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June 22, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Who should be on first?

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have been in search of a solution at first base for some time.

In 2013 prior to the deadline, they acquired Justin Morneau, but the move had little influence as his bat went dormant.

Prior to last season, the Pirates made a two-year bid for James Loney, who signed a three-year deal with Tampa. The Pirates were so desperate for a left-handed platoon bat Travis Ishikawa ended up breaking camp with the team. In late April of last season, the Pirates made a trade with the Mets to acquire Ike Davis.

And of course this spring the Pirates converted Pedro Alvarez to first base, which has again resulted in sub-par performance at the position. While the strengths and weaknesses of the Pirates have evolved over the last three seasons — their best stretch of baseball since 1990-92 — a constant has been the struggles at first base.

Continue Reading →

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June 19, 2015
by Bill West


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Friday Farm Report: Decker deserving? Black Bears attractive? Kingham a lefty?

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Jaff Decker

Jaff Decker certainly did enough in the past few days to grab the attention of the Pirates’ front office.

But do the Pirates, in the midst of this June surge, see a need to change the faces in the clubhouse?

Decker, a left-handed batter and outfielder with Triple-A Indianapolis, delivered a walkoff home run Wednesday in the Indians’ 3-2 win over Durham.

That came one day after Decker went 2 for 4 with a double and a triple.

He also homered in his lone at-bat June 13, went 2 for 3 with a double June 11, and homered and walked twice June 7.

Decker’s on-base plus slugging percentage in June is 1.044.

Is that enough for Decker to deserve a promotion? Probably. But will he get one? I’m doubtful. Continue Reading →

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June 16, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Big data makes teams vulnerable in a big way. The Pirates stole Liriano … again. And a podcast

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SOUTH HILLS – So about that bombshell today in the New York Times, which broke the news  that the St. Louis Cardinals are begin investigated by the FBI for allegedly hacking into the Houston Astros’ proprietary database. The Astros are led by Jeffrey Luhnow, a former Cardinals lieutenant.

The Cardinals were allegedly curious, in a very illegal way, to peek into the Astros’ “Ground Control” database and see what they could learn. Luhnow was an analytical wizard with the Cardinals.

This is the first reported hacking of a North American professional sports team and every pro sports team today is now concerned whether their information has been or can be compromised. And even if any particular team has not been hacked, even if the Pirates have not, the reliance on digital tools and information makes every team vulnerable.

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June 15, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: if not Hamels then who?

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SOUTH HILLS – Hey, Cole Hamels looked pretty good on the PNC Park mound on Sunday, didn’t he?

(See what I did there).

This blog has advocated for some time the Pirates upgrade their starting rotation to not only keep pace with the infallible Cardinals, but to put themselves in the best possible position to win a postseason series.

Hamels is the top known pitching asset on the trade market and his remaining years of control (signed through 2018 with a 2019 vesting option) line up nearly perfectly with the club’s control of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. It’s worth noting the Pirates made what they believed was a competitive offer for the top asset on last summer’s trade market – David Price – only to have the Tampa Bay Rays prefer the Detroit Tigers’ offer, which was built around young major league talent. (More thoughts on the Rays’ preferred package later.)

But as Rob Rossi pointed out in his column today there are reasons to pump the brakes on Hamels. He’s on the wrong side of 30 (Hard to believe he’s already 31). He’s owed a lot of money, which is likely a problem for the Pirates unless the Phillies would eat some. And he’s going to be costly in young assets in what looks to be a seller’s market. So is there another option that is more affordable and less of a pipedream? Yes.

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June 12, 2015
by Bill West


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Friday Farm Report: Pirates draft edition

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NewmanTucker

The Pirates’ selection of Arizona junior shortstop Kevin Newman with their first pick in the Major League Baseball draft caused many fans to ask, “Why?” After all, just a year ago, the team used the No. 24 overall spot to draft Cole Tucker, a shortstop out of Mountain Pointe (Ariz.).

Not since 1994 and 1995 had the Pirates used their first picks to snag non-pitchers who played the same position. Using top picks for such a purpose certainly defied conventional MLB wisdom.

General manager Neal Huntington wants Pirates fans to take a deep breath and realize that a draftee’s position designation often changes as he progresses through the farm system.

“The reality is most high school position players are probably shortstops or if they’re outfielders, they’re centerfielders,” Huntington said. “If you go back through, most relievers were starters. It’s just where the best athletes and best players typically end up are catcher, shortstop and centerfield in high school. Then they gravitate outward. … It is great to have depth at premium defensive positions, especially if they’re offensive as well. Again, a lot of college shortstops will move off the position by the time they get to the big leagues. We believe we’ve got guys that will stay in the middle of the diamond that can swing the bat and do some good things.” Continue Reading →

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June 9, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The Pirates’ draft pivot and what they’re saying

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SOUTH HILLS – We’ve seen a change, a pivot, in the Pirates’ approach to the draft, at least on the first day of the draft.

Consider from 2010-12 the Pirates selected pitchers with each of their first-round picks, all top-8 overall selections, in Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole and Mark Appel. From 2009-11, the Pirates spent 22 of their first 30 picks on pitchers – 17 were prep pitchers.

But the Pirates took position players with all three of their first-day picks Monday. And in the last three drafts, the Pirates’ first two picks have all been position players. In 2013, it was Austin Meadows (OF) and Reese McGuire (C). In 2014, it was Cole Tucker (SS) and Conner Joe (CI). Yesterday it was Kevin Newman (SS), Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B) and Kevin Kramer (SS/2B).

What’s happened? Continue Reading →

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June 8, 2015
by Bill West


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More Pirates draft prep…

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Travis Sawchik wrote a lot of good stuff on here earlier today, so that read that, too. Consider this post the second in a series of 2015 MLB draft courses you should consume tonight.

Just after 7 p.m. this evening, the dominoes of the 2015 Major League Baseball draft will begin to fall.

The Pirates must wait until 18 other teams make moves to announce their first-round pick, and after several years of choosing from among the true cream of amateur baseball’s crop with a top-five spot, they’re comfortable with the idea of drafting the best player still on the board at No. 19 and also in the compensatory first round at 32.

Only the first two rounds of the draft will occur tonight. Rounds three through 10 will follow on Tuesday, and the rest will finish up Wednesday.

“The obvious reason we’re glad we’re picking toward the back end of the first round is it means we’ve won,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “But this is a really good class to be picking at the back end of the first round. “There’s a ton of gray at the top of the draft. … There’s some depth to it, but there’s not the elite, knockdown talent that there has been in the past.

Mock drafts from a variety of sources suggest the Pirates want a high school pitcher with their first and possibly even second pick.

ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo name Stroudsburg High School right-handed pitcher Mike Nikorak as the Pirates’ first pick in the mock drafts they posted today.

MLB.com’s Jim Callis, in conjunction with Mayo’s mock draft story, goes with Kolby Allard, a left-handed pitcher from San Clemente (Calif.) High School.

Baseball America’s John Manuel listed Ashe Russell, a right-handed pitcher from Cathedral Catholic High School in Indianapolis, as the Pirates’ first pick in the mock draft he posted today.

Many of the mock drafts suggest the San Francisco Giants, who pick at No. 18, also want a high school pitcher, so the Pirates’ decision might hinge upon what happens one spot earlier.

Huntington hinted little about the front office’s plan beyond a desire to draft the best player available and dismissed the idea that it’s even possible to meet major league needs with young men who might not last long in the minors.

“They’re so far away,” Huntington said. “Even the college players are three to five years away from having an impact on the major league team. The high school players are six, maybe even seven years away.”

The Pirates’ picks through the first 10 rounds are Nos. 19 (first round), 32 (compensatory first round), 62 (second), 96 (third), 127 (fourth), 157 (fifth), 187 (sixth), 217 (seventh), 247 (eighth), 277 (ninth), 307 (10th).

They have a signing bonus pool allotment of $7,392,200 for their picks in the first 10 rounds. Read more about the slot bonus system and how it affects draftees and teams alike here.

The Pirates’ last took a pitcher in the first round in 2012 — the Mark Appel ordeal, in which Appel turned down the money offered to him as the No. 8 overall pick and returned to Stanford.

They also drafted a pitcher first in 2011 (Gerrit Cole) and 2010 (Jameson Taillon).

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June 8, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: A new draft approach?

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ATLANTA – Baseball America thinks the Pirates are willing to roll the dice on a prep pitcher in the first round of the draft, which begins tonight.

From the last two BA mock drafts:

  1. Pirates
    It’s a high school pitching run. The Pirates aren’t afraid of risk, just undue risk. Allard is back training, running and now throwing off flat ground, progressing from 60 to 70 feet. It’s possible he could be ready for a pre-draft workout but it’s unclear how much a team would get out of such a workout. He’s a polished prep lefty without great size but with track record, and he’d be a good fit for PNC Park.

SelectionKolby Allard, lhp, San Clemente (Calif.) HS

  1. Pirates

The buzz around the Pirates continues to be the prep class. The best of the prep class, when healthy, remains lefthander Kolby Allard, even with a back injury.

Selection: Kolby Allard, lhp, San Clemente (Calif.) HS

 

Still, I wonder if the Cubs’ position player-heavy approach to drafting along with the Tommy John epidemic will change the way clubs value amateur pitching. Continue Reading →

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June 6, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Where should Marte sit at the table?

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ATLANTA – There is a conventional wisdom that when placing a hitter in the batting order proceeding the lineup’s top threat, that hitter is going to see more fastballs and more fastballs in the zone. The idea is the opposing pitcher has incentive to limit the run-scoring potential.

Starling Marte hit second last night for the first time this season. He was the one cold hitter – entering batting .125 (seventh worst among qualified hitters) with a .192 on base over the last two weeks – while the rest of the offense surged to lift the Pirates from four games under .500 (18-22) to six games above entering today (30-24).

Clint Hurdle has called the No. 2 spot before Andrew McCutchen the “honey hole.” He places struggling hitters there to jump start them. Marte saw 23 pitches last night and 15 were fastballs. He hit two of those fastballs for critical hits, a homer and single, that produced three runs. Continue Reading →

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June 6, 2015
by Bill West


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(Belated) Friday Farm Report: Young lefties, sac bunts & Sanchez thoughts

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Because of the concerning recent performances from Jeff Locke and Antonio Bastardo, the topic of left-handed pitchers touches a nerve with the Pirates’ faithful.

Judging by their minor league acquisitions this season, members of the Pirates’ front office are among those who are actively seek a southpaw or two to boost Pittsburgh’s bullpen or starting rotation in the somewhat distant future.

There’s still too little data available to make much of the young new lefties in the system, but here are some small-sample updates.

Stephen Tarpley, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound 22 year old, was the prized piece of the Pirates’ trade that sent outfielder Travis Snider to the Baltimore Orioles in late January. Shoulder fatigue caused Tarpley, a third-round pick by Baltimore in 2013, to miss the beginning of the regular season, but in three starts (15 innings pitched) with Single-A West Virginia Power, he had a 1.20 ERA with a 9.0 K per 9 innings rate, a 2.4 BB/9 rate, and a 1.27 WHIP.

Steven Brault, 23, also came to the Pirates via the Snider trade — he was the player to be named later. The 6-foot-1, 175-pounder had a 3.27 ERA in 55 innings spanned over 11 starts with High-A Bradenton. His 6.1 K/9 rate is below his career average of 7.3. And Brault’s 2.5 BB/9 rate is his highest mark since his 2013, when he pitched for Baltimore’s Low-A affiliate as a rookie.

Bradenton’s rotation also features 22-year-old Jayson Aquino, who joined the Pirates’ system after being acquired for cash considerations from Toronto in May. Aquino had a 3.72 ERA in 29 innings pitched during five starts. He also had a 5.6 K/9 rate and a 2.5 BB/9; both marks are close to his career averages.

Obviously none of these three will join the Pirates anytime soon — Indianapolis’ Clayton Richard (2.08 ERA in 30 1/3 innings pitched) or Altoona’s Zack Dodson (2.63 ERA in 54 2/3 innings pitched) are the buzz-worthy lefty starters in the minors, and Indianapolis reliever Bobby LaFromboise already has spent time with the Pirates this season. But the lefty newcomers avoided damaging their individual credibility during their first few outings.

Sacrifice ritual?

Perhaps no organization welcomes the chance to move a runner over with a sacrifice bunt more than the Pirates.

From top to bottom, the Pirates and their affiliates give up an out to get someone into scoring position far more often than their opponents, according to baseball-reference.com data.

Leading the way is Single-A West Virginia, which leads all MLB and MiLB teams with 40 sacrifice bunts.

With 31, Indianapolis leads the International League and is tied with the Albuquerque Isotopes for the most in Triple-A.

With 23, Bradenton has the most in the Florida State League and second most in High-A.

And with 25, Altoona has the second most in the Double-A Eastern League.

Sanchez’s DH duty

The abundance of catching talent on Indianapolis’ roster has necessitated a 50-50 split in playing time between Tony Sanchez and Elias Diaz, as a story in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review will detail.

One aspect of the story that didn’t make the print edition was Sanchez’s thoughts on serving as a designated hitter; he and Diaz bat at DH to stay in the lineup during series with American League teams.

It’d suffice to say that Sanchez doesn’t see the DH role, or really any offense-first position, as a new avenue to the major leagues

“I give a lot more credit to Big Papi and DHs in the American League, because it’s not an easy position to play,” Sanchez said. “All you’re doing is worrying about your at-bats and getting hits. That’s the only way you can contribute to a team. And being a catcher, there are multiple ways you can contribute to winning a game. So it’s something I had to get used to. I had to come up with my own routine for what I’d do between at-bats when I am DHing. So it’s a learning process, but keeping my bat in the lineup is the only thing that matters.”

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