Let’s Build the Pirates Lineup

This season the Pirates along with all their National League friends will be building lineups differently. They have a new factor, the DH. Sure, they’ve all dealt with it as interleague play has been around for some time but planning for more than 3 games with one is much different than knowing it’s here all season.

I could just list off my proposed lineups, but I thought, maybe it would be nice to go through the options and talk a little bit about why we, or the coaching staff, would want to put them in each slot.

The Options: Adam Frazier, Kevin Newman, Guillermo Heredia, Jarrod Dyson, Cole Tucker, Jason Martin

Well, we have a window into how two of them have handled the spot, Kevin Newman did a great job setting the table last season and Adam struggled. So, here’s the rub, did Adam struggle because he was simply struggling in general or because of the pressure of leadoff? I’d say the former personally, but there is no discounting that Kevin was better. Dyson and Heredia have the speed, but their track record says their OBP isn’t up to snuff. Tucker and Martin are unproven and unlikely to start.

My Pick: Kevin Newman, every day against left and right

Two Hole
The Options: Adam Frazier, Guillermo Heredia, Jarrod Dyson, Cole Tucker, Jason Martin, Bryan Reynolds

Here is where we have a real lineup formation decision to make. And I almost have to start from the bottom. See, I assume some combination of Heredia, Dyson or Martin will play CF and most likely land in the 8 or 9 spot of the lineup. Adam Frazier would handle this position well and it gives you a Right-Left start to the lineup. Bryan Reynolds is probably the best contact hitter on the club, having him hit 2nd could ensure Bell has more meaningful at bats early on.

My Pick: Bryan Reynolds, every day against left and right

Three Hole
The Options: Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Colin Moran

Traditionally, the three hole has housed your most consistent hitter. I’d typically tell you that would be Bryan Reynolds but until he shows it, his power plays better in the two hole for me. There are too many ifs for Polanco and as he may or may not hit left handed pitchers I’d prefer dropping him a bit. Moran has a solid bat but also many of the same issues Polanco possesses.

My Pick: Josh Bell, every day against left and right

The Options: Gregory Polanco, Colin Moran

Once you take Reynolds and Bell off the board, these are the two biggest power threats left. Early reports are that Polanco looks healthy, so I assume he’ll start most games in RF.

My Pick: Gregory Polanco, and I’d start with seeing how he handles pitchers from both sides.

Five Hole
The Options: Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna, Colin Moran

Very often the five hole is almost a second lead-off spot, but there is a very real need for run production here too. Colin has handled this position well, but I think the consistency and speed of Frazier could play very well here.

My Pick: Adam Frazier, every day against left and right

Six Hole
The Options: Colin Moran, Jose Osuna, Erik Gonzalez

Ok, this is arguably the hardest spot for me to pick. I’d still like some power here so I’m inclined to go with Moran, but Jose could provide pop there too. Gonzalez could very well find himself getting starts at 3B and if he hits like he did late last season he’ll be a welcome addition.

My Pick: Colin Moran, every day against left and right, at first. If he doesn’t handle lefties, one of the other two filter in.

Seven Hole
The Options: Jacob Stallings

I’d give you options here, but it’s just a perfect place to stick Stallings. He can keep the lineup moving and not slow it down as the lineup turns over.

My Pick: Jacob Stallings, every day against left and right

Eight Hole
The Options: Guillermo Heredia, Jarrod Dyson, Cole Tucker, Jason Martin, Jose Osuna, Ke’Bryan Hayes

Let’s start with this, I don’t believe Hayes will make the club out of camp. It will be a control decision and he’ll be on the MLB roster before too long. When he does, this spot could be his as the starting 3B, but for now I’d like to see Jose Osuna get some AB’s as the starting 1B. On the other hand, Jason Martin could be a nice fit as his speed and sneaky bat could play.

My Pick: Jose Osuna, every day against left and right. I’ll call him the 1B but I’d be ok if he was the DH too.

Nine Hole
The Options: Guillermo Heredia, Jarrod Dyson, Cole Tucker

This one is pretty simple to me. VS Right handed pitchers, Dyson. Left Handed, Heredia.

My Pick: Heredia against L, Dyson against R

So, here is our final Lineup:

  1. Kevin Newman – SS (R)
  2. Bryan Reynolds – LF (S)
  3. Josh Bell – DH (S)
  4. Gregory Polanco – RF (L)
  5. Adam Frazier – 2B (L)
  6. Colin Moran – 3B (L)
  7. Jacob Stallings – C (R)
  8. Jose Osuna – 1B (R)
  9.  Dyson/Heredia – CF (L) (R)

Now, part of me thinks we could be using the DH wrong here. I think Moran is more of a defensive liability than Bell but if I want Osuna in the lineup I’d rather play him at first. Another way we could go here would be to put Gonzalez at 3rd in the eight hole and push Moran to DH and put Bell back at first.

Another thing I’m not a huge fan of there is having three left handed bats 4-6. Do I hate it enough to change the lineup? Yeah, maybe.

Let’s try this:

  1. Kevin Newman – SS (R)
  2. Bryan Reynolds – LF (S)
  3. Josh Bell – DH (S)
  4. Gregory Polanco – RF (L)
  5. Jose Osuna – 1B (R)
  6. Adam Frazier – 2B (L)
  7. Jacob Stallings – C (R)
  8. Colin Moran – 3B (L)
  9. Dyson/Heredia – CF (L) (R)

Now my biggest issue is putting someone I’m not convinced will make the starting lineup in the five hole.

Maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing, something I felt Clint Hurdle was guilty of regularly.

How about I take my “this is what I think they’ll do” hat off and just suggest what I’d like to see based on who the Bucs have.

  1. Kevin Newman – SS (R)
  2. Adam Frazier – 2B (L)
  3. Bryan Reynolds – LF (S)
  4. Josh Bell – 1B (S)
  5. Gregory Polanco – RF (L)
  6. Jose Osuna – DH (R)
  7. Jacob Stallings – C (R)
  8. Colin Moran – 3B (L)
  9. Martin – CF (L)

There are so many ways you could go, and every variable creates a new lineup. I’d love to see your ideas. How did I do? Where did I mess up?

In No Way is This a Typical Independence Day

Independence Day means something different to everyone, always has, always will. To some it’s a time to celebrate the birth of the country we love, for others it’s a time to acknowledge the many imperfections of our union.

For many it is little more than a picnic day with family or an excuse to get day drunk and blow stuff up. For me, it has always been a day to think about people like my Grandfather or Dad who fought to keep our freedoms in place, and to try to bring freedom to those who didn’t have it.

Today, we have a different situation. In our 244 years of history as a free nation, we have had events or special circumstances that have eroded our freedoms for a fleeting moment and understanding that pulling together to get through it was something we all got behind.

This is the time of year that has always been Baseball time. The final ramp up prior to the sports abyss that is the All-Star Break. Talk show hosts openly complained that there was nothing to talk about in the sports world. Writers took the opportunity to write more long form pieces about individual players or off-field examples of charity and community outreach.

Special uniforms with stars and stripes built into our favorite team’s logo, and accents of patriotism show up in socks, gloves and every piece of customizable gear. Buntings appear in home ball parks and team colors are replaced in the crowd with Red, White and Blue as fans celebrate America while they appreciate the casual enjoyment of sport afforded by the freedoms we enjoy.

None of this is gone, not forever anyway. It feels that way sometimes but as much as this country leaves to desire at times, its important to remember the very freedom to acknowledge everything isn’t perfect is not enjoyed by every country in the world. We often see things in extremes. For instance, saying you want to see some changes here in America doesn’t mean you think North Korea is the way to go.

This Independence Day, perhaps it should be pointed out, we are celebrating the day America declared our independence. The fight was yet to come. Loyalists to the crown didn’t support the declaration and the likelihood of beating back the world’s most accomplished military force wasn’t exactly a likely outcome.

It sparked a culture in this country, one that used to understand always improving but never perfecting was the hallmark of America. The beauty in that is simple, there is never a time when everything is set in stone because we built change into our very fiber.

You may not like where we are right now, but it’s hard to say it isn’t a better country than it was 30 years ago, 50 years ago. We learn, and we change. We adapt and we grow, but we never stop trying.

I was born in the 70’s but did the bulk of my growing up in the 80’s. What has transpired in this country during my lifetime is simply astounding. We’ve gone from knowing gay people existed to seeing them stand up and proudly announce they were here and tired of living in the shadows. Fighting for equal rights to marry and adopt, and very recently win the ruling that employers can no longer fire a person for living their lives. Is it perfect? No, surely not, but we have made steady progress and simply because all these wins weren’t like flipping a switch certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t worth celebrating.

Change is not overnight, and it never has been. Try to make change too quickly and it leads to rebellion. Sometimes that is exactly what needs to happen, and we fought a bloody Civil War for that simple reason. Ending slavery was something that nobody could slow roll into, it was either yes or no. A lesson learned as the country expanded and trying to straddle the fence wasn’t working anymore.

When you have this many people, from this many cultures, spread out over this much territory, baby steps are going to be part or the equation. If you told that 80’s kid that forty years later black people would feel unequal, I doubt I’d have believed you. My favorite movie was Coming to America, I watched black players and considered them heroes, TV shows like The Jeffersons were openly knocking down stereotypes and showing a sheltered white America that problems were the same for all of us. As a child you tend to think most people see things the way you do, as you get older you realize that’s not the case.

This time has forced us to sit back sans the distractions we enjoy and open our eyes to some of the changes we need to make. That doesn’t mean we all agree, honestly if you’re waiting for that I’d suggest you won’t find a time in history, in any country where that’s the case. But change can and will happen, surely not fast enough for everyone, but maybe, just maybe, that’s what helps it stick. When you climb a mountain, you secure every step before taking the next. This philosophy doesn’t make it fast, but it makes completing the climb far more probable.

This year we won’t have baseball on Independence Day, but we have an opportunity to show we can handle the responsibility that comes with that freedom. We can all come together, protect each other and in unity talk about change that we all can see is needed in our Nation. To pretend this has been one nearly 250-year-old failed experiment is to ignore the generational change that has taken place through our history. The will of the people is still powerful. Look to our past and remind yourself that LBJ the president who signed and pushed forward the Civil Rights Act was himself a documented outspoken racist. That doesn’t make it ok he said and did some of the things he did, but it shows that when the country wants change, the President is little more than a figurehead.

We have more in us as Americans, and we will come out of this stronger and more equal than before. I know this because that’s exactly what we have done time and again.

Happy Independence Day to everyone may you find a way to celebrate it in whatever way it makes you proud to live in this crazy, evolving, beautiful land we call home.

All Aboard The HOPE Train: The 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates

As players begin to filter into Spring Training 2.0/Summer Camp/MLB “The Re-Mix”, bloggers and media members alike have taken to giving Pittsburgh Pirates Fans something very similar to grasp onto…HOPE. Hope that Ke’Bryan Hayes will be standing at third base when the season begins, hope that one or more free agents will be headed to Pittsburgh and most of all, hope that the Pirates have a legitimate shot at the playoffs or maybe even more in this shortened season because anything can happen. I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade or tell you that these ideas are out of the realm of possibilities. However, I am a realist; which means I naturally temper my expectations and prepare myself for the mostly likely scenario.

On March 20th, almost immediately following the shutdown of the MLB season, Hayes had been optioned down to the AAA Indianapolis Indians to supposedly get more regular at bats. Now I know that during this time it was thought that both the MLB and MiLB seasons were only going to be delayed, so this belief still holds some weight and causes people to speculate about Hayes getting these at bats in the majors. On the other hand it seems as if the original assessment by General Manager Ben Cherington and his staff concerning Hayes was that he was not ready for everyday play in the MLB, so how does this position change in a 60 game season? Honestly, it wouldn’t as the player pool in Altoona is permitted to conduct intra-squad games as part of their continued preparations. Ke’Bryan would be able square up against the likes of Cody Bolton, Max Kranick, James Marvel, Nick Mears, Braeden Ogle, Cody Ponce, Aaron Shortridge and others on a regular basis, while receiving consistent hitting instruction from Jon Nunnally. In essence this would execute the original plan of Hayes working on his approach at the plate to bring his bat up to speed with his glove and based on comments from Derek Shelton about a lack of competition at third base, it appears that this is going to be the case.

For now the Hayes versus Moran debate has been all but settled, but it once again brings to light an underlying theme within the Pirates Fanbase of unhappiness with the current construction of the roster and if changes aren’t going to be made with players in the clubhouse, why not bring in more free agents? Sure Chris and I placated some of this outrage by adding Yasiel Puig and Scooter Gennett to our Pirates Roster in the Bucs In The Basement Virtual Season, but we realized this was just a fantasy and realistically Chris just wanted to prove that he was right about wanting to pick up Gennett in the off-season.

Since there was a little bit of a lay-off in between the shutdown and the restart many may have forgotten or better yet, tried to forget the free agent moves that Pirates made in the off-season. However, just because they might not have been the moves you were in favor of, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Outfielders Guillermo Heredia and Jarrod Dyson, Catcher Luke Maile and Utility Man JT Riddle were all added to the roster via free agency. Throw in Pitchers Derek Holland, Robbie Erlin and Hector Noesi, Catchers John Ryan Murphy and Andrew Susac, Third Baseman Phillip Evans and OF Socrates Brito on Minor League contracts. These are the Pirates Free Agent Acquisitions for the 2020 Season; for better or worse, so can we please stop talking about the free agents that are still available. Baring any extreme set of circumstances; including injuries and/or illness, the roster and player pool have been set. The Pirates are happy with who they have in camp, so we need to accept this as reality.

Another piece of reality that we as Pirates Fans should become accustomed to is that this continues to be a building year for the organization. Sure in a shortened season “anything is possible”, but is it feasible to expect the Pirates to take down the likes of the Dodgers, Braves, Nationals, etc. in a five or seven game set on the way to the World Series? The same bloggers and media members that would have you buy into this, are the same ones that are unhappy with the roster construction; playing both sides of the fence. In all actuality, even in a shortened season the Pirates still only have a minimal chance of making the playoffs and an almost non-existent shot at a World Series Championship.

Of course am I not ruling out or saying that I wouldn’t be excited by over performance, it just shouldn’t be the expectation. For me the expectation for this season is individual growth of certain players, along with assessment of others in order to determine who will be a part of the organization’s future. This may not be as exhilarating as talking about a potential playoff run and honestly giving false hope, but it was the outlook and plan prior to the season and in my mind not enough has changed to do anything other than stay the course. This is my hope.

Embrace the Inevitable

Most of us want sports back, especially if you happen to be reading a sports column that you potentially found on a sports fan page. Most sports leagues are trying to accommodate that wish. Now, I’m not saying they’re doing this for some altruistic reason, they want to recoup as much money as they possibly can and preserve the integrity of the leagues, they have worked so hard building.

There is something that just has to be broached, and it is of course COVID-19. When I say embrace the inevitable, I’m not telling you that you must like the fact that some players or personnel are going to contract the virus, far from it. No, I mean the literal definition of embrace. We must get our arms around it and come to grips with the fact it can’t be avoided.

Legitimately, here are the options. 1. Wait for a vaccine.  2. Play.

I’m sure everyone will do their very best to stay safe and every player will do the best they can to keep their families safe as well. None of that is going to prevent it entirely. I don’t even mean necessarily that the players who do come down with it will get sick per se so much as test positive. When they do, some will jump up and down with I told you so’s and damning the leagues for ignoring science or whatever standard fare you like, but the player will simply be quarantined, and the league will move on.

This is exactly what played out in European Soccer and its what will happen here too. Again, I don’t get giddy thinking like this, but I like preparing myself for what is coming and if we get through all these restarts without a positive test, either the safety protocols are years above what the CDC can even come up with or the leagues are better at hiding things from the public than any of us would believe.

I say the leagues will continue regardless simply because if they were going to bow to public pressure, they wouldn’t be restarting at all. MLB and the NFL have more challenges than the NBA and NHL in my mind simply because they are still going to travel. MLB has mitigated that slightly by scheduling based on geography, but hey, just being honest, I wouldn’t drive to St. Louis right now, you dig?

Players are not one massive body that all feel and think the same way. It’s part of why I hate when politicians target the “black” vote or the “women” like somehow being black or female means you have to fall into some bucket of agreement. Some players don’t want to play, many of those will begrudgingly either for their brand, or some money, maybe even for a chance at an elusive championship. Other players desperately just want to get back to what they do best, play. Nobody wants to feel like the Ferrari in Ferris Buehler. What is crucial is that no matter which way they lean, each individual must adhere to all the safety protocols as strictly as they can.

All along this process we’ve been living with, most of the players have remained in the relatively safe zone at least when it comes to age and relative health. These are fine tuned athletes and for the most part they would all recover nicely, with of course distinction given to those who have chronic conditions or loved ones who do. Pile on top of that the mortality rate continuing to drop right along with hospitalization rates.

Does any of this make it safe? Nah, but then again, the facilities they will spend most time in might be the safest places to be in the country. I thought for quite some time we might not get sports back this year, now I’m convinced they will be back, and furthermore will be here to stay. Right or wrong, its going forward, and I’m going to let myself enjoy it. Will you?

Top Ten Pirates Things to Watch in 2020

There were some interesting things developing in Spring Training 1.0 and as this short season starts to play out, here are 10 things I don’t want to lose sight of.

  1. Which Polanco Shows Up – Gregory is arguably the most gifted athlete on the club. And he has failed to gain traction due to injury and a lack of consistency. If Polanco is a homerun threat and looks like he could throw out a runner who made a bad choice heading to 2nd it’s a huge upgrade for the Pirates over what they had last season. Believe in him or not, he has the most potential of anyone who didn’t contribute last season.
  2. How Does Cole Tucker Get At Bats – Cole could very well be a nice weapon from both sides of the plate but Newman or Frazier will have to fall off the table or suffer an injury to find out. It’d be nice to get a handle on what he is sooner than later.
  3. Ke’Bryan Hayes to be a Rookie – If he starts out on the MLB roster and goes 10 for 20, breathe, he’s a rookie. If he starts out 2 for 20, breathe, he’s a rookie. If he hits 2 homeruns all season long, he’s not a power bust, he’s, say it with me, a rookie.
  4. Kevin Newman’s Bat – The Stats experts have predicted Kevin crashing back to reality in 2020, and honestly, it’s there. The numbers absolutely show he is primed for regression. If Kevin is again getting on base and collecting hits it might be fair to say twice is no fluke.
  5. Colin Moran Hitting Lefties – Colin did well in limited opportunities hitting left handed pitching. If he can again handle it well he makes an excellent DH candidate even if he doesn’t ultimately hold down 3B.
  6. Joe Musgrove’s Curveball – Joe has a wicked curveball. We saw him start to lean on it more as the season progressed in 2019. Look for him to mix it in with more regularity under Marin and become a little bit more of a swing and miss threat than he was under Searage.
  7. Bryan Reynolds as a Sophomore – As is legend, the sophomore season is one of the toughest a young player can go through. First, this is a very short season and we won’t get as much information as we’d like. Second, it should be expected that the league has done some homework. Bryan isn’t exactly going to fly under the radar being either the best or second best hitter on the club. Nowhere to hide, but something tells me he likes it that way.
  8. Josh Bell’s new throwing motion – Josh is a tireless worker. Sometimes that looks like Sidney Crosby, for less than generational talents it tends to look more like Josh Bell. Constantly fine-tuning and finding things that work in spurts. His defense was a focus in 2019 and it improved, this season he rebuilt (with coaching help) his mechanics for throwing the baseball. If he is a 1B vs a DH Josh’s value both to the Pirates and a potential trade grow exponentially. Never underestimate someone with this kind of work ethic. If he wants to improve, he will.
  9. Kyle Crick’s Control – Kyle has an incredible slider and a fastball to match. As 2019 dragged it’s bloody body across the finish line, Kyle found himself on the IL but prior to that he had completely lost the ability to place his slider. Batters learned much like we saw with Liriano years ago, that if you wait out Crick, you’ll either walk or get a fat one. Pick up spin? Spit on it. No spin, swing. He must be able to paint the corner with that slider or he is a dinger machine.
  10. Chad Kuhl’s Fastball – Before Chad went on the IL, ultimately requiring Tommy John, he was hitting triple digits on the gun and had just started to develop his secondary pitches into Lefty outs. This shortened and oddball Spring may have pushed Chad to the pen but there is still no reason we can’t watch to see how his bag of tools look now.

This club may not be good this year, but these story lines will be fun to follow as we watch them play. What do you think?

PEDs – Excuses, Reactions and Ramifications

For as long as professional sports have existed, getting an edge has ridden shotgun. This comes in the form of cheating on the field, ignoring tampering rules with potential free agents and of course PED use.

The Pirates were just bitten again by PEDs as Edgar Santana who had just fully recovered from Tommy John Surgery worked his way back to the Pirates bullpen. Reactions are all over the map. Some don’t care because it’s his body and if he chooses to use steroids, who are they to judge. Others feel the guy should never wear black and gold again. Personally, I always think of the other players on the squad. We were hit by this when Starling Marte was fingered for PED use and missed 80 games after the Pirates decided he was going to take over center field for Andrew McCutchen, much to the chagrin of the All Star outfielder who now plays for the Phillies.

Pablo Reyes too was nabbed, but let’s face it, he wasn’t expected to contribute nearly as much as the other two I mentioned so the reaction led to more “he’s an idiot” or “and he still sucked”. See, not all PED offenses are created equal.

Francisco Cervelli, fan favorite here in Pittsburgh, arrived in town with a history of injury and PED use from the Yankees. None of that stopped him from being popular. Did everyone assume he was all done with that stuff when he got here? I guess so. I didn’t think about it much because if I’m blunt, it never hurt my club. I never had to watch the Pirates go half a season without their starting catcher because he wanted to take a shortcut. Granted, I certainly watched him miss half the season, just not due to suspension.

Starling Marte did take some heat. Partially because fans had already labelled him as dumb or unfocused which led right into the fun that goes with cheater. I’m not here to argue about your feelings on Marte, but I will say, forgiving him his transgression was a bit more necessary knowing he was at least close to the best player on the roster.

Why do we have different levels of ire for those who have used? Or should I say, those who were caught? Is it race? Maybe skill level? Effect on the club? Maybe all of those.

I remember PNC being quite unhospitable to Ryan Braun when he first came back from his suspension. I get it, we didn’t like him before he did anything wrong. If I’m a Brewers fan, I think I’m most irritated that he used PEDs to get himself that huge contract and then after his suspension went on to prove PEDs played a huge role in what he had put on tape. He wasn’t the same player.

Marte was never the power threat he was becoming after his suspension, but he still had a potent bat and played a great outfield. Is that why we forgave him?

We all, with open arms ate up the Melk-man hit parade last season. He’s a former cheater. We all knew it, most of us never said anything. Why not? I mean, maybe I just ruled out race here. Maybe it simply has more to do with how they come back.

The truth is, we have a very conflicted history with PEDs right down to what constitutes “performance enhancing” in the first place. Does LSD count? I mean I’d say if Doc really was tripping, he threw that no-hitter despite the LSD not because of it, but we celebrate the event like a national holiday. What about all the greenies and cocaine in the 70’s? Any chance those helped some players?

Watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire bash homeruns arguably saved baseball back in the late 90’s, but nobody thought they were clean. Many of the same writers who had to clean drool off their notepads before filing their stories have formed a human shield to prevent anyone wrapped in that scandal from reaching the hall. Hell, they even ignored when Sosa’s bat exploded, and the entire thing was corked. And note I said “many” up there. Some have been on the train that these guys were juicing from the beginning, Dejan Kovacevic comes to mind.

So, is cheating bad or is getting caught bad? What is one of the loudest narratives you hear when a guy gets pinged for steroids? “What an idiot” right? That comes from players, who know full well how easy it is to avoid failing a test. It comes from journalists who also know (from the players) how easy it is to never fail. See, we’re more upset they get caught than we are about the action itself. Getting suspended is selfish, not the use itself.

Some don’t even have to get caught, they just need to look the part.

Did Edgar Santana just destroy the Pirates season? No, of course not. Returning from TJ already had him in a “gravy if he contributes” situation to begin with. Many will forgive him as it’s easy to say he was just trying to recover from surgery faster, plus when he comes back next season, I’d imagine his 95+ fastball and missing an already bastardized season will play to his advantage.

The bottom line is we have a love-hate relationship with PEDs, and we pick and choose those who get to put it behind them as well as those who never get to shed the label. Maybe the best way to put it is this, if you put Ken Griffey Jr., and Barry Bonds side by side I’d tell you I respect Griffey far more, but Barry was the best I’ve ever seen. That doesn’t explain why the same fan base accepted and washed away the past of Cervelli but wouldn’t do the same for arguably the biggest star on the team in Marte. To me, the cheating pulled off by the Houston Astros is far more damning and I hope its reflected when players like Jose Altuve reach Hall eligibility, because if cheating is a disqualifier, let’s make actual on-field cheating at least rise to the same level as suspected PED use.

Pirate’s Leadership Sounds Different

The Pirates went through a nearly complete upheaval of the management team after the 2019 season as everyone knows, and they continued that process last week as Ben Cherington cut ties with many front office employees that were extended prior to the ousting of Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly.

Because Bob Nutting remains the Owner, believing real change is here has become impossible for many. Worsening the situation, this new management team has been handed an untouched frontier as their first assignment. We may never know what the plan was for 2020 fully. Did they plan to move Chris Archer, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell, Keone Kela? The chances of any of those happening under these circumstances range from no to maybe to hell no to impossible.

So, I ask myself, what could this leadership group do to show they are different rather than just sound like it? Not to placate the fans, that’s never a way for a GM to operate, but to show a real willingness to operate in a different way.

Here are some things that, for me, would show the kind of willingness to invest and put a foot down, even in these times.

  1. Sign Josh Bell to an Extension – Overpay if you must, but get it done. I hear frequently that Josh isn’t that good in reality and the Pirates should definitely move him for prospects. I find that more as a symptom of how this team has been run than reality. There are exactly 29 other teams, especially with the DH being universal, who would love to have Josh on their roster. To assume the Pirates should be the one who think he’s more valuable as a trade chip is just so Buccos. Not to mention, signing him to an extension doesn’t exactly prevent his movement later, but it would show the days of automatically playing your way out of town because you picked a certain super-agent are at least less certain. Players and people like Josh don’t come along every day, we should stop trying to make losing them ok by diminishing the talent level of them when they do here in Pittsburgh and more so we should expect that keeping them on occasion occurs more than once every three decades.
  2. Sign a Free Agent Who Was Actually Coveted- The Pirates have not signed a free agent anyone else drove the bidding up on since Russell Martin. Part of that is certainly the economics of baseball, part of it is of course the way Bob Nutting has run this club. Perpetually signing “Diamond in the Rough” type free agents or those who are past their prime but might be ok again works on occasion. Melky Cabrerra comes to mind, Francisco Liriano last year as well, but is it too much to ask that they fill a hole with more than a bucket of question marks? Catcher was the most obvious hole this season and sure the two they signed could very well out perform their track record, but there were several options who would have cost no more than 5 or 6 million who would have provided something the guys they got can’t, an absolute upgrade. I’m not advocating this club try to truly be in on the monster contract guys, but a 15-million-dollar starter could really change the entire dynamic and still leave them near the bottom with payroll. The Bucs should know well how easy moving a pitcher like that can be as well should they not be happy.
  3. Trust Developed Players- Here is a great for instance, if the Pirates believe Ke’Bryan Hayes has learned all minor league ball can teach him, he’s either not good enough or he’s ready. Same with Will Craig. Get them involved and let them continue to develop. What I’m suggesting here is not to push all your chips into the middle and lift your hands, its more to do what the Cubs have done with players like Ian Happ, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. None of them were polished diamonds when they came up, but they allowed them to find a role and contribute rather than waiting for the perfect storm of need and service time to line up. It’s better to find out what you have than it is to hold them in some kind of prospect purgatory where they serve to do little more than win MiLB championships. Far too often the Pirates find themselves in a situation where they create a do or die situation with prospects. Holding them in the minors until they’re hand is forced. Another side effect, say Josh Bell gets injured and the Bucs need a first baseman, would Will Craig be the first guy on the scene? Probably not. Moran or Osuna would get a shot first and I couldn’t even argue with it, because organizationally they have never allowed Craig to really take a crack at the next level, of course I trust the two guys who have been here more. That’s what the Buccos failure to launch culture has spawned.

None of these things make the Pirates a contender today. In fact, nothing short of the 60-game schedule will do that this season. But the real change we hoped Cherington would bring is simply not going to show itself until they actually do something different. Ben is not responsible for 99% of the players on this club or in the system, so the talent level is therefore also not his fault. Failing to make changes and do something different as we move into next season will be, I trust what he says and believe him when he says he has the tools at his disposal. I trust because he’s had no real clear-cut opportunity as of yet. Once he has a real chance, my trust switches to expectation, here’s hoping he meets it.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Way back when, somewhere around March in 2019, long before we ever heard about COVID-19 or the extreme effects it would have on every facet of our daily lives, The Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Rotation was supposed to be the strength of the club. Yup, all those guys had pedigree and potential, ok, maybe you had big questions about the fifth starter, or you firmly believed Chris Archer would stink, did stink and always will stink.

Regardless, the Pirates Rotation was favorably seen by most national pundits and the few local guys who can still bring themselves to utter a nice word about the club felt it too. For the first few weeks it looked like they were right too, Archer was still not getting deep into games, but he was getting outs and holding his own. Joe looked strong and started mixing his pitches in more regularly. Jamo was the ace we wanted, even if out of all of them his results were the most up and down. Williams looked like he recovered from his disastrous finish to 2018 and even Lyles was a pleasant surprise, far outplaying his 1-year deal.

Then the wheels started falling off. Archer started showing he couldn’t keep the ball in the park and arguments over pitching philosophy were hard to ignore. Joe continued to pitch well, but still fell prey to that occasional blow up inning. He’d give up four runs in the first and shut out the opponents for six innings after that. Jamo of course was bitten by injury again, and yes, it was the bad one. Williams himself was injured and lost the mojo he built up. Lyles was still dealing but after all the rest, Jordan being the most consistent in the rotation just couldn’t do.

Mitch Keller stepped in after the Pirates inexplicably tried an unstretched Brault and Kingham mix mash, culminating in Kingham being DFA’d and Brault after being given more chances than a 60-year-old in the lottery line finally found his footing and stretched out. Chris Stratton was purchased from the Angels for three packs of Topps and some coupons to In and Out, came in, pitched ok, got hurt, gone goes stop gap help. Keller pitched exactly how you’d expect a rookie to perform. His stuff played but he didn’t always trust it. So, he would get blown up in an inning and toss three shutout innings after it. Learning to pitch at the MLB level after jumping from AAA has been a Pirate problem for as long as I can remember. Gerrit Cole is the only one I can think of who didn’t fall victim to the system and It’s fair to say he’s a little special.

While all this shrapnel was flying around, the Pirates bats came to life and players we didn’t even see coming took off. Bryan Reynolds arrived and emerged almost at the same time. Starting 2019 Reynolds was easily 5th or 6th on the outfield depth chart. There was Marte of course, an injured Gregory Polanco who was working his way back into the lineup (so we thought), Melky Cabrerra who nobody even gave a real chance to make the club, Jason Martin who himself had no real track record and was coming off an injury that took away from his number one tool, speed. Jose Osuna, Kevin Kramer, Adam Frazier hell you could even toss Pablo Reyes in there.

Kevin Newman rose from the ashes of a complete dumpster fire September in 2018 to win back his job as starting Short Stop and compete all year for rookie of the year. Jung Ho Kang was, well awful, and after blasting homeruns into the Bradenton wind all Spring long. He literally only hit homeruns. It was like watching Craig play MLB 2020 The Show.

Josh Bell was being mentioned with some of the games very best. Not just the current day guys like Trout or Story, no he was drawing comparisons to Arron or Gerhig. The offense stole the show and picked up the awful pitching.

Everything started rocking the same shaky path after the All-Star break though and the lack of depth smacked every hope of getting back on track right in the face.

Here we are, entering 2020 and where do we sit?

The rotation toss in this season is Derek Holland instead of Lyles. Taillon is still hurt. Archer is hurt. Brault was hurt. Williams got touched up in a very similar fashion early this Spring 1.0. Keller looked like he has gotten the yips under control, but he looked good last Spring too.

Bottom line, nobody expects this staff to carry the team, period. The offense however, yeah, they have some expectation. People already have Reynolds as a lock to improve on an already impressive Rookie Season. Bell is the heart of this lineup, whether a DH or First Baseman. Newman is penciled in as the leadoff guy, Frazier is a gold glove winning, 280 with his eyes closed hitting lock in the lineup. The Pirates expect Polanco to return healthy and get back to what he started in 2018 before he took a Roller Derby looking slide into second.

The offense really could be quite good. As with any season there are ifs, but in a 60-game season, there are a few more. For instance, If Bell gets off to a start resembling his early season in 2019 and Reynolds just holds serve, that’s a 3-4 punch not many teams will get past undamaged. If Newman can continue to make stats nerds wet the bed because he’s clearly supposed to suck and Frazier just does what he does, 1-4 of that lineups is quite formidable. Polanco is a wild card, but the potential is still there. Moran/Hayes/Rodriguez/Osuna get you to a pretty nice looking 1-6. Stallings, who probably set his career highs for average moving forward last season is a nice seven-hole anchor and then you have Herredia or Dyson. Hey, that’s not bad.

So here we sit, 2020 is finally here and we again have one side of the ball with all the potential while the other looks like a liability. A hot offense or pitching staff for a month in a two-month long season could be enough to get you there.

Do I think it will happen? No, if I’m honest, I just don’t think they have the pitching to get it done. But again, in two months, imagine the Cubs have two pitchers go down with hamstring pulls. That’s 2 weeks give or take and at least a week to get back into shape. Every injury to a pitcher will affect at least 1/3 of the season. Every team knows this season hinges on health and depth. Who has the most? In 2019 it certainly wasn’t the Pirates, in 2020, the depth pitching might be an even bigger factor, for every team.

Five Thoughts at Five

Baseball, in the functional business sense is back today. It’s nice to see all the folks out there including Craig and I who were locked in a holding pattern finally able to talk baseball.

  1. Free Agent Dreams Will Remain Fantasy – The welcome return of wishful thinking Pirates Fans started shining bright as soon as the players agreed to report to camps. But much like the late-great Burgess Meredith once said in Grumpy Old Men, “You can wish in one hand and crap in the other”, yup, you guessed it, and you know which will fill first. Thing is, I’m not even mad about it, I’d much prefer they avoid false hope this year and face their issues head on.
  2. Pitching Is, Was, and Will Be the Biggest Issue – The pitching staff, at least the starters, can’t compete long term. There is still reason for the type of quirky optimism a 60 game schedule provides, but make no mistake, they need help. More help than they could possibly get from a few unsigned free agents or costly trades. No, they need time. Time for the few pieces of the answer already here to meet up with what is coming into the system.
  3. Bob Nutting’s Wallet – Is not the reason for the restructuring layoffs that just came out today. DK Pittsburgh Sports, Jason Mackey have both reported the intention of Cherington to restructure some of these areas. Specifically some of those who had just re-upped their contracts prior to the Huntington firing. If you want to blame Nutting for something here, hammer him for taking his sweet time deciding to move on from Huntington. Also, paying them through the end of October means the savings would be negligible anyway.
  4. I’m Happy for Altoona – Altoona deserved to be named the Hub city for the Pirates reserve player pool. I hope it helps them recover some of what they lost during the pandemic. The stadium is really a little gem and I think everyone will be comfortable spending some time there.
  5. Expanded Playoffs – I’m glad the players union said they were still willing to discuss expanded playoffs, but it would be best to have that decided long before the first pitch. If you have a team that you think is borderline to make the wildcard if you add a piece, the expansion could force some player movement. Something I don’t feel is going to be too prevalent without it.

As always, catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook, let me know your thoughts.

Friday Focus – The Rotation is Still Spinning

In the past few months so much has changed in our world it has become nearly impossible to keep track. Even the Pirate’s rotation has changed as Chris Archer found himself on the IL and the dominos fall from there.

Resist the urge to pretend Archer’s injury somehow makes the Pirates stronger. You may not like his pedigree but at least he has some. One thing missing from this rotation is a meaningful track record.

As Sprint 1.0 opened (I swear we’ll get past this 1.0, 2.0 stuff at some point) the Buccos rotation looked something like this.
Chris Archer
Joe Musgrove
Mitch Keller
Trevor Williams
Steven Brault
Alternates included: Derek Holland, J.T. Brubaker, Chad Kuhl

Obviously, Archer leaves the list and one of those alternates moves up. Just as obviously, this is not a starting rotation for a playoff club. I don’t think it’s as bad as many project but let’s go through what we actually know about each of these players.

Joe Musgrove – A nice 5 pitch mix and a natural leader, Joe needs to lean more heavily on his curveball this season to take a real leap forward, but he is someone that could find a home in most starting rotations, although in Pittsburgh he will need to be a number one. Which means he is destined to underwhelm.
Mitch Keller – Who knows honestly? Mitch could take a big step forward and still only win 10 games in a regular season. He has all the metrics to say success will come, but unfortunately, he has lost 2/3 of the season with which to develop. Bottom line, you’d love to be able to have him fill the fifth starter role, but he falls higher in the pecking order here.
Trevor Williams – Nothing flashy with Trevor, just a decent pitcher. He thrives on pinpoint control and when he doesn’t have it, well he also doesn’t thrive. In-fact he’s downright bad. We’ve seen two impeccable half seasons from Trevor and in a shortened season such as this, that sure could make a difference.
Steven Brault – A lefty. That’s right a lefty starter for the Pirates not named Liriano. He is all about his fastball and ability to throw it anywhere. Last year the Pirates actually allowed him to throw nothing but fastballs for the first 60 pitches of a very successful start. That is not a recipe for success though and in order to take another step, Brault must incorporate at least his slider. Hitters are too smart and his fastball is nowhere near special enough to live and die with it, even out of the pen.
Derek Holland – The Dutch Oven is a journeyman pitcher who has experienced success. He’s a lefty which is a good thing, but he’s been relegated to the bullpen in recent stints elsewhere. He came here with a great attitude that he would fill in wherever needed but if he makes the rotation it will be due to the Archer injury and had we started on time Brault’s injury would be the cause.
JT Brubaker – Injury has hampered his progression. It could be argued he was ahead of Keller prior to his misfortune. JT is a dark horse for a rotation spot, but not forever, his talent is real.
Chad Kuhl – Chad is arguably the best option for number five. He has some good work under his belt and electric stuff. His biggest obstacle was getting left-handed batters to stop lighting him up like a downtown Christmas tree, and prior to his injury was doing exactly that.

OK, all that and we still have more questions and what ifs than is healthy. So of course, the fan base reaches for the free agent market.

Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, and Arron Sanchez highlight the list. If any of them were signed they would without question jump right in to the starting five.

Do they make a difference though? Say Cashner signs here, he is healthy and at least what he was last season. He starts 12 games out of the 60 on the slate and wins 6. Now, that’s 10% of the games right there in the win column, so, maybe it’s worth it.

The risk is negligible if we’re honest, it won’t take much as long as he’ll take a one-year deal, and everyone keeps telling me we could just trade him at the deadline anyhow. Well, as I just illustrated earlier in the week, that might not be as easy on August 31st. Unlike the players you may want to move that are already here, signing someone just to move them in less than a month seems pretty silly. And if you don’t realistically think he’s enough to win, yeah you guessed it, silly.

On to the trade market, and while I won’t be listing a wish list of partners, I’ll say this, anyone who would move a serviceable starting pitcher at this point is probably in the same boat as the Bucs and would want prospects. Amassing prospects is kinda our thing right now, know what I’m sayin’? Of course, the high payroll teams could look to move some unwanted salary, but in order for it to help the Pirates they’d have to still have some gas. AJ Burnett’s don’t grow on trees ya know. The bottom line, I’m not sure this 60-game sprint is worth changing the path Cherington has started down. I wouldn’t be mad if they went out and patched the hole, but I don’t expect them to look outside the roster for an answer, and maybe that’s the right play here.