Thursday, April 20, 2017

2017 Bucs - Some Swerves In the Road

First it was Jung-Ho Kang and now it's Starling Marte, two guys who were counted on to generate an attack until their hands got caught in the cookie jar. Now they're both on the reserved list with Kang's return TBD and Marte gone until July 18th.

Kang's absence has been ameliorated by the play of David Freese who may lack JHK's power but holds his own in OBP and OPS+. Marte will be a horse of a different color.  The Pirates shed outfielders like a German Shepherd sheds fur - Matt Joyce & S-Rod were allowed to go in free agency and the minor league prospects like Keon Broxton, Willy Garcia, & Harold Ramirez were all jettisoned.

Still, the Pirates intend to replace Marte internally; there really is no market player available (Jeff Francoeur, Sam Fuld, Coco Crisp and Alejandro De Aza) to fill the bill. The FO saw fit to leave the fourth outfield spot vacant when constructing the 2017 roster. We assume their thought process was that Austin Meadows would be MLB-ready by All-Star break and that the reshuffled Three Amigos would play the vast majority of innings no matter who was on the bench.

Osuna joins an undistinguished bench (photo via MLB Pipeline)

Jose Osuna was called up in his stead, even though he is primarily a first baseman who is sometimes thrown into the pasture. Cutch was returned to center to his delight and Gregory will remain in left, although there have been worries that his list of nagging injuries may be in part due to covering the much more spacious PNC Park acreage this year. But right field, that's now a poser.

Adam Frazier would seem the natural choice, although yesterday John Jaso, another lefty, got the nod. If they're going to employ a platoon system, the likely RH suspects would be Josh Harrison and Alen Hanson along with Osuna. Josh Bell could also get a look as outfield was his original spot, although we don't think the club is ready to pull the plug on his first base experiment.

Marte will enrich the club by $2.5M by spending half the season on the reserved list and if Kang is also hors d' combat for the same amount of time, that's another $1.375M tossed in the kitty. If the Pirates are still viable in July, they should have the financial means to go after guys who are rumored as trade bait. That list now includes Lorenzo Cain of the Royals, Carlos Gomez of the Rangers, Jay Bruce of the Mets and probably all of Toronto's outfield along with whomever else will become available as teams drop out of the running. Remember, Starling is ineligible for the post-season, so if the Bucs are still alive at All-Star break, they'll need someone who can be a playoff OF'er.

Freeser & Cutch have been the glue guys in the early going (photo Pittsburgh Pirates)

As for the team's performance so far, the kids are learning their jobs at an acceptable at a predictably inconsistent rate while the vets, with the exception of Freeser & Cutch, are off to the usual April start, which is to say meh. Andrew looks like he's in seventh heaven over his return to center; we'll see how that works out (we think he'll do well, not just because of his attitude adjustment but because we think the brass may have positioned him poorly last year; they had TMI on their hands). But as usual the Pirates just can't seem to kick it in gear until the sun beams.

The current Bucco batting philosophy is based on OBP with the theory being that if you pile up enough runners some will have to score eventually. It worked last year when the club's OBP of .332 led to 4.5 runs per game, sixth in the NL. This year the OBP has dropped to .302 and the runs/game to 3.2, one run from the cellar. The culprit is obvious - the Pirates don't have any muscle. They put up a slugging % of .402 last year and an ISO of .144; in the first 15 games of 2017 those numbers are .342 and .113. Small sample size, yes, but without Kang and Marte, there's not much proven power on the club and buying some biceps costs money that the Pirates have shown no interest in allocating for that purpose.

Fraze has been this year's super-sub (photo Pittsburgh Pirates)

The loss of Kang and Marte filtered down to the bench. Freeser and Fraze were expected to be the dugout mainstays, but David is now the full-time hot corner guy and Frazier is getting semi-regular time. The rest of the bench consists of Stew, John Jaso, a vet off to a slow start, journeyman Phil Gosselin, and puppies Alen Hanson & Jose Osuna. The group is not only missing a fourth outfielder, but there is no glove man for the middle and isn't very well constructed this season. If Meadows makes it to the show this year, it won't help the pine if his arrival means Cutch 's departure.

The fielding and base running have been pretty bad; the team has never been very fundamentally sound during Clint's tenure, although that could be as much the fault of the club culture of versatility and aggressiveness throughout the system as any coaching shortcomings in Pittsburgh. Still, a jack-of-all-trades like S-Rod is a good thing to have but expecting four Rodriguez's on the bench may be asking a bit much. The running game has be taught at the earliest levels and apparently isn't part of the Pirates baseball curriculum. Que sera, sera...

The pitching has been good. Pirates starters are sixth in the league in ERA (3.241) and strong in walks allowed, a long-time burr, and though more fly-ball oriented than in past years, solid in preventing home runs.

JT, Cole Train, Ivan & Cool Chad have been rock steady (photo Dave Arrigo/Pirates)

Gerrit Cole has gotten better every game and Ivan Nova has shown no signs of an NL sophomore jinx. The development of Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl has been remarkably smooth. The only question that remains is whether the Pirate decision to continue Tyler Glasnow's education in the majors will pay off and that's TBD. It's most encouraging to see the rotation going six or seven innings now. They're working fairly efficiently and Clint is giving them that one more inning that often spells the difference between a rested relief corp or a bullpen that's run into the ground.

The pen hasn't been as solid as hoped with a 4.47 ERA (4.04 xFIP). The back end has held up as Felipe Rivero has been lights out but Tony and Huddy, while both counting-number effective, have red flags. Watson's ERA is 1.50, but his xFIP is 6.14 and he averages six walks/nine. Hudson's concern is the 48% fly-ball rate; he's always been a fly-guy from the mound, but it's the first time he's been over 40% since 2010. Trevor Williams and Wade LeBlanc have done generally well as the odd couple. Juan Nicasio is feelin' it again as a bridge man, but Antonio Bastardo, well, not so much.

The prognosis? The Pirates didn't do the greatest job of roster construction this year and the loss of Kang/Marte only exacerbated it. The shuffling of positions hurts the defense - heck, they never even got to test their new outfield alignment but twice in the spring - and the base running game, both by and against the Bucs, needs some serious revamping.

But pitching will carry you pretty far. The Pirates top four guys look pretty strong and hopefully Glasnow will carry his weight by All-Star break or so. The team will get Starling and maybe Jung-Ho back sometime during the season; if they can hang in until the ASG it could be interesting. But we're not feeling it - too little offense and too many questions in the pen make it hard to compete consistently. Still 80-85 wins is possible and a lot of young guys should come of age.

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