Open Auditions Being Held: The Future Centerfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates

For quite a few years, 13 to 14 by my estimation, there has always been a clear heir apparent who would tasked with the duty of patrolling centerfield at aaa for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As Chris Duffy, and at times Rajai Davis, were taking turns trying to hold down the middle of the outfield in the Pirates lineup, a young Andrew McCutchen was busy tearing up the fields of the South Atlantic, Eastern and Independent Leagues. It was undeniable that McCutchen was poised to take on the position and do so with skill, energy and ease for years to come; which is exactly what he did for the next 9 years. During his 8th year there were rumblings that the new kid on the block, Starling Marte, was more than ready to slide over to take his place and do so seamlessly.

After McCutchen was traded to the San Francisco Giant during the off-season prior to the 2018 season, the path and decision were straightforward; Marte was the Pirates full time Centerfielder and would remain so for the next two years. Now with Marte having been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2020 season, the Pirates were left with a clear hole in their lineup/roster. New General Manager Ben Cherington was quick to fill this void with veteran free agent Centerfielder, Jarrod Dyson; but even he had to be aware that he was only putting a Band-Aid on the situation, until he and his team could come up with a long term solution.

With a shortened Spring Training and a season currently on hold, there hasn’t been much time for GMBC and the rest of the Baseball Operations to work toward finding out the answer to the question of the future centerfielder. However, there are plenty of contenders and many Pittsburgh Pirates fans have already planted their flags in the camps of their favorite potential candidates because Jarrod Dyson is only a placeholder. This list is fairly short, but everyone is extremely passionate about their opinions, so it only makes sense to look at each player. So here they are, in no particular order.

1) Bryan Reynolds

Even prior to the end of the season there were trade rumors swirling around Starling Marte, which only intensified as the off-season progressed. This led many to wonder if the surprising rookie phenom could just slide over and take Marte’s place in the event of a trade. I even tackled this topic in article at my former site. Based on my own research and that of others it was discovered that Reynolds had some pretty decent fielding numbers in left field for the Pirates last season. For the season he posted a 0 rARM, a 0 rPM, a -3.5 UZR, a 3 DRS and a 2 OAA. All of these numbers were superior to Marte’s aside from the arm strength, which made many propose that he did not have the arm necessary to play center field on a regular basis. We all know he has the offensive numbers to justify his spot in the lineup or at least he did last year. He led the team in batting average (.314), and OBP (.377), as well as being near the top in wRC+ (131) and SLG (.503). However, does he fit in as the man in the middle long term for the Pirates?

2) Jared Oliva

Currently the Pirates #9 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline and an All-Star in both the Eastern and Arizona Fall League’s last year, a lot has been made of his consistent hitting and presence on the base paths. This praise is well deserved and completely justified as he hit .277, with 36 extra base hits and 36 stolen bases this past season in Altoona. With his speed and athleticism, it should be no surprise that his defense is on par with the rest of his game. In three seasons and 2081 innings in centerfield he only has one error, which would account for his .998 fielding percentage. It should also be noted that his RF/9 of 2.54 would rank near the top 10 of MLB active centerfielders.

3) Travis Swaggerty

When I read prospect articles, blogs and fans posts, Swaggerty’s name is the one I see mentioned the most often as the heir apparent to the centerfield position. As the Pirates #6 Prospect and 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft 1st Round Pick, selected at tenth overall, this should come as no surprise. This past season, at only 21 years of age, he performed fairly well both at the plate and in the field. However, his .265 batting average and .728 OPS was a little bit of a disappointment. It was nice to see him display some of the power he had shown in his time at South Alabama, as he he 9 homers and 32 extra base hits. As the Bradenton Marauders everyday centerfielder he had a .991 fielding percentage and a 2.83 RF/9.

4) Oneil Cruz

This is a little bit of out of the box thinking as Cruz is currently a shortstop in the Pirates Minor Leagues, who has been mentioned as a right fielder due to his arm strength. However, throwing to first from a middle infield position and launching a ball from the outfield are two totally different motions and it is hard to determine how this would translate. We all know the raw power (60 grade) and hit tool (50 grade) potential is there and should eventually equal success in AA, AAA and MLB, but at which position. His fielding (50 grade) ability, athleticism and speed (55 grade) allow people to speculate even further about his future slot in the Pirates lineup.

5) Jason Martin

Coming into the 2019 season, Martin was seen by many as the next man up in the outfield for the Pirates. He got the first shot of any of the prospects in the minors when he was called up to the majors on April 5th. He came out hot in his first four games, accumulating 5 hits in 4 games. Ultimately he would cool off and ended up being sent back down to the AAA Indianapolis Indians on April 30th when Starling Marte returned from the IL. He returned to the Pirates briefly at the end of June, but only got one at bat. His next appearance would be his last as his shoulder was dislocated sliding into home plate on September 3rd in a game against the Marlins. He would eventually undergo surgery on his shoulder in October. After an intensive rehab he came into Spring Training ready to compete for a spot on the opening day roster. As Spring Training was cut short he was optioned back down to AAA on March 20th.

6) Lolo Sanchez

Lolo is currently ranked as the Pirates #20 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline. After dominating the South Atlantic League as a member of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he was promoted to the High A/Advanced Bradenton Marauders half way through the 2019 season. He struggled with this promotion as he average plummeted from .301 to .196 and he only hit one homer in 52 games after crushing 4 to begin the season. He also did not get much time in centerfield as #6 Prospect Travis Swaggerty already had a firm grip on that position. Due to his poor play in Bradenton and obviously having several players in front of him, the road to PNC Park is not as clear for this young man, but it is not outside the realm of possibilities.

7) Jonah Davis

Over the past two seasons in the Pirates Farm System, after being selected in the 15th Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of California-Berkeley, Davis has consistently displayed the power he was drafted for by hitting 31 home runs. This past season in Low A Greensboro Davis took over centerfield on a regular basis after Lolo was promoted. He is a solid defender, with decent range, that projects as a corner or 4th outfielder in the majors. However, the potential is there to be a consistent contributor at the major league level and the chance of him playing centerfield for the Pirates on a regular basis should not be ruled out.

As we all know the 2020 MLB Season is currently in jeopardy. If baseball does end up being played this summer and fall, Jarrod Dyson is almost certain to be used as the placeholder in centerfield. There could also be an opportunity for other players to emerge depending on how Rob Manfred and the powers that be choose to proceed as multiple double headers have been discussed as an possibility. If the season is ultimately canceled Dyson could potentially move on, having never played a single game in a Pirates uniform. This would leave GM Ben Cherington in the same position as he was prior to signing Dyson in the offseason, with no clear replacement for Starling Marte in centerfield.

The Compassionate Contradiction of Sports Fans

We hear it all the time, all through our mentions, our timelines, our inboxes. How can you want sports back? You can’t ask these players to be unsafe or uncomfortable.

Rarely has anyone with any credibility called for a situation where the players would be asked to be unsafe. We’ve gotten to the point where simply saying you might like to see sports is being panned as insensitive or even dangerous. You’re uncaring or my personal favorite a ghoul. Actually, quite happy to see this word make a comeback even if some hippie used it and it caught fire.

There are some out there who believe this has all been BS. The whole thing, quarantine, closures, social distancing, even the government bailouts. I believe this to be a small percentage of the general population but they sure are vocal. That in no way makes them representative of every individual who simply states they’d like to see baseball.

There are folks who believe the players are greedy to the max and should happily accept a 50/50 split with the owners on revenue. I tend to lean toward the side of never expecting a first proposal to be accepted blindly.

Here’s the thing though. Being compassionate is not a competition. We have people out here trying like hell to show they care harder than anyone else and bashing anyone who suggests they’d like to see someone absorb any risk at all in order to bring back sports. Restaurants are currently calling employees back to work to ramp up for the “yellow” stage here in the Pittsburgh area. Many of these employees were actually making more money on unemployment due to the law providing an extra stipend for those furloughed. Many of them are at the very least saying they don’t feel safe returning to work (even though some of their very own have continued the entire time working). Problem is, once they get that call to come back, the choices are over. They have to come back, or lose the benefits allowing them to stay home.

One of my favorite narratives is how can you ask these players to do anything we wouldn’t ask others to do? Well, as I just illustrated, we are. Where is the outcry for those folks? What about the ones who never got to go on unemployment in the first place, being considered essential from the start? Where are your hashtags? Where are your calls of not believing in science for those who want a Primantis sandwich and a beer in the store? Where was your patience when we expected Mother’s Day level service at restaurants ill prepared for a typical Friday night volume?

Wanting to see sports come back and expecting those involved to maybe understand it won’t be perfect is absolutely a fair thought. I’ll take it a step further, what would it say about a given sport if the vast majority didn’t want it back or said they were fine with losing the sport for a year? The very thing you call un-caring or callous is exactly how these leagues and players have profited for decades.

Next up the folks who want sports back, but if it isn’t with fans it isn’t real. This is silly. Years ago, on a business trip to San Francisco I went into Carl’s Junior and bought dinner for myself, as many of you know there is an overwhelming homeless population in that city so it’s not uncommon to be asked for help quite a bit while walking. I was a young man, and many gave me advice to not give money but instead purchase food. So, I did, I got two extra burgers and went outside to give one to two people outside. One of them thanked me and shook my hand. The other discovered it had pickles on it and cursed me out. Moral of the story, when you are starving, take the pickles off and eat it. None of us fully understand how long it will be before fans en masse can go back to the in-stadium experience. Pardon me if I don’t want to wait for that to get sports rolling again.

NASCAR will be back this weekend. They are going to have no fans; they won’t allow drivers on scene until its race time. Race workers will only be allowed to congregate in small groups. They will only have one reporter on scene. There are to be no practices, no heat laps, instead they will go out and race. Many drivers believe this is unsafe, especially starting in Darlington which is historically one of the tougher tracks to get a feel for. All the big names have still made the decision to drive. The owners and drivers don’t make money if they don’t race and they made the decision that saving their sport was important.

I don’t even watch NASCAR, I might on Sunday. I’m sure I’m not alone, just like UFC found itself some new fans last weekend. The PGA will find its way back sooner than later and yes again, without fans.

Does that mean that MLB players should bend over and take the first proposal or acquiesce to separating from their families for months on end? No, it means let them negotiate, and let them decide for themselves what a bridge too far is exactly. It means, they don’t need your defense. Some of them don’t care how it happens so long as they can play. See, not everyone is set to make nothing for the best part of a year and maintain the life they’ve just started to build. Most people don’t buy a house based on what they have currently but what they will have as years of service take place. Hearing some say that they need fans there for it to feel right is completely understandable for two reasons, one, fans really do provide atmosphere, and two, the players aren’t ignorant as to how they get paid. Forget MiLB players, they’re largely screwed even if it does come back, yet I NEVER hear how they should be happy to sit at home. Funny how that works.

We repeatedly hear from media and politicians this is an unprecedented time, allow me to ask a simple question, how in the world can you expect the recovery from said unprecedented time to be anything less?

Normal. It’s gone for right now. If you want sports to survive it stands to reason you understand they must find their way back to playing. Maybe it’s time we all realize the everyday sacrifices each and every one of us have made was in an effort to eventually start living again. Some things will take longer to return than others, like two white girls bonding in a friendly embrace at Starbucks over their Pumpkin Spice Latte or two strangers hugging in the stands after a homerun, none of that should mean Starbucks should close until those actions are “safe”.

Bottom line, don’t be picky, be grateful.

Maybe Now is the Time

We are soon to see whether the players union is willing to play or not. No, not on the field, in the negotiation room. The owners are prepared to send a formal proposal to the players for restarting the season, and while we’ve all read proposals, some bordering on silly, the formal presentation process typically signifies a real proposal that the owners really think has legs. In other words, it’s close enough to talk about. It will have real numbers built in and yes, it will be pre-negotiation, of course it will be a best-case scenario as to an expectation of what the players would accept. Ok, way worse than what they’d accept.

Some of the rhetoric coming from both sides if genuine is very much so a non-starter for baseball being played in 2020. For instance, the players already making sure the owners know they deem the luxury tax as a faux cap and won’t accept it moving forward has nothing to do with this season, no this is posturing for the CBA negotiation after 2021. Much of this has been that way.

I’m not going to detail this plan today, for one thing, I don’t have all the details, for another I think baseball this year is doomed unless one of two things happen. 1. The government gives baseball special permission to operate in cities that don’t want gatherings large enough to put on a baseball game, and I’m not even talking about in front of fans. 2. The players agree to play in selected locations. I’m sure that testing or safety precautions jargon will be built in too.

If baseball is indeed off the table for 2020, in my mind so is the player’s ultimate leverage. The fear of a strike and losing games suddenly isn’t as scary when you’ve just seen it. Without that the demands for dropping key competitive balance measures, which let’s face it didn’t work anyway, should fall on deaf ears.

I’ll be honest here; I’ve never been the type to take the owners side or the players side. I’m rooting for the fans, myself included. The game is in real trouble, some of it self-inflicted, some of it just got away from them as nobody ever imagined how gaping the divide would become. Bottom line, if there is going to indeed be no baseball this season, fix our game. I’m not interested in just having the game come back as it was, plus a DH and an extra roster spot. I’m not interested in the status quo where the Pirates can only win if they do everything right for the best part of a decade and still need luck to reach the promised land.

The players have one thing to negotiate with, themselves. They are arguably the best 750 or so players in the world, we sports fans want to see the best What would happen if the owners called their bluff? If fact, that’s what I am calling for at this point. Call their bluff! Get a cap. Fix our game.

Beside being an exciting game, you know why the NFL is so wildly successful? Because a team from Buffalo can make it to the AFC Championship any given season. A team in Pittsburgh can win two championships in 15 years and be considered an underachiever. A team in LA has just as much chance of stinking as a team in Minneapolis. It’s real, honest to god competitive balance.

The NFL has problems too, don’t get me wrong, the Franchise tag prevents free agency from being free. The lack of guaranteed contracts creates an environment where the contracts are scarcely worth the paper they’re written on. But it is miles ahead of MLB in this one area that is of utmost importance to fans, the ability to win, no matter where you live.

If MLB decided to tell the players to buzz off, and they allowed a new union to form from MiLB players, within 2 years we the fans wouldn’t know the difference. There would still be a homerun king, a Cy Young winner. Someone would still toss a no-hitter; a player would still hit for the cycle. But the two sides could come together and fix the economic system. Making every team spend to a level and not spend past a level. Without this key change, the league will continue to languish as a coastal sport.

Here’s what needs done:

  • Salary cap based on percentage of league revenue (this would allow individual teams to still have TV money from local contracts) In other words, it still allows the bigger cities to make more money, not spend more. This should rightly sit around 50%.
  • International draft. Too many games are played with this system and we must stop pretending we don’t live in an increasingly smaller world.
  • MiLB player pay increases, the game is suffering from having arguably the toughest and least lucrative path to being a pro and being paid like a pro.

Those are minimal. They come with the elimination of revenue sharing, luxury taxes, and all the other poison pills MLB built in previously to pretend they wanted to help competitive balance.

This situation is teaching both sides something they should have known all along, without compromise, there is no partnership. See the players want to do away with the luxury tax because it is a restriction on the amount players can be paid. I say open your eyes! Yeah it does restrict how much 5 or 6 teams can pay, but not having an actual cap is costing veterans the rich free agent contracts they once enjoyed. Would it be better to have 30 teams with a cap at 200K and basement at 100K or 5 or 6 teams who can spend 400K while 24-25 teams who top out at 120K? Even that statement is BS, as it pretends there are two tiers, It’s more like this, Tier 1 – Rich 5 or 6 teams, Tier 2 – Middle 20 ish teams, Tier 3 – Poor 4 or 5 teams. Guess where your Pirates fall.

Enough.

Call their bluff.

Within 2 years max we’d all be watching MLB. Yes, it would be sad to not see Bryce Harper hit a homerun again, but there will be another who comes along. No more Josh Bell, well I guess we’ll have to be satisfied with Mason Martin hitting 35 homeruns against the same pitching he’s doing it to now.

The game would change, but not forever. It wouldn’t be a permanent drop in talent level. At some point the number one picks come up and new stars emerge. The league immediately would have renewed balance and as the system takes hold the benefits would become apparent within 5 seasons.

The players have the power because we give it to them. We know they are the best in the world and I’ll not dispute that, but baseball has a unique situation, the next set of best in the world is already playing in the lower levels.

I can’t fathom 700 of those players giving up a chance to play at the height of their chosen profession to protect the ability of 50 members being able to receive 300 million-dollar contracts. In fact, I think we’d start to see defectors within the first year.

Am I right on all of this? Who knows, but I will say openly being unwilling to bend on anything that helps fix this situation in baseball will ultimately lead to, if not the death of, surely the contraction of the league.

Pittsburgh has a perfect storm; we legitimately have less revenue than 80% of teams in the league and on top of that a historically cheap owner. You are free to stop right there If you like. You can say it’s all about Nutting but you are decisively wrong, he’s just part of the puzzle. He just makes it worse.

If we the fans are sacrificing baseball this season, let’s use this opportunity to fix the game economically. What are they going to threaten? A Strike?

To be clear, I have great respect for the players and don’t begrudge them making as much money as anyone is willing to pay them, but the economics of baseball and the top-heavy distribution of talent can’t be ignored any longer.

We remember the 70’s so fondly and wonder how the Steelers stayed competitive while the Pirates took a nosedive. Look no further than the leagues themselves and remember the NFL didn’t get to this point without drama. They had a lock out. They had replacement players. Now they are a juggernaut, surpassing America’s old pastime by a country mile. Maybe that’s because any team from Seattle to Miami has a chance. Players still get paid obscene money. Owners still make obscene money.

Baseball, wake up.

A Tale of Two Tuckers

It was a humid afternoon/evening at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Saturday April 20, 2019 and rain clouds were on the horizon. Pirates #5 Prospect, Cole Tucker, had just been called up to the majors and would be getting his first big league start thanks in part to a mid-game collision between starting shortstop, Erik Gonzalez, and centerfielder, Starling Marte, during the Pirates 4-1 over the Giants the night before. Next man up, Kevin Newman was technically eligible to return from a 10-Day stint on the IL with a with a finger laceration, but it was Tucker who would get the nod. In the bottom of the 5th Inning of a 1-1 tie, Pablo Reyes on 2nd base, Cole Tucker stepped into the box against his now teammate, Derek Holland. With his family in attendance, as luck and determination on their part would have it, the Pirates young shortstop sent Holland’s 2-2 offering over the centerfield wall and into the PIRATES bushes; giving the Buccos a 3-1 lead. Shortly after this the skies opened up and didn’t let up, eventually resulting in a Pirates victory and a game winning homer for Tucker. This hit was almost five years in the making; at least as far as his time with the Pirates Organization is concerned. For Cole and his family, I am certain the journey was much longer.

Cole Tucker was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st Round (24th Overall) of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Arizona. In the weeks and months leading up to this day, Tucker’s draft stock had been rising up the boards from his original #64 spot on the MLB Pipeline top 200 draft prospects. This was due to a strong spring performance, including his participation in the National High School Invitational; making him a surprise selection by the Pirates.

As soon as he suited up in a GCL Pirates or a West Virginia Power uniform, possibly even before that, it was apparent to many Tucker’s glove (55 Grade) and arm (55 Grade) were going to play in Major League Baseball. As he climbed the minor league ranks this fact became abundantly clear and there was always hope that his bat (50 Hit/35 Power) would catch up as he continued to develop; not that he was a terrible hitter, just inconsistent. However, this never really concerned me too much because he has always been significantly younger than the players he was competing against and he always makes the necessary adjustments; as evidenced by his 5 game hitting streak prior to him being sent back down to AAA at the beginning of June (.500 AVG during that time to bring his AVG up from .155 to .196 in a little over a week) and his patience at the plate in August and September (K% dropped from 30.4% to 17.6%). It should also be noted he posted a .257 AVG and a .819 OPS once he was called back up.

Unfortunately for Cole this season’s Spring Training was cut short, along with everyone else’s, and he was optioned to the AAA Indianapolis Indians on March 20th. Of course as we all know he did not disappear from the spotlight as he was the representative for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Players Tournament of MLB The Show. He gave us a lot of laughs and excitement with his charismatic personality, but fell short of making the playoffs. While Cole was busy thanking the virtual Gregory Polanco for many of his clutch hits in the gaming world another Tucker, Carson, was entering the prospect news, pushing his way into the spotlight; with and thanks to his big brother.

Most people’s first glimpse of MLB Pipeline’s #52 Prospect, Shortstop Carson Tucker from Mountain Pointe High School, was when big bro Cole, full of pride, shared a video of of his little brother taking BP on Twitter in late April. For the prospect junkies in the room, we have been watching this young man’s development with pure anticipation and excitement for the past couple of years. The Texas University Baseball commit has been flashing the glove and footwork of a major league caliber shortstop for a while now and just like his older brother, Cole has been climbing the draft board due to a solid, yet shortened spring. The younger Tucker has always had a strong hit tool (55 Grade) as evidenced by his .390 AVG in high school (.453 in a full season last year) and 34 career extra base hits. However, it was his power (40 Grade) that has shown the most improvement recently; hitting 2 homers in only three games this spring, which is almost as many as he hit (3) in his previous three years combined. Has always shown the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field and gaps, but now with him pulling the ball with power and ease he now has the potential to be the total package.

So what does the future hold for the Tucker Brothers? Well at least Carson has something real to grasp onto as it looks like the MLB June Amateur Draft is going to take place on the 10th and 11th. He is certain to be taken in the first 5 rounds, which will only be the rounds this year. The only question that remains is, will it be a high enough slot, with enough money to keep him away from the Longhorns? If you want my honest opinion the answer should be yes. As for Cole the future is a little more hazy; at least for now. The MLB season is in extreme jeopardy and the MiLB is almost sure to be lost. Where does he fit into the Pirates current roster? Of course he has been made the heir apparent, the shortstop of the future, but the path is not so clear anymore. With the emergence of Kevin Newman last year, the signings of JT Riddle and Erik Gonzalez during the off-season and the likes of Oneil Cruz and Liover Pegeuro waiting in the wings, this assumption is has become less fact and more opinion. The real travesty as it currently exists is that the older Tucker is in no position to gain any leverage by putting up solid numbers in AAA to make his case. So for now we will all have to do what every other baseball fan and player, including Cole Tucker, is doing, which is to wait and see.

The Craig Conundrum

It’s incredibly convenient that Will Craig’s first name has the ability to double as a question because that is something he has delivered to the franchise that drafted him in the first round in the 2016 Amateur draft.

At first he looked like the next logical player to take over for a quickly fading Pedro Alvarez, but almost just a quickly as those expectations were bestowed on the young man, he was moved to first base. Thank god the collective fan base exclaimed, the Pirates had been an absolute hole at first base since Sid Bream left for Atlanta.

Enter Josh Bell, a switch hitting power threat who came up as an outfielder but lacked the athleticism required by that position in the bigs. His new home? Why first base of course. Will Craig had become an absolute defensive whiz at first base and had started to find some traction with the bat. He was asked to focus on power and as with so many that came at the expense of contact. In 2018 he hit 20 (128 SO) home runs, in 2019 he hit 23 (146 SO), again, this is to be expected to some degree but when you’re trying to supplant a legitimate MVP candidate it just isn’t good enough.

Maybe we should try moving him back to third you say? Yeah, well maybe, but there’s this kid they drafted in 2015 named Ke’Bryan Hayes who is defensively superior and has some upside with the bat himself knocking on the door.

So what do you do with Craig? He’s a legitimate talent, he’s done nothing you’d consider wrong per se. He’s actually progressed along at a very normal pace through the system if I’m honest. He was a college draftee and for that he arrived with a set of expectations about how far along he should be from the start, but in reality he is very much so on track. Last season the Pirates decided to give him a crack at the outfield, now don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have the tools to play center or even left at PNC, but he could hold down right field with competency I’m sure but who is he beating out for that position?

Polanco stinks you say, of course, he’s awful out there isn’t he? Well, side by side Polanco would beat him out 7 days a week and twice on Sunday. Maybe a platoon, but is he better than Jose Osuna? Polanco won’t be here forever, his options dry up after the 2023 season (and yes, they’ll exercise them so long as he can prove he’s healthy), Craig could start to take reps there as early as this year if they so chose, but I don’t see him leap frogging Martin, Osuna, Herredia, and potentially even Oliva for time in the outfield.

OK, so MLB will have a DH this year, it’s happening people move on, maybe Bell is the DH and Craig can step right in to play first base, again, is he better than Osuna? Maybe Craig is the DH himself, man this is getting repetitive, is he better than Osuna? Jose isn’t Lou Gehrig of course but if we are just trying to find a place for Craig to play, maybe we should first worry about a guy who has already been on the roster for a few years now who has the same issue.

When building a team, you can’t ever 100% pretend you know exactly where everyone you draft will end up. I could be referring to time they arrive, position they play or indeed if they ever arrive at all. That said, your first round picks, especially when they do everything they were asked to do, must have a place to land. As MLB gets its wish this year for a truncated draft many talented prospects will be forced to choose going pro for 20K or going to college. The teams in MLB vying for the new free agent un-drafted men will be thrust into an NCAA like recruitment situation. This could be good or bad for Pittsburgh honestly, players if savvy enough will look at a franchise like the Pirates and realize there is opportunity due to the overall lack of top end talent in the system. Others will look to the dream of playing for hometown teams, and some will want to join a winner. When a player looks at the Pirates will they see Will Craig as an example of how the team wastes talent, or will they see a player who made it and never stopped progressing no matter what the team asked of him?

I can’t say how most players will react, but I can say a team with limited resources should move mountains to find a way to use every bit they do have. Will Craig is in genuine danger of being wasted, running out of years he can spend in MiLB the Pirates will be forced to give him a chance sooner than later, they will also be forced to see that audition as a final decision.

The baseball world expects the Pirates to trade Josh Bell, despite the rhetoric coming from his agent recently, we’ve seen this movie before. When they do, if they do, will Craig be an answer or an ill fitting band aid on the position? I don’t know, but I sure would like to see him try, how about you Mr. Cherrington?

Pittsburgh Pirates Sunday Service – 002

Today my friends we gather again to rejoice in the lesson’s we can learn from our glorious baseball history here in Pittsburgh.

Ralph Kiner’s Letter to Brooklyn 5-09 – And then Ralph said unto them, Homerun hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords; The Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat.

Ralph Kiner (right) Ted Williams (left)

The 1950 Pittsburgh Pirates would finish the season with a paltry 57-96 record. Nobody would confuse them with a contender, but they had one thing uncommon in the game at the time, a charismatic, power hitting, war hero, blue collar superstar. On this day though against the Brooklyn Dodgers, they roared back after falling behind 5-0 in the third to score ten unanswered and bring another victory to the Forbes Field cathedral.

Mr. Kiner drove in seven, yes, seven of those runs. You see just on May 6, he hit a grand slam, so when he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning with the bases juiced, there was no way the baseball gods would allow it again. For good measure he had already gone deep earlier in the contest.

Boom! There it went, Ralph Kiner cleared the bases, with the Bucs locked in a tie with Brooklyn he stepped up to the plate and with one mighty swing he put them up 4. It makes total sense if you think about it, you know when you pitch to Kiner, when the bases are loaded, and you have to. This was Kiner’s 5th year in MLB and the beginning of the fifth year in a row he would win the homerun race. He’d later tack on another two just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention.

When he joined the Pirates in 1946, he was a couple seasons later than expected as a 23-year-old man. For those that don’t know, Ralph had to cut his rise to the Pirates short as duty called. He joined the Navy and acquired his pilots license logging over 12,000 air miles. Let’s just say he didn’t have time to practice what he hoped to return to after the war.

So many of this generation, the greatest generation truly understood dropping everything for duty, for honor, for the country. For their families and all of ours too. He was my grandfather’s favorite player, and I remember him talking to me more about Ralph than about himself. He too answered the bell and restored freedom to the world and went right back to his old life. Successfully.

Nobody said it was easy or fair that these men and countless others sacrificed their youth or in Ralph’s case the early prime of his Hall of Fame career. It wasn’t, and it surely wasn’t easy wondering how or why they were the ones who made it back.

That’s how it was in this era. An already bruised nation still experiencing the hiccups and bumps of implementing new social protections and finding away through the global depression the world was gripped in now faced another enemy only this time it had a face. For the second time in the century America sent our best and brightest to help the peace-loving allies in Europe and Asia.

People still returned with trauma, just like today, we’ve just softened the language a bit. What we call PTSD was simply referred to as shell shock. It must have felt like nothing would ever be the same, many of these folks were old enough to remember the roaring 20’s, they must have assumed nothing would every feel normal again.

But on this day, Ralph Kiner proved to everyone they were right, it would never be normal again, no, Ralph told us right here, it would be better than normal. A new normal.

Friends we too will fight through this troubled time and we’ll look back on it from future years to celebrate those who fought this on the front lines and remember how awkward and scary the whole thing was. We’ll mourn our lost and find our way through the damage we absorbed. More importantly we’ll rise from this, we’ll rise up and be better than ever. Maybe not at first, but through the prism of history we will realize this is where we as a people put our foot in the ground and fought through this, together.

Resist the urge to assign blame to individuals, or politicians with everything you’ve got. There will be time for that once the real common enemy is gone, for now, we truly need to be “All in this together”. When it feels like things will never be right again, think about what men like Ralph Kiner did on the way to his chosen path. He was a force of nature, so were so many in his generation. Let us learn from their example, they paid so much to provide it after all.

Top Ten Pirates Number 1 Picks Who Bombed

The Pirates have had a ton of bad draft picks, and unfortunately for them being a first rounder was never a lock to make it. Also unfortunately for the Pirates, the hardest thing about making this list will be choosing which ones, not coming up with ten. Fortunately for me the draft didn’t begin until 1965.

  1. Chad Hermansen – He was the 1995 Pittsburgh Pirates number one pick. Number 10 to be precise and he was supposed to be the answer in center field heading into the new millennia. In six years he played in 185 total games with a total WAR or -3.5. In 492 at bats he put up a .195 batting average. Unmitigated disaster might still be kind.
  2. Tony Sanchez – Tony had promise. It always felt like we were waiting for some part of his game to catch up to another and for a catcher in many ways that needs to be the bat catching up to the defense. Tony had a tendency to be the opposite. His most significant contribution to the Pirates was probably chugging two beers in the locker room after they clinched a trip to the post season in 2013.
  3. Daniel Moskos – in 2007 he was the 4th overall pick and the Pirates forked over more than 2 million dollars for the right to watch him struggle to get his footing. He appeared in 31 total games in the majors and became a lightning rod for the Pirates inability to draft pitchers.
  4. Bobby Bradley – in 1999 he was chosen to be the next in line for Pirates future aces. In fact from 1998 through 2003 the Pirates chose a pitcher with each of their first round picks. Don’t worry, more will be on this list. The most successful of which was, wait for it, that’s right, traded, Sean Burnett. Sean was actually a teammate of Bobby’s as they both came from Wellington Community High School in Florida. I have to write all this because honestly, who knows what happened to Bobby.
  5. John Van Benschoten – OK, so John wasn’t actually that bad. He showed promise and injuries never let him get a real foothold. That said he holds the record for the highest ERA with at least 75 innings pitched. The Cincinnati native could be a giant conspiracy by the Reds to kill the Buccos.
  6. Bryan Bullington – MLB and the Pirates number one overall pick in the 2002 draft. He was widely panned as a sign-ability selection. He never made an impact for the Pirates or anyone else. Here are some names passed on to take this prize, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain. He was a poster boy for the draft system being set up unfairly and Dave Littlefield’s ineptitude.
  7. Mark Alan Merchant – I’ve covered him previously, as he is still the highest drafted player (number 2 overall) to never crack the league. Injury played a huge role and Ken Griffey Jr. was number 1. \
  8. Joe Grigas – Drafted number 16 in the 1967 MLB Entry draft by the Pirates. He played four seasons. He never got past Single A. He never played more than 69 games in a season. Not great.
  9. Rich Renteria – Drafted number 20 by the Pirates in the 1980 draft, he never really made his mark. Playing in only 167 total games most successfully with the Marlins in 1993 as a pinch hitter.
  10. Sam Khalifa – He was to be the anchor at SS for the Buccos, and platooned with Raphael Belliard, after struggling he was sent down paving the way for Jay Bell to secure his position as the starter. He quit the game after only playing 167 in the league.

The scariest part of writing a piece like this is how easy it would be to put together a top 20. This must improve to be blunt, but the Pirates have a new sheriff in town, here’s hoping he can find gold in all five rounds the league is giving him.

From The Crows Nest: The Milwaukee Brewers Farm System

In the first two articles I took a more in-depth look at the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds Farm System, which have been ranked as #23 and #24 respectively; the first potentially on its way back up toward the top and the latter on a free fall that may not stop until they are at the bottom of Major League Baseball. Speaking of the bottom of the MLB Pipeline Rankings, let’s talk about the Milwaukee Brewers 30th ranked Farm System.

Currently the Brew Crew does not have one single solitary player on the MLB Pipeline Top 100 after the graduation of 2nd Baseman Keston Hiura during the 2019 season and Short Stop/2nd Baseman Brice Turang dropping from #98 in 2019 to Not Ranked this season. Not only did the Brewers minor leagues take a hit, but their big league club’s talent level took a hit due to free agency (Catcher Yasmani Grandal and 3rd Baseman Mike Moustakas), trades (Pitchers Zach Davies and Chase Chase Anderson), not picking up the option on 1st Baseman Eric Thames and deciding to non-tender 3rd Basemen Travis Shaw. They did make some attempts to fill these holes through the additions of Pitchers Eric Lauer, Brett Anderson and Josh Lindblom, Catcher Omar Narvez, Infielders Eric Sogard, Jedd Gyorko and Luis Urais and 1st Baseman Justin Smoak. However, the did not add any depth to an already depleted farm system, so they have to hope that most if not all of these moves are successful.

Just as it was with the first two systems, the Milwaukee Brewers minor leagues is not completely devoid of talent. The Brewers #9 Prospect, RHP-Drew Rasmussen is poised to join the starting rotation in the upcoming years in spite of the setbacks he experienced while at Oregon State; Tommy John surgery in both 2016 and 2018. Rasmussen climbed three levels during the 2019 due to his fastball (70 grade) that has life and movement in the zone, a slider (55 grade) that drops of the table and a changeup (50 grade) that keeps hitters on their heels. The Pirates and their fans could be seeing a lot of him in the future as he gives our batters fits at Miller and PNC Parks. As I did with the first two systems, I will only be focusing on the Top 5 prospects to avoid from writing a novel or at least less of one than I usually write.

1) Brice Turang-SS/2B

Turang was drafted in the 1st Round (21st Overall) of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from Santiago High School in Corona, California; signing him away from his LSU to the tune of $3.41 million. He played well enough during his first two years to earn promotions through 4 levels, although most may only see it as two, from the Arizona League Brewers to the High A/Advanced Carolina Mudcats. His strengths thus far have been his defense, a consistently high walk rate of 15.55%, an average OBP of .382 and 44 total stolen bases. The only downside of his game is a lack of power that has only resulted in 4 homers in his professional career. Currently Turang is projected to land in Milwaukee in 2022 at the earliest.

2) Ethan Small-LHP

Drafted by the Brewers in the 1st Round (28th Overall) in the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft from Mississippi State University after an amazing senior season where he he struck out 176 batters in 107 innings, Small saw limited action in his first taste of professional baseball. Pitching only 21 innings in 7 starts he justified the Brew Crew’s 1st round choice as he struck out 36 hitters, walked only 4, posted a .86 ERA and .714 WHIP. Currently slated to move to the High A/Advanced Carolina Mudcats to continue his rise through the system, Small has an ETA in the majors of 2021.

3) Marcio Feliciano-C

Feliciano was selected in the 2nd Round of the 2016 June MLB June Amateur Draft from Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, he struggled to find his offensive footing in his first three years in the minors because of nagging injuries and ultimately arthroscopic shoulder surgery; hitting only 4 homer runs and batting a lowly .243.Then last season, in his second go around with the High A/Advanced Carolina Mudcats he finally broke out. In 116 games and 440 at bats he crushed 19 homers and 49 extra base hits, while batting .273. Defensively, he as the athleticism to stick behind the plate, but often loses concentration in game. If he can gain this focus, the arm and blocking ability will play.

4) Tristen Lutz-OF

Drafted in the 1st Round (34th Overall) in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft from James W. Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, Lutz excelled in both Rookie Levels in his first season; batting .331, with a .559 Slugging Percentage and 9 homers. This past two years his power continued to increase, while sacrificing his average and increasing his swing and miss. Both years his batting average was almost identical at .245 and .255 and his strikeout rate increased to 27.6% and 28.7%. However he hit 13 home runs in back to back years and continued to have an above average wRC+ at 110 and 120. Profiling as a right fielder due his strong arm and average to above average speed and fielding ability, Lutz could be on the big league roster as early as 2022.

5) Aaron Ashby-LHP

Ashby was drafted in the 4th Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur from Crowder College in Missouri after dominating the JUCO circuit to the tune of a strike rate of 18.8 per 9 innings. In the first two years of his professional career he did show some moments of brilliance by posting above 11 K/9 at times during both seasons, but his walk rate ballooned to over 4 per 9 innings. He has 4 pitches that are all average to below average, highlighted by an absolute wipeout slider. As long as he is able to polish up his delivery a little bit and make some adjustments to his complicated delivery he has the potential to be a dominant pitcher for the Brewers in a couple of years.

If I am being completely honest, I have no idea exactly what Daniel Stearns has up his sleeve for the future. He did lock up Christian Yelich through 2028 over the winter and has one of the best closers in the game to shut down opposing batters to secure the win, but the majority of the roster is slightly underwhelming. That coupled with the lowest ranked Farm System according to MLB Pipeline could potentially spell disaster for the upcoming seasons.

The Pirates Top 5 Late Round Draft Picks

By now many, if not all of you, should be aware of the fact that the MLB June Amateur Draft is going to look drastically different this year; to what degree has yet to be determined. As it currently stands the number of rounds could be as few as 5, but discussions are taking place to extend it to as many as 10. Even if this happens, 30 rounds of the draft will be eliminated. This will not only result in repercussions that will leave a permanent scar on the landscape of Minor League Baseball and change the approach that MLB General Managers take in choosing players, as I have discussed in previous articles, but will also affect the lives of countless high school and college baseball players as it pertains to their decisions to hold firm to their commitments to attend their preferred universities or for some, whether or not they will pursue a professional baseball career. In previous years similar decisions have been made, but for some the elimination of 30 rounds could make their choice for them.

In the history of Major League Baseball their are stories of players picked in the later rounds of the draft, many times from obscurity, that have gone on to have very successful and even Hall of Fame careers. The shining example that is often referred to first is the drafting of Mike Piazza in the 62nd Round of the 1988 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. There are many others that could be pointed out and the fact is that there could be many more moving forward as players who would have chosen in rounds that no longer exist will be picked up as free agents after the draft has concluded.

For the purpose of having a little bit of fun surrounding decisions and developments that any one who reads my articles and hears me talk weekly on the Bucs In The Basement podcast knows I am firmly against, I wanted to take a look back at the Top 5 Late Round Draft Picks for the Pittsburgh Pirates with the 11th round being the cutoff for players to qualify. If the draft is ultimately shortened to 5 rounds I will address the Pirates in history who would not have been drafted in a future article and believe me in looking at the 10th round alone it is going to be tough to narrow it down to just five.

For the purpose of this list and impending discussion I set the criteria for the Top 5 Pirates as those who were actually drafted, not just acquired by Pittsburgh, and spent a good portion of their time in the majors with the Pirates. If I lowered the benchmark at all the pool of players would just be too large, but I don’t want to discourage you from bringing them up because believe me, they were all on my original lists. So without further ado, here are my Top 5 Pittsburgh Pirates Late Round Draft Picks of All-Time.

5) Steve Cooke

Cooke was drafted in the 35th Round of the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft from the College of Southern Idaho and quickly moved through the Pirates Farm System, arriving in Pittsburgh in late July 1992. Cooke became a mainstay in the starting rotation in 1993 and 1994, until he was ultimately sidelined by injury for the entire 1995 season and a large portion of 1996. In 1997 Cooke once again became a staple on the mound for the Pirates before moving on to Cincinnati, where his career came to an abrupt end due to tendinitis. In 5 seasons with the Pirates Cooke accumulated 25 wins, including 5 complete games and a 4.3 career WAR.

4) Randy Tomlin

The Pirates chose Tomlin in the 18th Round of the 1988 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia. For 5 seasons the fiery left hander took the mound for Pittsburgh 106 times, 94 times as a starter; compiling 30 wins, 8 complete games and 3 shutouts, all the while posting a career 3.43 ERA and earning a 6.3 WAR.

3) Zach Duke

Duke was picked by the Pirates in the 20th Round of the 2001 MLB June Amateur Draft from Midway High School in Waco, Texas. By 2005 Duke was seen by many, including myself, as the future ace of the Pirates pitching staff. In his rookie year he posted a 8-2 record (winning his first 6 decisions), with a 1.81. Over the next 5 seasons Duke had ups, such as earning a 2009 All-Star Game appearance, and downs, including an 8-15 record with a 5.72 ERA in his last season in Pittsburgh. However, I have many fond memories of his time with the Pirates and am happy that Duke has been able to play, as it stands now, 9 additional seasons in the MLB, securing a 12.2 career WAR during this time.

2) John Smiley

In the 12th Round of the 1983 MLB June Amateur Draft the tall and lanky left hander, Smiley, was selected by the Pirates out of Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania and was eventually developed into a 20 game winning All-Star in his final season in Pittsburgh in 1991. In his first two seasons with the Pirates he was used exclusively as a reliever before earning a promotion to the starting rotation in 1988. In his three seasons as a starter, Smiley put up a 54-37 record with an overall 3.57 ERA. Smiley would remain in the majors for six additional seasons after leaving Pittsburgh, earning a second All-Star Game appearance as a member of the Cincinnati Reds in 1995. For his career he accumulated 126 wins and an even 20 WAR.

1) Dave Parker

“The Cobra” became a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 1970 after being picked in the 14th Round of MLB June Amateur Draft. He would go on to spend 11 years a major part of the Pirates “We Are Family” Crew. Earning an NL MVP in 1978, as well as a World Series Championship with Pittsburgh in 1979; he was an All-Star on 4 separate occasions. In his time in a Pirates uniform Parker batted .305 with 166 home runs, leading the league in multiple categories for several seasons. Over what would be an illustrious 19 year MLB career, he would hit a total of 339 homers and earn 40.1. Many believe that Parker is more than deserving of a place in Cooperstown, but that debate can be held another day. However, “The Cobra” is without a doubt the Top Late Round Draft is pick ever selected to be a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates Organization.

I have no doubt that there are other players in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates that could be considered for this particular list, especially if players drafted by the Pirates or acquired by them were added to the mix. I would love to hear from all of you about the changes you would make to the order my choices, the players you feel I unjustly left off the list and of course if you completely agree with my assessments. Let’s have some fun with this was and as always, Let’s Go Bucs!

Friday Focus – Is the Cap Itself a Casualty?

Three of America’s four major sports leagues have a salary cap in place, MLB of course being the outlier. If you’ve read my work for a while now you are no doubt aware how I feel about that, but just in case, I think a salary cap is needed to even the playing field in MLB and not just for the Pirates. I also think it needs to come with a host of other changes to baseball’s economic system. Today however, we’re going to discuss what this shutdown has done to this possibility in the CBA negotiations coming up.

Let’s begin telling the story by looking at the other two leagues that thus far have lost games, the NBA and NHL. As with most capped leagues, the owners and players tend to split the pot in half. OK, that’s not good enough for some people I’m sure but for the sake of this piece and to not dive into the minutia of every dollar allocated, its close to that. 

Every season the leagues will look at the revenue generated and typically increase the cap to get back to the agreed upon percentage that players should get. It’s typical for the NHL’s cap to go up 2-4 million a year for instance. If the NHL and NBA seasons are indeed over the revenue loss will be nothing short of transformative. The NHL makes a lion’s share of its revenue during the playoffs, in fact they have next to zero national television coverage in the US during the regular season with the exception of the few contests shown on NBC networks.

When I say transformative, I mean it. If these leagues don’t return the salary caps heading into next season will decreased and probably drastically. This will mean players that fit right under your favorite team’s cap, may very well not and since the majority of teams in both leagues spend pretty close to the cap there isn’t going to be a ton of slots available for cut players to land.

The NFL won’t have nearly the losses of the other two so long as they can play their games and the mammoth TV contract they enjoy, but if no fans can attend, they will take a hit too. It’s far too early to make predictions there but make no mistake, the cap won’t go up.

GM’s of these three sports treat the yearly increases much like you and I treat yearly or cost of living increases we receive. When you know it’s coming every year it has a tendency to become spent money.

Bottom line, players will be asked to take pay cuts. Some will, some won’t. For some sports like the NHL, the players will understand and for the most part cooperate. They are very much so plugged into the partnership. I won’t pretend to have the authority to speak on the NBA.

So back to MLB and the upcoming negotiations. Baseball needs a cap for competitive balance, I firmly believe that, but after watching the cap go down in the other leagues and some players becoming collateral damage for something like this will they be willing to entertain it? OK, so maybe they weren’t going to be willing to entertain it before this either, but that’s why it’s called a negotiation.

Before all this I thought a major issue, the players had in MLB was getting a bigger slice of the pie. Accepting a cap could have been that opportunity, and an opportunity to keep that slice of the pie, percentage wise, always the same. It creates a partnership in which everyone on both sides has incentive to grow the game and keep it healthy.

Long term, everything I just wrote is still true. A cap would still provide exactly that, but can everyone involved look at this situation and realize this unprecedented event is not the fulcrum of negotiation? Can they look past this time and see the benefit to the veteran players they claim to care for who aren’t getting contract offers? Will the Owners realize the long-term health of the game requires less smoke and mirrors as it comes to competitiveness or will they fiercely guard their wallets?

They can look at the few who become cap casualties in the other leagues as martyrs and examples of why they should never consider it, or they could see it as the sole reason the very league’s themselves stayed solvent. At the core of all these talks is the overriding us vs them mentality and some of that is warranted, but at some point, as an employee you need to understand you’re affect on the overall health of your business as well.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m a player I don’t trust the owners with my livelihood either, not blindly at least. On the other hand, a cap makes you less likely to need that trust. It’s a percentage and it moves, mostly up. Many will say there must be a floor if there is a cap, that has not been the case in any of the other cap leagues but seeing the situation through Nutting glasses you can see the need.

I fear that the event will make a cap negotiation a non-starter, the fear of losing money right now will prevent the players from seeing the money that could be gained in the future. We’ll have no choice but to sit back and watch but make no mistake, professional sports will very much so change from this. Whether it does so in a smart and fruitful way remains to be seen.