirates announced in mid-August that he was coming up for his first taste of the show. He just turned 24, and the Pirates were looking for some pop in RF. Many thought he'd get an extended audition. They were wrong.

Jose Tabata came on strong in August, and then even he was planted on the bench when Marlon Byrd came to town. Lambo saw limited action as playoff races are rarely showtime for call-ups. In 33 at bats, he homered once while hitting .233, looking comfortable in the few opportunities he got. But those last six weeks didn't answer any questions regarding Lambo's future, other than indicating that he'll be with the big boys in the 2014 camp mix instead of on a bus criss-crossing Florida with the minor league group.

Defensively, he's a prototype left fielder, with at best an average arm and not much speed. In Pittsburgh, that makes you the right fielder, though his arm would be a concern. Then again, with Marlon Byrd looking for a sweet contract, Alex Presley gone, Travis Snider on thin ice and JT's inconsistent play, it may be his most likely landing spot. Lambo has played some first, though not very well. Whether that's due to inexperience - he's put on the mitt just 41 times in his minor league career - or iron hands isn't clear yet. That would also fill a hole in the Pirate dike.

It is a moot point except for team makeup; Lambo's value is on offense. The Pirates are hoping that his 2013 season on the farm is the result of growing up, not just an outlier year. It looks sustainable; his strikeout rate was about 25%, high but not outrageous for a power guy, with an acceptable 9% walk rate, which puts his usual OBP in the .340+ range.  

The question is how that will translate into MLB numbers. We didn't get much chance to find out in 2013; we'll get our chance to really evaluate Lambo next season.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Kris Johnson

LHP Kris Johnson was pretty much the "who he" guy among the late summer call ups. Well, he hit on hard times with Boston and is relatively unknown in Pittsburgh, but he is a pitcher with a strong pedigree.

When he was a teen working for Blue Springs High School in Missouri , he tossed five no-hitters and was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 50th round of the 2003 draft. He passed on that and instead went to Witchita State, where his 2.01 ERA led the Missouri Valley Conference in his freshman year.

In 2005, the year before he was eligible to re-enter the draft, he underwent TJ surgery. It cost him a season, a few spots in the lottery and eventually his curve ball, but he came back strong and quickly. The Boston Red Sox selected Johnson 40th overall in the sandwich round of the 2006 draft and gave him an $850K signing bonus.

Johnson pitched through the Class AA levels successfully through 2008, (he was Pitcher of the Year in the NY-PA League for 2006 and an Eastern League Pitcher of the Week in 2008), and in the 2009 preseason was rated the #16 prospect in the Boston system per Baseball America, his third straight year as a Red Sox Top Twenty Prospect.

He started the 2009 campaign with the Red Sox AAA club at Pawtucket, just a step from the show. But instead of being his segue season, the wheels fell off as he was 3-16 and was sent down to the AA Portland Sea Dogs, where he went 0-3. His season ended with 3-16 record with a 6.35 ERA, and Johnson led the minors with most losses.

He spent the 2010-11 seasons with Pawtucket. Johnson put together a barely passable 6-13, 4.88 line in 2010, and after getting raked in a June, 2011 outing was released and finished the season with the indy Kansas City T-Bones.

The Bucs are always on the lookout for reclamation projects with a special jones for Red Sox prospects, and signed Johnson during the off season. He followed the same pattern; in 2012, he was sharp at Altoona, but had problems when promoted to Indy. Still, the Pirates signed him up again for 2013 and assigned him back to the Tribe.

Working primarily as a starter, he went 10-4/2.39 with a 1.172 WHIP there, a late but welcome breakout campaign. The knock against him had been that he was a nibbler, trying for chases rather than going after the more disciplined hitters in the upper levels. It showed in his walks per game, which ranged from 3.5 to 4.1 in his AA/AAA seasons; it was 2.9 at Indy.

On August 18th, 2013, Johnson was added to the 25 man roster and took his MLB bow against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He pitched six frames of extra-inning relief that day against the Snakes, finally surrendering two runs in the 16th to take the loss. Kris was optioned back to Indy afterwards to bring up a fresh arm, but was quickly back with the first wave of September call-ups.

Johnson made his first start for the Pirates against the Cardinals on September 1st, replacing Jeff Locke. He was clocked, giving up five runs, but later redeemed himself with a couple of clean relief appearances.

He has a three pitch package: a two seamer that averaged 92, a slider/cutter, and a plus changeup. Johnson is historically a 50% GB pitcher that doesn't give up many homers; on the other side of the coin, he's not a strikeout guy and his control isn't consistent.

His 6.17 Bucco ERA was biased by his terrible outing against the Cards; his SIERA was 3.75 and his xFIP 3.95, neither brilliant but both workmanlike. Johnson started out as a pitcher without noticeable splits, but in the past couple of seasons has become more or less a LOOGY. That and the fact that like Brandon Cumpton, he gets easier to hit the second time through the order marks him as a bullpen candidate.

At 29, he's not part of the Pirates' long-term plan , but he could serve a purpose over the next couple of years. Johnson has two options left, and he's a southpaw in an organization that's not deep in LHP. Without too much pressure on the 40-man roster this season, he's got a good shot to be carried over (although certainly not a sure thing) and stowed away at Indy to serve, as he did this year, as an insurance policy for the MLB team.

Pirate Notes

Some Bucco news bits...

  • Rawlings NL Golden Glove finalists: Andrew McCutchen (CF), Starling Marte (LF) and Russ Martin (C). There are three finalists per position, and the winners will be announced tonight on ESPN2. Cutch won his first GG last year.
  • Gerrit Cole joined Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Julio Teheran as Baseball America's All-Rookie Team starting rotation..
  • Marcus of Hidden Vigorish believes that defensive shifts were just a small part of the Bucco defensive line last season; he credits elite OF work, an improved Pedro, control of the running game and a staff that kept the ball in the yard as bigger contributors. Sounds about right to us. 
  • Jeff Zimmerman of MLB Trade Rumors has a model for the expected salaries of FA pitchers on the market. He pegs AJ as worth 2yrs/$24M (tho he expects a 1-yr deal) and Wandy, who is likely to trigger his $13M option, worth just one year at $5.7M after his injury-shortened 2013 campaign.
  • Travis Sawchik of the Tribune Review suggests "It would make a ton of sense for the Penguins and Pirates to form a joint regional sports network, which could provide year-round live content." And it would, once the Bucs are done with their lead balloon Root Sports contract in 2019.
  • SS Alen Hanson will represent the Pirates and Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League All Star game.
  • The Card's Carlos Beltran was presented with the Roberto Clemente Award for his contributions on and off the field.
  • looks at the Bucs AFL roster and in particular Jameson Taillon and Alen Hansen:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Stolmy Pimentel

Stolmy Pimentel, a righty from San Cristobal in the DR, was signed by the Red Sox in 2006 as a 16 year old for $25,000. He was just a skinny kid then, throwing in the high eighties. After a year in the Dominican League, he opened some eyes with his off speed stuff, becoming a Dominican All-Star and the Red Sox Latin Program Pitcher of the Year.

He made the trip to El Norte in 2008, joining short season Lowell, and put up a 5-2 slate with a 3.14 ERA in 11 starts. His velocity was increasing as he grew, and he was a NY-PA League All Star.

The Red Sox thought enough of him to threaten to torpedo the Manny Ramirez trade (known in these quarters as the Jason Bay giveaway ) if the Pirates insisted on Pimentel. They eventually reached a compromise by sending RHP Craig Hansen to Pittsburgh with Brandon Moss and the Bosox kept the youngster that they thought was on track to reach the big club by 2012.

Stolmy was workmanlike the next two seasons, not spectacular, as he was plagued by inconsistent performance. He played with Single-A Greenville in 2009, going 10-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 23 starts. He pitched for High-A Salem in 2010 with a 9-11 slate and a 4.06 ERA in 26 starts. Despite the numbers, he earned a spot in the All-Star Futures Game, retiring the only two hitters he faced, Logan Morrison and Danny Espinosa.

In the offseason, Pimentel signed a one-year, $414K deal and was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. But the upcoming season wasn't a segue to the show. It was a train wreck.

He opened the 2011 season with Class AA Portland, and became a highly touted BP pitcher. He went 0-9 with a 9.12 ERA in 15 starts and was shipped back to Salem. Oddly, he was throwing harder than ever, often touching 97, but his mechanics were a mess.

He was no longer a deal-breaker in the Red Sox eyes, and on December 26th, 2012, Beantown traded him with Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands and Iván DeJesús, Jr. to the Pirates for Brock Holt and Joel Hanrahan. He was the poster child for a change of scenery.

The Pirates dragged him into their Dr. Frankenstein mechanics lab and began to redo his delivery. After all, he was young, and even with his woes had never dropped out of the Red Sox Top 30 Prospects list. His stuff still played when he could get it near the dish.

They worked to get him to come out of the same arm slot; he often overthrew and dropped down. They made his delivery a little quieter and more compact so he didn't have quite as many points to ponder when tossing the horsehide. They threw in the usual focus on fastball command, preached a little trust in your stuff and hey, so far, so good.

He was one of those rare guys who went through three levels in a year, and did better by the counting numbers the higher he rose. His ERA at Altoona was a 3.61 ERA with a 1.409 WHIP and a 7:4 K-to-walk ratio. At Indy, the numbers were 3.13, 1.054 and 3:1. He was called up to the show at the end of August, and in a small sample of 9-1/3IP, his numbers were 1.93, 0.857 and 4.5:1.

Pimentel has four pitches: a four-seam fastball (95.4 MPH) that's his bread and butter, a plus change up, a slider that he began throwing in 2011 instead of his curve and a two-seamer. He's still a power arm and 2/3's of his pitches were the four seamer, mixed in with a healthy dose of changeups and sinkers; he didn't show the slider much in Pittsburgh. As a result, he's kind of an anomaly among Pirate pitchers, showing a ground ball/fly ball rate that's even at 41%.

Where he'll end up is still a debate. Scouts are all over the board; some believe he could be a mid-to-backend starter, while others think that he's destined to be a back end closer with his power arm. His question will be consistency; if he can stay sound mechanically, he's a big league pitcher.

Stolmy has grown into a pretty big kid . We've seen him listed between 6'3"-4" and at 225-230 pounds, so he has the frame to eat some innings. He'll be 24 in February and is out of options, so this will be a big camp for him. He and Jeanmar Gomez will vie for a back-end starting/relief role, and if Pimentel is going to stick as a Bucco, he'll have to break camp with the team.

10/28: Canena, Bob Veale, Nate McLouth, Jimmy Leyland Honored...

Canena, Bob Veale, Nate McLouth, Jimmy Leyland Honored...

  • 1925 - OF Luis Ángel "Canena" Márquez Sánchez was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. One of the first Puerto Rican players in the MLB, he played for both the Homestead Grays (1946–1948) and briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1956), going 1-for-9 with four walks with the Bucs. 
  • 1935 - Big lefty Bob Veale was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He pitched 10-1/2 years for the Pirates (1962-72) with a line of 116-91/3.06 and 1,652 strikeouts. Veale led the league with 250 K in 1964 and had over 200 whiffs four times in his career; his 276 punchouts in 1965 are still a club record. He also led the league in walks allowed four times. 
  • 1981 - OF Nate McLouth was born in Muskegon, Michigan. Drafted in the 25th round of the 2000 draft, he spent his first five big league years (2005-’09) with the Bucs, hitting .256 and earning an All-Star spot in 2008. McLouth was traded to the Braves after his AS season when his value was high and Andrew McCutchen was ready to step in to play center field. 
  • 1992 - Jim Leyland was named the NL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America, the second time he won the award. Leyland received 20 of 24 first-place ballots to outpoll rookie manager Felipe Alou of the Expos. Pittsburgh won 96 games and the division, only to be derailed by Atlanta in a seven game NLCS.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Brandon Cumpton

We've talked about a couple of difference makers in the minors that could join the big team next summer. But there's a guy that was entirely off the radar last year who contributed to the Pirates playoff run, and he has a pretty good shot at showing up on the 2014 roster before Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco. Yep, we're talking Brandon Cumpton, who will turn 25 next month.

The righty was drafted out of Georgia Tech in the ninth round of the 2010 draft and got a cup of coffee with short season State College. He spent 2011 and 2012 climbing the ladder, moving from Bradenton in 2011, and from Bradenton to Altoona in 2012. His work was best described as workmanlike; nothing except a low walk percentage and decent ground ball rate really stood out.

He started 2013 with the Curve and was pretty well lit up in a couple of starts. But with Jeff Locke on the big team and Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin both out for the year, the Indy rotation was thin and he was promoted, much more out of need than performance. And he took advantage of the chance with the Tribe.

Cumpton went 6-7 with a 3.32 ERA, and was solid enough that the Bucs called him up to make a couple of starts in June as AJ's replacement and twice more in July for one-and-done outings. Then he joined the team for the September run.

Brandon went 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA (SIERA 3.47, xFIP 3.40) in 30-2/3 IP, leaning heavily on his 91-92 MPH sinker. He's primarily a two seam/slider guy, with a show-me change he tosses about 10% of the time. Cumpton's not a big arm; he averaged 6.46 K per game, which syncs with his minor league line. But he only walked a batter per nine, and his 54% GB rate earned him gold stars from the Bucco staff.

He did toss a three hit, seven inning goose egg against the Reds, but that went against the norm. The first time around the order, he help opponents to a .151 BA; the second time around, it rose to .233 and the third time through the line up resulting in a pretty lusty .421. Add in that his fastball reportedly reached 95 in his handful of relief outings in the minors the past two years, and it all strongly suggests a career in the pen. Of course, it may also show the need for an effective third pitch since his bread-and-butter offerings aren't swing-and-miss stuff.

In the spring, he'll get a look along with Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel as a back-ender/long man. Both of those guys are out of options, and Cumpton has a pair, which almost assures him a spot at Indy after camp breaks.

But he's got his name in the Pirate book now, and his development is on a path similar to Tony Watson, Justin Miller, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jared Hughes, Gomez and company. He'll start at Indy, but his progression looks like it will lead to a spot in the pen. And it could be sooner rather than later; our guess is that the last three spots will be pretty competitive.

Though team control issues work against him, the Bucs aren't going to sit on their hands during the off season, and the bullpen has some shiny bangles to dangle. In the past year, they've dealt Joel Hanrahan, Chris Resop, Vic Black and Duke Welker while allowing Chris Leroux to go to Japan, so Cumpton can look forward to an opening or two in camp if the Pirates stay true to form - and, of course, some new competition.

10/27: Ralph Kiner, Big Trade, Crawfords v AL All-Stars, Pete Vukovich...

Ralph Kiner, Big Trade, Crawfords v AL All-Stars, Pete Vukovich...

  • 1922 - Ralph Kiner was born in Santa Rita, New Mexico. He led the NL in home runs for seven straight seasons as a Buc. Kiner hit 301 bombs, drove in 801 runs, had a .971 OPS in his eight Pittsburgh seasons (1946-53) and was an All-Star six times. 
  • 1924 - 1B Charlie Grimm, LHP Wilbur Cooper and SS Rabbit Maranville were traded to the Chicago Cubs for RHP Vic Aldridge, 1B George Grantham and 1B Al Niehaus. Cooper was near the end of his career, Maranville would have two more strong seasons with Boston, and Grimm played for Chicago for the next dozen years, hitting .296 with 1,079 RBI and became their player-manager. Grantham hit .300 for six seasons with Pittsburgh and Aldridge won 40 games in his three year stint. 
  • 1935 - According to Charlton’s Baseball Chronology, a touring group of AL All-Stars topped the Negro League champion Pittsburgh Crawfords 7-2 in Mexico City in the final match of a three game stand. Rogers Hornsby drove in three runs against Bert Hunter‚ and he drove in three more the day before when the All-Stars won 11-7. The first game ended in a 6-6 tie. The AL squad featured Hornsby‚ Jimmie Foxx‚ Ted Lyons‚ and Vern Kennedy while the Crawfords roster included Josh Gibson‚ Judy Johnson‚ and Cool Papa Bell. 
  • 1952 - P Pete Vukovich was born in Johnstown. In his 11 year MLB career, he never tossed for the Pirates, but in 1992 he was hired by Pittsburgh as a pitching instructor. Vuckovich served as the pitching coach during the 1997–2000 seasons for Gene Lamont, then worked his way through the organization to become the Special Assistant to the General Manager until joining the Seattle organization in 2012.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco, 22, was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 for $150,000 as a lanky, athletic outfielder who featured physical tools but was still a project. He went through some ups and downs until 2012, when he had his breakout season.

His line at Class A West Virginia that season was .325/.388/.522 with 16 homers and 40 stolen bases, and that got him on the radar. In 2013, he took advantage, rising through three minor league levels to end up at Indy.

Going into that 2013 season, Polanco was ranked as the 50th best prospect in baseball by Minor League Ball (John Sickels), #51 by Baseball America, and #65 by In mid season, Baseball Prospectus jumped Polanco to #12 from a pre-season rank of #44 while he went from #51 to #22 in ESPN's (Keith Law) ratings. He received a bit more recognition when he represented the Pirates at the 2013 All-Star Futures Game.

Polanca started last season at High A Bradenton and by June he was promoted to Altoona. Class AA is the big step in a prospect's career, and after a slow start, Polanco settled in, hitting .263 with a .354 OBP. More importantly, he wasn't overmatched. He walked the same number of times as he K'ed - 36, 12.6% - and showed the plate discipline that's often missing in Latino prospects' games. Polanco got a cup-of-coffee stop at Indy in late August.

He'll start 2014 at Indy - he only got nine AB there last year, with a couple of singles - and the combination of Jose Tabata's (or whomever's) right field performance in Pittsburgh and the lefty's learning curve in AAA will determine how quickly he arrives in the show.

He still has a list of things to check off. His swing tends to be a little long, not too surprising for a tall kid, and he's been making strides in shortening it during the season. Though his strikeout rate is certainly acceptable, he could use a little more two-strike discipline. Polanco's greatest value defensively is his range and his route-running is sometimes circular rather than straight line.

But his plusses overwhelm what appear to be lack-of-experience issues. His overall plate discipline should eventually carry over to his two strike approach. His average has been solid the past couple of seasons, with gap power. That should grow to 15-25 HR power in Pittsburgh. Although listed as 6'4", 170 lb., the reports this summer claim Polanco is now a mature 6'5", 215 pounder.

An outfield of he, Starling Marte and Cutch is a track meet waiting to happen. And he has 30+ stolen base potential. If you think that sounds a lot like last year's report on Starling Marte, it does, except Polanco is a bit more polished. No surprise there, as both hail from Santo Domingo and consider themselves brothers growing up in the Pirate organization. Additionally, he'll provide a lefty stick to balance the OF, and his splits the last couple of seasons have been excellent (.285 v RHP, .291 v LHP).

He's already tearing it up in the Fall Dominican League. That should provide him with a running start as he gets ready to suit up in AAA next season. He'll be added to the 40 man roster this year; and the question isn't whether he'll earn a spot on the active roster, barring injury, in 2014, but when.

10/25-26: Vic Aldridge, Branch Rickey, Jim Rooker, Judy Johnson

Vic Aldridge, Branch Rickey, Jim Rooker, Judy Johnson...

  • October 25, 1893 - RHP Vic Aldridge was born in Crane, Indiana. He only tossed three seasons for the Bucs (1925-27), but bookended those campaigns with World Series appearances. Vic went 40-30-2/3.99 for the Pirates, starting 86 times, and 2-1 in his four WS starts. 
  • October 25, 1955 - Branch Rickey stepped down as the Pirates' general manager, replaced by Joe L. Brown. During the Mahatma's five-year tenure, Pittsburgh’s “Rickey-Dinks” had three 100-loss seasons. Rickey was credited with developing a solid farm system for the Pirates and stayed with the organization as an advisor. 
  • October 25, 1972 - The Pirates traded RHP Gene Garber to the Royals for RHP Jim Rooker. Rooker pitched eight seasons for the Pirates, winning 82 games with a 3.29 ERA before becoming a Buc announcer. Garber pitched out of various bullpens until 1988, winning 96 games and saving 218 more. Over his 19 year career, he saved 20+ games five times, with a high of 30 in 1982 for Atlanta. 
  • October 26, 1899 - 3B Judy Johnson was born in Snow Hill, Maryland. The Hall-of-Famer played and managed for the Homestead Grays in 1929-30 and played later for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, serving as team captain, from 1932-1936. He retired after 17 seasons with a career .290 BA.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jameson Taillon

Gerrit Cole burst on the Bucco scene this season and gave the rotation a much needed boost. In 2014, Buc fans are hoping RHP Jameson Taillon, 21 (his b-day is in November), will provide the same jolt of electricity.

The 6'6" righty was the second pick overall in the 2010 draft, and has progressed through the Pirate system in fairly rapid steps, considering he was just a high school kid when he started. Now he's on track to start the 2014 season at Indy (he joined their staff in August) after stops at West Virginia, Bradenton and Altoona.

He has a pedigree of being a Top Twenty MLB Prospect. Right now, Taillon features a plus fastball (sits at 94-95, touches 99) and a knee-bending curve that's just a little consistency away from being another plus delivery. Like all Pittsburgh pitchers, he's working on a change to keep opposite side hitters honest, and he also has a slider that's not on a par with his heater and hook. He's also working on the Bucco mainstay, the two seamer.

And he still has a couple of issues to focus on. One is a tendency to leave pitches, especially his fastball, up when he overthrows, which is tied into some debate about how he handles himself in jams. There are those who believe he's just not as effective out of a stretch, and others who think those situations are what leads him to overthrow. He has to slow down his game heartbeat, much like Cole is able to do, and trust that his stuff is good enough without adding any extra spice.

His walk rate and command could use some polishing, too. In a small sample size at Indy of just 37 IP, Jameson averaged nearly four walks per nine innings. That was, in justice to him, the only time he's gone over three walks per game in his minor league career. He said it's due to not giving in when behind in a count now that he's in the upper levels as blowing a blazer past a batter doesn't work in AAA. So whether that's a developing problem or a passing phase will be seen this season. But the Pirates want the big guy to last deep into games, and lack of command in the past has led to some unsightly pitch counts.

Aside from his youth and inexperience compared to Cole, Taillon still has to polish up his game if he's going to be the #2 in Pittsburgh. Picking up an effective third pitch, learning to be efficient in the strike zone and staying within himself are not really minor things in the process; they will determine if Jameson Taillon will be a top end or mid level guy in the Pirate rotation.

For all his sheer physical ability, his ERA in stints at West Virginia (3.98/3.37), Bradenton (3.82/3.70) and Altoona (3.67/3.34) has always been higher than his FIP. In three years, his record is 16-21 with a 3.72 ERA, not exactly the counting numbers you'd expect from a dominator. Make no mistake: we're not down on Taillon, but think that the brakes need pumped a little on the Cole 2.0 bandwagon.

For a high school kid, he's been promoted at a fairly aggressive rate by the FO, losing the chance to settle in and blow through a level. And the Pirates do have a pretty standardized teaching process for their pitchers through the system, which results in improved skills but not necessarily improved numbers, so the minor league line isn't always an obvious indicator of future success.

We're waiting for the day Taillon join Cole at the top of the Pirate rotation, and if it's in 2014, all the better. But don't expect Jameson to follow the same trail as Cole; the age, experience, temperament and skill sets don't match. He'll arrive soon enough.

Pirate Notes

In the past couple of days...

  • The Bucs have been doing pretty well by The Sporting News. After capturing Comeback Player of the Year (Francisco Liriano) & Manager of the Year (Clint Hurdle), they have now have added Cutch to their NL All-Star team. He didn't do quite as well in the Player of the Year race, finishing in a tie for fourth with Clayton Kershaw and well behind winner Miguel Cabrera. Since its inception in 1936, three Bucs have won the award - Barry Bonds in 1990, Willie Stargell in 1979 and Bill Mazeroski in 1960.
  • AJ Burnett told WDVE radio that he wouldn't prolong his decision to retire or return. He expects to make up his mind "in a week or so."
  • The Pirates value, according to Bloomberg, is $610M dollars, 23rd in MLB. The average franchise is worth $1B. 
  • Nice fall so far for Bucco young gun Gregory Polanco. He's 10-for-20 with three home runs in the Dominican League.
  • Nathaniel Stoltz of Fangraphs has the report on the Pirates under-the-radar lefty at Altoona, Joely Rodriguez.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pirates - Who Is Coming Back In 2014?

Guaranteed Contracts:
  • RHP Jason Grilli: $4M through 2014; 
  • C Russell Martin: $8.5M through 2014; 
  • OF Andrew McCutchen: $44.25M through 2017;
  • OF Jose Tabata: $11.75M through 2016.
These guys are under team control; JT could be anything from the starting RF'er to trade bait while the other three are key players in 2014.

  • LHP Francisco Liriano: $6M team option through 2014;
  • LHP Wandy Rodriguez: $13M player option (Astros pays $5.5M; 60-day DL)
Liriano will return for sure and Rodriguez is almost a lock to join him.

Free Agents (2013 salary):
  • SS Clint Barmes, $5.5M; The Bucs would like to resign him, but as a bench player and at a bench player's rate.
  • C John Buck, $6.5M; Buck is done being a Buc.
  • RHP A.J. Burnett, $16.5M; The ball is in AJ's court; the FO would probably like to sign him for a year at $12M, but would be wise to tender him at $14.1 M.
  • OF Marlon Byrd, $700K; He'd be a nice short-term fit, but after a strong year will look for some security and a payday.
  • IF Ivan DeJesus, minor league (out of options); Had a nice year (.319), and the Bucs don't have many infield options at Indy, but still a long shot to get added to the roster.
  • RHP Kyle Farnsworth, $1.25M; Bucs might be interested in a minor league deal for him.
  • RHP Jeff Karstens, $2.5M; His career may be done after missing most of two seasons.
  • 1B Justin Morneau, $15M; Too much salary for too little performance, even thought it is the Pirates' position of greatest need.
  • LHP Andy Oliver, minor league (out of options); Wild child will move on.
  • RHP Ryan Reid, minor league (two options left); He could be signed again as a depth option. Reid din't look out of place in his couple of big league outings.
  • OF/1B Jerry Sands, minor league (out of options). Didn't work out.
AJ is the guy they'd really like to re-sign, along with Byrd if he'd take a short term deal (unlikely) and Barmes if he's willing to accept a lesser role.

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time - year) estimated arb value:
  • 3B Pedro Alvarez, 3B (3.085 - 1st year): $4M; He can opt out of his guaranteed $700K to begin arb and certainly will. 
  • 1B/OF Garrett Jones, OF (4.158 - 3rd year Super Two): $5.3M; The Bucs will look for an upgrade here, but may tender/sign him until they land a Plan B as there is no one behind in the system.  
  • RHP Vin Mazzaro, RP (3.021 - 1st year): $800K; Not a lock, but pretty sure to tendered.
  • C Michael McKenry (2.136 - 1st year Super Two): $900K (60-day DL); Also not a sure thing, but makes sense as an insurance policy and possibly Tony Sanchez's backup in 2015.  
  • RHP Mark Melancon, RP (3.098 - first year): $3 M; Mark the Shark will be tendered.
  • RHP Charlie Morton, SP (5.010 - 3rd year): $3.9M; Ground Chuck will be tendered
  • OF Felix Pie, OF (4.028 - 2nd year): $500K; Not a tender candidate.
  • 1B Gaby Sanchez, (4.025 - 2nd year):  $2.3M; Iffy, pending what direction the Pirates go to address first base in 2014.  He adds value as a platoon guy, but is costly as a bench bat.
  • OF Travis Snider, OF (3.091 - 1st year): $1.4M; Iffy as a fifth OF candidate.
  • 2B Neil Walker, 2B (3.166 - 2nd year Super Two): $4.8M; The Kid will be tendered. 
The estimated arb values are taken from Charlie Wilmoth at MLB Trade Rumors

Under Team Control (earliest arbitration year)
  • RHP Gerrit Cole (arb 2017)
  • RHP Brandon Cumpton (arb 2017)
  • SS Chase d'Arnaud (arb 2016)
  • 1B Alex Dickerson (arb 2017)
  • RHP Jeanmar Gomez (arb 2015)
  • IF Josh Harrison (arb 2015)
  • RHP Jared Hughes (arb 2015)
  • RHP Phil Irwin (arb 2017)
  • LHP Kris Johnson (arb 2017)
  • OF Andrew Lambo (arb 2017)
  • LHP Jeff Locke (arb 2016)
  • OF Starling Marte (arb 2016)
  • LHP Kyle McPherson (arb 2017)
  • SS Jordy Mercer (arb 2016)
  • RHP Bryan Morris (arb 2016)
  • RHP Stolmy Pimentel (arb 2017)
  • OF Gregory Polanco(arb 2017)
  • C Tony Sanchez (arb 2017)
  • LHP Tony Watson (arb 2015)
  • LHP Justin Wilson (arb 2016)
A pretty good short term mix. Not many guys are due for arb until 2016, so the FO has some time to both evaluate and budget.

We don't expect a lot of turnover on the team. The amount of movement will depend on whether AJ stays and how the Pirates address the 1B/RF situation, which involves a lot of moving pieces. But maybe as soon as 2015 and almost assuredly by 2016, the farm system will start feeding guys to the big club, and that's when the roster will take on a different look.

10/23-24: The Irishman, Lloyd McClendon, Bill Kuehne, The Antelope, Junior, Rafe, Maz...

The Irishman, Lloyd McClendon, Bill Kuehne, The Antelope, Junior, Rafe, Maz...

  • October 23, 1958 - The Associated Press named Danny Murtaugh as its major league manager of year. After his first full year, the team improved by 22 games and finished 14 game over .500. 
  • October 23, 2000 - The Pirates hired deposed manager Gene Lamont’s batting coach, Lloyd McClendon, as their the new skipper even though he had no prior experience as a manager. McClendon spent his last five MLB seasons in a Bucco uniform. 
  • October 24, 1858 - 3B Bill Kuehne was born in Leipzig, Germany. He played every position but pitcher and catcher, hitting .240 in Pittsburgh (Alleghenys 1885-89, Burghers 1890). His best years were with the Alleghenys, hitting .299 in 1887 and leading the NL with 138 games played in 1888. Kuehne was fleet afoot, averaging 15+ triples per season. 
  • October 24, 1952 - Pirate CF Omar Moreno was born in Puerto Armuelles, Panama. “The Antelope” played eight years in Pittsburgh (1975-82) and led the league in stolen bases twice, swiping 487 sacks as a Buc. He hit .333 against the Orioles in the 1979 World Series. 
  • October 24, 1959 - C Adalberto “Junior” Ortiz was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Junior caught for the Bucs from 1982-83, spent a year with the Mets, and came back again between 1985-89. In seven seasons, the reserve hit .264 as a Pirate. 
  • October 24, 1961 - SS Rafael Belliard was born in Pueblo Nuevo, Dominican Republic. He played his first nine seasons (1982-90) in Pittsburgh as a good glove shortstop, hitting .218 during that time but ranking first in the NL in fielding percentage in 1988. Belliard went on to play the second half of his career in Atlanta, and was part of the ‘91-92 teams that eliminated the Bucs in the NLCS. 
  • October 24, 1972 - Bill Mazeroski retired from the Pirates after 17 seasons. He only played 34 games and hit .188 in his final campaign as a bench infielder.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pittsburgh - Bullpen 2014

The Buc bullpen was a mainstay last year, at least until September. And everyone should be back - Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez and company.

But while the relief corp spent a long time among the league's elite, they finished the year just 14th in WAR.  It's not that they fell off the earth; the guys had an ERA of 2.89 with an xFIP that was 3.59, third and seventh in MLB. The strand rate of 78.3% was top five, and the GB rate was 52%; they were the only pen in baseball to generate half their outs in the dirt.

No, their problem is that they were toodependable and called on too often. They worked 545-2/3 IP, fourth in the league and with more frames under their belts than even the woebegone Astro firemen. So as a unit, the first thing they need to keep on keepin' on is some help from their starters. Even with those innings, they were among teams with the fewest appearances, a tribute to the multi-inning abilities of the staff. Still, the inability of the rotation to get deeper into games may have contributed to their late season stumble.

It wasn't a complete September meltdown; the ERA over the last 30 days was 3.40 with a 3.24 xFIP. But along with the workload, regression also reared its head - the BABIP skyrocketed to .330, even with the GB rate holding at 52%,  and the strand rate, as a result, dropped to 71%.

To Clint Hurdle's credit, no one reached 75 IP, even with Grilli out for a few weeks. But four guys worked 70+ innings, and that's a hefty workload, even if spread out.

That regression may show up next season. Jason Grilli was the only one of the seven that had an ERA higher than his xFIP in 2013; Jeanmar Gomez's was about the same, and he'll be looking for a rotation spot in 2014.  Mark the Shark was the only one of the remaining five who didn't have a spread that was less than a run, so the potential for a sabermetric day of reckoning in 2014 certainly exists. 

For those guys, you can zero in on three areas: average K rates, high strand rates and low BABIP averages. But before we go into doom and gloom mode, there is a bright spot, and it's one the Pirate FO has always recognized - year-to-year performance is basically a crap shot among relievers because of their small sample size.

Grilli has performed at a high level since joining the Pirates, and looked like he was getting back into his old groove in his later performances, with his velocity and movement coming back. Mark the Shark may have to alter his cutter heavy approach a bit and work RH batters tight more often instead of living on the outside half. Tony Watson has a pair of strong seasons back-to-back, and in 2014 gave up a little punch-out power to focus on his command and busting batters inside.

Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris, though, are poster children for future regression. All three have just so-so K rates and high walk rates that they got away with last year. Unless they improve their command in 2014, they could be due for a crash.

The Bucs won't sit around and wait to see if that happens; the bullpen is the one position on the team that turns over by design, both because of Pittsburgh's management philosophy and because they FO doesn't believe in sinking much money into the relive corp. 

Among returning players, Jared Hughes had a tough year, and if Ryan Reid and Kyle Farnsworth return, it will be with minor league deals. Kris Johnson, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin could vie for roles, along with Zack Thornton. Gomez and/or Stolmy Pimentel are in the mix if they can't claim a rotation spot. So they do have some minor league depth options, though not much at the back end after losing Vic Black and Duke Welker. 

The Pirates are pretty good at evaluating bullpen arms, the occasional Joe Beimel/Chad Qualls to the contrary. They have guys stashed away in the minors awaiting conversion (Mark Melancon is the only guy in the bullpen who spent his pro career as a reliever), and have a nice eye for picking up FA and players on minor deals.

One other thing to look for: Neal Huntington said, "This is an area we can trade from," which makes for an interesting off season dynamic. So the Bucs aren't locked in, and in fact the only constant in their bullpen is change. 

Awards, Pirate Notes

Notes 'n' stuff...

  • Gerrit Cole made Baseball America's All-Rookie team.
  • Clint Hurdle is The Sporting News’ 2013 NL Manager of the Year.
  • Francisco Liriano was TSN NL Comeback Player of the Year. David Manel of Bucs Dugout has no issue with that selection, but uses WAR to determine who should really get the honor.
  • Jim Benedict, a special assistant with the Bucs, is being interviewed by the Phillies for their pitching coach job. He's known as the Bucs' back room pitching mechanic, so maybe the Pirate ways are beginning to get noticed by other teams around the league.
  • Frank Coonelly and a staffer accepted a City Council Proclamation sponsored by Corey O'Connor that recognized the achievements of this year’s Pirates team and declared Tuesday, October 22nd to be “Pittsburgh Pirates Day” in Pittsburgh.
  • Justin Morneau may not be on the Buc radar, but he's on Colorado's, writes Troy Renck of the Denver Post.
  • Brian Zarpentine of Rant Sports posts that the Mets are still trying to figure out what they have with RHP Vic Black, part of the Marlon Byrd return.
  • Jim Leyland hung 'em up Monday; baseball won't quite be the same without that leathery visage sneaking a smoke on the bench and scorching baby Bonds' ears.
  • The Reds hired pitching coach Bryan Price to replace Dusty Baker. He'll get a little further out of the box than the old-school Baker. Price was pushing to get Aroldis Chapman out of the pen and into the rotation.
  • About time. Buster Olney of ESPN reports that MLB is getting ready to ban plate collisions. They should have done in 1970 when Pete Rose steamrollered Ray Fosse out of a career during the All-Star game for no discernible reason other than product branding.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pittsburgh - Starting Pitching 2014

One thing for sure is that the Buc core in 2014 will consist of Francisco Liriano, 29, Gerrit Cole, 23, and Charlie Morton, 29, and that's a pretty fair - and young - trio to hang your hats on. But questions remain.

Will AJ Burnett, 37, return? He would certainly help bridge the gap between the young Buc arms in the system and the upcoming season. AJ's a free agent who has said that it's 50-50 if he comes back, although he did add that if he did, it would be as a Bucco. The Pirates, for their part, have said they wanted him back and should tender him, which would be the equivalent of a one year, $14.1M contract. So that's one storyline.

Wandy Rodriguez is another. He has a $13M player option that he would be foolish to not exercise after missing most of the season. But what Wandy will return? The steady mid-rotation guy or a 35 year old with tendinitis and arthritis in his money arm?

Beyond those five are a lot of possibilities, but no sure things. Jeff Locke, 25, had a second half meltdown. There are those that believe he was a sabermetric disaster waiting to happen, with his walk, BABIP and strand rates being unsustainable. Others think that he was just ground down in his first full big league season. A third gang believe his fundamental approach needs to be more aggressive. Still, it's hard to write off ten wins and an All-Star selection even if he appears to be veering toward the same career path as J-Mac.

RHPs Jeanmar Gomez, 25, and Stolmy Pimentel, 23, are expected to be in the mix for starting roles going into the spring. Gomez lives by his sinker resulting in a 55% ground ball rate, so he's a fit into the Pirate scheme. Pimentel features a fastball/slider menu and averaged almost a K per inning in his brief September audition. Both are out of options, so they'll get a close look in their use 'em or lose 'em scenario.

RHP Jeff Karstens, 31, is probably out of chances after another season spent in the whirlpool.

RHP Brandon Cumpton, 24, and LHP Kris Johnson, 29, both showed some promise in brief appearances, but the pair are back-enders and may be better suited for relief roles. That may be especially true for Cumpton, who had a 0.00 ERA for innings 1-3, but from innings 4-6, the second time around in the order, he shot up to a 4.61 ERA.

RHP Phil Irwin, 27, who had ulnar surgery early in the year, is pitching in the Arizona Fall League and may have a shot at a back-end spot. RHP Kyle McPherson, 26, who was the pundits' choice to land the last rotation spot during 2013 camp, instead lost the season to TJ surgery and isn't expected to be back until mid-summer.

Everyone has high hopes that RHP Jameson Taillon, 21, (5-10/3.73) will prove a Cole clone and charge into the dog day frays as a Bucco, but we're not so sure. Cole was older, a college player, and more polished. We'd look more for a 2015 ETA for Taillon, without writing out a shot at 2014. His 2013 counting numbers could use some buffing.

The pitching pipeline doesn't end with him. RHP NIck Kingham, 21, (9-6/2.89) will start at either Indy or Altoona and should be right behind Taillon in the show. LHP Joely Rodriguez, 21, (9-8/2.70) will be at Altoona. RHP Tyler Glasnow, 20, (9-3/2.18) will open in High A Bradenton while RHP Luis Heredia, 19, (7-3/3.05) will be in Low A West Virginia.

Some guys on the market that could interest the FO are (with K/BB, % sinking pitches thrown, GB rate, SIERA, xFIP) :

  • RHP Dan Haren 10-14/4.67 Washington: 8.01K/1.64 BB; 55.9%-cutter/sinker, 36% GB rate; 3.60 SIERA, 3.67 xFIP. His second half was strong (6-4/3.52), but he'd prefer to play on the Coast where his family is.
  • RHP Tim Hudson 8-7/3.97 Atlanta: 6.51K/2.47 BB; 33.3%-cutter/slider; 55.8% GB rate; 3.75 SIERA 3.56, xFIP. The Braves are deciding whether to tender him or not to make room for their young guns.
  • RHP Josh Johnson 2-8/6.20 Toronto: 9.18K/3.32 BB;  45.1% GB rate; 33%-two seamer/offspeed; 3.73 SIERA, 3.58 xFIP. Two time All-Star with a couple of down years, but his peripherals are all in line.LHP Chris Capuano 4-7/4.26 LA Dodgers: 6.9 K/2.04 BB; 46.4% GB rate; 35% change/curve; 3.87 SIERA, 3.67 xFIP. He and the Dodgers have a $6M mutual option to decide upon for 2014.
  • RHP Tim Lincecum 10-14/4.37 San Francisco: 8.79 K/3.46 BB; 46.6% GB rate; 40.7% curve/change/ 2 seamer; 3.75 SIERA, 3.56 xFIP. He's said to be looking for a one or two year deal to rebuild his value. Red flags are that his velocity is down a couple of ticks from 2011 and his walk rate is pretty high. To further complicate matters, the Giants are expected to tender an offer, which would add a draft pick to the compensation package. (EDIT - The Giants signed him for 2 years/$35M)
  • RHP Edinson Volquez 9-12/5.71 Padres/Dodgers: 7.5 K/4.07 BB; 47.6% GB rate; 58.6% sinker, curve, change; 4.36 SIERA, 4.20 xFIP. Some compare him to the old Francisco Liriano, with good stuff but bad command. Our major concern is that he's dropped from 93.6 to 92.5 in fastball velocity from 2012 to 2013, and that shouldn't be for a healthy pitcher who is just 30.
And there are trade options;  Brett Anderson, Ian Kennedy and Jake Peavy come quickly to mind, while David Price, Max Scherzer and Cliff Lee are always fun names to toss out. We're sure that Neal Huntington is turning rocks and exploring corners beyond our limited radar.

The Pirates will be in the market for a starter, maybe two, for 2014. The direction is undetermined yet; they'll want at least one mid-rotation guy as Wandy insurance, and may look for a #2-type pitcher if AJ decides to STFD; they'll have his allotted contract money to play with in that case.

They will also bring some bodies in as they did last year; they do a good job at coaching guys into ground ball machines. The FO has a philosophy in being eight deep in starting pitching (not often met, we admit), and right now they have three-man core to build around.

10/22 - Expo Exhibition, Jughandle Johnny, The Possum, The Hat, Keith Osik...

Expo Exhibition, Jughandle Johnny, The Possum, The Hat, Keith Osik...

  • October 22, 1885 - Pittsburgh hosted a world series that it wasn’t even part of. The 1885 World Series was an ad hoc post-season playoff road show between the NL champion Chicago White Stockings and American Association champion St. Louis Browns, played in four different cities. The fifth game was played at Recreation Park in Pittsburgh. The weather was cold and fewer than 500 people were present. Chicago won 9-2 in a shortened game that was called after seven innings because of darkness.
  • October 22, 1895 - RHP “Jughandle Johnny” Morrison was born in Pellville, Kentucky. He worked eight seasons (1920-27) for the Pirates with an 89-71 record and 3.52 ERA. Johnny made three appearances in the 1925 World Series against Washington, striking out seven in 9-⅓ frames.
  • October 22, 1916 - Announcer Jim Woods was born in Kansas City. He was a sidekick of Bob Prince at KDKA from 1958-69, where he was known as The Possum. He also worked for the Yankees, Cardinals, Athletics and Red Sox, finishing as a national announcer for the USA Network.
  • October 22, 1916 - Harry “The Hat” Walker was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Walker was hired in 1965 to replace Danny Murtaugh, who stepped down for health reasons. The Pirates contended for the pennant during the 1965 and 1966 seasons, finishing third behind the champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the runner-up San Francisco Giants both years. But when the 1967 Pirates stumbled to a .500 mark in mid-season, Walker was let go in favor of his predecessor, Murtaugh. He did leave his mark, though, as an offensive mind on the organization. Walker, btw, got his nickname from his habit of continually tugging at his cap between pitches during his playing days.
  • October 22, 1968 - C Keith Osik was born in Port Jefferson, NY. He was a catcher and all around utility guy. Osik played for the Bucs from1996-2002, hit .231, and even pitched twice to save the bullpen arms in blowout games.

Monday, October 21, 2013

10/20-21: Jocko, Marc Wilkins, Giusti & the Comeback Kids...

Jocko, Wilkins, Giusti, Expo Exhibition, Comeback Kids, Jughandle Johnny, The Possum, The Hat & Osik...

  • October 20, 1864 - UT John “Jocko” Fields was born in Cork, Ireland. Jocko played everything on the field, hitting .265 as a member of the Alleghenys (1887-89), the Burghers of the Players’ League (1889) and the Pirates in 1890.
  • October 21, 1970 - RHP Marc Wilkins was born in Mansfield, Ohio. He spent his entire six season MLB career (1996-2001) as a Bucco reliever (he started two games as a rookie), putting up a line of 19-14-3/4.28 and appearing in 70 outings during 1997.&
  • October 21, 1969 - RHP Dave Giusti and C Dave Ricketts came over from from St. Louis for 1B/OF Carl Taylor and OF Frank Vanzin. Giusti spent seven years in the Buc bullpen and earned 133 saves.
  • October 21, 2013 - LHP Francisco Liriano (16-8. 3.02) was named the Sporting News “Comeback Player of the Year” for 2013. The runner up was RHP Mark Melancon, the Bucs set-up/closer arm, and third place went to OF Marlon Byrd, who the Pirates picked up from the NY Mets during the stretch run in late August.

Pittsburgh - Outfield 2014

The storyline of the Buc outfield will be who gets to play beside stalwarts Andrew McCutchen, 27, and Starling Marte, 25. Cutch is a three-time All-Star and undoubtedly the man in Pittsburgh, while Marte put together a pretty solid season after getting his feet wet in 2013 with a .280/.343/.441 line and a .784 OPS with 12 homers, 86 runs and 41 stolen bases to go with dazzling defense and elite speed.

According to Fangraphs, Cutch had an 8.2 WAR and Marte put up a 4.6 rating, and that's about as solid a pair you can put in the pasture. But who will settle in at right field to fill out the dance card?

The spot was pretty much a mess until Marlon Byrd came over, but his stay is likely to be done. After restablishing his brand in New York and Pittsburgh, The Byrd will be looking for a little security and a bit of a payday, and the Pirates aren't likely to commit to anything but a short term deal, maybe a year with an option, for the 36 year old, even if he does fill an immediate need.

Jose Tabata, 25, had a nice bounce back, and his September line (.282/.341/.427 with 2 HR, 10 RBI) is quite similar to Byrd's (.309/.345/.414, 2 HR, 10 RBI). Tabby's OPS didn't show much of a split at .778 v RHP and .742 v southpaws, a split that's held up over his career although it may be a small sample size anomaly, as he's only had 336 PA against LHPs. He's a steady defensive player though he's lost a step or three from his rookie days.

Of course, JT has had bursts before when he's looked like an everyday player, but inconsistency, erratic power and injury (he hasn't reached 400 at-bats since his rookie year because of those factors) have derailed that train of thought in the past; he's the original yo-yo kid. So the Pirate question is whether Tabata has matured or again being a tease, so they're reluctant to cede the RF spot to him. But there is little question that he'll be in the mix, as at least the fourth OF if not a regular.

The Pirates don't have much in the way of returning guys to challenge for a position. Travis Snider, 25, is in his first arb year, and his return is iffy. In his favor are age, being lefty and relatively inexpensive cost; against him is his .226 BA and .627 OPS as a Pirate. But he could remain a bench option.

Alex Presley is gone to greener pastures at Minnesota, and Felix Pie isn't expected to get a repeat invitation. Garrett Jones has been a fallback in right - and that may be a better position for him defensively than first - but he's also treading on thin ice.

Unlike the infield, the outfield is one Pirate pipeline that's flowing. Andrew Lambo, 25, is an immediate candidate to at least get a look in RF in camp; he had a breakout year in the minors and during his cup of coffee stay in Pittsburgh - remember when September used to be audition instead of crunch time? - looked comfortable at the plate. He has some pop to his stick, and looks like a newer model of Jones; he may, depending how the off season goes, get a look at first as well as right.

Which would probably be a good move for the Bucs in solidifying the future, as Gregory Polanco, 22, is rising with a bullet. He'll start the year in Indy, and if he doesn't arrive in Pittsburgh by mid-summer, he'll be expected in 2015 to claim the RF spot, and with the ability to fit into the middle of the lineup.   

The list of OF'ers in the organization is long and strong. Guys with the potential to be special players, beside Polanco, are Josh Bell, Barrett Barnes and Austin Meadows, while Mel Rojas Jr., JaCoby Jones and Harold Ramirez have shown big league potential.

The Pirates are set with Cutch and Starling starting and JT back in one role or another. Short term depth is an issue, and the FO may look at a stop-gap guy to fill in the roster. But they're not going to commit to anyone long term, and may well decide to cover right field in-house. It's a position that they've managed to stock well; Cutch at 27 is the old man of the group (unless Byrd returns), with the rest being 25 or younger.

In 2015, barring the unforeseen, Marte-McCutchen-Polanco will man the OF, with JT as the fourth man and some of the young guys starting to arrive at the upper levels. Aside from pitching, this is one area the Bucs have that's sustainable.

Pirate Notes, 2013 Highlight Vid

  • Charlie Wilmoth of MLB Trade Rumors gives his offseason outlook for the Pirates. He writes that " wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Pirates do something dramatic this offseason. It's an important time for baseball in Pittsburgh, and the team has money to spend."
  • Michael Barr of Fangraphs has an article on Russell Martin that has a fantasy baseball slant based on Russ' regression at the plate.
  • Drew Brown put together a pretty nice vid of the 2013 Bucco season we thought you might enjoy.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pittsburgh - Third Base 2014

Yep, we know there are still lots of fans waiting for Pedro to move across the diamond. All we can say is don't hold your breath; there's not a 3B within sight in the organization, and El Toro, despite throwing away a couple of dozen balls annually, is becoming competent at the spot. The plays he's made, both routine and out of zone, increased noticeably this season, even if the first base fans can count on getting a bonus free ball every so often as part of the package.

His UZR/150 is -0.4, but that's better than Adrian Beltre, Placido Polanco, Carlos Sandoval, Aramis Ramirez, Chris Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and David Freese, so it's not like he's an absolute sore thumb with the mitt. Beside, he did tie for the NL lead in homers and drove in 100 runs, so the Bucs are unlikely to fix something that is not broken, at least in the near term.

What is broken isn't so much his mitt as his eye against lefties. His line screams for a platoon partner, and the Pirates haven't been able to come up with one. Force feeding him to southpaws hasn't helped. In 2012, with 152 PA, his LH line was .207/.270/.279 with six HR and a .648 OPS. In 2013, the numbers were .180/.252/.286 with a .537 OPS and three homers in 147 PA.

As mentioned, the Buc organization is as bare as Lady Godiva at the hot corner, and after Pedro, there isn't much in the big league dugout, either. Josh Harrison is second on the depth chart, and both Jordy Mercer and Gaby Sanchez have played the spot sparingly. So the lowdown is that it's Alvarez's position; he doesn't even have a platoon guy (remember Brandon Inge?) to give him a blow.

The Bucs seem comfortable with Harrison and a middle infield glove guy for their 2014 bench, so the most likely patch on the third base hole will be to pick up another Jason Goedert type (though he didn't work out quite as planned) to stash at Indy in case of emergency. They could take another route and look for a guy like Mark Reynolds, who can play either infield corner and while not exactly a lefty masher does have a lifetime .834 OPS against LHP, though it dropped to .725 last year.

Pedro is the man for the next three years. He can opt for arbitration this season, and certainly will as it's been bandied about that his take home could jump to $5M in 2014 from $700K. So he's under team control through the 2016 season.

Make no mistake, though - this is a position the Buc FO will have to address, and not in the very far future. The Pirates have three years of control for Pedro, and they need to develop a plan for his successor. They have several routes between player development to the market they can choose to take, and it's one they need to begin travelling soon.

Pirate Notes

A few weekend notes...

  • Travis Sawchik of the Tribune Review gives the pro and con of the Pirates sustainability, balancing the veteran free agents now on the roster being replaced through the farm system.
  • Matt Kajtka of City of Champions makes his case for Cutch batting second.
  • Pedro dropped the anchor, a Vanderbilt pre-game ritual, Saturday before the Georgia game. It's the second time he's dropped anchor; the first was in 2011 with other ex-Commodore ball players Mike Baxter, Ryan Flaherty and Matt Buschmann. 
  • RHP Phil Irwin made his first appearance after May surgery in the Arizona Fall League, and looked pretty good. He went three innings, retiring eight batters in a row. 1B/OF Alex Dickerson is holding his own after six games with a .292 BA and .745 OPS, though 11 K in 24 AB is a bit of a small sample red flag.
  • After a slow start, SS Alen Hanson is hitting .286 in the Arizona Fall League. The Dominican League just started, but OF Gregory Polanco has homered in both games he's played.
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects noted that the Bucs sent minor league 2B Jimmy Rider, who was born in Pittsburgh and went to Kent State, to the Red Sox for a PTBNL in a housecleaning move.
  • It ends up that the Cards' Michael Wacha wasn't just a Bucco killer in the playoffs; he owned the Dodgers, too. The righty is the third rookie starter to win two games in NLCS (the first was Bucco twirler Tim Wakefield in 1992; the other was Tim Belcher in ’98) and was named NLCS MVP. Watching him and Gerrit Cole toss in the NL Central for the next few years will be special.
  • Speaking of the division, the player the Pittsburgh fans love to hate, Brandon Phillips of the Reds, may not be around to boo next season. He's reported to be on the block this off season.
  • In case you're wondering when the hot stove league begins up in earnest, free agents can declare and begin negotiating five days after the World Series ends. The Winter Meetings are scheduled for December 9th-12th, with the Rule 5 draft on the last day.
  • And in case you were on a football binge yesterday, it's a St. Louis-Boston World Series on tap.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pittsburgh - Shortstop 2014

This is an unsettled position for the Pirates. Jordy Mercer, 27, will be back, and we think the odds are even that Clint Barmes, 36, will be, too. The Bucs don't have confidence in Mercer's everyday ability to turn grounders into outs, as seen by all the post-season starts that Barmes picked up. But his bat plays.

Mercer raked against lefties, hitting .410, but hit only .247 against RHP, which went counter to his minuscule sample size in 2012. This should  be the year that the Pirates put him out to sink or swim. But they also could decide that his calling is as a reserve middle infielder, flip Mercer for Barmes, and go looking for an everyday guy. The more notable available are:

Stephen Drew, 31, who is on the way out at Boston with Xander Bogaerts ready for showtime. He's coming off a $9.5M contract with a .777 OPS, and is a steady, dependable fielder. The lefty has a fair-sized batting split, so he'd be a nice match with Mercer.

Yunel Escobar, 30, has a $5M option for 2014 and 2015. The Rays could also exercise his option and trade him. He hit .256 with a .332 OBP, including nine home runs and 56 RBI. Escobar is also a plus fielder.

Jhonny Peralta, 32, is a bat-first guy that may or may not become available; Detroit is still toying with moving him to third in view of Jose Iglesias strong D-play, so his availability is up in the air. His stick is an upgrade, and his splits aren't a problem.

Rafael Furcal, 36, of the Cards who underwent TJ surgery in March, would be a stretch.

A look at the trade market has Jurickson Probar, 20, from Texas and Alexei Ramirez, 32, of the White Sox both being dangled, but their asking price is unknown; we can bet it will be high.

If they go with Mercer everyday, the preference is to bring back Barmes with a contract that reflects his role as a bench guy rather than starter, and how that sits with him is the key to his return. We'd expect him to at least dip a toe in the market. If he finds greener pastures, there are a couple of glove-first bench guys that could interest the Bucs. Chief among them would be:

Alexi Casilla, 29, the Orioles backup, who suffered concussion in late September. He's generally a .245 hitter who went through a bad year, finishing with just a .214 BA, but that may be explained by a bad-luck .247 BABIP.

Cesar Izturis, 34, of the Reds is a veteran presence with a .260 lifetime BA and decent glove skills.

Brendan Ryan, 32, is another glove guy who's had a very challenged bat the past two seasons, putting up .194 and .197 BAs.

Again, the minor league system is void of help at the upper levels. Chase d'Arnaud has been challenged both hitting and fielding, and Ivan DeJesus hasn't recovered the range to play SS again. Alen Hanson will open at Altoona with some questions as to his ability to stick at short. Gift Ngoepe has the glove and wheels to play in the show, but his bat is weak, with a .minor league career .228 BA (.177 at Altoona, his highest level).

10/18-19: Cash-for-Brett, Cup Finale, Jose Bautista, Harry the Hat, J-Mac, Don Leppert...

Cash-for-Brett, Cup Finale, Jose Bautista, Harry the Hat, J-Mac, Don Leppert...

  • October 18, 1900 - The Brooklyn Superbas won the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup three games to one with a 4-1 win at Exposition Park as Joe McGinnity outpitched Sam Leever. The series was a challenge match sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph (bought by the Pittsburgh Press in 1924) between the top two NL teams in an era before post-season games. It was a fruitful learning experience for the runner-up Pirates, which went on to win the next three NL pennants and played in the first World Series in 1903. The lessons didn't quite sink in for the Superbas. The Brooklyn club didn’t win another postseason set until 1955, when they claimed the World Series title as the Dodgers. 
  • October 18, 1973 - The Pirates shipped 2B Dave Cash to Philadelphia in exchange for LHP Ken Brett. Cash was being phased out for Rennie Stennett, but still had seven years and three All-Star games left in him. Brett went 22-14 with a 3.32 ERA for Pittsburgh in two seasons and made an All-Star team before an elbow injury slowed him down, and like Cash still had a long shelf life. He pitched seven more years after leaving the Pirates, although he wasn’t really effective again after 1976.
  • October 19, 1931 - C Don Leppert was born in Indianapolis. He had a brief four year MLB career as a reserve catcher, starting with Pittsburgh in 1961-62 and batting .266. But he made the record books by hitting a home run on the first pitch thrown to him in the show on June 18th, 1961, against Curt Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals in a 5-3 Bucco win. Leppert managed the Pirates’ Class A Gastonia club in 1967 and then served as a MLB coach for Pittsburgh from 1968–1976. 
  • October 19, 1964 - Harry “The Hat” Walker was named manager of the Pirates, replacing Danny Murtaugh after an 80-82 season and sixth place finish in the NL. 
  • October 19, 1980 - 3B/OF Jose Bautista was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He played for the Bucs from 2004-08, and hit .241 with 43 HR during that time. He blossomed after being traded to Toronto, leading the AL in homers twice. 
  • October 19, 1984 - James McDonald was born in Long Beach, California. The righty came to Pittsburgh in 2010 as part of the Octavio Dotel deal, and was an up-and-down member of the rotation until 2013 (when he was released), going 27-24/4.21 in his Pirate years. He had a breakout campaign in 2012 until after the All-Star break when the wheels fell off, and he never recovered.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pittsburgh - Second Base 2014

Pretty simple, hey? Neil Walker has owned the spot since the short-lived reign of Akinori Iwamura in 2010. And that's not a bad thing. He's been a pretty consistent .275-.280, 12-15 HR guy and his fielding has improved every year at the position, one that he had played all of 21 times in the minors.

But a leak or two has sprung. The 28 year old had back problems that cost him a month in 2012, and an oblique took him out of action this season. He's a big guy for a middle infielder at 6' 3", 210 lbs and he may continue to have flexibility issues; it's hard to play second without dives, pivots and high slides.

More worrisome is the switch hitter's splits. In 2010-11, he was equally as dangerous from either side regarding his BA, though he did slug better from the left side. But in the last two years, a widening gap has emerged. In 2012, his line against righties was .291/.352/.472; against southpaws it was .246/.314/.288. The OPS was .824 v .612.

It was worse last year. Against RHP, The Kid's line was .256/.350/.455; against southpaws it was .225/.281/.238. The OPS was .805 v .518. Opposing managers have certainly noticed; Walker regularly gets turned around to the right side in the late innings, turning him from a blaster into a blooper. And the answer is not, as been floated around, to make him a full-time lefty. If you can't hit LHP from the right side, moving across the box doesn't seem like a promising fix.

It appears the league has gotten a little book on him batting from the right, and that in effect has made him, by the numbers, a platoon player. But with who? Jordy Mercer rakes lefties, but he's at short when they're on the hill, and Clint Barmes hits lefties every bit as badly as Neil, if he returns. Josh Harrison's career line against lefties is .256/.290/.346 with a .636 OPS, an improvement but not of very great magnitude.

Except for that lefty-righty thing, we wouldn't be too concerned about his hitting. True that he went icy during the playoffs, but his regular season performance, though streaky, matched his prior years in all his peripherals but batted ball in play, so it seems that he ran into a little bad luck with his BA in 2013.

His fielding is adequate and has gotten better, as his UZR/150 has improved every year, but he's never been mistaken for rangy, although he is excellent on balls in the air. Walker will be a fixture for the near term at the position. He's under team control through 2016, entering his second arb year (he was a Super Two player). The Kid made $3.3M last year and should be due a nice bump, and it looks like neither side is real interested in talking about a contract beyond then, when Walker will be entering his age 31 season.

This is another spot where the Pirates are dangerously thin, which is true of their entire infield. After Harrison and Mercer, there is no one behind him in the organization. Ivan DeJesus and Chase d'Arnaud were at Indy. DeJesus didn't make the 40-man roster, though he has MLB experience and hit .319 at Indy. He'll be a minor league FA and likely part with the organization. We're surprised that the Pirates didn't show a little more interest in him, but we'd guess they were looking for a little more glove.

d'Arnaud had hip and hand injuries, playing just 61 games at Indy  while hitting .233, and didn't get a September call. He does have an option left, so he could possibly return, although he's also in a liability in the field. And behind them is basically nothing exciting, unless Alen Hanson moves from SS to second. Though 20, he may be approaching the big team's radar scree as he's already at Altoona.

It should be noted that the second baseman of the future, Dilson Herrera, was sent to the Mets as part of the Marlon Byrd deal, and he and Hansen were the middle infield up-and-comers.

It's a position with a long and proud history in Pittsburgh, from Bill Mazeroski to Dave Cash to Rennie Stennett to Johnny Ray to Phil Garner to Carlos Garcia to Freddy Sanchez to Neil Walker. But the Pirate emphasis on stockpiling pitchers is having an impact on the everyday player pool, and there is no near term help in the organizational pipeline.

So we'd expect to see Neil manning the infield for awhile. He may get a blow every so often against a lefty, but he's the lynchpin. The Bucs won't get anyone to challenge him, but bide their time until a homegrown guy can make his way to Pittsburgh, whenever that may be; remember, there was no heir apparent when The Kid was moved from third to second.

Pirate Notes...

The season is over, but the wheels keep turnin'...

  • Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors has a piece on the upcoming free agency of AJ.
  • The injury report: RHP Phil Irwin is back from his ulnar nerve injury and working a few frames in the Arizona Fall League. RHP Jeff Karstens is in the rehab stage of his rotator cuff/labrum surgery. LHP Wandy Rodriguez is expected to ready for camp after being shut down with arthritis/tedinitis/inflammation. C Mike McKenry is due to return from his knee surgery in March. RHP Kyle McPherson's return from TJ surgery is expected to be in July. 
  • While on injuries, Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs has a "PAIN" table to calculate which pitchers are likely to be pitching hurt. LHP Jeff Locke leads the list, and by a wide margin.
  • RHP Jameson Taillon's season has ended. He suffered a minor groin tweak, and the Bucs are shutting him down. And that's probably OK; he worked 150 frames between Altoona, Indy and the Arizona League. The Bucs would have liked to add a couple more innings to his count, but he's sitting at about the same IP total that Gerrit Cole entered the 2013 season with.
  • Speaking of Taillon, he, OF Gregory Polanco and RHP Nick Kingham made Baseball America's Top Twenty Prospects list for the AA Eastern League.
  • Jim Callas of posted that OF Josh Bell is ready to join the Top 100 Prospects list.
  • Baseball America liked the Pirates 2013 draft a lot - they named it the top draft class of the year.
  • The Pirates announced they've added a ninth minor league affiliate: Bristol, Virginia of the rookie Appalachian League (much akin to the short-season PA-NY leagues).
  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has a piece on RHP Josh Johnson, and places the Pirates among a gaggle of clubs that fit his mold if the Blues Jays let him hit the market. 
  • The Cleveland Indians signed RHP Matt Capps to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pittsburgh - First Base 2014

If the Bucs have a black hole in the lineup, this is where it's at. They expected the Garrett Jones - Gaby Sanchez platoon to give them league average or better production in 2013, but only got that performance from Sanchez.

Gaby matched his 2008-11 Marlin OPS this year, though with many fewer at bats and did his job as the RH half of the platoon with a .984 OPS and solid glovework. But with a .618 OPS against righties, he's a one-way player, not an everyday answer.

Jones, unfortunately, did not have much of a season, and his August swoon was the reason the Bucs gave up Alex Presley and Duke Welker for a month of Justin Morneau. Pittsburgh protected him well against lefties, but his .241 BA and .731 OPS didn't get the job done. Pittsburgh is constructed in such a way that their 1B has to be a middle-of-the-order bat, and neither Jones nor Morneau came through in the cleanup spot.

To add to the problem, Garrett is a Super Two and has two more years of arbitration; he's a cinch to make $6M in 2014, and that's a lot for a platoon guy that's not producing. Enough, anyway, to make the 32 year old's tender a very iffy thing, depending on whether or not the FO can come up with a fix. The Bucs have just a couple of ways to deal with the situation, other than to keep Jones/Sanchez together again.

Keeping Morneau is another option, but his age, declining production and hefty contract all work against a return, as does his mediocre month with the Pirates.

The most obvious course is to cross their fingers and hope that Andrew Lambo becomes what Garrett Jones was expected to be. He didn't put together the greatest line last year - .233 with a homer - but only batted 30 times. He didn't look overmatched, and is under team control for the next six years. If Lambo can provide some pop, the Bucs will have their platoon tandem in place and at an affordable pay rate, as Gaby is going into his second arb year and will probably pull in around $3M.

But that's an awfully risky decision, and one without a net; there is no obvious replacement on the roster or in the upper levels. Indy's Matt Hague, 28, is still around. He led the International League in hits with 153, but doesn't have the power the Bucs want from the spot. The Bucs gave him some at-bats in 2012 (OK, just 70), and his .229 BA and .257 slugging % soured them to the point that he was dropped from the 40-man roster.

Alex Dickerson had a breakout year to get on the radar at Altoona. He rode a hot June and July to a .288/17/68 line for the Curve. But the 23 year old from Indiana U (Bloomington) has never played at the AAA level, so even if he continues to beat baseballs, he's not a candidate for 2014.

He and Matt Curry, 25, were the two guys that were supposed to provide first base depth, but Curry lost virtually all of the 2013 season because of hamate surgery. Curry did show some promise at Altoona in 2012, hitting .285 with 34 doubles; he's more of a gap hitter than long baller. He has to reestablish himself.

Stetson Allie, the converted pitcher, was Babe Ruth at West Virginia, but couldn't put a ball in play when he jumped up a level. A possible, down-the-road replacement may be Josh Bell. The highly touted pick from the 2011 draft blew out his knee in 2012, but at West Virginia last season came back with a .279/13/76 line. He's listed as an outfielder, but the Pirate system brims with those guys, and a move to first as he advances could help clear a spot for him.

1B is not a position of strength in the Pirate organization, and while there may be some future help, there's nothing on the horizon. The best solution would be to find a free agent that could give some stability to the position for at least the next couple of years.

The Bucs were said to be in play for Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, 27, but with his estimated price tag said to be approaching $70M, he's not hangin' out in the usual Pittsburgh financial neighborhood. We wouldn't eliminate him entirely out of hand, rumors being just that, but that would be an expensive and out-of-character roll of the dice for a team that can't carry too much dead money.

Mike Napoli, 31, might interest the Bucs. The Boston first baseman is a grinder at the plate, although a streaky hitter, and is a 20+ HR player since 2008. His .840 OPS against same side pitchers and ability to play the position well makes him an everyday guy. He makes $13M this year, not terribly more than the Jones/Sanchez platoon would haul in.

Tampa Bay's James Loney, 29, could get a look. His splits weren't terribly wide last year, making him a potential everyday player, although his career stats indicate he'd be probably be more productive as part of a platoon. The upside is that he's only making $2M in a year where he rebuilt value from his Dodger days; the bad news is that he hit just 13 homers, and that the Rays are making a run at keeping him.

The Brewers' Cory Hart, out all season with a pair of knee surgeries, could get his tires kicked by the FO. The creaky joints make him a risk and he's a big strikeout guy, but his power, OPS and decent splits could merit a look.

Seattle's Kendrys Morales, 30, could make sense, too, as an all-bat option. Morales just finished arbitration - he made $5.5M - and is looking for a big contract which he may or not be able to land, being more a DH than position player. It's thought that the Mariners plan to tender him, and that would cost a draft pick beside the signing bonus, which goes against the Pirate grain even if they're picking 27th this year.

Mark Reynolds, 30, is also a FA, but his low average, high K profile is already taken by Pedro; we're not enamored of the two of them beside one another in the lineup. But he is another big-bat option that can play either infield corner and can probably be had for a price the Pirates could afford.

Finally, we'd be remiss without mentioning Mark Trumbo of the Angels; oft rumored but never offered; ditto for the Marlins' Logan Morrison. Maybe this is the year they hit the market.

We think this is most likely to be the position they redo. They have in-house options for RF and SS, and the 1B market isn't as threadbare as it was last year.

10/17 - Bucs Win '71, '79 Series vs Orioles, Bats Go Icy Against Braves, Staying Alive In Chronicle-Telegraph Cup...

Bucs Win '71, '79 Series vs Orioles, Bats Go Icy Against Braves, Staying Alive In Chronicle-Telegraph Cup... 
  • 1900 - Pittsburgh avoided being swept in the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup series by nickle-and-diming Harry Howell for 13 singles and 10 runs. Tommy Leach reached base five times and scored four runs. Ginger Beaumont had three hits, and Claude Ritchey, Honus Wagner and Bones Ely added a pair. Deacon Phillippe threw a six-hit shutout for the win at Exposition Park, although the Pirates still trailed the best-of-five series two games to one. 
  •  October 17, 1971 - Steve Blass hurled a four-hitter and Roberto Clemente homered as the Pirates won Game Seven of the World Series, 2-1, at Baltimore, earning Pittsburgh its fourth World Championship. The winning run scored in the eighth, when Jose Pagan doubled home Willie Stargell. Clemente hit safely in all seven games of the series, a feat he also accomplished in 1960 against the Yankees, extending his consecutive Fall Classic hitting streak to 14 contests. He also became the first Latino player to earn World Series MVP honors after batting .414. Bruce Kison and his best man Bob Moose were taken from Memorial Stadium by helicopter to a waiting Lear Jet to attend his wedding in Pittsburgh; the groom arrived just 33 minutes late. And though it was a bright moment for the club, it wasn’t for some fans. After the game‚ 40‚000 people ran wild downtown; many were arrested and at least 100 were injured‚ some seriously.

Topps - 1971

  • 1979 - In Game Seven at Baltimore, President Jimmy Carter opened the game with a ceremonial pitch and Willie Stargell finished it by going 3-for-4 with his third World Series homer, lifting the Pirates to a 4-1 win and their fifth World Championship. Captain Willie gave the Bucs a 2-1 lead in the sixth with his blast. Kent Tekulve worked out of a bases loaded jam in the eighth and Pittsburgh tacked on a pair of ninth inning insurance runs to take a 4-1 victory, with Grant Jackson earning the W. Pops was named Series MVP after the Pirates erased a three-games-to-one deficit to rally past the Orioles. 60,000 fans greeted the team at the airport when they arrived home at 3AM, with thousands more lining the parkway. Baltimore, which planned a victory parade two games prior, still held one the next day and drew 125,000 for their beloved and now bedraggled Birds. The game was big - an estimated 80 million people, then the largest TV audience in the history of the World Series, watched the showdown. 

 Willie Stargell Serigraph by LeRoy Neiman

  • 1991 - In Game Seven of the NLCS, Brian Hunter's two-run shot in the first inning off John Smiley was all John Smoltz needed as he tossed a 4-0, six hit whitewash against the Bucs at TRS. Atlanta won their first NL pennant since their move from Milwaukee as the Pirates failed to score in the last 22 innings of the series. The Braves lost the World Series to the Minnesota Twins four games to three in one of the most dramatic championships in the MLB annals.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pittsburgh - Catching 2014

The MLB pieces for next year's catching duties are in place, with Russell Martin, 30, and his apprentice Tony Sanchez, 25. Martin was a shot in the arm, using his background of catching for the Dodger and Yankee staffs and transferring that knowledge to Pittsburgh's hurlers.

Russ came as advertised; low BA, decent OBP and some pop (.226/.327, 15 HR, 55 RBI) with a strong presence behind the plate. He also came reputed to have a good glove and command of the staff. He led all catchers defensively per Fangraphs, and his WAR of 4.1 was fourth among receivers.

He's also not exactly cut out of the usual catching mold physically; he and Sanchez are both athletic. And that's pretty clutch if you're wiggling fingers at the Pirate pitchers; their sinkers, sliders, hooks and change ups bounce to the plate as often as they cross it.

Sanchez is going to be a storyline in the coming year. He was called up when Mike McKenry went down in late July and wasn't given a whole lot of opportunity. He hit .223 in 60 AB with a couple of homers, and looked pretty comfortable at catching an in-the-dirt staff. But he worked just 112 IP and really didn't get to wet his feet very much. So with the catching job wide open after the 2014 season, we'd expect to see the Pirates trot Tony out behind the plate a little more often. 

The third guy in the mix is Mike McKenry, 28, everybody's favorite little engine that could. He's had a couple of clutch hits as a Bucco and is tough as nails, catching several innings in his last outing on a knee that would require surgery.

But The Fort, for his heroics and Pirate folk lore, has a lifetime OPS of .666, and that's jacked up by his 2012 outlier year. His OPS was .598 in 2011 and .610 last year.

His defense is OK, but he has troubles with baserunners. In two years, his toss-out rate is 16.5%. Russ Martin's rate was 40% (although it is misleading to have a top gun as your comparable; the league average was 27.5%). In a very small sample of 112 IP behind the plate, Sanchez threw out just 16.7% of the wanna-be stealers 1-of-6), but his 2012-13 Indy percentage of 26.5%. is probably a better indicator of his arm.

At any rate, The Fort should be back by the process of elimination; the minors are fairly barren above the Class A level. McKenry has an option left, and will almost surely start at Indy, partly to rehab fully from knee surgery and partly because he'd only be a block on Sanchez in Pittsburgh, especially with Martin's contract in the walk year. McKenry isn't due for arbitration until 2015, although with 2.136 years of service, he's almost a lock to qualify as a Super Two player. Either way, he won't be cost-prohibitive, and it would be smart to keep him around until the catching situation for 2015 becomes a little clearer.

John Buck, 33, who Pittsburgh picked up with Marlon Byrd for reasons unknown, is a MLB free agent and shouldn't be of much interest to the Pirates because of high cost and average defense.

The upper levels of the Buc organization are pretty thin with the loss of Sanchez. Indy's Lucas May is a minor league FA and will likely move on. Carlos Paulino, a good glove guy, will take his place. Defensively, he's big league, but his bat has never come around. Jacob Stalling is cut from the same mold and following in his D-first footsteps. Charlie Cutler will join Stalling in Altoona; he's the better bat but not highly regarded with the leather.

The toddler end of the farm has some projected potential, although predicting the future of young catchers is more art than science. (Remember Neil Walker?).

Wyatt Mathiesen, 19, was a second round pick in 2012. After a promising start his first year, last season was kinda lost. He was moved aggressively to Low A West Virginia as a teen in 2013, and didn't have a very strong year with the bat (.185). Likewise, he wasn't impressive receiving the ball, though he did have a 26% toss-out rate).

Generally considered the top prep catching prospect in the draft, Wyatt spent some of his HS playing time at SS and P, and didn't get a lot of reps at catching. He also had shoulder surgery last season, so it's hard to tell if he was moved a little faster than wise or was trying to work through a bum wing. This will be a year for him to reestablish himself. Mathiesen is the most athletic of the trio, and could, ala Walker, be shifted to another position.

Jin-De Jhang, 20, is Taiwanese and was an international signing in 2011. He's a good hitter, batting .288 in two minor league campaigns, although he's beginning to show some split gaps (he bats from the left side). Defensively, he's the furthest behind of the prospects, and the Pirates have been careful to move him along a step at a time to build his mechanical base.

McGuire, 18, was a first round pick (14th overall) this year, and acted like one in his GCL and Jamestown performances. He is the most likely of the trio to move smoothly through the Pirate system, as he's already got a background in some of the more intrinsic catching arts, like pitch calling, handling a staff, etc. as he began behind the dish in little league. His bat is the question, and we'll see how that plays as he advances.

 Mathiesen, Jhang and McGuire are on track for Low A West Virginia this year, and it will be interesting - and maybe telling - to see how the Bucs break up the log jam. Our guess is that McGuire will be the top guy for the Power, backed by Mathiesen, with Jhing getting some work in Florida and then rejoining short-season Jamestown.

The Pirates are three-deep in MLB catchers for next year, and have some promise in the lower levels of the system. They're covered fairly well now unless Russ Martin goes down, but from 2015 and for the next couple of seasons will depend on Tony Sanchez to man the dish for them until the youngsters in Low Class A make their move through the system.