Free the shark? (And our podcast)

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SEATTLE – Tribune-Review columnist Rob Rossi opined this week the Pirates should consider trading Mark Melancon.

After all, under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have shown the ability to find productive closers and have done well in selling high on closers.

Just consider the Joel Hanrahan trade several years back. Hanrahan struggled with the Red Sox after being acquired by the Pirates and one of the chips in return was Melancon.

mark-melancon-mlb-cincinnati-reds-pittsburgh-pirates-850x560
Melancon has again been really, really good but that also makes him an ideal trade target for a lot of contenders (Horner photo)

 

Moneyball 101 suggests a club should always sell high on closers because the save is over-valued, particularly by arbitration panels, and reliever performance is subject to wild fluctuations year in and year out.

If two months of Joakim Soria cost the Pirates an interesting prospect in JaCoby Jones last summer, then surely Melancon can net the Pirates a prospect of interest.

But are the Pirates going to be buyers or sellers?

Huntington said the Pirates will prepare for each scenario – and said the Pirates were open to selling at each of the last three deadlines.

“We’ve gone into each of the last three deadlines with the mindset to buy and sell if the right opportunity was there,” Huntington told the Tribune-Review . “The opportunities to add were the moves we’ve been able to make and felt good about making.”

The next month could determine whether the Pirates are buyers or sellers or hold at the deadline.

But given the demand for quality relief pitching, given the Pirates’ waning control over Melancon and the unlikely (or, rather, zero chance) he’s with the club next season, it all might make Melancon a likely trade chip regardless of how the Pirates perform.

The Pirates’ best and perhaps only chance to make the postseaosn is as a wild card and even that’s with long-shot odds. The case can be made that the Pirates are best served moving Melancon regardless of how they perform over the next 30 days.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: the core collapsed, now can it rebound?

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SOUTH HILLS – When a team nose dives, when it loses 20 of 26 games as the Pirates’ did (their worst stretch since Sept. 2012), when it falls from sitting nine games over .500 on May 27 to five games below on June 23, there is going to be finger pointing.

And there has been a lot of finger pointing.

Much has been said and written about what the club did — and didn’t do — this offseason.

Where was the No. 3 starter signed via free agency to replace the production of A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ? Where was the financial commitment to bolster a 98-win team after a record attendance season coupled with tens upon tens of millions of new TV/Web-generated dollars flowing into the game?

Some of those critiques are legitimate.

In speaking to colleague Rob Biertempfel, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington talked about the reasons behind the slow start a story from Sunday. Huntington took much of the blame.

“We’ve got our share of inconsistencies and guys who are working through some challenges,” Huntington said. “And probably the most important factor is some of the decisions we made – that I made – over the offseason that haven’t panned out as expected. The good thing is we’re through the toughest part of our schedule.”

The schedule has been tough. Many players have struggled, some have been injured. But, actually, most of Huntington’s additions have worked out. (What he didn’t do can be debated – though that’s also tied to working within a budget).

John Jaso has reached base as expected, and been better than expected defensively. Neftali Feliz has pitched well. They were the largest dollar free agent signings of the offseason (telling of the spending constraints the front office works within). The decision to let Pedro Alvarez walk and tender and keep Mark Melancon was the correct one.

Now, the Jon Niese-for-Neil Walker trade can be debated. And the jury is out on Juan Nicasio. But he was a $3 million signing, and Walker wasn’t going to be in Pittsburgh beyond 2016.

McCutchenSLUMP
Is this core player ready for a second half surge? (Horner photo)

Here’s the thing, the root of the Pirates’ slow start is not tied to whether the club should have signed Happ or some arm of that ilk, or whether or not the club should have traded Walker.

Where does most the blame reside? Look at the core players.

Consider the following chart of the Pirates’ top six WAR leaders from last season, their production last year compared to projected 2016 production and actual production:

 

  • PLAYER            2015 WAR/Projected 2016WAR/WAR to date
  • Andrew McCutchen                       4.8          4.7          1.0
  • Gerrit Cole                                         4.2          3.3          0.1
  • Francisco Cervelli                          5.7          3.2          1.5
  • Francisco Liriano                           2.9          2.6          0.3
  • Jung Ho Kang                                  3.2          3.9          2.0
  • Starling Marte                                 2.5          3.6          2.4
  • TOTAL                                                   23.3        21.3        7.3

If you extrapolate this season’s performance to date over a full year, the Pirates’ top six core pieces will produce six to seven wins below their expected performance, and about nine wins below their 2015 level.

That’s a significant drop.

McCutchen, Cole and Liriano have all dealt with some sort of physical ailment this season – and all have had reductions in production and/or playing time.

Kang has played well but missed the first five weeks of the season. Cervelli was playing mostly as expected but is now on the DL. So of the Pirates’ six core players, or best returning players, entering the season, only Marte has both healthy and playing as expected. (Gregory Polanco has since elevated himself to core status)

No club can afford to have a core group so under-perform.

The good news?

They should be healthier and better in the second half when the schedule becomes easier. Of the Pirates’73 second-half games, 34 are against the Phillies, Reds and Brewers. While the division is all but lost, the Pirates are only four games out of a wild card berth with four teams ahead of them. That’s ground that can be made up. Sweeping the Dodgers was quietly critical.

Moreover, this core group will all be back for 2017, and it should have a better supporting cast.

The core has disappointed to date, but it should be better the rest of the way, and it should be better in 2017 with more homegrown additions around it.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Chad Kuhl accounted well for himself in his debut against Clayton Kershaw. He was competitive. His fastball sat between 95-97 mph. He has a live arm. His secondary stuff lags behind his fastball and it’s in part why he didn’t put up monster strikeout numbers at the minor league level. He lived up to his Baseball Prospectus scouting report:

“Kuhl would have an above-average fastball just based on velocity (he sits in the low 90s), but what makes it a plus pitch is that there’s a tremendous amount of sink to it. He’s got the stuff to be a groundball machine, and the power of his fastball/sinker allows it to miss bats.

Kuhl also throws a slider and a change, and while those pitches lag behind the sinking fastball by a considerable margin, they’re both usable. The slider is another groundball pitch with late tilt, but doesn’t have depth and isn’t going to be a swing-and-miss offering at the big-league level. The change offers a bit of tumble, but it lacks firmness and there’s a slight difference in arm speed when throws it. They’re both competent pitches, but neither pitch would get an above-average grade, unless you’re a very lenient grader.

Kuhl’s command isn’t elite, but he’s generally in the strike zone, and he repeats his delivery well enough to suggest that the command and control should be big-league average as he matures physically and mentally.”

He looks like a big league arm, though not an impact one — unless the secondary stuff makes a jump.

>>McCutchen had some great swings on Saturday night. He looked like the vintage 2012-15 McCutchen with two homers and an exit velocity topping out at 107 mph. At least for one night, the torque, the explosiveness. was back in his swing. It’s quite possible he has a big second half. It’s quite possible the thumb led to changes to his swing, that led to lesser results and then to lesser confidence. So it’s important that the thumb – and grip – are in better places.

The physical can affect the mental.

And perhaps it explains why he has lost so much command of the strike zone this season. In addition to the power, the strikeouts need to come way down.

>>Another positive devlopment? Gerrit Cole pitching off a mound.

>>Moving Juan Nicasio to the bullpen seems like the right decision. It suggests Jameson Taillon is here for an extended stay and the move also opens up an opportunity for an extended look at prospects Kuhl or Tyler Glasnow. It’s time to get a look at some of the young arms. And it seems Kuhl is in line to receive multiple starts.

>>One decision that can be questioned is the decision to open with Nicasio in the starting rotation.

Yes, he had a remarkable spring but he was still a two-pitch pitcher (sometimes a fastball-only pitcher) with a skill set that fit better in the bullpen. Some, including yours truly, thought he best fit in as a multi-inning reliever from the get go. Maybe that would have led to less wear-and-tear on the bullpen, and provided a better bridge to the back end.

>>The Pirates talked a lot about using more multi-inning reliever types this spring, and lessening the exposure of the back-end rotation arms. Joe Blanton was excellent in that role last season. (And perhaps he should have been resigned). I thought Nicasio was signed with the idea of filling that role.

>> Taillon said he didn’t have feel for his curveball on Friday, which is rare for him, and he also elevated his fastball too often. He’s shown flashes of brilliance and also reminded us that he’s still a rookie during his four-start stretch. Taillon also left his fastball up too often.

>>Josh Bell still has to tighten up his defense, but man, that bat looks ready. He’s answered questions about his power – it’s developed – and his ability to hit right handed. He has a .955 OPS vs. lefties this year and a .922 OPS vs. righties.

Last season he posted a .600 OPS vs. lefties in Triple-A  and a .643 OPS  vs. lefties in Double-A.

The Bells, Austin Meadows and other near MLB-ready prospects give the Pirates flexibility in decision making and roster shaping moving forward.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 1,000

Win milestone Clint Hurdle reached on Friday night, becoming the 61st manager to reach the mark and sixth current manager.

Hurdle’s wife, Karla, flew Hurdle’s mother and father up on Thursday and they were on hand Friday. Hurdle said he was “proud” of his father, who had been there and stuck with him through all the craziness of Hurdle’s earlier life. It was his father who took Clint on a walk several decades earlier and told him to get his life together. He did. And he has 1,000 wins to show for it.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 34 of 73

Number of second half games for the Pirates against the Phillies, Reds and Brewers. If you’re looking for a reason to believe this team has a puncher’s chance it’s that number plus a return to health and productivity of the club’s core players.

 

McCutchen

HE SAID IT I

“I’ve been in this game for seven years. I know what a strike is. (Conroy) said it was down the middle. I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It was down, the middle,’ and left it at that.”

- McCutchen on his ejection Sunday night

 

HE SAID IT II

“When you’re averaging (five walks) a game, that’s a number you have to pay attention to. He has to shave that down. … Tyler is aware of it. It’s definitely at the top of his to-do list.”

-Hurdle on Glasnow.

Look the control needs to be better but it’s not going to be perfect anytime soon. Still, Glasnow can probably succeed at the MLB level right now. The evidence? He’s allowed five hits in his last 28 innings. He’s ready for a look.

HE SAID IT III

“It’s easy to say. ‘Well, If we had just added one year (to the offer). Then later, man, you really wish you hadn’t added that third or fourth year. It’s like a second round of dessert. It tastes really good at the time but you’re probably going to pay for it.”

-Huntington on offseason free agent negotiations… Perhaps referencing, indirectly, Happ or  Kazmir.

HE SAID IT IV

If you believe more payroll should have been added then blame ownership. The front office is working under considerable financial constraints. More evidence from Huntington:

“In our minds, signing David Freese was one of the best July acquisitions we could make. We just made it in March. That one will have residual impact on what we’re about to do (at the trade deadline) in July in terms of financial flexibility.”

-TS

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Friday farm report: More on Mitch Keller and newest Pirate Adam Frazier

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Low-A West Virginia pitching coach Matt Ford said Wednesday that right-hander Mitch Keller is pitching like he doesn’t have injuries in the back of his mind.

Forearm injuries in the past, Ford said the 20-year-old Keller now both looks and acts more confident in his pitches.

“He’s believing in his stuff, he’s challenging hitters every game,” Ford said. “When we do our bullpen work, there’s a purpose with every throw he makes and, like I said, all that stuff has really transferred in between the lines.”

Keller, who entered this season as the Pirates’ No. 14 prospect, per MLB.com, is the subject of the minor league report in this Sunday’s Trib. Ford said the young righty, now 12 starts into his 2016 campaign after not making more than eight in either of his first two minor league seasons, is embracing a steadier delivery, a steadier demeanor on the mound and a steadier routine between starts.

The result is a steadier pitcher in Keller.

“I’ve felt as healthy as I have since last year. I feel really good. I feel really strong,” Keller said Thursday. “I was the strongest I’ve been in my life after the offseason. I think just coming in and being really strong helped me. It helped me a lot.”

Keller is 5-4 with a 2.42 ERA this season. In 67 innings, he has walked just seven hitters after walking 16 in 19 2/3 innings in 2015.

His return to the strike zone has been equal parts health, confidence and pace. While Keller isn’t scheduled to pitch again until Monday, his 11-pitch first inning in the South Atlantic League All-Star game on Tuesday was a prime example of all three, but especially pace.

The first hitter to face Keller, Ray-Patrick Didder, saw four pitches. One was a ball, one was a foul ball hit toward right field. The fourth was a breaking ball Didder swung at but didn’t look close to hitting. The at-bat lasted 41 seconds.

The second hitter, Vinny Siena of the Columbia Fireflies, saw three pitches, grounding out weakly to the left side 43 seconds after the first pitch left Keller’s hand.

The third and final hitter of the half-inning, Brian Mundell of the Asheville Tourists, got a full 54 seconds against Keller, about 20 seconds of which featured Keller waiting while Mundell took practice cuts.

In no way is it fair to project a pitcher based on pace of play, but Keller at least has the look of a confident pitcher, and if he can progress through the minor leagues, he will A.) Not likely be impacted by pitch clocks and B.) Come as a relief to writers on deadline.

Plus, the all-star game shoes appear to have helped:

Indy pipeline heats up

Adam Frazier was called upon to join the Pirates earlier Friday, a product of the 24-year-old leading the International League in batting average by 12 points (he hit .333 in 68 games) and a banged up Pirates outfield needing someone who can fill in.

Frazier, who was exclusively a middle infielder at Mississippi State, has played more left field than any other position this season, but fits a mold of Pirates outfield prospects not named Austin Meadows (a likely center fielder at the next level) in that he plays multiple positions.

As Triple-A Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor explained last month, Frazier will benefit from having played left field in Indy if and when he fills in for Starling Marte in left.

“Our left-center here is very similar to Pittsburgh’s, so being a left fielder here is only going to help him,” Treanor said. “We’re 418 (feet) to left-center here. They’re 412 whatever it is there. Our left field sets up similar.”

Frazier only spent 85 innings in the middle infield in his first two months with Indy, but Treanor said Frazier did what he could to stay sharp at short and second. As of a month ago, Frazier was devoting one of his two pregame hitting groups during which he wasn’t hitting to infield work.

The Pirates’ immediate needs appear to be in the outfield, but if asked, Frazier should be able to contribute at either middle infield spot.

Glasnow or later?

Every time No. 1 Pirates prospect Tyler Glasnow has pitched recently, two Twitter factions come out of the woodwork.

One camp points to 13 straight hitless innings and argues Glasnow, whose ERA is now down to a silly 1.61, would at least be better than the average Pirates starter right now.

The other camp points to Glasnow’s 47 walks in 15 starts – including 22 in his last five starts – and suggests the 22-year-old, while allowing very few runs, has more growing to do.

Our Rob Biertempfel detailed some of Glasnow’s struggles with finding the strike zone in Friday’s Trib.

For now, the walks appear to not be doing much harm. In five June starts, Glasnow has allowed just one run and has yielded an opponents’ batting average of .058. Of the five hits he has allowed in his last 28 innings, just two have gone for extra bases.

It wasn’t long ago when Glasnow’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was fine. In 2015, it peaked at 4.32 in eight starts with Double-A Altoona. In 15 starts with Indianapolis this season, that ratio is down to 2.13.

It’s unclear what has led to the difference, but at this point it’s fair to assume Glasnow won’t be in Indy much longer if that ratio climbs once more.

Bell at the bat

With Adam Frazier departed to Pittsburgh, Indianapolis first baseman and No. 3 Pirates prospect Josh Bell takes over the distinction of having the best batting average in the International League (.321).

Much like walks with Glasnow, Bell has one well-documented weak spot – his transition to first base, specifically learning when versus when not to flip the ball to the pitcher on ground balls to the right side.

The 23-year-old’s bat, however, appears to be close to ready and questions about his power have been answered throughout a strong June.

As of Friday, Bell was at or near the top of the International League in hits (86—second), home runs (11—sixth), on-base percentage (.408 – third), slugging percentage (.537 – second), OPS (.945 – first), RBIs (47 – second), total bases (144 – first) and runs (41 – fifth).

 

 

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Boston (reportedly) called about Gerrit Cole … Should the Pirates make calls about McCutchen? (And our podcast)

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PNC PARK – You might have seen the Boston Herald  report earlier this week that the Red Sox have called a  couple of the teams about young, front-line starting pitchers. They reportedly called the Marlins about Jose Fernandez and the Pirates about Gerrit Cole.

If the Red Sox did call, if they call again, should the Pirates listen or politely hit the “end call” button?

On the surface, the idea of trading Cole seems crazy.

The former No. 1 overall pick won 19 games last season, finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting, and was having another solid season this year before being sidelined by a triceps injury. (The injury might eliminate the unlikely chance the Pirates and Red Sox engage in talks this summer).

It seems crazy to trade Cole who could lead a staff, at least through 2019, that figures to include Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow.

coledugout
Could the Pirates really trade this guy? (Horner photo)

 

The Pirates are not going to find another arm like Cole in free agency or the trade market. They have to draft and develop arms like Cole.

On the other hand, Cole is about to become more expensive.

It’s one reason why it’s important the Pirates try to reach an arbitration buyout deal with Cole, even if it’s unlikely he remains with the club beyond his first six-plus seasons of control. … If Cole and the club do not agree to terms on a multi-year contract it’s possible that he’s only in town through 2018. If Cole continues to be a star-level performer he could earn $20 million plus in arbitration in 2019 and will the Pirates be willing to pay that? Will they be willing to place such a percentage of payroll into one pitcher? Or would they move him like the Rays did with David Price?

On the other hand, Cole was ranked before the season as having the 19th most trade value in the sport in Jonah Keri’s preseason trade value rankings. If the Pirates believe they’re out of it this year – Fangraphs.com gives them a 6.3 chance to earn a wild card – if they believe 2017 is going to be about breaking in a bunch of young kids for a brighter 2018 and 2019 then perhaps you could talk yourself into accepting a king’s ransom for Cole.

Still, with the Pirates’ position player core and quality position player and pitching prospects on the doorstep, it likely makes more sense to build around Cole – who perhaps has another level –  than trade him away for younger assets.

Even if the Pirates do indeed take a big step back in 2016, as they seem poised to do, they have a better chance to take a step forward in 2017 and beyond with Cole on the roster.

(This is all working under the assumption the Red Sox aren’t packaging Mookie Betts and Blake Swihart together in an offer).

….

In his weekly newsletter (subscription) Baseball Prospectus alum Joe Sheehan made the case that the Pirates should pick up the phone and make Andrew McCutchen available to clubs.

“Trading McCutchen would be entirely about the baseball. … The reason to trade him is not that he’s excess salary, but that he’s excess talent, part of an outfield crowded with younger players, less expensive players, players controlled for longer and, soon enough, better players. The Pirates can trade Andrew McCutchen and, with the right return, be better in 2017 than they would be without doing so. …It’s reason to make the phone calls.”

From a baseball perspective, it makes much more sense than entertaining offers for Cole.

The club’s years of control over McCutchen are down to 2.5 years, and he might already be in decline (though to be desirable on the trade market McCutchen needs to show he can again hit to make any team interested… .I assume McCutchen will eventually get back to his career track record).

McCutchen is in one of the worst slumps of his career with 77 strikeouts in 68 games.

He entered Wednesday 6-of-24 with 9 strikeouts in seven games in the No. 3 spot. His struggles aren’t about his place in the batting order and the struggles might go beyond his thumb.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: A better bridge

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SOUTH HILL – If 2016 was always going to be about a bridge to the next year, to the next core, to what the club hopes is greener pastures, then perhaps it is time to think about how to build a better bridge to 2017 and beyond.

The Pirates are not in a good place as the return home losing six of seven on a road trip against the New York Mets, the reigning NL Champs, and the Chicago Cubs, the overwhelming favorite in NL.

This is the darkest place the Pirates have resided in since Epic Collapse II.

The Pirates’ chances to win a wild card berth stood at 25 percent, according to Fangraphs.com, entering last weekend’s series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Those odds fell to 14 percent after being swept. And after the road trip, they enter Monday with a 6.5 percent chance at capturing a wild card. Their odds to win the division? 0.1 percent. They trail the Cubs by 15 games. The division is gone.

Cubs
Not a good look for the Pirates (AP photo)

 

It’s true the Pirates were in a similarly dire position as recently as June 20, 2014 – exactly two years ago – when they were also three games below .500 (35-38).

They went on to play some of the best baseball in the majors for the rest of the season to finish with 88 wins and the right to play a one-game playoff against Madison Bumgarner (The Pirates see him again tonight. … When it rains it pours).

The Pirates also dug out from a slow start last season.

But this feels different.

And it looks different because the pitching is in a much different place, ranking 29th out of 30 clubs in WAR. The Pirates have made just 33 quality starts.

“We’re getting ourselves underneath games,” manager Clint Hurdle said Sunday. “We’ve got to find some answers off the mound. We need to play a complete game. That would shake things up. We need to pitch it really well, catch it really well and get some runs.”

Gerrit Cole is on the DL with no timetable for his return. (David Price missed six weeks with a triceps strain in 2013).

Jeff Locke has had one good month (May) and two poor ones.

Juan Nicasio looks like he’s soon bound for the bullpen when he returns from the restricted list.

Francisco Liriano leads baseball in walk rate and looks much like he did at his worst in the AL and is having trouble

“I’m missing spots and going too quick to the plate,” Liriano said. “The last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to find some way to get better rhythm.”

Said Hurdle: “We’re working on it. It’s not something that anybody’s comfortable with. We’re not getting better as quickly as we need to.”

Only Jon Niese remains healthy and consistent.

The pitching is a mess, and unlike 2014 and 2015 the Pirates have to try to dig out without their starting catcher.

My perception of the idea of a “bridge” was the front office desired to be competitive in 2016 but to not reduce the club’s potential for 2017 and beyond through trading of young players or adding significant contract dollars.

The Pirates have chosen to not place too many chips into one season, preferring to spread risk evenly over multiple seasons, believing that every trip to the postseason is something of a roll of the dice. The approach can be debated.

But perhaps there is a way to build a better bridge for the remainder of the season, and improve the club’s chances for success in 2017.

What is that?

A commitment to the system’s young arms.

Jameson Taillon has shown he deserves to stick. Yes, he made some mistakes Sunday night but he’s shown two plus pitches and command. But it might also make sense to get looks now at Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl at the major league level to not only improve the current staff but to get their feet wet for 2017.

Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl are not finished products. They are not done developing.

But development doesn’t stop once reaching the major league level.

No major league ace ever entered the majors as a proven ace.

Development is finished at the major league level.

Yes, Glasnow’s command still needs some work, but it’s probably going to continue to need refinement over the next several seasons (4.56 bb/9). He might never be a control artist but with his combination of velocity, size and extension he doesn’t need to be. The fastball is a special pitch and is a reason why he’s averaging just under 11 strikeout per nine.

Glasnow and Taillon were two of the club’s top five starting pitching options in April, according to various computer projections. They’re not all finished products. But Taillon is showing us you don’t have to be to improve the major league staff, while also gaining important experience for 2017.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

*If things don’t turnaround for the Pirates they could become sellers at the deadline.

Mark Melancon is the obvious chip that could be moved and he would draw significant interest. Melancon is in the final year of club control and the Pirates are unlikely to meet what he’ll make in the free agent market place after the season.

Other potential trade chips? I think the club will hold onto Niese as his contract will perhaps look like a bargain if he maintains his current level. Locke might have some trade value, some evaluators still believe there is more there, and perhaps a Matt Joyce or David Freese could net a fringe prospect.

*One reason why the Pirates pitching has struggled so much this season? After leading the majors in groundball rate three straight years, from 2013-15, each year at a 50-plus rate, the Pirates’ groundball rate has decline significantly this year to just above league average (46.5 percent).

Not only did the Pirates target some fly-ball pitchers with no history of groundball tendencies – Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz, perhaps as buy-low opportunities – but perhaps they also haven’t been able to teach or execute the philosophy as well.

Good research on the issue here.

*Some good news?

There’s Austin Meadows record hitting streak at Altoona, which reached 24 games Thursday. Meadows earned a promotion to Triple-A over the weekend. After a slow start, he’s looking much like the club’s future starting left fielder. The dilemma is he’ll be ready before Andrew McCutchen’s 2018 club option comes around.

*Meadows could get some push for status as the system’s top positional prospect. Kevin Newman was promoted to Double-A last week after hitting .366 in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. A middle-of-the-infielder with a plus bat is a rare commodity.

*As I wrote on Sunday, make no mistake, batting second has worked as intended with McCutchen. Last season, McCutchen (158) finished second in the majors to Paul Goldschmidt (164) in plate appearances with two outs and no one on last season. Among the Pirates, Gregory Polanco was a distant second with 83. No place in the order comes to bat more often with two outs and no one on than the No. 3 spot. The No. 3 position limits the ability of McCutchen to maximize the impact o his bat.

This season?

McCutchen had 28 such plate appearances in 61 games batting second, on pace for 70 such plate appearances in 154 games played.

*If McCutchen’s production turns around in the No. 3 spot (he did homer batting third in his second start there Thursday) it will not be because he forgot how to hit batting second, it will more likely be because his thumb is just now returning to health — the swelling is down — just as his performance rebounded with the improved health of his knee last year. Maybe it’s something beyond his thumb, but his struggles are not about his place in the lineup.

STAT OF THE WEEK 0.4

McCutchen’s wins above replacement to date

STAT OF THE WEEK II 3.6

McCutchen’s projected WAR this season, according to Fangraph.com’s Steamer projection, which would be his lowest production since his 3.5 WAR season in 2010, his first full season in the majors.

But even to get to that mark means McCutchen would need a three-win second half. That’s near MVP-level for the remainder of the season, and the Pirates need his MVP level (and a lot of pitching) to get back in the postseason race.

HE SAID IT

“Trying something different, I guess,” McCutchen said in New York. “We’ve tried the two-hole all year and seen where that’s gotten us. Moving back into the three-spot, who knows? That’s baseball.”

-TS

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The game’s latest young ace? Taillon looks like he belongs … for good

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SOUTH HILLS – Jameson Taillon pitched again Tuesday night like he belongs, for good, in the Pirates’ rotation.

He showed the mid-90s fastball that already grades as a MLB-quality pitch and, at times, a plus-plus curveball. He has the command to suggest he could develop into the game’s next young ace in this era rich in young, power arms. He didn’t allow a hit until the seventh.

And the start did not take place in a vacuum.

Remember this is a starting rotation that ranks 29th – 29th out of 30 MLB teams – in collective WAR. It is the starting staff that is most responsible for the Pirates’ sluggish mark through the first third of the season.

You can watch the highlights from his second start here.

Taillon showed good sinking action on his fastball when Kelly Johnson swung over the top of a diving 95 mph fastball for a strikeout in the second. – Through two starts, he has induced weak contact and a 62 percent groundball rate. The two-seamer has come more into play this year for Taillon.

TaillonNY
Taillon pitched Tuesday like you’d hope a No. 2 overall pick in draft would pitch. (AP hoto)

 

He showed good of command of the fastball dotting the glove on the outside corner with a 94 mph pitch against Kevin Pawlecki in the fifth.

Through two starts, Taillon’s fastball is averaging 94.9 mph. (Among starting pitchers, if he qualified, that velocity would rank 8th after Stephen Strasburg).

Taillon’s swinging strike rate is below average  – 6.6 percent -through two starts, but he’s leaned on the fastball – 70 percent of offerings

“We threw a lot of fastballs,” Taillon said. “It started out as establishing the fastball. They never really adjusted too well. I was commanding it well, throwing a lot of two-seamers, getting a lot of movement, weak contact. There really was no need to go away from it.”

The curveballs he got De Aaza to swing and miss on for a strikeout in the third, and Michael Conforto in the eighth, were plus-plus in quality, with incredible 12-to-6 breaking action.

Mark Melancon has a very good curveball, but Taillon probably has the best curveball on the staff already. And for a rotation that lacks a true 12-to-6, knockout curveball, the different look can’t hurt Taillon or the staff.

The only reason Taillon wouldn’t stick at this point would seem to be service time concerns.

But the Pirates should not have concerns about service time.  He has two days of service time, and has made two major league starts (How is that for efficiency!)

If Taillon remained with the club for the remainder of the season, he would earn 112 days of service. If he remains with the club through the 2018 season, he would accrue two years and 112 days of service. The earliest Super 2 qualification since 2009 has been two years and 122 days, according to MLBTradeRumors.com.

Taillon is exactly the kind of arm and boost the Pirates need.

How good can Taillon be for the rest of 2016?

Here’s Fangraphs.com’s Steamer forecast for his rate stats going forward:

  • Pitcher                k/9    bb/9   ERA    FIP
  • Taillon               8.28   2.25   3.27    3.30
  • Gerrit Cole    8.39   2.44   3.44    3.34

Even if he’s not quite that good this season, Francisco Liriano’s ERA (5.05) is the third best among starters. There is room for Taillon even if his development is not complete.

Yes, the changeup can be flat.

Yes, sometimes his command could be better with the zone (though he always does a good job of walking walks).

But even with his current development he would be an upgrade for the Pirates.

Scouts have placed Matt Cain and Chris Carpenter comps on Taillon. Jason Schmidt and Dan Haren come up in the Fagraphs.com’ top 10 cpu comps

There’s a lot of encouraging things going on after waiting so long  on Taillon.

“It’s special,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’ll let Jameson write his own story going forward.”

Taillon should be up for good, writing the next chapter of his story.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: A season on the brink

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates are in a tough spot.

On Sunday, Eric Kratz got the start behind home plate. Kartz’s presence meant the Pirates were down to their newly-acquired, third-string catcher. Seventy-two hours earlier the 35-year-old journeyman was catching in Fresno, Calif. for Salt Lake City, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. He had flown from Fresno to Salt Late to Minneapolis to Pittsburgh Saturday to fill the emergency need.

With Kratz catching, the Pirates were swept by the Cardinals on Sunday. The Pirates are now 12 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the division, and three games behind the Cardinals. They’ve lost 12 of 16 games.

The Pirates have been in tough spots before during their three straight winning seasons and postseason berths. For instance, they were eight games under .500 in May of 2014. They dug out from that and a slow start last season to win 98 games.

KratzPic
Nothing against Kratz, but this is not who the Pirates want to have behind the plate (Horner photo)

 

But this feels different.

It feels like the season is on the brink.

Prior to Saturday’s game Chris Stewart limped slowly around the clubhouse after taking two foul balls off his ankle in recent games. He limped even more gingerly after the game, after the ankle absorbed more contact during a play at the plate that night. Stewart’s limp, his aches and pains, are symbolic of what the entire team is feeling.

“It just seems like stuff is piling on top of each other right now,” Stewart said. “It’s happened more than normal to us this year.”

The Pirates have overcome slow starts. But this is different because they have not had to deal with injuries pile up so early in the season.  They haven’t lost a stating catcher to such a significant injury, and their co-aces are either injured or inconsistent.

The Pirates lost the fewest days to the DL in 2014, according to Grantland.com. They lost the second lowest amount of projected WAR to the DL last season, according to ManGamesLost.com. And the complicating factor is a depleted team has little chance of tracking down the Cubs – or even the Cardinals.

The Pirates cannot replace a Francisco Cervelli.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s WAR formula – which includes framing value for catchers – Cervelli was the most valuable Pirates player last season (5.7 BWARP) and is the fourth-most valuable Pirates player this season (1.4). While the Pirates put a 4-6 week timetable on Cervelli, hamate bone fractures can be tricky. Giancarlo Stanton missed half a season last year after having his removed. The Pirates need a quick return.

The drop-off from a Cervelli-Stewart combo to a Stewart-Kratz combo is significant. And remember catcher has been a strength for the Pirates since 2013, ranking third in catching WAR.

Then there’s replacing Gerrit Cole, who sounds like he’s headed to the DL.

Replacing a pitcher who finished in the top-five of Cy Young voting isn’t exactly easy, though at least the Pirates have Jameson Taillon and others waiting in Triple-A. While not quite as dominant in the first-third of this season compared to last year, Cole was still leading the staff in ERA.

In the long term, the farm system is the strong, the Pirates front office has a lot of smart people working within it, the training staff is excellent despite this rash of injuries. The Pirates have been able to find a and extract lot of value.

But this season is on the brink.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>How poor has the starting pitching been? Francisco Liriano has a 5.05 ERA and it is third best on the rotation.

Liriano did look better Saturday. He induced 17 swings and misses. He allowed just one earned run. But he still got behind too many batters – six of the first nine and 18 on the night – and made a costly location miss to Matt Holliday.

>>Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl can help in the second half and all should make the 2017 rotation option a more formidable unit. Long term, the Pirates need productive homegrown arms to sustain success (Read more about the paradoxical PITCH-22 approach here). But every year Cole, Starling Marte , Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen and Jung Ho Kang are under club control is a window of opportunity, and by waiting on the young arms and not upgrading the rotation during the offseason, the Pirates did not maximize their 2016 potential.

>> Over the previous three seasons, the No. 3 starter spot in the rotation was a strength for the Pirates from Cole in 2013, to Edinson Volquez in 2014 and AJ Burnett-JA Happ last year. It has been a weakness this year. After strong May performances, Jon Niese and Jeff Locke regressed in their most recent respective starts.

Niese
Niese is a solid back-of-the-rotation piece, but the Pirates have lacked a strong No. 3 SP this season (Horner photo)

 

>>The team could really use a return to MVP-form by McCutchen, who is batting .241 and has a career-high 24.8 percent strikeout rate.

McCutchen is off to an awful start to the season. The good news? He believes he identified the issue: that he was gripping the bat too tightly (more on our Web site later today). He said the swelling is going down at the base of his right thumb. The Pirates badly need the slumping McCutchen to get right and return to MVP form

>>McCutchen just hasn’t looked right this season particularly against fastballs.

                     FASTBALL TYPE          AVG       SLG        ISO    BABIP

  • 2012-15 vs. 4-seam fastballs   .355      .603       .268   .366
  • 2012-15 vs. Sinkers:                  .335      .603      .268    .366
  • 2016 vs. 4-seam fastballs         .279      .418       .139    .339
  • 2016 vs. Sinkers:                        .279      .372      .093    .290

>>A silver lining …

While the offense has cooled a bit after facing a lot of poor pitching in April – the Pirates still lead the NL in on-base percentage and pitches seen – their approach has worked against quality pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard – they’ve been in more hitter’s counts than any other team in the NL, according to quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald. So if the Pirates can make a dramatic improvement in run prevention capabilities, and the offense continues to lead in those categories, the club has upside moving forward. .

>>It’s hard to know Jim Benedict’s true value. But I do believe he was an asset –pitchers like Charlie Morton and Cole trusted him. And I do believe he is missed.

>>The Pirates’ draft process is in a better place than it was early in his tenure, Huntington believes. After all, time allows for a better understanding of the skills and biases of evaluators. But at the moment the miss on Tony Sanchez hurts. With Elias Diaz injured, the Pirates are thin on internal catching options.

>>Don’t forget Cervelli missed 199 games to injury from 2011-14 with the Yankees. The only season he’s been fully healthy in the majors was last year season with the Pirates.

>>I thought Taillon accounted for himself well in his debut. While his heart was likely jumping out of his jersey for the first few innings, while we probably didn’t see his best command, he was still effective. He has two major league pitches in the mid-90s fastball that tops out at 98, and his big-bending curve. The changeup seemed flat but he has a solid starter kit.

>>The Pirates went college heavy in the draft in large part due to the spending pool, in which high school players – with college leverage – are often more expensive to sign than, say, college seniors.

>>The Pirates appeared to balance analytics with traditional scouting. First-rounder Will Craig is a favorite of the analytical community. A .520 on-base percentage last season is crazy good. Their 41st overall pick – LHP Nick Lodolo – and second-rounder RHP Travis MacGregor are projectable prep arms (it’s the approach that lead to Glasnow and Nick Kingham). I like the gambles on the arms, and using the top pick on a safer, positional player, one of the most productive college bats in the land. Lodolo ended a streak of seven straight first round picks being spent on positive players.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK

From ESPN stats info …

2016 Cubs: 43-18 +162 run differential

2001 Mariners 48-13 +125 run differential

Those Mariners went on to set the MLB single-season wins record (116)

A big problem for the Pirates is they are trying to chase down history – history in what might be a historically good Cubs team. The upside this season for the Pirates at this point is probably making a run at a wild card.

HE SAID IT

“I think it would be against the law if we had to play any more in a row. So, yeah, good timing.”

-Pirates manager Clint Hurdle on Monday’s off day after a stretch of 31 games in 31 days the Pirates completed Sunday.

HurdleJuass

Most trying, perhaps, was having to fly to Colorado on Thursday on a off day in the middle of a home stand for a makeup game. The Rockies cancelled a game in late April on a day there was no precipitation. Before games start, home teams determine whether a game will be played (the Rockies’ bullpen was exhausted). After the game starts, umpires do. One wonders if umpires should have the before-game powers, too.

HE SAID II

“There’s a lot of other things we could be worried about. There was a shooting in Orlando. Fifty people died. Why would I stress over an 0 for 4?”

-McCutchen on perspective

HE SAID IT III

“Usually with rehabs it takes some acclimation to learn, practice, and master the drill. The first time he nailed it. The learning curve was impeccable. … Jung Ho is probably the most diligent, hardest-working player we’ve had the pleasure of working with through a rehab.”

-Pirates trainer Todd Tomczyk on Kang

-While it’s been a tough three weeks for the club, Kang’s story which you can read here from Sunday’s Trib is one of the real positives of the season.

-TS

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Farm report: Checking in on Indy’s “when, not if” starters, Austin Meadows’ hitting streak

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Taillon
Jameson Taillon made his Pirates debut on Wednesday against the Mets (Christopher Horner photo).

 

Dean Treanor predicted it.

The Triple-A manager said his team, excited about one of its own, Jameson Taillon, making his major league debut on Wednesday, would finish up its early afternoon game in Columbus then find a restaurant in which to watch Taillon’s start.

He also said his guys might run into some trouble with the game broadcast being blacked out in the Columbus area. He was right.

That situation did, however, produce two of the best Pirates minors tweets this week:

It was a small gesture of support for Taillon, but a genuine one.

Asked about how he heard about Taillon getting “the call,” Tyler Glasnow smiled. He was at breakfast on Tuesday when Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles gave him the news.

“I was just like, ‘That’s insane,’ because he’s been supposed to go up for a while,’” Glasnow said.

At the start of the season, MiLB.com named Indy’s rotation the “most interesting” in minor league baseball. For more than two months, it has lived up to the title.

With at least 10 Triple-A starts apiece this season, Taillon, who returned after one start in Pittsburgh, Glasnow and Chad Kuhl all have ERAs of 2.15 or lower, giving the right-handers three of the six lowest ERAs in the International League.

Their mutual presence in the Indy rotation is “interesting” because that rotation is equal parts dominant and temporary.

As Treanor explained earlier this week in Columbus and as is fairly obvious from the trio’s performance, all three are destined for Pittsburgh full-time and probably sooner rather than later.

“All three of those guys are going to pitch in Pittsburgh, it’s just when,” Treanor said. “I don’t know (when), they don’t know, the Pirates don’t know. The way things worked out, Taillon was lined up for that start (on Wednesday).”

This season is Glasnow’s third on the same team as Kuhl, but due to Taillon’s injuries and being drafted a year apart (Glasnow went in the fifth round in 2011, Taillon was taken second overall in 2010), this season is the first in which Taillon, Kuhl and Glasnow have pitched in the same rotation.

Kuhl pointed out earlier this year and Glasnow reiterated this week that it doesn’t create competition between pitchers when the bar is set as high as it has been for starting pitchers in Indy, but there is a sense of camaraderie and success breeding further success.

How has that dynamic taken shape within Indianapolis’ rotation?

“I don’t know so much if it’s pushing each other, but what you get into is that, ‘If this guy goes out and deals, I’ve got to go out and match that,’” Treanor said. “So I think that underneath the surface, there’s pride and, you know, the hype is for the three, so you don’t want to be the third guy, it’s ‘I need to step up.’ Not so much pushing each other, but each performance pushes the next guy to have a similar performance or even try to outdo them. I think that’s a good atmosphere to have and they’ve all gotten better.”

Glasnow, the subject of our minor league report in this Sunday’s Trib, offered a similar assessment, adding that he’s gained plenty just from watching Kuhl and Taillon pitch this season.

“I think because we are all pitching well, we’re all pitching well. We feed off each other and me Jamo especially, we’re pretty similar pitchers. Same stuff, same pitches,” Glasnow said. “Watching Chad is just extremely fun. He’s extremely efficient, he throws a lot of strikes and a ton of ground balls and it’s honestly just really fun to watch. And we usually win when one of us is throwing well.”

The “gain” from one another isn’t so much picking up mechanical tips, but learning by osmosis, Glasnow said.

“It’s watching them and just being like, ‘How’d you feel?’ just getting into that smalltalk after the game is always good,” Glasnow said. “You learn a pretty good amount. It’s good to see how they’re thinking and stuff.”

To know those conversations are taking place, Treanor said all he has to do is peek at the railing in his dugout, where he said he’ll often see Kuhl picking Taillon’s or Glasnow’s brain.

“I know that Kuhl has a deep interest in these guys because I saw him in big league camp, they’d be sitting on the rail right here in a game and he’d be talking to (Taillon) and really talking about stuff about, ‘this is what you should be throwing here’ and so on,” Treanor said. “Especially Glasnow, (Kuhl is) always on the rail with him. That’s pretty good when that happens. Says a lot about Kuhl.”

Treanor said he has a saying for players he knows are soon-to-be Pittsburghers: “Where your feet are is where you are.” It applied when media attention began to grow early in the season for Glasnow, Taillon and Kuhl, the Nos. 1, 4 and 16 Pirates prospects, per MLB.com, and it applies now, with Taillon having just taken his first call to the big leagues.

It’s a message Glasnow said he has taken to heart and why, in addition to being Taillon’s friend, his first reaction to Taillon’s news was excitement for his teammate.

“Especially with that, you have your own goals. I don’t really look at someone that gets moved up and be like, ‘Oh, man, I want to get that,’ it’s just kind of you do what you’ve gotta do and what happens, happens,” Glasnow said. “Like I’ve always said, I’m going to have to pitch well regardless of where I am, regardless of whether I’m in rookie ball or the big leagues I have to go out and pitch every fifth day. I just don’t get too caught up in it and just go out and pitch and control what I can control.”

That doesn’t mean a promotion can’t provide some good-natured drive, Treanor said.

“With (Glasnow), I’m hoping that with Taillon going up, this is a little extra motivation that he needs. You know? Not that he’s not motivated, but maybe this is the kick in the (groin) that he needs,” Treanor said Tuesday. “You know, nobody wants (to succeed) more than (Glasnow) does. They all have a lot more to learn and you want them to go through things here that better prepare them so they can have the success there.”

For Kuhl, the immediate task is bouncing back from his two roughest starts of the season. For Glasnow, one of the keys both he and Treanor mentioned is improving efficiency.

Glasnow (6-2, 1.90 ERA) was electric early against Syracuse on Saturday, recording his first six outs via strikeout. He allowed just two hits, struck out nine and didn’t allow a run, but walked five and was done after 4 2/3 innings, a high pitch count the culprit in his shortest outing of the year.

The goal, Treanor said, is to have Kuhl, Glasnow and Taillon figuring things out and working through struggles in Triple-A so that the shock of the major leagues is taken away.

That’s rather obvious, but a departure from a setup of a team like the 1990s Atlanta Braves, whose three Hall of Fame pitchers – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz – all arrived in the major leagues in the late 80s at age 21 or younger and spent the better part of at least one season (Smoltz and Glavine with the Braves, Maddux with the Cubs) struggling.

“It doesn’t happen anymore, but all those guys (on the Braves), they took their lumps for three years before they figured it out,” Treanor said. “This (expletive) doesn’t come overnight.”

The streak continues

Remember the Austin Meadows that was hitting .148 on May 12?

Neither does Meadows.

The Pirates’ No. 2 prospect, per MLB.com, homered on Saturday for Double-A Altoona to extend his current hitting streak to 20 games. His .311 batting average is third-best in the Eastern League, and the outfielder ranks first in triples (8) and second in slugging percentage (.596).

Here’s a video of Meadows’ Saturday blast:

https://twitter.com/AltoonaCurve/status/741857458189144064

Draft notes

In selecting Wake Forest infielder Will Craig with the 22nd pick in the 2016 draft, the Pirates extended their streak of first round picks spent on position players to six. (Here’s Travis Sawchik’s writeup on Craig).

Since 2000, the Pirates have had 19 first-round picks. Eight were drafted as pitchers, three – including Neil Walker – have been catchers, six have been infielders and two – Meadows and Andrew McCutchen – have been outfielders.

Craig is the Pirates’ first first-round pick from Wake Forest, but their third from the ACC since 2000. He joins Tony Sanchez (Boston College, 2009) and Daniel Moskos (Clemson, 2007) in that category.

 

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The Pirates need Jameson Taillon to be great … and he can be (and a podcast)

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PNC PARK – As you now know, Jameson Taillon will make his first major league start Wednesday, facing Noah Syndergaard and the reigning NL champs (welcome to the majors, kid!).

TIE-own vs. CINDER-guard. Buy a ticket.

We don’t know yet if Taillon is making a spot start or if he’ll be sticking around for a while. It doesn’t sound like he’s in for an extended stay, at least right away.

Why wouldn’t he stick?

“Probably circumstance over preparedness,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said of the call-up. “We feel this one is a very, very tough one. It is completely art and very little science in determining when a player is ready. The numbers aren’t always representative; they can be misleading in both directions.

“In this situation, having to go to the doubleheader (Tuesday), knowing we needed a spot starter at some time through the turn, the ability to keep Jameson on turn, the ability to give Liriano a little bit of a breather and line him up against St. Louis and Chicago. We’ll have to see where we are coming out of the doubleheader and (Wednesday).”

The Pirates say it’s largely out of Taillon’s control.

Perhaps the Pirates believe he’s too close to a potential Super 2 status.

Since 2009, the lowest amount of service time to qualify for Super 2 status has twice been 2 years and 122 days. If Taillon stuck in the majors the rest of the season he’d have 118 days of service time. If he remains on the MLB roster until 2019 he’d have 2 years and 118 days. From the club’s perspective, it’s likely he’s avoided Super 2 status but the club might elect to be more cautious and send him back down for 10 days.

Taillon
Taillon was drafted six years ago … will he be worth the wait? (Horner photo)

But what we do know is that he’ll likely be back at some point this summer and he’ll likely upgrade a rotation spot when he does stick.

What we do know is Taillon has reclaimed much of his prospect luster.

He has a spectacular 61-to-6, K-to-BB ratio in 61 Triple-A innings this season to go along with a 2.04 ERA. His mid 90s fastball is back. Scouts say he has tightened up his arm action. It’s remarkable production.

What we know is the Pirates need Taillon to be good.

The opportunity cost of selecting Taillon was significant in the 2010 draft.

Quite frankly the 2010 first round is looking like a historic class. And the Pirates note the only real way for them to find stars is to find them with premium draft picks or in the international market.

The following is all the first round picks that have produced at least 5 WAR to date from the 2010 first round. There’s three players that could be HoF caliber in Sale, Harper and Machado … if they stay healthy .. and some other goodies:

PLAYER/OVERALL SELECTION/CLUB/CAREER WAR

Chris Sale (13, White Sox) 28.9

Bryce Harper (1, Nationals) 21.6

Manny Machado (3, Orioles) 20.8

Matt Harvey (7, Mets) 10.9

Christian Yelich (12, Marlins) 10.5

Yasmani Grandal (12, Reds) 6.2

Noah Syndergaard (38, Blue Jays) 5.6

Drew Pomeranz (5, Indians) 5.0

The Pirates need Taillon to be good.

And he can be.

He has velocity. He has three pitches. He can throw off-speed in hitters counts. Clint Hurdle said he’s working on a two-seamer. He has the body and mental makeup of a top-of-the-rotation arm. How he handled adversity and rehab is impressive. I’ve heard one scout drop a Chris Carpenter comp on Taillon. That would be a pretty good result for the club. And Carpenter overcame injury issues to be a quality arm.

Taillon is also symbolic.

A prep pitcher is an extremely risky investment, and no right-handed prep pitcher has ever gone first in the modern draft. Taillon went second.

He’s the first of 17 prep arms drafted by the Pirates in the top 10 rounds (22 pitchers total) of the 2009-11 drafts. There’s already been significant attrition among that group and it’s looking like Taillon and Tyler Glasnow might be the only potential potential impact arms from that group.

Despite the risk, there’s nothing more valuable than a pre-arbitration ace. The Pirates aren’t going to find them in the free agency. They have to find aces in the draft. It’s a Pitch-22 as we wrote about a couple springs ago.

The Pirates need Taillon to be great, at least very good.

The good news is he has all the tools to be good.

And the silver lining is he arrives stronger, more mature and without any service time accumulated due to injury.

Enjoy Wednesday.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The homecoming

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SOUTH HILLS – The local boy is coming home today.

You’re probably aware Neil Walker will return to PNC Park for the first time since being traded this offseason. You’re likely aware of the career-best start to a season Walker is enjoying.

Walker is slugging .518, he’s hit as many home runs as Bryce Harper (13), he’s replaced the void of Daniel Murphy, whom Walker is similar to in offensive profile. Walker is playing like he could earn a similar free agent contract to Murphy’s when/if he tests the market after the season.

Rob Biertempfel caught up with Walker in Miami over the weekend. 

Said Walker of his return: “You try to approach it as any other day but it’s certainly going to be emotional.”

Walker2
Hey, remember this graduate of Pine-Richland HS? (AP photo)

So do the Pirates miss Walker?

Sure, teammates miss their old pal. Many fans in Pittsburgh miss seeing the Pittsburgh Kid in a Pirates uniform. But from a performance perspective, how much do the Pirates miss Walker?

Was the trade a good one?

 

*Walker has produced a 1.7 WAR to date, on pace for a career year.

*Jon Niese, whom Walker was traded for, has tallied -0.2 WAR, he’s been a replacement-level pitcher. But the Pirates have gone 7-4 in his starts, and he’s been more effective in May (3.86 ERA).

*Walker’s replacement, Josh Harrison, has produced a 0.8 WAR to date.

To date it looks like the Mets have the edge in the trade, though the Pirates have up to two club options for  Niese in 2017 and 2018. Walker is in the last year of club control.

Had the Pirates kept Walker, Harrison would have presumably moved back into a utility role, and instead of signing David Freese, the club could have spent, say,  $3 million on Mat Latos or another such reclamation project to fill out the rotation.

Had the Pirates kept Walker they would have another left-handed bat, they’d have more power – though the power issue has not been as problematic as was once feared for the club- and perhaps the Pirates would have another win or two.

But that’s working under the assumption that Walker would have been the same player he’s been in New York in Pittsburgh.

We can’t measure everything. We don’t know how to totally take into account for an environment change. But we think it matters. In Walker’s case it probably matters a great deal.

As you’re probably aware Walker struggled as a right-handed hitter for much of his time with the Pirates. He got tired of answering questions about it. Last year he hit .237 with no homers in 102 plate appearances against lefties. He entered the year with six career home runs when batting right-handed.

This season?

He’s been a star as a right-handed hitter. He’s OPSing 1.123 from the right side and has hit five homers  against lefties. The Mets wanted him as an everyday player, not a platoon player.

“That kind of confidence is pretty valuable to a player,” Walker said. “Not that I felt slighted in Pittsburgh, but (the Pirates) like to platoon guys and do things like that. To come into this situation, knowing it wouldn’t even be a question of having to look over my shoulder all the time, that was very helpful.”

And Walker also credited renowned Mets hitting coach Kevin Long with helping him make adjustments to his right-handed swing.

Today Walker will face a lefty, the man he was traded for, a lefty who has pitched better in May and if he continues those gains with his cutter and downward plane — maybe he will be back in the 2017 Pirates rotation.

Walker was never likely to be back.

Walker was likely to depart after the season if hadn’t been traded. And he might never have been the player he is this year in New York in Pittsburgh. Maybe Walker would have never been a productive right-handed hitter here. And for the Pittsburgh Kid perhaps it  took a trade to New York to be free of the distractions of Pittsburgh (media requests, ticket and other asks, hometown pressures, etc).

A homecoming was inevitable. And perhaps both the Pirates and Walker are better off for it.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Time to be concerned with Andrew McCutchen? This is the second straight season he’s had a nagging injury issue. His strikeout rate has increased four straight seasons and has jumped four points this spring. He’s also at a career high in infield pop-up rate…

K rate (%)   IFFB (%)

  • 15.0     8.8
  • 17.7      8.9
  • 19.4     5.9
  • 23.5    11.9

The good news is there is a now a clear reason to explain his struggles. If the thumb heals there’s reason to think McCutchen will have another strong second half.

But is McCutchen going to be able to avoid nagging issues going forward as he approaches and moved beyond age 30?

>>So Jung Ho Kang hasn’t just returned to his former level after injury … he’s getting better. Kang’s exit velocity exit velocity has increased five straight weeks and every week since his return.

>>From Bob Cohn’s notebook yesterday: At 5-4 with a 2.85 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 10 starts, Gerrit Cole has had a nice season so far. But he is lagging a bit behind his 2015 pace, when he was spectacular. Cole was 7-3 with a 2.11 ERA and 70 strikeouts in his first 10 starts en route to a 19-8 All-Star season. 

>>So Jeff Locke is now a stopper? Interesting that the arm that so many wanted to run out of the rotation has made six quality starts in his last eight turns. He has the second lowest ERA on the staff (4.28) behind Cole.

>>In back-to-back impressive and efficient starts, Locke has relied mostly on locating his fastball and changeup.  His fastball is averaging 91.5 mph, and has been better than that in his last three starts, hitting 94 mph a number of times. Overall, Locke’s velocity has generally been increasing. It’s above-average velocity for a lefty and perhaps it’s allowing Locke to be more confident in attacking the zone.He hasn’t walked a batter in his last two starts.

chart

>>Locke might have more upside as he is working on a new breaking ball to replace his knuckle curve. He threw only one against the Angles, to Mike Trout, but if he can have a third weapon perhaps he can have his best run since his first half of 2013. Of course Locke has shown flashes before. Is this time different?

>>If Locke and Niese continue to pitch effectively the Pirates can perhaps delay the arrival of a young arm and save another year of service time. The players will likely determine how roles play out over the coming month or two … but Locke and Niese are creating some difficult decisions this season and beyond. Does the club pick up Niese’s 2017 option? Do they tender Locke? (Locke also has trade value).

>>Francisco Liriano has looked a lot like 2011-12 Liriano this season, which is not good. Liriano’s ERA and BB/9 rates are over 5.00, respectively, just as they were with the Twins and White Sox in 2010 and 2011.

As has been written, this is largely about fastball command. Interestingly Liriano and Clint Hurdle noted Liriano went away from the formula that made him successful the last couple of years earlier this season in trying to pitch inside more often. Liriano is now apparently backing away from that approach. But has it resulted in his command issues? Liriano says it’s a little bit of everything but he is healthy, he says.

>>Austin Meadows is red hot in Double-A, homering Sunday.

>>The Pirates believe good hitters will develop power. Given that Gregory Polanco looks like a tight end playing right field it was tough to envision that he would not develop power.

But during his first two seasons Polanco had more of the batted ball profile of a lead-off, slap hitter and even as he developed his prospect profile in the minors, Polanco never hit more than 16 homers in a minor league season.

That profile is changing quickly.

In the seventh inning Saturday, the score tied, Polanco smashed the first pitch from Angles reliever Fernando Salas over the right-field seats to put the Pirates ahead, 4-3, and match his home run total from last season (9). The ball only stayed in PNC Park because it hit off of the second to last vertical Highmark ad behind the right-field seats. The homer was estimated at 451 feet. The improvements Polanco has made in regard to power and against lefties has been remarkable.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 4

Pinch-hit home runs by Matt Joyce this season, including Saturday’s critical shot. That’s tied for second most in a season in club history.

After hitting a career-low .174 last season for the Angels, Joyce went searching for a fix. He studied the game’s best hitters and worked with private instructors Craig Wallenbrock, who had helped turn J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers into a star, and Bobby Tewksbary, who helped make Josh Donaldson the reigning AL MVP.

Joyce was so desperate he began working with Wallenbrock in September, highly unusual for a MLB player to work with an outside hitting coach in season.Tewksbary and Wellenbrock should be enjoying some more business.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: .583

Joyce’s average against fastballs entering Sunday, which I believe led baseball. The Pirates have found a bench weapon.

STAT OF THE WEEK III: 8,635

The Pirates lead NL – 3rd in majors – with 8,635 pitches seen entering play, Phillies are last in NL more than 1,000 pitches behind (7,534).

The Pirates were back at it again Sunday as they forced Hector Santiago to throw 59 pitches in the first two innings.

HE SAID IT

From colleague Rob Biertempfel’s Sunday profile on Walker …

(Last Thursday) Mets pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey and catcher Kevin Plawecki chartered a jet to the Bahamas to play a quick 18 holes at Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club. They asked Walker to round out their foursome. When you play in New York, everything — even an off-day excursion with the guys — is glitzier than anywhere else.

“Yeah, New York can be a different kind of beast,” Walker said with a smile.

 HE SAID IT II

Said walker of a Penguins shaving kit:

“That’s the only leftover. As you might imagine, I got a little bit of grief about it in here during the (Stanley Cup playoff) series against the Rangers.”

HE SAID IT III

Joyce on if it felt just a little bit better to launch a three-run homer against his former club.

“Yeah, a little bit. I really enjoyed my time over there besides the failing part of it.”

HE SAID IT IV

Albert Pujols on his confrontation with Gerrit Cole on Sunday: “I said something to him because of what he did to Kole (Calhoun in the sixth inning). I don’t want to go into detail. I said it to him and … it’ll stay between me and him. I don’t want to play the media thing, where I said that and he said that. What I had to say, I said. I’m pretty sure we’re fine.” 

I have no idea what irked Pujols.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

I recently took a baseball scribe who hails from Arizona to Tako. It passed his bar for quality southwestern/Mexican cuisine. Give it a try.

– TS

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