Should Pirates be players for Park?

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SOUTH HILLS – The Nexen Heroes officially announced today they will post the next big thing to come out of the KBO, Byung-ho Park, on Monday, Nov. 1. Park, a 29-year-old first baseman, put up astronomical numbers in the KBO becoming the first hitter to hit 50 homers in back-to-back seasons.

Major league clubs will have four days to submit blind bids. The highest bid will get a 30-day window to negotiate with Park, a former teammate of Jung Ho Kang.

The Pirates were one of 20 teams to scout Park. The were the first to enter the KBO market for a hitter in signing Kang last season. Park figures to be the second KBO position player to jump to the states, and the third player to sign a major league contract through the South Korean posting system.

Should the Pirates again go to the KBO well? It figures to be a more expensive prospect as I noted in today’s story on what Kang did for the KBO market.

parkbyung2

Could Pirates make another KBO splash?

Daniel Kim, a former major league scout, who now works as an analyst covering KBO baseball says Nexen expects the posting free to at least double the $5 million the Pirates bid to win the rights to Kang.

Jim Duquette said he could see the posting free reaching $20 million. After all, there are not a lot of power hitters floating around.

Clay Davenport’s statistical translations have been excellent in projecting talent from foreign leagues.

The system translated Kang’s 2014 KBO performance as equivalent to an .856 major league OPS. Kang produced an .816 OPS as a rookie.

The Davenport Translations suggest the translation of Park’s 2014 numbers are equivalent to 24 homers in 470 at bats (0r 30 in 600 ABs) and a .766 OPS. (The 2015 translations are not yet available).  They’re not much different than Pedro Alvarez’s numbers, expect Park should play and adequate first base.

The Oliver forecast is even more favorable:

So should the Pirates be bidders?

It will be a tougher market. The New York Yankees have scouted Park. Kim noted the Texas Rangers – big international spenders – have sent top executives. Of the 20 teams that have scouted Park, Kim expects one “to go crazy” with a bid.

Still, even if the prices go up on Park – and they will – and even if he is not quite the all-around talent Kang is (he isn’t), he could still provide value.

Jose Abreu followed Yoenis Cespedes’ success out of Cuba with a contract that was 22.6 percent greater pay day (per season).

Even with the greater price Abreu is still a tremendous bargain for the White Sox.

Even after recent successes, the international market for power is still cheaper than the American one.

But do the Pirates need Park even with the questions and uncertainty surrounding Alvarez?

Many scouts believe Josh Bell will hit for greater power and improve defensively at first base. He could soon fill the first base void for the Pirates. And the Pirates could put money elsewhere.

Or, do you look at the Pirates’ three-year power decline and interject offense immediately and worry about Bell later? He could also be a trade chip.

It’s an interesting dilemma and the Pirates have only a few days to make a decision – and blind bid – if interested.

– TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Buying or parting with Happ?

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates are entering a challenging and fascinating offseason, one that includes a Neal Huntington Era-high eight free agents. And it is one of those free agents – J.A. Happ – that the Pirates must first make a decision on as they build an offseason strategy.

Should the Pirates be serious suitors for Happ?

The cons: For much of the previous four seasons, Happ pitched like a back-of-the-rotation starter. Since 2009, Happ has gone 61-60 with a 4.12 ERA and 96 ERA+. Mediocre numbers. He’s going to be 34 next season, a time when most players  are in decline. He’s produced 6.8 WAR in 1,012 career innings.

The pros: We know Happ pitched like a top-of-the rotation arm with the Pirates in the second half of last season, gaining velocity, raising his arm slot and relying more on his fastball.  All the sudden he became Cliff Lee going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA with the Pirates.  Happ had 69 strikeouts and 13 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings. Maybe those gains can be consolidated with the Pirates.

J.A. Happ

Happ ranked 27th among all pitchers with a career-best 3.3 WAR last season. Pretty darn impressive.

Happ could be in line for a deal similar to another Pirates rehab  project Edinson Volquez‘s two-year, $20 million deal. Some projections have him receiving a two-year, mid-20s deal.

Should the Pirates offer such a deal?

The Pirates perhaps have a couple of advantages. Happ has to be comfortable in Pittsburgh because his career was revitalized here, and also I spoke with an American League scout who was skeptical about signing free agent Pirates pitchers since the Pirates have done such a good job turning around the careers of reclamation-project pitchers. There is still probably quite a bit of doubt surrounding Happ’s 2015.

 I suspect the Pirates have less doubt.

I doubt the Pirates would consider anything more than a two-year deal. And the Pirates hope to have a more home-grown starting rotation in the coming seasons. But Tyler Glasnow will likely not be ready until at least June. Jameson Taillon‘s ETA is unclear. Perhaps the Pirates should bridge the gap with Happ.

In a pitching-rich free agent market, Happ is several tiers below the elite. But he’ll likely be a value if you believe in his 2015 with the Pirates.

If you don’t? If the Pirates don’t? They will have to search to fill starting rotation voids elsewhere.

THREE UP

*While the Pirates lost an asset in Jim Benedict the silver lining is a number of philosophies (pitching low and inside), teaching practices  (focusing on a few adjustments and not overhauls), approaches (blending old school and new school) remain in place.

*In speaking to some evaluators around the game there is a belief the Pirates can move Pedro Alvarez to an AL team in need of DH this offseason. While we all know about Alvarez’s defensive woes, his power improved this season. His HR/FB rate improve from 16% in 2014 to an elite 32.5 percent in 2015. (He is career 22.5  % rate is near the top of the sport). Alvarez kept his strikeout rate below 30 percent for  second consecutive year, suggesting real gains have been made. Alvarez has some value if the Pirates want to move him.

*One thing about this World Series that should give the Pirates confidence? It’s two teams built upon pitching and defense.

THREE DOWN

*The Pirates immediate internal first base options, if they do move on from Alvarez, (Michael Morse and  Andrew Lambo) are not ideal. Josh Bell could be ready mid-season, but will he provide an impact bat right away?  Travis Snider and Travis Ishikawa elected free agency and it would be interesting to see if the Pirates try to bring back either . Snider expressed interest in playing some first base this season and some scouts were surprised Ishikawa did not receive more playing time down the stretch given Alvarez’s defensive struggles.

Do the Pirates have enough confidence in Bell not to look outside the organization for a long-term answer?

Byung-Ho Park, the first KBO player to smash 50 homers in back-to-back homers, is expected to be posted early in November The posting fee will increase given Jung Ho Kang‘s success. Still, like Jose Abreu after Yoenis Cespedes, Park could still very well produce value.

*Do you believe in Gregory Polanco? If so, now might be the time to offer him another contract extension. Buy low.

*The Pirates’ home run totals have declined three straight seasons and Alvarez has accounted for 17.7 percent of the club’s home runs (111) over the last four seasons.

HE SAID IT

“He’s not so much concerned about what you’re doing on the field and the results you’re getting, although he wants to know why you’re getting those results. His thing is the long term, getting guys to a spot that he thinks they can be tweaking, altering everything that’s necessary.”

-Charlie Morton on the departed Jim Benedict

STAT OF THE WEEK: 36-17

Pirates’ record in one-run games last season

-TS

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The Benedict defection: The indispensable man?

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SOUTH HILLS – The loss of pitching guru and special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict to the Miami Marlins is not the type of move that will make national headlines, or scroll across ESPN’s bottom line today. More likely it will be found under “transactions” on a newspaper agate page.

Still, it might be the greatest front office/coaching staff personnel loss of the Neal Huntington Era in Pittsburgh.

As we know, the Pirates have done a remarkable job of turning around pitchers’ careers, of flipping reclamation project arms into valuable properties. Benedict should have his own HGTV program. You know the list: A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Mark Melancon, J.A. Happ, Vance Worley (to a degree), Arquimedes Caminero, etc., etc. , etc.

And Benedict, along with pitching coach Ray Searage, have been an important 1-2 team in helping turn around those pitchers’ careers.

Benedict

The Pirates’ ability to turn around pitchers has taken a hit (Horner photo)

Searage and Benedict have identified a key area or two  with pitchers – not overhauls – and done an excellent job communicating the issues and implementing a plan to improve them.

While Searage has been more of a visible part of the effort as the team’s pitching coach, Benedict perhaps been as important behind the scenes. Benedict blends video, in-person scouting and analytics (pitch tracking, spin and velocity data) in deciding how to help pitchers. He has blended old- and new-school approaches effectively.

Consider that starting pitchers are the most expensive assets in free agency.

Consider that Liriano averaged 2.12 WAR in his four seasons prior to joining the Pirates. He has averaged 2.93 WAR as a Pirate.

That improvement in value is worth roughly $5 million per year on the open market.

Consider that Volquez had a 5.71 ERA in 2013 with the Padres and Dodgers. He posted a 3.04 ERA with the Pirates in 2014.

The Pirates signed Volquez to a one-year $5 million deal. Benedict and Searage placed Volquez – like Liriano and Happ — on a more direct path to home plate in his delivery, also lifting his arm slot. After one year with the Pirates, Volquez signed a two-year, $20 million deal. A $5 million improvement in yearly pay. Happ could be in line for a similar contract this offseason.

And it wasn’t just reclamation projects.

According to Benedict, Gerrit Cole was on a path to the back of the bullpen with the delivery he had coming out of UCLA. It was Benedict’s ability to connect with Cole and implement adjustments which helped him become a 19-winner this season, which I wrote about back in August:

Days after agreeing to a club-record $8 million signing bonus in August 2011, Gerrit Cole traveled to Bradenton, Fla., and entered Jim Benedict’s sliver of an office in the Pirate City complex.

Benedict, the organizational pitching guru, and Cole watched video of the No. 1 overall pick at UCLA. They watched video of elite major league starters. Deep into conversation, Benedict, a towering, sun-baked native Southern Californian, like Cole, offered a candid critique, and a choice.

“ ‘I know the organization drafted you as a starting pitcher, but your delivery and approach at UCLA has reliever written all over it,’ ” Benedict recalled. “I gave him a choice. I said, ‘We don’t have to do anything. You’ll start for a while, and you’ll end up as a setup man or closer.’ … (Or) ‘If you want to do all these things to be a top-end starter, we need to start now.’ ”

***

Benedict began by having Cole imagine a box in front of the pitching rubber. He was to confine the beginning phase of his delivery — when breaking his hand from his glove and lifting his leg — within the invisible space.

“This allows you to have a firm front side, meaning the glove arm, head, shoulder and leg are in control,” Benedict said. “You can’t do that unless you load in the box.”

Every long-toss, every bullpen session, every live batting practice was recorded and analyzed. Benedict had Cole watch other pitchers, including a lot of Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens, who had similarities to Cole.”

 

The point?

The Pirates have not developed many pitchers – yet – under Huntington. Yet, Benedict and Searage have helped create tremendous value in free agency and trades.

Just as coordinators in college football were undervalued for so long,so, too, are assistant staff like Benedict and Searage. Benedict, you would assume, earned a significant raise that perhaps the Pirates should have matched.

Did the Pirates have a chance to match?

“No comment, sorry” Benedict texted to me last night.

But it likely really wasn’t just about dollars.

Benedict’s role expands with the Marlins. Benedict said he was not involved with the amateur draft evaluation of Cole and Jameson Taillon with the Pirates. He will be involved with draft the Marlins. He will still be involved with rehabbing pitchers, but he will play a greater role in evaluations of potential acquisitions, it seems.

“I will be involved in all things pitching at the major league level: the draft, rehab, (player) acquisition,” Benedict said via a text message.

We don’t know if the Pirates had a chance to match.

Maybe for whatever reason the Pirates chose not to match.

But what we do know is Benedict is a significant loss for the Pirates.

Part of the price of success is having talent raided by other organizations. Good organizations can replace some of that talent, but Benedict might be an indispensable man.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: To beat the Cubs become the Mets?

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SOUTH HILLS – I think we all understand the challenges of living in the NL Central: the St. Louis Cardinals have become the New England Patriots of baseball – they can seemingly plug in player after player and keep producing 90-plus win seasons. The Cubs are perhaps better positioned than any team in baseball with a young, talented, cost-controlled lineup that could perhaps boast of  the most power in the NL beginning next season. The Cubs also have the resources to continue to improve their starting staff and bullpen.

So we understand even though the Pirates are coming off a 98-win season and much of their core remains intact for the next several years … the 2016 outlook isn’t as immediately optimistic and sun-shiny as one would expect.

But perhaps we are seeing a philosophy play out in the NLCS that could help the Pirates over-take the Cubs and Cardinals in coming years, and the good news for the Pirates is they already have some of the pieces.

The good-pitching-beats-good-hitting maxim has played out in the Met-Cubs series through two games with good young pitching (Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard) mostly handling good young hitting (Kris Bryant, etc)

SyndergaardCan Tyler Glasnow become Western Pa.’s Syndergaard? (AP photo)

 

But didn’t a good young pitcher lose to the Cubs in the wild-card game in Gerrit Cole?

That’s true. But what is also true is that Cole was not at the top of his game that night, and that unlike Matt Harvey, Cole does not have a changeup he trusts. Harvey’s changeup was a different maker against the Cubs. He was more unpredictable than Cole because he had more weapons.  That’s the next step for Cole, or a next step. To get a better feel for another pitch, ideally a changeup, that has opposite movement compared to his slider and a different velocity.

What’s true is that to date the Cubs decision to spend premium picks on bats in the draft appears to be working out much better than the Pirates’ historic commitment to high school arms in the 2009-11 drafts, when the Pirates spent  $25.6 million in bonuses to those arms. The Pirates have yet to have a single prep arm from those drafts reach the majors while Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber are making an impact for the Cubs.

Moreover of the Pirates’ first-round selections in the 2010-12 drafts, second, first and eight overall picks, all were right-handed pitchers and only one has pitched for the Pirates.

That’s the mostly bad news.

The good news?

If Cole can stay healthy the adjustments he made in 2015 suggest he could make the next leap from very, very good to elite in 2016. He wants to be good. He’s curious and will put the work in.

Tyler Glasnow should make an impact and perhaps as early as June. He ranked just five spots (No. 16) behind Syndergaard (No. 11) in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects last spring. He rose to No. 7 in the midseason rankings. You cannot teach Glasnow’s combination of extension and velocity.

Syndergaard’s minor league career:

456 IP, 3.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9

Glasnow’s:

383 IP, 2.07 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 11.7 k/9, 4.2 BB/9

Glasnow was a significantly more dominant milb pitcher than Syndergaard, Glasnow’s fastball is a truly special pitch, but his command must improve.

Maybe, Glasnow can be the 2016 Syndergaard, maybe Cole can take another step forward, maybe Stephen Tarpley can be Steven Matz, and maybe Jameson Taillon can get back on track.

Taillon is probably not a factor at the major league level in next year but don’t forget this is a special arm that some scouts preferred to Cole in 2014 spring training, in part because he has a better breaking ball.

Now, Taillon hasn’t thrown a minor league inning since 2013. Who knows if he can ever stay healthy and sustain a 200-inning work load. Who knows what the total cost of lost development time is with Taillon. How far behind is his fastball command and secondary pitches?

But Taillon’s upside, his promise, is still of a top-of-the-rotation arm. Dreaming of another Jacob deGrom is a stretch, but there’s still a ton of talent in Taillon’s body.

The Pirates’ have more young, controllable power arms than the Cubs, who will have to deal with Jake Arrieta hitting free agency after the 2017 season (and arbitration before that) with Scott Boras as his agent.

Maybe, just maybe, the Pirates can become the Mets  — a version of the Mets with a better positional player core.

THREE UP

>>The Pirates figure to need to add power and perhaps a first baseman. Looking ahead to free agency, Chris Davis would fill both needs. Of course, he’s a pipedream for the Pirates.

Davis is by far the top option at first base. There’s a steep drop off. He’s averaged 4.5 WAR over the last three seasons. So you’re likely looking at $20 million plus per year in free agency for Davis. There will not be much power available in free agency and the players that are available will be expensive. Potential free agents from MLBtraderumors.com here.

>>A cheaper more versatile Orioles free agent who might fit? Steve Pearce, yes, the former Pirate and Andrew McCutchen’s off-season workout buddy. Pearce had a break out 2014 and an injury-plagued 2015. But the skills remained: an elite groundball-flyball ratio (0.72 in 2015 and 0.77 in 2014) –there are no groundball home runs – and solid HR/FB ratio (17.1 in 2014 and 14.3 in 2015). Moreover, Pearce can play first, second, third and the corner outfield spots and should be affordable.

>>If the Pirates believe Jung Ho Kang’s buddy Byung Ho Park has legit, MLB game power – he became the first KBO player to post back-to-back 50-homer seasons this year – they should bid aggressively if and when he is posted. While the posting fee could triple or quadruple for Park because of Kang’s success, Park will still be undervalued if he hits just as Jose Abreu was after Yoenis Cespedes became a trail-blazer of sorts form Cuba.

THREE DOWN

>>While the Pirates’ long-term rotation could be in excellent shape, they enter the offseason with a daunting problem similar to what they faced last winter when they entered the offseason with two rotation voids to fill. (Unless you want Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton in the rotation). Last year the Pirates signed AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano to contracts that paid them $21 million in 2015 and earned the Pirates 6 WAR (About $42 million in market value). They will be hard-pressed to repeat that.

>>As good as J.A. Happ was with the Pirates, do you trust him enough to sign him to an Edison Volquez-type deal of two years and $20-plus million? Risky bet.

>>The Pirates might be better off once again pulling from the reclamation bin and letting Ray Searage and Jim Benedict do their magic.

HE SAID IT:

Joe Torre on the Jung Ho Kang injury/slide: “I hadn’t really seen that play until the (Chase) Utley thing. I dragged it back to look at it. It [was the one] that happened most recently. I didn’t see any similarities in the two.”

Really? Seems hard to believe since Clint Hurdle speaks often with Torre and his staff.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 16 percent

Increase in television viewership of the playoffs over last year entering the NLCS and ALCS

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Be glad it happened, not sad it’s over (right?) … but have Pirates reached high-water mark?

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SOUTH HILLS – In retrospect,  most Pirates fans would have signed up for 98 wins and a playoff berth in April.

Looking back, many of you would have signed up for Jung Ho Kang posting an .816 OPS, and Francisco Cervelli replacing most of Russell Martin’s value.

Think back to early May, and I assume most in Pittsburgh would have been OK with Gerrit Cole posting a 19-win season, Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett pitching more like their 2013 selves … and the Pirates turning their season around.

With that perspective, that lens, the Pirates’ season is a smashing success. But of course the season is not played out in a vacuum, it was played out in the NL Central. We know how the movie ends.

The Pirates have won 280 games over a three-season stretch, sustaining well-above average play since 2013. But they have just three postseason wins in eight tries to show for that regular-season excellence. The fear is this: have the Pirates hit a high-water mark? Continue reading Monday Mop-Up Duty: Be glad it happened, not sad it’s over (right?) … but have Pirates reached high-water mark?

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Josh Harrison will start … but where? The Pedro dilemma. And Arrieta doesn’t care about the sound or the fury

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PNC PARK –  Clint Hurdle  offered few clues about his wild-card lineup and roster on Tuesday. But he did offer one about the group that will face Jake Arrieta, as he glowed about Josh Harrison‘s recent play against right-handed pitching. (Also, Harrison is the only Pirates player available to the media before tomorrow’s game. Hint, hint, wink).

Starting Harrison makes sense as not only does Harrison have one of the club’s hottest bat – an .819 OPS  since Sept. 1 – but against Arrieta’s unorthodox cross-fire delivery and his cutting slider, a natural opposite-field approach, which Harrison possesses, could serve the Pirates well

Expect Harrison to start … somewhere

*Third base? Aramis Ramirez has struggled as a Pirate and hasn’t offered much protection for Andrew McCutchen, who has been pitched around often in September – season-high walk rate 19.1 percent – and second-lowest OPS of season .734.

blackoutcorwd Continue reading Josh Harrison will start … but where? The Pedro dilemma. And Arrieta doesn’t care about the sound or the fury

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

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PNC PARK – Many are already writing drafts of the Pirates’  obituary with  Jake Arrieta looming in Wednesday’s wild-card game. If you are unfamiliar with the situation, Arrieta has the best post All-Star break ERA in the history of post All-Star breaks.

Facing a Cy Young contender in a single elimination game is never ideal, even if the Pirates are countering with a really, really good arm in Gerrit Cole.

However, Clint Hurdle doesn’t think his club’s chances are as dire as the public narrative suggests, and brought some evidence to support his claim Sunday. Hurdle noted yesterday how he was forwarded an article written by Jeff Sullivan for Fox Sports that you can read here: here

Sullivan looked at all pitchers since 1961 who pitched in the postseason after similar seasons compared to Arrieta’s (based upon OPS+ which accounts for ballpark and run scoring environment), and came up with 35 games pitched by such aces including Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Their teams won 63 percent of the time in the postseason, a considerable advantage. But Sullivan also noted teams win at home in the postseason 55 percent of the time, and I’ve written numerous times in this space about how home-field advantage is a real, powerful thing  (and strike zone data overwhelmingly shows it’s tied to borderline strike-ball calls).

So do the Pirates have a chance? Continue reading Monday Mop-Up Duty: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

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Playoff rotation (if necessary) revealed? The diurnal Cole vs. the nocturnal Arrieta, and our podcast

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PNC PARK – The Pirates are going to have to get past Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs for this speculation to even matter, but might Clint Hurdle have revealed his postseason rotation Wednesday?

Though it’s written in pencil at this point, Hurdle has Francisco Liriano starting Friday’s game vs. the Reds, A.J. Burnett on Saturday and J.A. Happ on Sunday.

This lines Liriano to pitch the second post-season game. and to be followed by Burnett and Happ or Happ and Burnett in an NLDS rotation. Continue reading Playoff rotation (if necessary) revealed? The diurnal Cole vs. the nocturnal Arrieta, and our podcast

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