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Monday Mop-Up Duty: the risk and reward of Pitch-22

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BRADENTON, Fla. – One strong impression for me early this spring after spending time both in the major league clubhouse and around the minor leaguers at Pirate City, is the Pirates have built up a small army of impressive young arms. I knew this reading and hearing about the arms, but seeing is believing. Everywhere you look, everywhere you turn, it seems there is a 6-foot-6 right-hander with a 95 mph fastball. And this is not an accident.

As I wrote about in Sunday’s Trib, under Neal Huntington the Pirates have employed a heavy-risk, considerable-reward strategy we like to call Pitch-22.

If you’re not familiar with the satirical novel Catch-22, the following is the key paragraph that gave Catch-22 its prominent place in the English lexicon:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more (WWII bomber) missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

Every small-market faces its own Catch-22, or rather, a Pitch-22: small-market teams cannot afford pitching on the free-agent market and every team has to have pitching to win. But drafting and developing pitching comes with enormous risk. You’re in a tough spot if you try to develop your own pitching, and your in a tough spot if you focus draft assets elsewhere.

Consider the risks:

Three out of four top 100 pitching prospects fail to become at least average major league pitchers.

Consider the reward:

Oakland and Tampa’s path toward sustaining small-market success was through the home-grown arms of Barry Zito-Tim Hudson-Mark Mulder and David Price-Alex Cobb-James Shields-Matt Moore.

The Pirates went all in on pitching in the  2009-11 drafts.

Consider of their 30 top-10 selections from 2009-11, 22 were pitchers (and 17 were prep pitchers). They signed 18 of those arms to bonuses totaling $25.6 million. The Pirates paid their top six major league starting pitchers last season $26.5 million.

No team that I’m aware of has ever had a draft like 2010 when nine of the first 10 selections were pitchers.

No organization has made such a three-year commit to amateur pitching.

A prudent strategy? We’re about to find as Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham and Tyler Glansow, among others, are moving closer to the big leagues and what the Pirates hope is health and productivity.

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS 

9. Speaking of Taillon, he was assigned to major league camp today. It was going to happen eventually but it might have occurred this early because he is dealing with a blister. See you in June, Jameson, whether it be to replace an injured pitcher or an ineffective one (Edinson Volquez, anyone?)

8. Huntington told me last season he believes the Pirates can better the industry-wide standard for pitching attrition. How? He didn’t give details but the Pirates closely monitor work loads and have ramped up strength and conditioning efforts. There is also some data-based research done by Dan Fox and his crew.

Interesting quote from Kingham:

“Every two weeks we get a weight check,” Kingham said. “We track our sleep, our water intake, our hydration and everything. Every day you have to do it. We have a point system, and you try to get as many points as you can. We are pretty heavy on health in this organization.”

7.  As for the major league staff, Francisco Liriano is looking to put consecutive quality seasons back-to-back for the first time in his career. Liriano told me he has not many alterations, and is simply trying to repeat his mechanics that worked so well last year. This makes sense, of course. He did say he is going to try and become less off-speed dependent. He threw his slider on a whopping 36.4 percent of his pitches. That might not be good for elbow health as he approaches free agency. Liriano indicated he will be more fastball, more groundball focused in 2014.

Liriano’s fastball was between 90-93 mph on Saturday. It touched 94 mph twice, according to an NL scout, who noted Liriano usually builds his velocity slowly. His fastball averaged 93 mph last season.

6. Volquez was lit up by a strong Baltimore lineup on Sunday. He  had a swing-and-miss curve but his fastball command wasn’t great and he fell behind most hitters. His velocity was 91-94 mph. His fastball velocity has averaged 93.4 mph for his career but fell to 92.5 mph last season. It’s something to watch.

5. The Gerrit Cole curveball has appeared to reach its next step in maturity. If it’s as good this season as it was on the backfields last week, Cole might contend for a Cy Young top 5 finish in 2014. That’s the upside.

4. Gregory Polanco actually looked like a player who had not played above Double-A on Saturday vs. Tampa. He struck out twice, expanding his strike zone against Moore with out-of-zone swings. Overall, Polanco has controlled the strike zone well.

3.  It’s early (disclaimer on every statement this spring), but Andrew Lambo is not inspiring confidence. 

2. There’s a log jam of out-of-option relievers in camp. I thought the Pirates would make a deal from this surplus. Maybe they still will. I’d be surprised if Stolmy Pimentel doesn’t make the team. He’s touched 97 this spring.

1. In know it’s early, but I think Alvarez’s approach looks better. He entered Sunday with 4 Ks in 21 PAs. He doubled off lefty Mark Buehrle last week and he nearly took another lefty, Matt Moore, out of the park on Saturday. I think there’s more there for Alvarez. I say he has Chris Davis upside. Yeah, it’s unlikely he reaches it … but that’s the ceiling. Davis has incredibly effortless power to the opposite field. So does Alvarez. Alvarez should focus on left-center, imo.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 462

Travis Snider‘s batting average. Don’t give up on Snider just yet. He was never healthy last year and he still has patience and power.

HE SAID IT 

Liriano on his quest for consistency: “(This season) I want to throw more of my fastball, more of my two-seamer, so I can go deeper into the game,” Liriano said. “Hopefully I can get more ground balls than last year.

“I’m trying to be more consistent and stay healthy, and we’ll see what happens. I’ve been hurt a couple times, and that’s been a part of my ups and downs.”

HE SAID IT II

Greg Smith on Pitch-22: “You look at the Stephen Strasburgs of the world, he was a college guy. We started thinking, ‘How do you get those guys before they become Strasburg?’  How does (Justin) Verlander become Verlander before he becomes draft eligible and goes No. 2 in the country?’ ”

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE WEEK

*If you’re in Bradenton of if you plan on making the trip in the future, check out the Star Fish on 123rd west. Great seafood and a great location on the water. Blackened Mahi was just fine. (Find is courtesy Tim Williams).

*Also, I think I like Coldplay’s new Radiohead-like sound.

Yeah, I listen to Coldplay. So what? So does Joe Madden.

– TS

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