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Monday Morning mop-up duty: mid-season grades … and au revoir (for two weeks)

SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Morning folks.

 

Before we get started I wanted to let  you know that my personal All-Star break is starting early and will be extended.

 

Before I interviewed for this position in the spring, I had planned an overseas trip with my wife. Because the excursion was already paid for when I interviewed for this position, because if it didn’t happen I’d sleep on the couch for approximately 1.2 years,  we are going to be gone for two weeks as we tour London, Paris and northern Italy. I’ll return to Pirates coverage after the All-Star break.

 

It’s difficult to give up this story for two weeks, but better to be away now rather than in September when the story could really become interesting.

 

PARIS

(If I spot Giancarlo Stanton in Paris I’ll ask him if he’s heard any buzz about ESPN’s trade idea sending him to the Pirates)

 

And how good of a story is this?

 

Has there been a better first-half one in franchise history?

 

The Pirates reached 50 wins before July 1 first for the first time in their history – a history in the National League that dates back to 1887. We’ll see how they do while I’m away, but there’s reason to believe this year is different, that the Pirates should end the longest losing streak in North American pro sports and perhaps achieve much more.

 

This will be my final blog post for two weeks, a post that is something of a hybrid Monday Morning Mop-up duty/Interim report card…. Thanks for the interaction here to date. I look forward to returning for what should be a fascinating second half of the season.

 

STARTING NINE: FIRST-HALF GRADES

 

OFFENSE:

Pedro Alvarez was booed in late April at PNC Park as he was in the midst of a horrific slump and another one of his common stretches of inconsistency. But Alvarez has turned his season around with a career-best month of June, hiking his home run total to 20. He might never be worth the No. 2 overall pick, but he’s a third baseman capable of consistently hitting 30+ home runs and there’s value in that. Starling Marte has also been inconsistent for a second year every day player but he’s been more good than bad with a .809 OPS, .288 average and 22 steals. Andrew McCutchen hasn’t had an MVP caliber first half, but he has cut his strikeout rate and if his power returns – it’s been showing signs or returning– he could have a monster second half.

 

There are concerns.

 

The Pirates’ right fielders entered the week 15th in the NL in OPS. It’s an area where teams typically play a power bat. Shortstop had been another blackhole. Is Jordy Mercer really an everyday player? He’s shown promise but the sample size is small.

 

The Pirates are 10th in the NL in runs per game (3.95) and 11th in OPS (.699). Improvement is needed.

 

Grade: C-

 

STARTING PITCHING: The Pirates’ starting pitchers are allowing the second fewest runs per game in the National League (3.40). That’s impressive but it’s made more impressive by the number of starting pitchers the Pirates have used (11).

 

A.J. Burnett is having a career year. Jeff Locke has had a shocking breakout (though I’d bet his ERA finishes above 3.00). Francicso Liriano is enjoying a bounce-back season and Gerrit Cole has shown control of a 100 mph fastball. Wandy Rodriguez’s forearm tightness could give the team’s depth a long-term test, and the Pirates staff will likely regress to some degree in the second half, but there’s no doubting this staff is deeper and more talented than last year’s. I think the staff lacks a true ace, the type that you’d want to start Game 1 of a postseason series – Cole might be that guy in time – but for now it’s a deep an effective unit.

Grade:  A-

 

RELIEF PITCHING: Pirates closer Jason Grilli has blown just one save. Mark Melancon has been one of the game’s best setup met and Justin Wilson is a rare asset: a set-up lefty who can touch 100 mph. The team is second in the NL in bullpen ERA. While the bullpen has been great in the first half workload is a major concern. Grilli has shown signs of fatigue, Melancon says he’s ready for a break, and the concern is the second-half grade could be much worst than the first.

Grade: A

 

DEFENSE:  The Pirates lead baseball with a .717 defensive efficiency, which is the rate of turning batted balls into outs. The Pirates have  an elite defensive combo in left and center field. Russell Martin has made a major impact with his arm, pitch framing and sequencing. But the Pirates lack projected gold glove winners in the infield.

 

What’s the difference?

 

The Pirate are employing a league-high rate of shifts and have really embraced new age thinking on defense. The lack of elite infield defenders make me question whether the defensive efficiency is sustainable but it’s been excellent to date.

Grade: A

 

COACHING STAFF:

When a team wins 51 games in a half of a season it’s difficult to be too critical to any one area. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is an interesting guy. He’s gone from an old school type of manager to one who really embraces defensive shifts and platoon situations. Hurdle was perhaps too slow in going to Mercer at shortstop. Hurdle will roll out the questionable lineup decision now and then. Still, he’s pulled more correct levers than incorrect ones. Ray Searage’s pitching staff has been great. Hitting coach Jay Bell’s offense  has been lackluster for most of the season but Alvarez has made real adjustments. Can they get more from Neil Walker, Travis Snider and others?

Grade: B

 

FRONT OFFICE:

This was a group that was embattled entering the season for various reasons that have been well documented. But the front office had it’s finest offseason to date. The signings of Martin and Liriano have been impact ones at relatively low costs. The team stole Mark Melancon in the Joel Hanrahan deal. Cole’s debut suggests the Pirates made the right decision with the first pick in 2011. (Some thought Dylan Bundy or even Trevor Bauer should have gone first). The system has had a good year from top to bottom with Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham emerging as serious pitching prospects. Yes, five years of losing under Neal Huntington gives fans pause. Yes, the signing of Jonathan Sanchez was a miss. Yes, the team has holes like in right field. But it’s been a big year to date for the front office.

GRADE: A –

 

FIRST HALF PIRATES MVP: Russell Martin

His .757 OPS is not elite but above average for a catcher. His ability to control the running game is a plus. But where I’ve become a big believer in Martin is in his hidden value. He’s been an impact player.

 

STAT THAT MIGHT ONLY INTEREST ME: 94.8

Average miles per hour of Grilli’s fastball on Saturday, which was a welcomed happening for the Pirates since Grilli appeared to be showing some fatigue and had been given a lengthy break. The Pirates can’t afford a Grilli breakdown which would really test bullpen depth and effectiveness.

 

HE SAID IT:

Grilli on being an All-Star (he should be) in New York:

“If I’m there, I want to play,” Grilli said. “I want to get that experience. Both of my grandfathers were huge Mets fans, so that would be pretty cool. It would be like a big, Italian wedding for me.”

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION:

I’ve never been to Europe. In the next episode of Monady Morning mop-up duty I hope to have an assortment of Old World recommendations. If you have any London-Paris-Lake Como-Florence recommendations please pass them along.

 

As always, thanks for reading.

 

- TS

18 Comments

  1. Enjoy your well deseved vacation. Hopefully you are not the lucky rabbit foot that’s been bringing the Pirates luck. If you are at least you will be gone for the all star break so it’s only for like 10 games.

    Don’t forget the front office is seeing the Trade for Locke pan out as well. They also picked up players like Gomez and Mazzoro for next to nothing. Nobody has a crystal ball and can tell when such things will work out but they seem to look for certain kind of players other teams give up on and try to hit on them. It’s a concept small/medium market teams have to use. There was a defines plan to find pitchers that throw hard with movement as well and they have done that and now the Pirates have an amazing number of pitchers that throw above 95 mph. It is amazing that Black and Welker can’t pitch themselves onto this staff.

  2. My first tip on the vacation is to relax and don’t try to see everything. It’s not possible. London or Paris alone can fill a trip. London offers some amazing possibilities but I suggest that you spend at least one day in the British countryside. Rent a car and drive to Stonehenge: driving is easy as long as you can drive a stick. The English countryside is amazing and well worth a day. You could alternatively take a nice train to Bath or Oxford, both great places with oozes of history and on the way you will see the wonderful countryside. Stay in a B&B. Finally, in England drink the cask real ales. Bitters, Pale Ales, etc. The British cask beers are fairly unique, low alcohol and really good. Enjoy!
    -Douglas

  3. Definitely agree that Martin is the best improvement of any position player. I haven’t read alot of your stuff but I liked this one. Thanks.

  4. Travis… enjoy your time… if you haven’t booked a hotel in Florence, I recommend the Hotel Aldini…best 2-star hotel I’ve ever stayed in… about 100 bucks/night and it’s just 100 feet from the Florence Cathedral (Brunelleschi’s famous D’uomo) and smack in the middle of everything in Florence. You can walk to the Academi Di Medici as well as the Uffizzi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio…and then up the hill to the Medici castle/fortress and gardens.

    Also, if you’re along the Riviera… the border town on the Mediterranean between France and Italy is Ventimiglia, Italy… just as you cross the border on the coast from France going into Italy. If you’re in that area the Ristorante San Guiseppe is excellent… a little pricey, but it’s right on the water in Ventimiglia. My cousins own/operate it. Have a great time…

  5. Have a great time and Florence is a beautiful city. Can you give us an update on Tabata. Seems he could be a solution in RF if health and motivated.

  6. Even as a casual admirer of Art, like myself, you cannot visit Paris without seeing the Museum(s)

    The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is only a short distance from, and some prefer it to,
    the Louvre, which is wonderful, without a doubt.

    My Jaw dropped upon seeing a marble bust at the Musée d’Orsay, carved so intricately, that the artist had actually added the finest of natural wrinkles to the skin… i still marvel at that astonishing sight and the unanticipated revelation of that marvelous talent.

    Musée d’Orsay is smaller, more accessible, and the exhibits thoughtfully presented.

    If there’s something specific you want to see at the Louvre, like the amazing Egyptian exhibit, by all means… but, it’s not the only museum to visit in Paris.

    If a time-limited vacation presented itself, I still spend a couple of hours at both.
    Keep in mind, you could spend close to a week at the Louvre and still not see everything.

    Louvre – Closed on Tuesdays
    Musée d’Orsay – Closed on Mondays

  7. In Paris (lived there for many years) I’d recommend the Latin quarter, which is right by the Notre Dame cathedral across the river, and the city of St Germain en Laye, has a nice castle and great view of the city. Go bucs

  8. Don’t be surprised as I was at how dirty Europe is, or the graffiti everywhere. And eat the street food, it’s good.

    • I’ve really enjoyed your work, Travis. I hope you enjoy Europe over the next 2 weeks and come back recharged and ready to go! Safe travels!

  9. Have a great trip! You have earned your own break. Come back refreshed and ready to provide more insightful commentary as well as the luck to get these fine men to a winning season, and….gasp, maybe even the playoffs.

  10. Hey Travis, love your work.
    old london is a great place to visit. the streets haven’t changed for hundreds of years, great pubs and you can touch the buildings on both sides of the streets (almost).
    Paris has so many outstanding cafes to enjoy, and there are many parts to it, broken into districts. check the outskirts, that’s the paris tourists dont get to see. and if you get a chance check out versailles. its amazing.
    can’t wait for more coverage. enjoy your trip.

  11. Please do not tell me you’re coming all the way from the Burgh to Northern Italy and are not going to Rome?!?! 2+ hours further south…

  12. I enjoy your writing, it’s refreshing and analytical. We went to northern Italy last year for the first time. I am sure you will find it remarkable just like we did. It sounds like you are going to Lake Como which is amazing. The water is blue, the little towns along the shores are beautiful and the views of the Italian and Swiss Alps are breathtaking. If you have not already selected a place to stay I would suggest the little town of Verenna. We stayed in Nesso (which was great) but would have stayed in Verenna if we only knew. I have a friend who is an airline pilot and has been all over the world. He stayed in Verenna with his wife and told me it has to be the most romantic place in the world. Have a great trip.

  13. Italy Recommendations

    From Lake Como to Florence I recommend visiting the stunning Cinque Terra and forget Florence all together. Go to Siena in Tuscany. And really skip Pisa!

    Also spend some time driving in Chianti Classico wine country between Florence and Siena!

  14. When I told a native Italian restauranteer here in LA that I was going to Lake Como, he told me that the town to stay in was Bellagio. He was right. It’s not that easy to reach because you have to take a train from Milan and then a ferry to get there, but once you do get there you may never want to leave.

  15. TS – in London, do Harrods and shops, restaurants around there. Hyde Park is cool, walk around Buckingham Palace, the Eye is a good visit, Only use the Tube in off hours. Imperative – go to a neighborhood pub and just soak it in.

  16. The Hotel La Belle Juliette is superb, as is La Truffiere for a spectacular meal. Cafe Procope is the oldest coffee house in Paris, where Voltaire, Napoleon, Franklin, Jefferson and a host of others got their fixes. The Louvre is a must because it is the Louvre. Other gems are the Musee Carnavalet, Hotel des Invalides and the Musee de l’Armee, the Conciergerie and Ste. Chapelle, and the Musee de Cluny. Crepes anywhere on the street in the Left Bank. Willy’s Wine Bar and the bar at the Hotel Meurice. So much Paris, so little time.

  17. In Florence, if it is just you and 1-3 others … try the 13 Gobbi Restaurant (13 Hunchbacks) – make reservations, get the house pasta. If it is a bigger group, try Il Latini.

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