Is John Jaso the equivalent of adding a gold glover?

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SOUTH HILLS – Since the Pirates do not compete on the open market for top talent, since they continue to look for hidden value there and elsewhere — including hidden wins within their own roster — where else might they find obscured value in 2016?

(And the Pirates are going to need hidden value with the Chicago Cubs being projected as a mid-90s win team by conservative projection systems.)

We’ve written and discussed lineup optimization and pitching staff usage this spring, areas the Pirates will apparently try to mine for value this season. But I wanted to discuss one other area where the Pirates might find a hidden win or two for little cost: defense.

jaso2
Trading Alvarez’s glove for league average is the equivalent of adding a gold glove at first (Horner photo)

 

Defense was the Pirates’ original, favored market inefficiency.

The Pirates’ 2013 turnaround was built upon defense. You know the story: the Pirates increased shifts by 500 percent and coupled them with a pitching philosophy (location: inside, type: two-seam fastball), that helped turn dozens of would-be hits into outs, and helped turn scrap-heap pitchers into stars.

But as I wrote about the other day for our series preview series in the Tribune-Review, a curious thing has happened: the Pirates have suffered a pretty significant defensive decline over the last couple of seasons:

DEFENSIVE DECLINE

Defensive runs saved (MLB rank)/Defensive efficiency/Errors

  • 2013: 68 (3rd)     71.5% (5th)           106 (9th)
  • 2014: 28 (7th)      71.0% (11th)        109 (3rd)
  • 2015: 8 (12th)     69.7% (23rd)        122 (2nd)

So compared to 2013, the Pirates suffered a drop of 60 defensive runs saved last season, according to Baseball Info Solution’s evaluation techniques. That’s the equivalent of a loss of six wins. That’s the difference between easily winning a division title or playing in a play-in game.

And the biggest culprits resided on the right side of the infield.

Neil Walker was 11 DRS worse last season than he was in 2013, and the Pirates’ first basemen went from being worth -3 DRS in 2013 to -15 last season, with Pedro Alvarez accounting for a whopping -13 DRS at first base.

So here’s the crazy thing: if John Jaso is league average at first base this season, if he saves zero DRS, he will be a 13-run improvement over Alvarez.

That would be the equivalent of replacing an average defender with a Gold Glove first baseman. The top three defensive first basemen last season: Paul Goldschmidt (18 DRS), Adrian Gonzalez (10 DRS), Anthony Rizzo (10 DRSS).

It would be the equivalent of adding a win to the standings.

Of course can Jaso (and David Freese/Micheal Morse) be near league average, can it be the equivalent of the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon?

While we don’t have advanced defensive metrics for spring training, while the early returns were shaky this spring, Jaso has made just one error in 92 chances. That seems to be encouraging, it seems Jaso could be average. The Pirates think he has the hands and feet, and other catchers have converted to first base and become average defenders there.

At second base, Josh Harrison, in 605 career innings there, is a +8 DRS performer. Over the course of a full season he could be a +16 DRS performer at second base. Walker was -2 DRS last season.

So by switching out defenders on the right side of the infield the Pirates could pick up value equivalent to two to three added wins in 2016.

That’s a big deal, especially in the NL Central, especially when two more wins would have won a division title a year ago.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Pirates go all in … on math

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have adopted a number of analytically-minded principles and philosophies since 2013. Each offseason Clint Hurdle and his staff seem to explore and adopt a new saber-metric minded practice, and this spring they’ve turned to math-based ideas they believe they can implement and extract value from: lineup AND pitching staff optimization.

This is in part due to necessity.

The Pirates front office and coaches were not given much of a budget from ownership to pursue impact free agents, as we know, not even a second-tier free agent like Francisco Liriano an offseason earlier.

With no David Price-like insta-fix riding in on a white horse, the Pirates must again focus on finding value that cost little or nothing to acquire.

Much has been written the last couple of weeks about the Pirates attempts to optimize their lineup with Andrew McCutchen moving to the No. 2 spot and John Jaso perhaps batting lead-off. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, it makes a lot of sense.

What has received less attention is what an even more radical approach to pitching staff and bullpen usage, which I wrote and reported on for Sunday’s MLB season preview issue.

LockephotoMarch
Jeff Locke is a quality major league pitcher from pitches 0 to 50 for his career. After that? It’s not pretty … but what if Locke is not asked to throw more than 50 pitches in a start in 2016? (Horner photo)

 

“From an analytical side there is absolutely a movement to not let a pitcher face a lineup three times and to have 12 pitchers, four starters, four relievers, and three guys that fluctuate in and out,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “We have not sold out to the approach but at the same time we have recognized we might be better served multiple, multi-inning relievers. If Ryan (Vogelsong) gives us six good innings, maybe it’s time to go get that starter.

“That’s why we are consciously putting together a bullpen with multiple guys that can go multiple innings to allow Clint to go get that starting pitcher.”

From the story:

Consider the first time through a batting order last season, opposing hitters combined to post a .709 OPS (on-base plus slugging) against starting pitchers. The second time batters faced a starting pitcher, the OPS rose to .731. The third time through? .764.

The combined OPS in the first appearance against a relief pitcher? .699. …

For Vogelsong’s career, opponents have a .718 OPS against him in their first plate appearances. The third time through the order? .830.

For his career, Jeff Locke holds opponents to a .621 OPS in pitches 25 through 50. But from pitches 50-75, opponents have an .885 against OPS Locke.

Niese for his career?

1st time through: .687 OPS, 2nd time: .723 OPS, 3rd time: .810 OPS

The Pirates appear to be headed to a hybrid theory. They are going to hope Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano can pitch six or seven innings and can get through an opponent’s lineup three times. (Opponents’ OPS vs. Cole from pitches 50 to 75 is .626, and from pitch 76 to 100 is .608). But they appear to want to limit the back-end of the rotation’s exposure to facing a lineup a third time.

What it means is instead of having Locke, Niese and Vogelsong  face a lineup a third time, we’re going to see more of those innings absorbed by bullpen arms, and high-velocity arms, that can offer better production.

Just as it makes a ton of mathematical-based logic to bat McCutchen second, it makes a lot of sense not to expose Vogelsong, Locke and Niese to third time through an opposing lineup.

But here’s the other part of why leaning more on relief pitchers makes an awful lot of sense: despite the lip service paid to the growing importance of the bullpen, relief pitchers have actually become a better value compared to starting pitchers over the last decade.

When Huntington said the starting pitching market blew up this offseason, as the Pirates initially explored replacing the A.J. Burnett-JA Happ slot, he wasn’t kidding.

Consider in 2009, the average cost of an inning thrown by a starting pitcher was $26,603, a reliever was  $26,855. About equal.

But last season teams spent $41,000 per inning on starting pitchers and $33,343 per inning on relievers.

That cost gap continued to widened this offseason as teams spent $1.296 billion on the free-agent market for major-league starting pitchers, compared to $289 million on relievers.

This despite the average reliever (3.71 ERA, 3.83 FIP) being more effective than the average starter (4.10 ERA, 4.03 FIP) last season.

 

What does this mean? That relievers are the better value. And the Pirates took their savings and invested much of it in relievers like Neftali Feliz and Jaun Nicasio (well maybe he won’t be a reliever) and also decided to make Mark Melancon their third-highest paid player,  though he only accounted for five percent of innings last season.

Bullpen

By limiting the inning thrown by the back of the rotation and redistributing them to the bullpen, there is value to be found, wins to be extracted at no and/or little cost – just like there was no cost in adopting shifts in 2013.

And after a quiet offseason, and with the NL Central looking again like the game’s toughest division (at least the top three teams), the Pirates are going to need to find more hidden value.

 

THREE UP

>>Give MLB credit to create a mandate for spanish interpreters. The Pirates introduced spanish interpreter Mike Gonzalez on Saturday. Some Latin players are rubbed the wrong way when teams sign Asian players, like Jung Ho Kang, and hire them a full-time interpreter while large spanish minorities in major league clubhouses are forced to use coaches or fend for themselves when dealing with language barriers. It makes sense for all teams to have Spanish interpreters, and for more English-speaking players, coaches, executives – and, yes, journalists – to learn the language.

With the Cuban market likely to open up, and places like Columbia producing more major league talent, the Spanish influence and language is only going to grow in major league clubhouse.

>>Gerrit Cole doesn’t need another level to be an All-Star. He already is. But if he develops more feel and confidence in his changeup, which has declined in usage every year he’s been in the majors, he might have another level.

Cole’s changeup usage by year:

2013 7.8%

2014 5.0%

2015 3.6%

Back when I profiled Cole in 2013 prior to his call-up, Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer thought Cole’s 87-90 mph changeup had the potential to become his best pitch. Cole has focused in part on mixing the pitch in in back-field work, the type of environment that lends itself to experimentation.

>>Jordy Mecer a lead-off hitter? Against lefties, sure. Mercer has a career .374 OBP and .864 OPS against lefties.

THREE DOWN

>>The Pirates catching depth is a big question mark due to Elias Diaz’s right elbow. The Pirates are downplaying concerns but we’ll see. Beyond Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, Ed Easley is the only other catcher in the system with major league experience. Reese McGuire is not a 2016 option.

>>The Eric O’Flaherty trade helps clear the log-jam for the last bullpen spot, and while there is a lot of evidence to trust the Pirates in regard to decisions on pitchers, it’s tough to ignore O’Flaherty’s 1.99 ERA and elite groundball rate from 2009 to 13.

Now who gets the last spot? Kyle Lobstein? Cory Luebke?

Place your wagers.

>>Starling Marte is an All-Star caliber player if he makes no improvement. Unfortunately, the one area where he could really spike his value – plate discipline – is unlikely to improve. That’s typically a skill player either possess or does not. It’s innate and tough to teach or improve upon. (Though Bryce Harper made dramatic strides last season).

Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson said Marte has made strides here from two season’s ago, but Marte’s out-of-zone swing percentage (42.1) actually reached a career worse last season, and was the 6th worst mark in baseball among qualifiers.

STAT OF THE WEEK: .989

John Jaso’s fielding percentage at first base through Sunday this spring, where he has handled 89 changes in 84 innings, and made just one error.

After a rough start early this spring, Jaso has shown improvement at the position. He won’t be a gold glover in 2016. But he also won’t be Pedro Alvarez.

HE SAID IT

“I think (Neal Huntington) would tell you himself it was kind of crazy how (Cervelli) worked out…. I find it hard to think it is going to keep up. It was such an outlier. I like the energy he brings, it seems like he fits in well with those guys, but I’ll be very curious to see if he can do it again. It was a wonderful acquisition but I am tempering my enthusiasm.”

– An American League scout on Cervelli.

Cervelli still has some doubters to prove wrong in 2016. If he has another productive season, he’s going to be a very rich man.

HE SAID IT II

Baseball plans to add new penalties for those players violating its tobacco policy this season.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

Next time you’re in Bradenton, Fla. – and if you haven’t been you should go for spring training – spend as much time as you can on Anna Maria Island and Bradenton, Beach.,It’s old Florida. No high-rise condos, no wild spring breakers, and plenty of good sea food and public beach access.

-TS

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Final postcard from camp

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BRADENTON, Fla. – I returned to Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon after three weeks in Florida, but some final thoughts and observations from Bradenton, Fla. as we’re now just 10 days from opening day …

*The Pirates’ search for hidden value – or value that doesn’t cost much or anything – has long included injury prevention practices, and more lately it has turned to extracting more performance value out of their players through rest and nutrition.

The Pirates made James Harris off-limits after I made an interview request, which is rare, and which should tell you how important they think Chip Kelly‘s former chief of staff is. Whatever you think of Kelly, he was on the NFL’s cutting edge in a number of areas. It’s smart for the Pirates to study other best practices in other sports and cross-pollinate.

One common criticism regarding the innovative practices:

“Spend money on PLAYERS!”

Signing players and support staff are not mutually exclusive, support staff comes at a fraction of the cost of players. Spending on players, that’s an issue for another day.

*The Pirates would welcome a Gregory Polanco breakout in 2016 and he had a better second half than first last season, which they hope is the arrow pointing up. He had more competitive at bats  as a second year player as indicated by his 3.87 pitches seen per plate appearance, 67th in baseball, which is impressive for a 23-year-old. We haven’t seen much power this spring from Polanco, the swing has looked long at times, but he says he’s working on finding his timing. The Pirates still believe the player we saw in June of 2014 is there. Branson said Polanco, basically, just needs to stop thinking so much and trust his swing and talent.

Branson
Players like Russ Martin and Ike Davis bought into Branson’s approach, can Branson get more out of Polanco? (Horner photo)

 

 

*Did I mention I love the John Jaso-Andrew McCutchen 1-2 lineup arrangement?

Speaking of extracting value which does not cost a dollar, through better health and a more efficient lineup home, McCutchen might produce two or three wins more than he did last season. That would put him at his 2013 NL MVP level. The Pirates might need him to win a second MVP to have any shot in the NL Central.

*Matt Joyce looked out of sorts early in camp but he was at his best in back-field game last week homering and slapping a single to the opposite way against Ryan Vogelsong, who had pretty good stuff that day as indicated by the number of “Attaboys” emanating from Ray Searage.

Given his career .795 OPS vs. RHPs, and that the Pirates are loaded with right-handed bats and faced more right-handed pitching than any team last season, I like Joyce for one of the final bench spots. Especially late in games against right-handed specialists, the Pirates need a quality lefty option.

*Poor Jeff Locke. Has anyone worked  and stressed more for big league jobs the last four or so springs?

I saw Locke at his best this spring, reaching 94 mph and spinning breaking balls and quality change-up against a regular season Tigers lineup earlier this spring. But we’ve also seen him continue to be inconsistent, though some of that might be tied to a new delivery. (Some scouts preferred the old delivery which included more deception).

I’m not sure you want Locke or Juan Nicasio as 100-pitch-plus starters, and perhaps we’re looking at the starting rotation label a little too closely.

Multi-inning relievers are going to play a larger role this year for the Pirates, and whomever isn’t in the rotation could perhaps be labeled a tandem starter, or a 1B starter, along Locke, Vogelsong and Nicasio. You might want all three pitching similar innings this season. I like Nicasio following Locke and Jon Niese for two to three innings every three days, to limit Locke and Niese’s lineup exposure and to gain the platoon advantage should opponents stack their lineups with right-handed bats. Nicasio still looks like a two-pitch pitcher this spring.

*Shortstop prospect and 2014 first-rounder Cole Tucker was once thought to be a risk to miss all of 2016 after shoulder surgery, yet he’s already playing in games – limited in throwing – and made a great diving stop in a back-field game last week. Plus-plus makeup helps in a lot of areas, including returning from injury.

*Byung Ho Park has looked great in Grapefruit League play.

Yeah, I know he’s right-handed and the Pirates are heavy with RHHs, but power is at such a premium I suspect the Pirates might be a team that regrets not throwing some more dollars into the bidding. While he’s limited in regard to his defense, many believe he’s a more advanced, and certainly powerful, hitter than Jung Ho Kang.

Four years and $25 million – including posting fee – is going to be a bargain.

*Pirates prospect Josh Bell is impressive, from his frame and what power potential it might hold, to his  intelligence and in the way he handles himself with media and teammate. One scout I spoke with was impressed by the improvements he made to his right-handed swing this spring. Even if he’s never a huge power threat, a switch-hitter with .400 OBP skills in the high minors is a significant prospect.

*Strange as it seems, after not throwing a minor league inning in two years, Jameson Taillon might beat Tyler Glasnow to the majors. Glasnow has better raw stuff, perhaps, but Taillon isn’t far behind and with better control

When you look at players under club control after 2019, Taillon and Glasnow might be the two most important assets in determining the club’s ability to sustain success.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The Pirates’ real edge? Communication

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BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates and manager Clint Hurdle are serious about hitting McCutchen in the No. 2 spot, something sabermetric types have desired of all teams, and their top hitters, for years.

McCutchen hit in the second spot Sunday, appearing there for a second straight game with John Jaso leading off. Jaso walked three times in front of McCutchen on Sunday. That is how you draw it up.

McCutchen is hitting second again  today vs. the Braves.

You have to love the early look of this arrangement if you’re a Pirates fan.

It makes a lot of sense. Quantitative analysts have noted the No. 1, No.4 and No. 2 spots are the most important  lineup positions. It’s not so much the 20 or so additional plate appearances McCutchen would pick up this year from moving from third to second, it’s that he will face many fewer two-outs-and-no-one-on situations.

Hurdle indicated wherever McCutchen hits – likely second – he will not be moving around often.

“I’m all in,” said McCutchen on batting second. “This game’s turned into a numbers game in so many ways, shapes and forms. It seems to be working for the most part. It’s just another thing being thrown out, another thing you can possibly get better at.”

PTR-Bucs01-031116
You don’t want a superstar to reject an idea, you want a man dangerous with a bat to accept it, so the Pirates did a good job with presentation regarding the No. 2 spot (Horner photo)

 

But it was how the idea was presented to McCutchen that is also important.

While McCutchen is going with the program despite not hitting anywhere other than third or fourth since 2011, despite the No. 3 hitter spot being an important status location in the lineup for about 125 years, perhaps the Pirates’ communication edge deserves some more credit here.

After all there is a reason why the Pirates were one of the first teams to dramatically shift in the NL, there is reason a why the Pirates have had players accept a whole bunch of new and unconventional ideas despite all teams having access to the same, or very similar, information.

McCutchen shared with reporters that Hurdle and he met this spring and Hurdle shared these numbers with McCutchen: only Paul Goldschmidt (164) came to the plate with two outs and no one on more than McCutchen last season (158). The next closest Pirate?  Gregory Polanco  (83).

Hard to argue with that data.

“I was told a stat (by Hurdle) that I was second in the league hitting with two outs with nobody on base behind Goldschmidt. I don’t necessarily know the numbers, but somehow, this could possibly help. If it can help, then I’m all for that. I’m good to go,” McCutchen said. “It’s pretty eye-opening. I could have guessed I was pretty high. There were a lot of times I went to the plate like, ‘Dang, two outs again.’ That’s not to knock anybody on the team at all. …. When he told me, I was just like, ‘I didn’t know it was that high.’ I guess it kind of makes sense. To be hitting how I’ve hit over the years and still can’t get 100 RBIs.”

What if McCutchen faces 80-100 fewer of those two-outs-and-no-one-on situations this season? There might be another hidden win or two in value to be gained, just like there might be another win or two to be gained by McCutchen entering the season healthy. McCutchen looks great this spring.

But what if McCutchen had just showed up one day and he was not in his traditional lineup position. What if the change was not communicated? That happens to players. Maybe he’s not as OK with the change.

Hurdle didn’t just post a lineup card with no warning that McCutchen’s lineup position was changing. He came armed with data and reason and presented it in digestible form, man-to-man.

Typically, it helps if a star has to buy into change.

Communicating why a change is needed is key and this is where the Pirates continue to excel.

What Cole Figueroa understands — I recommend listening to his appearance on the Effectively Wild podcast  — what the Pirates understand, what coding pioneer Grace Hopper articulated is that it’s no use learning math unless you can communicate it.

THREE UP

>>Gerrit Cole looked like he was getting in ace form in his second start in a minor league game on Friday against the Yankees. Cole’s fastball command improved during his start and it got up to 98 mph. He threw knee-melting curves for strikes that left Yankees minor leaguerss shaking their heads and Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage hollering “Attaboy, kid!” Cole also mixed in some changeups.

(Side note: The backfields at Pirate City are great environments to take in an outing like Cole’s. You’ll never get closer to a major league player or his bullpens session — and it’s free).

>>Jung Ho Kang wants to be in the opening day lineup. It’s unlikely but he’s made tremendous strides. He’s doing some base-running drills, and he held his own in his first looks at live pitching, though his timing was off in his second game Sunday.

Hitting coach Jeff Branson has been impressed with Kang’s work in the batting cages and sees no ill affects from last season’s surgery. Trainer Todd Tomczyk said he has never a rehabbing player work harder. Kang has A+ baseball makeup and work ethic. That bodes well for his return from injury.

>> 2014 first rounder Cole Tucker made an outstanding diving grab in Sunday’s back-field game. He appears to be recovering well from shoulder surgery and is back playing in games. He was a divisive prospect but if he can stick and short there’s projection and upside there. He’s a player with plus-plus makeup who will get the most out of his tools. Makeup seems to be a focus with recent premium draft selections made by the Pirates.

THREE DOWN

>>One issue with Jaso leading off? The rest of the Pirates lineup that follows is extremely right-handed and a late-inning, right-handed power reliever could face a McCutchen, Kang (or David Freese) and Marte in succession, or Harrison, Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer. Perhaps this will give Matt Joyce an edge in make the team as a left-handed bench bat. Joyce has a career .795 OPS against righties and helped his cause with a homer and single off Ryan Vogelsong in a back-field game Sunday.

>>The Pirates were one of 20 teams to scout Byung Ho Park and they also placed a bid. But perhaps the Pirates, and other major league teams, are going to regret not bidding more. Yes, there’s a lot to like about Jaso at first – he is improving there defensively. Yes the Pirates needed a left-handed bat and Park is right-handed. But so far it looks like Park’s power is going to translate. And it’s hard to find power in the game today, well, unless you’re the Cubs.

 

ParkKang
Buddies Park and Kang in the same lineup? That could be interesting. (Horner photo) Park came to McKechnie field on Saturday with a Twins-best three home runs a .968 OPS.

>>Gregory Polanco does not have an extra-base hit in 30 spring at bats. Yes, it’s just the spring but he just a .369 slugging mark through nearly 1,000 MLB plate appearances. Will the power come?

The encouraging thing: Polanco ranked 67th in pitches seen per plate appearances (3.8) last season, and his second half was stronger than his first. There’s still plenty of reason to believe there is more here.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 1.117

McCutchen’s spring OPS.

Yeah, he’s ready.

HE SAID IT

“My launch angle was a little off and probably a little bit on the negative side so I grounded out to first base”

-Baseball’s new top nerd, Figueroa, on Baseball Prospecut’s Effectively Wild podcast on Saturday

-TS

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Roster-ology: Last four in, first four out?

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BRADENTON, Fla. – We’re halfway through March, and we’ve reached the first wave of cuts, so bubble watch season in baseball training camps is officially a thing.

There are several variables at play when considering who makes the Pirates’ opening day roster: there’s merit, there is consideration of which players have options remaining for maximum depth and roster flexibility, and what really complicates matters is considering who is on and who is not on the 40-man roster at the moment.

Figueroa
Figuero is good with the glove. He’s also a switch-hitter. He’s also good with numbers. See the photo? Get it? But he’s not on the 40-man. Should he be on the opening day roster? (Horner photo)

 

The Pirates have some needs.

They need a left-handed bat, and left-handed arm in the bullpen. There are perhaps some pieces that have perhaps become redundant.

They have had some players emerge. So the following is the roster math and a March roster madness projection …

25-MAN ROSTER LOCKS:

Outfield (3): Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte

Infield (5): , Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, John Jaso, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez (Jung Ho Kang –  disabled list)

Catchers (2): Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart

Starting pitchers (5): Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong

Relief pitchers (6): Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio, and Arquimedes Caminero

So that leaves four 25-man roster spots open.

Who are the last four in?

The first four out?

Let’s start with  candidates for the final three bench spots …

>>Michael Morse is probably a near lock given that he’s owed $3 million by the Pirates, and he was a solid hitter as recently as 2014. But he’s going to be 34 in April, he’s coming off a poor season and he can really only play first base, where the apparent plan is to replace him in the platoon once Kang is healthy. Maybe – maybe – he can play some right field but he has a -33 UZR there over 459 innings during the last time he played right field in 2013.

>>Cole Figueroa has been fantastic this camp. He’s been excellent defensively at a variety of infield positions. He’s a switch-hitter with a good eye and contact skills. He’s good at math! In a vacuum, he’d on the club but he’s not on the 40-man roster. Does Sean Rodriguez make much of his skill set redundant?

>>The Pirates need a left-handed bat and Matt Joyce has a a career.795 OPS vs. RHP. But Joyce is not on the 40-man roster. Unlike Figueroa, he was a major league free agent – signed to a minor league contract.

If the Pirates want to retain him, but to start him at Triple-A and not on the major league roster, they could pay him $100,000 retention bonus by the end of camp and ship them to Triple-A. The Pirates would control them until June 1 first when he could opt out.

>>Jason Rogers has a career .370 minor league OBP and has some pop but he has options and Freese and Morse make his skill-set redundant.

>>Gift Ngoepe has been the team’s best defensive shortstop in camp but he has options, and is on the 40-man, and there are questions about his bat.

The pitching staff is more settled.

Whether or not Nicasio makes rotation, he’s on the team as are the five projected starting pitchers. There is one bullpen spot up for grabs.

>>The Pirates need a left-handed bullpen arm and that perhaps give an the edge to Eric O’Flaherty, who posed a 1.99 ERA with Atlanta from 2009-13… O’Flaherty’s sinker appears to be getting on track but he’s not on the 40-man. As like the case with Joyce, since they were major league free agents signed to minor league deals, the Pirates could retain him with a $100,000 retention fee and send him to Triple-A.

HEY THIS IS GETTING COMPLICATED!!!

>>RHP Rob Scahill has options and is right-handed and is on the 40-man.

>>LHP Kyle Lobstein is has an option and in on the 40-man.

>>RHP Trey Haley has opened eyes with mid 90s velocity in camp but he’s on the 40 man, has options, and the Pirates love to protect roster flexibility.

So who’s in and who’s out? A modest projection ….

 

LAST FOUR IN (3 bench spots/1 bullpen spot):

Morse – Because there is legit power here (he puts on a show in batting practice), because he’s owed money, because the Pirates might believe they can move him in a trade … And because Freese will be playing third base until Kang is healthy.

Figueroa – Because he’s a versatile, quality glove and a switch-hitting bat, because he gives you another traveling quantitative analyst!

Lobstein – Because he’s left-handed, because the Pirates are valuing multi-innings relievers, because he’s on the 40-man and has options

Joyce – The Pirates had the most plate appearances against right-handed pitching last season and rather than pay a retention bonus, the Pirates elect to place him on the 25-man roster to begin the season. In what figures to be a hotly contested NL wild card race, every game, every at bat, matters.

 

FIRST FOUR OUT

O’Flaherty – The Pirates pay $100,000 bonus and ship him to Triple-A, where he provides depth and perhaps a trade chip if he gets back to 2009-13 form. He’s perhaps on the Clayton Richard plan.

Scahill – If he wasn’t right-handed he stays, but he was born with that curse and must likely begin the season in Triple-A.

Rogers – If he wasn’t redundant before the Freese trade, he is now. He’s sent to Triple-A.

Pedro Florimon – The Pirates protect roster flexibility but Florimon could perhaps become a 40-man roster cut to make room for Figueroa, who has a better bat. The club has other potential shortstops on the 40-man in Ngoepe and Rodriguez.

Note: Rehabbing prospect Nick Kingham cannot be be placed on the 60-day DL to remove him from the 40-man roster because placing him on the 60-day would start his service time.

That’s how this blog sees the roster shaping up.

How about you?

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Believe in Locke? The value of Freese, and more …

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BRADENTON, Fla. – We know that there are questions about the back end of the Pirates’ rotation.

We know the additions of Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong do not fit the typical Pirates’ reclamation project model of the last few years.

They are not high-velocity arms, with swing-and-miss stuff that have upside if Ray Searage (and formerly Jim Benedict) can fix their command issues. Rather, they are seemingly low-ceiling, high-floor pitchers who lack stuff but can command the ball. They are the kind of arms unlikely to be more than back-end starters, unlikely to posses much upside.

We know that Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow possess upside but are unlikely to arrive before avoiding Super 2 status.

They were reassigned to Triple-A on Monday in the first wave of cuts.

But we also know Taillon and Glasnow are also not finished produts. While Glasnow’s stuff is electric, his command, as he demonstrated in Thursday’s B game, is a work in progress. We know that Taillon needs minor league innings after not accruing any since 2013.

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Some scouts believe Jeff Locke has another level. The Pirates could use him to get to that level in 2016 (Horner photo)

 

In short, the Pirates need some rotation help before summer arrives. By failing to land a significant veteran starting rotation arm this offseason, they need an arm to exceed expectations to keep up in the NL Central.

It’s difficult to expect more from Francisco Liriano or Gerrit Cole. They were great last season. The Pirate hope they can again get 370 combined quality innings  from the duo.

They need another pitcher to emerge and there is perhaps no better candidate than Jeff Locke.

Yes, you’re familiar with the Locke story. He lacks consistency, he’ll nibble, he’ll have a great start then a poor one, etc., etc.

But this spring he is probably not competing for a job. And this spring there’s another change: his delivery. And on Saturday in Lakeland, Fla. the new delivery got real results.

Locke’s fastball sat between 91-93 mph according to what seemed to be a fairly accurate stadium radar gun. He topped out at 94 mph and more importantly he threw it to both sides of the plate for strikes.

This did not look like a pitcher struggling with his delivery. Locke, who has worked on the motion since January, said it’s beginning to feel natural, it’s beginning to become encoded in his muscle memory.

“(Ray Searage) said …’Just make sure you’re getting back there because you’re trying to rush through it a little bit.’ That’s the only big problem I’ve really had is making sure that I really get back on my back side before I execute the pitch,” Locke said. “It’s really helped me out so much picking up my target sooner. All my pitches have a little bit of extra life on them. So far, that’s great news.”

But it’s not just the over-the-top motion, they’ve also worked on Locke consistently releasing all his pitches from the same arm slot.

“The other thing we have tried to do is make everything look like the fastball,” Locke said. “I’m getting a lot more swings on pitches that in years past I’m not getting swings at.”

Some scouts have always believed Locke has had more to give, that there was some upside in his left arm. After all, this is a lefty that has three pitches and can touch 93-94 mph. He has an above average change-up at times.

There might be more in the tank with the new-and-improved Locke. It could be one of the most important develops of the spring.

THREE UP

>>Like many others, I like the David Freese signing for the Pirates. While Freese, who will be 33 in April, is not likely to return to his 2011-12, postseason hero form, this is a guy who has posted a .723 OPS, and 109 OPS+ the last two years in the AL West, where there are tougher hitting environments than the NL Central.

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Freese signing makes sense, especially short-term sense, and will keep Sean Rodriguez’s bat off third base (Horner photo)

 

He was also a slightly above average defender at third base the last two years in Anaheim.

Can he play first?

The Pirates believe so and continue to not care if you have experience there or not.

>>The Pirates are stretching out Juan Nicasio as a possible starter and the back-end of the rotation leaves something be desired, but Nicasio might be a better fit the bullpen.

As a starter the last couple of seasons, and this spring, his fastball has been in the 91-94 mph range. As a reliever, where he had success as a Dodger last August and July, his average fastball was 96 mph.

>>Yes, Taillon hasn’t thrown a minor league inning since 2013 but don’t be surprised if he beats Glasnow. By all accounts, Taillon had a great rehab. He really appears to be in the best shape of his life, he’s motivated, and has better command than Glasnow.

THREE DOWN

>>Yahoo!’s Tim Brown wrote that the Freese signing demonstrates it’s a tough time to be part of baseball’s middle-class free agent group. The game is trending younger. And average, expensive performers are having to wait for work.. Club’s are more efficient in how they spend, better in how they evaluate. It’s another reason why a salary cap-and-floor system would actually benefit 95 percent of players.

>>Tough times to be a outfield prospect in the Pirates system. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen are quite the road blocks.

After a very good spring Harold Ramirez was sent to minor league camp Monday, but he is already off campus going to help Columbia qualify for the World Baseball Classic.

Said Pirates GM Neal Huntington:

“You remind them of the history whether it’s dark ages ago when I was with Cleveland and Richie Sexson hit 30 home runs in Triple-A and his reward was the opportunity to go back to Triple-A and hit another 15 in the first half of the season before the need arose. Or Sean Casey hitting .300 at Triple-A and there not being a clear path to the major leagues. Or, a more recent example, look at the Cardinals. They’ve been able to give their good young players additional experience in the minor leagues, whether it’s innings or at-bats, and that’s a good thing.

“It’s a frustrating thing for a young man that wants to be there right now, but if we can continue to be conservative in their development path and allow them time to learn and make adjustments and go face that Triple-A pitcher that may not have the best of stuff but knows how to pitch, knows how to pick a hole, knows how to set them up, that’s a tremendous learning experience”

>>The Freese signing, and the showing of Cole Figueroa, Gift Ngoepe and Pedro Florimon in camp might bring into question the utility of signing Sean Rodriguez. Hindsight, perhaps, but could that $2.5 million been spent elsewhere?

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 94 mph

Gerrit Cole’s top fastball velocity on Sunday. Yeah, it’s on the slow side but that might be a good thing. Why? It shows Cole is not trying to do to much this spring, he’s not tossing 99 mph in his first spring start like Matt Harvey a year ago. Cole is still maturing and better learning himself. Despite a 19-win season, the Pirates believe there is still upside here.

HE SAID IT:

Cubs president Theo Epstein going deep with CBS in Chicago:

“Baseball is like the brain, where I think neuroscientists will tell you we understand like three percent of the brain. I’ve heard some scientists say it as well — ‘This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we understand, so if you can understand .01 percent more, that’s a huge breakthrough.’ And I feel like baseball’s the same way.”

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Postcard from camp: the art behind a viral photo, Glasnow thoughts, and more …

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SARASOTA, Fla. – By now you’ve probably seen the photo from Trib staff photographer Chris Horner that has gone viral. If you haven’t, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN AND WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING ?!?!

The dad that saved his son’s face from a flying bat, a moment which Horner captured, is a photo and moment that again raises questions about fan safety at the ballpark. It also is a reminder that maybe we should all put down our smart phones more often, we’re missing too much real life.

There was a story on father and son on NBC Nightly News. Stephen Colbert based his monologue on the photo the other night. The photo has run in the New York Times along with a story. It’s evidence that still photography is really more powerful than video at times because it captures single moments.

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This Trib sports photo has made its way around the world and back

 

But what also interests me about the photo is  the art  behind it. In talking to Horner, this photo wasn’t the product of luck – it was the product of disciplined, deliberate practice.

Horner told me every time a bat or ball goes into the stands he tracks it and snaps off a volley of photos. You never know what you are going to get, he’s essentially fishing.

Once in a while, you catch the big one.

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This isn’t the photo that went viral, but it’s proof Horner is always taking shots of all the action — just in case something interesting presents itself.

 

But if you take a second off, if you let one go, if you take a day off, you never know what you could be missing. It’s a lesson to also all of us to stay disciplined. You never know when practice might pay off.

 

OBSERVATIONS FROM AROUND CAMP …

>>Tyler Glasnow offered a glimpse of his upside in Wednesday’s B game – locating his fastball down in the zone, dropping a hammer curve in for a strike – but he also showed that refinement is needed. He walked the lead-off batter, more curves were in the dirt than in the strike zone, and he gave up a stolen base that came around to score due in part to the lethargic nature of his long-limbed delivery. There’s a chance, maybe a decent one, that Jameson Taillon is ready before Glasnow. And there still might be a chance Glasnow ends up in the bullpen. There are few 6-foot-8 starting pitchers. But whether he ends up in the rotation or bullpen he should become a dominant force.

>>There’s by far the most prospects in camp in my four years on the beat. Harold Ramirez has shown why he’s a future major league outfielder (he doubled again today). Reese McGuire seems beyond his years, and went the opposite way for a single in the B game today. If he can hit, he could be an all-star. Alen Hanson has flashes of brilliance and head-scratching moments, like bobbling a routine grounder in Wednesday’s B game. Some scouts believe Wily Garcia has a chance. There’s quite a bit in the pipeline.

>>There’s little drama in camp but the Pirates do have some interesting calls to make on final bench scouts. Despite the Pirates needing a left-handed bat, scouts I’ve spoke with don’t love Matt Joyce‘s chances to make the team. Some do like Pedro Florimon as a bench option even with Sean Rodriguez on the roster. Florimon plays a better shortstop.

>>Gift Ngoepe can really pick it. He may never hit, but his defense may be special enough to carve out a bench role.

>>Pedro Alvarez looked happy on Wednesday. He didn’t seem happy often in Pittsburgh last season.

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I can’t imagine that Pedro will be using a glove often this season and perhaps that will free him of stress and burden to better unlock his game. If he can succeed in the AL East as a DH, it’s not going to happen. (Horner photo)

 

Maybe a fresh start in a league where he doesn’t have to play in the field will lead to big things. Camden Yards and the AL East should be better fits for Alvarez.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Are the Pirates taking advantage of Coors Field?

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BRADENTON, Fla. – Juan Nicasio has a big arm and had big day Sunday, showing excellent command to both sides of the plate in his first Grapefruit League start.

The Dodgers perhaps made a mistake in non-tendering him and now the Pirates have an intriguing, high-velocity arm in camp. I like him as a multi-innings reliever, Joe Blanton 2.0, but the club is stretching him out this spring to keep its options open.

What’s curious is a for a second straight offseason the Pirates have picked up a former Colorado Rockies pitcher (Nicasio and Rob Schaill), pitchers who had their numbers inflated by the Coors Field environment.

Have the Pirates found an elevation-based market inefficiency?

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Regardless of his role, Nicasio has an arm that can play. Ideally, he could be a Joe Blanton 2.0 with better stuff (Horner photo)

 

Consider that from 2012-14 Nicasio posted three straight ERAs of at least 5.14 with the Rockies. But in 58 innings with the Los Angeles  Dodgers last season, Nicasio posted a 3.86 ERA, struck out 10.3 batters per nine (career rate is 7.4) and had an elite 15 percent swinging strike rate.

His fastball jumped from 92.7 mph to 95 in 2015. His slider was plus pitch.

Is it for real or a small-sample fluke?

We’ll find out but Sunday was encouraging for the Pirates. If you’re buying a pitcher who was developed by the Rockies, you’re probably buying some upside — or a psychologically damaged arm.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle knows the Coors Field influence on pitching all too well.

“You look at a man’s career that’s pitched in Colorado and then gone somewhere else. It’s almost like a disclaimer,” Hurdle said. “You have dig to deeper and pull back some layers and look at some different things.

(The Pirates are VERY GOOD at pulling back layers).

“I think going to L.A. revealed some other things,” Hurdle said. “He’s pitching at sea level. Pitching on the West Coast helps. … The actual stuff played. The fastball velocity jumped. Some swing-and-miss pitched jumped out that we hadn’t seen as much of before. Confidence grew.

“We’re still stretching him out. He’s in the mix as a starting option or a depth starter, or work him back to the bullpen. We haven’t made that decision.”

Rob Scahill also struggled in Colorado. But he posted a 2.64 ERA and a 61 percent groundball rate with the Pirates last season, though a stint on the DL took away some luster from his campaign.

Scahill said one under-reported challenge of pitching in Coors Field is adjusting to pitching on the road as a pitcher’s stuff and movement will play differently.

Nicasio said his stamina was tested there.

“Everybody talks about Coors Field and how to pitch there,” Nicasio said. “You’ll be tired very quickly (due to elevation) and your breaking ball is not the same.”

What did Nicasio learn from Coors Field that should help in groundball-loving Pittsburgh? Keep the ball down.

“You throw the ball the down, you have a groundball, and you’ll be good,” Nicasio said.

Nicasio has leaned on a four-seam fastball throughout his career (65.1 percent last season compared to 8.4 percent with his two-seamer). He did not indicate that the Pirates have asked him to change his pitch mix.

THREE UP

>>It’s just a handful of spring training at bats but Harold Ramirez has looked like a future major leaguer. Whether he plays for the Pirates or becomes a trade chip remains to be seen as there’s a decent collection of major league outfielders in Pittsburgh at the moment.

>> Jon Niese’s debut was just OK Thursday but it will be interesting to see how the Pirates adjust his pitch mix. From 2013-14, Niese’s fastball was at least four runs above league average in effectiveness, according to Fangraphs.com. Last season it was a below-average pitch but his cutter developed into a quality offering, worth 4.4 runs above average.

A number of veteran pitchers have transformed themselves using the cutter in recent years. Could Niese be next? The Pirates’ staff typically does a good job of having pitchers edit and maximize their best pitches. For instance, Francisco Liriano completely shelved his four-seamer with the Pirates upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

>>Gerrit Cole has had no setbacks and is in good health. Cole doesn’t necessarily have to be better for the Pirates to be relevant in 2016, that might be difficult to pull off after finishing sixth in Cy Young voting, but he has to be healthy.

THREE DOWN

>> If Jung Ho Kang is not ready in early April, the Pirates’ third base options are less than ideal. Jason Rogers is challenged defensively there, Sean Rodriguez is challenged offensively, and Cole Figueroa and Pedro Florimon, fighting for a roster spot, are utility players. What does this underscore? Not only must Kang be ready somewhat early this season – he cannot afford to get hurt again.

>>Does the Pedro Alvarez experience and Cole’s unhappiness make the Pirates less inclined to deal with future Scott Boras client? The Pirates are most likely to land a player represented by Boras in the draft, and draft pool spending makes a player’s agent much less of a divisive issue  unless the pool system changes in the next CBA.

On one hand, drafting top draft talents like Alvarez and Cole signaled a change by the Pirates ownership and front office – it showed a commitment to spending and drafting talent. On the other hand, such players are unlikely to sign contract extensions are are likely to cost the club more in arbitration. We assume the Pirates would choose talent but if all things are equal….

>>Tyler Glasnow has a great future ahead of him but that changeup and control need some work.

HE SAID IT

Hurdle on prospects in camp: “We have more internal prospects than we’ve ever had. … Lot of the guys that are up now, last summer they were in conversations being had in trade talks as other organizations are eye-balling talent.”

STAT OF THE WEEK: 30

Did you know John Jaso is one of the 30 most productive hitters since 2013?

Wrote August Fagerstrom: “You probably wouldn’t expect that his wRC+ would be the same as Prince Fielder’s, his on-base percentage the same as Freddie Freeman’s, his walk rate the same as Mike Trout’s. Yet, there it is.”

-TS

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Talking to myself about the Cole situation and beyond

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SOUTH HILLS – Talking to myself about the Cole situation (the format is shamelessly borrowed from Cleveland Plain Delaer columnist Terry Pluto) …

Q: Buster Olney suggested the Pirates upgrade Cole’s salary to $750,000 as a gesture of goodwill. Given how much money there is in the game, given the PR hit the club took, that makes sense, right?

A: True. It does make a lot of sense, and it’s not like the club went on an offseason spending spree. There is precedent: the Mets gave Matt Harvey $650,000 in his final pre-arb year, Mike Trout received $1 million.

But they are the exceptions. There’s absolutely nothing in the CBA forcing the Pirates to pay Cole above the minimum. And the Pirates probably believe buying goodwill is not going to yield them anything down the road, as Cole is a good bet to hit free agency as soon as he possibly can (after the 2019 season). They believe, and probably rightly so, that Scott Boras is not going to show any goodwill in arbitration-age negotiations and beyond.

Q: Don’t you want a happy ace? Since it’s campaign season, a happy warrior?

A: It couldn’t hurt. But I don’ think Cole was all that pleased with his contract last season and he finished sixth in Cy Young voting. He’s still going to be motivated to be great because of the personal pride and professionalism he exhibits – and because it will help his future earnings. Hey, maybe he’s better when he’s upset?

Q: What about a contract extension to buy out arbitration?

A: Perhaps this is where there could be some common ground. Perhaps goodwill couldn’t hurt here. Cole Hamels was in a similar position with the Phillies in 2008 and called his final pre-arbitration contract a “low blow.” Ten months later he signed a three-year, $20 million deal covering his final three years of arbitration.

While they haven’t spoke about such a deal yet, there should be interest in both sides to get to some sort of similar deal.

The Pirates should be motivated to seek a contract that would create cost certainty and avoid a $20-million-plus arbitration salary in 2019, a salary that could force the front office to trade him before free agency (See: David Price and the Rays). Cole knows how many young, hard-throwing arms have had Tommy John surgery. He’s avoided the knife to date, but it might make some sense to create some short term security Cole (say, a three-year, $30-million deal through 2017-19) without sacrificing a free agent season.

Q: This system seems really unfair to young. talented young players.

A: It is. Especially young arms like Cole, who are more susceptible to injury, whose future value is more in peril.

Q: But this system seems great for clubs.

A: Oh, it’s never been better, especially for small-market clubs. Consider that in the post-PED era, free agency has been devalued as players’ careers are shortening. There are hundreds of fewer free agent seasons to buy. That erodes the financial advantage held by larger-market clubs.

By the time a homegrown player reaches free agency – particularly a college player – he’s near or beyond 30 years of age and the team that signs his next contract will be paying for decline. Teams don’t need to pay open market value for players to be effective. (See: Pirates, Rays and A’s … and, really, the Cardinals)

Q: Should Cole really be upset with the contract negotiated by the union? After all, it is the union and baseball owners that have created this pre-arbitration salary structure?

A: True, Cole’s biggest beef should arguably with the salary structure the union created. And what’s interesting is now that Cole is the Pirates’ union rep, taking over for Neil Walker, he should have a bigger voice at the table.

Q: What should players ask for?

A: Well, the owners would perhaps lock out players before they change the pre-arb salary structure – and they do have a point that they have to pay for a developmental system, unlike other sports, that produces few major league players and creates millions in wasted bonuses, etc. Players also seem to want to reward seniority AND merit.

But perhaps there could be some common ground on Super 2 status (Cole was also a victim here). It doesn’t make sense for teams to hurt themselves and players by artificially suppressing service time. There has to be a better way.

Q: How cheap are the Pirates?

A: You could argue, many are, that they are too cheap in this circumstance. I think the big issue is Cole says they threatened to reduce his salary to the minimum. That seems like an unnecessary threat. What we don’t know is the context in which it was made. Was Boras asking for a record setting pre-arb salary? Or were the Pirates really just fighting over a few thousand dollars?

Regardless of their manners, the Pirates’ front office is trying to be as efficient with an ownership-driven budget as possible, and, rightly or wrongly, ruthlessly frugal GMs/presidents have done OK in the past.

Here’s this on Branch Rickey (decent executive!) from the SABR bio project:

“`Rickey believes in economy in everything except his own salary,’ wrote the New York Daily Mirror’s Dan Parker. Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers tagged him ‘El Cheapo’ after Rickey dumped a number of the Dodgers’ older, and better-known, players soon after taking over.’”

Q: Still, the Pirates have taken a PR hit. Doesn’t that matter?

A: If they do nothing to change that, if they begin losing again, they could take a big hit at the ticket office in the future. You could argue they don’t need to buy goodwill with Cole, they also need to buy goodwill with their fan base. They will be negotiating a new TV deal as Andrew McCutchen and Cole approach free agency.

And giving Cole a few thousand dollars more, finding a way to buy out his arbitration years so they don’t have to move him in 2019 because they don’t want to play $20 million in arbitration, might be a better use of resource than extending McCutchen.

-TS

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