The way forward … And Hurdle on the club’s 2017 pitching plans/options

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates began clearing out their lockers in the PNC Park home clubhouse Wednesday afternoon. Cardboard boxes littered the carpet space as players packed belongings, the team soon to be scattering all over the country and even on the other side of the Pacific as Jung Ho Kang will soon return to South Korea for the first time since he signed with the Pirates.

They are packing sooner than they would have liked.

With the Pirates’ loss Tuesday night and the Giants’ win, the Pirates were eliminated from postseason play for the first time since 2012. The Pirates’ last meaningful game came against the Cubs, the same club that ended their postseason dreams a year ago, the same club that leads the Pirates by 22 games in the standings this year.

How did the Pirates fall so dramatically?

How can they shrink the gap with the Cubs?

The answer is simple: pitching.

(And to a lesser extent, a better defense behind it).

The Cubs have the best ERA in baseball and have allowed 200 fewer runs than the Pirates. After the Pirates ranked second in baseball in ERA (3.33) trailing only Cardinals from 2013-15, the Pirates rank 17th in baseball in ERA (4.20). The Pirates’ starting rotation ranks 22nd in the sport in ERA (4.75) and and 24th in wins above replacement (6.8). A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ combined for five wins above replacement in the No. 3 starter spot last season.

TaillonCubs
Taillon was part of the Pirates’ historic commitment to pitching in the 2009-11 drafts, particularly prep pitching. The Pirates need more performance’s like Taillon’s 2016 from their internal options going forward (Horner photo)

 

While the root cause is apparent, fixing it will be more difficult.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was willing to commit to just two names in his starting rotation for 2017: Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.

Taillon’s development has been the silver lining for the club in 2016. After a strong start Wednesday, he finishes with a 3.38 ERA over 104 major league innings, striking out 7.3 per nine, walking just 1.4, and producing a plus ground ball rate (52.4 percent).

Most important? He stayed healthy. He must remain healthy again in 2017. Cole must be healthy, too. It starts there.

Internally, who else could fit after the No. 1 overall pick of 2011 and the No. 2 overall pick of 2010?

“You’ve got to like the development of (Chad) Kuhl,” Hurdle said.”To look forward to what we can do to help the development of (Tyler) Glasnow, of (Steven) Brault, the guys we got to see, of (Drew) Hutchison and guys who came up here and performed. Those are just the internal guys we know are going to have a place in our spring training next year. Trevor Williams is another guy that’s a very interesting guy for me moving forward, to see what he can bring, where he would fit. Those would be the names I’m looking forward to having a conversation about how they fit and where they fit. Those two other guys are the guys that I would go ahead and say, yes, they’ll be in the rotation.”

Not mentioned among the internal options? Jeff Locke, who leads the staff in innings, is a non-tender candidate.

What is true is that while the Pirates must become a more homegrown staff, it’s tough to fill every void internally.

Hurdle mentioned, ideally, he would have multiple veteran presences in the rotation. One common thread between the three Pirates’ playoff teams? They all had at least two quality veteran starting pitchers in the rotation.

2013: Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett

2014: Liriano and Edinson Volquez

2015: Liriano, Burnett and J.A. Happ.

The Pirates are trying to retain Ivan Nova, and Hurdle mentioned the club would like him back, along with another veteran.

Said Hurdle: “Bookends for Cole and whoever else might be in the middle….We’ve talked about different ways to cut it up. It’s going to depend on who’s available, what budget is available.”

Of course, the Pirates thought the starting pitching market costs were prohibitive last offseason and it figures to only be worse in the coming offseason with a historically thin starting pitching class. Nova is likely to beat Happ’s contract. MLB Trade Rumors projects Rich Hill will earn a three-year, $45 million deal.

So to recap …

The Pirates have questionable, inexperienced options after Cole and Taillon.

Any major, impact external help is unlikely to come from a free agent signing. Even reclamation projects are becoming eight-figure bets.

The most likely way to acquire a quality mid-rotation option?

Perhaps via trade.

Where do the Pirates have a surplus from which to trade?

The outfield.

The Glasnow and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer proposal that Ken Rosenthal reported in July? If it is still on the table this offseason the Pirates have to consider it. Archer has a tremendous contract, and the Pirates are hoping Glasnow can become Archer-like.

The other potential chip to acquire quality mid-rotation starter? Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates could use a similar formula as the one they employed in trading Neil Walker for Jon Niese last offseason. And while that trade did not work out, the same principle makes sense if the Pirates get a better arm in return. I doubt many clubs would consider an impact prospect for McCutchen, but maybe a similarly priced veteran arm.

(I’m not sure where McCutchen would fit, most likely in the AL with a team with a smaller ballpark — and left field. There will be teams likely to bet that McCutchen’s bat is better in 2017.)

It’s interesting that Josh Bell continues to get more and more reps in the outfield. Hurdle discussed Bell’s versatility and a focus on improving his throwing technique yesterday.

“We have some ideas for his throwing mechanics. They’ve started to get in place. Some new things we are talking about at the major league level to give him to work on in the offseason going into next year … One of the nice things to revisit is the flexibility to play in the infield and the outfield and see how that plays out.”

With David Freese and John Jaso under contract next season, the Pirates could look at Bell as a right fielder if they moved McCutchen in the offseason.

There is one way to improve the staff without a trade or free agent signing, without spending prospect treasure or dollars, and that’s through an improved ground ball focus.

After leading baseball in ground ball rate from 2013-15, after having MLB record ground ball rates over 50 percent each year during the playoff run, the Pirates have fallen to fourth this season (47 percent).

That was in part by design.

Neal Huntington felt the club could not be married to one model of pitcher last season in search of value as injured, ground ball pitchers like Brett Anderson received qualifying offers.

The plan didn’t work, especially in a year when more fly balls were going for home runs and extra-base hits across the sport.

Can the Pirates get their ground ball groove back in 2017?

“It’s one (question) we have already taken the task of answering internally when looking at the guys we have internally when looking at the guys that do sink the ball,” Hurdle said. “Jameson didn’t have a two-seamer when we were having this conversation about him last year. He’s turned into a guy who has an ability to get the ball on the ground. Kuhl has shown the ability to put the ball on the ground. Cole, there are different sequences where he’s shown the ability to put the ball on the ground. I do think it’s something that we’re going to keep as one of our cornerstones.

“We tried some outliers this year to attack it a different way based on giving Juan Nicasio a shot, we knew he wasn’t a ground ball guy but we knew he could be a swing-and-miss, fly-ball guy. Jon Niese has been a ground ball guy. Those kind of went away and the fly balls showed up. I do think we know we’ve had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”

For the Pirates to find a way forward it perhaps begins with a renewed focus on the ground ball, also with finding quality veterans, and with the hope a Glasnow or Brault or Williams makes a performance leap.

Without that then 2017 could very well be another bridge season.

-TS

 

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Monday Mop-up Duty: The Nova alternative? Make the Pirates’ bullpen great again

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SOUTH HILLS – So the Pirates have made, and perhaps will continue to make, an attempt at signing Ivan Nova to a multi-year contract.

Nova would likely continue to perform better in the NL and PNC Park and away from the bandboxes of the AL East. (Though Nova has not made an adjustment like that of J.A. Happ – with pitch mix and delivery – that suggests he’s going to become a top-of-the-rotation arm).

Given the thinness of the starting pitching free agent market – it looks historically bleak – given the projected youth in the Pirates’ 2017 rotation, it makes sense the club would  try and retain Nova.

But, of course, it’s very unlikely to happen. Why wouldn’t Nova test the market at this point? He will be one of the top handful of starting pitching options available this winter. He can beat Happ’s three-year, $36 million deal signed a year ago.

Melancon
Wouldn’t it be nice for the Pirates to welcome back Mark Melancon this offseason? (Horner photo)

While I think Nova would be a good fit in the middle of the Pirates rotation, I also suspect they could better maximize their resources in other ways.

Namely, the bullpen.

Most of the 2017 starting lineup and bench is already in place.

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl figure to begin next season in the rotation with Drew Hutchison, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams as other internal options for the back-end of the rotation.

The mid to back of the rotation is going to have question markets, but the Pirates’ front office might not be able to afford external upgrades due to their budget. Rich Hill is a personal favorite here, and a higher-upside option than Nova, but MLB Trade Rumors is projecting a three-year, $45 million contract for Hill.

That’s a lot of risk.

The Pirates have some voids to fill in their bullpen, namely impact right-handed arms. Their bullpen  was the best in the NL from 2013-15, and the Pirates might need it to be elite again to have any chance of competing with the Cubs and Cardinals for a division title.

The right-handed relief market is deeper than the starting pitching market, and a dollar goes further in the bullpen.

Consider the average contract given to relief pitchers last offseason was for 1.37 years at $4.9 million per year. …. The average contract for a starter was for 2.67 years at $15.6 million per season.

Back in March I wrote how  savvy teams could take advantage of an inefficiency of spending regarding the bullpen:

Because of the scarcity of quality starting pitchers (only 28 pitchers reached 200 innings last season, a low in the modern era), starting pitching is increasing in cost relative to relief pitching.

In 2009, based upon opening day payrolls, every inning pitched by a starting pitcher cost teams an average of $26,603.

The average cost of an inning thrown by a reliever? $26,855.

But last season (2015) teams spent $41,000 per inning on starting pitchers and $33,343 per inning on relievers.

That cost gap widened this offseason as teams spent $1.296 billion on the free-agent market for major-league starting pitchers. That compares to $289 million on relievers, despite the average reliever (3.71 ERA, 3.83 FIP) being more effective than the average starter (4.10 ERA, 4.03 FIP) last season.

Relievers are undervalued per inning.

Moreover, relievers are perhaps not properly valued on the open market.

Players often are valued by wins above replacement (WAR). But WAR, based in part on volume of playing time, is not kind to relievers because of their inning totals. However, win probability added (WPA) values relievers. WPA reflects a player’s contribution to wins by measuring the change in win expectancy of every plate appearance in which they are involved.

As I wrote Sunday, Mark Melancon accumulated only 1.5 WAR last season. But Melancon (5.2) trailed only Zack Greinke (6.7) and Jake Arrieta (5.4) in WPA last season among NL pitchers. Four relievers — Melancon, Tony Watson, Zach Britton and Andrew Miller — rank in the top 11 of WPA among pitchers since 2013.

The Pirates figure to enter next season with a number of quality left-handed options in the bullpen but they will need some right-handed options to complement Juan Nicasio. If the Pirates can acquire a high-end option, they can perhaps win the end game again as they did so well from 2013-15. An elite option to anchor would lengthen the rest of the bullpen.

While elite relievers like Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen will probably be paid by a team other than the Pirates, a reunion with Melancon makes some sense, perhaps more sense than extending the relationship with Nova.

Darren O’Day‘s four-year, $31 million contract with the Orioles last winter is perhaps the comp. Instead of spending, say, $35 million on a mid-rotation starter why not $35 million for a player they know and respect as a difference-maker in Melancon?

It’s also a player that would fill their greatest void.

THOUGHTS AN OBSERVATIONS

>>Another bullpen option? Glasnow. The Pirates are going to leave 2016 not knowing if Glasnow can fit in a major league rotation. He has been better, albeit a small sample, in bullpen. It will be interesting to see where the Pirates think he fits going into 2017. He’ll likely get every chance to stick in the rotation but Andrew Miller and Wade Davis are recent examples of long-limbed starting pitching prospects to become elite bullpen arms after being failed starters.

Yes, the running game remains an issue with Glasnow. Yes, the command comes and goes. But what’s also troubling is how often he’s been squared up at the major league level. Glasnow allowed seven hits in three innings Sunday. His velocity has generally been low 90s, not the mid to upper 90s.

>>Baseball America editor John Manuel told us during last week’s podcast that Mitch Keller – the Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year – has surpassed Glasnow as the club’s top pitching prospect. Keller is on the fast track and has a more complete starting pitcher starter kit.

>>Gotta love Adam Frazier‘s short swing and simple approach to go along with his command of the strike zone. He should be considered for the starting second base job next spring. Josh Harrison‘s best season came in the super utility role in 2014. And Harrison is more versatile, defensively, than Frazier. The Pirates have said Frazier is being groomed to replace Sean Rodriguez. Perhaps Alen Hanson can become an option, too. But Harrison might best be able to fill the role.

>>Pirates GM Neal Huntington acknowledged Sunday there will likely be a considerable market for Rodriguez. The Pirates likely don’t want to pay that cost for a utility player but what about as a shortstop? What if an .800-plus OPS is his new level? And  he can plan an acceptable shortstop.

>>Josh Bell should be able to out-hit the losses from his glove … but he’s got to get better at first base.

>>Francisco Cervelli’s showed he is regaining strength in his left hand by hitting his first homer of the season Thursday in Milwaukee and later driving another ball to right field. While Cervelli’s value is more tied to his receiving and on-base skills, the Pirates need him to slug nearer his .400 slugging marks of 2014 and 2015 than his .300-ish mark for most of the season.

>>Francisco Liriano has a 3.35 ERA with Toronto, but his improvement shouldn’t be a shock as the AL hasn’t seen him for awhile.

>>Jung Ho Kang has become more fluid and consistent the further removed has been since surgery. He’s consistently been able to crush fastballs. He might very well be the club’s best player in 2017. The desperately need his power for a full season. Why do opponents ever throw him a fastball?

His fake out tag on Bryce Harper on Sunday? The Nationals weren’t thrilled.

THEY SAID IT (RIP, JOSE FERNANDEZ)

There are no words that fully express what the loss of Jose Fernandez means for his family and for the sport. This was a singular  talent, who had more fun than anyone playing the game. We all strive to enjoy something in life as much as Fernandez enjoyed baseball. His personal story as a Cuban defector was remarkable and he was going to be a father, and now he’s gone.

The Pirates did their best to articulate the loss  Sunday …

RIP, Jose Fernandez. You will be missed, you will not be forgotten, and you will be impossible to replace.

-TS

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Do the Pirates need to rethink their pitching philosophy? (And our a podcast … a good one)

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MILWAUKEE –  The most important boundaries in baseball are not clearly defined. The strike zone is an imagined space suspended above a 17-wide plate. Its four sides cannot be outlined in chalk. The zone is determined by the subjective eye of a human being. It is constantly evolving. (Though QuesTec and PITCHf/x were designed in part to create a more standard zone … and it has worked to a degree).

The strike zone’s growth from 2013-15 – almost all of the growth was below the rule book, defined zone – was a big, hidden advantage for the Pirates.

Now, the zone’s evolution this season has become a big, hidden problem for the club as I wrote about Monday.

You probably know the Pirates’ pitching philosophy begins with the low strike. Preferably a low, sinking two-seam fastball for a strike.

Said Jim Benedict last spring: “We use a progression. Down before in and out; in and out before up. If you are in before down, you’re probably going to be up. If you’re up before down, you’re up. So we are down first. The down is where we work from as an idea, and then we expand off of that.”

Down.

Down.

Down.

But the strike zone is headed Up ….

You probably know no staff has targeted the bottom third of the strike zone more often than the Pirates since 2013, and from 2013-15 the Pirates led baseball in ground ball rate each season, setting historic highs for groundball rate as a staff.

COle
Do Pirates pitcher have to adjust to new strike zone with a new approach? (Horner photo)

 

Those ground balls were hit into shifts, and those ground balls could not become home runs. The Pirates allowed the fewest home runs in baseball from 2013-15, allowing 113 per season.

You might also know that a borderline low pitch is easier to get called as a strike compared to high or outside or inside pitches. The Pirates love those elite pitch-framing catchers.

You might know that the strike zone was growing each year from 2008 to 2015, according to PITCHf/x pitch-location research by Jon Roegele. And almost all the growth occurred lower in the zone.

Roegele was kind enough to share his charts with us. He defines the strike zone where at least 50 percent or more of pitches are called as strikes:

strikezoneLHH
StrikeZoneRHH

Knowing all this you can see how important the lower part of the strike zone is to the Pirates, and how the club was able to benefit – wittingly or unwittingly – in taking advantage of a growing lower part of the strike zone.

But then a funny thing happened this season: the strike zone started to shift upward.

You might  recall how baseball’s commissioner wanted to inject more offense into the game this offseason (and how home runs and run scoring are generally good for business), and how this season the strike zone has stopped expanding south and has started moving north. Offense is up significantly this season.

Brian Mills wrote an excellent piece about the changes to the strike zone earlier this month.

Wrote Mills: “The probability of a strike call on low pitches has decreased substantially. In some cases, the probability of a low outside strike has decreased by as much as 12 percentage points.”

Look, a lot of things have contributed to the Pirates’ so-so 2016 campaign that is likely going to fall short of a playoff berth. The biggest factor is probably the general lack of performance from the starting rotation that now includes three rookies.

But a different kind of strike zone, with fewer low pitches called as strikes, is  part of the equation. The strike zone shift is likely part of the equation for Pirates’ stumbles this year.

>>The Pirates have allowed 167 home runs this season entering Wednesday, ranking 11th, after allowing the fewest each year from 2013-15 (average of 113).

>>The Pirates have fallen to third in ground-ball rate, from a MLB-best 50.4 percent last season to 47.3 percent.

>>Francisco Cervelli ranked as the sixth-most effective pitch framer last season, per pitch, according to Statscorner.com. This season? He’s 14th.

All these little things add up ….

>>The Pirates rank 17th in the majors in ERA (4.20) this season after ranking second (3.33) from 2013-15.

I asked Pirates GM Neal Huntington about what a changing strike zone might mean to the club earlier this season. Huntington didn’t seem too concerned, outwardly. He said the club would “adapt and adjust.”

But if the zone is up to stay, and it might be if that’s what the commish wants (and some believe the offensive surge is tied to the strike zone and the increased height of the average pitch this season), then the Pirates have a major adjustment to make.

“I have to be careful, because I don’t want to give away some trade secrets of what we’re trying to do here,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said earlier this season. “I’m always going to be more concerned about what it does for us from a defensive standpoint, from the pitching aspect, because, good pitching shuts down good hitting. … It’s the first time in a long time (the strike zone) has been similar back-to-back years. For me ‘Why would we change if we’re getting some continuity?’”

The Pirate Way of pounding two-seamers down in the zone has been taught to not just all the reclamation projects to be signed, but to every young pitcher in the minor leagues.

Even if robot umps eventually are a thing, they would, too, eliminate the lower portion of the zone.

The Pirates might have to target a new type of pitcher: pitches with excellent spin rates on four-seam fastballs that can live up in the zone due to the deception, the perceived rise of the pitch (See: Hill, Rich).

The Pirates might have to re-think about their total commitment to the low strike from rookie ball to the majors.  If the pitch is not going to be called as often, if it’s not going to be as effective, the Pirates might need pitchers with new skill sets.

While Jared Hughes said there will always be value in the low strike, regardless of where the low strike is called, Pirates catcher Chris Stewart said adjusting to a new zone can “ruin guys if they can’t make that adjustment.”

How much do the Pirates need to adapt and shift philosophy?

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST

It’s a good one this week with guests John Manuel, editor of Baseball America, and MLB.com Pirates beat writer Adam Berry. Manuel had some very interesting things to say about Mitch Keller, Adam Frazier and what the Pirates need to do to overcome the Cubs.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What the Pirates can learn from Cleveland, Nova, 2017 bullpen fits, and more …

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SOUTH HILLS – There will be one Rust Belt, smaller-market team to likely capture a division title and advance to the postseason this fall — the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians are a former employer of Neal Huntington, where he was influenced by John Hart and his many other subordinates who now are general managers (Ross Atkins), club presidents (Mark Shapiro) or key front office assistants (Ben Cherington). Some have even moved on to other pro sports (Paul DePodesta).

Like any similar, like-minded market, it’s always a worthy endeavor to examine their process to see what, if anything, can be learned.

So what can be learned?

Napoli
As Browns season begins, Lindor and Napoli are still giving Cleveland reason to smile this fall. (AP photo)

 

Francisco Lindor has become a superstar shortstop and he, along with all those young Chicago Cubs star bats, is evidence that it is perhaps prudent to use premium draft picks on position players in this age of Tommy John and young pitching attrition.

But Cleveland’s success begins with its starting rotation.

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Those are four, young power-armed pitchers any team in the game would love to have. The Indians lead the AL with a 3.80 ERA.

What’s interesting is how they were acquired: 80 percent of the staff was acquired by trade.

Kluber was acquired in something of a heist  for Jake Westbrook. Carrasco was a part of the return for Cliff Lee. Bauer was acquired for one season of Shin-Soo Choo. They were all added as Cleveland traded assets with little remaining club control during a rebuilding period.

Only Salazar was homegrown.

The Pirates have, of course, filled in rotation voids with significant value in finding undervalued, reclamation project arms in free agency. That worked really well from 2013-15. It worked less well last winter, in part, because the market prices inflated for all types of arms: even reclamation arms.

Yes, filling voids internally through homegrown options is always best – but the point here is the Pirates might want to examine trade avenues to acquire affordable, quality pitching going forward (Teheran, Julio?). The free agent market for arms is not going become any cheaper, and the market for bounce-back arms is becoming more competitive, especially as systems like Statcast allow clubs to more creatively and deeply evaluate talent.

The Pirates acquisition of Drew Hutchison might have come in part with an eye on a tough FA market this winter. Hutchison might be able to fit at the back-end of the rotation.

There are always going to be pitching voids to fill. And the trade market might  be the Pirates’ most likely path in which to fill them with impact talent.

(DISCLAIMER: When building around young arms please beware of risk. Even as Cleveland approaches clinching the division, Salazar and Carrasco are out with season-ending injuries. Quality depth is so critical).

Of course teams are always going to look for value in free agency, and Cleveland found incredible value in signing Mike Napoli, to a one-year, $7 million deal. Napoli has hit 34 home runs this season. The Pirates did call on Napoli but their interest level is unknown. After Napoli went off the board, the Pirates committed $8 million over two years to John Jaso. The Pirates were searching for a left-handed bat and on-base skills. Napoli possessed on-base skills and power but is right-handed.

As we’ve discussed before, the Pirates consciously traded power for on-base last season. While their raw home run totals have improved this year, the Pirates’ power has decreased relative to the rest of the league in this season of the mysterious home run spike. (Average exit velocity and HR/FB rates are up and have been up since the last two of months of last season).

But there is something else Napoli offers: clubhouse presence.

Napoli has been a connector of people in the Cleveland clubhouse. “Party at Napoli’s” has become a unifying slogan now adorning T-shirts in Cleveland.

The Pirates clubhouse has perhaps a personality void this season after players like Russ Martin, A.J. Burnett and Neil Walker have departed.

Burnett was a lot of things. Said Jeff Locke of Burnett two springs ago: “There was A.J. and then there was J.A.”  J.A. an acronym for jackass.

But Burnett kept players (and reporters) alert in the clubhouse with his lack of filter, freely speaking his mind about anything. He was a worker, running more miles pregame than any other Pirate. He set an example and brought an edge, along with an element of peer pressure and expectation in the clubhouse. He had knowledge about pitching. He taught Locke and Gerrit Cole his curveball grip. He had respect from his veteran status and success in the game.

To my knowledge, that player didn’t exist this year in the clubhouse.

Even as the Pirates become more homegrown, they will need to fill some voids externally. And perhaps one less talked about void needing to be filled is that of a leader who has an edge, a presence, and can still perform. David Freese could perhaps be more of that guy next season. While we can’t quantify that value, it has to be greater than zero.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Everyone in Pittsburgh and in the Pirates organization wants Tyler Glasnow to succeed as a starter. But he’s been much better in a small sample out of the the bullpen. Maybe the Pirates want a look at him again in the starting rotation later this month, but why not keep him in the bullpen this season and have his confidence grow? Glasnow kept his fastball down in the zone Sunday and had a sharp-breaking curve working. Again, this is how starting pitchers – before free agency before five-man rotations – were often broken in to the game.

>>The Pirates need right-handed bullpen options next season and Juan Nicasio should fill one such role. Nicasio, eligible for arbitration, might be the only right-handed lock in the bullpen to open 2017 at the moment. Nicasio struggled as a starter this season but Nicasio has been very effective in a relief role:

Nicasio as a starter update:   5.05 ERA  9.1 K/9  3.6 BB/9 1.41 WHIP

Nicasio as a reliever update: 3.86 ERA 12.9K/9 3.5 BB/9 1.31 WHIP

Huntington on Nicasio: “He’s just a bulldog. When he gets out there, he’s going to compete. He wants the ball in big situations and he’s carried some huge innings for us here. … He’s in a good spot, probably in a good spot for the rest of his career to remain in the bullpen.”

>>I thought Nicasio was signed with the idea he would be a multi-inning reliever. The Pirates thrust him into the rotation after his excellent spring. I don’t suspect the Pirates will be swayed by whatever he does next Grapefruit League season. Now what should his role be in the bullpen?

>>Is Jung Ho Kang the club’s best everyday player? With a normal offseason and healthier knee next spring, he could remove any doubt to the answer of that question.

>>Tony Watson will likely open next season in the closer role, Huntington said Sunday. Despite his rough month-plus stretch in the ninth inning, since his velocity and stuff is intact, it’s worth betting on he will return closer to his 2013-15 level.

>>Silver linings of this second half have been the offensive performances of Josh Bell and Adam Frazier. Now about those gloves …

>>Is Austin Meadows injury prone? If, say, the front office would like to move Andrew McCutchen this offseason they would feel better if they knew Meadows could stay on the field.

>>Why is Gregory Polanco cooling in the second half?

Less quality contact as courtesy Mr. Adam Berry and Statcast.

HE SAID IT

After Nova’s shaky start, time to offer him a contract while that price is slightly depressed, right?

“If it were up to us, he’d be back here. I’m sure if it were up to him, he’d have a massive contract. Now, we’ve got to find somewhere in the middle ground, and does it make sense? We’ve got to find financial middle ground.”

– Huntington on bringing Nova back.  Nova is probably going to want three years, which could be a stumbling block more than the dollars

HE SAID IT II

“I don’t know that we’d change that much if we were to get eliminated. Look at the at-bats that Adam Frazier and Josh Bell are getting, look at the innings that (Jameson) Taillon, (Steve) Brault and now (Tyler) Glasnow are getting, and (Felipe) Rivero is an anchor in our bullpen. We don’t feel like we’ve got a veteran who’s taking innings or at-bats from a young player that necessarily we would change if we were to get eliminated.”

– Huntington on how playing time might change if/when Pirates are eliminated from wild card contention.

HE SAID IT III

“They’re not throwing him the same pitches. “He’s shown the ability to hit certain pitches. In this tech industry that we work in right now, you’re not going to keep getting pitches you splatter. You’re just not going to. And you have enough talent up here for pitchers to stay out of those zones.”

-Hurdle on Polanco

STAT OF THE WEEK: 20

Pinch-hit walks by Matt Joyce this season, a MLB record. Again, that bench production is going to be tough to replace.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: It’s (likely) over. What happened? What to do? (And our podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS -It felt like it was over Sunday as the long shadows of the afternoon extended across the PNC Park playing surface. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle explained he began pulling starters in the sixth inning saying chasing a seven-run deficit was akin to chasing a shadow.

It feels like chasing a playoff berth for the Pirates is now akin to chasing a shadow.

It felt like the season was over, the game was over, when Andrew McCutchen dove and missed a Tyler Holt line drive that rolled to the wall for a two-run triple Sunday.

McCutchen slowly raised his chest off the turf as Josh Bell rushed to get the ball on the warning track. From his hands and knees, McCutchen watched as two runs scored to give the Reds a 4-0 lead. Holt then scored on a Eugenio Suarez infield single to give the Reds a five-run inning and 5-0 lead.

McCutchenDive
A lot went wrong this season for the Pirates, including this diving catch attempt (Horner photo)

It was the sight of decline: a former superstar who had a lost a step, and a team that threatens to have a similarly dramatic fall, from a 98-win season to a losing one.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday the Pirates have been the streakiest team in baseball in 2016. And it is this final poor stretch of baseball, a 2-8 home stand when the Pirates were outscored by 29 runs, that has effectively ended their season.

With the Pirates having a 0.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to Baseball Prospectus, this seems an appropriate time to reflect on what happened …

**THE PLAYERS**

When you’re looking to place blame you have to start with the players — the core players.

McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Francisco Cervelli and Starling Marte combined for 26.1 WAR in 2015.

This season? 10.1 WAR.

That’s a 16-win decline.

That alone melts, says, a 98-win team to a 82-win team.

No matter what the Pirates’ brass did in the offseason, or during the season, it was going to be tough to overcome such a decline from the core group.

Of course, that does not absolve the decision makers.

**PAYROLL**

The Pirates had a curious offseason. After a 98-win season, record attendance, and new media dollars pouring into the game, ownership was unwilling to make a significant addition to the club. Having the ability to retain, say, J.A. Happ would have been significant.

**ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS**

With its relatively meager budget within which to work, the Pirates front office went away from chasing upside like Burnett in 2012, Liriano in 2013, and Volquez in 2014. They added higher-floor, lower-ceiling players like Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong. (Rich Hill was the clear top upside play in the market last winter. He ended up in Oakland.)

The club’s idea to trade power for OBP in the winter failed.

The Pirates rank fourth in OBP this season in the majors but just 18th in runs scored. If a lineup lacks power like that of the Pirates it becomes too reliant on sequencing hits and productive outs. The Pirates need more power. Bell, Kang and Marte should help provide more next season with full seasons.

It’s not that the Pirates missed on everything. The front office built the best bench of the Hurdle era, for instance. Juan Nicasio has had his moments in relief, where he fit best all along. Neftali Feliz was an excellent value. It’s that they were not as productive as the previous winter when the Pirates had arguably the best 2014-15 offseason in the sport. And the front office had little margin for error.

**HEDGING **

The problem with bridging, which is akin to hedging, is that it doesn’t allow a club to execute a plan with single-mindedness of purpose: either going for it, or rebuilding it.

For instance, if the Pirates had added another 2-3 wins in free agency through added dollars, or different decisions in the free agency/trade markets it could have made an impact.

Conversely, if the Pirates had committed to taking a step back (say trading McCutchen last winter), they would be in a better place today as he has still valued as a top 10 trade asset in the game last summer. Extending McCutchen was never going to be on the table, so there is an argument to be made for trading such a player a year early rather than a year too late. While it would have been incredibly unpopular, there is an argument to tearing down even more of the old core last offseason.

But the second wild card complicates matters, of course. It keeps more teams on the outskirts in the race. The  Pirates were  projected as a 83-87 win team before the season. That’s typically not a team worth betting too much on, the second wild card (a 50-50 lottery ticket) is not worth betting too much on, but you don’t want to punt and toss the chance away either. Hedging doesn’t seem like an optimum path. Maybe there’s a better way to hedge and bridge.

In summary, a lot went wrong.

Some of this is 20-20 hindsight. Some of it was first-guessed.

But here’s the interesting aspect to the rest of September: assuming the club extends more and more playing time to younger players, more and more of the next core, you can see how 2017 shapes up better for the Pirates. This is going to become a more homegrown team. The Pirates had to become such a team.

The Pirates took a step back in 2016.

But there will be an expectation – and reason to believe – they can take a step forward in 2017.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Hurdle said he though the bullpen was to thin to pull Vogelsong for a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded, one out, and trailing by 5-0 in the second Sunday. But with the season on the brink, pulling Vogelsong made an awful lot of sense.

>>Is Hurdle ready to turn his focus to 2017 and allocate playing time accordingly? (Meaning more Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams and  … and less innings for Vogelsong and other veterans).

“No yet,” Hurdle said.”Not for me.”

>> Glasnow looked to be in a better place in his return Sunday, pitching out of the bullpen. Glasnow snapped off some sharp-breaking curves that generated swing and miss. Somewhat concerning was his fastball velocity which sat 90-93 mph. He walked just one against three Ks.

>>It’s more difficult to break in starting pitchers like they used to, via the bullpen, with starting pitching thinning due to free agency thinning staffs , injury and reduction of innings.  But with Glasnow it makes some sense. And the jury is still really out on if he’s a starting pitcher. He could potentially be a dominant late-inning arm, and right now he has the skill-set of one.

>>The Pirates’ most glaring need this offseason could be right-handed relief arms and it seems unlikely they would pursue the top free agents available like Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. Does Glasnow make sense as a 2017 reliever? Why not have it on the table as an option?

>>I’d offer Ivan Nova a two-year, $24 million deal. He’d probably decline it and hit the open market. I don’t think he works every where in the game, but I think PNC Park and the NL is an excellent fit for him and he’s been more comfortable throwing strikes as a Pirate. For Nova it might be as simple as ballpark geography.

>>I have no problem with the club skipping the starts of Chad Kuhl and Jameson Taillon. For me, they are shut down candidates as are Gerrit Cole, Josh Harrison, Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli. All focus must be on 2017 and beyond at this point and that includes preempting injury and aggravation of injury.

>>With his spotty fastball command, Tony Watson would be struggling regardless of what inning he is pitching.

>>I know many fans don’t want to accept this, but the Mark Melancon trade was the absolute right move for this club. While many are painting the move as a pure punt on the season, Felipe Rivero has actually been better than Melancon since the deadline. Perhaps the Melancon trade is an example of the right way to hedge. A free agent to be traded for young major league talent and a prospect.

>>Josh Bell is such a precocious hitter. He already has the best plate discipline on the club and is so adept at using the whole field. He’s the most impressive rookie Pirates hitter since McCutchen.

Now, where is he going to play? He hardly looks any more natural at his natural position (right field).

HE SAID IT

“Negative emotions? I don’t carry them. I don’t at all. Frustration is not going to help me do what I need to do to get those men motivated to play….I learned a lot of lessons as a player where that goes. Emotions affect your thought process. Feelings take you to the wrong places.”

- Hurdle asked about his level of frustration/disappointment after the home stand.

HE SAID IT II

“It’s much more art than science. How do you help a young pitcher grow? What is too much? What isn’t enough? What is coddled versus what is protected? We are working through that. The No. 1 indicator is how the pitcher is feeling, how he is able to complete, and how he is recovering, But we also want to be cognizant of those that have come before us. What are signs where teams have had positive results versus teams that have negative results. Jameson’s case he has been much more efficient than he’s been in the past. It’s more art than science but we are trying to put some science to it.”

-Huntington on managing workloads of young arms.

HE SAID IT III

“We are where our feet are, it’s what Clint Hurdle always says. Where are we? We’re here. Where are we going? Philly.”

-McCutchen

HE WROTE IT

Jonah Keri on the Pirates since July 31 in his power rankings

“When the Pirates arrived at the trade deadline this year, they hedged their bets. Sitting on the edge of the wild-card race and with no chance to catch the Cubs for the NL Central crown, Pittsburgh’s brass realized the long odds the team faced to make the playoffs and the longer odds it would face to get to the World Series from there—three straight years of wild-card berths and early-October exits reinforced that point. So rather than sacrifice valuable young talent, the Pirates went the other way: With All-Star closer Mark Melancon two months from free agency, the Bucs flipped him to the Nationals for dynamic lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and big Class A southpaw Taylor Hearn, both of whom have flourished since the trade. Picking up Nova’s last two months before his own free agency—for little in return—was general manager Neal Huntington’s way to avoid overtly throwing in the towel.”

Where do I co-sign?

While you can debate the Pirates moves last offseason, the moves at the deadline were logic-based. Again, maybe better hedging at the deadline than in the offseason.

STAT OF THE WEEK: .436

Pirates winning percentage since May 27. The Pirates have not been a good team for a quite some time.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 5

Career complete games by Nova

STAT OF THE WEEK III: 2

Complete games by Nova in his last two starts.

STAT OF THE WEEK IV: -10.6

McCutchen’s runs saved above average on defense, per Fangraphs.com this season.

STAT OF THE WEEK V: -2.4

McCutchen runs created above average at-bat, per Fangraphs.com this season.

STAT OF THE WEEK IV:  -2.3

McCutchen’s baserunning value above average this season.

The Pirates have quite a decision to make regarding The Face of the Franchise. It seems clear from a defensive and base-running perspective they would be better off moving McCutchen. The question is how much can the bat bounce back?

The speed? Most players don’t regain lost steps.

PODCAST

-TS

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So about last night: Tony Watson, the ninth inning, the Mark Melancon trade (and our podcast)…

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PNC PARK – So the Pirates’ slim postseason hopes were probably blown up in spectacular fashion late Tuesday night when Tony Watson  allowed three home runs in the ninth inning.

Watson allowed three home runs in all of 2015.

Watson has struggled since taking over closer duties.

In 14 1/3 innings in the role since Mark Melancon was traded, Watson has blown three saves, he has a 5.02 ERA and has allowed five home runs.

Watson
Is Watson struggling with the new address? Or is he just simply struggling? (Horner photo)

 

Many a player and manager will say there is something different about pitching in the ninth inning.

I personally have doubts. If a player is good enough to handle the stress and pressure of rising to, and succeeding in the big leagues, I have my doubts whether pitching in the ninth inning is that big of an adjustment. Moreover, Watson has been one of the best Win Probability Added pitchers in the game since 2013, meaning he’s pitched very well in high-leverage, high-pressure situations.

Still, maybe he rushed his delivery Tuesday.

Maybe his heart rate spiked up.

Maybe that’s why he elevated three pitches in the ninth.

Maybe that’s all tied to pitching the ninth instead of the eighth.

More likely? He’s struggled with fastball command this season and continues to struggle with it regardless of when he pitches.

Part of what made Watson so good prior to 2016 was his sterling walk rate. Watson is walking a career-worst 3.1 batters per nine this year. He walked 2.03 per nine last year, 1.75 in 2014 and 1.51 in 2013.

More than ever he’s missing his spots.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle maintained last night that he believed Watson was ready for the closer role.

“It’s all about location,’ Hurdle said. “He was much more efficient location-wise last year than he is right now.”

This is a pitcher who hasn’t been able to put his fastball where he wants to as  he has in the past. (See: his career-worst 15.3 HR/FB %)

The velocity has also ticked down a notch, and his strikeout and ground ball rates have always been pedestrian. Watson is not destined to be an elite shutdown closer. He never was.

He’s probably not the Pirates’ long-term answer in the ninth inning as he’ll be a free agent after 2017.

He’s not  Melancon.

But that doesn’t mean the club should have kept Melancon.

Predictably, many lashed out at the Melancon trade after Watson’s blown save.

But here’s the thing: no matter what happens going forward, despite what has happened to date, the Melancon trade made total sense for the Pirates.

The facts:

*The Pirates controlled Melancon for two more regular season months at the time of the trade. He was going to pitch 20-25 innings in the remainder of the regular season.

*The Pirates were unlikely then to reach the postseason. Their upside then and now was playing in the wild card game. (And facing Jose Fernandez , Noah Syndergaard or Clayton Kershaw or the Cardinals in the 50-50 game). How much is that worth investing in?

*The Pirates acquired Felipe Rivero , who is under control thru 2021 and has elite stuff from the left side. Rivero pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings Tuesday for the Pirates. He’s been excellent.  He’s been the club’s best reliever. (Melancon actually allowed a run in second consecutive outing Tuesday night).

The Melancon trade was not a cash dump. It was not the Francisco Liriano trade. Melancon was owed about $3 million. It was a strict baseball trade. It was about acquiring legit talent for limited control over a relief pitcher. The Melancon trade was made with the same logic as the Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman deals by the Yankees.

Baseball is about playing the percentages. The Pirates played the percentages correctly.

The Pirates preferred Rivero and five extra years of control, strengthening the next five rolls of the dice compared to this one dice role.

Remember, with or without Melancon, the Pirates are an average team that has been out-scored this season 610 to 624. The Pirates are (were) only in a postseason chase because of the weakness of the NL field, and the made-for-TV second wild card. This is not a team worth betting too much on. That’s ostensibly what the front office decided  at the deadline.

Be upset that the Pirates have lost eight straight games.

Be upset that they are fading.

Be upset that there was never a No. 3 starter pitcher signed in the offseason. (A key issue Tuesday was how Ryan Vogelsong started the game.) Be upset that the budget was so tight in the offseason.  Be upset that Josh Bell was not freed sooner (John Jaso is a replacement-level player this season).

But don’t be upset with the Melancon deal.

OUR PODCAST …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Breaking even

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SOUTH HILLS – No one should be shocked the Pirates are in the predicament they are in.

While losing six straight in the midst of a postseason chase will be described by some as a collapse, and being swept by the lowly Milwaukee Brewers is stunning, the Pirates are not a club with the personnel to bury opponents and create separation.

The Pirates are an average team.

The standings suggest they are an average team. They have 67 wins and 67 losses.

Drill deeper and their run scoring and prevention capabilities suggest they are mediocre.

The Pirates have scored 597 runs this season and allowed 603.

That the Cardinals could essentially end the Pirates’ season this week shouldn’t surprise.  Expectations were always muted for this season.

They Pirates did little to improve their roster in the offseason. This season was described as a bridge year as the Pirates began to dismantle their last core and pivot to a younger more homegrown one. Such a pivot to inexperience is important but was assured to come with some turbulence.

That the Pirates are still are within plausible range of a playoff berth is more an indictment of the NL field — a third of which was in rebuilding mode before the season — and a product of the made-for-TV wild-card games than it is a credit to the Pirates’ resume.

McCutchenDown
The still frame that sums up a season (Horner photo)

Being an average team means it’s more difficult to find consistency, it’s more difficult to have every facet  playing well at once.

For instance, just as the Pirates (revamped) rotation got its act together in August, the club’s bats went quiet.

The Pirates scored four combined runs against the Brewers over the weekend and were shutout twice.

As colleague Bob Cohn noted in his notebook today, the Pirates ranked 12th in runs before the All-Star break. After the break, the club was 28th before Sunday’s action.

The club’s power outage has been an issue in the second half and it was expected this season after shedding Neil Walker (a debatable move) and Pedro Alvarez (a correct move).

The Pirates rank 26th in the sport in home runs (127).

It’s a fall from the Pirates ranking 23rd last season (140), sixth (156) in 2014, and 13th in (161) 2013.

With little margin for error, the Pirates had to hit on nearly all their offseason decisions. The results of the offseason were more mixed than the success of the winter of 2014-15.

“It’s obviously the easy thing to point to. And one swing of the bat changes the score of the game. It does impact it,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. “Given what was available, given what we had, given of the construct of the club going forward, we felt the additions we made were the right additions, and at times it’s played out that way and at times we hadn’t.”

A lack of power limits a club’s ability to take advantage of mistakes.

And it reduces margin for error.

What we do know is the club’s margin for error has melted to near zero.

Said Andrew McCutchen: “Even though we are .500 and lost six in a row … we can do it. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, right?”

The Pirates can still do it but it is a task made difficult with less power, with so many core players have down years, with so much youth being added to the roster.

The Pirates can still do but they can’t have another six-day period like their last.

The Pirates can still do it but they’ll have to be better down the stretch than what they have been during the course the season’s first 134 games: an average team.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …

>>Asked  if Jameson Taillon will be skipped down the stretch, Huntington said the club will continue to monitor Taillon. Taillon has been excellent but he’s approaching his career high for innings thrown in a pro season. Taillon threw 149 2/3 innings in 2013. He’s throw 144 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors this season. Taillon said he feels great but has also cut down on work between starts to reduce his overall workload.

Interestingly, Gerrit Cole’s scheduled return (Sept. 12 in Philly) falls in line with a Taillon turn in the rotation.

>>If the Pirates stumble this week, it might make sense to consider shutting down both young arms and focus on 2017.

>>Putting aside the right arm issue he is dealing with for a moment, Neftali Feliz‘s fly ball rate can make him a liability in close late-game situations as we saw over the last week. While Feliz has had a bounce-back year perhaps the Pirates could find more of a ground-ball arm to fill the right-handed voids they figure to have in their bullpen entering the offseason. Adding right-handed arms to the bullpen is an offseason priority. Plus, Feliz’s price has gone up significantly.

(Feliz’s right arm injury is believed to be muscular in nature and not a ligament injury, Huntington said.)

>>It’s not as if Keon Broxton is a perfect player, but it certainly appears like the Brewers got the better of the Broxton-Jason Rodgers trade. If nothing else, Broxton is an above-average center fielder, base-runner and has an excellent batting eye. (Though the strikeout rate is alarming) He at least makes for an excellent depth option for the Brewers. Broxton has produced more WAR (1.2) than McCutchen and is on pace for a 3-WAR season over 150 games played.

>>While Juan Nicasio has been much better in relief, fair to wonder if he should have been allowed to remain in the game versus lefty pinch-hitter Jonathan Villar with the bases loaded Sunday. LHH’s are OPSing better than .900 vs. Nicasio.

>>Tyler Glasnow has thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings in his last three Triple-A outings. But it’s not clear if he’ll get another look at the major league level this season. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said another player or two could be added.

>>Steven Brault was solid again on Sunday. Even if he and Chad Kuhl are just No. 4 or No. 5 starter types that’s still very valuable as those are now pitchers who earn $10 million per year in free agency. Brault, Kuhl, Taill, Cole and Glasnow provide the potential for a homegrown rotation in 2017. The Pirates rotation has completely turned over since Opening Day. Huntington joked Sunday that he expected some change in season but not that much change.

>>How rare is it to see so much youth in the rotation?

The four rookie starting pitchers to make their MLB debuts for the Pirates this season are the most by the club since 1903. In this season, the Pirates appear to have bridged to a more homegrown rotation which is a crucial development in an attempt to maintain competitiveness. That’s the silver lining of 2016.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 42 percent

Ivan Nova‘s percent of pitches in the strike zone for the season.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 52.4 percent

Nova’s percent of pitches in the strike zone with the Pirates.

While it’s a small sample, Nova appears to be another pitcher who is more comfortable attacking the strike zone in pitcher-friendly PNC Park after spending the first seven years of his career int he bandbox that is Yankee Stadium and the NL East.

While it would be folly to expect Nova to produce a carbon copy of J.A. Happ‘s 2016 in 2017, betting that Nova can be significantly better NL is a solid one. A two-year deal, $20 million-ish deal to retain Nova would make sense for the club but Nova might find more years and cash in a thin free agent class.

One could also argue the Pirates would be better served using the bulk of their financial flexibility in the bullpen.

HE SAID IT

“What do you do? Fold up your bag and go home? That’s not even an option. There are blessings all over the place. Find a way to learn from what we just went through … and move on.

“The schedule is fortunate for us: We get to play the team we’ve been chasing. Lamenting about the past doesn’t do any good.”

- Hurdle’s message after Sunday’s loss

HE SAID IT II

“You don’t want an on-off switch. You want a switch you turn on April 1st and leave it there.”

John Jaso said on the lineup’s inconsistency.

HE SAID IT III

“Gerrit has worked through resolving his discomfort, and now it’s a matter of getting his mechanics back to where he feels he can go execute and help us win a game.”

-Huntington on Cole.  But is it too late?

-TS

 

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Farm Report: More on Nick Kingham and Tommy John, plus a look at Triple-A awards

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Nick Kingham was not alone in his recovery from his May 2015 Tommy John surgery.

He was able to talk to pitchers who had been through a similar process – Justin Topa, his roommate while he rehabbed at Pirates City, was one, Jameson Taillon, a good friend, was another. Pirates minor league rehab coordinator A.J. Patrick helped the young right-hander plan and execute his road to recovery.

The sheer number of young Pirates pitchers who have been through the more than year-long post-Tommy John recovery process helped Kingham, the subject of this week’s minor league report. In some ways, it has also helped the Pirates, as they learn best practices in post-surgery rest and rehab.

Our Rob Biertempfel did a good job last November of detailing the arm troubles of several young Pirates pitchers. At the time, Nick Kingham, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Angel Sanchez, Jacob Taylor and Jameson Taillon all had undergone Tommy John surgery. It’s more commonplace all around the league.

Three pitchers who have started for the Pirates at one point or another this season – Taillon, Ivan Nova and Francisco Liriano – have had the surgery (only Taillon had it while in the Pirates organization). Trade deadline acquisition Drew Hutchison had it in 2012, as did Neftali Feliz.

The success rate for young pitchers completing healthy comebacks from Tommy John has been debated, mostly by how one would describe “success,” but the more UCL reconstructions teams deal with, the more they know about the post-surgery recovery process.

Double-A Altoona pitching coach Justin Meccage, who has been a coach in the Pirates system since 2011, said a noted change is the addition of a couple brief, one-to-two-week rest periods to the recovery process.

“Our rehab guys are trying to figure out the best way to help guys recover and not have a hiccup. I would say over my six years, the rehab process has changed a lot. They’re starting to give guys breaks during the rehab where when I first started with the Pirates, that wasn’t something that happened,” Meccage said. “I would say at least one maybe two breaks for each guy during the rehab process, and I think you’re starting to see some guys be a little bit stronger because of that. But I would say it’s ever-evolving, I don’t know if anybody has it nailed down at this point, but we’re working real hard trying to nail it down in terms of that fine line of rest and rehab and what’s enough, what’s not enough, so that they can return in as good of shape as they were before or even sometimes better.”

Meccage described the short breaks as opportunities to allow the arm to recover.

“I think it just kind of gives them, because they work so hard on the process, that it kind of just gives them a little bit of a recovery and allows them to catch up a little bit,” Meccage said. “That’s kind of what I got from it. It’s such a long and grueling process that that week kind of gives them a little bit of a jumpstart on the next phase of whatever they’re going through.”

From Meccage’s days as a player, he said the biggest shift in the Tommy John process is in the number of success stories. The difference in recovery time from player to player remains.

“You see guys coming back in different amounts of time but I think the number of recurring injuries is going down, which is kind of what you’re looking for,” Meccage said. “I think it’s really improved and I like what our people are doing with it. They’re really trying to nail down this rehab process and it’s fun to watch.”

Kingham, who has a 1.98 ERA in nine starts since July 8, said it took some perspective to learn that no two recovery schedules are the same, often for reasons beyond a player’s control. The right-hander pointed to Taillon as an example of how weird hiccups can sideline players for longer than expected.

“You definitely have expectations and timelines going along in the process, but anything can change. Things can pop up and happen. You look at Jameson last year, he was ready to go by the last week of June and then he gets a groin (injury), his hernia and then he hits his heel on the bottom of the door,” Kingham said. “But yeah, if everything goes swiftly, you have a timeline that should play out for what it should be.”

So far, Kingham’s timeline is playing out. He’s healthy, he’s pitching well, and he’s headed toward a much-needed, normal offseason.

INDY’S FINEST

Triple-A Indianapolis announced its end-of-season awards on Saturday, the day of its final 2016 home game.

Right-handed starting pitcher Trevor Williams (9-6, 2.53 ERA with Indianapolis in 2016) was named the team’s MVP. First baseman/outfielder Jose Osuna was named the team’s offensive player of the year and Tyler Glasnow was named pitcher of the year. Outfielder Willy Garcia was named defensive player of the year and pitcher Frank Duncan was announced as the team’s rookie of the year.

Williams also took home Triple-A Indy’s “team player award.”

It’s one that’s pretty well-deserved. Williams has been one of the best pitchers in the International League since late June, and his not being on the Pirates roster is a combination of not being on the 40-man roster and timing. An early-season – specifically, less than 10 pitches into his first start – injury to his right shoulder took Williams out of the Indianapolis rotation, and he watched for six weeks while Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow tore lineups apart.

By the time Williams hit his stride – he has a 1.50 ERA in 78 innings since June 28 – Pittsburgh’s rotation had started to stabilize, and with Steven Brault already on the 40-man roster, spot start opportunities weren’t readily available. Williams has admitted there’s some obvious frustration with being the left-behind Triple-A pitcher, that any pitcher would rather be in the major leagues than in Triple-A, but he hasn’t let it show in his starts. On Thursday, for example, he struck out 10 hitters – a career high for Williams in professional baseball – while allowing just one run over 6 1/3 innings.

While it’s unclear what will happen after the Indy season ends in Monday, a healthy Trevor Williams, and one who trusts his four-seam fastball, is a pitcher who should be able to compete for a starting job.

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Beyond 2016, how can the Pirates catch the Cubs? (and our podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – With a strong September, the Pirates could be on their way to a fourth straight winning season and playoff appearance. That’s significant given the 20 straight losing seasons that preceded this stretch.

But a greater challenge awaits in the coming years: winning a division title.

While the Pirates are bridging to a future that will include a younger more homegrown core, a future in which they believe they can sustain winning, they are bridging to a future that includes a Cubs team that isn’t going anywhere.

The Pirates are 3-12 against the Chicago Cubs this season.

The Cubs have a legit ace (though looking more human lately), a dominant back-end bullpen, and one of the most impressive young core of position players in recent memory including a couple of MVP candidates in Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and this guy …

 

 

(Remember when the Cubs acquired Russell for 18 months of Jeff Samardzija and a rental of Jason Hammel. Hey, everyone, stop trading with the Cubs!)

The Cubs have won in the trade market acquiring Jake Arrieta, Russell and Rizzo in lopsided deals.

The Cubs can compete with just about anyone in the free agency market signing nine-figure, top-of-the rotation arms like Jon Lester.

(And the Cubs are only going to have greater revenues going forward with their new TV deal and the new retail and commercial space being built around Wrigley Field).

And the Cubs have drafted and developed players – at least with premium picks – as well as anyone hitting on picks like Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

To eventually catch the Cubs the Pirates must draft and develop exceptionally well, continue to find wins at the margins, and also have some luck with injuries and performance. They could also use a payroll that ranked more toward the middle of the pack.

How can the Pirates hope to catch the Cubs?

It’s not going to happen in 2016, but to make a deep run in October the Pirates need to start winning divisions instead of playing in wild-card games.

What would that look like?

How would that be possible?

The one area where the Pirates have to hope to have a home-grown talent advantage is in their rotation. Arrieta is a free agent after 2017. Lester is 32. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher prospect ranked in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list.

The Pirates, of course, have three rookies in their rotation at the moment, including one in Jameson Taillon that appears like he could be a top-of-the rotation arm. Gerrit Cole has to pitch more like his 2015 self next season and beyond. There’s reason to believe he can. His season has been interrupted three times by injury and he deserves something of a mulligan.

The Pirates have to rebuild their bullpen.

Tony Watson is not a long-term fit as he’s a free agent after next season. Neftali Feliz is a free agent at the end of the season and his fly-ball tendencies (See: Monday night) might be reason to let him walk despite his bounce-back season. Felipe Rivero figures to be the one long-term piece to build around. Neal Huntington has shown ability build effective bullpens before. He will have to continue the magic. Only the Royals had a better bullpen ERA from 2013-15.

The Pirates need to become stronger defensively, particularly up the middle.

The Pirates’ Defensive Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions, have fallen from 60 in 2013, to 28 in 2014 to 8 last season to 6 this season.

The Pirates have been particularly hurt up the middle at shortstop, where Jordy Mercer - though sure-handed – has fallen from a +9 DRS shortstop in 2014 to a -9 DRS shortstop this season. Andrew McCutchen appears to have lost a step in center field. Starling Marte in center field could provide a boost. It will be interesting to see what the Pirates do long term at shortstop. Is Mercer the answer or as he advances in arbitration is there another option?

The Pirates need more offensively to catch the Cubs.

The club needs Josh Bell to be Carlos Santana (the baseball player) with better contact ability, and for Gregory Polanco to consolidate his gains going forward. They need Austin Meadows and Kevin Newman to hit. That could all very well happen. While the Cubs lead baseball in position player WAR (32.1) the Pirates are in the middle of the pack, ranked 13th with 15.7 WAR, and there’s growth opportunity here for the Pirates.

In summary, a lot needs to go right.

Yes, the Pirates have a deep and talented farm system. Yes, they have a solid core at the major league level. Yes, their front office has proven to be adept at finding value in free agency.  Yes, their coaching and training staffs have been opened minded and have added significant value. But the Pirates are going to need much to go right to catch the Cubs.

As we’re witnessing, the Pirates might have picked the wrong time to return to relevance.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST

-TS

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