Monday Mop-Up Duty: For few dollars more … the Cole and McCutchen situationss

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SOUTH HILLS – By now you are probably aware that Gerrit Cole isn’t thrilled with the $541,000 contract he signed over the weekend.

Said Cole to the Tribune-Review’s Rob Biertempfel on Saturday night:

“When you perform at a level that draws the praise of management, teammates, coaches and fans, you expect appropriate compensation,” Cole said. “I understand the business of this game, but it is hard to accept that a year of performance success does not warrant an increase in pay.

Though pre-arbitration players (0-3 years of service time) are almost always compensated near the league minimum and receive only modest raises above the minimum, and while Cole understands this, my understanding he is upset because the Pirates offered him less than what than he earned last season. This is because his $10,000 All-Star bonus out-weighs the modest base salary raise he receives for 2016. Neal Huntington said Sunday the club made a mistake in not factoring in the bonus to his 2016 base salary.

“They even threatened a salary reduction to the league minimum if I did not agree,” Cole said.

cole
Cole does not believe there he received a merit-based contract (Horner photo)

 

Cole is not the first really talented pre-arbitration player to be upset with a pre-arbitration contract. An MVP in Mike Trout thought it was absurd he was signed to a near minimum contract in 2013. (Though the Angels gave him a $1 million contract – twice above the league minimum in 2014). Cole Hamels was in a similar performance and contract situation to that of Cole in March of 2008 when he called the Phillies contract terms: “A low blow.”

Now as my friend and Phillies writer Ryan Lawrence pointed out, 10 months after those words Hamels signed three-year, $20-million deal to buy his arbitration years, and would later sign a long-term, six-year, $144 million contract with the Phillies. Time and dollars heal all wounds. But there’s little chance Cole agrees to any long-term deal with the Pirates.

Cole’s agent Scott Boras typically has his clients go year-to-year through arbitration and then hit free agency as early as possible to maximize dollars.  Cole could be a $20m pitcher in his final year of arbitration. As the team’s new union rep, Cole is unlikely to accept any discount.

A couple thoughts on this matter …

*The pre-arb system is unfair to players who peak early – and pitchers are particularly at risk since they are more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury.

*I don’t understand why the Pirates would be squabbling with Cole over a few thousand dollars at a time when the game is soaking with new revenues. Yes, the Pirates don’t want to break the pre-arb system with a seven-figure contract for Cole in 2016, but giving Cole a few thousand extra dollars could build some goodwill as opposed to eroding it.

*What’s also interesting is that Cole became the Pirates’ new union player rep last week. What happens if Cole and other young stars in the game begin to really voice their displeasure about the pre-arb system? What if they begin to notice how owners’ share of overall revenues has increased dramatically?  What if they start pushing for major changes to the system?  What if baseball has a bigger labor fight on its hands than it can afford?

For a few dollars more in the short term, buying goodwill with Cole might have much greater long-term benefits for the club.

 

THREE UP (REGARDING A McCUTCHEN EXTENSION)

>>Speaking of contracts and dollars, what should the Pirates do with Andrew McCutchen?

It’s been a popular questions this spring. The clock is ticking on the club’s control over McCutchen. Many fans cannot imagine Pirates baseball post-McCutchen, others are aware of the cruel, cold, indomitable aging curve.

We looked at the dilemma facing the Pirates in Sunday’s Trib. Do the Pirates extend one of the top players in franchise history but risk committing a substantial amount of payroll to a player in decline? Or is there so much intangible value – goodwill, positive perception value – that it’s worth keeping McCutchen regardless of how he ages?

>>I can’t help wonder about the intangible value of McCutchen, of him retiring as a Pirate.

I think about my hometown Cleveland Indians. And I think about the perception problem they’ve created by letting so many star players walk over the last 15 years: Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee. Even though the club has had its moments over the last few years, including a wild card berth in 2013, their attendance has cratered.

The Pirates are still probably the No. 3 team in town behind the Steelers and the Penguins. Can the Pirates really afford to lose McCutchen while also facing the prospect of trying to sustain their recent success? What would the value be in changing some of the “Nutting-is-cheap” perception? I’m not sure the intangible aspects outweigh a $100 million contract going south, they probably don’t, but I’m not going to dismiss the intangible factors McCutchen brings.

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.cls
How much value is there in Mr. Hardware retiring a Pirate? (Horner photo)

 

>>Regarding pure on-field performance, there’s always the chance McCutchen is an outlier and ages well.

We’ve mentioned his top three PECOTA comps in this blog a couple weeks back – Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron – all of whom played well into their late 30s. Sometimes great players defy conventional aging.

More recently Jim Edmonds and Steve Finely played center field extremely well into their 30s but the prime-lengthening effects of PEDS complicate the recent history and aging curves of players.

THREE DOWN

>>You probably are aware that players begin to decline in/after their early 30s. But do you understand just how cruel the aging curve is? Take a look: PTR-McCutchenGraphic-022816

I looked at all center fielders since WWII, since 1946 – essentially since integration – and how they aged.

Remarkably, from their Age 28 seasons (where McCutchen played last season) to their Age 32 seasons (where McCutchen will be in 2019 after his 2018 club option) there is an 84 percent decline in production. Total games played drop 71 percent.

>>Now, some of these center fielders with quality bats shift to an outfield corner. And that could be in store for McCutchen as defensive value really erodes dramatically at center field in players’ early 30s. But a player’s bat loses relative value when sliding down the defensive spectrum. McCutchen doesn’t have the arm for right, and you could argue left field at PNC Park – the largest left field in the game – is a more daunting assignment than center. Then there is the knee….

>>Then there is the history of giving players a second extension. (It isn’t good). I examined the 16 players who were beyond pre-arbitration status when they signed a $100-million-plus extension.

The average age when signing contract: 28.5 (McCutchen is 29)

The average years from free agency: 2 (McCutchen is three years away)

The average length of years added to their contracts: 6.8

The average dollars per year of extension: $21.1 milliom

The average three-year production before singing the extension? 5.7 WAR

The average production in the first three years of their added years? 2.1 WAR

Such an extension for McCutchen would take him through his Age 38 season, a seven-year, $148-million pact for a player likely in steep decline based upon the averages. (And the dollars are likely light considering many of the 16 historical contract comps were signed earlier in the decade).

Buyer beware.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 67

WAR produced by Mays in his age 32-40 seasons. The next closest center fielder in terms of Age32-40 production post WWII?  Edmonds at 27.7. There’s never been a post-war CF like Mays, no one’s even close.

HE SAID

Huntington on Cole and his contract situation: “We made a mistake in the process. We’ve owned that. We’ll evolve. Our hope is that Gerrit is ready to move forward and put this behind him.”

-TS

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Do the Pirates have too much self belief?

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SOUTH HILLS – If you missed it, earlier this week Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.com handed out offseason grades to all 30 major league teams. He was not particularly kind to the Pirates.

Here is the link to the offseason grades, and here is what Cameron had to say about the Pirates:

25. Pittsburgh Pirates
Grade: C-

…. For a team trying to not waste Andrew McCutchen‘s peak, adding John Jaso, Jon Niese, Neftali Feliz, and Ryan Vogelsong is a pretty underwhelming plan. This is still a very good roster, but the back half of the rotation is a potential land mine that could sink the team’s season, and while trusting Ray Searage has worked out well for the organization, believing that your pitching coach is a wizard is a risky proposition. As the saying goes; if life didn’t also hand you water and sugar, your lemonade is going to suck. Searage has made some pretty good lemonade in the past, but I’m a bit worried that the front office is asking him to do a little too much magic this time around.”

Are the Pirates believing too much in Searage and their pitching staff, along with their medical staff, in rehabilitating pitchers?

While confidence is a desired quality too much of anything yields problems.

Yesterday, Pirates owner Bob Nutting was asked if he was concerned about the dramatic differences in spending between his club and other other NL contenders, namely the Cubs. (The Cubs, by the way, rank 1st on Cameron’s offseason grade lists). While I don’t think anyone expected a “Yes” answer, his response was interesting.

“I don’t have any concern we’re facing a battle we can’t win,” Nutting said Wednesday. “I think this is a group that’s proven we can succeed in a very challenging division, in a very challenging sport.”

Nutting
Bob Nutting is not worried about payroll divide. Should you be? (Horner photo)

 

Even Nutting perhaps alluded to the Pirates ability to spin gold.

Has the Pirates’ owner bought too much into the idea the Pirates can extract value from anyone they acquire?

While spring is the time for optimism, is there too much belief considering the Pirates added only about $16 million to their core in 2016 in the form of guaranteed MLB free agent contracts.

The Pirates are again going to rank in the bottom 1/5 of payrolls despite coming off a record attendance year and 98-win season.

Recall this is what former Pirates minority owner Jay Lustig told the Tribune-Review back in April of 2013.

“If you are a small-market franchise, if you want to win, you have to be willing to lose … money,” Lustig said. “(Nutting’s) problem is he is a rational owner in an irrational business.”

Now hundreds of millions of more dollars have poured into major league baseball since Lustig relinquished his minority share in 2012, but what is true is that a small-market owner probably needs to operate with smaller profit margins to be competitive in free agency.

The consensus feeling is that the Pirates did not do enough this offseason. Of course, many also felt that way about the Pirates’ 2012-13 and 2013-14 offseasons. (I think last offseason the Pirates did make meaningful investments to supplement their core).

If the Pirates do run out of magic in 2016, if they cannot quite spin gold as they have the past three years, what will be the cost of not doing enough this offseason?

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: How good can Glasnow be in 2016?

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CLARK BUILDING – There has been much hand-wringing, much discussion around the idea that this a “bridge” season for the Pirates.

But perhaps it is really a two-month bridge that is required for the Pirates to be playoff contenders for a fourth consecutive season, a two-month bridge presumably gets the Pirates to the welcomed shoreline we’ll call Tyler Glasnow.

The Pirates did not make a major move this offseason to replace the 5.1 WAR that AJ Burnett and JA Happ produced in essentially filling one rotation spot last season, All-Star level production out of the Pirates’ third rotation spot.

Ryan Vogelsong was the lone free agent starting pitcher to be given a guaranteed major league contract by the Pirates,  and a one-year deal at $2.5 million  speaks volumes about what major league baseball believes his upside to be.

But maybe the Pirates will only need Vogelsong for two months, until Glasnow – and perhaps Jameson Taillon – clear the Super 2 demarcation line, maybe that is the plan.

Glasnow
This is what the future looks like everyone. (Horner photo)

 

So how good can Glasnow be?

Some (including yours truly) believe Glasnow’s velocity, delivery extension, and curveball were good enough to get hitters out last September.

Baseball Prospectus’s lauded projection system, PECOTA, has Glasnow as the only top-100 pitching prospect in the game to perform as a better than league-average starting pitcher in 2016.

PECOTA predicts Glasnow will only make five starts (quite conservative) but in those starts he will strike out 9.9 batters per nine innings, which would match Liriano’s staff best mark last season.

PECTOA also predicts Glasnow will post these numbers as a MLB rookie:

3.46 ERA, 3.24 FIP and 1.19 WHIP.

Again, small sample, but I don’t believe PECOTA’s rate-stat projections would change dramatically with a greater sample of projected innings.

Wrote BP of PECOTA’s stake on the top 101 prospects: “The system’s bullishness on a quick assimilation is interesting given the lingering concerns about repeatability and his subsequent command inconsistency—a deficiency that doesn’t tend to lend itself well to initial big-league success. PECOTA is enamored with the bat-missing fastball-curve combo, however, as—again, small sample grains of salt—he’s one of only three hurlers to garner double-digit strikeouts-per-nine consideration.”

The Fangraphs.com steamer projection has Glasnow as an above-average starting apitcher in 2016 – 3.80 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 9.08 strikeouts and 4.08 per nine – though throwing only 55 innings. It’s similar to PECOTA.

Glasnow sounds like he is ready. Said Glasnow to Trib colleague Rob Biertempfel  in this story for Sunday’s Trib:

“I have my own expectations,” Glasnow said. “I like to set goals for myself and, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or Indy, I’m going to try to do as well as I can.”

Huntington indicated that those who thought Glasnow was ready to get MLB hitters out last year were not too far off base.

“We had legitimate discussions about (calling up) Tyler last year,” Huntington said. “Ultimately, we felt it was in his and our best interest to continue to development and command of the fastball, the consistency of his breaking ball, the ability to throw it for a strike and for a chase, and to develop the changeup (at Indy).”

Glasnow is not without his warts, he’s going to have some control issues, but I think he was ready to get MLB hitters out last season because he has a special pitch in a fastball that has velocity, angle and extension, meaning it  is released closer to home plate due to his rare size giving it even greater effective velocity. It allows his curveball, sometimes great and sometimes absent, and developing changeup to play up.

But with a little extra polishing at Triple-A perhaps Glasnow can do more than get hitters out, perhaps he can impact a pennant race like Gerrit Cole did back 2013. The Pirates will likely need him to be that type of arm as a rookie to be back in October.

THREE UP

>>I like the Pirates taking a flier on Matt Joyce.

Joyce is coming off a horrendous campaign, but he posted a .349 on-base mark as recently as 2014 and has been effective against right-handers for his career, whom he has a  .794 OPS and .194 isolated slugging percentage against for his career.

Joyce could fill two needs for the Pirates: the Pirate needed a left-handed bench bat and possibly fourth outfielder. Remember, no club faced more right-handed pitching last season than the Pirates.

Buy low, sell high, right? With John Jaso and Joyce on the roster the Pirates are looking a little bit like the Tampa Rays North.

>>Speaking of lottery tickets and the need for left-handedness, if Eric O’Flaherty can get anywhere near his 2010-13 form with the Braves, the Pirates could have another useful piece. As Adam Berry noted at MLB.com last week, the Pirates took some criticism for rebuilding Clayton Richard and then letting him land with the Cubs. But Richard was appreciative the Pirates honored the “upward mobility” clause in his contract – which allowed teams to express an interest acquiring Richard if they would add him to their 25-man Major League roster. Word gets around among MLB players.

As of now, Tony Watson is the only left-handed lock in the bullpen and he is not really a left-handed match-up option as Clint Hurdle prefers to leave him in the eighth inning.

>>The Pirates’ new (OK, really old) alternate jerseys.

While I don’t think many would want to be subjected to these jerseys on a nightly basis, a nod to the great Pirates clubs of the 1970s will work on Sundays. And, hey, it cannot hurt karma.

Pirates-1979-alternate-feat
(Photo credit: Pirates)

 

 

 

 

 

 

THREE DOWN

>>It’s probably not a big deal but no team wants to see their ace arrive to camp at less than 100 percent. Gerrit Cole has been slowed by rib inflammation, an issue which popped up in January and is slightly behind the other pitchers.

“It’s just a modified throwing program at this point,” Cole said on Friday. “I’m not too far behind everybody else, but I feel good.”

>>Cole, Andrew McCutchen, Francisco Cervelli, Francisco Liriano and Starling Marte are on the these-guys-absolutely-cannot-get-hurt-to-have-shot-this-season short list. The Pirates have a great training and strength staff but you have to wonder after two years of excellent health if the Pirates are in store for some painful regression to the mean as far as injuries are concerned.

>>Trib columnist Joe Starkey wrote last week that for Starling Marte to become Superstarling Marte his plate discipline most improve. Marte swung at pitches out of the zone at an incredibly high rate. While Marte is above average in all five tools, plate discipline, which should really be considered a sixth tool, is a tough skill to develop. Hitters typically either have it or they don’t. It’s tied to eye, temperament and approach. But players can improve and if Marte can improve at all here he could be truly special.

STAT OF THE WEEK

40.4 %

Marte’s out-of-zone swing rate, seventh in baseball. It’s not a board you want to be near the top of as few players – Vladimir Guerrero being an exception – can thrive.

Still, perhaps this is a growth opportunity for the Pirates.

HE SAID IT

NBC Sports hockey announcer Doc Emrick is going to call a couple innings of some Pirate spring training games this spring and he was in the clubhouse to gather notes last week in Pirate City.

Said Emrick on the art of calling baseball: “You need to be able to carry on a conversation as pitches go on. There can be a lot of time between pitches, so you have to not drive the people at home nuts.”

-TS

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The important thing Andrew McCutchen said

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SOUTH HILLS – Colleagues Rob Biertempfel and Chris Horner (staff photographer) arrived in Bradenton, Fla. yesterday and immediately caught up with the face of the franchise.  The full Q & A can be read here.

Yes, McCutchen addressed his contract and future with the club.

“I’ve said it plenty times: This is a place that I’d love to be, a place that I’d love to spend my whole career, win championships and just be here. It doesn’t happen a whole lot in this game.”

Players rarely begin and end their careers with their parent clubs as we know, and it seems unlikely McCutchen would agree to another below-market deal, and it also seems equally unlikely that the Pirates would want to pay eight figures per year for McCutchen’s decline.

(Though if McCutchen declines like his top PECOTA comps, as discussed last week, an extension would be worth it.)

As he’s hinted at before, McCutchen would like baseball to retire the No. 21 across the game and is looking forward to playing in Puerto Rico.

“It’s great to be able to play in his homeland. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been there since I was 11 and I did a Roberto Clemente camp there. Wearing a Pirates uniform now and being able to go back, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

But in the first real extended one-on-one time with McCutchen since early in the offseason, the most important thing relating to the immediate future, to 2016, is something else McCutchen said:

“I always have that mentality of feeling like I can do better I’m looking forward to this year just for the fact that I‘m 29 years old but I feel like I’m 22. That’s what it’s all about: feeling good, feeling young.”

Asking McCutchen to improve upon his MVP 2013 season would be a lot, but if McCutchen can return to full health again for a full season there is a hidden win or two the Pirates can add in 2016.

McCutchen’s OPS by month in 2015

  • April – .636
  • May – .985
  • June – .933
  • July – .914
  • August – 1.079
  • Sept. – .743

 

McCutchen’s exit velocity confirmed that his April, one of the worst months of his career, was hardly a fluke.

McCutchen was a replacement level player for a month of the season, for one-sixth of the season. That rarely has happened in his career.

His WAR production declined 17.3 percent from 2014, when he was healthy. One sixth in percentage form is 16.7.

McCuthcen’s April explains his WAR decline, and suggests the player that produced a 7-win season in 2014 and an eight-win season in 2013 still exists with full health.

What a 29-year-old McCutchen feeling like a 22-year-old McCutchen means for the Pirates is the club can perhaps gain a hidden win or two in performance.

It’s not incredibly significant, but as players begin reporting to camp in what figures to be a hotly contested NL it’s not insignificant either.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Kang to beat expectations again?

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CLARK BUILDING – The best news of the offseason for the Pirates?

Perhaps it was the news broken on Jung Ho Kang’s Instagram account. Watch the video of Kang taking groundballs in Bradenton, Fla. here.

The Pirates have been optimistic about Kang’s ability to beat the initial timetable to recover from his knee/leg injury. The timetable for his return  shifted from a possible May return to a likely April return earlier this offseason. Now it appears that timetable might be inching closer to early April. One of the big stories this spring for the Pirates figures to be Kang’s health.

JungHoKang
Ready for Opening Day? He looked good taking groundballs today. (Horner photo)

 

I’m not a doctor but with how natural and fluidly Kang is moving around on Feb. 12, how fluidly he was taking grounders today in Bradenton (see photo), you have to wonder if he might be an option to start on Opening Day. It at least appears – barring a setback – that he will be ready in April.

For a team that has struggled slowly in recent Aprils, having Kang, having its best lineup on Opening Day would be a considerable lift. He’s arguably the second best hitter in the lineup and a plus defender at third.

And if Kang does beat his timetable, it’s another victory for the Pirates’ strength, training and medical staffs that helped the club lose the fewest days to the disabled list in 2014, and to the fewest value lost – in WAR – the to disabled list in 2015.

How do you place a value on that? It’s difficult to quantify in total but the value is significant. I think it’s safe to saw the Pirates have saved millions in performance value due to better health over the last two seasons.

THREE UP

>>MLB Network’s statistical projection tool “The Shredder” – it’s really not Brian Kenny I’ve met the folks behind the Shredder – ranked Francisco Cervelli as the fourth best catcher in baseball for the 2016 season trailing only Buster Posey, Russell Martin and Jonathan Lucroy. It’s worth repeating in this space that according to Baseball Prospectus’ WAR, which includes pitch framing and other aspects of catcher defense, Cervelli was worth 5.7 WAR last season, tops on the Pirates.

Yes, he was more valuable than Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. … If you believe the catcher-defense numbers.

It’s the second straight season a catcher has ranked as the most valuable Pirate according to Baseball Prospectus’s BWARP, as Martin was worth 6.6 WAR in 2014.

A lot of people expressed shock at the three-year $39 million Cervelli deal is seeking in a contract extension that we reported last month, but if he posts another quality season (Baseball Prospectus projects a 4.2 WAR season from Cervelli) he could get the Martin contract on the open market.

It’s amazing how quickly the market for catchers has changed with the valuation of pitch framing, a skill that was so long valued by traditional baseball but unable to be quantified until pitch tracking technology.

>>I like the Pirates’ flier on Corey Luebke. Yes, he hasn’t pitched in the majors for some time due to back-to-back Tommy John surgeries but in his last full season in 2011 he produced a 9.9 K rate, 2.5 walk rate and 2.93 FIP. There was once considerable talent in his right arm. Is any of it still there? It’s worth a look.

Yes, there is not a large sample of pitchers to come back from two Tommy John surgeries, but there is nothing to lose and there is upside if Luebke can return to 75 percent of what he once was. Maybe that’s not likely, but it’s worth a look.

>>The Pirates’ struggles in the NL Central have been well documented but divisional play should become slightly easier in 2016 as the Brewers and Reds are essentially in full tear-down mode. The bottom of the division is weaker than it has been the last two seasons. And it got weaker over the weekend.

The Brewers sent Khris Davis to Oakland on Friday and Davis is player capable of hitting 35 home runs if he’s healthy. He hit 20-some in the second half last year and has some of the best exit velocity on line drives and flyballs in baseball. Winning at Miller Park should be a little easier this season for the Pirates.

THREE DOWN

>>You have to wonder what Jenrry Meija is thinking in being the first player to test positive three times for a PED, the first player subject to a lifetime ban. Sad story as Mejia was a really talented arm and once a top prospect. But it should be a powerful deterrent, and it should benefit the game in the long run.

>>Pedro Alvarez is still without a home (though the Orioles are reportedly interested) despite 30-plus home run power in that bat. It goes to show the value of the defense, the importance of quality at bats and contact in an era of record shifts and strikeouts. The Pirates have been proven correct to non-tender Alvarez who would have earned a projected $8 million arbitration. The Pirates spent $8 million on Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio and might have essentially traded Alvarez to build a deeper bullpen.

>>One under-the-radar issue for the Pirate: who is the left-handed bench bat?

THEY SAID IT

Nice to see Pirates players like McCutchen, Cole and former Pirate Neil Walker thoughtfully addressing the passing of Tom Singer.

The media-player relationship is a complicated one at times, but the media and players do share a respect, interest and often times a love for the sport.

THEY SAID IT

I swear spring is around the corner ….

STAT OF THE WEEK

Since they’ve adopted their shift-and-groundball symbiotic philosophy, the Pirates have led the league in assists in each season since adopting their strategy in 2013.

Year – Assists – (MLB rank) Groundball rank (MLB rank

2015 – 1868 (1st)

2014 – 1839 (1st)

2013 – 1924 (1st)

2012 – 1656 (11th)

-TS

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Losing one of our own, don’t worry (too much) about Jaso, and Latos finds a home

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SOUTH HILLS – As you have probably have heard, we – ‘we’ including Pirates writers, MLB writers, and Pittsburghers – lost one of our own yesterday.

Tom Singer, former Pirates beat writer and Pittsburgher, died Monday. He was 67.

It’s been an awful offseason in the baseball writing circle.

After the deaths of baseball writers Joe Strauss and Juan Rodriguez earlier this winter, Singer died unexpectedly in Arizona.

He covered baseball since 1974. While he had left the Pirates beat after last season after four years covering the club, he was to remain at MLB.com in a general assignment role.

He is survived by his wife and two children. Read his MLB.com obit and watch a video tribute  via this link.

Everyone who knew him has a Tom story. He had a colorful personality, a vast collection baseball-related stories and experiences, and an encyclopedic trove of statistics and trivia.  He even coined the nickname ‘K-Rod’ for Francisco Rodriguez.

But what I will remember about Tom is how important the sport and the writing was to him.

Baseball was so important to Tom, I believe in part, because it helped him assimilate.

If I remember a story he told me correctly during dinner in the PNC Park media dining room several years back, he was born in Italy and spent his early years there before coming to the States. But he spent much his childhood in Pittsburgh and often visited Forbes Field. Roberto Clemente was a hero for Tom like many Pittsburgh schoolboys (and adults).

Baseball helped thousands upon thousands of 20th-century immigrants and assimilate and feel American, and that is a really special part of the sport’s 20th century legacy.

We want sports to be transcendent. When sport can have a cultural impact, and impact people’s live in a positive way that is pretty special.

RIP, Tom Singer. Press boxes across the country will not be the same without you.

BELIEVE IN JASO

I know there is some consternation in Western Pennsylvania about John Jaso‘s ability to transition to from catcher to first base after living through Pedro Alvaerz’s 2015 … but Jaso is putting in the work.

Not only did Jaso attend minicamp unlike Alvarez a year ago, but Jaso has been working out on the backfields of Pirate City on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays since minicamp, taking grounders, working on footwork, understanding when to break right and when to break left. He picked up a first baseman’s glove last year when James Loney was dealing with some injury issues, so he is not breaking in a new glove and has already a limited bit of experience at the position.

Also take solace in that a number of catchers in recent years: Carlos Santana, Joe Mauer and Buster Posey have made the conversion, at least part-time, to first base, without catastrophic issue.

*Posey has been worth 1 Defensive Run Saved in 1280 career innings at first, though he was -4 DRS in his first year at the position in 2010 where he spent 248 innings away from catching.

*Mauer was work 1 Defensive Runs Saved in his first exposure to the position in 2011, and is +5 DRS in 2,510 career innings there.

*Santana was worth -2 DRS in his first 565 innings at first in 2009, and he was worth -4 DRS last year as a full-time first baseman.

While Posey, Mauer and Santana have been average to slightly below at first, Alvarez was worth a staggering -14 DRS in 906 1/3 innings last year.

Yes, there will be some growing pains.

Yes, Jaso will probably not win a Gold Glove.

But he should offer a marked defensive improvement over Alvarez, along with more competitive at bats at the plate.

LATOS SIGNS WITH WHITE SOX

The Pirates had shown at least exploratory interest in Mat Latos back in December but chose to go elsewhere in the reclammation pitching market.

The Pirates signed Vogelsong for $2.5 million, Latos signed a one-year, $3 million deal this week with the White Sox.

Now, keep in ind Latos’ price was likely higher earlier in the winter, and Latos has some baggage, but he was seeking a one-year deal and he’s much younger and has a much bigger arm than Vogelsong.

We don’t have all the background the Pirates have, but on paper Latos seems like the better upside play. It will be interesting to see how Latos fares in the American League and in a hitter’s park.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Hey PECOTA, how about those Pirates?

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CLARK BUILDING – My sabermetric enlightenment really began in 2005.

A couple years earlier, like many, I read Moneyball and it changed the way I thought about baseball. Yes, the book didn’t touch on the A’s pitching staff, many insights have since been updated or proven dubious, but the overall idea – that objective, scientific thought can yield new insights and deeper understanding – was correct.

But it was really in 2005 when I purchased my first Baseball Prospectus annual when I truly deepened my interest and understanding of the game on an analytical level. It changed the way I thought about player performance, about how players age, about a number of things.

IMG_0383
If I ever have a fancy in-house remote cam for TV purposes, this will be on the bookshelf behind me.

 

Every year since, I’ve purchased a Baseball Prospectus annual –its cover published in a different color each year – and there is now a rainbow of nerdiness adorning a bookshelf in my home.

The streak reached 12 consecutive years as I joyfully left the South Hills Barnes and Noble with the midnight-blue colored 2016 guide on Thursday night.

I bring all this up today to suggest that you should buy a copy, too (and not because I authored the Pirates’ essay). The information is gold – beyond baseball enlightenment it can help you win a fantasy league – the witty player comments are a lot of fun, and there are the thoughtful essays and top 101 prospect rankings. It’s a good read and good way to enjoy a sub-freezing day indoors in February while you look out the window at your backyard and long for spring.

One of my favorite pastimes related to the annual is to look at the historical comparables tied to current players.

PECOTA, BP’s projection system, searches for comparables for each of the nearly 2,000 current players in the annual. The projection system employs past performance, handedness, height and weight and position to find the most similar historical comparables for each player at his current age.

While, a lot of team-related wins projections have been faulty in recent years, I believe player projections are typically more accurate. And I believe there is a place for projections and prognostications. After all, every pro team is having to make projections and calculations.

The comps are fun to consider, if nothing else, and the following are some of the most encouraging and troubling as related to the 2016 Pirates.

THREE UP

>>Andrew McCutchen’s top three PECOTA comparables: Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays.

Not bad, eh?

McCutchen is going to be a superstar again 2016.

What this might also tell us is to not worry about McCutchen declining during his time as a Pirate. While some worry about McCutchen’s lack of size and physicality and how it might relate to the slope and arrival of his decline phase, Aaron (6-feet, 180), Robinson (6-1, 183) and Mays (5-10, 170) were not large men and each remained superstars well into their 30s.

Mays won his second MVP at 34, and finished third in NL MVP voting at 35. Aaron’s top OPS came at age 37. He played 23 seasons (and made a total of $2.1 million, according to BaseballReference.com). Robinson averaged a .918 OPS from ages 31-35.

Maybe following the Evan Longoria plan, doubling-down on a club-friendly contract extension with another club friendly extension isn’t such a bad idea.

If you’re Baby Boomer you might never see a better Pirate.

Heck, if you’re Millennial you might never see a better Pirate.

But just because PECOTA found McCutchen is most like those three players to date in his career entering his Age 29 season, PECOTA does not necessarily believe McCutchen will age like them in his 30s.

As is explained here PECOTA is comparing the 29-year-old McCutchen to the 29-year-old Mays, Aaron and Robinson. It’s not comparing or projecting the rest of McCutchen’s career. It’s just an anecdotal hint of what might be to come.

There are other factors at play, like the general age curve for all players of McCutchen’s age, size and position.

If you want to pump the breaks on that idea that McCutchen will age well and instead pass the baton to Austin Meadows in 2019 there is McCutchen’s 2017 WARP projection (0.7) a two-year look ahead, which is new feature in the annual.

(BP projects 4.6 WARP for McCutchen in 2016. WARP is BP’s version of WAR).

>>Jung Ho Kang’s top three PECOTA comparables: Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman, Al Rosen

Yes, that will play.

Because of Kang’s lower salary, you could argue that he – not McCutchen – could produce more surplus value (performance value minus actual wages) over the next three seasons. Of course that’s betting that Kang returns to full health and performance, and his 2015 is who he really is. But I believe his 2015 is who he really is, with perhaps more in the tank. Kang demonstrated the ability to make adjustments in 2015, his power is above average for a left-side infielder, his defense is fantastic at third, and he is a proud and driven athlete.

Wrote BP of Kang: “What was once a discussion about whether the Pirates could afford to miss on the $11 million Korean import veered to the other extreme: Would his immediate success in the majors inflate the KBO market to a point that teams like the Pittsburgh would be priced out of it? …. A ready-made impact player signed through the rest of his prime at arbitration-level prices. Gold frenzies have started over less.”

>>Austin Meadows’ top three PECOTA comparables: Christian Yelich, Joc Peterson, Gregory Polanco

I really like Yelich, I really like Peterson, and I still believe in Polanco. Yeah, Meadows is a player to get excited about and the most likely prospect in the system to become an offensive force.

THREE DOWN

>>Gerrit Cole’s top three PECTOA comparables: Rich Harden, David Price, Daniel Hudson.

What was not to love about Cole’s 2015? OK, his last start? But don’t forget about the previous three to close out the regular season, which he all won, vs. the Dodgers, Cubs and Cardinals, to help the Pirate secure home field and nearly chased down the Cardinals.

Cole improved in about every measurable way in 2015, and matured in regard to his maintenance routine between starts, which could bode well for his long-term health and performance.

While his arm was not abused in amateur baseball, while Cole and the Pirates are trying everything from modern to ancient techniques to keep him healthy, still, we know the dangers associated with young, high-velocity arms.

Harden, once an elite young talent, reached 20 starts in a season just twice after his Age 24 seasons.

Two Tommy John surgeries derailed Hudson’s career.

The Price trajectory is great but keep in mind Price made $19.75 million in his final year of arbitration, and $14 million the year prior. Cole is entering his final pre-arbitration season. Cole is going to make life difficult on the Pirates either way: he’s either not going to stay healthy, or he’s going to become really expensive.

>>Gregory Polanco’s top three PECOTA comparables: Jose Tabata (JOSE TABATA!!!), Ryan Sweeney, Travis Buck

PECOTA is losing faith?

But PECOTA did not understand Polanco made second-half strides in regard to approach and quality of contact in 2015.

>>Jameson Taillon’s top three PECOTA compass: Simon Castro, John Ely, Christian Friedrich

Taillon doesn’t feel like his two years have been “lost” as he points to improved conditioning and strength, studying the craft and maturation … but losing two years of reps on the mound has to mean something. What led to Cole’s breakout? Repeating and mastering his delivery. Taillon hasn’t had that chance. Taillon is a good bet to better his comps … if, IF, he can stay healthy.

BP SAID IT

From BP on Reese McGuire:

“Here’s what a front-office member told Christopher Crawford in May : ‘He’s a special defender. He could come up and hold his own defensive right now: I don’t know how many teenagers you could ever say that about.”

Can he hit, yes, he has to hit … just a little bit. If he does, this is a special defensive player at arguably the game’s most important defensive position.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 5.6

Cervelli’s 2015 WARP – which unlike WAR includes catcher framing – was best on the team, ahead of McCutchen (4.8) and Cole (4.2).

BP projects 4.2 WARP for Cervelli in 2016, and 4.0 in 2017.

Maybe three years and $39 million isn’t such a crazy ask. Cervelli can get that on the open market if he has another healthy, quality campaign.

-TS

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Maximizing Stewart and Cervelli

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SOUTH HILLS  – Back in October when there was much discussion (free advice) about how Clint Hurdle should fill out his wild card lineup card, I opined that one creative solution in dealing with the lineup (and with what to do about Pedro Alvarez) would be to start Francisco Cervelli at first base – hey, he has more experience there than John Jaso! – and have Chris Stewart catch Gerrit Cole.

The idea was Stewart was a similar if not slightly better defender than Cervelli, Stewart had been Cole’s personal catcher for much of the season, and you want Cervelli’s bat in the lineup.

You could argue they were two of the Pirates top eight positional players, and they both deserved to be on the field.

ChrisStewart
Can we get more Stew? (Horner photo)

 

But if you’re looking at a full season instead of one game there is another interesting Stewart-Cervelli dilemma, how do you maximize having two of the game’s best receivers?

How do you maximize having two of the best defensive catchers in the game?

It’s exactly a question Neil Weinberg tried to attack with an idea at Fangraphs.com

“The split will be 122/40, obviously acknowledging injuries could derail us all. During those 122 starts, however, Chris Stewart serves as a late-inning defensive replacement. After John Jaso, the presumed first baseman, bats for the third or fourth time (depending on the inning), Cervelli moves to first and Stewart slides in to catch. You can include Mike Morse interchangeably if you like, but I’ll stick with Jaso for simplicity.

This does a number of things. First, it maintains or improves the quality of catcher defense. Both players are elite framers and Stewart seems to be a better thrower given the data we have available to us. Second, this plan keeps Jaso fresher by leaning on him less. He’s never had a full season of reps and has a long enough injury history that you want to be extra careful. Third, the Stewart Swap saves some wear and tear on the valuable Cervelli without losing Cervelli’s bat, and without taking a catcher off the field and risking every manager’s nightmare — a catcher injury with no backup. … It allows the club to get roughly the same set of skills on the field while potentially improving the durability of two players.”

It will be interesting idea and if you’re a frequent reader of this blog and the Tribune-Review you know the Pirates have really dug into injury prevention and maximizing player efficiency to some apparent effect.

I like the idea of Cervelli at first in spots . I like the idea of resting Cervelli – prone to injury – as much as the Pirates can. I like the idea of Stewart receiving more time as he has a superior snap time to Cervelli, and controlling the run game was one area where Cervelli struggled last season. A stolen base in a close game is more detrimental later than earlier.

It’s an interesting idea and the Pirates are a team open to experimentation. Stay tuned to see

-TS

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Rene Gayo’s value, and buying on Biddle

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SOUTH HILLS – August Fagerstrom, a fantastic writer/analyst over at FanGraphs.com, examined how each club’s 2016 projected Wins Above Replacement were acquired, broken down into acquisition categories: the draft, trades, free agency and international free agency.

You can read his research in full here.

If you’re just interested in the Pirates, here’s how the local nine ranks:

*Pirates rank 12th in projected 2016 WAR generated from the draft with 13.8 (12.3 is average). Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole account for the lion’s share.

*Pirates rank 16th in projected WAR generated from free agency 6.1 (6.6 is average). The Cubs rank first here (18.0 WAR), which seems unfair given their hit rate on their early first-round picks.

*Pirates rank 18th in projected WAR acquired via trade (10.6).

So the Pirates are roughly middle of the pack in MLB in most areas. But they are special in one area.

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Rene Gayo has been pre-tay, pre-tay good in Latin America, don’t you think? (Horner photo)

 

*The Pirates rank 2nd in projected WAR acquired via international free agency (9.6 WAR).

And unlike the Texas Rangers, which rank third, the Pirates have not made a habit of handing out million-dollar bonuses, the Pirates of course signed Gregory Polanco for $150,00, Starling Marte for $90,000, and unearthed a bargain in Jung Ho Kang.

What’s also interesting is the intl average WAR projection per team is 3.6 WAR. The Pirates have a massive advantage here.

It’s a reminder that Rene Gayo is one of the more valuable employees in the organization, and that portfolio diversity is important.

After all, Latin American scouting is largely traditional in nature and lacking in big data tools. The Pirates are an analtyical-leaning organization but one that still values traditional scouting methods.

The Pirates have pumped resources into intl scouting under Neal Huntington, more than doubling Gayo’s staff. Perhaps they should pour even more resources into this sector.

BIDDLE WORTH A FLIER?

The Pirates acquired LHP Jesse Biddle from the Phillies today for an afterthought that was the out-righted, right-hander Yoervis Medina.

Biddle will be out all for all of 2016 after Tommy John surgery in October and he’s battled control problems throughout his career. But the Pirates prize pedigree and Biddle has pedigree. He could be worth the wait  as a worthwhile reclammation project.

He was the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft. He was a Florida State All-Star in 2012, an Eastern League All-Star in 2013, and a Futures Game participant in 2013.

There’s also this.

Wrote the Baseball Prospectus prospect team – led by now Chicago Cubs scout Jason Parks – of Biddle in 2013:

“Out of high school Biddle drew comparisons to Andy Pettitte due to similar frames, deliveries and arsenals (though Biddle’s fastball variation is a two-seamer rather than a cutter). That comparison largely holds true three years later as the 27th overall selection in the 2010 draft has sharpened his consistency. …. Biddle projects as a mid-rotation arm capable of eating innings and missing bats.”

The Pirates have a track record of mitigating pitchers’ control issues and there is some upside to Biddle, who was ranked as Philadelphia’s No. 1 overall prospect as recently as 2013 by MLB.com and Baseball America.

Biddle was Baseball Prospectus’s No. 67 overall prospect entering 2013, ranked No. 71 in the game by MLB.com entering 2014.

If he’s healthy, the lefty has a four-pitch mix including a two-seamer (the magic pitch) and a swing-and-miss curveball that has generated plenty of swing-and-miss in his minor league career.

That is a package that is worth a flier.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Uncommon restraint

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SOUTH HILLS – As we inch closer to pitchers and catchers reporting, one of the rites of the offseason is the release of top 100 prospect lists. The Pirates did quite well on the the MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus lists released last week, lists that are linked to later on in this blog entry.

It is how the Pirates have protected their prospects that I find interesting.

One of Neal Huntington‘s strengths as an executive, I believe, is his resolve to stick with a plan, with a process, and rarely deviate from the path.

While the Pirates have dealt prospects in recent seasons, they have not surrendered top young talent, which we will define as  top 10 prospects in the system.

I found this to be an interesting nugget from GammonsDaily.com: “The Pirates are the only team in Baseball America’s top 15 farm systems (in 2015) to keep each of its top prospects.”

So as I understand the research, every other team with a top 15 system has moved at least one prospect . That the Pirates have not traded one of their top 10 prospects from not only their 2015 list, but also their 2014 list – while in the midst of contention – is a pretty remarkable dedication to a long-term vision.

HuHurdl2
Pirates leadership has shown remarkable restraint in keeping top prospects. Will it pay off down the road? Or should they cash in chips for the near future? (Horner photo)

 

Now, one can argue the Pirates could have played a little bit more for today last season and sacrificed more of tomorrow, but perhaps keeping in tact these quality  prospect groups gives reason to believe the next Pirates’ core can also be the base of a playoff-contending group.

Perhaps this restraint by the front office will allow for a larger window of contention, and allow for more rolls of the dice in the postseason.

So have the Pirates acted prudently or too conservatively?

THREE UP

>>Speaking up prospects, the Pirates placed six prospects in Baseball Prospectus’s top 101 list last week which you can read here  and five on the MLB list revealed Friday night.

The BP list: Tyler Glasnow (No. 11), Austin Meadows (No. 22), Josh Bell (No. 49), Jameson Taillon (No. 51), Reese McGuire (No. 76) and Harold Ramirez (No. 80).

The MLB.com list: Glasnow (No. 10), Meadows (No. 20), Bell (No. 49), Taillon (No. 54), and McGuire (No. 98)

I think McGuire is underrated on each list, but the Pirates’ representation is still double the average amount of prospects a team can hope to find on a top 100 list. I suspect catcher defense is undervalued on most prospect lists, and it is harder to evaluate at the minor league level.

>>That Meadows and McGuire are on top 100 lists justifies the Pirates’ high-risk, high-upside approach to the 2013 draft. Since the draft is the most likely place for small-market clubs to find star talent, clubs should target more upside and take on more risk, imo, compared to the lower-ceiling but safer college player. (Disclaimer: unless we’re talking about an elite college bat at the top of the draft).

>>Players like Alen Hanson, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Stephen Tarpley and Elias Diaz didn’t make the list but the Pirates do have depth in the next tier (say 100-200) of prospects. Perhaps it is from that group that they will look to deal for the right part.

THREE DOWN

>>As has been pointed out by many fans, the Kansas City Royals, they of a similar-sized market, and similar local TV deal as compared to the Pirates, are spending dramatically more than the Pirates this offseason — despite coming off very similar (regular) seasons.

Huntington challenged the idea of an apples-to-apples comparison last week by saying the Royals generated significantly more local revenue than the Pirates in 2015, primarily through ticket sales.

The Kansas City Royals also had a much higher attendance to build upon as they go forward,” Huntington said on 93.7 FM last week. “Their jump in attendance was significantly higher than ours, and as a result, they’ve generated more revenue to put back into the team. We will continue to spend what we take in, and whatever the fans generate for us, and whatever the revenue sharing is…we’ll continue to pour that right back into the team and the organization.”

Let’s take a deeper look.

The Royals – 10th in attendance – exceeded the Pirates -15th in attendance – by 209,953 paying fans last season.

According to this team marketing report, the average cost for four  (the Fan Cost Index) to go to a Royals game last season was $212.04, the Pirates clocked in at $175.95. Significantly cheaper.

What is the FCI? Per the Web site: “(FCI) Comprises the prices of four (4) adult average-price tickets, two (2) small draft beers, four (4) small soft drinks, four (4) regular-size hot dogs, parking for one (1)
car, and two (2) least expensive, adult-size adjustable caps. Costs were determined by telephone calls with representatives of
the teams, venues and concessionaires)

Apply FCI to the Royals’ attendance and that’s a generation of $144 million in ticket, parking and concessions.

The Pirates come in at $109 million.

Now the team isn’t collecting all of that as net cash there are vendors, employees and taxes to pay, parking differs from team to team, but it is true that the Royals cleared significantly more at the gate and concession stand than the Pirates.

Of course, the last-place FCI team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, which finished 23rd in attendance, signed Zack Greinke.

 

>>What we do know is baseball owners appear to be doing just fine. Their pct. share of revenues has increased at a time when total revenues have skyrocketed.

It’s not just that the Royals out-spend the Pirates, the small-market Royals are the No. 7 spending team this offseason at $178 million in free agent commitments.

The Pirates committed $20 million to free agents Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Nicasio, Neftali Feliz, Sean Rodriguez and John Jaso.

>>While the Royals had superior local revenues, national TV and digital dollars are spread equally, and we haven’t even yet to begun to discuss revenue sharing. Even small-market teams, at least on occasion, can spend big in today’s environment.

HE SAID IT
“My style is a little more reserved, but I’ll get up for the big moments. I’m always finding something interesting in the game, so I don’t think (listeners) will fall asleep on me.”
-New Pirates play-by-play Joe Block who replaces Tim Neverett.
Block has Pittsburgh ties, as his wife is from the South Hills. Joe is a good guy and I think you will enjoy his call, Pirates fans.
You can read Rob’s story on Block

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 6
NL teams ahead of the Pirates in the Fangraphs.com projected standings as of Jan. 11.
 -TS
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