It’s very early in the season and the Pirates aren’t the only club trying to prove betting on Sports is just as much about luck as it is knowledge. The Giants are off to a 14-8 start, The Mets lead the NL East with a 9-8 record, the Red Sox have jumped to the front of the pack in the AL East while the Yankees are tied for the basement with the Orioles. Even the Royals who head to PNC on Tuesday are sitting in first place in the AL Central.
Much of what I just listed off probably won’t continue as the season evolves but there’s a reason they actually play the games.
1. The Pick is Becoming Clearer
It’s going to be hard to envision the Pirates taking anyone but Jack Leiter for me and if something terrible happened to Leiter I’d be compelled to take Jordan Lawler.
I know many still perceive this to be a two man race between Leiter and Rocker but Kumar is falling down the draft board, in fact most experts have him potentially as the second or even third pitcher taken.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Rocker is a hell of a talent too, but I can’t argue with every professional scout in USA Baseball. Fact is, any of the top 7 or so this season could be excellent players but I only see two of them as actual franchise anchors in 2021 and that’s Leiter and Lawler.
Before you freak out that the Pirates don’t need another middle infielder, again, the position scarcely matters. It’s either a pitcher, a catcher, or a short stop. Occasionally you’ll see an outfielder like this year’s version Jud Fabian out of Florida. But for the most part the best athletes tend to gravitate to SS.
Take a look at International signing boards, half are pitchers, the other half short stops with a sprinkling of catchers.
Back to Leiter,
The curve and fastball are two of his developed pitches. He also has a nice slider, a cutter and a Changeup he’s just started using and developing. All those pitches are certainly nice, a ton of pitchers will say they have all those, most can’t already display the consistent arm slot and deception Leiter does at this age.
If the goal is to draft a starting pitcher, Jack Leiter is the best bet in this draft.
Whoever gets Kumar Rocker will get a really nice pitcher, but I don’t see it at number one overall.
And before you push the catcher, Adrian Del Castillo on me over Lawler, that’s just not how the baseball draft works. You don’t draft for need, because often your need isn’t the same by the time they arrive. It’s also silly to ask me to look at who has what agent or who’s a Boras guy, they’re armatures so we just don’t know.
2. Territorial Pitchings
Kevin Newman is a perfect example of how pitcher approach attacking a player. In the Spring most pitchers will just throw their pitch, they aren’t trying to get hit, they aren’t trying to game plan for specific players. Nobody is looking to get pounded either, but let’s just say the scouting reports are glanced at rather than studied and executed.
Kevin changed his stance slightly this Spring, standing up a bit more and bringing his hands in so he could get through the ball with more power to the opposite field. He put a ton of that on tape this Spring and the league was watching, even while they did nothing to stop in down south.
Once the season started the plan to combat it began. See his new stance helped Kevin make better contact which takes him from a minor annoyance to a dangerous rally starter. Batting stances give and they take away. Make a change to cover the outside of the plate and typically the inside becomes vulnerable.
That’s what happened to Kevin, down and in became a dead zone and very quickly he jumped back to what he had been doing in 2020 to adjust to the attack he was facing, problem is, nobody including Newman wants to see more of what he did in 2020.
Early last week he made the adjustment to get back to what he was doing this Spring and has started spitting on that ball down and in, even if it’s a strike. It’s lead to deeper counts and harder contact early on and the struggle is to keep Kevin from reverting to previous versions of himself every time he struggles.
Now comes the part where you tell me all about his exit velocity showing him to be a terrible hitter. Right, that’s why they are making changes in the first place. His 105.7 exit velocity on Saturday’s homerun certainly shows the life is there and that was on a ball up and outer third which really shouldn’t have been pulled. Meaning it could have actually been hit harder if hit to the right-center gap.
Kevin is worth working with, this isn’t someone the team should give up on, not yet.
3. Winning Matters
Seeing the MLB club win and compete matters. Will it result in a division championship in 2021? Oh, I can’t get there, but it matters because this management team has taken players they already had and have helped them improve.
The Pirates have warts for sure, but by in large we’ve seen improved approaches at the plate. Bulldog efforts from the pitching staff and incremental improvement across the board.
It’s important primarily not because of the record this year or where they finish in 2021, but instead because for this team to actually turn this rebuild into a winning effort, one thing we can’t get there without is the development of talent.
This management team has been in place since late in 2019 and not one pitch has been thrown in a minor league contest.
We have nothing to go on but what we see at the MLB level, and that being the case, there are real signs that development is happening and it’s going well.
All of the prospects being acquired are great for the top prospect boards or the farm system rankings but if you want them to matter for the actual major league squad, each and every one of them will need to be taken from raw talent to finished product. We’ve seen our fair share of Quad A players here in Pittsburgh who go off and figure it out at the next stop, what you’re seeing this season is encouraging that those outcomes will be less frequent.
4. Hey, Maybe the Pirates Don’t Need 14 Pitchers
Don’t get me wrong, there will come a time when the Pirates pitching starts to falter, it happens to every team, every year. I think this bullpen has enough pieces to rebound from it and enough options to not every truly fall off the table, but there will be struggles at some point.
For right now though, the team has barely used Luis Oviedo, Geoff Hartlieb was called up when Chad Kuhl went on IL and wasn’t even used, Sean Poppen was called up over a week ago and has only pitched once.
Now, I could probably point to Rodolfo Castro being called up and scarcely used as well, but when you decide to use 14 pitchers and cut your bench to 4 players it seems to me if you aren’t using 2 or 3 of them regularly perhaps an extra bat would be a wise move.
The Bench as currently constructed is comprised of Todd Frazier, Rodolfo Castro, Michael Perez and Wilmer Difo. Soon Ka’ai Tom will be added to the roster and Rodolfo is a logical corresponding move, but when Ke’Bryan Hayes returns should the next move be to DFA either Frazier or Difo? Maybe it makes more sense to cut back to 13 pitchers at least until a need arises for that extra arm and give yourself a few more options off the bench.
Tom coming in can’t possibly be seen as a sure enough bet to DFA a viable player can it?
My point is, if Poppen isn’t going to pitch, let’s move him back and keep the bat, it’ll give the Bucs more options to pinch hit and to shuffle guys in and out of the lineup to account for slumps or even matchups.
Again, I understand the pitching is important, but I say, use it or lose it.
5. Measuring Stick Week for the Pirates
You can say this already happened when the Bucs took on San Diego and split the series, but let’s be honest, the Cardinals are always seen as the opponent that will show us where we are.
They always pitch, they always get timely hits and no matter how solid their roster they always play the Pirates tough. To be honest, the Pirates often play them tougher than their yearly record would have you believe.
This isn’t the Cardinals we all remember, they’re lighter on pitching than I can recall in modern times both in the bullpen and the rotation. Probable pitchers haven’t been released yet for the series but the Pirates approach to get into the bullpen will play well in this matchup.
The lineup of course has star power and power in general, in fact they only have 3 players on the roster who haven’t hit a home run, but even with a less accomplished starting rotation the Pirates are in a good position to push back on the Cards.
Don’t get me wrong, a series victory by either squad won’t mean much, but much like the series win against the Brewers and Cubs, it’s important for a young club to prove to themselves they can hang with the Bogeyman.