All posts by Travis Sawchik

Monday Mop-Up Duty: The trade deadline, Melancon, tactical retreats, and more …


CLARK BUILDING – The Mark Melancon trade certainly does not increase the Pirates’ chances at reaching or advancing in the postseason.

Every game matters at this point for a team on the fringe of the playoff picture. And since 2013, few pitchers – three actually – have better improved their respective club’s chances of winning games than Melancon.

While WAR, a cumulative statistic, is harsh on the value of relief pitchers because relievers throw fewer innings than starters, another measure – Win Probability Added (WPA) –  perhaps better captures a pitcher’s true value.

(WPA reflects a player’s contribution to wins by measuring the change in win expectancy after each plate appearances.)


Clayton Kershaw  18.7

Zack Greinke          12.6

Max Scherzer          12.4

Mark Melancon      11.7 (!!!)

Chris Sale                  11.3

Melancon is great. He impacts games. But on the other hand, Melancon is probably only going to pitch 20-25 more innings in the regular season, so the impact he can make on the any team’s postseason chances is likely somewhat limited. ZiPS projects Melancon will produce 0.4 WAR the rest of the year.

Felipe Rivero? 0.3 WAR

Still, losing Melancon hurts 2016. There’s no doubt about it. How much it hurts? That’s unclear.

But context is key when considering this deal.

The Pirates’ chances at making the postseason are, well, they aren’t great.

According to Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds, the Pirates own a 6.3 percent chance of capturing a wild card, and a 0.1 percent chance of winning the division. The weekend didn’t help.

The Pirates are going to be hard-pressed to find a closer as effective as Mark Melancon (Horner photo)


The Pirates are four games back of the second wild card spot and trail three teams for the second wild card spot. It’s not an impossible path but it’s unlikely. And while the Pirates have a favorable second-half schedule, they still must take advantage of it and not stumble. (See: Milwaukee/Miller Park).

The Pirates are unlikely to make the postseason, they were unlikely to retain Melancon beyond this season, and they only controlled him for two more regular season months. Moreover, Pirates GM Neal Huntington has a history of flipping closers for relief pitchers who become future closers.

In short, it made sense, it was logic-based, for the Pirates to trade Melancon.

“Our goal in this move is to attempt to continue that chain of quality production,” Huntington told reporters over the weekend “We’ve dealt from an area of strength and strengthened our future without changing our goals for this season.” 

Now, perhaps, the return can be debated.

And there were mixed reviews:

The Pirates were not offered an Aroldis Chapman-like package, despite Melancon being arguably as effective as Chapman.

Huntington said the return of Rivero and Taylor Heran,  the Nationals’ fifth-round pick in 2015 (the Pirates drafted Hearn in the 22nd round in 2012, but he did not sign) was the best package the Pirates were offered for Melancon since last winter.

But here’s the other key point, here’s why the Pirates aren’t like other sellers: they are not truly rebuilding.

The Pirates were looking for a specific package. Ken Rosenthal reported the Pirates were seeking a setup man in return as part of any deal for Melancon.

Perhaps a prospect-based packaged would have been richer, or seemed more like a clear win for the Pirates. But in this case, the Pirates are looking at the next several years as a window. Assuming the rotation becomes younger and more homegrown, and more effective, the largest void the Pirates must fill the next 2-3 years is in regard to their bullpen.

Melancon is gone, Neftali Feliz is a free agent at the end of the year. Tony Watson is under control through 2017. The Pirates are soon likely going to have to rebuild their entire back-end of the bullpen. And that’s an area that has been a strength for the club since 2013. It’s why the Pirates targeted a major league bullpen arm. And they received an intriguing one in Rivero who hit 100 mph earlier this season, averages 95 mph with his fastball and has a swing-and-miss changeup. Rivero’s K rate (9.7 k/9) and whiff rate (14 percent) are strong indicators. He’s under control through 2021.

Two regular season months of Melancon?

Or 32 from Rivero?

Rivero has a Fernando Rodney starter kit … from the left side. Will he reach his potential? No one knows. But it is the kind of high-velocity arm with a swing-and-miss off-speed pitch – and who has some control issues – the Pirates have had success with.

Hearn, the prospect in the deal, is an intriguing left-handed arm who sits in the low to mid 90s but has control issues. A flier, but one with upside.

Debate the return if you choose, but that they Pirates are taking something of a tactical retreat is a logical position.



>>The trade shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Huntington told the Trib a month ago the Pirates would be open to buying and selling at the deadline. The Pirates have to be opportunistic. This is a seller’s market.

>>The rotation remains a major issue and Rosenthal reports the Pirates have some interest in Rich Hill. But in a thin market for pitching, the Pirates would likely have to overpay for two months of Hill. (12:57 PM UPDATE …. Hill is going to Dodgers in deal first reported by Rosenthal)

>>The A’s received three of the Dodgers’ top 12 prospects for Hill and Josh Reddick. Nice job by the A’s in flipping Hill, who might have been the reclamation project that got away (or was not identified) by the Pirates this offseason.

>>As I wrote about on Sunday, regardless of what the Pirates do or do not do by today’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, this season’s issues to date – and any potential major improvement moving forward – is really tied to what’s already on the roster. The Pirates simply need more from Francisco Liriano and Andrew McCutchen — and more of what Gerrit Cole offered in his last start.

>>Ryan Vogelsong rejoining rotation is a great story after his horrific injury earlier this season. But should Vogelsong be in the rotation for the remainder of the season? If the Pirates have their eye on 2017, it seems to make more sense to take longer looks at the kids – the Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow – in the rotation than Jeff Locke and Vogelsong.

After all, there’s a college football coaching saying that goes something like this: the best thing that happens to freshmen is they become sophomores.

>>Jameson Taillon continues to impress with his command. Six more Ks, no walks, in a quality start Saturday. Taillon has the look of a future No. 2 starter. He might already by the Pirates’ No. 2 starter.

>>How active will the Pirates be leading up to today’s 4 p.m. deadline. If they sold Melancon are they willing to sell other to-be free agents like David Freese, Feliz and Sean Rodriguez? Or are the Pirates not going to go into full sell mode and hedge on their 6.3 percent playoff odds?

>>While buying a piece that’s under control beyond this season makes more sense than a rental for the club, because it is such a seller’s market, the offseason probably would represent a better time to buy for the club.


Saves by Melancon since 2014, the most in the majors.


Number of times in franchise history the Pirates have reached the postseason in four straight years.


Number of professional starts Cole needed to record his first complete game.


“I think it was Mark (Melancon’s) idea. And look what happened to him.”

Jeff Locke, on why he did not shave his head in moving to the bullpen.


“This has been a blast. Pittsburgh has a special place in my heart. The experiences we’ve had are running through my mind — wild-card games, big games that we’ve been in. It’s an honor to be a Pirate and say that we got to go through those experiences together.”

– Melancon.




Is Archer worth it? And Glasnow, Kuhl updates and more (including our podcast)


PNC PARK – As we near the trade deadline, the Tampa Bay Rays are in position to be the key player. The club is willing to deal starting pitchers Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore.

If the Pirates are to make a significant move, it should probably be for a starting pitcher and for one that is under team control for multiple years. It should also be an arm on the younger side of 30.  It should be an arm that can fit at the top of a rotation. It probably should also be a low-salary arm.

The 27-year-old Archer checks all the boxes.

How valuable is Archer? He has the 21st most trade value among all pro players, according to Dave Cameron’s 2016 trade value list.

“A year ago, Archer cracked the top 10 by taking a huge leap forward, striking everybody out and becoming a legitimate ace. He’s carried over most of his strikeout gains this year, but everything else has been off; the walks are up, his BABIP has spiked, and his home run rate has nearly doubled. By themselves, maybe these wouldn’t be that big a deal, but when they all happen simultaneously, they’re something of a red flag, which is why Archer falls ten spots this year. But even with his somewhat-concerning first half, Archer still looks like one of the best young pitchers in baseball; the stuff is still good and he’s still missing bats, so he can probably correct the command problems and get back on track. And if he does, well, he’ll be a #1 starter making #6 starter money.

“This probably isn’t the right time for the Rays to trade Archer, given that he could increase his value again with a strong second half, but if they do decide to take advantage of the lack of pitchers on the market, odds are good they’ll get a crazy return for him; the upside and the contract make him insanely valuable

Archer – along with Chris Sale – stand out from the pack in the deadline market (AP photo)

Even if Archer is not a true ace and rather a good No. 2, he’s still really valuable. If he becomes an ace again, he’s a top-10 trade value guy.

The Pirates are one of the few organizations with top-end farm talent that has the goods to land Archer.

Ken Rosenthal reported that the Rays are asking for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, ranked 6th and 10th in Baseball America’s top 100 midseason prospect rankings.

I’m operating under the assumption that’s too rich for the Pirates. (More on that later). But Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Sunday history shows the returns on deals further away from the deadline (See: Drew Pomeranz and Aroldis Chapman) are usually better for the sellers than deals made closer to the deadline.

This is a seller’s market. Until, perhaps, 3:50 p.m. Monday.

What is being lost in all this is trade talk is this: Is this really the best time to be making a deal if you’re the Pirates?

The Pirates’ planning focus is likely as much or more centered on 2017 and 2018 than this season, given the club’s less-than-great chances at making this postseason.

So from that perspective it could make more sense for the Pirates to wait until the offseason to consider a major move. And the Pirates have generally made bigger moves in the offseason.

On the other hand ….

The free agent market isn’t going to become any friendlier. There is expected to be a weak class for pitching this winter.

And will a player with the youth, talent and contract of Archer be available in the offseason? That is unlikely, too.  Hey, it’s not like Shelby Miller was traded cheaply last winter. There would possibly be more buyers for such an arm in the offseason.

So if the Pirates or another club looks at Archer as an impact, front-line pitcher now might be the time to act.

But about that price: Glasnow and Meadows is steep.

I don’t think the Pirates would pay it. But they would have to pay something close to that.

Think about it this way as I argued on the podcast (link below):

The Pirates want Glasnow to become Archer.

Archer already is Archer.

Moreover, Glasnow could be more expensive than Archer by 2021 (what projects as Glasnow’s second arbitration year). And Glasnow might never become as good as Archer. There’s a very good chance he isn’t. There’s still a chance he winds up in the bullpen, or suffers serious injury.

Meadows, or Josh Bell,  is too steep a B piece, but the Pirates have the depth and talent to put together a quality package.

I don’t think giving up prospects for a mid-rotation arm or a rental makes much sense for the Pirates. Their own young arms carry more upside this season and beyond.

Archer (or Chris Sale) is a different story.

Holding and not buying anything of significance might be the most prudent path, it’s the path I suspect the Pirates to take. But there is a case to be made on buying on Archer or a pitcher like him.

(Especially with Francisco Liriano having his worst season since 2012, and showing no signs of getting out if. When Liriano departed in the fourth inning Tuesday, his ERA had climbed to 5.38 for the season and 5.54 for July.)


The Pirates still have not revealed their starting pitching plan for Friday.  They did provide some good news for the rotation depth.

Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk said Wednesday that Glasnow did not require an MRI and is ready to pick up a ball and being throwing.

The Pirates’ hope is Glasnow will be ready to pitch again soon after coming off the 15-day DL. Whether that’s in the majors or Triple-A remains to be seen. Tomczyk also said Chad Kuhl did not suffer the same kind of triceps injury as Gerrit Cole did. Tomczyk said Kuhl has already resumed playing catch.

So the Pirates’ pitching depth appears to be a decent place, or a place as good as could be after injuries to Glasnow and Kuhl Saturday.

Ryan Vogelsong is being schedule to be stretched out to 90 pitches tonight at Indianapolis. Might Vogelsong get another shot at the rotation before Jeff Locke or Jon Niese? They each pitched out of the bullpen Tuesday.



Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to make of Glasnow, rotation depth, and the super subs


PNC PARK – The eye test still matters.

It still matters even in the age of Statcast, the age of big data.

While I do believe in the power of the objective force that is statistical analysis, as with anything, there are limits. Traditional scouting and observation is still really, really important.

So that brings us to Tyler Glasnow and the Pirates rotation.

Is Tyler Glasnow one of the Pirates best five options? Or is he not ready for the MLB level? Can we even evaluate him off Saturday’s performance? (Horner photo)

According to PECOTA and ZiPS projection systems, Glasnow has been one of the Pirates’ best five starting options since May.

Through two starts, it looks like the projections were too optimistic. And projections have had big misses before like with the Kansas City Royals, like with Matt Wieters.

ZiPS projections for the rest of the season for some Pirates starting options:


               Name     IP        ER           BB           K         ERA        FIP

  • Cole       71           25           18           65           3.15        3.00
  • Liriano   69          29           31           72           3.76        3.80
  • Glasnow 34        14           19           38           3.86        4.05
  • Brault    40           12           12           28           4.13        4.01
  • Taillon   26           13           9              17           4.52        4.25
  • Kuhl       42          22           14           27           4.62        4.55
  • Totals        282         115         103         246         3.67

Glasnow, according to ZiPS, is the Pirates’ third best starting option going forward.

His minor league numbers, his strikeouts per inning, his batting average against, were more dominant than Gerrit Cole’s work as a prospect.

They were more dominant than any of the names on the list outside of Liriano.

But on Saturday, in Glasnow’s second major league start, the projections seemed to miss something.

“We have some kind of tendency to translate Triple-A numbers to big league numbers,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s probably one of the (biggest) challenges we have here in evaluations.”


Now, we don’t know how much Glasnow was affected by the shoulder issue that placed him on the disabled list Sunday.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested Sunday it was significant and that Glasnow’s second start should be thrown out for evaluation purposes.

“I don’t think it was one pitch he felt it on. He tried to battle through it,” Huntington said. “He didn’t spin his breaking ball anywhere close to way he spun it at minor league level. The velocity came and went. Didn’t command the ball anywhere near as well as he had in the past.”

But beyond the shoulder, for Glasnow, the little things – controlling the running game, fielding his position – were big problems Saturday. And they have been big problems, masked due to his dominance, in the minors.

Glasnow said he also lost “focus” on the running game and perhaps also struggled dealing with adrenaline and maintaining composure.

Perhaps the projections don’t account for the little things quite as well as they should.

Glasnow has been working on the little things for a while now in the minor leagues. Controlling the running game with a 6-8 frame is a challenge. Glasnow’s issues with the running game are nothing new. Minor leaguers have stolen successfully against him 81 percent of the time. Major leaguers are now 6-for-6.

That’s less of a problem if you’re limiting opponents to a sub-.200 average, but that’s not going to happen at the major league level where hitters are better, lineups are deeper and advanced scouting is so much better.

Glasnow also struggled to field his position Saturday, he does not seem to trust his changeup. The command is going to be an issue for awhile. They could ultimately force him to the bullpen. That’s the downside.

Of course, probably too much of a judgment upon Glasnow’s immediate major league effectiveness is being made after two starts.

Glasnow pitched pretty effectively in his debut against St. Louis. The Cardinals struggled to square up his fastball. (Glasnow releases the ball 7 feet, 5 inches from the rubber with his long levers and extension. The major league average is just over 6 feet of extension). But his fastball wasn’t the same Saturday. It didn’t generate much swing and miss. The velocity wavered, falling to 91 mph at times. It generated more hard contact. That was likely tied to his shoulder.

Maybe if he’s healthy he is one of the best five options moving forward.

“I thought it was a pretty good participation the first start,” Hurdle said. “The second start, I think that’s part of the major leagues.”

Glasnow is by far and away the most highly-rated prospect among the other  rookie rotation options. He was rated as the No. 6 overall prospect in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects list. Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams did not make the list (Mitch Keller did but he’s not a 2016 option despite).

ut what is also true – what the eye test tells us – is he has the least polish of the parade of arms to arrive in Pittsburgh this summer.

While he has the most upside of the young arms, he might be the furthest away from sticking in the rotation.



>>Taillon is clearly ahead of Glasnow.

Had a career high seven strikeouts Sunday (all via the curveball). He didn’t walk a batter.

In 40 big league innings, Taillon has a 31-to-5, strikeout-to-walk ratio. Between Triple-A and the majors this season, Taillon has a 92-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 101 2/3 innings.

Yes, he was hurt by elevated fastballs on Sunday. But he didn’t beat himself with walks or running game issues like Glasnow a day earlier. He was efficient (83 pitches, six innings) To date, Taillon has been a control artist with plus fastball velocity and a plus curveball. It’s a good package of skills.

Taillon at least looks like a mid-rotation option in the short term and he could perhaps grow into something more as Cole did down the stretch in 2013

IF he can stay healthy.

>>Huntington said the team would like to add pitching at the deadline.

“Would we like to add some pitching to this group? Absolutely. At the same time, because of the young pitching we have, that bar is set pretty high as to what in our minds makes us better. It allows us to take a long look at that acquisition cost.”

>>As I wrote in Sunday’s column for the Trib, the Pirates are probably best served by staying out of the rental market, given their 2016 upside likely being the wild card game. But given the cost to acquire top-end pitching in free agency, if the Pirates can acquire a pitcher who is under control for multiple seasons via trade it might some sense.

>>In the short term, the pitching depth has eroded with Glasnow and Chad Kuhl (triceps) both injured on Saturday. It’s unclear how long they will be sidelined.

What does that mean in the short term? Jeff Locke will likely live to start another day and perhaps Brault will get another look at the major league level. (I thought Brault looked really polished in his debut). Ryan Vogelsong is also close to a return. Jon Niese is still around.

>>Even if the Pirates are not able to add pitching in what figures to be a seller’s market the rotation should be better in the second half. ZiPS (forecast is above in opening segment) projects the Pirates starting pitchers to combine to produce a 3.67 ERA, 7.85 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in the second half. I did  not include Vogelsong or Niese.

To date, Pirates starters have a 4.75 ERA entering Sunday. If the Pirates’ can shave a run from their ERA simply by regressing to the mean – combined with the second half schedule – the Pirates could really be in business.

>>Did Cubs overpay for Aroldis Chapman?

>>Matt Joyce’s new swing new swing continues to lead to remarkable results. He’s going to earn private swing instructors Bobby Tewksbary and Craig Wallenbrock some new business. He now has 10 homers in 145 at bats and among Pirates with at least 100 at bats, he leads the club in on-base (.415) and slugging percentage (.563)

Joyce’s lefty swing and one-hand finish was reminiscent of his boyhood idol Griffey Jr. (Horner photo)


>>Adam Frazier, ballplayer.

>>If you didn’t know, Elias Diaz can really throw.

>>Josh Bell’s bat is ready but the glove continues to be shaky at Triple-A



Joyce’s OPS.


McCutchen’s OPS


Frazier’s career home run total at Mississippi State (though he did play during the dead bat era in college baseball)


“It can be argued it’s the best bench I’ve had as a manager. Definitely the best bench I’ve had here.”


Where would the Pirates be without their bench? All five RBIs on Sunday came via the bench.


“I loved Griffey. He was my favorite player growing up. I had his posters on the wall. Sweet swing. … I tried to hit like him all the time. I wish I could do that more often.”

Joyce after his 434-foot homer Sunday


Huntington indicated he would have liked better communication from Glasnow regarding his shoulder:

“Everyone has something they can sit out a game with. When do they sit out, when do they need to sit out? When is it more than stiffness and soreness? When is it risk of injury? That’s what we’re working through. Young players have a sense of invincibility. The only way we can help players get stronger, the only way we can help players differentiate between normal stiffness and normal soreness, and something that may develop into larger, the only way to nip something in the bud is (through communication).”


Huntington on how the Drew Pomeranz trade may or may not impact market

“Each market and trade is separate … In some cases clubs think market is set and they end up holding a player.”


Huntington on the concept of contention “windows”

“There are some that believe in windows and ‘We are going to put all eggs in a three-year (window)’ Our belief is if we get there more often we have a better chance to win … rather than going into the negative cycle to get one shot at it.”



The Pirates’ tailwind, Taillon’s scary night, and our podcast


PNC PARK – The Pirates began the easiest remaining schedule in baseball on Tuesday with a win.

Josh Harrison walked off and thankfully Jameson Taillon got up (more on that in a bit) Tuesday. projects the Pirates’ remaining opponents with a .478 winning percentage, the lowest in baseball.

After a brutal June and early July schedule, the Pirates get to see a lot of the Brewers, Phillies and Reds going forward.

That’s significant.

Wrote Jeff Sullivan at

“Here’s how to read this: Based on schedule and projections, the Pirates’ remaining slate will boost them by 1.5 wins or so. The Nationals are projected for a similar boost. …. No team’s season will be made or broken based just on opponent identity. But think about the market value of a win or thereabouts around deadline time. The Pirates are sitting relatively pretty.

“The Pirates are battling for the wild card. Now, many competitors also have soft schedules. But just based on those schedules, the Pirates are estimated to gain more than a win on the Dodgers. They’d gain two games on the Giants, in case the Giants slip. The Dodgers would gain nearly a game on them.”

Of course the Marlins and Mets, ahead of the Pirates in the wild card standings, are also expected to pick up nearly a game due to relative ease of schedules.

Still, while so much focus is on the trade deadline, Tribune-Review found that over the last five deadlines only five players acquired produced two wins above replacement or more down the stretch, and only 20 player produced at least one WAR. (45 produced negative or negligible WAR).

While it’s not a perfect analogy, the Pirates second half schedule is somewhat equivalent to adding an impact player.

Now, the Pirates have to take advantage of it.


Taillon was fortunate to get up Tuesday.

Remarkably he stayed in the game.

Two minutes and 45 seconds after being hit in the back of the head by a 105 mph line drive, he was tossing warm-up throws. The ball struck Taillon so squarely he said stitch markings were on the back of his cap. The ball landed in shallow left field.

Taillon was fortunate to be able to get up after taking a liner to the head. Remarkably, he kept pitching (Horner photo)

Remarkably, Taillon stayed in the game and pitched well.

There was immediate questioning on social media from around the country regarding whether the Pirates should have allowed Taillon to remain in the game. Some questions: Why wasn’t Taillon X-rayed? Could all proper assessments be made in three minutes?

I am not a doctor. I do not have the answers, folks.

But I did ask questions of Taillon and Hurdle.  The Pirates did not make anyone from their medical or training staff available after the game to answer such questions, but head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk is expected to be available today.

Taillon said he was waiting for pain but it never arrived. He seemed fine after the game. He seemed alert. He pitched well.

“I remember everything. I saw it coming at me. I turned from it. I kind of just remember going down. I could kind of feel it on my head. I remained conscious. I answered all the questions they asked me. I wanted to get up quicker than I was able to,” Taillon said.

“(The medical staff asked) ‘Do you know where you’re at? Any pain? Any pain running down your neck? I got a lot of questions. Of course they ask you ‘Remember five different words,’ see how your memory is…. Balance on one leg. Touch your nose. Follow a pen. I did just everything you can imagine every box was checked.”

Taillon was not sure if there was  any discussion of taking him just for precautionary purposes.

“No,” Taillon said.  “I answered everything, checked it off. I’m sure they had some discussions about it. … I just wanted to stay out there.”

I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to take us through the process that allowed Taillon to remain in the game. Hurdle said the club followed protocol.

“I’m not going to take you through. That’s the protocol the trainers run through. I could kick it and maybe not explain it perfectly. No disrespect, but when those situations occur, we have a protocol and a process to follow,” Hurdle said. “The training staff runs that. The end opportunity that I have is you make a decision. I’m really struggling with this whole concept. I trust our people. He’s got a mom and dad watching the game. I’ve got a son. This is one area that I’m not real comfortable with, and I’ve got to trust our people. They do know what they’re doing and how to follow a protocol and to test the player and the things to do. All the procedures that we have in place and follow played out on the field and they played out the rest of the game. To explain it any more than that, I don’t think I’d do it justice.”

According to Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol, if a player is involved in an “incident … associated with a high risk of concussion” the game is to be stopped and the player evaluated by an athletic trainer. If the trainer “detects any sign and/or symptom of concussion during an on-field evaluation” the player is to be removed.

According to the protocol, “If the (trainer) does not detect any sign and/or symptom … the player may remain in the game, but serial examinations should be performed between innings for the remainder of the game.”

Taillon said he was evaluated again between innings.

But perhaps MLB’s protocol should be examined, especially in an age where there is a hyper-sensitivity – and rightly so – with head injury.




Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to learn from Niese, what to do at the deadline


SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have decisions to make about their second half rotation, but they made the right decision in moving Jon Niese to the bullpen.

You’re probably aware Neal Huntington expressed some buyer’s remorse to 93.7 FM on Friday.

Said Huntington: “Given the thinness of the starting pitching market, given the dollars we had available, we felt (Niese) was our best return. It has not played out that way. We own that. We accept it. In hindsight, maybe (taking) the two fringe prospects and trying to figure out where to reallocate the money might have been a better return.”

While most of the decisions the Pirates front office made this offseason have produced value, while most have worked out, Niese is the one miss to date. And it was Niese that was also the second largest financial commitment (after Mark Melancon), basically an even swap of salary for Neil Walker.

Finding a taker for Niese could be difficult given his performance and salary (Horner photo)

What else could the Pirates have done with that $9 million?

They could have kept Walker, though the club seemed intent on moving him. Had the club retrained Walker, Josh Harrison probably opens the season up at third base.  And perhaps the club never signs Sean Rodriguez and/or David Freese.

As good as Walker has been in New York (Editor’s note: As good as Walker was the first two months of the season), Walker might have been limited to mostly left-handed hitting in Pittsburgh. He might never have found his right-handed swing with the Pirates as he has with the Mets. And would Walker as a platoon player be more valuable to the club than Freese and Rodriguez have been?

Walker has been worth 1.7 fWAR to date, Harrison 0.6, Freese 1.6, and Rodriguez 1.4.

In short, parting ways with Walker was not the mistake.

What was the mistake, what Huntington ostensibly acknowledged, is accepting an even exchange of salary in the form of Niese for Walker. The Pirates would have been better off simply by clearing Walker’s salary.

Niese was never an exciting addition.

He was a low-upside, higher-ceiling, back-end rotation fit. On the day he was acquired, I wrote how the Pirates deviated from their preferred pitching model in adding Niese.

In retrospect,  the Pirates might have been better offer accepting a package of “fringe prospects” Huntington alluded to and clearing salary.

If the Pirates were willing to consider paying Niese nearly $30 million through 2018 with his two club options, then perhaps they could have had  the dollars to pay J.A. Happ. (Happ signed a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto early in the offseason which to be fair, was considered an over-pay at the time).

While Huntington lamented the starting pitching market “blew up” this offseason, even for reclamation project pitchers, Rich Hill more fit the club’s model of searching for upside. Hill can miss bats and lefties are ideal at PNC Park. By shedding Walker’s salary, the club could have afforded Hill, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the A’s. Hill has been outstanding.

The Pirates could have made a run at re-signing Joe Blanton (1-year, $4 million deal with Dodgers) who was so good in that multi-inning relief role last year. The club could have tried to bring Antonio Bastardo back as second power lefty in the pen. (2-year, $12 million deal with Mets). Blanton has been excellent with the Dodgers, Bastardo shaky with the Mets.

The Pirates could have perhaps better stretched that $9 million on higher upside, higher risk options.

The Pirates decided they did not want to pay for mediocrity (and injury) with Charlie Morton, dumping his $8 million salary on the Phillies for fringe prospects. The Pirates made the right decision in tendering Mark Melancon and non-tendering Pedro Alvarez.

So while the front office made mostly correct and effective decisions that have produced value, the Niese mistake has been a costly one to date.

What did we learn?

Never pay for mediocrity.

Always chase the upside.



>>The market for impact starting pitching is thin as we near the trade deadline. As we saw with the Drew Pomeranz trade, starting pitching that is available will be expensive.

Pomeranz is still young and was having a breakout season for the San Diego Padres. He still has 2 1/2 seasons of team control. He will immediately slot in the middle of the Boston rotation. But the cost to acquire Pomeranz – who has been up and down in his career – was one of the game’s best pitching prospects in Anderson Espinosa. (A top 20 consensus prospect)

So if the Pirates wanted the equivalent of Pomeranz – a quality pitcher with 2+ plus years of control – they’d be giving up the equivalent of at least Austin Meadows in a package.

That’s likely too steep.

>>Nathan Evoladi?

He’s got a big arm. He’s cheap. And he would probably produce a sub-5.00 out of Yankee Stadium and the AL East. But he’s never had much feel for secondary offerings. The Pirates’ young,  internal options are superior and they don’t cost anything.

>>What path should the Pirate pursue at the deadline? The one they have in four of the last five years the club has been in contention at the deadline: soft buyers.

The Pirates shouldn’t give away the farm. The Pirates’ most likely path to the postseason is through the wild card game and that’s a 50-50 proposition Pirates fans know well. A team shouldn’t risk too much to play in a coin-flip game.

>>The Pirates should not give up an elite prospect for a rental, and they haven’t under Huntington. The only prospect they’ve given up at the deadline who has appeared in a subsequent Baseball America top 100 preseason prospect list is Dilson Herrera (traded to acquire Marlon Byrd). That summer a playoff berth meant much more for the Pirates as they had not earned one since 1992.

The problem is there isn’t much available, especially in the starting pitching market. The Pirates might just have to hold.

Said Huntington on Sunday. “We’re doing due diligence on all fronts, but the pitching is what seems to need the most help at this point unless we’re willing to go with what we’ve got internally,”

>>Francisco Liriano took another step forward Friday.  ZiPS thinks he’s going to have a much better second half.

>> A rotation of Gerrit Cole, an improving Liriano, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow and Jeff Locke  are the best five options for the Pirates moving forward. (Though Chad Kuhl had his strongest start to date on Sunday).  It’s a rotation  that is loaded with upside.

Here’s the ZiPS projection for second-half performance by Pirates starting pitcher options:

Pitcher / IPK/9 / BB/9 / ERA

Cole / 77 / 8.3 / 2.3 / 3.18

Liriano / 75 / 9.2 / 4.1 / 3.82

Glasnow / 38 / 10.1 / 5.0 / 3.84

Locke / 75 / 6.3 / 3.2 / 4.50

Taillon / 28 / 6.0 / 3.2 / 4.62

Niese / 77 / 6.1 / 2.9 / 4.89

Kuhl / 47 / 5.6 / 3.0 / 4.70

>>Cole wasn’t great in his first start back but he touched 96 mph and most important is that he’s healthy. He’ll have better days.


Average length, in innings, by Pirates starting pitchers this season. Only the Reds are worse.


Niese:  “I’m going to go out there whenever they ask me to pitch and let it eat. I’m going to try to get outs as often and as quickly as possible in whatever role it’s going to be going forward.”

Here’s guessing that $10 million option for 2017 is not going to be picked up by the club.


“He can pitch multiple innings. There’s also some abilities with some left-handed hitters he’s had success with over the years, that he could be matched up left-on-left. He can be a versatile option for us out there, go a couple different ways.”

Hurlde on Niese’s role. The club would love to move Niese but they would likely have to include dollars or add in young talent.

- TS


The trade deadline complications for the Pirates: buyers beware, ‘buying and lying,’ and our podcast


SOUTH HILLS –  The Pirates are in a predicament as we approach the trade deadline, as the sport gears up for its second half.

The club’s July surge has given it a plausible path to the postseason.  Though even with the Chicago Cubs’ slump, the most likely path for the Pirates is still a wild-card spot.

While the Pirates have been hot, while it looks like Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Liriano are taking steps forward, while it looks like intriguing young talent could bolster the playoff push – the odds are still against the Pirates reaching the postseason. Baseball Prospectus gives
the Pirates a 16 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and a 7.9 percent chance of reaching the NLDS.

Even if you think those odds are light, particularly given the second-half schedule, the Pirates are not in a strong buy position for the postseason.

Huntington has added a veteran at four of the last five deadline periods … will he do so again? (Horner photo)

I wrote about the Pirates’ Buy, Hold, Sell (yes, even sell) dilemma on Sunday.

I spoke to Baseball Prospectus editor Sam Miller about the subject. Miller brought up a complicating factor for teams chasing the wild card and that is a wild card is essentially 50 percent as valuable as it once was.

How much do you invest?

“The second wild card is still new enough that I don’t think we have a great sense of how much it’s ‘worth’ to make it into the playoff game. In one sense, it’s ‘worth’ a little bit more than half of what it used to be — the team has about a 50 percent chance of getting a full series,” Miller said. “For a team that is starved for a postseason appearance, like the Pirates once were, I’d empty the cupboard to make that game. … (Now) the Pirates as a franchise aren’t measurably better off by making that game unless they progress deep into the postseason, which makes it a great opportunity but a risky thing to bet a lot on.”

Unless the Pirates were clearly contending for the division, or in control of the division lead, it seems a poor decision to buy too aggressively at the deadline. (You’re now well aware of the best and worst of the wild-card experience.)

The Pirates’ glaring weakness is starting pitching.

The Pirates rank 22nd in baseball in ERA (4.83) and 29th in WAR (2.1) produced by starting pitchers to date.

The good news is there are internal options like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault that could be second-half upgrades.

The bad news? We don’t know how much they’ll be allowed to work in the second half. After the Stephen Strasburg innings-limit thing a few years back, Neal Huntington vowed to never make a red line public like the Washington Nationals had (and that was in regard to Gerrit Cole’s 2013.)

Cole ended up having some extra rest down the stretch as a rookie, but he pitched into September and pitched two NLDS games.

But he also hadn’t missed two years like Taillon.

Glasnow pitched 109 innings last season and 143 in 2014. He’s already thrown 101 total innings this year. It’s hard to imagine Glasnow being allowed to surpass 180 innings. Even 180 is likely aggressive.

How much will the Pirates’ prized young arms be allowed to work?

The starting pitching market at the deadline is thin. The Pirates would likely have to overpay. (Though if the price was reasonable for Rich Hill, he could be an impact acquisition for the stretch run.)

SI/ analyst Jonah Keri notes that rookie-workload complication means it could make sense for the Pirates to be soft sellers at the deadline – while still trying to compete for a wild card.

“Shut the rookies down, and I think you do a light sell but without giving up in the playoff hunt,” Keri said. “Trading Melancon away and trusting the rest of the bullpen — plus maybe even Taillon and/or Glasnow in the bullpen — still gives the Pirates a chance to make the playoffs.”

Huntington said the club will again go into the deadline with the flexibility to add or sell depending on the market.

But the expectation is the Pirates will buy at the deadline as they have in the recent past.

“Our expectation is we are going to add. Our mindset is we are going to add and put ourselves, for the first time in the franchise history, in position to make the postseason four consecutive years,” Huntington said.

But buyers should beware, however.

Consider the last three trade-deadline periods (June 15-July 31):

45 major league players acquired produced negligible or negative value — below replacement level — through the remainder of the season.

20 produced more than one win above replacement for the team acquiring them.

5 produced two or more wins above replacement.

Source: Tribune-Review analysis of Baseball Reference data

Perhaps the right approach is a soft buy, or what the Pirates have been doing at the deadline under Huntington.

The Pirates’ approach has been to buy a modest piece or two at the deadline, which gives the illusion of being “buyers,” but really it is a soft buy, or as Michael Baumann described, “Buying and Lying,” back prior to the 2013 deadline when Grantland was still think (RIP Grantland, we miss you)

“That Huntington didn’t give up much in value is of paramount importance, because Pittsburgh is, with Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, and Pedro Alvarez, starting to reap the benefits of one of the game’s more exciting farm systems. With Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco not too far behind, more help is on the way. Trading away those assets for Michael Bourn, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hunter Pence, or one of the other big names to move might have gotten the Pirates an extra win or two down the stretch, but nowhere near the production they’d miss when those young players finally all came together, as they’re doing now.

By making lower-risk, less-splashy moves, Huntington kept his team in a position to contend both at present and in the future.”

With a stronger position at last deadline, though with the division hardly looking like  a sure bet, Huntington again employed a similar strategy not giving up too much for J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton.

Those moves all worked out brilliantly, particularly Happ who became one of five players traded at the deadline over the last three deadline periods to produce more than two wins above replacement.

But the impact Happ produced is the exception rather than the rule of players acquired at the deadline. The cost typically outweighs the benefit.

The smart approach might be to hold, with some minor moves made at the margins.


Just Josh and I this week, and there was much to talk about…



Monday Mop-Up Duty: A small-sample-size monster named Josh Bell… what to do with him and the 2nd-half rotation?


SOUTH HILLS – So the “small-sample-size monster” Neal Huntington said is tormenting Pittsburgh after Josh Bell’s weekend is a real thing. Very real.

Major league executives, and even members of the general public, can make poor and emotional decisions when over-reacting to a small sample size.

But if you were ever going to overreact to a small sample size it’s in regard to what Bell did over the weekend.

Even the restrained Huntington said it was impossible to strip all “emotion” away after what Bell did. (I would have loved to seen Huntington’s reaction live).

So about that encore performance after this weekend … It’s all downhill from here, Josh. (Horner photo)


Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he was afflicted with “goose bumps” for what he estimated was the 12th time in his coaching career after Bell’s grand slam on Saturday night.

“I’ve got them probably about a dozen times since I’ve been a coach or manager,” Hurdle said. “(David) Freese was standing next to me. I told him ‘I have goose bumps.’ He said ‘Chills ran down my spine.’

“It was that kind of a moment.”

As an objective observer, Bell’s grand slam was one of the top-five moments since I’ve covered the club. Maybe it’s top three. Maybe it’s right after events from the 2013 wild card game.

Really, really cool.

Power was the last thing to develop in Bell’s game. But it’s developed as evidenced by the grand slam that ended up clearing the right field seats and bouncing around the PNC Park river walk. The raw power has always been there. It was a matter of it becoming game power. It’s a credit to the Pirates valuing the hit tool over the power tool, and projecting the power will develop. That’s traditional scouting at work.

Bell has always had an elite batting eye routinely posting double-digit walk percentage rates in the minors. His third plate-appearance on Sunday was also so, so impressive. After falling behind 0-2 to John Lackey, Bell laid off three cutters that dove below the strike zone. So many anxious rookies would have swung and missed. He fouled off a couple borderline pitches and drew the walk.

Huntington marveled at how calm and confident Bell seemed.

Bell seems like the complete offensive package: a switch-hitter with a plus bat, plus eye and now at least average game power – with the potential for much more game power.

But he’s headed back to Indy at some point soon, depending on the status of Gerrit Cole – who threw his second rehab outing Sunday – and the health of Gregory Polanco’s hamstring.

And, sorry everyone, but the idea of sending Bell back now even after THAT is rooted in logic.

Huntington said he “kicked” himself for not being more patient with Polanco and Pedro Alvarez, who each struggled to transition to the major leagues.

(And, yes, Polanco’s early struggles can now become a convenient example for the club any time it wants to keep a prospect longer in the minors than the fan base would like. But in Bell’s case, he’s past service time concerns – at least for 2016 – so the Pirates have other reasons for wanting him to get more time in Triple-A.)

Huntington said the “common denominator” with players that transition better to the majors is Triple-A experience.

As I noted in today’s sidebar on Bell …

*Andrew McCutchen had 809 plate appearances in Triple-A before being called up. He posted an .835 OPS as a rookie.

*Neil Walker had 1,198 Triple-A plate appearances before his first full season in the majors when he hit .296.

*Alvarez only had 278 Triple-A place appearances.

*Polanco had 314.

*Bell has 504.

What to go outside the Pirates’ organization? Huntington took us there.

“Look at Cardinals and how easily their players have transitioned. Look how many Triple-A at-bats.”

According to Tribune-Review analysis, the average college hitter to contribute to the Cardinals’ past five playoff teams accumulated 1,512 at-bats in the minor leagues before reaching the majors. High school bats averaged 1,885 minor league at-bats.

The Cardinals have been the closest team to replicate the sustained success of the 1990s-early 2000s Atlanta Braves. Of the college hitters drafted by the Braves to play on their four World Series teams, college hitters averaged 1,704 minor league at-bats, high school bats 1,967 at-bats.

Bell, who signed out of high school, had 1,837 minor league at-bats before his debut.

But at some point Bell will have to work through an adjustment period at the major league level, regardless of how much time he spends in the minors. At some point he will struggle.

After all, development doesn’t stop in the minors.

“There is always going to be a league punch-back,” Hurdle said. “That’s the nature of the industry up here. The skill set of pitchers. Video. Guys that break down swings. … (Players with fewer Triple-A at-bats) have had more challenging situations settling in offensively than the guys who have had more Triple-A at-bats.”

But there are always exceptions, prodigies that don’t require normal finishing.

Only one Cardinal contributor to their last five playoff teams was promoted to the big club before his 1,000th minor league at-bat: Albert Pujols.

The Cubs’ Kris Bryant went 3-for-4 with the game-winning hit Sunday. He had a total of 330 Triple-A at bats.

Bell might be an exception.

And with more power than John Jaso – who has been solid – Bell has more upside (and downside) to impact a playoff race.

Bell also has plenty of outfield experience. Hurdle said Sunday he thought it was “unfair” to place Bell in the outfield after nearly two years away from it. But I suspect he could account for himself fairly well there.

What to do?

Maybe there’s a middle ground.

The initial plan was to send Bell down after the weekend but why not extend his stay … at least for a bit.

With Polanco’s hamstring issue lingering, the safe path toward a full recovery would be to place him on the DL retroactive to Friday.

And with that roster spot open, the Pirates could take a longer, harder look at Bell.

Which would allow the small-sample-size monster to become a slightly larger sample and less of a monster.  And the Pirates might end up just riding a hot streak.



>>There was perhaps a more important decision discussed other than what to do with Bell this weekend by Huntington and Hurdle. What’s that? It’s this: who’s in, who’s out of the second-half rotation (at least the opening rotation). No details will be revealed, publicly, until players return from the All-Star break.

If there’s one area where the Pirates can really improve it is their rotation which ranks 29th in WAR (2.1) in baseball, and 22nd in ERA (4.83). And the good news is there are a lot of internal options.

So who should be in, who should be out?

>>Cole looked good in a second rehab outing on Sunday. He is expected to rejoin the club and rotation in Washington coming out of the All-Star break. He’s close.

>>Francisco Liriano threw 17 first-pitch strikes against 24 batters faced on Friday night, another step forward. Liriano is the club’s highest-paid player and arguably its best pitcher since 2013. He has a spot in the rotation. Though perhaps his problem just isn’t his problem.

>>Jameson Taillon sticks, I would think. He’s been as good as any Pirates starter over his five starts. He threw a side session on Sunday and did not report any ill effects.

His first five major league starts (3.86 ERA) were very similar to Cole’s in 2013. Cole became the club’s best starter in September.

Will Niese get another shot in the second half? (Horner photo)


>>Huntington said Sunday that Tyler Glasnow is a “viable option” for the second-half rotation. Huntington is usually reserved in assessing young talent, so that almost seems like an endorsement. Glasnow said the curveball in his debut Thursday was the worst he’s had in two years. He threw one changeup. So he was a one-pitch pitcher and was still able to have success with that approach for four innings.

As we’ve been saying for a while, as the computer projections have been saying for a while, Glasnow is one of the club’s top five starting options.

Then it gets interesting.

>>So then the final spot perhaps comes down to Jeff Locke-Chad Kuhl-Steven Brault-Jon Niese if the Pirates are to really put out their most effective rotation out there.

>>Locke will likely remain in the rotation. Kuhl struggled again Saturday and has left too many balls up in the zone. Kuhl is supposed to be a groundball pitcher but he’s produced 42 balls in the air vs. 16 groundballs. Brault intrigues. I thought he showed excellent command of three pitches in St. Louis. I’d like to see him given another look. But I suspect he’s back in Triple-A – at least for the time being. He’s be the first replacement option on my preference list.

>>Hurdle would not commit to Niese for the second-half rotation after Sunday’s game. That seems ominous for Niese.

If the club cannot trade Niese at the deadline –- it’s hard to imagine he has much value – then his knee issue perhaps makes him a candidate for the DL to open a spot. Niese has really struggled. He has a 5.13 ERA. The club has lost nine of his last 13 starts. The Pirates need more despite Niese’s $9 million salary.

>>The Pirates 2011 draft has a chance to be really special. Cole has already made in impact. Bell was the second-round pick in that draft and Glasnow. While the club did taken advantage over over-slotting bonuses, the Pirates still had to pick the right players.

>>So much happened this weekend that Andrew McCutchen’s best three-game stretch in a long time fell under the radar. But McCutchen has homered in back-to-back games and had a three-hit night Friday. If McCutchen and Liriano return to form, and the rotation improves thanks to an infusion of youth, this becomes a dangerous team.

>>Sean Rodriguez has been a really good MLB hitters since the end of last year – and one of the game’s best bench defenders. Another good offseason signing. Only the Niese-Neil Walker trade really looks like loss on the ledger for the front office from the winter. Now, you can talk about what wasn’t done.

But as the Pirates are showing with their young talent, they only needed a bridge to July.




Bell’s major league slash-line after three major league appearances. It’s all downhill from here, kid.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 15.6 percent

Pirates’ playoff odds from Baseball Prospectus. Seems light … unless I’m caught up in recency bias.


Games behind the Pirates were of the Cubs on June 19


Games behind the Pirates are of the Cubs at the break.


Starts Locke made between relief appearances, which ended Sunday. It’s a testament to Locke’s ability to hang on – and be just good enough.


Hurdle on his team at the break

“I love the belief in that clubhouse. We never count ourselves out. .. It would be nice to get some more innings out of the starters. Offensively, I think we’ve shown the ability to score from different parts of the lineup. We have a catcher getting healthy. Cole is getting healthy.”

After a bleak June, the arrow is pointing up.


“Let’s go!” Bell said. “That’s probably all I said for three minutes.”

-Bell on what he screamed after watching his grand slam sail high and far into the night.


“This first half, I’m going to be honest, it just wasn’t good. I’ve never been on this bad of a run.”

– Niese



Glasnow’s here and he should stay


SOUTH HILLS - Tyler Glasnow pitched better in his debut Thursday than his final line suggests, allowing four runs allowed over 5 1/3 innings.

Two runs charged to him were inherited by the bullpen and scored. He struck out five and walked two.

He often looked the part of top pitching prospect: dominant at times, inconsistent at other points.

Glasnow showed the big-time fastball that has allowed him to silence minor league bats since being drafted in the fifth round of 2011.

The extension Glasnow produces from his 6-8 frame is one reason his fastball has been one of the best pitches in the minors over the last 3-4 seasons (AP photo)


He dotted Eric Fryer‘s glove with a 96 mph fastball on the outside corner to strike out Yaider Molina.

He got Stephen Piscotty to swing and miss at a sharp-breaking curveball for one of his five strikeouts.

If he can repeat those pitches more often, he has ace potential.

The stuff looks legit.

Only Gerrit Cole might have a better fastball, but Glasnow’s longer frame and extension make that a debate.

Jameson Taillon probably has the best true curve on the starting staff, and perhaps the second best breaking pitch behind Francisco Liriano‘s slider.

But Glasnow’s curveball flashes plus and plays up off the fastball.

Our eyes believe in the stuff, in the extension he gets from his 6-8 frame, and so do the projections.

Earlier this season, Fangraphs projected Taillon’s Triple-A numbfers would translate to a 3.78 ERA and 3.77 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark in the majors this season, and Glasnow’s to a 3.70 ERA and 3.57 FIP.

Their projected ERAs would be superior to every Pirates starter other than Cole.

Yes, Glasnow’s changeup was largely absent Thursday.

Yes, he was hurt on some hanging curveballs.

Yes, Glasnow walks too many batters. Fryer’s glove moved too often Thursday. Glasnow walked the first batter of his major league career.

But there’s this …

He’s not easy to hit. It’s going to limit baserunners.

Glasnow kept his composure, showed stuff, and generally looked like he can get MLB hitters out more often than not.

While Glasnow and Taillon are not finished products, no pitcher is upon arriving at the majors. But they were projected as two of the Pirates’ top five starting pitching options in May, and that appears to be even more so today.

But we don’t know how long Glasnow is to stay in the majors. But for a team that’s back in the postseason race as we near the trade deadline, perhaps the best decision the front office can make in the second half is not to look outside the club, but, rather, to let the kids play.



Monday Mop-Up Duty (on Tuesday): The end game is secured?


OAKLAND, Calif. – (Sorry for the delay in posting this entry, folks. I was caught up with traveling back from Oakland and other activities on the holiday. But Monday Mop-Up is live on the Web site …  though for the first time since Mop-Up became a feature in 2013, it is published on a Tuesday).

I was with the club through the first two series of the road trip, and the biggest story of what has been a successful trip to date — and what is a lock to be a winning road trip —  is the performance of the bullpen.

It’s interesting how quickly story lines can change.

Just over a week ago, the bullpen was as culpable as any unit of the club for its poor first-half start. There was much discussion on breaking up the bullpen at the trade deadline. (Another example of why it’s dangerous to make judgments at peaks or lulls as a writer, fan or executive).


Now, it looks like it did for the last three seasons, as a strength. The bullpen has produced a club-record record scoreless innings streak before it ended in the ninth Monday.

Caminero’s bounce-back since his DL trip is one of many reasons the bullpen has improved and is the midst of a historic run (AP photo)


Juan Nicasio should be better fit in the bullpen and where he can provide more depth and length. A.J. Schugel has quietly been effective and has secured a bridge role. And Arquimedes Caminero was filthy on Friday night striking out the side on 11 pitches, regaining command of his 97-100 mph fastball. He’s been a different guy since returning from the DL. Neftali Feliz looks like he’s back to what he was earlier in his career with the Texas Rangers. Tony Watson looks like he’s back to being Tony Watson. Mark Melancon has been rock solid since April. All of the sudden this looks like a deep and talented group.

The bullpen all of the sudden looks deep and talented, the kind of unit that can shorten games and be a competitive advantage as it was the last three seasons.

Yes, the need the starting pitching to go deeper into games.

Yes, the Pirates need Francisco Liriano to be better, and perhaps he took a step forward Sunday.

Yes, the club needs Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to be healthy. And they need contributions from unexpected places going forward (Adam Frazier, Steven Brault?)

But if the Pirates can begin winning the end game again as they had done in their three previous seasons, if they have indeed turned around their bullpen performance, then one important piece is back in place for a plausible run at a wild card berth.


>>Even when Gregory Polanco can’t run, he can hit. Polanco slashed two more homers on Monday in the win over the Cardinals. Polanco has sustained his breakout performance for a full half season, after making improvements in the second half of 2015. It’s looking more and more like this is a star-level player. Now it’s looking like there is 30 homers in the bat down the road.

>>Surprising news Monday that Jameson Taillon was headed to the DL with right shoulder “fatigue.” It’s not thought to be a major issues but the Pirates can’t afford to be without Taillon for long. He has been the club’s most productive starting pitcher since his call-up. As I wrote about in Sunday’s Starting 9, he’s performed a lot like Gerrit Cole did through his first five major league starts … and Cole went on to be the Pirates’ best starting pitcher in the second half of 2013.

*In Cole’s first five career starts in 2013, he produced a 3.98 ERA and 16-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 23 innings.

*In Taillon’s first five career starts, he has produced a 3.53 ERA and a 21-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 innings.

TaillonNYBut Cole also stayed on the mound in 2013.

While Cole has made three DL stints he’s also mostly been healthy during his pro career. Taillon has not. Health is considered a skill by some. And with each injury and issue the concern mounts about whether Taillon can be an arm that consistently throws 180-plus innings in a season. He can only prove that with health and time. But his talent, which includes a new weapon in the two-seam fastball, is for real.

>>The Pirates do have more young arms in the pipeline including Bault who will make his MLB debut tonight. Brault, acquired in the Travis Snider trade, is striking out 11.3 batters per nine inning at Triple-A. One reason why Brault has perhaps a better chance to succeed as a major league starter than Chad Kuhl (other than he is left-handed) is he has a superior command and secondary pitches in his slurve and changeup. The changeup, as a lefty arm, will help him neutralize righties. He can also get swings and misses with the pitch.

>>Kuhl has the better arm. But Kuhl has not been able to keep the ball on the ground in his first two major league starts (22 are outs to 9 groundball outs).  He’s also only generated 13 swinging strikes. You still have to like his fastball, which can sit in the mid 90s with movement, but his lack of secondary pitch effectiveness/consistency is an early issue. He admits his changeup needs work and his slider has been inconsistent. Kuhl could perhaps be a future bullpen option. Yes, it’s really early. Still, there are scouts who believe it’s difficult to learn to spin a breaking ball.

>>If the Pirates are going to sustain success throughout the remainder of the decade and beyond it’s because they become a more homegrown team; it’s because they have more success in the drafts than they did in the early years of the current regime.

So how about Frazier’s start?

>>Frazier, the first 2013 Pirate draftee to reach the majors, doubled and tripled on Sunday and is batted .563 in his first 13 at bats. He’s versatile with a left-handed bat and has been spraying line drive around major league outfields. Good looking player.

>> FWIW, Ray Searage spoke to Adam Berry of and myself Sunday morning and said there was nothing to the report he and Francisco Liriano had had a spirited disagreement.

>>Liriano threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 22 batters he faced Sunday in Oakland. That’s a positive development. Since batters know no pitcher has thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone since 2013, since batters are swinging less – and chasing less – it’s imperative Liriano is more often in the strike zone. It’s an adjust Liriano has to make.

>>How about the timely hits and effective base-running of Erik Kratz on the road trip? Kratz took an extra base for the go-ahead run on Saturday and also took an extra base in scoring the second run Sunday.

>>The Pirates entered the series at Oakland taking the fewest percent of extra bases taken (two bases on a single, three on a double) in baseball at 35 percent. Somewhat surprising.

>> Andrew McCutchen says the thumb is no longer an issue; he said his grip is fixed … but he said there were residual issues form the grip tied to his slump:

“The grip of the bat — that is the swing plane, not the thumb itself,” McCutchen said. “The way I was gripping it, it affected my timing. It affected plane. It affected all of that. It definitely had something to do with it. Not necessarily the jolt of the thumb, but how I gripped the bat had something to do with (the slump). It’s something I was glad I was able to notice.”

>>Josh Bell is raking.

>>John Jaso batted .197 in June. Jaso was great in April and May, and is a quality player who has added value with his move to first base. But Bell is very close to being ready.

>> Cole is making steady progress in his return. He begins his rehab outing Tuesday.

>>The Pirates need Cole, and Francisco Cervelli – who said last week he is swinging with only ’50 percent’ power – to be healthy and impact the second half wild-card chase.

>>As good as Melancon has been, as good as the bullpen has been lately, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told me the club has been flexible to buy or sell in each of the last three trade deadlines. That leaves one to deduce they would be open in regard to any offers for Melancon who is only under club control for about 12 more weeks of regular season play.


“It was very frustrating. Could have won the game. Over the years I’ve obviously seen (the hole) but never really paid attention to it. After it happened I went out there and it was literally a three-inch gap to put a baseball in. Never hit a hole-in-one before even in golf so I guess this is going to have to count.”

A’s outfielder Josh Reddick on his ground-rule double.

There are few redeeming qualities about Oakland Coliseum, but the Pirates loved the quirks of the A’s park – the hole at the base of the RF wall -for at least one night. The A’s have to get something down with a new park. I’d hate to see the club leave East Bay, but the park is a problem.



The Pirate bullpen’s scoreless inning streak, is a club record breaking the 28 2/3 mark set back in 1915 and 198.


Before the season I’m guessing 60 percent of folks would have wanted to extend McCutchen. Choose your own adventure with McCutchen with last week’s story


Liriano’s percentages of balls on first-pitch fastballs this year has increased from 43.7 percent last season. Liriano has to more often get ahead of hitters.


If you’re in the Bay Area …

Dinner: Nopa in San Francisco (so, so good)

Brunch: Brenda’s in San Francisco (so, so good)

Exploring Muir Woods (Redwood forest) and Sausilito, which is fantastic coastal town just over the Golden Gate Bridge on the Bay. Well worth a visit.



Free the shark? (And our podcast)


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.

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.