Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

Happy and blessed New Years to you and yours!

Pellas: Hanny Deal, Future Trades?

GW commentator Will Pellas weighs in on the Hanny deal and the possibility of another move in the works:

The trade of Joel Hanrahan to Chowdah Nation was one of the more significant deals of GM Neal Huntington's tenure. The Pirates probably did about as well as could reasonably be expected, given Hanny's "Hanrattacks" last season and given that Joel is carrying more than a few extra pounds around his waistline.

Add in the fact that he is in his free agent walk year, and unfortunately there wasn't as much leverage for the Pirates to work with as would have been the case had they traded him last year. If they had done that, though, the natives (probably including both Ron and me, to be honest!) would have stormed the Bastille. So, you win some, you lose some.

Of the players the Pirates acquired in exchange for Hanrahan and overachiever utilityman Brock Holt, I am cautiously optimistic about relief pitcher Mark Melancon and believe he is a good bounceback bet.

It would be great if 1B/OF Jerry Sands became a mirror version of Garrett Jones - and let's all hope that he will - but Sands hits righthanded and isn't able to handle same side pitchers very well (lifetime MLB lines - .314 BA/.904 OPS v LHP; .204/.589 v RHP).

On the other hand, by virtue of hitting lefthanded, Jones is more useful because he can play against "opposite handed" pitchers much more often. So you have two very similar players in Sands and Jones, but unfortunately the younger, cheaper guy is less likely to be on the field than the older, more expensive guy. Jones is arbitration eligible this winter and coming off his best production since his incredible half season debut for the Pirates in 2009. As a result, he will cost more than a player with his respectable but not great career resume should.

I'm not expecting anything from trade throw-ins Pimentel and DeJesus, but Brock Holt couldn't play any position other than second base, and he didn't even do that particularly well. DeJesus at least can catch the ball and he can definitely play shortstop.

Holt brings up another point, though. The real issue with the Pirates' utility infielders is that Clint Hurdle "Ciriaco'ed" not only Ciriaco himself, but also Jordy Mercer. Ciriaco would have been a GREAT help to this team as a utility infielder and he would be ideally positioned to become the Pirates' starting shortstop after Clint Barmes almost certainly leaves town at the close of the 2013 campaign.

But the Pirates blew it with him the same way they've blown it, repeatedly and at great loss to the team, with their, ahem, "evalutions" of many other young players over the years. That happens in all organizations, of course, but such mistakes are greatly magnified in small markets where it's unlikely that the team can just buy a major league ready replacement for such mistakes off the shelf.

At the end of all this rumination and dealing, you would think that another trade is pending. Surely the Pirates can't go into 2013 with all of the part time/platoon 1B-DH-OF types on the roster at the moment. Jones, as previously noted, is getting a tad expensive in arbitration, and Sanchez is arb-eligible, too. MLB Trade Rumor's Matt Schwartz has their arb figures pegged at $4.4M for Jones and $1.8M for Sanchez.

Beyond these two there are Sands and Clint Robinson. Both are guys who were on the same career path that Jones was before he came to Pittsburgh in what must surely be one of the most effective minor league free agent signings of all time. That is, both Sands and Robinson were more or less trapped in the upper minors because their progress in their original organizations weas blocked by established major leaguers immediately above them.

Sands didn't sniff the field at Fenway Park after going to Da Sawx, stuck at Albuquerque until the season's end to remain eligible as the PTBNL in the deal. Boston obviously didn't think much of Sands because they conceded 1B to the distinctly underwhelmling and underachieving James Loney - who ironically was his blocker in LA - instead of taking a look at Sands. They passed him off to the Pirates without giving him a single at-bat in anger with the organization. Another yellow flag for his future in Pittsburgh, perhaps, but he has nothing left to prove in the minors and is at least worth a look.

Turning to the outfield, it's pretty clear that either Tabata, Jones or Presley will leave town this offseason. If I had to guess which one would go, it would be Presley, since as the team is currently constructed, you have Snider and Jones as outfielders who hit lefthanded. I much prefer "The King" to Tabata, particularly for the fourth outfielder role, but Tabata is (supposedly) a little younger and also has a team friendly long term deal in place. Of course that same contract could make Tabata very attractive to other clubs.

Looking at all of this it's hard to escape the conclusion that one more deal, maybe a big one, is very likely in the works. You could get quite a return from a Jones/Tabata/good prospect package. Maybe even the next starting shortstop, since it is apparent that that will not be Jordy Mercer or Chase d'Arnaud as long as the current regime is in charge.

In the aftermath of a trade like this, it would mean a right field platoon of Sands and Snider, with Presley as the fourth outfielder. Hmmm....that would leave the Pirates a bit thin in terms of outfield depth. So, perhaps an additional prospect along with Jones instead of Tabata. There are many possibilities, but I'll make this prediction: maybe not two, but definitely one from among Jones-Tabata-Presley will be traded before spring training.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2013 Roster Outlook

What would the Pirates look like if they went to camp with today's roster?

Starting Pitching:
  • Returning: RHP AJ Burnett, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP James McDonald, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Kyle McPherson. 
  • Added: LHP Francisco Liriano, LHP Andy Oliver.
  • Gone: RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Jeff Karstens.
  • In Reserve: LHP Justin Wilson, RHP Phil Irwin, RHP Rick Van Den Hurk, RHP Gerrit Cole (at some undetermined point), RHP Charlie Morton (mid-season).
Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald and Liriano will form the rotation, joined by the winner of the Locke-McPherson battle for the fifth starter. There's a lot of potential upside to the staff, but a lot of questions, too - will AJ and Wandy show their age, can J-Mic put together a full season, can Franky find the strike zone, and will the fifth starter at least provide a KC-type performance? Cole could be ready sometime this summer, and Morton too, along with some back-end candidates at Indy, so there is some depth to the rotation this season.
  • Returning: RHP Jason Grilli, RHP Jared Hughes, RHP Tony Watson, RHP Bryan Morris, RHP Chris Leroux.
  • Added: RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Zach Stewart, RHP Vin Mazzaro, LHP Mike Zagurski, LHP Philippe Valiquette.
  • Gone: RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Chris Resop, RHP Chad Qualls, LHP Hisanori Takahashi, RHP Daniel McCutchen, RHP Evan Meek, LHP Doug Slaten.
  • In Reserve: RHP Vic Black, LHP Justin Wilson, RHP Chad Beck, RHP Hunter Strickland, RHP Duke Welker.
The Bucs are set from the seventh inning on, so it's a matter of filling in the pieces. We look for a couple more veteran arms to be brought in as camp draws nearer. If Grilli or Melancon aren't up to the back end jobs, Morris should be ready to step in.
  • Returning: Mike McKenry.
  • Added: Russell Martin.
  • Gone: Rod Barajas, Eric Fryer.
  • In Reserve: Tony Sanchez.
Not very deep; none of the position spots save the OF are. The Bucs overpaid for Russell, but are hoping for a little better offense and a lot better run-game defense than Hot Rod provided. 
  • Returning: Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley.
  • Added: Jerry Sands, Felix Pie, Darren Ford. 
  • Gone: None.
  • In Reserve: None.
Cutch is the only dependable player in the group, but there is lots of upside and depth. The best thing the Pirates could do is set a regular playing rotation for the group instead of the shotgun approach they took last season and suffer through the growing pains. We'd expect a Marte, McCutch, Snider/Sands platoon. Felix Pie may be best suited as an extra OF'er among the rest of the gang. This is Pirates deepest position, and youngest in terms of experience. It's also likely that one or two players will be dealt to help clear the logjam, either in a minor move or perhaps as part of a Garrett Jones package.
Corner Infield:
  • Returning: Pedro Alvarez (3B), Garrett Jones (1B), Gaby Sanchez (1B).
  • Added: Clint Robinson (1B), Jared Goedert (3B).
  • Gone: Jeff Clement (1B), Nick Evans (1B).
  • In Reserve: Jeff Larish (1B), Matt Hague (1B).
Paper thin, and there is still a possibility Jones will be moved before the season. Alex Dickerson and Matt Curry are in the upper levels of the system, though neither is MLB ready yet, if ever.
Middle Infield:
  • Returning: Neil Walker (2B), Clint Barmes (SS), Jordy Mercer (SS), Josh Harrison (UT), Chase d'Arnaud (UT).
  • Added: None.
  • Gone: Brock Holt (2B), Yamaico Navarro (UT).
  • In Reserve: Ivan DeJesus Jr. (UT), Anderson Hernandez (UT).
The starters are fine - we expect a bounce back year from Barmes - but again, there's no depth behind them. We're sorta surprised the FO hasn't picked up a veteran bench middle IF'er yet. Could be they think that job is Harrison's to lose.

On paper, it appears that the pitching is deep enough this year, and so is the outfield. But most of the Pirates' top prospects are in A ball, so a couple of injuries could really derail the club.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Boston, LA...Huntington's Go-To Teams

It seems like every year since Neal Huntington has been GM that the Bucs, Red Sox and Dodgers have something brewing, whether it's a deal, an exchange of minor leaguers, FA signings or whatever; all three teams have a sharp eye on the others' systems. Ever since the Jason Bay trade that involved the three clubs in 2008, at least a pair of transactions have occurred between the teams every following season:

  • 12/26/2012 - Pittsburgh traded RHP Joel Hanrahan and 2B Brock Holt for 2B Ivan De Jesus, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Stolmy Pimentel and LF Jerry Sands.
  • 11/28/2012 - Pittsburgh traded RHP Kyle Kaminska (PTBNL) for RHP Zach Stewart.
  • 11/2/2012 - Boston signed free agent UT Drew Sutton. 
  • 6/7/2012 - Pittsburgh claimed UT Oscar Tejeda.
  • 5/12//2012 - Pittsburgh purchased 1B Jeff Larish's contract. 
  • 1/3/2012 - Boston signed free agent SS Pedro Ciriaco.
  • 12/7/2011 - Pittsburgh signed free agent LHP Erik Bedard.
  • 12/14/2011 - Pittsburgh signed free agent LHP Kris Johnson.
  • 11/13/2011 - Boston signed free agent LHP Justin Thomas
  • 6/13/2011 - Pittsburgh traded for C Mike McKenry for cash/PTBNL.
  • 5/31/2010 - Pittsburgh traded C Josue Peley for OF Jonathan Van Every.
  • 12/1/2010 - Pittsburgh signed free agent C Dusty Brown.
  • 1/20/2010 - Boston signed free agent 2B Ray Chang.
  • 7/22/2009 - Pittsburgh traded 1B Adam LaRoche for SS Argenis Diaz and RHP Hunter Strickland.
  • 1/27/2009 - Boston signed free agent C Carlos Maldonado. 
  • 7/31/2008 - Pittsburgh traded OF Jason Bay for RHP Craig Hansen and OF Brandon Moss. 
Boston has got some big boys from Pittsburgh - Jay Bay, Adam LaRoche, and Hanny - as salary dumps. Pittsburgh has got a bunch of unrealized upside in return. Mike McKenry and Eric Bedard are the only Bosox refugees that had any impact, and Bedard was a FA. Brandon Moss had a breakout year; unfortunately, it was in Oakland.

Mark Melancon has a chance to be a key contributor in 2013, while Sands and Stewart both are possibilities to break camp this year. Pimentel is intriguing but running out of time, and Strickland landed on the 40-man roster.
LA Dodgers:
  • 12/26/12 - Pittsburgh traded for OF Jerry Sand & IF Ivan DeJesus (from Boston, but both were basically pass-throughs from the LA system).
  • 12/21/2012 - LA signed free agent 3B Dallas McPherson.
  • 11/19/2012 - LA signed free agent 1B Nick Evans.
  • 12/13/2011 - LA signed free agent RHP Jose Ascanio. 
  • 11/10/2011- Pittsburgh signed free agent C Rod Barajas (he replaced Russell Martin in LA).
  • 4/26/2011 - Pittsburgh claimed OF Xavier Paul off waivers (Jerry Sands was called up to replace him in LA).
  • 11/22/2010 - LA signed free agent LHP Dana Eveland.
  • 11/11/2010 - LA signed free agent C Hector Gimenez.
  • 7/31/2010 - Pittsburgh traded RHP Octavio Dotel for RHP James McDonald and LF Andrew Lambo.
  • 4/15/2009 - Pittsburgh traded RHP Eric Krebs and RHP Harvey Garcia for OF Delwyn Young.
  • 2/26/2009 - LA signed free agent IF Doug Mientkiewicz.
  • 1/16/2009 - LA signed free agent RHP Ron Belisario (who's been on the restricted list more times than Hannibal Lecter). 
  • 7/31/2008 - Pittsburgh traded OF Jason Bay for INF Andy LaRoche and RHP Avery (Bryan) Morris.  
LA won the first round, getting Manny Ramirez's hot stick. After that, Pittsburgh has found their catchers, for better or worse, as free agents previously employed by the Dodgers. It was another City of Angels' win when they allowed Barajas to walk; AJ Ellis did a fine job for them at $490 K, while Barajas collected $4M for a pretty forgettable season. It's quite the catcher's merry-go-round with LA: Barajas replaced Russell Martin in LA, who the Bucs just signed, and Ellis replaced Barajas, who Martin has just replaced in Pittsburgh. Got that straight?   

But it all evened out with the Dotel-for-McDonald trade. LA got 18 innings from Octavio, while the Pirates have a starter who's had a couple of late-year meltdowns but has also been very good for long stretches.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ivan DeJesús: Pittsburgh's Junior

Ivan DeJesús, 25, is the newest Bucco, and if his name sounds familiar to the older fans, it's only because it should. He's the son of Ivan DeJesús, Sr, a shortstop who spent 15 years (1974-88) in the majors, 13 in the NL. Junior was only three years old when his dad retired as a player, but got to soak up plenty of baseball vibes with Senior, who has been coaching and managing since, even scoring his son a gig as batboy.

Junior was born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and went to high school at American Military Academy. He was drafted in the second round (51st overall) of the 2005 draft by the Dodgers and inked with a $675K bonus as an 18 year old.

He signed on early enough to play 53 games between the GCL Dodgers and the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer Baseball League, both short-season rookie divisions, and hit .290. Like his dad, he was a shortstop.

In 2006, he advanced to the Low A Sally League with the Columbus Catfish. DeJesús hit .277 and stole 16 bases, but for the second year his slugging % was lower than his OBP, as he showed just occasional gap power. Still, Baseball America had him as the Dodgers’ sixth best prospect and LA's best defensive infielder after the campaign and showed enough for another promotion.

DeJesús moved up to High A San Bernardino's Inland Empire 66er's squad of the California League in 2007. He hit .287 and even banged out 22 doubles while walking at an 11% rate. At the end of the year, he was rated as the #12 Dodger prospect by and #13 by Baseball America

Junior continued moving up a step at a time, which is a pretty fast track for a high-school draftee, now with the Jacksonville Suns of the Class AA Southern League. DeJesús had a breakout season, batting .324 with a .419 OBP and .423 slugging %, ending the campaign with a 23 game hitting streak.

He was selected as Southern League All-Star and played in the 2008 All-Star Futures Game. DeJesús was selected to the Baseball America Minor League All-Star Second Team as a second baseman and their #6 Dodger prospect. The Dodgers named him their 2008 Minor League Player of the Year.

To keep his roll going, DeJesús played in the 2008 Arizona Fall League and was chosen as a Rising Star, and followed that with a stint in the Puerto Rican Winter League. His glove, line drive contact and ability to draw walks was getting him on the radar screens.

The Dodgers gave him a non-roster invite to camp during 2009 spring training after his big year, but that may not have been such a blessing. Just as his star was on the rise, DeJesús broke his left leg in a home plate collision during an exhibition game and had a rod inserted in his tibia. He missed virtually the entire year, getting into four rookie rehab games at the end of the season.

In 2010, he went off to the Class AAA Albuquerque Isotopes of the Pacific Coast League. DeJesús was flipped in the infield, getting a lot more time at second than short, a concession to his leg. He still hit pretty well, banging the ball around at a .296 rate, with the caveat of being in the hitter heaven of the PCL. DeJesús wasn't nearly as disciplined at the dish, earning just 32 free passes, not quite a 6% rate. Still, it was a decent enough bounce back after a big-time injury.

He broke 2011 camp with the Dodgers, but got into just 17 games, hitting .188 with 11 whiffs in 35 at-bats before being sent down. DeJesús did get to share the field briefly with his dad, though, on April 22nd at Wrigley Field. He came on as a defensive sub late in the game against the Cubs, while Senior was coaching for Chicago from the third base box.

DeJesús was solid again at Albuquerque, hitting .310 and getting his walk rate back up to 10%. Again, most of his field time was at second - he played that position exclusively in LA - and it was looking like he wasn't going to recover enough range to return to short, at least on a full time basis. He was named to's Dodger's Organization All-Star team, but the fact that he wasn't called up in September was a better indicator of where he stacked up on the LA depth charts.

When you're hot, you're hot. The infielder suffered a torn oblique muscle in his side while taking a cut during a spring training game in 2012 and didn't rejoin the team until May. He was a seldom-used utility guy, playing second and third while yo-yo'ing back and forth from Albuquerque. DeJesús hit OK, with a .273 BA in LA in just 33 PA and .295 for the Isotopes.

He was also involved in a bit of history. On June 1st, DeJesús was penciled in by Don Mattingly along with Tony Gwynn, Jr., Jerry Hairston, Jr., Dee (Tom) Gordon and Scott (Andy) Van Slyke, all sons of MLB players. In fact, the infield was entirely filled by legacies: 1B Van Slyke, 2B Hairston, SS Gordon and 3B DeJesús. Both were major league firsts.

On August 25th, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox along with James Loney, Allen Webster, Jerry Sands and Rubby De La Rosa for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto and $11M as part of Beantown's great salary dump of 2012.

After the season, the Red Sox DFA'ed him and DeJesús cleared waivers. The Pirates officially got him yesterday, along with RHP Mark Melancon, OF Jerry Sands and RHP Stolmy Pimentel for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt. He has no options remaining, though not on the 40 man roster, and can become a minor league FA after the season.

You can mark his prospect status by before-and-after his broken leg. DeJesús now is a second/third baseman with a bit less than average speed, a spray hitter who shows some discipline in the minors but not much in very limited opportunities in the show (33% K rate) and not much of a base stealer anymore. The Puerto Rican projects as a utility guy at the major league level, although the jury is still out on whether he's destined to be just another AAAA player.

And there's the rub. The Bucs have reserve infielders Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Chase d'Arnaud on the 40 man roster already; DeJesús will have to beat one or two of them out to claim a spot out of camp. Unless the Pirates are really disenchanted with their bench (which could be entirely possible) and plan to give DeJesús a long look, he's destined for Indianapolis, where he'll join Anderson Hernandez as upper-level insurance up the middle.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Trade Part II: Holt for Melancon & DeJesus

Well, the Hammer fell in part one of the Bucco-Bosox swap. Now for the second act. The Bucs sent infielder Brock Holt, more accomplished with his stick than his mitt, to the Red Sox for RHP Mark Melancon and IF Ivan DeJesus.

Holt .292 in September with the Bucs, but his glove limited him to a bench role. He was going to be in a battle to break camp with the big team. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports thinks he's a good grab by Boston, saying "The Pirates didn’t want to trade him, but they evidently considered him more of a second baseman than a shortstop, and Holt wasn’t about to supplant Neil Walker."

The 25 year-old DeJesus, like Jerry Sands, came to Boston from LA in the big August Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett deal. He's a good glove guy with some pedigree in the minors (he was a second round pick in 2005), putting up career .298 BA and .370 OBP, though without much power. In 2008, De Jesus hit .324 with an OBP of .419. DeJesus was named to the All-Star Futures Game and Baseball America's All-Star second team. But he broke his leg the next season and hasn't had the same panache since.

Sox Prospects tabs him as a utility infielder., and DeJesus has lived up to that projection in a very small, 80 at-bat sample. He's hit just .205 in a couple of MLB stays, and Boston DFA'ed him in November (while keeping Pedro Ciriaco). At least DeJesus doesn't count against the 40-man roster, which needs cut down by a player. (EDIT - later in the day, the Bucs announced that RHP Chad Beck was DFA'ed.)

RHP Mark Melancon came into the league as Mariano Rivera's heir apparent in 2009; last year, he found himself tossing BP in the AL East and ended up back in AAA. Sox Prospects thinks it's the neighborhood, with this report: "Late inning reliever with a 92-95 mph fastball with decent movement and a plus low-80s curveball. Has shown success in small market of Houston, but mental toughness is still a question mark."

The snowball effect may be the mental jello they're referring to. Melancon's ERA was blown up by five beat downs out of 41 appearances when he gave up 21 of his 31 runs and six of his eight homers. Without them, he pitched to a 2.14 ERA. Good and bad outings all count the same in the stat book, of course, but show the volatility of judging a reliever's effectiveness by ERA alone.

He can touch 97 with a cutter and a curve, and even with a dismal 2012 line of 0-2/6.20, he struck out 8.2 batters and walked 2.4 per nine with a 50% ground ball rate. His problem last year was the long ball; he gave up eight in 45 IP while the rest of his peripherals were well in line. So the FO is betting on 2012 being an outlier season, and the metrics agree with them.

Melancon's two years in the NL Central with the Astros were strong (20 saves in 2011), and that's the guy the FO was looking at. The Bucs will give him every opportunity to be Jason Grilli's Tonto and be the set-up guy in 2013. He's 27, but controllable as he doesn't hit arb until 2014.

The Pirates couldn't get the Red Sox to surrender two guys prominently hyped as their targets, LHP Felix Doubront or SS Jose Iglesias. So the debate will go on whether they may have gotten a better haul if they waited until camp or even the deadline and dispelled the questions regarding Hanny. That was apparently a risk they didn't care to take in his walk season. Additionally, it avoids a round of musical chairs in the bullpen.

The FO was said to have also been in talks with Tigers, Royals, Rangers and the Dodgers before dealing Hanny to the Red Sox, so it seems like there just wasn't a robust market for him, at least for a big-time prospect. So they got a set-up guy and some kids. It's unfortunate, but the Bucs' big payoff for Hanny would have been at the last deadline, not 2013's; that August/September Pirate nose dive cost more than pride.

Still, it's probably fair value. Rosenthal's article header is "Pirates, Red Sox both score in deal," although the Bosox picked up a frontliner, which is more than it appears the Buccos did.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hanny Goes To Boston For Pair Of Prospects; More To Come

Well, the Hammer is off to Beantown for a pair of mid-level prospects, OF/1B Jerry Sands and RHP Stolmy Pimentel. That's the confirmed part of the trade, pending physicals. There may be a couple more players, maybe from both clubs, added to the deal. It does look like the Bucs are still collecting prospects rather than filling ML needs, and that's probably the right road considering Hanny's market value.

Sands joined the Dodger organization in 2008, moving to Beantown as a part of the Adrian Gonzalez/Josh Beckett/Carl Crawford deadline blockbuster late this summer. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweeted that "Jerry Sands is a terrific athlete w/power. High ceiling. Holliday type. Will be good get for Pirates..."

Well, we don't know about all that enthusiasm, but Sands did have some great power numbers at Albuquerque - 55 HR, 192 RBI in his two AAA years and was a Topps AAA and PCL All-Star. Of course, he was 24 and the PCL is a hitter's paradise, so we'll see how that translates.

He's a righty OF/1B, and the Pirates already have five guys vying in the pasture, with Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez and Clint Robinson lined up at first. It'll be interesting to see where Sands fits in. Playing in 70 big league games, he's hit .244 with 3 HR in 251 PA, along with 60 K. Did we mention he has, like many big boppers, a pretty long and loopy swing?

Sands has an average arm, OK speed and raw power, so it's all a gamble on his upside, a sorta Christmas lotto ticket stuffed in their stocking. Sox Prospects considers him a role player, saying that he "projects as bench player at the major league level, capable of filling in during stretches." Mike Hulet of Fangraphs basically agrees, writing that "With the ability to play both corner outfield spots as well as first base, and with plus raw power, (he) could be a solid right-handed bat off the bench, with an outside shot at developing into a big league regular."

With all the Pirate outfield prospects still playing A ball and no real power righty at first base, he's probably a gamble worth taking, either to push Sanchez or platoon with Travis Snider.

Additionally, Sands' arrival would seem to grease the skids for Garrett Jones' departure or some other logjam clearing by the Bucs. That should be the next storyline to unfold before camp begins on February 11th.

Stolmy Pimentel in a 22 year old (23 in February) RHP who's had not a great deal of success in AA ball, but he has a heater that touches 95, a good changeup, slider and a slurve in progress. He's supposed to have good stuff and in scout talk is "projectable," but is still learning to pitch and has problems repeating his mechanics.

Sox Prospects says that he has the "ceiling of fourth starter/fifth or late inning reliever at the major league level." Baseball America had him ranked as Boston’s No. 23 prospect (down from #6 in 2010), at No. 15 and Sox Prospects at No. 20, so he does have some upside even if trending down. And the Bucs know him; they tried unsuccessfully to pry him from the Bosox in 2008 as part of the Jay Bay deal, ending up with Craig Hansen instead.

Both players will go on the 40-man roster, and each has an option remaining. For Sands, that's not such a big problem, but it could become an issue for Pimentel who is nowhere near MLB ready.

With Hanny, the Red Sox get a guy who saved 76 games in the past two years, struck out 128 batters in 129-1/3 frames and gave up fewer than seven knocks per nine over the past two seasons. Conditioning and wildness questions - he walked 5.4 batters per game last season - were floated, but...

Tom Singer of noted in his blog that "In 2011, he was perfect — meaning, three-up and three-down, in 20 of his 44 save situations (converting 40 of them). In 2012, he was perfect in 16 of 40 save situations (with 36 conversions). The difference there is almost negligible."

He added "Hanrahan did 'lose it' in closer’s wilderness, pitching without a save on the line. In 2011, he was spotless in 12 of 26 such low-intensity outings. In 2012, he managed to stay clean in only four of 23 non-save appearances. In September, as he admitted to me, he also lost his fire. After the Pirates again free-fell out of the race, it simply became harder to pitch with any incentive. So perhaps Hanrahan didn’t lose his control, only his focus."

And the truth is that the only reason the Bucs moved him is not because of performance, despite his history of Hanrattacks, but the math. Hanny has made $6.75M so far in his six year career; he'll double that and more in arbitration this year before hitting free agency. We think he'll do just fine in Boston with Andrew Bailey; the Green Monster should be a lesser evil compared to the Clemente Wall.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Bucs Reportedly Sign Liriano

It's being reported that the Bucs have agreed to terms on a two-year, $14M (edit: Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweets the deal is worth $12.75M) contract with LHP Francisco Liriano, pending a physical. It looked like the Mets were after him, too, with some interest also shown by his long-time club, the Twins.

Liriano is one of those guys who has great stuff, and shows long stretches of it, but with a couple of exceptions (2006, 2010) hasn't been able to translate it into wins.

He signed with the San Francisco Giants in 2000, and was traded to the Minnesota Twins along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in exchange for catcher A. J. Pierzynski in 2003. In 2005, he led the minors in K with 204 and earned a September call-up.

The Dominican started the 2006 season in Minnesota's bullpen, but was promoted to the starting rotation in May and took off running. He won two Rookie of the Month awards and made the AL All-Star roster. The Cisco Kid went 12-3 and led MLB with a 2.19 ERA before he went down with elbow woes. He would make just two more starts that season before his torn elbow ligament required TJ surgery. Liriano went to the chop shop in November and missed all of 2007.

And the sad truth is since then, he's had one strong season in 2010, putting up a 40-49 slate and 4.75 ERA from 2008-12. In the last two years, he's been even less effective, going 15-22/5.23. But here's what Dave Cameron of Fangraphs thinks about the signing: ", teams are betting multi-year contracts on (a pitcher's) peripherals being more predictive than their ERAs." You can bet this signing had Baseball Systems Development whiz Dan Fox's fingerprints all over it.

His 2011-12 K rate is 8.5/nine, and he gives up less than a hit per inning. Liriano's FIP is nearly .75 lower than his ERA, so he's a stat-head's beacon. The down side? He's averaged five walks per game in the past two years.

Liriano has two good indicators for success based on his pitching charts: twice in his career, he's given up fewer than three walks per game and had 50%+ ground ball rates. Those pair of stats happened in tandem during 2006 and 2010, the seasons when he made the All-Star team and was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year.

So aside from watching for those two data points, here's what the 29 year old lefty has in his toolbox: Both his four-and-two seamers came in at 93 last year, so he still has some steam left in his left arm. His slider, his swing-and-miss pitch, averages 86, so that's a hardball pitch, too. Liriano has a change that comes in at 81, a nice spread from his hard stuff.

They hit the jackpot with AJ Burnett last year; they're hoping for back-to-back brass rings with Liriano, though the risk of another Erik Bedard always lurks, too. One thing it does change is the dynamics of a Joel Hanrahan deal; the Bucs aren't locked into finding a starting pitcher but have options now.

John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus is reporting that the Pirates are looking at Bosox's Jose Iglesias and the Dodgers' Dee Gordon, both good glove, bad stick SS. So the roster is still up in the air. The FO could use another infielder for the bench at least, and will surely sign a couple more bullpen arms for camp.

Bucco Bits

Those dang Mayans might as well work out another long count; looks like this cycle wasn't the big one. Just a guess, but maybe 82 Bucco wins will be the omen.

  • Chris Cwik, who covers Fangraph's fantasy beat, wonders if James McDonald's second half fizzle had to do with a string of extended pitch counts
  • Jon Heyman of CBS' Baseball Insider tweets that the Dodgers and Red Sox have interest in Hanny.  Several other reports say the Bucs still would like to land Rick Porcello, but Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review says the Tigers won't swap for Hanrahan straight up.
  • Daniel Rathman of Baseball Prospectus has the charts on Hanny's 2012 pitch selection, accuracy and velocity, and they don't paint a pretty picture. He writes that "The Dodgers, Red Sox, and any other teams phoning Huntington about Hanrahan are counting on some reversion in those numbers." It helps explain why the market hasn't developed for Hanny the way the Pirates may have envisioned.
  • Think the Pirates overpaid for Russell Martin? According to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports, one of the clubs they had to outbid for him was the Rangers.
  • David Brown of YahooSports! Big League Stew rated the GM by sexiness; Neal Huntington came in eighth. Add your own comment.
  • If you missed it, ESPN the Magazine featured Roberto Clemente's bat. Kevin Guilfoile tracks the three bats that had a claim to The Great One's 3,000th hit.
  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors posts that RHP Daniel McCutchen has multiple offers to pitch in Japan. He has an escape clause in his minor league deal with Baltimore if he decides to head way East.
  • RHP Jose Veras signed a one year deal with Houston for $1.85M plus an option, according to Enrique Rojas of ESPN.
  • LHP Tom Gorzelanny just inked a two-year deal with the Brewers for nearly $6M.
  • IF Bobby Crosby announced he plans to make a comeback. Please don't tell Neal Huntington, OK?
  • Remember RHP Edwin Jackson turning down the Bucs three year, $27M offer last season to pitch a season for the Nats? Jon Heyman asks who's laughing now - Jackson just signed a four year, $52M deal with the Cubs.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Barrett Barnes

Growing up in Sugarland, Texas, Barrett Barnes was focused on one goal: to play major league baseball. Barnes' uncle Anthony Young fueled his big league dreams. The Houston-born righty pitched 460 innings (15-48/3.89) in six MLB seasons with the Mets, Cubs and Astros between 1991-96 and gave Barnes a face to his dream. After graduating from Austin High undrafted, Barnes moved on to play ball in the Big 12 for Texas Tech.

In his three year career at Lubbock, Barnes started all 169 games the Red Raiders' played during his stay. He became only the second player in Tech history to bat .300, record 500 at bats, score 150 runs, collect 200 hits, 50 doubles, 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 walks and 50 stolen bases, joining Raider alum Clint Bryant (1993-96).

He ranks fifth in school history in doubles (51), runs (171) and total bases (371), sixth in walks (113), seventh in at bats (637), ninth in home runs (33) and tied for ninth in hits (203). Barnes became the fourth player in school history to earn All-Big 12 honors in three consecutive seasons; he was second-team in 2010 and first-team in both 2011 and 2012.

One of the more highly recognized players in school history, Barnes received 58 individual awards, honors and recognitions while a Red Raider, including Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2010, numerous Freshman All-America teams and four preseason All-America squads.

So while he may have been a somewhat unknown name to Pirate fans, the scouts had the 6'1" 210 lb. outfielder squarely on their radar.

The Brewers and Padres showed some early round interest in him while Bucs hadn't spoken to Barnes at all before the draft, but no matter. They had a five minute phone chat with him a few selections before they went on the clock during the sandwich round (his slot was compensation for the Dewey free agent loss), agreed on $1M bonus, and viola - the 45th overall pick was in the fold. He made it official on June 14th, accepting a nudge under the slot amount of $1,136,400.

Jonathan Mayo of had him as the #57 player on his board (Baseball America had him at #41), and wrote this about him: "Before every Draft, college hitters who perform well move up boards late and end up being taken much sooner than many anticipated at the start of the spring. The more Barnes hit in 2012, the more his name was on the rise."

"Strong and athletic, Barnes is a little raw as a baseball player, but he has some offensive upside. His best tools are his raw power and his speed, and some of both have shown up in his performance this year. A center fielder currently, Barnes might be best suited for a corner spot when all is said and done. That might mean left field, as his arm is fringy average. He gets high marks for his intensity on the field."

The Pirates started him at short season State College, and he had a dismal June. But the Texan heated up with the weather, and the 21 year old finished with a slash of .288/.401/.456 with five homers, 24 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 38 games. It wasn't all roses; his season ended in early August when a sprained ankle led to a stress fracture, ending his rookie campaign. Still, he showed enough that Baseball America rated Barnes as the 10th best prospect in the New York-Penn League even missing a month of action.

As with all lower level players, he's raw and still has a punchlist to complete. Barnes played center in college and at State College, but he's projected to be a corner outfielder because of his average arm strength. That's OK, especially for the Pittsburgh template; his range makes him the prototypical left fielder for the organization.

The bigger question is whether he can make consistent contact as he advances. While his K-to-walk rate was sweet for the Spikes (21/17), he is a swing-and-miss guy though willing to take a free pass. His power stroke also comes with a caveat. Barnes is a RH pull hitter, and that doesn't translate so well at PNC Park.

His speed is good, but not plus. He has enough to plug into any of the three OF spots, but it showed up in his stolen base success in the pros. Barnes was an excellent 50-for-56 in stolen base attempts at Tech, but just 10-of-16 (63%) for the Spikes, so he has some work to put into that aspect of his game.

With that, his glove, bat speed and raw power make him a guy to watch. Barnes is one of those rare animals in the Pirate system, a true three hitter who projects as fitting into the middle of the lineup. If he reaches his projected ceiling, we've seen comparisons of him to a budding Nolan Reimold or Marlon Byrd. At any rate, he joins Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell as the lower level trinity of the OF class.

If there are no lingering affects from the ankle injury (and it's reported to be healing on schedule), the Pirate MO is to skip a level for their top guys in short season ball, so we'd expect him to bypass West Virginia and open 2013 in High A Bradenton, a good spot for a 21 year old (his birthday is July 29th) prospect.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Alen Hanson

Ya know, it was pretty depressing news when the Bucs missed out on signing Miguel Sano in 2009 thanks to some head-butting between Rene Gayo and Sano's agent, Rob Plummer. But Gayo didn't drop his head - or the ball. Two weeks later he announced a batch of Latino kids whom he inked for the Bucs.

One of them was 16 year old second baseman Alen Hanson from La Romana of the Dominican Republic, scouted by Ellis Pena. He came at the modest price tag of $90-100K, about three million less than it took to lure Sano to Minnesota. And while Hanson may not be quite at Sano's level, he's one heck of a Plan B.

He spent time at the Dominican Academy (Alen started picking up English from the Academy, teammates, and three years of Rosetta Stone, and is a fair speaker now) and played his first ball in the DSL in 2010. The 17 year old switch hitter put up a slash of .324/.383/.447 playing second, third, and the outfield. The Bucs decided to bring him stateside, and he started 2011 in the GCL.

Hanson was steady enough there, too. His slash was .263/.352/.429, though he was sometimes fooled by pitches. He flashed his plus speed with 24 steals in 30 attempts (80%) and made the transition to shortstop. The teen got to visit State College briefly, getting in three games and collecting a couple of hits and a walk.

The Dominican was raw but toolsy, and though an unheralded signing, began popping up on some radar screens. After the season, Baseball America rated him the 14th best prospect in the GCL and the #27 prospect in the Pittsburgh organization, while Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Propectus ranked him #17 in Pirate system.

The Pirates moved both him and Gregory Polanco straight to Low Class A ball at West Virginia in the Sally League, skipping the State College level, in 2012. Neither disappointed; Hanson's line was .309/.381/.528 with a sudden burst of power. He hit 16 homers, 13 triples and 33 doubles, driving in 62 runs and scoring 99 from his leadoff spot.

Hanson had a 10% walk rate, although his 19% whiff rate was a little on the high side for a top-of-the-order guy, but totally acceptable if his power repeats and he drops toward the middle of the lineup. All in all, it was a sharp enough performance to earn him the #40 spot of BA's Mid-Season Top Fifty MLB Prospects and the 6th best prospect in the South Atlantic League.

It wasn't all peaches and cream. He padded his average early in the season and crashed a bit in the second half, especially in July, and was hampered in August by recurring hip flexor problems. Hanson stole 35 bases for the Power, but was caught 19 times, a 65% success rate that needs some work considering his wheels.

The Pirates hope he can hang at SS, a premium position that doesn't feature many bats like Hanson's. He booted 40 balls at WV and barely cleared .900 in fielding percentage in 103 games at the spot. There are several schools of thought on that.

One is that his arm, while above average, is better suited to second or the outfield. Another is that the game hasn't slowed down enough for him yet (Hanson was only 19 at WV) and he rushes too many plays, a problem that repetition and some coaching should solve. Another is that he just doesn't focus in the field, ala Ronnie Cedeno, and that can be overcome, even if RC never quite figured it out.

Be assured of this - the value he brings to SS is pretty high, and the Pirates will keep tossing him there until he either masters the position or goes down trying, in which case a switch to 2B/OF will be in line. They'll find a spot for him because of the way his bat plays.

The Pirates need a disruptive leadoff guy, and Hanson is the best fit for the job currently in the Bucco system. He covers the plate well, has a good enough eye, even with the occasional flail, to have a career 10% walk rate, and is a line drive, contact hitter that uses the whole field. Hanson does the little things, too - he steals, bunts, and isn't afraid to work a count. The only drawback is that he whiffs a bit much for leadoff.

Oh, and that surprising power surge. Hanson is a little bigger than when he was signed, now maybe 5' 11" and 160 pounds in a driving rainstorm, but if he keeps pounding the horsehide like Cutch, he may find himself a little lower in the lineup. We'll see how that plays out as he moves along in the system.

And he's moving like a bullet. ranks him as the #47 prospect in baseball and Scouting Book at #95. Scouting Book ranks him as the #3 Pirate prospect and Baseball Prospectus has him at #5. When BA comes out with their team ratings in mid-January and prospect list in February, we'd expect to see his name prominently displayed again.

But it will take some time to get him to Pittsburgh; 2015 looks like his ETA if all goes well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gregory Polanco

When the Pirates signed Gregory Polanco in 2009, they weren't sure what exactly they had. The 17 year old from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic claimed a $75K bonus, and was selected because he looked like a ballplayer - at 6' 4", 170 lb., he was tall, lanky, and athletic with plus speed and a good arm, with the added advantage of being a lefty. The teen had the textbook body type, and the scouts hoped his hitting would follow as he filled out.

He spent the 2009 campaign in the DSL, where he hit .267 with a .370 OBP as a right fielder. Polanco showed little power, with a 19% K and 13% walk rate. Nothing was out of line considering his age, and he was moved along to the GCL in 2010 after some time at the Academy (which is the home of the DSL/DWL Pirates).

The Dominican began at the bottom of the rung in Bradenton. He hit just .202, again showing little power. His peripherals took a beating: his K rate rose to 21% and his walk rate dropped to 5%. One bright spot was his base stealing - he swiped 19-of-21 bases, fourth in the league. Polanco also got a taste of center field, his natural spot, though he mostly played right again.

Repeating in the GCL in 2011, the light began to come on, although his stats didn't jump out at all. He hit .237 with little power, but his OBP jumped from .245 in 2010 to .333 in 2011. Polanco's K rate was more manageable at 16% and his walk rate was back in double figures at 12%. He was a perfect 18-for-18 in steals, and was moving into a more premium spot at center, splitting time with Willy Garcia, a highly touted product from Polanco's hometown who signed in 2010 for $280K. Polanco responded to the challenge well, throwing out eight baserunners.

He got a cup of coffee at State College, playing three games for the Spikes. Polanco then skipped a level and was moved to Low A West Virginia in the Sally League for 2012, as his improved eye and continued strong play in the pasture indicated to the Bucs that he was ready for full-season baseball. They were right.

Polanco blew up for the Power. He put together a slash of .325/.388/.522, and got stronger as the year went on. The 20 year old was now 6'5" and up to maybe 210 lbs, and he banged 26 doubles and 16 homers with his new found bulk - and he still has room to grow. The plate recognition continued, too. Polanco worked deep counts, and his K rate was 13% with a walk rate of 9%, so he wasn't trading plate discipline to swing for the fences. The youngster stole 40 sacks in 55 tries, a 73% success rate. And he became the full-time center fielder.

His breakout year earned him a cabinet full of hardware. He was named to the Sally League's mid and post season All-Star teams, the SAL's Outstanding MLB Prospect, Topp's Sally League Player of the Year, and Baseball America rated him as the league's #3 prospect. The Pirates selected Polanco as their 2012 Minor League Player of the Year. Not too bad a year for a guy who was unranked among Pirate prospects entering the season; you can bet he's in everyone's Bucco Top Ten now.

His only bummer was an ankle injury in early August that caused him to miss three weeks of the season. There were reports that he reinjured it during the Bucs' military training drills, but if he did, it wasn't of any major consequence. He's now playing winter ball for Leones del Escogido in the DWL with teammates Starling Marte and Altoona pitcher Kris Johnson.

Polanco will likely open 2013 with High Class A Bradenton at age 21, which puts him on track if all goes well to arrive in Pittsburgh sometime in 2015. And even with his toolkit, he's a raw product and still has a fairly extensive punchlist before he's ready for the show.

His swing needs some work; it's a little on the long side, mostly due to his size and long arms. Polanco does have quick hands, so shortening the swing shouldn't be a major issue; he's already worked on it at WV. Ditto with his fielding. Polanco is already an above average fielder, but like many athletic guys, his speed makes up for read and route mistakes, and more experience should bring more efficiency to his jumps.

Base running and stealing are also on his "to-do" list. He's a little slow out of the box, though his long strides make up for that in a hurry. The stride is what he needs to work on; it sometimes makes him choppy on the basepaths getting to a sack and making a turn. That's probably nit-picking, but after watching the big team run the bases, it would be nice to see a polished product off to the races in Pittsburgh.

Polanco is going to be a different sort of player when he arrives at PNC Park; he'll probably have matured enough physically to be a corner, rather than center, fielder. But with that should also be increased power. It could be that the Pirates finally have their right fielder, even if he's a couple or three years away.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dilson Herrera

Dilson Herrera, a 5' 10" switch-hitting SS from Cartagena, Columbia, was one the Pirates’ bigger Latino signings in 2010, inking a $220K deal after being scouted by Orlando Covo.

The deal was miles behind RHP Luis Heredia's $2.6M bonus, but in the ballpark of Dominican outfielder Willy Garcia's $280K enticement and ended up the third largest contract of the international signing period for the Bucs. The bonus was no surprise; Pittsburgh had its eye on the 16 year old for quite a while.

"Dilson is a player we have been scouting since he was 13-years-old," said Rene Gayo. "He has well above average bat potential, above average run potential, a solid average arm, above average defensive potential and a natural ability to steal bases."

Herrera was assigned to the Venezuelan Summer League in 2011 as a 17 year old, and hit .308 with 16 stolen bases and a .413 OBP.  His eye was plenty good, drawing 32 walks in 260 PA. The only red flag was that he played the hot corner for the VSL Pirates, with just a couple of games at second, and made a boatload of boots at third.

The teen spent the fall in the Pirate City instructional camp, and impressed the staff enough to be assigned to the GCL in 2012 at the age of 18, still a little on the peach-fuzz side for a Latin player but a good indication of how well the decision makers perceived his baseball toolkit and maturity.

He didn't disappoint. Herrera was moved to second, where his play was solid and the position better suited to his arm. His bat also played well, as he hit .281 with a .341 OBP and even showed a little pop, banging out seven long balls. The Colombian stole 11 sacks in 15 attempts and his walk rate was still OK at 8%, with an acceptable K rate of 18%, which is a bit high for a projected top-of-the-order guy. He also gave up switch hitting, and now bats from just the right side.

Herrera led the team in seven different offensive categories and was named the GCL's Player of the Year by Topps while Baseball America ranked him as the seventh best prospect in the league.

On August 30th, he was assigned to State College during the Pirates usual end-of-the-year personnel shuffle. Herrera got 29 PA and banged the ball at a .321 clip in his cup of coffee stop, though he did commit three errors in five games at second, somewhat offset by being part of five DPs during that span.

He's drawn comparisons to OF Gregory Polanco and especially SS Alen Hanson, both a year ahead of him in the Pirate system, as a young, rising-with-a-bullet Latino prospect. And if he follows their template, Herrera should begin 2013 at West Virginia in the Sally League, which would be his first full season assignment.

Herrera is another testimonial to the Pirate FO giving Rene Gayo the resources to do his job. He and his Latin American scouts have identified youngsters with potential and tools, and gotten them stateside early enough to develop. Now comes the hard part - getting them through the system and into the show, a road that's not easily traveled.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Luis Heredia

As a 15 year old in Mazatlan, Mexico, Luis Heredia was considered the top pitching prospect in the 2010 international market by many scouts. No wonder - the teen was already 6'5" and throwing 92 MPH fastballs. The Pirates, Yankees, and Blue Jays were on him seriously and the Dodgers, Giants, Rangers and Mariners were also poking around.

The Bucs were considered the front runner. Scout Jesus "Chino" Valdez was almost a family member, and Rene Gayo had steered the youngster to the Vera Cruz Red Eagles, a team he and Valdez had connections with. That was key, because Latino players signed to a team are somewhat like Japanese players in free agency in that the team gets the major share of the bonus, like a guaranted posting fee, while the player keeps the rest and gets to go to El Norte. But with the Miguel Sano debacle a year before fresh in everyone's memory, it was finger-crossing time until the deal was sealed.

This time, it worked out just fine. Mamá Maria was a big fan of the Pirate scouts, and Heredia joined the organization in August, a week after he turned 16. He received a $2.6M bonus (his cut was $650K; the rest went to Vera Cruz), far and away the biggest honeypot that the Pirates had ever given an international amateur. Before that, Venezuelan OF Exicardo Cayones held the record, signing for $400K in 2008.

The Bucs didn't assign him anywhere that year, but brought him to Pirate City in early 2011 to evaluate him thoroughly. He displayed enough raw stuff, maturity and an eagerness to dive into American baseball culture, so instead of weaning him at the Academy or in a Latin league, they pretty aggressively sent him to the GCL.

It was risky; the FO was having him compete against kids that were a couple of years older and been through high school. But they thought he had the physical tools, and he had faced older players while stashed with the VC Reds. The cultural differences were another issue. The team had only brought one other 16 year old to the GCL before him, Dominican IF Andury Acevedo in 2007, and he was sent back home a couple of seasons later after failing to adjust, not to return stateside again until he was 20.

But Heredia embraced the culture, learning English from TV and his teammates and buying his mom a house near Bradenton. He already had some family close at hand in Florida, so that helped in the transition, too.

It would be nice to say that he blazed his way through the league, but that's not what happened. The Pirates were very careful to limit his workload, and he ended up tossing just 30-1/3 frames. Heredia's line was 1-2/4.75, with 23 strikeouts against 19 walks. His velocity remained in the low nineties, and though he was inconsistent with his control, Heredia had streaks of excellent ball. Baseball America ranked him as the 3rd best prospect in the GCL that season.

Pittsburgh wasn't sure whether to keep him there in 2012, but after extended spring training decided to bump him up a notch to State College in the short season New York-Penn League. Again, it was an aggressive move; he was 17 years old and pitching in a league of primarily college players. In fact, Heredia was the youngest player in the NYPL last year and the youngest to ever play for the Spikes.

It was a good move; he improved in every stat other than whiffs. His slash was 4-2/2.71. Heredia cut his hits from 8 to 7 per nine, walks from 5.6 to 2.7 per game, and though he doubled his innings to 66-1/3, he actually gave up fewer home runs (two; he surrendered three in 2011) than he did in the GCL. His heater touched 96, and sat in the low nineties, plenty impressive enough for a teen. Baseball America tabbed his as the #2 prospect in the NYPL.

The improvement came even while the Bucs kept him on a short leash. He was generally limited to 60-65 pitches per outing, and 90% of his pitches were gas, in keeping with the Pirate protocol of fastball command for its young pitchers.

When he was signed, it was said that he had a six-pitch repertoire. The Pirates have cut that to three - fastball, change up, and curve.

A point of emphasis was keeping his fastball down, and Heredia made considerable strides in that regard. The heater will be his bread-and-butter pitch, and his velocity should improve as he matures physically. He still has work to do, though. His four seamer has some run, but he has yet to master cutting and sinking the two-seamer, and he still has problems moving the ball in and out.

Heredia's circle change is on track to become a plus pitch. It comes in about 8-10 miles slower than his fast ball, which is an excellent spread, and has good fade, but he doesn't have command of it yet. It's probably the pitch he uses the most after the fastball, and one that the Pirate staff like to have in their pitchers' toolkit. Once he has his heater command in hand, he'll get to throw it more often and should grow into it.

The curve should become his chase pitch. It already shows nice movement, but it's a little bit loopy. When he gets the spin a little tighter, it will become his swing-and-miss offering. Again, he should get more comfortable with it after the coaches allow him more leeway in his pitch selection at the higher levels.

So right now, he's busy assembling his pitching package. His command isn't consistent yet, but for a big guy, he has an easy, over-the-top delivery that he mostly repeats. His stuff is delivered a nice downhill plane, and Heredia is keeping it at the knees more often than not. So everything looks to be right on schedule for a kid who's still three summers away from legally ordering a Corona from the neighborhood cantina.

The main concern we've seen in various scouting reports is his body. He weighed 185 pounds when he was signed, and it was said he couldn't do a push-up. He's bulking up now (we've seen his weight listed between 205-220 lbs.; his height between 6'6"-7", so he's still a growing boy), and strength and conditioning will be an important part of his routine. It could be the difference between an inning-eater or a guy who's prone to physical breakdowns. So far, so good in that regard, but it may bear watching as he makes his way through the minors.

Heredia is considered to be part of the Pirate minor league trinity of aces, along with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, and John Sickels rates him as baseball's #66 prospect. Cole is 22 and just about ready to join the parade; Taillon is 21 and is more likely to show up sometime in 2014 than next season. Heredia is 18 and will likely start at West Virginia next year, and 2016 is projected to be the earliest he'll make his MLB debut. After all, he's just a high school senior in age, and the Sally League is a pretty fair prep division.

A lot can happen between now and then; pitchers travel a particularly rocky career road. But right now, Luis Heredia and his two amigos are the bright lights shining at the end of the tunnel for long suffering Bucco fans.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Notes and Quotes

From PirateFest and beyond:

  • Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reiterates that "Hanrahan has been linked to both the Tigers and Dodgers, but both clubs are wary of his salary, sources say." LA has been shopping Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, while the Anibal Sanchez signing leaves the Tigers with a starter (ie, Rick Portobello) too many. 
  • Scratch John Lannan from the Bucco wish list. The Phils have signed him to a one year deal worth $2.5M with an equal amount in performance bonuses.
  • The Pirates told the media that they expect their payroll to "approach" the $70M range this season (it was around $61M last season). He also tossed in that the Root Sports TV deal is better than reported, but wouldn't give specifics. The deal has been reported as worth $16-20M/year, but its terms are confidential.
  • When asked about non-tendering Jeff Karstens, Neal Huntington said, as reported by Bill Brink of the Post Gazette, that the decision was partially financial and partially injury-based: "At $4 million or thereabouts, in some markets, that's (the $4M salary) a no-brainer. Right or wrong, we felt we were best doing something else. When healthy the last two years, he's pitched very well, but the biggest concern there is the 'when healthy' part of it...It may turn out to be a really bad decision, and we know that." Apparently JK caught wind of his statement, and left a twitter response: "...if you wanna see that I'm to Florida and come to the performance compound and see for yourself!"
  • The GM added that the Pirates can afford to begin the season with both Joel Hanrahan, who will earn roughly $7M in 2013, and Jason Grilli, who recently agreed to a two-year, $6.75 M contract that will pay him $2.75M this season, on the 2013 roster. That's a tacit admission that the return on Hanny hasn't approached what the FO considers to be his true value on the market.
  • Huntington said of the return of Garrett Jones, "Our plan is yes. But I can't promise anything." GI has been mentioned in a couple of trade rumors so far during the hot stove season.
  • Neil Walker on a long-term deal: “This is the city I want to be in,” Walker said Friday at the annual Hot Stove Luncheon that kicks off PirateFest. “I‘m excited about my first year of arbitration, (but) I can‘t really speak too much more on that. I hope to be a Pirate for a long, long time. We‘ll see how it goes. I know if I take care of myself and stay healthy, everything will work out,” according to Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review
  • The Pirates restated that they're pleased with their internal starting options. We'll see in the next few weeks if that's so or just a ploy in trying to land another arm without appearing too desperate.
  • Brink was told that pitchers Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, Zach Stewart, and Andy Oliver are preparing as starters entering spring camp. It's not that they're all expected to compete for the rotation, but because it's "easier to reduce innings rather than increase (them)." We'd guess that the Bucs would much prefer Wilson and Oliver to start sooner or later (hopefully sooner) rather than head to the pen.
  • The GM also told the gathering after being asked about the Mark Appel selection that they're committed to signing the top player on the board in the draft. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects quoted him as saying " (We've) signed about 100 picks. (We) would have passed on 40 if (we) listened to agents."
  • Tom Singer of wrote that one of the assignments for new first-base coach Rick Sofield will be to help Andrew McCutchen's defense. "Subjectively, Andrew won a Gold Glove. Objectively, he doesn't score so well," GM Neal Huntington said. "Sofield can be of help to Cutch; he can help drive up his metrics."
  • Jeff Branson, Indy's hitting coach, was promoted to the Pirates' assistant hitting coach. He'll help Jay Bell in perking up the Bucco bats.
  • The Bucs unveiled a third jersey for Sunday home games, inspired by the seventies gear except with a name plate and mustard cap.
  • John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus tweeted some local news: "RHP Cory Mazzoni, a Seneca Valley graduate, ranked as the Mets No. 10 prospect by Baseball America."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Phil Irwin

The Bucs have been cranking out a steady line of guys with average stuff and great control from Indy, with pitchers like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. Now you can add Phil Irwin to the list.

Irwin, who will turn 26 in February, attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee (he still lives in Collierville, the Memphis suburb he was raised in, during the offseason). The Purple Lions claimed the State Championship in 2003-04 and were runner-ups in 2005.

At Christian Brothers, he posted a 21-4 record over three years, and won All-State, All-Region and All-Metro honors in both 2004 and 2005. Irwin was also named to the USA Classic All-Tournament team in 2004 and 2005 and the Toyo Tire Classic All-Tournament team in 2004. After graduation, he went off to toss for Ole Miss.

Irwin had TJ surgery in his freshman year of 2006, but by his senior campaign in 2009, he was part of a pretty good rotation at Oxford. Their staff took them to the co-championship of the SEC and to the CWS Super-Regionals before Virginia ended their run. Mississippi finished the season ranked 17th in the nation.

The Rebels were led by sophomore Drew Pomeranz (also from Collierville), who would go on to be drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the 2010 draft, and is now pitching for the Rockies. Next was All-America pitcher Scott Bittle, who was drafted by the Cards in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, but has so far had more surgeries than starts in his career. The Ole Miss back end was apparently well-scouted by the Pirates.

They took Nathan Baker in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, and he has been a disappointment for the Bucs, pitching last year at Altoona and none too well (4-7, 4.94). But the same can't be said for the last guy standing, 21st-rounder Irwin, who was left waiting in the wings because of the lack of smoke and no really dominant secondary pitch (though he did show a promising curve), while putting up an 8-3/3.84 slash with 73 K in 87 IP for Ole Miss.

He signed in late June, and was sent to short-season State College, the usual launching pad for later-round college picks. In 10 appearances, he went 1-2/2.12 with 32 K in 29-1/3 IP, and was named to the New York-Penn Mid-Season All-Star team.

Irwin moved up a level in 2010 to Low Class A West Virginia Power. He spent the season there compiling a 6-3/3.35 slash with 111 whiffs in 113 innings, showing a bit more velocity with his four seamer, and a WHIP of 1.053. The righty also was recognized with a Sally League "Pitcher of the Week" award.

The Bucs continued their step-at-a-time approach with Irwin, and he began the 2011 season at High Class A Bradenton. In ten starts, he went 5-0/2.12. That was plenty good enough to get him promoted to a more age appropriate level at Class AA Altoona. There, even though his heater had picked up a couple ticks, the coaches worked on developing a sinking two-seamer.

His fastball returned to its more usual upper-80s to low-90s range, to go with his out pitch, the hook, and a show me change. Irwin's results were mixed during the transition with a line of 8-4/3.81, but his peripherals were still in line, with a WHIP of 1.156 and seven K with one walk per nine in 87-1/3 frames. And though he didn't win any league awards during the campaign, he did get to sing the National Anthem at Blair County Ballpark on August 18th.

The FO wanted him to work some more at Mesa in Arizona, but Irwin suffered a strained elbow during the Arizona Fall League. He aggravated again it in spring training, and missed the first month of the season. Then he got a warm-up start at Bradenton and was assigned to the Curve in early May.

He definitely showed some rust, but it didn't take too long for it to fall off. In his first nine outings, his ERA was 5.05; in the next nine, it was 1.24 with a "Pitcher of the Week" recognition by the Eastern League. Irwin had 18 appearances with 16 starts and a 4-7/2.93 slash line overall for the Curve. His peripherals were solid again, with a 1.093 WHIP, 7.2 K and 1.5 walks per nine, and he was selected as Altoona's Pitcher of the Year.

Irwin wasn't quite done; the FO promoted him to Indianapolis to replace the September call-ups. He threw four games, including a couple of big ones. In his second start, he surrendered one run on five hits and a walk while striking out nine over six innings against Louisville to clinch the International League West Division title by a 6-1 score. Once in the playoffs, Irwin put up a two hit, one walk goose egg against Charlotte with 11 punch outs in seven innings for the Indians' only post-season win over the Knights, an easy 8-0 victory.

After the year, the Bucs added him to the 40-man roster, and he should start the 2013 campaign with the Indy Indians with a good shot at seeing some time in Pittsburgh.

His heater sits at 90 MPH and touches 93. The slow curve is his out pitch, and his change is still a work in progress. The transition to the sinker has helped Irwin keep the ball down and increased his ground ball rate, he changes speeds and isn't afraid to work inside. Irwin has walked 46 batters in the past two seasons; he's hit 27. His peripherals are a testament to his pitch command. In his career, he has a WHIP of 1.100, a hit rate of 8.3, a K rate of 8 and a walk rate of 1.6 per game.

With all that, he will be in his 26 year old season, and his upper limit is probably as a 4-5 starter. But for a 21st round draft pick, that's a pretty nice ceiling. Of all the guys the Bucs have stockpiled or brought in this year, Irwin is the most similar to the departed Jeff Karstens, and that's a role the Pirates are hoping one of the pups step up to claim.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chad Beck

Chad Beck, the Bucs' new 27 year old righty, got his start at Woodville High School in Texas. He then played at Panola College, which competed at the JC level. Beck was drafted in the 43rd round in 2004 by the Toronto Blue Jays after his freshman season with the Ponies, but passed on their offer.

He returned to the community college for another season but was sidelined with elbow tendonitis. Moving on, he next signed with Louisiana at Lafayette, where he closed for the Ragin' Cajuns in 2006. The righty put up a 2-2-5/3.23 slash there, with 38 K in 30-2/3 IP, and was tossing some serious mid-nineties gas.

The Arizona Diamondbacks selected him in the 14th round of the 2006 draft, and he signed up quickly and was assigned to the short-season Yakima Bears of the Northwest League. He went 1–5/6.25 ERA in 16 outings covering 40-1/3 innings pitched. But he did average 10 K per nine innings, which helped gloss over his otherwise ho-hum peripherals.

The next season, Beck moved up to the Low Class A South Bend Silver Hawks of the Midwest League, and made 31 outings from the pen. His slash there was 1–2-1/4.33 ERA in 52 IP. His hit, walk, HR and WHIP numbers all dropped, and he still managed 8+ whiffs per game.

He started 2008 still at South Bend, and went 2–0/2.04 ERA, with 19 K in 17-2/3 IP. That earned him a promotion to High Class A Visalia of the California League. Beck became a swingman for the Oaks, appearing in 25 games,with 15 starts. He compiled a 6–5/3.98 line in 95 innings while keeping a decent K rate by punching out 89 hitters.

Someone noticed. On August 31st, Arizona traded Beck to the Blue Jays for David Eckstein. Toronto didn't assign him anywhere, being pretty much the end of the minor league campaign.

Beck's first club as a Blue Jay was Low Class A Lansing of the Midwest League, as Toronto continued his conversion to a starting pitcher. In 20 starts, Beck went 6–8/5.94 ERA for the Lug Nuts. His walk and K rate remained OK, but he was hit pretty hard, giving up 11 knocks per game.

He also got a little time with High Class A Dunedin of the Florida State League in 2009. They worked him out of the bullpen there, and the only number that he put up in the FSL worth noting was 14 K in 10-1/3 frames.

Beck spent 2010 with Dunedin, and apparently the starter experiment was put on the back burner. He became a swingman, starting 11 of his 41 outings. The righty was 3–6/3.72 ERA in 101-2/3 IP, and his peripherals were again fine, though his K rate was down to seven per game, a trend that would continue.

He started 2011 at Dunedin, but after one game was moved to Class AA New Hampshire in the Eastern League. The Blue Jays still weren't sure what role to slot Beck in; he started 14 of the 22 games he appeared in for the Fisher Cats. His slash there was 7–4/3.69 ERA in 22 games, starting 14 of them and working 95 frames. Beck was then promoted to Class AAA Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League. As a 51, he made eight starts with a slash of 2–4/6.70 ERA in 41-2/3 IP.

Despite a weak showing at the AAA level, Toronto called him up to the show in early September. Beck made his first major league appearance on September 13th. He was called on three times and worked 2-1/3 scoreless innings.The righty had spent five seasons at various A levels; suddenly in Toronto he zoomed through four classifications in one year, from High A to the big club.

Toronto apparently decided that they prefer Beck coming in from the pen and after the season sent him to the Arizona Fall League to get some work as a closer (and you think the Pirate FO has problems deciding a role for their pitchers!). He was pretty strong, pitching eight goose egg frames in the AFL, giving up just two hits and a walk with five whiffs.

Beck opened the 2012 season with the Las Vegas 51s, from where he would dizzily yo-yo back and forth with the Blue Jays. He was called up four times during the year, twice for brief durations.

At Vegas, he went 2-0-18/1.31in 43 outings with nice peripherals other than Ks, which were by now down to 4.5 per game, and was named to the 2012 Mid-Season PCL All-Star squad. With Toronto, well, not so hot. In 15-2/3 IP, he had a 6.32 ERA with nine K, five walks and 21 hits surrendered.

On October 22, 2012, the Blue Jays claimed catcher Bobby Wilson from the Angels and DFA'ed Beck. The Bucs claimed him three days later.

Beck tosses a four-seamer that hits the mid-to-upper ninties and a sinking two-seamer that's a couple of ticks less. He also throws a slider and changeup, though neither are very highly regarded. In his tiny MLB sample, he has a 49% groundball rate, though he was considered more of a flyball pitcher in the minors. His splits are scary; he's average against righties, but lefty sticks have put up a line of .323/.400/.645 with a +OPS of 152 against him.

The FO likes taking flyers on power arms, particularly when they have a large body attached to them, as Beck does with his 6'4" 255 lb. frame. But even though he's a big tree and a hard thrower, his age (27), MLB strikeout rate of six per game and split issues probably limit him at best as mid-relief or mop-up material, and it's entirely possible that he ends up nothing more than AAAA/organizational filler.

He's another guy who has been swapped out between starting and relieving his entire career, so he could just need to focus on the bullpen role. Beck has a pair of options left for the Bucs to work with if he remains on the 40-man roster, which is no sure thing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bucco Bits

A little holiday news and notes on the Buccos...

  • Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors reported that "Rick Porcello, 23, posted a 4.59 ERA with 5.5 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and a 53.2% ground ball rate in 176 1/3 innings this past season. He earned $3.1MM in 2012 and has a projected salary of $4.7M for 2013. He’s under team control through 2015 and could be a fit for the Rockies, Padres or Pirates in my view." John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus tweets that Motown will give up OF Brennen Boesch, but not Porcello, for Hanny, as if the Pirates need another sub outfielder.
  • Kristy Robinson of Pirates Prospects says of another current rumor: "I am told the Pirates would want a second player in addition to Chris Capuano if they were to trade Joel Hanrahan to the Dodgers."
  • Ben Nicholson Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus picks the Bucs Top Ten Prospects.The prospect list is on the page; the individual reports are behind a subscriber wall. The roster is awfully young; #1 Gerritt Cole is the only one we could see in Pittsburgh this season.
  • Man, the Twins sure like old Pittsburgh Pirates. They took Dewey last year and now have added Kevin Correia to the fold, agreeing on a 2-year, $10M deal with the righty. Minny also signed minor league FAs Jeff Clement, Eric Fryer and Tim Wood from Indy this year.
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects guesses that Starling Marte's winter ball is done at the Dominican Winter League All-Star break, as the Pirates want to limit his 2012 inning count. Marte had a .304/.381/.464 line with four doubles, four triples, two homers and twenty RBI’s, so it was a productive few weeks of ball.
  • Jason Bay signed a one-year deal with Seattle. He got a hefty separation agreement from the Mets, and inked a contract with the Mariners worth $1M if in the majors, $500K if in the minors.
  • The Pirate Caravan starts today when it rolls into the Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill. The Bucs big pre-season blow out, PirateFest, begins Friday at the Convention Center.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Grilli Signs; Bullpen Takes Shape

The Buc bullpen got a little closer to its 2013 shape today when it was announced by everyone but the Pirates that Jason Grilli signed on again, inking a 2 year, $6.75M deal pending a physical. In his time with the Pirates, he's put up a 3-7-3/2.76 slash with 12.5 K/game rate.

It's good news because while there is some risk involved - Grilli is 36, and his flyball/homerun rate jumped while his groundball rate took a nosedive last year though he could still blow it by people - the Pirates needed a guy that misses bats, has had back-end success and can call on ten MLB campaigns worth of experience to share with a still pretty young bullpen. He may end up closing, and judging by last year, he's worth the shot - his eighth inning ERA/OBA was 3.04/.203; in the ninth, with much less work, it was 3.24/.241.

And while not guaranteed, it also looks like the beginning of the end in Pittsburgh for Joel Hanrahan. The big righty is in line for a $7M payday through arbitration, and on top of Grilli's deal, that $10M+ investment seems out of character for a Pirate bullpen. There hasn't been much market for Hanny yet, but he could either be packaged or traded for an equivalent starter's contract like LA's Chris Capuano, a player who the two teams have already discussed.

As for the makeup of the pen, Chris Resop is gone, but Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Chris Leroux are back. Indy's Bryan Morris is out of options and should stick, too, although his lack of September work last season is a mystery to us. That leaves at least two spots open.

The Pirates have brought in Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart, both who will compete for a slot, and maybe Andy Oliver too, if they opt to add him to the pen mix rather than compete as a starter. The FA market should be tapped for another veteran back-ender like Kyle Farnsworth and/or a lefty like Mike Gonzalez.

Grilli's signing gives Pittsburgh some form to its 2013 bullpen, and they'll add another arm or two before camp. With Grilled Cheese wrapped up and and Russell Martin inked, now it's time to look for a starter...

Zach Stewart

The Bucs picked up Zach Stewart from the Red Sox, and are probably hoping to end with another arm somewhat in the mold of Jared Hughes and Tony Watson.

Stewart, 26, is a Texan. He attended Holliday High, and was quite the jock, lettering in baseball, basketball, football, track and tennis. The righty was a standout pitcher who helped lead his team to the state tournament all four years of high school and was an All-State selection his junior and senior seasons.

He made a quick stop at Angelo State University for a semester before transferring to North Central Texas College, where he pitched 2006-07. He had a solid season in his first year as the Lions' sole freshman in the starting rotation. In his sophomore year, he became only the second Lion pitcher to be named to the All-Region Team.

With that resume, he transferred to Texas Tech University in 2008. Stewart was their closer, throwing a sinker that came in between 93-96 MPH with a plus slider, but he stepped into a starting role out of necessity later in the season for the Red Raiders.

Stewart was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round of the 2008 draft, and signed for $450,000. The Reds saw him as a bullpen back-ender.

Looked like a smart decision, too. Stewart made his pro debut that summer for the Low Class A Dayton Dragons, allowing one earned run in 11 outings, striking out 13 in 16-1/3 IP. The Reds jumped him to High A Sarasota, where he put up a 1.63 ERA with 23 K in 16-2/3 IP. Combined, his slash was1-4-5/1.09 ERA in 24 games and 36 K in 33 IP. Baseball America ranked him as the Reds 15th best prospect after the season.

Stewart started 2009 back at Sarasota, where he was converted to a starter and went 1-1/2.13 in seven starts with solid peripherals. He moved up to Class AA Carolina 3-0, and in seven more starts there had a slash of 3-0/1.46. That earned him some time at Class AAA Louisville - and it was only late June; that's some fast tracking! The Reds reconverted him with the Bats, and he appeared only out of the pen.

After recording an 0.73 ERA in nine relief appearances with a pair of saves, Cincy made another move with Stewart. No, it wasn't to the show - on August 1st, they traded him, Edwin Encarnación and Josh Roenicke to the Toronto Blue Jays for Scott Rolen. Stewart was treated a little more rudely in the hit-happy PCL, home of the Jays' AAA Las Vegas club, ending his stint there with a 3.38 ERA and 1.8 WHIP in 13-1/3 IP, but averaging a K per frame.

Still, he was the Blue Jays top prospect going into the 2010 season with the best heater in the organization, according to Baseball America. They liked him as a starter. Stewart spent the entire 2010 campaign with the Class AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats, going 8-3/3.63 ERA with 132 strikeouts in 26 starts and 136-1/3 innings of work.

Stewart was ranked among the Blue Jays' top five prospects heading into 2011, and was assigned back to New Hampshire. On June 14th, Stewart got the call to Toronto to replace another youngster, the struggling Kyle Drabek. He took his MLB career bow on June 16th, and after making 3 starts (0-1/4.86), Stewart was optioned back to the Fisher Cats in late June. Stewart went 5-5/4.20 there, and was about to pack his bags again.

On July 27th, Stewart was traded to the Chicago White Sox along with Jason Frasor for Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen. He was plugged into the rotation, and on August 6th, he earned his first big league victory, 6–1 over the Minnesota Twins. He had another highlight on September 5th, going seven perfect frames against the Twins before Danny Valencia broke it up to open the eighth.

Last season, Stewart spent most of the early season in the White Sox bullpen, and was 1-2/6.00 in 30 IP with pretty weak peripherals. In June, he logged some more plane miles when he was traded to the Red Sox with Brent Lillibridge for Kevin Youkilis and cash.

He was assigned to the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, where he went 3-5/3.94 and pitched pretty well except for a low K rate of five whiffs per nine. He got a couple of late year starts for Boston and was crushed, giving up 14 runs in 5-2/3 innings. He was sent back to Pawtucket, and on November 20th, Stewart was DFA'ed.

On November 28th, the Pirates acquired Stewart from the Red Sox in exchange for a PTBNL, who ended up being Kyle Kaminska.

His sinking fastball sits at ninety and leads to a lot of grounders (50%), and his out pitch is a slider. He also shows a changeup. Stewart has averaged just under six K per nine with two walks, and surrenders 2.2 homers per game, double the usual MLB rate. His velocity is down from his earlier days, but is reported to pick up a couple of ticks when he's working from the pen rather than starting.

Stewart looks like a guy that needs direction; he's spent his entire pro career from Class A to the show yanked between relief and starting. The bullpen looks like his niche; he is basically a two-pitch pony with the sinker/slider combo. His story sounds a lot like that of Hughes and Watson, and we think that's where his future lies. And the guys he was traded for - Scott Rolen, Edwin Jackson and Kevin Youkilis - indicates that scouts see something in his arm.

He's on the 40-man roster, but does have an option remaining, so the FO has a season to fit him into a role if he doesn't claim the Chris Resop spot out of camp.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Andy Oliver

The Bucs big move during the baseball meetings? Swapping out C Ramón Cabrera for Tiger lefty Andy Oliver. Cabrera is an overachiever with potential as a reserve; Oliver has some upside that never was realized for the Motown. The Pirates are hoping a change of scenery will draw that potential from him.

Oliver was all-state performer at Vermilion High School in Ohio, with a senior line of 6-0/0.40 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 52-2/3 innings, As a four year prep pitcher, he was 21-4-3/ 0.96 ERA with 354 K in 196 IP, the epitome of a power pitcher. Oliver ended up as a 17th-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, which would eventually get him in a brouhaha with the NCAA; more on that later.

He passed on the Twins offer, and went to Oklahoma State instead after considering offers from other schools like North Carolina and LSU.

Starting part-time as a freshman for the Cowboys, he spent the summer with the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League and was outstanding, going 1-1 with a 1.41 ERA and 54 punchouts in 45 IP. Baseball America took notice, and ranked him as the circuit's #10 prospect.

That showing primed him for a breakout campaign in 2008, and Oliver became one of the nation's top collegiate performers on the mound for OSU. He put up a slash of 7-2/2.20 ERA, earned first-team All-Big 12 honors and was named a second-team All-American by Then, the day before he was to pitch in a playoff game, the NCAA came calling.

The organization ruled him ineligible because he had an agent talk to the Twins when they drafted him out of high school back in 2006. It was a tale that exposed baseball's underbelly. His first rep, Tim Barratta, had discussions with the Twins on his behalf, a no-no that to our knowledge has never been enforced and still continues unabated today.

Oliver then switched to Scott Boras, and the spurned Barratta turned in the violation. It ended up not a big deal; Oliver's suit was settled out of court, and he got $750,000 from the NCAA, which managed to keep the rule on the books even if it had no teeth. We'd suppose both sides were happy with the outcome.

He pitched for Team USA during the summer, and made four starts with a 2-0/0.93 slash. Oliver notched 24 K in 19-1/3 innings as part of a national club that went 24-0 record with a gold medal at the World Championships. The lefty looked to be a sure-fire first rounder after he completed his upcoming junior campaign. Well, it didn't quite work out that way.

After some control issues reared their ugly head on Team USA,  he spent his junior year trying to smooth out his pitching mechanics. As a result, he went 5-6 /5.30 ERA. But Oliver still was a lefty with a power arm and sharp hook, recording more than a K per inning over his college career.
He was drafted by the Tigers in the second round of the 2009 draft, and signed late for a bonus of $1.495M, more than double the recommended slot. Oliver didn't sign in time to be assigned to a minor league club, but was sent to the Arizona Fall League. He went 1-1/2.81 with 16 Ks in 16 IP. Baseball America rated him as Detroit's #4 prospect.

Oliver made his pro debut in 2010 with the Class AA Erie SeaWolves in 2010. He went 6-4/3.61 in 14 starts there with 70 whiffs in 77-1/3 IP and good peripherals. It got him a quick advancement to Class AAA Toledo. He went 3-4/3.23 with the Mud Hens in nine starts, with 8 K per nine, but also 4 walks.

The Tigers called him up to the majors in late June to make his maiden voyage in the show as a replacement for Rick Porcello. Oliver made five starts, but after the first couple, it didn't go so well - his K rate dropped to seven per game and his walk rate rose to five. The call-up did cost him another shot with Team USA; he had made the roster but the Detroit gig kept him from playing.

The spotty results in the bigs weren't an entirely unexpected result for a fast-tracker. After the season, BA ranked him the #87 prospect in baseball. He won praise from his skipper, too. Tigers manager Jim Leyland viewed the rookie as a potential 15-game winner in the future, according to Leyland said "He had trouble commanding his fastball (but) he was here a little too fast."

He started 2011 at Toledo, and his control went completely south. Oliver was still striking out a batter per inning, but his walks remained at five per game. As a result of his command issues, he ended up with a very modest 8-12/4.71 slash in 26 starts. Oliver was recalled briefly to Detroit in May when Phil Coke was injured. It lasted for two starts, and he walked eight and K'ed five in 9-2/3 frames.

In 2012, he came to camp in the mix to be the fifth starter, but was sent back to Toledo and never appeared for the Tigers. Oliver was moved to pen in July, and made some progress. He went 1-0/3.78 ERA in nine appearances out of the bullpen for the Mud Hens after a line of 4-9/5.06 ERA in 19 starts. The southpaw finished the year with 112 strikeouts and 88 walks in 118 IP. The Tigers FO talked about him as a bullpen candidate in 2013, but that wasn't about to happen.

Oliver, 24, was traded to the Pirates for C Ramón Cabrera. Now the Bucs have to figure out what to do with him.

Baseball America described him as "a power lefty who needs to throw more strikes." His heater comes in at 92-94, though he's not sure where it's going, and his secondary arsenal is weak. His changeup is coming along, but Oliver is having trouble mastering a breaking pitch. He tossed a pretty highly considered curve in college, but lost his feel for it and has alternated between throwing the hook and the slider (he's currently in a slider phase.) Not only has that aggravated his control issues, but without a reliable breaking pitch, it hurts him against lefties, too, who can pretty well sit on his heater.

There's been some debate about whether or not to keep him as a starter, both in Detroit when he was there and we're sure now in Pittsburgh. He has a lot of upside as a rotation guy with the very big if of being able to find the dish and come up with a third pitch.

Oliver still has an option left, and we'd guess that unless he suddenly finds the light switch in the off season, he'll start in Indy as part of the rotation, joining Justin Wilson as a talented but wild lefty.

Still, it's a worthwhile gamble. The Bucs have a couple of young catchers that should be at the A level with Wyatt Mathison and Jin-De Jhang and enough organizational guys in Ali Solis, Carlos Paulino and Jacob Stallings to fill in between, so the loss of Cabrera isn't big. One day, one of those highly-drafted wash-outs the FO loves to collect like Oliver will stick against the wall.