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March 11, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Urgent (Cole) Care: the Price or Harden trajectory?

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CLEARWATER, Fla. – The pain in the back-side of his shoulder scared Gerrit Cole last season.

He missed 70 days on the disabled list. The Pirates cannot afford to have their burgeoning ace miss another 70 games in 2015. But it was that scare, that alarm that sounded, that short-term loss of time that could prove to be an important long-term development for Cole as I wrote about earlier this week.

The two trips to the disabled list have Cole more serious about preventative care this spring, and in particular one area: the shoulder. To some this may seem like a boring March line but it’s incredibly important.

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March 9, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Cervelli and the optimism of spring

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BRADENTON, Fla. – I have a few friends in the scouting community and I caught up with one this week and got his take on the Pirates.

He likes many of the club’s components. He loves the outfield (who doesn’t?), he thinks the starting infield is solid, he’s intrigued with Jung-Ho Kang, he likes the rotation perhaps more than most. He does have questions about the middle relief, but for him there is one glaring concern: catcher.

This concern has been muted a bit thus far in camp because Francisco Cervelli has received nothing but rave reviews from teammates. Said Casey Sadler following his three shutout, no-hit innings vs. the Blue Jays on Sunday: “Give all the props to Cervelli.”

Oh? Continue Reading →

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March 4, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Pedro looks the other way (again). Is that a good thing? … And what to take from one swing in March

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SOUHT HILLS – I arrive in Bradenton, Fla. next week but I watched yesterday’s Grapefruit League opener inside the snow globe that is my South Hills home. It’s just one spring training game, one exhibition exercise, so the typical March disclaimers apply.

However, a couple things struck me about Pedro Alvarez’s opposite-field home run in the first inning and Jung-Ho Kang‘s home run to right-center. I will get to Alvarez first.

If Alvarez’s opposite-field approach looked familiar, well, it should. And it got me thinking ‘Is that really a good thing?’ Remember, last year the Pirates universally adopted an all-fields hitting approach under Jeff Branson. The approach explained how the Pirates overcame a decline in their run prevention capabilities. It in large part explained how Pirates improved from 17th in the sport in on-base percentage in 2013 (.313) to 3rd (.330) last season. It explains how the Pirates improved from being one of the worst two-strike hitting teams in the NL in 2013 (ranked 11th in OPS) to the most effective two-strike team last season.

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March 3, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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March bubble watch: Locke or Worley?

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SOUTH HILLS – Assuming Charlie Morton is ready to go, and the top three elbows and shoulders in the starting rotation are healthy, the most meaningful spring competition is for the fifth spot between Jeff Locke and Vance Worley.

Worley and Locke are both out of options. They each have the same amount of service time, set to become free agents after the 2018 season.  They’re both 27. They have each had their moments, and their meltdowns, as Pirates starters.

The loser of the competition is not an ideal bullpen fit, so the runner-up could very well become a trade candidate later in March. As Grapefruit League play begins today for the Pirates against the Blue Jays (baseball – and the return of Russell Martin – on TV!), Locke and Worley are on the bubble and have much to pitch for in March if they want to remain in Pittsburgh.

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March 2, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up: The Kang threat … And what else can nine figures buy?

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SOUTH HILLS – Jung-Ho Kang will start at shortstop and bat third at noon today in a 5 12-inning intra-squad scrimmage at McKechnie Field. It will be the first time observers get a look at Kang in live game situations.

It’s been fun – even from a distance – to see Kang blast shots on to the tin roof beyond the left-field fence at Pirate City in early batting practice sessions. There has been one question answered about mysterious Kang:  it appears he possesses at least average raw power. The more important questions will begin to be answered today and into the season: Can he translate that raw power into game power? Can he make enough contact? Does that leg kick work against MLB pitching? Does he have the hands and actions for the middle infield?

If Kang can indeed translate his skills and beat many outside scouting expectations, he will provide the Pirates with a good problem: depth and another starting-caliber infielder. Trib columnist Rob Rossi opines today Kang is threat to take over second base from Neil Walker.

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February 26, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The McCutchen-Longoria parallel (and my MLB Network segment)

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SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Remember when Evan Longoria signed a nine-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays before he took a major league at bat? It was the most club-friendly and undervalued contract in the sport …. until he was surpassed last season by Andrew McCutchen (and also Paul Goldschmidt).

To understand the bargain that is McCutchen, let’s go Ross Perot and introduce a chart. The following is McCutchen’s actual remaining salary (including the 2018 option), his projected Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs.com projections, and his true market value.

Year               Actual salary     Projected WAR   Market value ($6 million per WAR)

2015              $10 million         6.7                        $40.2 million

2016              $13 million         6.4                        $38.4 million

2017              $14  million        6.3                        $37.8 million

2018             $14.7 million      6.0                        $36.0  million

TOTAL       $51.7 million    25.4                $152.4 million Continue Reading →

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February 24, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Less splash is more: What the Pirates can learn from the Golden State Warriors … And true value

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SOUTH HILLS – Any savvy club, particularly a small-market one, is forever in search of the any competitive advantage no matter how large or slim. And the latest idea the Pirates are exploring does not even come from within the confines of baseball.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark offers an interesting read here about the Pirates becoming interested in how the NBA’s Golden State Warriors conduct their business. If you don’t follow the NBA, the Warriors are one of the league’s elite teams this year, led by an all-time great, sharp-shooting backcourt. But what has the Pirates intrigued is how the Warriors are utilizing – and resting – their entire roster.

The Pirates haven’t exactly kept this a trade secret. Clint Hurdle brought up the interest in the Warriors recently when asked if he’d like to give Andrew McCutchen a little more rest this season.

Said Hurdle on Monday: “I read an interesting article a while ago on the Golden State Warriors, how they get maximum production with their players. [Proof pro athletes and managers do read articles]. They’re actually playing less, and they’re playing better collectively as a group.”

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February 23, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to expect of post-hype Polanco?

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SOUTH HILLS – Recall the hype surrounding Gregory Polanco‘s call-up last season? It was greater than that of even of Gerrit Cole of a year earlier. Polanco was billed as the team’s best positional prospect since Andrew McCutchen. It was as if he was to walk across the Allegheny, into right field at PNC Park, and single-handedly lift a scuffling Pirates club into contention.

(OK, so we may had a little something to do with building the hype)

Early on, Polanco even exceeded the hype. Remember his five-hit game in Miami that included a game-winning home run? He was spraying balls all over the field. He looked like a natural, like a Yasiel Puig, who did not face much of a learning curve.

Polanco’s second half is fresh in our memory. He was briefly demoted and replaced by Travis Snider in September. Polanco’s on-base fell to .268 in the second half. His power disappeared. Instances of solid contact were few and far between. Maybe he was tired; remember he had played baseball nearly for a year straight, including winter ball. Maybe it was simply a league catching up with Polanco after acquiring some advanced scouting reports. Or are their deeper concerns? What Polanco will we see in 2015?

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February 20, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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Thinking outside the box comes to an end (And it’s about time)

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SOUTH HILLS – Big news today that I’d like to think the Trib played a small role in bringing about: Major League Baseball has announced new pace of play rules for 2015 (you can read them below) and the key change  is an idea we at South Hills Command Center have championed since May 11.

Baseball has a pace problem. We all know this. In 1963, there were 17 four-plus hour MLB games. In 2013, there was a record 94 four-plus hour games. Since PITCHf/x was was installed in MLB parks, the seconds between pitches has increased from 21.5 in 2007, to 23 last season.

I was curious last May about the pace issue, so I placed a stop watch on hitters during a Pirates-Cardinals game. Every time both batter’s feet left the box I started the timer, and when one foot returned I stopped the clock. I recorded all the times and came to this rather appalling finding: the Cardinal and Pirate batters combined to leave the batter’s box 190 times after pitches adding up a whopping 39 minutes and 51 seconds of loitering outside the box. (You can ready the story the here).  Continue Reading →

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February 18, 2015
by Travis Sawchik


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The communication gap

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SOUTH HILLS – Pitchers and catchers report today in Bradenton, Fla. and the full squad is due in on Feb. 24th, though a number of players have already arrived in camp. Each year, when the Pirates’ full squad migrates to the Gulf coast, Clint Hurdle calls a team meeting.

Last year the message was about battling complacency, with Hurdle having a highlight video made that interwove the Sid Bream slide with the drought-ending, postseason clinching play at Wrigley Field in 2013, when Russell Martin hung on to the ball, raised it triumphantly above his head, and Nate Schierholtz was called out at home plate.

Remember?

iconic2013

The iconic image of the Russell Martin Era

The video was to be the last time the Pirates basked in 2013 successes. But perhaps the most important such tone-setting team meeting, that led to that success, was called a year earlier, in February 2013, when Hurdle introduced quantitative analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald, before the Pirates players and coaches in the Pirate City cafeteria. Hurdle asked that they be respected, trusted and listened to as valuable resources.  Continue Reading →

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