Monday Mop-Up Duty: Who’s out when the music stops ?

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ARLINGTON, Texas – We don’t hear Clint Hurdle publicly critique a player often but after Saturday’s loss to the Rangers Hurdle said Juan Nicasio must better “impose his will” on opponents.

“The first pitch of the game is an important pitch. I don’t want a feeling-out process,” Hurdle said. “The will gets imposed during a game. Either you impose yours, or they impose theirs. … The 104th pitch, he threw 95 mph. The first 10, he didn’t throw over 91. I just have to figure it out and talk with him.”

Nicasio has had a rough May.

No quality starts.

A 6.75 ERA.

When I asked Hurdle on Sunday about Nicasio being a possible bullpen option, if could excel there (and ostensibly be the odd man out when help arrives), Hurdle did not remove that option from the table.

“Could he be? Absolutely. He’s done it. He’s been successful the one year he did,” Hurdle said. “We have pitching coming. That’s if it comes healthy. In this game of baseball people get hurt all the time. I think we’ll always try to push the envelope on developing starting pitching knowing that we have some coming. When push comes to shove, in a perfect world, young players develop, opportunity presents itself, then those other options are available to you.

“Yes, (Nicasio)  could be but right now he isn’t. Our challenge is to make him the best starting pitcher he can be while he’s in this rotation.”

What you have to like if your office is on Federal Street, or if you’re a fan of the club, is that not only do the Pirates have the third best record in the NL, they have three of the International League’s top nine ERA leaders:

Chad Kuhl leads the IL in ERA (1.03), Jameson Taillon is fourth (1.82), and Tyler Glasnow (2.25) is ninth.

Hurdle and Neal Huntington have said the young arms will arrive as starting pitchers, not bullpen help.

Nicasio2
Juan Nicasio hasn’t been great in the rotation but he could help in the bullpen (AP photo)

 

The question then becomes how much room will the Pirates need to make in their rotation?

Nicasio figures to be the odd man out and can perhaps strengthen the bullpen.

As I’ve written about here since the spring, even during Nicasio’s success, his lack of a third pitch,  fluctuating velocity and command might make him a better fit in the bullpen.  Nicasio hasn’t been able to consistently repeat the fastball command he demonstrated in March. Is it a fatigue issue? Perhaps he would be a much better fit as a multi-inning reliever, which is probably the role the Pirates originally envisioned him filling. And the bullpen arguably needs more help than the rotation.

Jon Niese has made four straight quality starts and has quieted some of the angst about the Neil Walker trade. Niese is probably a lock to stay in the rotation. His $9 million salary doesn’t hurt his cause, neither do the 24 ground outs over his last two starts for a club that has seen its groundball rate go in the wrong direction.

Jeff Locke has a 5.03 ERA, but has been pitching well in May.Still, he figures to be on rotation bubble watch duty, too. (In speaking with scouts, Locke is a guy who has trade value, too).

The Pirates have help on the way, but if Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl are all to arrive this year one might have to begin in the bullpen. Does Kuhl beat Glasnow to the rotation? To the bullpen? (Feel free to place your bets in the comment section).

Or perhaps not all three service clocks will begin to tick in 2016.

The Pirates will soon have too many arms for spots in the rotation. They will soon be playing musical chairs there. It’s a good problem to have, of course.  And it will be interesting to see how much room the Pirates make, how many chairs they pull away, and who is sitting when the music stops (which is what happens with the Super 2 deadline is passed).

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS ..

>>What’s behind Francisco Liriano’s issues?

What’s behind his declining performance and chase rates despite similar velocity to last season? Liriano’s swinging strike and out-of-zone swing rates from opponents are career lows. While the Pirates are 22-5 in the last 27 games started by Liriano, they’re 4-4 in his last eight starts.

It’s about fastball location.

Check out his fastball location of 2016 vs. 2015 in these heat charts:

LirianoFB2016 Liriano2015

You’ll notice from those two charts that Liriano more often located his fastball away from right-handed hitters in 2015 than this season when he’s been more inside as David Manel and August Fagerstrom have examined.

Liriano said after is start Sunday that this is in part intentional.

Liriano said he is trying to pitch “deeper into games” and induce earlier contact. But he said he’s also missing more often. For instance, he tried pitch up-and-in to Rangers lefties Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder on Sunday and both pitches came back over the plate for two home runs, nearly matching his HR total allowed to LHHs from 2015 (3) and 2014 (3).

The issues vs. lefties were a new problem but connected to his issue against RHHs – fastball command.

>>Hurdle agreed with the concept that right-handed hitters are chasing less because if a fastball is inside they can erase the threat of a slider. RHHs are not likely to swing at a slider that begins on the inside portion of the plate. After all, sliders dive down-and-in to righties. Liriano better located his fastball and slider on the outside half of the plate last season, more often presenting a dual-threat to hitters as Liraino’s fastball and slider look awfully similar for the first 50 feet of their path to the plate.

OUT-OF-ZONE SWING % vs. LIRIANO

2013: 35.0

2014: 34.0

2015: 33.3

2016: 27.2

The Pirates need the 2013-15 Liriano back, and perhaps he should shelve his new approach in addition to tightening his command.

>>While Andrew McCutchen hasn’t gotten hot yet, while his strikeouts are up, while his fly-ball rate is up — McCutchen said he is not trying to sell out for power and has not made a swing change — his hitting second in the lineup is working as intended.

Entering Sunday, McCutchen has 23 at-bats with two outs and no one base, which is fourth on the club. Last season, only Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (164 at-bats) came to the plate with two outs and no one on more than McCutchen (158). The next closest Pirate? Gregory Polanco (83).

>>Speaking of Polanco, he’s OPSing .867 against lefties this season vs. .564 for his career. Perhaps he’s putting platoon worries behind him. He hit lefties well in the minors.

>>Jung Ho Kang ‘s return has been remarkable. Six HRs in his first 19 games back? Crazy. Also crazy is his work against fastballs, including anticipating and taking an outside Cole Hamels fastball out to the opposite field Friday.

Kang has proven he can hit velocity.

He’s proven the leg kick works.

He’s paved the way for more talent to come over from the KBO.

While he only missed part of last season, should he be considered for NL Comeback Player of the Year if this continues?

>>The Pirates might not need much external pitching help with what they have in the pipeline but we liked Rich Hill as an offseason target and we like him even more now as he’s shown his September of last season is looking less like a fluke. Hill as a two-month rental would be an interesting add. He could perhaps also help the club delay the arrival of a Glasnow or Kuhl until 2017. For $6 million, Hill would have been a worthy offseason target of the Pirates.

>>Pirates have not had much luck with the orbital bone as A.J. Burnett, Austin Meadows in past years, and Ryan Vogelsong and prospect Kevin Newman this season, have fractured the bone(s). Newman was having a very encouraging season in High-A and has been moving up prospect lists. He looks like a future above-average bat in the middle infield.

>>Brash and foolish of Tony La Russa to enter a broadcast booth during a game. That’s crossing a professional boundary – literally and figuratively.

>>For as good as the Pirates have been offensively, and have mostly remained so in May …

Yu Darvish‘s start was a reminder that good pitching almost always beats good hitting.

HE SAID IT

Arizona manager Chip Hale on Arquimedes Caminero
(and the Pirates’ coaching staff).

“I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” Hale said. “When you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s not something that we can have here. The guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it. It’s almost the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is the player at that point.”

HE SAID IT II

Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume: “They  have a reputation for pitching inside. It’s one they defend vigorously. …This is a constant factor when you play the Pirates.”

HE SAID IT III

Hurdle on an offseason conversation with Jeff Banister

“Everyone was yapping at each other, and (Banister) says, ‘Boys, get ready, you are going to come and get (Cole) Hamels and (Yu) Darvish,’ ” said Hurdle, remembering Banister’s predicted probable pitchers for the late-May interleague series. Hurdle said to Banister, “ ‘Wait a minute. How do you know (Darvish) is going to pitch against us?’ (Banister) knew way back when.”

By the way, it looks like the Pirate Way that Banister has brought from Pittsburgh is working in the Metroplex.

HE SAID IT IV

McCutchen on shallower alignment:

“There are quite a few balls over my head that I should have had. I’ve learned to kind of gauge where I play. … I’m not going to just play in every at bat, every batter. It’s ‘OK, how is he pitching today? Do I need to play a little more in or back?’ ”

HE SAID IT V

Are the coaches are OK with McCutchen’s discretion?

“They trust me,” McCutchen said. “We do need to play more in, but we base numbers off last year and this is a different (pitching) staff.”

You have to wonder how the Pirates feel about McCutchen electing to occasionally deviate from the alignment plan. The wouldn’t work well in the infield, and there’s a reason McCutchen should be shallower …

STAT OF THE WEEK: 56.9

Percent  of time tMcCutchen is holding runners from taking the extra base  versus 42.4 percent last season and 30.7 percent in 2014 . The Pirates’ center fielder is irked by the balls that have gotten over his head, but the shallower positioning is working.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

From the talented and wonderful Salena Zito on remembering those who shaped a nation on Memorial Day

“An estimated 41 million Americans have served in the U.S. military during conflicts and wars since 1776.

That amounts to about 7 percent of the total population preserving the liberty and freedoms of the other 93 percent of us.”

It’s estimated 1.4 million Americans have died in military service since 1775.

-TS

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Farm Report: More about Austin Coley, plus notes

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The Florida State League is not friendly to hitters.

Few ballparks serve as true launching pads and breezes make it tougher to accumulate power numbers. Line-drive approaches yield more consistency and would-be home runs turn into flyouts.

High-A Bradenton’s pitching staff has been taking advantage. Entering Saturday, the Marauders were tied with Charlotte for the lowest ERA in the FSL at 2.79. Bradenton’s team WHIP was 1.18, second only to Clearwater’s 1.17.

In his first season as a reliever, Luis Heredia is 3-0 with a 0.79 ERA and a .160 opponent batting average in 16 games. And he is just one of five Bradenton pitchers with 10 or more appearances and an ERA below 2.65.

Left-hander Brandon Waddell stole early-season headlines for not losing in the first month of the season (despite a rough start on Tuesday, he still hasn’t lost in nine starts between Bradenton and Altoona).

Stephen Tarpley is back from injury and Alex McRae has spun three straight quality starts to drop his ERA to 2.45, the lowest among the Marauders’ starters. And don’t forget about right-hander Austin Coley, who despite recently snapping a six-start winning streak has logged five straight quality starts, including a 7-inning, 2-run outing on Saturday against St. Lucie.

In this Sunday’s Trib, we take a look at how rediscovering his curveball has allowed Coley to string together a few successful starts with Bradenton this season.

***

Needless to say, it’s been a rough season for the Pirates organization in terms of eye-and-face related baseball injuries:

  • Austin Meadows was sidelined for a month-and-a-half with an orbital bone fracture suffered while playing catch in spring training.
  • Ryan Vogelsong was struck in the face by a 92 mph fastball on Monday and was sent to the hospital with multiple facial fractures.
  • On Thursday, Kevin Newman was hit in the face by a pitch in the eighth inning of a game against Jupiter. Pirates Prospects first reported that Newman had suffered a left orbital fracture. He was placed on the 7-day disabled list and Bradenton, in need of an extra infielder, gained the services of 2014 first round pick Cole Tucker, who was called up Saturday from Low-A Charleston. Tucker hit .262 in 15 Low-A games this season.

Newman tweeted the following a few hours ago:

It’s hard to know the severity of these types of injuries until further evaluations take place, but orbital injuries sidelined both Meadows and, further back, A.J. Burnett for 6-to-8 week periods. The timing is rough for Newman, who has had a real impressive start to his 2016 season (.346 batting average, 53 hits in his first 38 games).

That all sounds like I’m digressing from a discussion on Coley (7-3, 3.23 ERA as of Saturday night), but I’m not.

In fact, two of Coley’s most distinct memories from his time at Belmont stem from being hit by baseball.

The first is a negative memory. A comebacker ended his sophomore campaign in 2013.

“I think with four starts left, I took a liner back and it hit my hand,” Coley said. “I broke a couple bones in there and ended my season.”

Coley was still taken in the 27th round of the 2013 draft by the Mets, but decided to return to school.

His junior season didn’t start well. Coley was preparing to be the ace of the Bruins staff prior to the 2014 season when he found out he had mononucleosis and dropped between 20 and 30 pounds. Still, he quickly found his way back onto the field, where he got a pretty big scare in a February 28 matchup against Mercer.

Coley said he doesn’t remember the specific hitter, but he was a “big, left-handed guy” that hit a line drive up the middle early in the game. Coley didn’t see the ball, which bounced off his head and redirected into right-center field.

Said Coley: “I didn’t lose consciousness or anything but obviously when that happens, you’re thinking the worst.”

Said Belmont coach Dave Jarvis: “After what I had seen happen to him with the line drive off his hand in ’13, I was afraid. He got up and we talked about it for a second. He said, ‘I think I’m OK.’ They let him throw a few pitches and the trainers deemed that he hadn’t suffered a concussion or anything like that.”

Coley, who had let up a three-run homer in the first inning, stayed in the game and, in the words of Jarvis, “shoved the baseball.” He finished with 13 strikeouts in a game Belmont eventually won in extra innings. 

Said Coley: “That’s definitely one of the craziest things to happen to me while pitching.”

Coley finished his junior season 5-1 with a 2.72 ERA and was taken by the Pirates in the eighth round of the 2014 draft, making him the fourth right-handed pitcher the Pirates selected that year (behind Mitch Keller, Trey Supak and Tyler Eppler). He was one of 10 right-handed pitchers drafted by the Pirates in the first 17 rounds in 2014.

Last year, Coley logged 147 2/3 innings for Low-A Charleston in what was by far, innings-wise, the longest season of his career. In somewhat typical fashion for players experiencing a sudden spike in innings, Coley said his velocity dipped slightly and his stuff flattened out a bit as the season progressed. Still, he won 16 games and finished with a 3.66 ERA.

“I don’t know why our offense likes scoring a lot of runs for me, but that’s definitely the case,” Coley said, laughing. “Wins should be allotted to their stats, not mine.”

Coley’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is down this year, but he has allowed just two home runs in his first 10 starts after allowing 18 in 27 starts in 2015. It will be interesting to see whether an even distribution of changeups and curveballs will allow Coley to continue his current success. Right now, he’s on pace for a slightly better 2016 against (obviously) tougher competition.

Random facts about Coley: 

  • He got married in January. His wife, Chloe, is the younger sister of former Belmont teammate and good friend Chase Brookshire.
  • He recently graduated from college. Coley spent his first two offseasons finishing up his last two semesters at Belmont. He earned a liberal studies degree with a minor in entrepreneurship. Said Coley: “Whenever I get done playing ball — whenever that is — I don’t want to go back and finish up two semesters when I have to provide for a family. I wanted to get that done so I don’t have to worry about it.”
  • Coley said Belmont was his only Division I offer.
  • In 51 collegiate appearances (26 starts), Coley had just one loss.

“Super Two” update

  • Jameson Taillon hasn’t pitched in a game since May 19, as his spot in the rotation was skipped in order to prevent his innings load from piling up too quickly. He is scheduled to start Sunday evening in Pawtucket.
  • Tyler Glasnow picked up his fourth win of the season on Friday in Pawtucket, allowing just two runs on five hits over six innings. He struck out six and walked three. He leads the International League with 69 strikeouts.

Chad Kuhl update

  • Kuhl is now nine starts into his 2016 season and still has just a 1.03 ERA. On Thursday against Rochester, he allowed just one run on six hits over seven innings, striking out seven and walking none. Also notable about that start was Kuhl’s pitch count, which rose to a season-high 97. Kuhl, who dealt with a minor forearm injury in spring training, has met or eclipsed 90 pitches in three of his last four starts (he threw 88 pitches in the fourth).
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What’s wrong with Caminero? And an ode to Barmes

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PNC PARK – So Arizona manager Chip Hale isn’t all that pleased with Arquimedes Caminero  or the Pirates’ managing/coaching. He’s upset after a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball, and little command, hit two of his players, and sent one – Jean Segura – out with what was initially thought to be a possible concussion.

caminero
What’s wrong with Caminero? (Horner photo)

 

“I think, I kind of said this (Tuesday) night, I don’t think the kid meant to do it,” Hale said before Wednesday’s game against the Pirates. “I just said, you know, when you put a guy out there that doesn’t have control in that area and you’re trying to pitch in, it’s just not something we could have here.

“If a guy doesn’t have the ability to pitch in certain quadrants of the zone, we don’t do it,” Hale continued. “So, it’s almost like the fault more of the coaching and the managing than it is of the player at that point. I had heard from different people around that he was a pretty wild pitcher. It’s unfortunate, and that part of the body is not a place to get hit.”

Said Nick Ahmed, Caminero’s other victim to the Arizona Republic: “It sucks. You don’t want anyone to get hit, expecially in the head or the face. Two guys with the same pitcher in two innings, honestly, I don’t think he was trying to hit me … but still, you can’t be throwing up into guys heads.”

So the Diamondbacks think there is a question of responsibility. What do you do with a talented arm like Caminero’s that is struggling with command?

The other question the Pirates are trying to find an answer to:

What’s wrong with Caminero?

On Wednesday Caminero went on the DL, due to an apparent quad strain, taking a “pause” from throwing as athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk described. During this time the Pirates will try and figure out just how to fix to a key member of their 2015 bullpen. (Caminero did not stick around to speak with reporters on Tuesday or prior to — or after — Wednesday’s game).

What’s the issue?

Caminero is still throwing as hard as he did last season, occasionally touching 100 mph, but what has changed, and what BucsDugout.com analyst David Manel noticed a couple weeks back,  is his release point. And it has changed quite dramatically.

Changes in release point can hint at injury and Caminero’s release point has changed dramatically this season, and continuing in May.

Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

Often a lower release point indicates an arm/elbow injury, but perhaps a lower-body injury could cause a player to raise his release point like Caminero has.

Or maybe Caminero is just a mess mechanically.

Either way, the Pirates would like to be able to place him safely in games to pitch again, and pitch effectively.

 

AN ODE TO BARMES

Former Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes announced his retirement Tuesday. And while you might not have thought much about Barmes lately, Jordy Mercer’s play at shortstop should remind you of him.

Barmes shared his wisdom with Mercer when Mercer, then a rookie, arrived to the majors in 2013. It was an uncommon act of openness and cooperation for a veteran in dealing with a rookie pushing for his playing time.

It says much about Barmes’ character that he was so open and gracious with Mercer.

Barmes was also open and accepting of radical defensive alignment when the Pirates introduced a plan to  greatly increase the usage of defensive shifts in the spring of 2013. It’s important that your shortstop be on board with the plan.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates
Barmes was an important early figure in the Pirates’ turnaround (Wire photo)

 

Barmes learned to play an above average shortstop in a difficult venue: Coors Field. Not only does the thin air of mile-high Denver and Coors Field allow fly balls to travel further, but the arid climate always makes for a quick infield. To get by as a shortstop at Coors Field on a quick playing surface, Barmes had to create advantages, he had to find successful short cuts.

Barmes learned to play deeper toward the hole against right-handed hitters, he learned to take more efficient angles to the ball, he had to release throws to first more quickly and accurately. Barmes credited playing in Denver to helping him become one of the game’s better defenders.

And when he arrived in Pittsburgh, when Mercer, then a rookie in 2013, Barmes did not keep his tips to himself, he shared them.

“It was something special. I’ve told him a thousand times, I can’t thank him enough,” said Mercer who said he still texts often with Barmes, who signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals this spring. “It’s pretty cool to have a guy that I could go to that could mentor me a little bit, and show me the ropes, it definitely helped me along the way.”

In playing alongside Barmes from 2012 to 2014, Mercer honed his positioning and anticipations skills.

According to Ultimate Zone Rating, which measures the number of balls a player fields compared to league average at the position, Mercer has improve every year. … well until this season.

In 2013 he posted a -9 UZR extrapolate over 150 games, in 2014 it crept to 0.5, to 2.0 last season, though it has declined early this season (-17) but it’s still early. (Mercer had a positive UZR for April).

“It’s all about knowing your surroundings and knowing what you are going to do with the ball before it’s even hit to you. If the infield is fast you are going to take a deeper angle,” Mercer said. “There is no question about it. A field like ours, it’s not quite as fast, so you can kind of cut it short. A faster infield like San Diego or LA, or even here, you have to take deeper angles.”

That Mercer has become an everyday major league shortstop is remarkable considering the Pirates briefly had him move off shortstop in A-ball to accommodate Chase d’Arnaud, and once players slide down the defensive spectrum that don’t often move back up.

It’s a credit to hard work and a willing veteran taking a young player under his wing.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: First quarter report

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PNC PARK – Key members of the Pirates front office and manager Clint Hurdle met Saturday for a quarterly review, something of an interim report card for the club.

Colleague Rob Biertempfel handed out his quarter-mark grades Sunday and I think many in the public, and privately within the organization, would generally agree with those marks.

The offense has been very good.

The grinding, on-base focused approach and personnel changes have worked. Like Rob, I’d also give the group an ‘A,’ as the Pirates rank sixth in baseball in runs (203) and third in on-base percentage (.357) despite playing in the DH-less league.

huntington
If you’re Neal Huntington, do you like what you see at the quarter mark? Where can you help this club? (Horner photo)

 

I’d give a C+ to the defense, which collectively ranks 16th in baseball in defensive efficiency, or the percentage of batted balls converted into outs (.703), an improvement from 23rd last season but way down from its 2013-14 levels.

(The outfield defense has been dramatically improved – more on that later – and John Jaso has been a tremendous upgrade at first).

More troubling is the inconsistency in the rotation, and the bullpen which has gone from an elite to a liability.

On my interim report card the rotation earns a ‘C-’ and the bullpen a ‘D.’

The Pirates’ rotation ranks 15th in baseball in ERA (4.27), but 24th in FIP (4.57), and has declined in a number of areas from last season. The walk rate is an unsightly 3.6 per nine and the groundball rate – a key aspect of the run prevention plan – has declined.

More troubling is the bullpen, which after ranking second in baseball in bullpen ERA from 2013-15, ranks 25th in baseball with a 4.33 ERA, and 25th in FIP (4.77). Is workload of the last three years catching up with the bullpen?

And I have to think it is the rotation and bullpen – and potential replacements – were a focus of conversation during the quarterly reviews.

The good news?

We’re well aware of the potential internal reinforcements in Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who, if you believe in the minor league statistical translations and projections, would be two of the Pirates’ top five starting pitching options as we speak.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington addressed both of top prospects Sunday.

“(Taillon) continues to be ahead (of schedule/expectations) in maturity, composure and competitiveness, composure…And his ability to maintain his emotions,” Huntington said. “He actually may maintain his emotions too well. Sometimes we want him to be a little bit meaner and nastier out there. He’s even-keeled and he just repeats that emotion pitch after pitch. If he gives up a home run, he’s going to dot that fastball away (on the next pitch). If he punches someone out, he’s a guy who is going to go to his fastball down and away (on the next pitch). He’s still working on the consistency of the breaking ball… quality  of the changeup. Still learning pitch sequencing.

“(Glasnow) is going to need to throw three pitches for strikes here. A.J. Burnett is the exception to the rule. A guy who got away until he was 37 with basically two pitches.”

It again sounds like Taillon is closer. Still, don’t expect any movement until after the Super 2 deadline has passed. And at this point, it absolutely makes sense for the club to wait since we’re about three weeks from that projected mark.

An ETA? (My guess is Taillon debuts on June 14 at New York)

“In a perfect world they have a full year at Triple-A,” Huntington said. “It’s probably not going to be a perfect world.”

taillomn
Six years after he was selected second overall, we’re getting close to seeing Jameson Taillon on a major league field (Horner photo)

 

And the Pirates’ pitching staff is not a perfect situation.

But the beauty of promoting one, or both, is that they should not only strengthen the rotation but also the bullpen.

For me, Juan Nicasio is a prime candidate to excel in the bullpen and strengthen that unit in moving out of the rotation.

Consider this: Opponents have a .654 OPS against Nicasio on pitches 1-25 in a start, a .743 OPS on pitches 26-50 and .928 OPS on pitches 51-76.

Nicasio is a two-pitch pitcher, whose velocity could spike into the elite range in the bullpen. Pitching out of the Dodgers’ bullpen last year, his fastball averaged 96 mph.

And by leaving three lefties in the rotation it gives the Pirates a slight edge as PNC Park plays more favorably to left-handed pitching.

Huntington did not seem interested in considering Taillon or Glasnow for the bullpen when they arrive. Though perhaps Glasnow could arrive later in the year in a late-inning bullpen role like David Price back with the Rays.

So in sum, the Pirates probably have some less than satisfactory marks on their interim report card, but the good news is they don’t have to search externally for help at their greatest areas of need.

 

THOUGHTS OBSERVATIONS

>>The new, shallower outfield alignment is working.

And it’s working in critical area you might not have initially thought much about (I didn’t): the Pirates outfielders are closer to the infield thereby able to scoop up groundball hits closer to the infield and better hold and throw out runners. It’s not just about fly-balls being converted into outs, though that’s a big part, too.

From Saturday’s paper …

Last season, the Pirates’ outfielders held opposing runners from advancing an extra base on singles, doubles and sacrifice flies 52.6 percent of the time, according to Baseball Reference. This season? 59 percent.

Last season, 45.7 percent of balls hit to the outfield became outs.

This season? 53.1 percent.

“No. 1, we have a staff that predominately uses two-seam fastballs,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “So in  actuality, a high percentage of balls are getting to the outfield on the ground. Fly balls that are hit (off two-seam fastballs) are not hit as high or deep as four-seam fastballs. It also accentuates outfield arms. It increases throwing accuracy, the ability to stop runners. So there are a bunch of different parts in the package.”

>>As noted by BucsDugout.com, the new alignment has benefited Andrew McCutchen, who is holding 55.7 percent of runners from advancing this season, up from 42.4 percent last season.

According to MLB.com, through April, McCutchen’s average starting position of 299 feet was 17 feet shallower than his average 2015 starting position of 316 feet — the greatest decrease in average depth in baseball among center fielders.

>>The idea of shrinking the strike zone seems to be at odds with another MLB initiative: quickening the pace of play. A smaller zone means more balls, more baserunners, more offense.

>>Yeah, I don’t understand Rule 7.13, either.

>>While so much attention has been paid to Taillon and Glasnow, the club’s top offensive prospect, Josh Bell, has been putting together a stellar campaign, and homered from his weaker side, the right side, over the weekend. But Bell is of course blocked by Jaso. Jaso’s value should be up after he’s proven he can handle first base. I have to think he has some trade value this offseason.

>>Huntington said prospect Chad Kuhl has been asked about often in trade talks with other teams. The Pirates aren’t interested in moving him. He could help in the rotation or bullpen … and soon.

>>Jared Hughes had shown better command of his sinker at the Cubs, but then left one up Saturday. Pirates need Hughes to be right.

>>Have the Cubs stolen the Pirates playbook? This season he Cubs lead baseball in groundball rate 51.5 percent, and the Cubs also rank first in sinker percentage. The Pirates also developed a philosophy of pitching inside, in part because their analysis found pitching inside in an at bat. The Cubs were of course not shy about pitching inside often in last weekend’s series in Chicago.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 100.6 mph

Speed of Marte’s throw home on Friday night, cutting down the game-tying run.

Nothing like having a 70-grade arm in left field, which plays up even more with the shallower alignment.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 31

Consecutive games played for the Pirates as they will lose Monday’s off day. That’s rough. It also might guarantee that we see a Taillon call-up in June.

STAT OF THE WEEK III: 38

Game No. 38 in which the Pirates committed their first error by a first baseman this season. The Pirates led baseball with 30 errors by first basemen last season. The next worse team had 17.

HE SAID IT

“I’m thinking if he (Garneau) goes we have an out,”

Gerrit Cole on Marte’s throw Friday night

HE SAID IT II

Said Cervelli of Rule 7.12: “I don’t understand the rule. … They gotta pick up on that thing and make it better.”

HE SAID IT III

“That’s how to play defense in the major leagues. That’s the story of the game. That’s world class effort … “My two boys up the middle, salt and pepper, they were great.”

– Cole on an outstanding defensive effort from the club Friday.

-TS

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Farm Report: The art of the steal, Hanson gets the call

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Adam Frazier is now primarily a left fielder, but he has played at least nine innings at four positions this year, meaning he’s had to learn the footwork, angles and responsibilities for each.

There are a few differences between left and center field and shortstop and second base, but luckily they aren’t ones that create space issues in Frazier’s bag on road trips.

“Only two,” Frazier said with a chuckle when asked how many gloves he brings with him.

In Sunday’s Trib, we took a look at Frazier’s several transformations over his two-plus years in the Pirates organization since being drafted in the sixth round out of Mississippi State in 2013, the latest of which has required him to become more aggressive on the basepaths in an attempt to steal 50 bases.

That number, presented to Frazier, the Pirates’ No. 27 prospect (per MLB.com), during spring training by Triple-A Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor, is actually within the realm of possibility through Frazier’s first 38 games. He is tied for third in the International League with 12 steals, but his season total is rather difficult to project for a couple reasons.

No. 1 is the ugly stat category that accompanies stolen bases – caught stealing. As of Sunday, Frazier had been caught stealing eight times, which leads the International League by two. The other three IL players with 12 or more steals – Emilio Bonifacio, Trea Turner and Wilfredo Tovar – have been caught a combined six times. In the Pacific Coast League, there are seven players with 12 or more steals, none of whom have been caught more than five times.

Very few high-volume base stealers have done so with the consistency of someone like Shane Victorino, who is 16th among active players with a stolen base percentage of 83.394 but also managed to steal 211 bases from 2007 to 2013 or Brett Gardner, who has stolen 210 bases in his career with an 81.081 percent success rate.

In 2015, the Pirates’ top base stealer was Starling Marte with 30, followed by Gregory Polanco with 27 (no one else cracked 15). Marte operated at a 75 percent success rate last year (and has a career percentage of 73.964) while Polanco was successful 72.973 percent of the time.

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying it will be interesting to see A.) how long Frazier is given the green light and B.) how much Frazier improves as a base stealer between now and the end of the season.

For now, Treanor has indicated he’s fully committed to Frazier, 24, being a prolific base stealer.

“To add that element to his game is good,” Treanor said on Wednesday. “Well, what it’s been here is I’ve – forced is maybe too strong of a word – but I’ve forced him to run.”

Treanor said Frazier has had a couple calls go against him – and without replay, all calls, even the bad ones, are final – but that he is continuing to learn. In the minor leagues, where, again, cameras are limited, that means Frazier is receiving a lot of that education live on the basepaths in game situations.

“It’s watching the pitcher. There are some guys with quick feet. Right-handed pitcher with quick feet, you may not be able to get out there as far as you would with somebody else,” Treanor said. “But you’ve got to know that going in and that’s why I believe he’s studying more and being more aware of different guys on the mound, what he can do and what he can’t do.”

Think of it this way: Frazier, who right now has a stolen base percentage of 60 (12 of 20) is working for an extra 15 percent in terms of success rate.

His time spent working on his lead, first step, acceleration, slide, etc. will probably be considered time well spent if it gets him to right around or above Marte’s stolen base percentage. That’s three more stolen bases out of 20, or really hundredths of a second, separating a fast runner and leadoff man attempting to steal more bases and a legitimate base stealer.

In other words, Frazier is not that far off, especially in Year 1 of making this a bigger focus.

A look at the top two base stealers at each level through Sunday (SB, SB%):

Pittsburgh:

  1. Starling Marte (12, 80%)
  2. Josh Harrison (6, 100%)

Triple-A Indianapolis:

  1. Adam Frazier (12, 60%)
  2. Alen Hanson (8, 72.73%)

Double-A Altoona:

  1. Barrett Barnes (4, 80%)
  2. Harold Ramirez (3, 50%), Austin Meadows (3, 60%)

High-A Bradenton:

  1. Jeff Roy (5, 83.33%)
  2. Pablo Reyes (5, 55.56%)

Low-A Charleston:

  1. Tito Polo (11, 57.89%)
  2. Alfredo Reyes (6, 85.71%), Casey Hughston (6, 85.71%)

Getting the call

 Alen Hanson is already back with Triple-A Indianapolis, but earlier this week he was called up for the first time in his career. He made his major league debut on Monday and got his first hit on Tuesday.

Treanor, who was also Hanson’s manager during the 2015 season, said it was a neat experience letting Hanson know he was being sent to the majors.

Some Triple-A managers have a habit of messing with guys or pranking them before telling them the good news, and Treanor said he used to count himself among that group.

“Yeah, you know, I used to do it individually,” Treanor said. “All kinds of stuff gets involved. Crazy stuff.”

Recently, Treanor has changed things up. Now he calls a post-game team meeting during which he lets the player know in front of the entire team.

“What I started doing last year, and I think it actually means more, is we do it right in front of the team. I bring the team together and we did it and then there’s a lot of, you know, hugging and yelling going on,” Treanor said. “I think it means more that way. We’ve had some pretty good stories, and I’m sure I’ll go back to (individual meetings) at some point, but now I just do it in front of the whole team.”

Hanson, Treanor said, was (obviously) thrilled by the news.

“All guys take it a little bit differently, but the excitement factor is always the same,” Treanor said on Wednesday. “Some guys will get emotional and it’s what they’ve been working toward, so that was pretty special to be able to tell him that the other day.”

Short hops

  • Right-hander Trevor Williams threw five scoreless innings for High-A Bradenton Sunday in his first game action since sustaining a shoulder injury in his first Triple-A start of the season. Williams threw just 62 pitches, allowing four hits, striking out four and walking none.
  • Double-A outfielder Harold Ramirez has hit safely in 10 straight, raising his batting average to .292 from .234 in just two weeks.
  • Double-A left-hander Brandon Waddell won again last Sunday to improve to 7-0 with a 1.51 ERA in eight starts this season.
  • Top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow lost for the first time since April on Sunday and looked impressive doing so, striking out nine and walking just two over six innings. The other half of what should be known as “The Super Two,” Jameson Taillon, tossed six scoreless innings on Thursday to make it six straight starts of six or more innings, three or fewer runs allowed, five or fewer hits allowed, two or fewer walks allowed and three or more strikeouts.
  • Asked if the dominance of Indy’s pitching staff means he’s less busy in the outfield, Frazier said: “That’s exactly what it means (laughs). It’s fun to watch so far. I think all our guys are on the right track for sure. I think Pittsburgh fans can expect to see a lot of those guys really soon. It’s been very impressive to stand back and watch that first-hand.”

 

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Pirates lock up a competitive advantage at a discount, and create something else

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PNC PARK – The Pirates and Francisco Cervelli found common ground on a three-year contract extension Tuesday. The club-friendly deal is a big deal as it will allow for a critical competitive advantage to continue for the Pirates.

Cervelli and Russell Martin are/were keys to the Pirates’ turnaround, and replacing such catchers that can contribute offensively and defensively is incredibly difficult.

This space believed extending Cervelli was critical this offseason.

Consider that since 2013, during the Pirates’ three straight postseason appearances, Pirate catchers have produced 15.0 WAR, third in baseball.

From 2010-12, Pirates catchers ranked 27th in baseball with 2.3 WAR in baseball.

Pitch-framing catchers (who can also hit) were part of the Pirates’ run-prevention turnaround plan along with shifts and groundballs.

Since becoming a Pirate, Cervelli is second to only Buster Posey in WAR among catchers and has out-WARed Martin (4.5 to 2.7).

And if you use Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) – which includes pitch framing metrics— Cervelli led the Pirates with 5.7 WARP last year. Yes, Cervelli was more valuable than McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Another pitch-framing wizard, Martin, finished second on the club in WARP (5.2) behind only McCutchen in 2014.

“He’s one of a handful of catchers in the game that are elite on both sides of the ball,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s a real good add for us, and it’s a good opportunity for him.”

Then consider that Cervelli was an impending free agent in a weak class who was unlikely to be re-signed if he hit the open market.

cervelli
Everyone loves Francisco Cervelli. And now he’s sticking around for awhile. (Horner photo from 2015)

 

Then consider that top catching prospect Reese McGuire still has to prove he can hit and was not an option to open with the club next year, and that Elias Diaz some scouts believe he will be more of a MLB backup than starting type.

So it was important that the Pirates find common ground with Cervelli.

And they not only did so but signed yet another position player to a club-friendly deal.

The deal was not far off from what Cervelli was seeking back in January, and what Cervelli was seeking back in January was also reasonable.

The Pirates now have Cervelli, Jung Ho Kang, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison signed through at least 2018 to multi-year contracts. That’s 75 percent of their starting lineup.

That gives the Pirates’ valuable cost control, and assuming these players remain healthy, the Pirates will also enjoy incredible surplus value.

This gives Huntington what appears to be desirable flexibility.

Huntington can trade prospects for need (like a Diaz), the Pirates can allocate dollars to fill pitching voids, or the Pirates could potentially trade one of these cost-controlled pieces for a need.

“A big reason why we’re able to plan around that core is what we see on the horizon,” Huntington said. “It allows us to feel more comfortable in committing some of the finite number of dollars that we have available to know that we’ve got players that we can build around.”

The Pirates have done an excellent job getting core pieces the same way the 1990s Indians did in pioneering these deals, the same way the Tampa Bay Rays of the 2000s aggressively adopted the practice.

Those small-markets sustained success.

It will be interesting to see who the next target is. Gerrit Cole? Or will the Pirates feel there is too much risk with a pitcher? (Or will they be unable to find common ground?).

Kang? McCutchen?

Behind John Jaso is Josh Bell, the heir at first base. And while Jordy Mercer has become an above-average MLB shortstop, the Pirates have spent recent first round picks on shortstops in Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker. Huntington said a goal when he arrived to Pittsburgh was to have multiple prospects up and down the system at every position.

“And we’re getting closer to that,” Huntington said.

But there might not be an internal replacement for Cervelli. So keeping him was key.

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Sunday was a good day for the Pirates … Now they need more like them

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CHICAGO – There was a different sound after Sunday’s game at Wrigley Field, a sound that had not emanated from a Pirates clubhouse after playing the Cubs in some time.

There was music.

A typical post-game ritual in major league baseball is for music, often hip hop or rap, to be blasted in the clubhouse after a win. After a loss, the speakers are silent, and players are quiet — expected to at least feign significant disappointment even if they personally had an excellent day. After Saturday’s loss, the frustration was palpable in mood and silence.

But on Sunday, the rapper Ice Cube’s 1990s hit “It was a Good Day” reverberated around the cramped visiting Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Pirates’ desperately needed 2-1 win snapped a five-game losing streak this season against the Cubs, and a seven game slide dating back to last season if one counts the NL Wild Card game.

Cole516
Gerrit Cole is a legit No. 1. And if he begins to consistently replicate fastball’s command like he did Sunday, he should end the year receiving Cy Young Votes (AP photo)

 

A native southern California like Ice Cube, Cole, also a good day Sunday. In fact, given the opponent, performance, and circumstances, Cole might have never had a better day in the majors.

Cole was masterful in delivering a big game performance when it was needed most.

He was back in Cy Young Award vote-garnering form, with the best fastball command he’s had all season throwing 65 of 95 pitches for strikes.

Check out Cole’s Inside Edge report card from the game. It’s ‘fridge worthy.

The Pirates returned late Sunday night to Pittsburgh losing a series but with some dignity restored in avoiding being swept again by the Cubs.

While Pirates manager Clint Hurdle down played the importance of Sundays’ game prior to first pitch, there was certainly a boost in morale after the game, and returning to Pittsburgh above .500 and having finally beaten the Cubs for the first since last September certainly can’t hurt confidence. Had the Pirates lost, they wouldn’t get another shot for quite some time as the Pirates’ next 24 games are against non-division opponents.

All wins count the same in the standings, but perhaps not all wins are created equal in boosting or subtracting confidence.

Cole was defiant in action and words.

“I don’t really think they’re the best team in baseball,” said Cole afterward when asked about beating the best team in baseball.

The soundbite created quite the stir along the west coast of Lake Michigan.

The Cubs are the best team in baseball to date. It’s hard to argue otherwise. But pro athletes have extreme confidence and don’t – or don’t want – to believe anyone can be superior to them. Maybe Cole was also trying to make a showing of confidence for his teammates. Maybe it was just heat of the moment. Maybe there’s been too much made of it.

Who knows.

One Chicago reporter asked Cubs manager Joe Maddon on Sunday morning if he thought the sound bites coming from the Pirates’ clubhouse spoke to a team being distracted. Maddon declined to talk about another club.

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom made a guess today on what Cole’s words really mean.

Wrote Rosenbloom: “But Cole’s words seem to be revealing. If there was any question whether the Cubs are in the Pirates’ heads, then this would seem to be pretty good evidence. …. Cole sounds like a guy who’s trying to talk himself into something. He sounds like a guy who’s trying to talk his teammates out of feeling out-talented. He sounds like a guy who needs a hug.”

Nothing like a good old fashioned rivalry, eh?

Maddon did speak to how playing good teams should raise the level of play.  The Cubs are not only really talented, but they have raised their level of play vs. the Pirates (+25 run differential in six games vs. the Pirates).

In the book “Your Brain on Sports” the authors – an SI editor and psychologist – noted that in rivalry games the underdog usually covers the point spread, the authors shared an anecdote that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson always looked at the calendar to see when they would play in the regular season, they wrote that even though Serena Williams dominated Maria Sharapova, Sharapova actually increased her level of play.

The Pirates needed to raise their execution to match the Cubs. They did on Sunday. They didn’t play distracted. They didn’t retaliate. It was a day when Cole’s actions were much more meaningful and important than anything he said afterward.

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>This notion that Cole can’t win important games was also quieted Sunday. Recall Cole started three critical games down the stretch last September against the Cubs, Dodgers, and Cardinals – and won all three games to help secure at least home-field advantage and keep the Pirates within striking distance of the Cardinals. Cole has also acquitted himself well on the College World Series stage and in the NLDS as a rookie. He has pitched well in an assortment of important games. … Moreover, Cole, of fiery temperament, did not pitch emotionally in a charged environment Sunday – a packed Wrigley and bean-ball accusations the previous day. He executed as well has he has in his career.

>>What if Jung Ho Kang has another level? What if there is no sophomore slump, rather, moving forward, another level?

Kang516
Decent return to action for Mr. Kang (AP photo)

What Kang has done in his first eight games back – six extra-base hits (four homers)  and both RBIs on Sunday – has been remarkable. Kang also made a nice stop moving to his left Sunday, showing that while his lateral range is not 100 percent back, he can still defend. He’s made a remarkable recovery.

>>Kang seems to enjoy the moment, and high stakes. And since he had to help his team win a gold medal in the Asian Games to avoid military service in his native South Korea a few years back perhaps that he thrives in pressure should not be surprising.

>>Oh, and Kang might also be a pretty good scout. That he thought Byung Ho Park’s power would play in the majors seems to be pretty a accurate assessment.

> Peter Gammons made the case that everyone should slow down and relax regarding the calls for prospect promotions specifically citing the situation with Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. There are many factors to consider: these are humans, young humans, and teams are best served not to  to rush prospects. Also, the financial ramifications upon future budgets is a real one for the Pirates’ front office to consider. From that aspect, the Pirates are acting rationally. A couple weeks of Taillon or Glasnow now is not worth the extra arbitration costs added down the road. And maybe the club truly feels neither is ready. But Taillon sure looks like he would upgrade the rotation, striking out 11 in his last start and owning a 2.08 ERA in seven starts with Triple-A Indy.

>>I wouldn’t be worried about Andrew McCutchen. Yes, the chases are up. Yes, the numbers aren’t quite there. But Hurdle believes his swing is getting more connected and he has a team-best eight home runs demonstrating that his ability to torque and drive the ball are intact.

>>Corey Luebke is intriguing. Left-handed. A former first-round pick , a former quality starter, whose velocity was up in his rehab. He had a 18-to-3, strikeout-to-walk ration in 12 Triple-A innings. He’s an intriguing lottery ticket and an Ohio State product. So you have to like the guy.

HE SAID IT

“I don’t have feelings or emotions like that. Every pitch, every at bat, I’m trying to focus” – Kang on whether he feels any animosity toward the Cubs.

HE SAID IT II

“(Jeff Locke) is suggesting Jake always knows where the ball is going. I’m saying it’s evidenced by the fact that he walked Locke on four pitches that he doesn’t always know where it’s going,” Maddon said. “I don’t think he was intimidated by Mr. Locke at the plate and was trying to throw strikes. That’s how I would answer Mr. Locke. – Maddon on Arrieta’s hit by pitch

HE SAID IT III

The  hit by pitch came after Cervelli’s two-run single, and was the first batter Arrieta hit all year. And it wasn’t a close miss but between the numbers on the back … with a fastball.

HE SAID IT IV

“He has the look of a cyborg … But I think even Arnold messed up a couple times in Terminator.” -Maddon, who noted Arreita walked Locke on four straight pitches.

HE SAID IT V

“I really like our closer. I seem to like him more than anybody else.” –Hurdle choosing to begin the ninth with Mark Melancon and not Cole on Sunday, who has never tossed a complete game.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

— After the first two runners of the Cubs’ ninth reached base.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Since 2013, the Pirates (278), Cubs (233) and Cardinals (212) rank first second and third in being hit by pitches. Part is tied to the Pirates’ inside pitching philosophy, but also to retaliation.

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION

The Publican in Chicago. Terrific restaurant.

-TS

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Friday Farm Report: Projecting Brandon Waddell, plus more

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JACKSONVILLE — In this Sunday’s Trib, we’ll take a look at Brandon Waddell and what allowed him to quickly advance from High-A Bradenton to Double-A Altoona.

While Waddell was pretty well known for winning the deciding game 3 of the championship series of the 2015 College World Series for Virginia, he was far from the first player in that championship series to be drafted. That honor went to Vanderbilt infielder Dansby Swanson (first overall) and Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer (eighth overall). Waddell was taken 157th overall as the Pirates’ fifth round pick.

Still, he was one of the more prolific pitchers in the ACC during his three years in college, and his high school coach at Clear Lake (Houston), Ruperto Jaso, told the story of a lanky left-handed pitcher who was highly sought after as a high school junior and senior.

Rice, the local baseball powerhouse, was heavily recruiting Waddell, and so were several others. In the end, it came down to Stanford and Virginia, the latter making the extra effort to see how Waddell had progressed prior to his senior year.

“We went into his senior year and he was really starting to come around and one day I was sitting in my office and I got a phone call from (pitching coach Karl Kuhn) over at Virginia and he said he was interested in one of my pitchers,” Jaso said. “So much so that he wanted to come see him throw, but we were in the offseason. We were in, I believe it was October or November of his senior season and he flew down the next couple days, we got a few players together and had a makeshift scrimmage.”

Waddell, who Jaso said was also a talented hitter and first baseman, had a strong senior season at Clear Lake and a strong next fall in Charlottesville and was named Virginia’s Friday starter prior to his freshman season. He won 21 games in three years with the Cavaliers, just five during his junior season.

His command suffered during that season (89 strikeouts and 49 walks in 110 innings), but a couple factors might have contributed. The first was a blister issue; the second was ACC lineups having seen the same pitcher for three seasons.

So far, there’s no evidence of a resurfacing blister problem. In seven starts between High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona this season, Waddell is 6-0 with a 1.28 ERA.

But even Waddell acknowledged the Thursday after he made his first start with the Curve in Erie that it’s a long season.

“I went home to Houston and just worked to get my body in shape and get it ready for the season,”’ Waddell said of his offseason. “Obviously, this being my first full season, it’s going to be a lot longer. The most games I’ve played in a season is probably 90 this past season with college and short-season combined, so now it’s going to 142 and hopefully I’ve prepared myself.”

I’ll pump the brakes on comparisons for a second, but in terms of innings and starts, we can take a look at Gerrit Cole’s 2012. Cole – again, not a comparison, but he and Waddell were both drafted as catastrophic injury-free, three-year college pitchers from major conferences – made 13 starts with Bradenton, 12 with Altoona and one with Indianapolis that season. He went 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA in 132 innings over those 26 starts.

Waddell went 5-5 with a 3.93 ERA in 110 innings at Virginia in 2015 and 1-1 with a 5.75 ERA in 20 1/3 innings with Short-season Class A Morgantown last season. That means he has reached that 130 innings mark before and that if he reaches or surpasses it this season (as Cole did during his first full minor league season), then we’ll have a truer, more direct year-to-year comparison of how far Waddell has come.

For now, teams are still just trying to hand Waddell a loss. Since Aug. 30 of last year, it hasn’t happened.

Quick pitches

  • After a solid spring training, MLB.com’s No. 6 Pirates prospect, Harold Ramirez, had a rough start to his 2016 season. In his first 11 games with Altoona, the outfielder hit .149 with a .184 on-base percentage. In the following 18 games, he’s hitting .354 with a .425 on-base percentage. Just four of his 23 hits during that span went for extra bases and he is without a home run, though that has never really been his game. In 80 games in High-A last season, he hit six.
  • Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are both excelling in Triple-A, and Chad Kuhl’s ERA continues to silently drop. With another scoreless six innings on Wednesday, he is now down to a 1.10 ERA over 32 2/3 innings. Kuhl, who dealt with some forearm tightness in spring training, has not gone beyond six innings in any of his six starts thus far.
  • Right-hander Trevor Williams, who recorded just one out in his first Triple-A start this season before exiting with a shoulder injury, was sent to extended spring training this week as he works to build up innings. He seems to be taking that trip in stride:

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To extend, or not extend, a premium home-grown arm … (and our podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – The Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg reportedly reached an agreement on a seven-year, $175 million contract extension Monday. The move is of some interest as related to the local nine.

Like Gerrit Cole, Strasburg is a former No. 1 overall pick, and drafted with the expectation he would become a franchise cornerstone.

And like Cole, Strasburg is a Scott Boras client.

(Boras clients are open to contract extensions – if they are nine figures in value and near market prices).

No. 1 draft picks don’t come along very often – if you’re doing it right as a club. But how long will the Pirates be able to keep their most precious of resources? (Horner photo).

Of course, there is likely about a zero percent chance the Pirates would sign Cole to such a contract given ownership’s history with contracts, and the risk associated with arms.

But as was written here back in the spring after Cole’s unhappiness with his 2016 contract became public, it still might make sense for the Pirates and Cole to work toward a different kind of common ground, like the three-year, $30-million (inflated for 2017 dollars of course), arbitration-buyout contract the Phillies and Cole Hamels agreed to after a squabble about his final pre-arbitration contract a few years back.

But would the club consider a significant extension that went beyond arbitration years with any arm, not just Cole?

What’s interesting is that of the four, multi-year extensions the Pirates have given to players – Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco – under Neal Huntington all have been to position players.

Would the Pirates consider giving a young pitcher such a deal?

Beyond Cole, would they target a Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon? Would the Pirates offer Glasnow or Taillon a seven-year type deal like the one extended to Polanco before he arrived in the major leagues?

We’ll perhaps find out. There hasn’t been a young, pre-arb, homegrown pitcher besides Cole with which to study in regard to the club’s practices and risk tolerance with young pitchers.

Yes, there is some point with many players where the Pirates would agree to an extension, but given the risk associated with arms and shoulders one wonders if the Pirates are really only interested in signing position players to deals beyond their arbitration years.

The Pirates are well aware off the spike in Tommy John surgeries.

They are concerned about the number of amateur prospects they have flagged due to injury concerns in recent drafts. And like everyone else they don’t fully understand, of have an solution to, arm and shoulder injuries.

Strasburg’s contract is a reminder that the closer Cole inches toward free agency, the less likely he is to remain a Pirate beyond 2019. And without some cost certainty one wonders whether Cole will even make it to 2019 as a Pirate. Would the club pay him $20 million in a season via arbitration?

And if a club is unwilling to allocate significant dollars to an arm, should it almost always take bats with premium picks in the draft? In a vacuum, perhaps selecting bats with premium picks (the Cubs Way) and arms later is the ideal model. (The Pirates’ last three first round picks have been position players).

Even if you draft and develop an ace, there is risk that remains.

Strasburg has already had Tommy John surgery once. There is research that suggests the replacement ligament lasts around seven seasons. The list of pitchers who have excelled after two Tommy John surgeries is a small one. The Nationals are taking on significant risk.

Even if you develop an ace, how much do you invest in that ace? Or do you enjoy the first six-plus years of their career and let them walk?

You can’t win without quality arms, but how much can a small-market club afford to invest in them?

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST …

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: So what’s the plan if …

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SOUTH HILLS –  …. the Cubs never lose again?

The Pirates played well over the weekend in taking two of three from the Cardinals. They are in second place in the division, and have avoided a slow start which plagued them in past years. There is a lot to like about this club, most notably an offensive approach that has gone exactly to plan.

But they reside on the same baseball cul-de-sac as the Chicago Cubs, and there is a lot to envy about their neighbor.

The Chicago Cubs are playing .806 baseball – and their run differential, and talent base suggests this could easily be a 100-win team.

Easily?

They are on pace to win 130 games as we near the quarter mark . Dave Cameron at Fangraphs.com suggested today they are the perfect baseball team.

How good are the Cubs?

The Fangraphs.com’ projection has the Cubs with a 96 percent chance to win the division – yes, 96 percent! — and it’s only May 9th! The Pirates? A 2.3 percent chance.

2001Mariners
John Jaso notes – or believes – that even the 2001 Mariners had a bad stretch of baseball. But will the Cubs? (The have to, right?) … To date the Cubs have been a superior to the 2001 Mariners and are on pace to win 130 games. (AP photo).

Yeah, a lot can happen.

Baseball is tough to predict.

It’s freaking May.

But I think we can all appreciate the Cubs look pretty tough unless they are suddenly dealt with a number of injuries.

From a Pirates manager or player perspective, it’s tough. They are trying to win every game, they are preparing to win every game. It’s tough to get a 30,000-foot picture of things from within the clubhouse or dugout. (Or sometimes the fanbase0 They are so invested. It’s tough to accept some realities. And you don’t want player or coaches thinking about such realities, really. But if you’re more removed, if, say, you’re in the front office, if one can more take on the bird’s eye view, how do you manage this situation?

What do you do from here on out with the 2016 Pirates?

Some thoughts …

*I get a lot of Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow questions. They are probably two of the best five starting pitching options right now. But if you’re not going all-in on this season then it makes more sense for the sake of future payroll flexibility to delay their arrivals ’till after mid June, after Super 2. (But delaying their arrivals means the potential for a lost win or two, which could be costly in the wild card race. Even if the Cubs run away with the division, a wild card berth should be possible).

*If the division is not likely in play, then trading any of tomorrow (prospects) for today (short-term help) makes less sense, it would have less impact. Neal Huntington has noted the idea that one player can put a club over the top is often a misplaced one and dangerous for clubs. Trading young talent for rent-a-players is generally a bad idea. So if the Pirates have little chance at winning the division then a Dilson Herrera for Marlon Byrd type deal probably does more harm than good.

*In fact if the Cubs pull away by mid-summer, it might make sense to sell a piece at the  deadline that does not figure into the club’s long-term plans, depending on the market.

*The worst-case scenario for the Pirates is the Cubs become a hegemonic power in the division for the remainder of the decade. (Getting way ahead of myself now). Still, when thinking about that prospect, another focus might be on studying what works best, what style of play is most effective in the postseason. If you can’t beat a super power in the regular season, take your chances in the small-sample, more arbitrary postseason. Try to build a team that might be better suited for October. I suspect that is partially behind the club’s offensive approach.

*And perhaps what you do more than anything if you’re the Pirates is to  lobby to change the wild card round format.

Huntington mentioned this spring the Pirates had explored ways to expand the round. The last thing the Pirates need is to run into a Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard in a fourth start one-game playoff. It doesn’t sound like clubs want to play a doubleheader in a best-of-three series, so perhaps the answer is to copy the KBO format and play a best-of-two series where the home team and higher seed must only win one game, while the lower seed must win twice to advance.

So maybe it has been a bridge year all along.

Maybe the plan all along has been to make a tactical retreat and wait for a better ground, better circumstances.

The Pirates didn’t exactly go out and spend a ton of money or make an impact trade this offseason. They haven’t been aggressive with prospects callups.

And now the the Cubs are off to a historic start, making an All-In approach perhaps even less sensible. It’s an awkward position to be in: a good team behind, perhaps, a historic one.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Of course one thing that could perhaps change the calculus a bit in the NL Central is if Jung Ho Kang comes back and improves in his second year. The two-homer game in his return was remarkable. I’m not sure if Kang is running 100 percent, but it sure appears he can plant, pivot and drive with his lower body in his swing. Sending a ball into Big Mac land is a big deal.

>>Gregory Polanco’s breakout continues to look like a very real thing, and what is also encouraging is his batted-ball type. He has career highs in line drive rate (26.4 percent), and a career-low pop-up percentage (3.6).

>>Should Chris Stewart be Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher?

That battery duo had an excellent 2015 together, they were good again in St. Louis. Skills wise Stewart is a comparable defensive catcher to Francisco Cervelli . But one  wonders if  the analytical and even-keeled Stewart is a better match in temperament for Cole.

Cole has a 3.00 ERA in two starts pitching to Stewart this year, and a 4.22 ERA when throwing to Cervelli.

Cole’s career:

Catcher – IP – ERA

Stewart – 211 – 2.60

Martin – 1542/3 – 3.14

Cervelli – 91 – 3.56

Maybe there is a case to be made for a personal catcher.

>>We all had John Jaso with more homers than Pedro Alvarez, right?

>>Hey, Jake Arrieta looked human in his last start. Any chance he doesn’t look super-human this coming weekend at Wrigley?

>>I was curious entering the season how aggressive the Pirates would be in limiting Jeff Locke’s exposure, in limiting the number of times he faces an opposing order. Opponents have a .910 OPS against Locke in their third plate appearance against him this year. But he has just faced 39 opposing hitters in a third appearance in a game this season, and he has not faced any opponent for a fourth time.

>>Tony Watson feels he’s getting in a better place … now can Arquimedes Caminero get in one? Caminero is walking nearly a batter per inning.

>>Interesting stuff from August Fagerstrom on the Pirates’ outfield alignment here. 

Why are the Pirates are playing shallower this season? (Thank you Statcast data!) …

Shallowest average air balls allowed, 2015

  1. Cubs, 284.8 feet
  2. Yankees, 285.8
  3. Pirates, 286.0

Also, the Pirates’ two-seam/groundball plan factors in since if you want outfielders to be shallower to field groundballs and limit extra bases, and groundball staffs tend to allow shallower flyballs, Fagerstrom notes.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK

Why keep throwing the Pirates fastballs? The Pirates continue to be one of the game’s better fastball-hitting teams.

 

HE SAID IT

Cole on his well documented attendances at the Penguins-Capitals playoff game last Wednesday.

“The guy was just telling us not to bang on that corner piece,” Cole said. “It’s spring-loaded, and if we were to bang on it too hard, we would dislodge it. I wasn’t getting reprimanded by any means.”

“What a tremendous experience. I just feel fortunate we were able to engage in that kind of stuff and support the other teams.”

 

THEY SAID IT

 

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