Friday Farm Report: Trade chips at the deadline, Williams looks to bounce back, plus a note on Kevin Newman

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As we close in on the 2016 trade deadline with the conversation largely focused on what kind of a prospect haul it would take for the Pirates to obtain a legitimate starter, or conversely what their prospect haul would be in return for Mark Melancon, it’s almost fitting that Steven Brault is slated to toe the rubber for the Pirates Friday night.

Brault is one of just two players in MLB.com’s midseason list of top 30 Pirates prospects who was not drafted or signed by the Pirates, instead coming over from the Orioles as a player to be named later in the Travis Snider trade last January.

On Friday, the Marlins parted with Jarred Cosart, Carter Capps and two top prospects, Luis Castillo and Josh Naylor, in exchange for prospect Tayron Guerrero and two big league starters, Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea. Naylor is already listed as the No. 4 prospect in the Padres organization and Castillo No. 15 (both per MLB.com). Guerrero, a right-handed pitcher, is listed by MLB.com as the Marlins’ No. 25 prospect.

The Padres also parted with Drew Pomeranz two weeks ago in exchange for Anderson Espinoza who, per MLB.com, ranks as baseball’s No. 21 prospect.

As one of the deeper organizations in baseball, the Pirates certainly have the minor league trade chips and then some to acquire a rental arm, but at what cost?

“I think I’ve said it every year for the last three or four years, you can look out at every young Pirate that came through our system, that’s on our major league club right now, and every single one of them could have been traded for a player that’s not here and might have only been here for two months,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday. “It’s easy to give away something you don’t know about.”

That answer came in response to a question asking Huntington if he felt the farm system was in a good place. Huntington went on to say that the Pirates’ goal is to remain in contention as opposed to taking just a single shot at a World Series followed by years of mediocrity. Young, talented prospects, he said, play a key role in maintaining a winning culture.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t trade prospects,” Huntington said. “We have and we will, we just need to be careful and diligent about it and make sure we understand the big picture as well as the short-term impact.”

Given words like “careful” and “diligent” and the Pirates’ prospect trade history under Huntington, it’d be hard to imagine a trade in which the Pirates parted ways with a top prospect like Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell or Austin Meadows, regardless of who’s on the other end.

But, as previously mentioned, the pieces are there. In ranking the Pirates sixth among teams with prospects to trade at the deadline, MLB.com columnist Jonathan Mayo pointed to Brault and Chad Kuhl as movable assets.

Speaking of minor leaguers traded to the Pirates…

Trevor Williams, a right-hander with Triple-A Indianapolis who is the subject of the minor league report in this Sunday’s Trib, will pitch Sunday after his first rough start since embracing a four-seam-first philosophy.

Williams allowed eight runs (three earned) on six hits over 2 2/3 innings Tuesday in Gwinnett after putting together a streak of five straight quality starts.

Acquired from the Marlins last October, Williams posted a 1.79 WHIP through June 23, but didn’t always pitch as poorly as his numbers indicated. Of the 50 hits he allowed during that eight-start span (a shoulder injury on opening day sidelined him for nearly a month and a half), just eight went for extra bases.

“When you see the line, you see the eight to 10 hits and you say, ‘Holy cow, I got whacked around the yard,’ but it’s one of those that it’s a leadoff single and then it’s a double play and another single with two outs,” Williams said on Wednesday. “It’s just tough and then when you pitch with guys on, you’re always a single away from a run. But there’s another sense of singles can’t beat you. But I mean, it’s nice pitching out of the windup and not having to pitch from the stretch every single hitter.”

Stay tuned for that story and for Williams’ Sunday start. He’s also worth a follow on Twitter, where you’ll find gems like this:

Said Williams of his Twitter game: “I would say it’s up there. It’s one of the top ones. I take pride in my Twitter game and when people follow I think I’m kind of expected to put on a show a little bit. I like to throw a little bit of insight in there.”

Hello, Newman

With three hits Thursday, Double-A Altoona shortstop Kevin Newman brought his batting average to .333 in 35 Double-A games and .351 overall between High-A and Double-A this season.

On Sunday, Huntington mentioned a mechanical change to Newman’s swing that has allowed him to drive the ball with more authority, and in his first full minor league season, his power numbers are indeed up. Newman’s OPS through 76 games this season is .878, not all that far off from his OPS during his junior season at Arizona (.915). Newman hit .370 that season to finish with the third-highest batting average in the Pac-12.

“We’re going to continue to work to remain even keeled on our evaluations of our guys, but you love when a guy comes out and does well, especially a guy drafted last summer,” Huntington said of Newman. “As we look at it, we see the reasons for success. Again, the simple swing, the knowledge of the strike zone, the command of the strike zone, the pitch recognition ability that he has, the ability to use the whole field. The hitter traits that we liked in the draft have certainly played as he’s advanced through professional baseball.”

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Is Archer worth it? And Glasnow, Kuhl updates and more (including our podcast)

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PNC PARK – As we near the trade deadline, the Tampa Bay Rays are in position to be the key player. The club is willing to deal starting pitchers Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore.

If the Pirates are to make a significant move, it should probably be for a starting pitcher and for one that is under team control for multiple years. It should also be an arm on the younger side of 30.  It should be an arm that can fit at the top of a rotation. It probably should also be a low-salary arm.

The 27-year-old Archer checks all the boxes.

How valuable is Archer? He has the 21st most trade value among all pro players, according to Dave Cameron’s 2016 trade value list.

“A year ago, Archer cracked the top 10 by taking a huge leap forward, striking everybody out and becoming a legitimate ace. He’s carried over most of his strikeout gains this year, but everything else has been off; the walks are up, his BABIP has spiked, and his home run rate has nearly doubled. By themselves, maybe these wouldn’t be that big a deal, but when they all happen simultaneously, they’re something of a red flag, which is why Archer falls ten spots this year. But even with his somewhat-concerning first half, Archer still looks like one of the best young pitchers in baseball; the stuff is still good and he’s still missing bats, so he can probably correct the command problems and get back on track. And if he does, well, he’ll be a #1 starter making #6 starter money.

“This probably isn’t the right time for the Rays to trade Archer, given that he could increase his value again with a strong second half, but if they do decide to take advantage of the lack of pitchers on the market, odds are good they’ll get a crazy return for him; the upside and the contract make him insanely valuable

Archer
Archer – along with Chris Sale – stand out from the pack in the deadline market (AP photo)

Even if Archer is not a true ace and rather a good No. 2, he’s still really valuable. If he becomes an ace again, he’s a top-10 trade value guy.

The Pirates are one of the few organizations with top-end farm talent that has the goods to land Archer.

Ken Rosenthal reported that the Rays are asking for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, ranked 6th and 10th in Baseball America’s top 100 midseason prospect rankings.

I’m operating under the assumption that’s too rich for the Pirates. (More on that later). But Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Sunday history shows the returns on deals further away from the deadline (See: Drew Pomeranz and Aroldis Chapman) are usually better for the sellers than deals made closer to the deadline.

This is a seller’s market. Until, perhaps, 3:50 p.m. Monday.

What is being lost in all this is trade talk is this: Is this really the best time to be making a deal if you’re the Pirates?

The Pirates’ planning focus is likely as much or more centered on 2017 and 2018 than this season, given the club’s less-than-great chances at making this postseason.

So from that perspective it could make more sense for the Pirates to wait until the offseason to consider a major move. And the Pirates have generally made bigger moves in the offseason.

On the other hand ….

The free agent market isn’t going to become any friendlier. There is expected to be a weak class for pitching this winter.

And will a player with the youth, talent and contract of Archer be available in the offseason? That is unlikely, too.  Hey, it’s not like Shelby Miller was traded cheaply last winter. There would possibly be more buyers for such an arm in the offseason.

So if the Pirates or another club looks at Archer as an impact, front-line pitcher now might be the time to act.

But about that price: Glasnow and Meadows is steep.

I don’t think the Pirates would pay it. But they would have to pay something close to that.

Think about it this way as I argued on the podcast (link below):

The Pirates want Glasnow to become Archer.

Archer already is Archer.

Moreover, Glasnow could be more expensive than Archer by 2021 (what projects as Glasnow’s second arbitration year). And Glasnow might never become as good as Archer. There’s a very good chance he isn’t. There’s still a chance he winds up in the bullpen, or suffers serious injury.

Meadows, or Josh Bell,  is too steep a B piece, but the Pirates have the depth and talent to put together a quality package.

I don’t think giving up prospects for a mid-rotation arm or a rental makes much sense for the Pirates. Their own young arms carry more upside this season and beyond.

Archer (or Chris Sale) is a different story.

Holding and not buying anything of significance might be the most prudent path, it’s the path I suspect the Pirates to take. But there is a case to be made on buying on Archer or a pitcher like him.

(Especially with Francisco Liriano having his worst season since 2012, and showing no signs of getting out if. When Liriano departed in the fourth inning Tuesday, his ERA had climbed to 5.38 for the season and 5.54 for July.)

HEALTH UPDATES ON PITCHING DEPTH

The Pirates still have not revealed their starting pitching plan for Friday.  They did provide some good news for the rotation depth.

Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk said Wednesday that Glasnow did not require an MRI and is ready to pick up a ball and being throwing.

The Pirates’ hope is Glasnow will be ready to pitch again soon after coming off the 15-day DL. Whether that’s in the majors or Triple-A remains to be seen. Tomczyk also said Chad Kuhl did not suffer the same kind of triceps injury as Gerrit Cole did. Tomczyk said Kuhl has already resumed playing catch.

So the Pirates’ pitching depth appears to be a decent place, or a place as good as could be after injuries to Glasnow and Kuhl Saturday.

Ryan Vogelsong is being schedule to be stretched out to 90 pitches tonight at Indianapolis. Might Vogelsong get another shot at the rotation before Jeff Locke or Jon Niese? They each pitched out of the bullpen Tuesday.

OUR WEEKLY PODCAST

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to make of Glasnow, rotation depth, and the super subs

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PNC PARK – The eye test still matters.

It still matters even in the age of Statcast, the age of big data.

While I do believe in the power of the objective force that is statistical analysis, as with anything, there are limits. Traditional scouting and observation is still really, really important.

So that brings us to Tyler Glasnow and the Pirates rotation.

gLASNOW
Is Tyler Glasnow one of the Pirates best five options? Or is he not ready for the MLB level? Can we even evaluate him off Saturday’s performance? (Horner photo)

According to PECOTA and ZiPS projection systems, Glasnow has been one of the Pirates’ best five starting options since May.

Through two starts, it looks like the projections were too optimistic. And projections have had big misses before like with the Kansas City Royals, like with Matt Wieters.

ZiPS projections for the rest of the season for some Pirates starting options:

 

               Name     IP        ER           BB           K         ERA        FIP

  • Cole       71           25           18           65           3.15        3.00
  • Liriano   69          29           31           72           3.76        3.80
  • Glasnow 34        14           19           38           3.86        4.05
  • Brault    40           12           12           28           4.13        4.01
  • Taillon   26           13           9              17           4.52        4.25
  • Kuhl       42          22           14           27           4.62        4.55
  • Totals        282         115         103         246         3.67

Glasnow, according to ZiPS, is the Pirates’ third best starting option going forward.

His minor league numbers, his strikeouts per inning, his batting average against, were more dominant than Gerrit Cole’s work as a prospect.

They were more dominant than any of the names on the list outside of Liriano.

But on Saturday, in Glasnow’s second major league start, the projections seemed to miss something.

“We have some kind of tendency to translate Triple-A numbers to big league numbers,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s probably one of the (biggest) challenges we have here in evaluations.”

Indeed.

Now, we don’t know how much Glasnow was affected by the shoulder issue that placed him on the disabled list Sunday.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested Sunday it was significant and that Glasnow’s second start should be thrown out for evaluation purposes.

“I don’t think it was one pitch he felt it on. He tried to battle through it,” Huntington said. “He didn’t spin his breaking ball anywhere close to way he spun it at minor league level. The velocity came and went. Didn’t command the ball anywhere near as well as he had in the past.”

But beyond the shoulder, for Glasnow, the little things – controlling the running game, fielding his position – were big problems Saturday. And they have been big problems, masked due to his dominance, in the minors.

Glasnow said he also lost “focus” on the running game and perhaps also struggled dealing with adrenaline and maintaining composure.

Perhaps the projections don’t account for the little things quite as well as they should.

Glasnow has been working on the little things for a while now in the minor leagues. Controlling the running game with a 6-8 frame is a challenge. Glasnow’s issues with the running game are nothing new. Minor leaguers have stolen successfully against him 81 percent of the time. Major leaguers are now 6-for-6.

That’s less of a problem if you’re limiting opponents to a sub-.200 average, but that’s not going to happen at the major league level where hitters are better, lineups are deeper and advanced scouting is so much better.

Glasnow also struggled to field his position Saturday, he does not seem to trust his changeup. The command is going to be an issue for awhile. They could ultimately force him to the bullpen. That’s the downside.

Of course, probably too much of a judgment upon Glasnow’s immediate major league effectiveness is being made after two starts.

Glasnow pitched pretty effectively in his debut against St. Louis. The Cardinals struggled to square up his fastball. (Glasnow releases the ball 7 feet, 5 inches from the rubber with his long levers and extension. The major league average is just over 6 feet of extension). But his fastball wasn’t the same Saturday. It didn’t generate much swing and miss. The velocity wavered, falling to 91 mph at times. It generated more hard contact. That was likely tied to his shoulder.

Maybe if he’s healthy he is one of the best five options moving forward.

“I thought it was a pretty good participation the first start,” Hurdle said. “The second start, I think that’s part of the major leagues.”

Glasnow is by far and away the most highly-rated prospect among the other  rookie rotation options. He was rated as the No. 6 overall prospect in Baseball America’s midseason top 100 prospects list. Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams did not make the list (Mitch Keller did but he’s not a 2016 option despite).

ut what is also true – what the eye test tells us – is he has the least polish of the parade of arms to arrive in Pittsburgh this summer.

While he has the most upside of the young arms, he might be the furthest away from sticking in the rotation.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>Taillon is clearly ahead of Glasnow.

Had a career high seven strikeouts Sunday (all via the curveball). He didn’t walk a batter.

In 40 big league innings, Taillon has a 31-to-5, strikeout-to-walk ratio. Between Triple-A and the majors this season, Taillon has a 92-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 101 2/3 innings.

Yes, he was hurt by elevated fastballs on Sunday. But he didn’t beat himself with walks or running game issues like Glasnow a day earlier. He was efficient (83 pitches, six innings) To date, Taillon has been a control artist with plus fastball velocity and a plus curveball. It’s a good package of skills.

Taillon at least looks like a mid-rotation option in the short term and he could perhaps grow into something more as Cole did down the stretch in 2013

IF he can stay healthy.

>>Huntington said the team would like to add pitching at the deadline.

“Would we like to add some pitching to this group? Absolutely. At the same time, because of the young pitching we have, that bar is set pretty high as to what in our minds makes us better. It allows us to take a long look at that acquisition cost.”

>>As I wrote in Sunday’s column for the Trib, the Pirates are probably best served by staying out of the rental market, given their 2016 upside likely being the wild card game. But given the cost to acquire top-end pitching in free agency, if the Pirates can acquire a pitcher who is under control for multiple seasons via trade it might some sense.

>>In the short term, the pitching depth has eroded with Glasnow and Chad Kuhl (triceps) both injured on Saturday. It’s unclear how long they will be sidelined.

What does that mean in the short term? Jeff Locke will likely live to start another day and perhaps Brault will get another look at the major league level. (I thought Brault looked really polished in his debut). Ryan Vogelsong is also close to a return. Jon Niese is still around.

>>Even if the Pirates are not able to add pitching in what figures to be a seller’s market the rotation should be better in the second half. ZiPS (forecast is above in opening segment) projects the Pirates starting pitchers to combine to produce a 3.67 ERA, 7.85 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in the second half. I did  not include Vogelsong or Niese.

To date, Pirates starters have a 4.75 ERA entering Sunday. If the Pirates’ can shave a run from their ERA simply by regressing to the mean – combined with the second half schedule – the Pirates could really be in business.

>>Did Cubs overpay for Aroldis Chapman?

>>Matt Joyce’s new swing new swing continues to lead to remarkable results. He’s going to earn private swing instructors Bobby Tewksbary and Craig Wallenbrock some new business. He now has 10 homers in 145 at bats and among Pirates with at least 100 at bats, he leads the club in on-base (.415) and slugging percentage (.563)

jOUYCE
Joyce’s lefty swing and one-hand finish was reminiscent of his boyhood idol Griffey Jr. (Horner photo)

 

>>Adam Frazier, ballplayer.

>>If you didn’t know, Elias Diaz can really throw.

>>Josh Bell’s bat is ready but the glove continues to be shaky at Triple-A

 

STAT OF THE WEEK : .980

Joyce’s OPS.

STAT OF THE WEEK II .724

McCutchen’s OPS

STAT OF THE WEEK III: 0

Frazier’s career home run total at Mississippi State (though he did play during the dead bat era in college baseball)

HE SAID IT

“It can be argued it’s the best bench I’ve had as a manager. Definitely the best bench I’ve had here.”

-Hurdle

Where would the Pirates be without their bench? All five RBIs on Sunday came via the bench.

HE SAID IT II

“I loved Griffey. He was my favorite player growing up. I had his posters on the wall. Sweet swing. … I tried to hit like him all the time. I wish I could do that more often.”

Joyce after his 434-foot homer Sunday

HE SAID IT III

Huntington indicated he would have liked better communication from Glasnow regarding his shoulder:

“Everyone has something they can sit out a game with. When do they sit out, when do they need to sit out? When is it more than stiffness and soreness? When is it risk of injury? That’s what we’re working through. Young players have a sense of invincibility. The only way we can help players get stronger, the only way we can help players differentiate between normal stiffness and normal soreness, and something that may develop into larger, the only way to nip something in the bud is (through communication).”

HE SAID IT IV

Huntington on how the Drew Pomeranz trade may or may not impact market

“Each market and trade is separate … In some cases clubs think market is set and they end up holding a player.”

HE SAID IT V

Huntington on the concept of contention “windows”

“There are some that believe in windows and ‘We are going to put all eggs in a three-year (window)’ Our belief is if we get there more often we have a better chance to win … rather than going into the negative cycle to get one shot at it.”

-TS

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Friday Farm Report: Trevor Williams and the Indianapolis rotation keep churning, plus a look at Tito Polo

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Every time a Triple-A Indianapolis pitcher is called up to Pittsburgh, another seems to emerge as a bona fide Triple-A ace.

With Jameson Taillon up with the Pirates and Tyler Glasnow likely soon to follow, Trevor Williams is making his case for the position after tossing eight scoreless innings Thursday against Charlotte to drop his ERA to 2.85. In his last 28 innings, Williams has allowed just one run, striking out 18 and walking two.

A couple weeks ago, Josh Taylor and I joked on TribLIVE Radio that Williams and other Triple-A Indianapolis starters like Frank Duncan – who has since gone on the 7-day DL with a minor hand injury – were similar to Dilios from “300,” left behind to tell the story of a minor league pitching staff that for months had the best ERA in the International League.

In an interview with Josh Taylor on TribLIVE Radio Friday morning, Williams, acquired from the Marlins during the 2015 offseason, said he is hitting his stride after missing more than a month at the beginning of  the season with a right shoulder injury.

From that TribLIVE interview:

(Indianapolis pitching coach) Stan Kyles and I have been working really hard in my side bullpen sessions. I was coming back from injury and still kind of trying to figure out my identity and it’s a new organization that hasn’t seen me throw in the past years and they’ve kind of, we weren’t exactly on the same page of where they see me, where I see myself in the organization and what type of pitcher I was and we had kind of a run of a few starts where I was just getting singled to death and I was always pitching with guys on and it wasn’t working and it wasn’t the type of pitcher that I am. So we sat down and had a conversation to attack more with my fastball and force the weak contact instead of hope that they make weak contact, I kind of forced the hitters to swing the bat and it’s been working so far. We’ve been on a roll through the All-Star break and continuing after the All-Star break and I think it’s definitely attacking with the fastball more and going to both sides of the plate and having that changeup in my back pocket to keep it honest.

Williams, ranked the Pirates No. 24 prospect by MLB.com, doesn’t throw particularly hard. In his first inning on Thursday, for example, his fastball topped out at between 91 and 92 mph. But in that inning, he was effective when pitching inside, breaking leadoff man Adam Engel’s bat and finishing off a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout in the dirt, a weak groundout and a lazy fly ball.

The right-hander’s recent run makes him the fifth Indianapolis starter with an ERA under 3.00 and 10 or more starts. Left-hander Steven Brault has the chance to be the sixth as he makes his 10th Triple-A start of the season Friday against Charlotte. He enters the game with a 2.44 ERA after throwing six hitless innings on July 16.

Glasnow, Kuhl and Taillon have all said that the early months of the 2016 season have been less about internal competition for rotation spots in Pittsburgh and more about each pitcher’s success in Indy breeding further staff-wide success. Williams said Friday that his colleagues were certainly deserving of early-season promotions, and that he is trying (obviously) trying to become the sixth Triple-A Indianapolis pitcher to make his Pirates debut this season.

Also from his Friday TribLIVE interview with Josh Taylor:

It is what it is. There’s no hard feelings. The guys that have gone up in front of me have been killing it all year, and they deserve the promotion. I’m kind of holding it down here in Indy, throwing well and I’ve just got to kind of force my way and force my hand into that rotation in Pittsburgh, but as of today, I’m still in Indy and I’ve got to start in four days in Gwinnett. So it is what it is and I’ve just got to keep pitching wherever I’m at.

Polo discovering High-A Bradenton

Unlike Williams, High-A Bradenton center fielder Tito Polo did not begin the 2016 season listed among the Pirates top 30 prospects.

He ended his 2015 season with Low-A West Virginia as one of the organization’s top base stealers (46 steals in 59 attempts) but has had a breakout season in 2016 with Low-A West Virginia and High-A Bradenton thanks not only to his speed, but also an uptick in power.

“Omar Moreno helped me understand to try to be a little more selective against pitchers at higher levels,” Polo said Tuesday through an interpreter. “They make fewer mistakes, so I have to capitalize when they do make those mistakes.”

You can take a look at the Sunday Trib for a deeper look into Polo’s adjustments on defense and increased production at the plate.

For now, add Polo to the list of highly-touted Pirates outfield prospects with at least some experience in center field.

  • Austin Meadows hasn’t played since June 30 as he works through a hamstring injury, but has played all but 51 of his nearly 300 professional games in center field.
  • Harold Ramirez has made 110 career starts in center field, including 55 this season. Ramirez made a start here and there in center early in the season and hasn’t played a defensive position other than center since June 14 (Meadows’ last game with Double-A Altoona was June 16). Ramirez projects more as a corner outfielder, especially with Meadows and Polo above and below him, respectively, but Double-A manager Joey Cora said before the season that he wanted Ramirez to get exposure to all three outfield positions.

All three of the Pirates’ starting outfielders came through the organization with at least some extended time in center. Gregory Polanco played nearly all of 2012 and 2013 in center field and Starling Marte started 337 games in center on his way to the major leagues. Andrew McCutchen played only 21 minor league games not in center field.

That’s not to say playing center field in the minors presents a fast track to the Pirates or is a position only given to young outfielders with a future in the major leagues. But it certainly isn’t a bad idea to give highly-rated outfield prospects time in center, as it makes for center-to-the-corners transition easier than its inverse.

Play of the week

Josh Bell made his first start in right field on Monday to open up a “back pocket” option and managed to play without too much rust.

It was while playing first earlier this week, however, that he made a highlight-reel play. After booting a ball hit to the right side, Bell made up for his mistake. Near third base. Unassisted.

Take a look:

 

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The Pirates’ tailwind, Taillon’s scary night, and our podcast

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PNC PARK – The Pirates began the easiest remaining schedule in baseball on Tuesday with a win.

Josh Harrison walked off and thankfully Jameson Taillon got up (more on that in a bit) Tuesday.

Fangraphs.com projects the Pirates’ remaining opponents with a .478 winning percentage, the lowest in baseball.

After a brutal June and early July schedule, the Pirates get to see a lot of the Brewers, Phillies and Reds going forward.

That’s significant.

Wrote Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.com:

“Here’s how to read this: Based on schedule and projections, the Pirates’ remaining slate will boost them by 1.5 wins or so. The Nationals are projected for a similar boost. …. No team’s season will be made or broken based just on opponent identity. But think about the market value of a win or thereabouts around deadline time. The Pirates are sitting relatively pretty.

“The Pirates are battling for the wild card. Now, many competitors also have soft schedules. But just based on those schedules, the Pirates are estimated to gain more than a win on the Dodgers. They’d gain two games on the Giants, in case the Giants slip. The Dodgers would gain nearly a game on them.”

Of course the Marlins and Mets, ahead of the Pirates in the wild card standings, are also expected to pick up nearly a game due to relative ease of schedules.

Still, while so much focus is on the trade deadline, Tribune-Review found that over the last five deadlines only five players acquired produced two wins above replacement or more down the stretch, and only 20 player produced at least one WAR. (45 produced negative or negligible WAR).

While it’s not a perfect analogy, the Pirates second half schedule is somewhat equivalent to adding an impact player.

Now, the Pirates have to take advantage of it.

TAILLON’S FRIGHTFUL NIGHT 

Taillon was fortunate to get up Tuesday.

Remarkably he stayed in the game.

Two minutes and 45 seconds after being hit in the back of the head by a 105 mph line drive, he was tossing warm-up throws. The ball struck Taillon so squarely he said stitch markings were on the back of his cap. The ball landed in shallow left field.

Taillon_hit
Taillon was fortunate to be able to get up after taking a liner to the head. Remarkably, he kept pitching (Horner photo)

Remarkably, Taillon stayed in the game and pitched well.

There was immediate questioning on social media from around the country regarding whether the Pirates should have allowed Taillon to remain in the game. Some questions: Why wasn’t Taillon X-rayed? Could all proper assessments be made in three minutes?

I am not a doctor. I do not have the answers, folks.

But I did ask questions of Taillon and Hurdle.  The Pirates did not make anyone from their medical or training staff available after the game to answer such questions, but head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk is expected to be available today.

Taillon said he was waiting for pain but it never arrived. He seemed fine after the game. He seemed alert. He pitched well.

“I remember everything. I saw it coming at me. I turned from it. I kind of just remember going down. I could kind of feel it on my head. I remained conscious. I answered all the questions they asked me. I wanted to get up quicker than I was able to,” Taillon said.

“(The medical staff asked) ‘Do you know where you’re at? Any pain? Any pain running down your neck? I got a lot of questions. Of course they ask you ‘Remember five different words,’ see how your memory is…. Balance on one leg. Touch your nose. Follow a pen. I did just everything you can imagine every box was checked.”

Taillon was not sure if there was  any discussion of taking him just for precautionary purposes.

“No,” Taillon said.  “I answered everything, checked it off. I’m sure they had some discussions about it. … I just wanted to stay out there.”

I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to take us through the process that allowed Taillon to remain in the game. Hurdle said the club followed protocol.

“I’m not going to take you through. That’s the protocol the trainers run through. I could kick it and maybe not explain it perfectly. No disrespect, but when those situations occur, we have a protocol and a process to follow,” Hurdle said. “The training staff runs that. The end opportunity that I have is you make a decision. I’m really struggling with this whole concept. I trust our people. He’s got a mom and dad watching the game. I’ve got a son. This is one area that I’m not real comfortable with, and I’ve got to trust our people. They do know what they’re doing and how to follow a protocol and to test the player and the things to do. All the procedures that we have in place and follow played out on the field and they played out the rest of the game. To explain it any more than that, I don’t think I’d do it justice.”

According to Major League Baseball’s concussion protocol, if a player is involved in an “incident … associated with a high risk of concussion” the game is to be stopped and the player evaluated by an athletic trainer. If the trainer “detects any sign and/or symptom of concussion during an on-field evaluation” the player is to be removed.

According to the protocol, “If the (trainer) does not detect any sign and/or symptom … the player may remain in the game, but serial examinations should be performed between innings for the remainder of the game.”

Taillon said he was evaluated again between innings.

But perhaps MLB’s protocol should be examined, especially in an age where there is a hyper-sensitivity – and rightly so – with head injury.

PODCAST

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/719RO16.mp3+share

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: What to learn from Niese, what to do at the deadline

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SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates have decisions to make about their second half rotation, but they made the right decision in moving Jon Niese to the bullpen.

You’re probably aware Neal Huntington expressed some buyer’s remorse to 93.7 FM on Friday.

Said Huntington: “Given the thinness of the starting pitching market, given the dollars we had available, we felt (Niese) was our best return. It has not played out that way. We own that. We accept it. In hindsight, maybe (taking) the two fringe prospects and trying to figure out where to reallocate the money might have been a better return.”

While most of the decisions the Pirates front office made this offseason have produced value, while most have worked out, Niese is the one miss to date. And it was Niese that was also the second largest financial commitment (after Mark Melancon), basically an even swap of salary for Neil Walker.

SearageNiese
Finding a taker for Niese could be difficult given his performance and salary (Horner photo)

What else could the Pirates have done with that $9 million?

They could have kept Walker, though the club seemed intent on moving him. Had the club retrained Walker, Josh Harrison probably opens the season up at third base.  And perhaps the club never signs Sean Rodriguez and/or David Freese.

As good as Walker has been in New York (Editor’s note: As good as Walker was the first two months of the season), Walker might have been limited to mostly left-handed hitting in Pittsburgh. He might never have found his right-handed swing with the Pirates as he has with the Mets. And would Walker as a platoon player be more valuable to the club than Freese and Rodriguez have been?

Walker has been worth 1.7 fWAR to date, Harrison 0.6, Freese 1.6, and Rodriguez 1.4.

In short, parting ways with Walker was not the mistake.

What was the mistake, what Huntington ostensibly acknowledged, is accepting an even exchange of salary in the form of Niese for Walker. The Pirates would have been better off simply by clearing Walker’s salary.

Niese was never an exciting addition.

He was a low-upside, higher-ceiling, back-end rotation fit. On the day he was acquired, I wrote how the Pirates deviated from their preferred pitching model in adding Niese.

In retrospect,  the Pirates might have been better offer accepting a package of “fringe prospects” Huntington alluded to and clearing salary.

If the Pirates were willing to consider paying Niese nearly $30 million through 2018 with his two club options, then perhaps they could have had  the dollars to pay J.A. Happ. (Happ signed a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto early in the offseason which to be fair, was considered an over-pay at the time).

While Huntington lamented the starting pitching market “blew up” this offseason, even for reclamation project pitchers, Rich Hill more fit the club’s model of searching for upside. Hill can miss bats and lefties are ideal at PNC Park. By shedding Walker’s salary, the club could have afforded Hill, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the A’s. Hill has been outstanding.

The Pirates could have made a run at re-signing Joe Blanton (1-year, $4 million deal with Dodgers) who was so good in that multi-inning relief role last year. The club could have tried to bring Antonio Bastardo back as second power lefty in the pen. (2-year, $12 million deal with Mets). Blanton has been excellent with the Dodgers, Bastardo shaky with the Mets.

The Pirates could have perhaps better stretched that $9 million on higher upside, higher risk options.

The Pirates decided they did not want to pay for mediocrity (and injury) with Charlie Morton, dumping his $8 million salary on the Phillies for fringe prospects. The Pirates made the right decision in tendering Mark Melancon and non-tendering Pedro Alvarez.

So while the front office made mostly correct and effective decisions that have produced value, the Niese mistake has been a costly one to date.

What did we learn?

Never pay for mediocrity.

Always chase the upside.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>The market for impact starting pitching is thin as we near the trade deadline. As we saw with the Drew Pomeranz trade, starting pitching that is available will be expensive.

Pomeranz is still young and was having a breakout season for the San Diego Padres. He still has 2 1/2 seasons of team control. He will immediately slot in the middle of the Boston rotation. But the cost to acquire Pomeranz – who has been up and down in his career – was one of the game’s best pitching prospects in Anderson Espinosa. (A top 20 consensus prospect)

So if the Pirates wanted the equivalent of Pomeranz – a quality pitcher with 2+ plus years of control – they’d be giving up the equivalent of at least Austin Meadows in a package.

That’s likely too steep.

>>Nathan Evoladi?

He’s got a big arm. He’s cheap. And he would probably produce a sub-5.00 out of Yankee Stadium and the AL East. But he’s never had much feel for secondary offerings. The Pirates’ young,  internal options are superior and they don’t cost anything.

>>What path should the Pirate pursue at the deadline? The one they have in four of the last five years the club has been in contention at the deadline: soft buyers.

The Pirates shouldn’t give away the farm. The Pirates’ most likely path to the postseason is through the wild card game and that’s a 50-50 proposition Pirates fans know well. A team shouldn’t risk too much to play in a coin-flip game.

>>The Pirates should not give up an elite prospect for a rental, and they haven’t under Huntington. The only prospect they’ve given up at the deadline who has appeared in a subsequent Baseball America top 100 preseason prospect list is Dilson Herrera (traded to acquire Marlon Byrd). That summer a playoff berth meant much more for the Pirates as they had not earned one since 1992.

The problem is there isn’t much available, especially in the starting pitching market. The Pirates might just have to hold.

Said Huntington on Sunday. “We’re doing due diligence on all fronts, but the pitching is what seems to need the most help at this point unless we’re willing to go with what we’ve got internally,”

>>Francisco Liriano took another step forward Friday.  ZiPS thinks he’s going to have a much better second half.

>> A rotation of Gerrit Cole, an improving Liriano, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow and Jeff Locke  are the best five options for the Pirates moving forward. (Though Chad Kuhl had his strongest start to date on Sunday).  It’s a rotation  that is loaded with upside.

Here’s the ZiPS projection for second-half performance by Pirates starting pitcher options:

Pitcher / IPK/9 / BB/9 / ERA

Cole / 77 / 8.3 / 2.3 / 3.18

Liriano / 75 / 9.2 / 4.1 / 3.82

Glasnow / 38 / 10.1 / 5.0 / 3.84

Locke / 75 / 6.3 / 3.2 / 4.50

Taillon / 28 / 6.0 / 3.2 / 4.62

Niese / 77 / 6.1 / 2.9 / 4.89

Kuhl / 47 / 5.6 / 3.0 / 4.70

>>Cole wasn’t great in his first start back but he touched 96 mph and most important is that he’s healthy. He’ll have better days.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 5.4

Average length, in innings, by Pirates starting pitchers this season. Only the Reds are worse.

HE SAID IT

Niese:  “I’m going to go out there whenever they ask me to pitch and let it eat. I’m going to try to get outs as often and as quickly as possible in whatever role it’s going to be going forward.”

Here’s guessing that $10 million option for 2017 is not going to be picked up by the club.

HE SAID IT II

“He can pitch multiple innings. There’s also some abilities with some left-handed hitters he’s had success with over the years, that he could be matched up left-on-left. He can be a versatile option for us out there, go a couple different ways.”

Hurlde on Niese’s role. The club would love to move Niese but they would likely have to include dollars or add in young talent.

- TS

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Friday Farm Report: A look at Kevin Kramer, Kevin Newman and the organization’s middle infield combinations

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Last year’s draft was one heavy in early-round shortstop selections.

More specifically, early-round college shortstop selections.

Ten of the first 63 picks in the 2015 draft were shortstops, seven of them out of college.

Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson and LSU’s Alex Bregman went first and second overall. Bregman is likely the first of those shortstops to reach the major leagues, having hit .366 in his first nine games in Triple-A and, oh yeah, nearly hitting for the cycle in the Futures Game.

Only two teams drafted college shortstops in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft – the Pirates and the A’s. The Pirates, who also selected third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes with the 32nd overall pick, took Arizona shortstop  Kevin Newman at No. 19 and UCLA shortstop Kevin  Kramer at No. 62.

While neither has had the first year and a half of Bregman – and arguably no one in the 2015 draft has – the Pirates have gotten steady production out of their two All-Pac-12 shortstops (Kramer as a second baseman), including several months with the pair as a middle infield double-play combination.

Newman, the organization’s leader in batting average this season, earned a quick promotion to Double-A, where he is hitting .308 in his first 22 games. Kramer, the subject of the minor league report in this Sunday’s Trib, is settling in as a second baseman and at the plate, where he is hitting .282 to lead current Bradenton players with more than 20 games of experience in High-A this season.

Kramer said he and Newman didn’t know each other too well while in the Pac-12, but forged a friendship last season, during spring training and during the early 2016 season in Bradenton.

“Great guy, great competitor, great baseball player in general,” Kramer said of Newman. “Does everything you want him to do, everything you ask for working as a double-play combination, and as far as lines of communication, whatever I wanted from him, he would do. Whatever he wanted me to do I would do for him as far as putting ourselves in the best position to succeed as a double play combination.”

Before Newman was called up to Double-A, the Marauders took advantage of a Kramer-Newman middle infield combination with “Seinfeld Night” on May 7. It was a dedicated night of “Seinfeld” references, in which McKechnie Field was transformed into Vandelay Industries Park, “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty Pretzels” and Junior Mints were available for purchase and Festivus was on full display.

The night was great idea. The irony of it was neither Kramer nor Newman had watched much Seinfeld growing up, save for the occasional rerun.

“We kind of talked about how it was funny that really we didn’t have a whole lot of knowledge about Seinfeld, but as far as the fans are concerned, they loved it,” Kramer said. “So we went along with it, and it’s not a bad thing for us, we just weren’t as familiar as everyone expected us to be. But it was fun, it was a good time and I expect that to be happening over the next couple years.”

Next year in Altoona? That depends on how quickly Kramer earns a promotion and how long Newman remains in Double-A. Erich Weiss has hit .269 through his first 294 at-bats with the Curve this season as the team’s primary second baseman. He hasn’t put together eye-popping numbers, but has been a steady .270 to .280 hitter since being drafted in 2013.

The middle infield lineup at Triple-A has been a little less predictable. Max Moroff, the Pirates’ 2015 Minor League Player of the Year, entered Friday hitting just .247 but is eighth in the International League with a .371 on-base percentage and leads the IL with 55 walks. He has also been spread across the infield – 39 games at third, 30 games at second and 11 games at shortstop – but has made eight starts at second this month.

Primary Triple-A shortstop Gift Ngoepe has hit just .230 with 96 strikeouts in 73 games. Alen Hanson leads Triple-A Indianapolis with 51 games at second base, but has played a little bit more third base and left field in the last two weeks. He hit .288 before a brief promotion to the Pirates in May and has hit .258 since returning to Triple-A, but has also stolen 20 bases at an 83 percent clip during that span to lead the IL with 27 steals.

With both Moroff and Hanson capable of playing a productive  second base at Triple-A, Newman’s eventual path to Indy is for now clearer than Kramer’s, but don’t rule out any future Seinfeld nights just yet.

KEEPING IT 100

Baseball America released its Midseason Top 100 Prospects list earlier this week, and it included six Pirates prospects:

  • At No. 6 is Tyler Glasnow, whose days in Triple-A could be numbered after a Monday start with Indianapolis.
  • Austin Meadows (No. 10) began the second half of the Triple-A season on the 7-day disabled list with a hamstring injury. The center fielder is hitting .239 in 12 games with Indianapolis and has not played since June 30.
  • Listed at No. 38, Josh Bell begins the second half on the Pirates roster, though primarily as a bat off the bench. As we wrote about in Thursday’s Trib, Bell’s play away from the bag at first base is the last big step in his development there. While the attack-or-retreat instincts on in-between balls hit to the right side continue to develop, the bat so far has played at the big league level:

  • Newman (No. 51), as we discussed above, has had success as a leadoff man for two Pirates affiliates this season.
  • Mitch Keller (No. 52) had a stellar first half with Low-A West Virginia and earned a start in the South Atlantic League All-Star game. The question over the last couple months is how many innings he young right-hander will throw. His previous high in pro baseball was 27 1/3 innings, and he now finds himself in uncharted territory at 88 2/3. He said as recently as last month that he hasn’t been told of an innings limit.
  • Ke’Bryan Hayes (No. 72) has hit just .232 since May 1, but isn’t yet 19-and-a-half. He also earned a SAL All-Star nod after a .343 April.

SUMMER CATCH

It has been a productive week for rehabbing catchers in the Pirates organization. Working his way back from elbow surgery, 25-year-old Elias Diaz began his rehab assignment with High-A Bradenton 9 for 23, including a 7 for 9 stretch between Wednesday and Thursday.

Francisco Cervelli, meanwhile, went 2 for 4 Thursday in his first rehab start for Triple-A Indianapolis.

PODCAST

Here’s Tuesday’s Pirates Preview podcast with Josh Taylor, in which  we discuss Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell and Kevin Kramer, among other players.

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The trade deadline complications for the Pirates: buyers beware, ‘buying and lying,’ and our podcast

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SOUTH HILLS –  The Pirates are in a predicament as we approach the trade deadline, as the sport gears up for its second half.

The club’s July surge has given it a plausible path to the postseason.  Though even with the Chicago Cubs’ slump, the most likely path for the Pirates is still a wild-card spot.

While the Pirates have been hot, while it looks like Andrew McCutchen and Francisco Liriano are taking steps forward, while it looks like intriguing young talent could bolster the playoff push – the odds are still against the Pirates reaching the postseason. Baseball Prospectus gives
the Pirates a 16 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and a 7.9 percent chance of reaching the NLDS.

Even if you think those odds are light, particularly given the second-half schedule, the Pirates are not in a strong buy position for the postseason.

Huntington
Huntington has added a veteran at four of the last five deadline periods … will he do so again? (Horner photo)

I wrote about the Pirates’ Buy, Hold, Sell (yes, even sell) dilemma on Sunday.

I spoke to Baseball Prospectus editor Sam Miller about the subject. Miller brought up a complicating factor for teams chasing the wild card and that is a wild card is essentially 50 percent as valuable as it once was.

How much do you invest?

“The second wild card is still new enough that I don’t think we have a great sense of how much it’s ‘worth’ to make it into the playoff game. In one sense, it’s ‘worth’ a little bit more than half of what it used to be — the team has about a 50 percent chance of getting a full series,” Miller said. “For a team that is starved for a postseason appearance, like the Pirates once were, I’d empty the cupboard to make that game. … (Now) the Pirates as a franchise aren’t measurably better off by making that game unless they progress deep into the postseason, which makes it a great opportunity but a risky thing to bet a lot on.”

Unless the Pirates were clearly contending for the division, or in control of the division lead, it seems a poor decision to buy too aggressively at the deadline. (You’re now well aware of the best and worst of the wild-card experience.)

The Pirates’ glaring weakness is starting pitching.

The Pirates rank 22nd in baseball in ERA (4.83) and 29th in WAR (2.1) produced by starting pitchers to date.

The good news is there are internal options like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault that could be second-half upgrades.

The bad news? We don’t know how much they’ll be allowed to work in the second half. After the Stephen Strasburg innings-limit thing a few years back, Neal Huntington vowed to never make a red line public like the Washington Nationals had (and that was in regard to Gerrit Cole’s 2013.)

Cole ended up having some extra rest down the stretch as a rookie, but he pitched into September and pitched two NLDS games.

But he also hadn’t missed two years like Taillon.

Glasnow pitched 109 innings last season and 143 in 2014. He’s already thrown 101 total innings this year. It’s hard to imagine Glasnow being allowed to surpass 180 innings. Even 180 is likely aggressive.

How much will the Pirates’ prized young arms be allowed to work?

The starting pitching market at the deadline is thin. The Pirates would likely have to overpay. (Though if the price was reasonable for Rich Hill, he could be an impact acquisition for the stretch run.)

SI/CBSSports.com analyst Jonah Keri notes that rookie-workload complication means it could make sense for the Pirates to be soft sellers at the deadline – while still trying to compete for a wild card.

“Shut the rookies down, and I think you do a light sell but without giving up in the playoff hunt,” Keri said. “Trading Melancon away and trusting the rest of the bullpen — plus maybe even Taillon and/or Glasnow in the bullpen — still gives the Pirates a chance to make the playoffs.”

Huntington said the club will again go into the deadline with the flexibility to add or sell depending on the market.

But the expectation is the Pirates will buy at the deadline as they have in the recent past.

“Our expectation is we are going to add. Our mindset is we are going to add and put ourselves, for the first time in the franchise history, in position to make the postseason four consecutive years,” Huntington said.

But buyers should beware, however.

Consider the last three trade-deadline periods (June 15-July 31):

45 major league players acquired produced negligible or negative value — below replacement level — through the remainder of the season.

20 produced more than one win above replacement for the team acquiring them.

5 produced two or more wins above replacement.

Source: Tribune-Review analysis of Baseball Reference data

Perhaps the right approach is a soft buy, or what the Pirates have been doing at the deadline under Huntington.

The Pirates’ approach has been to buy a modest piece or two at the deadline, which gives the illusion of being “buyers,” but really it is a soft buy, or as Michael Baumann described, “Buying and Lying,” back prior to the 2013 deadline when Grantland was still think (RIP Grantland, we miss you)

“That Huntington didn’t give up much in value is of paramount importance, because Pittsburgh is, with Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, and Pedro Alvarez, starting to reap the benefits of one of the game’s more exciting farm systems. With Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco not too far behind, more help is on the way. Trading away those assets for Michael Bourn, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hunter Pence, or one of the other big names to move might have gotten the Pirates an extra win or two down the stretch, but nowhere near the production they’d miss when those young players finally all came together, as they’re doing now.

By making lower-risk, less-splashy moves, Huntington kept his team in a position to contend both at present and in the future.”

With a stronger position at last deadline, though with the division hardly looking like  a sure bet, Huntington again employed a similar strategy not giving up too much for J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton.

Those moves all worked out brilliantly, particularly Happ who became one of five players traded at the deadline over the last three deadline periods to produce more than two wins above replacement.

But the impact Happ produced is the exception rather than the rule of players acquired at the deadline. The cost typically outweighs the benefit.

The smart approach might be to hold, with some minor moves made at the margins.

OUR PODCAST

Just Josh and I this week, and there was much to talk about…

-TS

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: A small-sample-size monster named Josh Bell… what to do with him and the 2nd-half rotation?

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SOUTH HILLS – So the “small-sample-size monster” Neal Huntington said is tormenting Pittsburgh after Josh Bell’s weekend is a real thing. Very real.

Major league executives, and even members of the general public, can make poor and emotional decisions when over-reacting to a small sample size.

But if you were ever going to overreact to a small sample size it’s in regard to what Bell did over the weekend.

Even the restrained Huntington said it was impossible to strip all “emotion” away after what Bell did. (I would have loved to seen Huntington’s reaction live).

Bell
So about that encore performance after this weekend … It’s all downhill from here, Josh. (Horner photo)

 

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he was afflicted with “goose bumps” for what he estimated was the 12th time in his coaching career after Bell’s grand slam on Saturday night.

“I’ve got them probably about a dozen times since I’ve been a coach or manager,” Hurdle said. “(David) Freese was standing next to me. I told him ‘I have goose bumps.’ He said ‘Chills ran down my spine.’

“It was that kind of a moment.”

As an objective observer, Bell’s grand slam was one of the top-five moments since I’ve covered the club. Maybe it’s top three. Maybe it’s right after events from the 2013 wild card game.

Really, really cool.

Power was the last thing to develop in Bell’s game. But it’s developed as evidenced by the grand slam that ended up clearing the right field seats and bouncing around the PNC Park river walk. The raw power has always been there. It was a matter of it becoming game power. It’s a credit to the Pirates valuing the hit tool over the power tool, and projecting the power will develop. That’s traditional scouting at work.

Bell has always had an elite batting eye routinely posting double-digit walk percentage rates in the minors. His third plate-appearance on Sunday was also so, so impressive. After falling behind 0-2 to John Lackey, Bell laid off three cutters that dove below the strike zone. So many anxious rookies would have swung and missed. He fouled off a couple borderline pitches and drew the walk.

Huntington marveled at how calm and confident Bell seemed.

Bell seems like the complete offensive package: a switch-hitter with a plus bat, plus eye and now at least average game power – with the potential for much more game power.

But he’s headed back to Indy at some point soon, depending on the status of Gerrit Cole – who threw his second rehab outing Sunday – and the health of Gregory Polanco’s hamstring.

And, sorry everyone, but the idea of sending Bell back now even after THAT is rooted in logic.

Huntington said he “kicked” himself for not being more patient with Polanco and Pedro Alvarez, who each struggled to transition to the major leagues.

(And, yes, Polanco’s early struggles can now become a convenient example for the club any time it wants to keep a prospect longer in the minors than the fan base would like. But in Bell’s case, he’s past service time concerns – at least for 2016 – so the Pirates have other reasons for wanting him to get more time in Triple-A.)

Huntington said the “common denominator” with players that transition better to the majors is Triple-A experience.

As I noted in today’s sidebar on Bell …

*Andrew McCutchen had 809 plate appearances in Triple-A before being called up. He posted an .835 OPS as a rookie.

*Neil Walker had 1,198 Triple-A plate appearances before his first full season in the majors when he hit .296.

*Alvarez only had 278 Triple-A place appearances.

*Polanco had 314.

*Bell has 504.

What to go outside the Pirates’ organization? Huntington took us there.

“Look at Cardinals and how easily their players have transitioned. Look how many Triple-A at-bats.”

According to Tribune-Review analysis, the average college hitter to contribute to the Cardinals’ past five playoff teams accumulated 1,512 at-bats in the minor leagues before reaching the majors. High school bats averaged 1,885 minor league at-bats.

The Cardinals have been the closest team to replicate the sustained success of the 1990s-early 2000s Atlanta Braves. Of the college hitters drafted by the Braves to play on their four World Series teams, college hitters averaged 1,704 minor league at-bats, high school bats 1,967 at-bats.

Bell, who signed out of high school, had 1,837 minor league at-bats before his debut.

But at some point Bell will have to work through an adjustment period at the major league level, regardless of how much time he spends in the minors. At some point he will struggle.

After all, development doesn’t stop in the minors.

“There is always going to be a league punch-back,” Hurdle said. “That’s the nature of the industry up here. The skill set of pitchers. Video. Guys that break down swings. … (Players with fewer Triple-A at-bats) have had more challenging situations settling in offensively than the guys who have had more Triple-A at-bats.”

But there are always exceptions, prodigies that don’t require normal finishing.

Only one Cardinal contributor to their last five playoff teams was promoted to the big club before his 1,000th minor league at-bat: Albert Pujols.

The Cubs’ Kris Bryant went 3-for-4 with the game-winning hit Sunday. He had a total of 330 Triple-A at bats.

Bell might be an exception.

And with more power than John Jaso – who has been solid – Bell has more upside (and downside) to impact a playoff race.

Bell also has plenty of outfield experience. Hurdle said Sunday he thought it was “unfair” to place Bell in the outfield after nearly two years away from it. But I suspect he could account for himself fairly well there.

What to do?

Maybe there’s a middle ground.

The initial plan was to send Bell down after the weekend but why not extend his stay … at least for a bit.

With Polanco’s hamstring issue lingering, the safe path toward a full recovery would be to place him on the DL retroactive to Friday.

And with that roster spot open, the Pirates could take a longer, harder look at Bell.

Which would allow the small-sample-size monster to become a slightly larger sample and less of a monster.  And the Pirates might end up just riding a hot streak.

 

THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS

>>There was perhaps a more important decision discussed other than what to do with Bell this weekend by Huntington and Hurdle. What’s that? It’s this: who’s in, who’s out of the second-half rotation (at least the opening rotation). No details will be revealed, publicly, until players return from the All-Star break.

If there’s one area where the Pirates can really improve it is their rotation which ranks 29th in WAR (2.1) in baseball, and 22nd in ERA (4.83). And the good news is there are a lot of internal options.

So who should be in, who should be out?

>>Cole looked good in a second rehab outing on Sunday. He is expected to rejoin the club and rotation in Washington coming out of the All-Star break. He’s close.

>>Francisco Liriano threw 17 first-pitch strikes against 24 batters faced on Friday night, another step forward. Liriano is the club’s highest-paid player and arguably its best pitcher since 2013. He has a spot in the rotation. Though perhaps his problem just isn’t his problem.

>>Jameson Taillon sticks, I would think. He’s been as good as any Pirates starter over his five starts. He threw a side session on Sunday and did not report any ill effects.

His first five major league starts (3.86 ERA) were very similar to Cole’s in 2013. Cole became the club’s best starter in September.

Niese
Will Niese get another shot in the second half? (Horner photo)

 

>>Huntington said Sunday that Tyler Glasnow is a “viable option” for the second-half rotation. Huntington is usually reserved in assessing young talent, so that almost seems like an endorsement. Glasnow said the curveball in his debut Thursday was the worst he’s had in two years. He threw one changeup. So he was a one-pitch pitcher and was still able to have success with that approach for four innings.

As we’ve been saying for a while, as the computer projections have been saying for a while, Glasnow is one of the club’s top five starting options.

Then it gets interesting.

>>So then the final spot perhaps comes down to Jeff Locke-Chad Kuhl-Steven Brault-Jon Niese if the Pirates are to really put out their most effective rotation out there.

>>Locke will likely remain in the rotation. Kuhl struggled again Saturday and has left too many balls up in the zone. Kuhl is supposed to be a groundball pitcher but he’s produced 42 balls in the air vs. 16 groundballs. Brault intrigues. I thought he showed excellent command of three pitches in St. Louis. I’d like to see him given another look. But I suspect he’s back in Triple-A – at least for the time being. He’s be the first replacement option on my preference list.

>>Hurdle would not commit to Niese for the second-half rotation after Sunday’s game. That seems ominous for Niese.

If the club cannot trade Niese at the deadline –- it’s hard to imagine he has much value – then his knee issue perhaps makes him a candidate for the DL to open a spot. Niese has really struggled. He has a 5.13 ERA. The club has lost nine of his last 13 starts. The Pirates need more despite Niese’s $9 million salary.

>>The Pirates 2011 draft has a chance to be really special. Cole has already made in impact. Bell was the second-round pick in that draft and Glasnow. While the club did taken advantage over over-slotting bonuses, the Pirates still had to pick the right players.

>>So much happened this weekend that Andrew McCutchen’s best three-game stretch in a long time fell under the radar. But McCutchen has homered in back-to-back games and had a three-hit night Friday. If McCutchen and Liriano return to form, and the rotation improves thanks to an infusion of youth, this becomes a dangerous team.

>>Sean Rodriguez has been a really good MLB hitters since the end of last year – and one of the game’s best bench defenders. Another good offseason signing. Only the Niese-Neil Walker trade really looks like loss on the ledger for the front office from the winter. Now, you can talk about what wasn’t done.

But as the Pirates are showing with their young talent, they only needed a bridge to July.

 

STAT(S) OF THE WEEK

1.000/1.000/2.500

Bell’s major league slash-line after three major league appearances. It’s all downhill from here, kid.

STAT OF THE WEEK II: 15.6 percent

Pirates’ playoff odds from Baseball Prospectus. Seems light … unless I’m caught up in recency bias.

STAT OF THE WEEK III: 15

Games behind the Pirates were of the Cubs on June 19

STAT OF THE WEEK IV: 7 ½

Games behind the Pirates are of the Cubs at the break.

STAT OF THE WEEK V: 104

Starts Locke made between relief appearances, which ended Sunday. It’s a testament to Locke’s ability to hang on – and be just good enough.

HE SAID IT

Hurdle on his team at the break

“I love the belief in that clubhouse. We never count ourselves out. .. It would be nice to get some more innings out of the starters. Offensively, I think we’ve shown the ability to score from different parts of the lineup. We have a catcher getting healthy. Cole is getting healthy.”

After a bleak June, the arrow is pointing up.

HE SAID IT II

“Let’s go!” Bell said. “That’s probably all I said for three minutes.”

-Bell on what he screamed after watching his grand slam sail high and far into the night.

HE SAID IT III

“This first half, I’m going to be honest, it just wasn’t good. I’ve never been on this bad of a run.”

– Niese

-TS

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Friday Farm Report: More on Josh Bell’s promotion and first half, plus notes

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Josh Bell earned a promotion to the Pirates Friday after a strong first half with Triple-A Indianapolis
Josh Bell earned a promotion to the Pirates Friday after a strong first half with Triple-A Indianapolis (Christopher Horner photo, 2015).

PNC PARK – Josh Bell got some good news on Thursday night, and that could soon mean bad news for National League pitchers.

In case you missed it, Josh Bell was called up to Pittsburgh, where he is expected to stay with the Pirates for the duration of their final three-game series before the All-Star break (you can read Travis Sawchik’s report of Bell’s call-up here).

Unlike Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who both learned of their first promotion via a late-night phone call from Triple-A Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor, Bell got to celebrate his promotion with his teammates after Indy’s Thursday night loss to Toledo.

It was also perfect timing for Bell’s parents, who were in town for the game.

“And you can imagine how that went,” Treanor said Friday, laughing.

Bell said Friday that he has benefitted from getting his feet underneath him for a second straight year in Triple-A, and the numbers tend to agree with the 6-foot-2, 245-pound first baseman.

Through 83 games with Indianapolis to start the 2016 season, Bell was second in the International League with a .324 batting average (trailing only current Pirates teammate Adam Frazier), second in RBIs (54), first in slugging percentage (.535), third in on-base percentage (.407) and sixth  in home runs (13).

He has also had pretty even power numbers, posting a .922 OPS vs. lefties and a .951 OPS vs. righties.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Treanor mentioned Friday that Bell continues to make needed improvements in his second full season at first base, but the 23-year-old’s major-league readiness stemmed mostly from a bat that has been able to hit for power and average effectively from both sides of the plate.

It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, as Florida State League power numbers tend to be pretty low across the board early in the season, but as of Friday there were few comparisons to Bell organization-wide.

High-A Bradenton outfielder Tito Polo entered Friday with 13 home runs and a .290 batting average between Low-A and High-A. Indianapolis center fielder Austin Meadows, who was recently taken off the Futures Game roster with a minor hamstring injury, has a .296 batting average, eight home runs, 19 doubles, 10 triples and 11 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A.

From a batting average standpoint, two of the organization’s top achievers, Bell and Frazier, are with the Pirates for the time being. Double-A Altoona infielder Kevin Newman doesn’t have high-end power (3 HR), but has more or less set the standard this season, hitting .355 in 58 games between High-A and Double-A.

Their skillsets are different, but all four (Bell, Meadows, Newman and Polo) at least have in common that they’ve earned a promotion this season.

Sunday likely will mark Bell’s final day in a Pirates uniform for the time being, but if he continues to produce similar numbers in Indianapolis, it likely won’t be a lengthy trip back to Triple-A.

“I’m happy the hard work has paid off,” Bell said Friday. “I put a lot of hard work in the offseason and just overall I’m excited.”

Perhaps even more excited than Bell Friday afternoon was Dallas Jesuit baseball coach Brian Jones, who coached Bell during his junior and senior years of high school and said he woke up Friday to a text from his former player containing the good news.

Jones said the text message brought a tear to his eye. He said he walked around his house with his phone in the air, excited and not sure who to contact first.

“I don’t know, it kind of just leaves you speechless,” Jones said. “I couldn’t be prouder for Josh and all the hard work and for how he’s progressed. It’s all really on him but we couldn’t be happier.”

Bell, who got his first big-league hit off Jake Arrieta in the seventh inning on Friday, was drafted in the second round in 2011. Joining him as a second round pick out of Dallas Jesuit was Kyle Muller, who last month was named 2015-16 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year and just recently was selected 44th overall by the Atlanta Braves.

Here’s where it gets weird: Both wore No. 19 in high school.

“I want to say that (Muller) requested that number as a sophomore,” Jones said. “I can’t say there’s anything magic in it, but we’re sure starting to lean that way.”

Short hops:

  • Nick Kingham made his first start since undergoing elbow surgery last year, allowing three unearned runs on three hits over three innings Friday for the Gulf Coast League Pirates.
  • Elias Diaz, who had right elbow surgery in May, is three games into his rehab stint with High-A Bradenton. He hit .271 in 93 games with Triple-A Indianapolis last season.
  • Bell’s promotion means each of the Pirates’ top four prospects, per Baseball America, has earned at least one promotion this season (temporary or not). Other top-10 prospects in that category include shortstop Cole Tucker (No. 7) and Newman (No. 8).

 

HE SAID IT:

Double-A Altoona closer Montana DuRapau, on an improved weightlifting focus helping him after he was selected by the Pirates in the 32nd round of the 2014 draft out of Bethune-Cookman:

“A big thing in college was you have the facilities and stuff like that, but it’s like, ‘Man, I really want to get drafted.’ In the back of my mind I was like, ‘I don’t want to accidentally hurt myself lifting or have something happen where I’m too sore to pitch and just being off. Then when you get to pro ball it’s like, ‘All right, who cares at this point? I need to be as good as I can be from now on until I can’t play baseball anymore.’ So you just push yourself harder and harder and your limits keep going and that’s basically all it’s been is I get better when I can.”

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