We Either Hate Cheating or We Don’t

Major league baseball is again finding itself embroiled in yet another cheating scandal. This one happens to be the worst kept secret in the game.

Years ago you’ll remember a flap between Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole in which Trevor accused Gerrit and others of using a foreign substance to increase spin rate on their pitches. Gerrit got all indignant, Trevor got all, well Trevor-y and the whole thing blew over really.

Nobody really denied anything, nobody was punished, seemingly nobody even investigated. In possibly the greatest example of hypocrisy I’ve seen on the players level at least the next season Trevor came out setting all kinds of records for spin rate and in a way, it was hard for anyone to really say anything after they ignored his pleas to call a spade a spade.

Gerrit went on to sign a big money contract with the Yankees of course and compared to the already huge cheating scandal of his Houston Astros garbage can banging team the sticky fingers scandal slipped off into the ether.

Rob Manfred proved during that time he had no will to challenge the players union to punish the individual players so it comes as no surprise when it came time for MLB to actually do something about this issue, you know, cheating, again, instead of punishing the players who showed unnatural increases in spin rate he of course went after the team employee who was providing it Brian “Bubba” Harkens, a visiting clubhouse manager for the LA Angels.

He was fired unceremoniously by the Angels and perhaps because rather than dealing drugs he was quite literally helping procure a sticky substance he decided being the scapegoat for this entire thing wasn’t going to happen.

He sued. The league and the Angels, and worse, he named names, some big ones. Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Edwin Jackson, Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, Joba Chamberlain and Adam Wainwright were all reportedly mentioned and the lawsuit came complete with correspondence from at least Cole and Verlander.

In the notes from the lawsuit it’s mentioned that Verlander told Harkens that MLB was cracking down on foreign substances that help with spin rate as it had come out that some teams were consulting with chemists to develop undetectable formula pitchers could use.

Now, this has always been illegal, and for years MLB has ignored pitchers with visible pine tar stains on their caps but apparently hiding it better, coupled with it actually working better seems to have made it impossible to ignore.

So my question is, if we hate the steroid guys for enhancing their performance, why the double standard? If we suspend players for taking a supplement (that’s what they call it when they get caught), why aren’t the players openly caught using substances that actively improve a metric so sought after by team executives being held to the same standard?

Do we hate cheating, or do we only hate certain kinds of cheating? Is one kind of cheating immoral and HOF disqualifying while another is distasteful but not even worthy of a slap on the wrists?

The Pirates have the highest measured spin rate guy in the league Chris Stratton, and while I certainly can’t say its turned him into an All Star, I certainly can say he came from the right team (Angels) and went from a player waived by a pitching starved club to an effective relief pitcher on a team who had next to none. If nothing else, nobody can claim the question is unfounded.

That’s really the bitch with cheating, once you don’t apply the law or rules equally it makes you wonder how far the fingers travel. Who got what contract based on what he cheated to put on tape. Who lost a job because he couldn’t find a way to pull the talent out of a guy that went somewhere else and suddenly started spinning every pitch like a dreidel.

I’d call for the commissioners head if I thought my words would matter, instead I’ll simply say if you have rules in place, follow them. If you catch someone breaking the rules, it shouldn’t matter if it lead to success or not. And finally, if I can’t trust a league to enforce their own rules, how can I trust the league to do anything fairly?

I love this game, but this league is nowhere near the purity level they like to sell and its getting old watching new cheaters emerge year after year with little to no repercussions.

Five Pirates Thoughts at Five 1-11-21

Well, after watching whatever you want to call that Steelers game last night we’ve taken one step closer to baseball season. Let’s get some more Bucco thoughts out there and have some conversation.

1. The Cap Levels the Field

That’s all it does though, it doesn’t guarantee a winner. The cap eliminates the advantage of money from any one team but you can also find yourself locked in a hell of old players who were great when you signed them but nature has taken it’s course.

I say this because if we ever do get a cap in baseball, it still takes a whole lot of things being done well and a little luck, something most Steelers fans should have learned over the years and I have a feeling will start to learn with the Penguins too this year.

It eliminates the belief that the owner has screwed you out of a chance to win, and instead refocuses your aim on the GM who now has a whole new set of math to deal with. In fact most of baseball would have to employ ‘capologists’ just to help them tiptoe through the landmines the vast majority wouldn’t see coming.

The Pirates having a hockey guy at the top would be a great advantage should we ever get there.

2. I Can See Adam Frazier in Left

I’ve written before that I don’t think Adam Frazier is an outfielder long term, and I stand by that, but I can see them using him there for a couple reasons. First, they need outfielders and while I think they ultimately want to move Adam, that may not happen before the season opens.

Kevin Newman can’t just rot on the bench if for no other reason than they need to give him opportunity to show what he is. One thing is for sure, he isn’t the best SS option on the club and if he’s part of the solution here in Pittsburgh he certainly won’t be the best option there come window open time. He could however be a really good 2B, and this is the year I’d get that transition out of the way.

It’s also an opportunity to see if Cole Tucker can hold down SS, because he really holds most value there as a defender and it’s more likely his bat plays there than a corner outfield spot.

Yes, yes, they probably aren’t good enough anyway, so of course it doesn’t matter greatly but lets just say I’d like to give the young guys a shot to play before deciding they’re busts or bench pieces.

3. Super 2

Of all the things that could come from the CBA negotiations following this season, possibly nothing is more on the chopping block than Super 2 status. Some interesting things could happen here, if it goes away would it be grandfathered in for players already here and given that status? Would it come with a modification to the arbitration process in general? For instance, the Pirates as of right now probably think they have at least 5 more seasons with Ke’Bryan Hayes and they probably do, but what would that do to what they’re trying to accomplish to find out they only have 4?

I’m not a guy who wants a cap in an effort to screw the players out of money, in fact for 99% of the players a cap would actually give them a bigger piece of the pie. These are all things that will need to go or change to keep things fair.

Over time changes like this will force baseball to really embrace youth but it will also be a process that takes time to adjust to.

4. Next to No Power

It’s not a shock to say the Pirates have very little in the way of power. Colin Moran is probably the biggest threat they have. If you want to toss in Hayes, ok, but I think if he’s doing well in 2021 he tops out around 20. What would be best for the team would be to let the hitters perform to their strengths. For instance if Bryan Reynolds is trying to hit 30 this year, I think it will be reflected in his average and his ability to get on base and drive in runs rests in his approach from 2019 where he took what the pitchers gave him.

If the Pirates want power, and they certainly should, they need to realize it must be developed from those who posses the skill set. That won’t come this season, so don’t ask anyone to become what you’ve neglected to provide. Everyone should focus on being the best of the type of player they are. If I’m Pirates management that’s exactly what I want too because if you think they have a value problem right now trying to move players, wait ’til next season.

5. The NL Central is Still MLB Free Agent Free

It’s early yet, but the NL Central as a whole has still not signed one MLB free agent. I don’t say this by way of giving the Pirates cover, it’s just an interesting development. I think the market will create a situation where every one of these teams will sign someone (even if on minor league deals) who plays on the MLB roster this season, there’ll simply be too many left out there to pass on gaping hole fillers but this could be a very very down year for the Central.

MLB is Still Avoiding the Big Questions

All the way back in July of 2020, before the abbreviated season recorded the first pitch baseball began the process of wishful thinking for 2021 by putting out a fully formed schedule complete with 162 games and an April 1st start date.

There weren’t too many people who wanted to openly question the reality of that happening at the time, most of us were pretty sure the holidays would be normal, or everything would get right after the election, or vaccine’s would be out and widely distributed by then.

As we sit here today on January 10th in the brand new year of 2021 it’s becoming more and more apparent we might be in trouble on just about all our hopes for a normal baseball season. I mean, the Steelers will be playing their first playoff game tonight against their oldest rival in an empty stadium on the North Shore. Normalcy is still something in the distance.

Today, let’s talk about some of the biggest questions facing MLB, where they sit and what the hell they’re waiting on.

Are We Starting April 1st?

Ask any expert, read anything you like, the answer will be “We’re Supposed To”. Some teams are preparing for the eventuality of a delay to the start, others are actually preparing to send Pitchers and Catchers earlier than normal to get them into a pseudo bubble.

Ha, bubble. People tend to forget that getting players to essentially lock themselves down for two months had to be collectively bargained, and there is no language that affords it just carrying over to 2021. No, if MLB wants players to again engage in the unnatural they’ll have to bargain it again. You’ll find this necessity as a common theme for many of these questions.

So here’s the answer as of now. Yes? And keep in mind MLB can’t just unilaterally say they want to start on May 15th with a 130 game schedule without first getting the players to agree. The fact they haven’t publicly started to have those talks should tell you they don’t want to at the very least admit it’s a necessary conversation at this point but they can’t afford to have 2 months of back and forth sniping again.

Did They Finally Say No DH?

Well, the default is no, there is no DH in the National League. To change it would need collectively bargained, and again the league and players have not made the decision to talk about it publicly.

The problem with the DH is the owners see this as something the players want and would easily accept, as such they see it as something they don’t want to give without making the players pay for.

See, when you get this close to a CBA negotiation you get to the point where the sides start thinking of everything through that lens.

I’m fine with no DH for another year, and I understand the hang-up of collectively bargaining. What’s inexcusable though is the fact that MLB does have the power to simply say it’s over, no DH this year. You may not like that answer, but it’d be an answer. Certainty is of paramount importance to most team executives and I can’t imagine the league springing a position that important on them weeks before a season.

That said, should the season be delayed, they’ll have no choice but to go to the negotiation table, and much like two hours deep into a bar trip with the boys, once you break the seal you’ll be in the bathroom all night.

Why Didn’t MLB Secure Doses of Vaccine?

Nobody knows for sure. The NHL did secure privately enough doses of the vaccine for every player and staffer in the league and many have asked why MLB didn’t do the same.

Part of the answer is probably the fact that there are a lot more people who they’d need to cover and again, the owners are pretty close to not being able to fart in their living room without asking the players union first. No doubt some of these billionaires would feel compelled to ask the millionaires to partially pay for the vaccines, and there is also the very real optics of it being wrong in general for typically healthy people to take doses away from those who really need it so they can play a game.

Boiling Under the Surface

Ever present is the upcoming CBA negotiation and whether you believe it can happen or not a salary cap is very much so on the table.

That doesn’t make it likely, but teams aren’t just avoiding the signing of free agents because they lost money in 2020. It’s the worst kept secret in sports that at the very least owners always want to control costs in all leagues.

A salary cap (and this can be proven) brings more money to players because it forces all member franchises to spend up to a certain level. The gap between a ceiling and floor tends to be no more than 20 million and based solely on the few people with the balls to write about what an MLB cap could look like proposed numbers could be a range of 150-170 million with the requisite true revenue sharing to make it possible. Now if every team has to spend up to that 150 number rather than operating with a 35-50 million dollar payroll, well, you do the math how much more money that sends the player’s way.

There is room here to get this job done, but it again certainly doesn’t enter the category of likely.

Whether it happens or not, it will be discussed and this off season is laying the groundwork.

And I know this is a Pirates site but I don’t care!

Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!

41 Year Old Pirates Fan Drowns His Sorrows In IC Lights After Continuous Mention Of Prospects

As I enter my fifth decade of being a Pittsburgh Pirates Fan, I have noticed there is one thing that makes a large section fanbase become irate at its very mention; outside the very existence of Bob Nutting. The word prospect has embodied a positive connotation when used in any other context throughout history. However, to many Pirates Fans it has become like an albatross of false hope. Promises of player who would arrive at Three River Stadium, and the PNC, to lead this once great franchise back to greatness. For the most part these feelings of skepticism, mistrust and ultimately outright dismissal of the concept are justified, or at least understandable. From Alen Hanson to John Van Benschoten and Brad Lincoln to Conor Joe, Pirates Fans have been burned more times than I can count. However, we also can’t act like no prospect has ever worked out either; especially during the most recent playoff run from 2013 to 2015, with most arriving prior to that stretch.

With the way things are set up now it is possible that the stars could align again in the not too distant future, as General Manager Ben Cherington has already gone to work, improving the system in his short time on the job. According to MLB Pipeline the Pirates are in the top five of improved Farm Systems across all of Major League Baseball. Does this mean they are a top 5 system? No. Now I know that some of you may bring up that Fangraphs has the Pirates ranked as the fourth best system. However, Gary already covered this point in another article , but it bears repeating; don’t let that lull you to sleep or believe it’s mission accomplished time here in Pittsburgh. In their rankings they have put a lot of faith in players that are extremely young, many of whom have yet to step on the field in a professional baseball game. I for one am extremely cautious in my assessment of the Pirates being a successful and/or highly rated system. Show me Pittsburgh across the board as a having built up the Minor Leagues to a point where there is no question as to the talent the have from Bradenton to Indianapolis.

In 2016-17 the Pirates were almost unanimously ranked as a top 5 system. This was also true back in 2013. When Neil Huntington took over in 2007 they were right around twenty, so he was obviously doing something right. It must be noted that having a top farm system does not always equal success, or does it. Back in 1997 the Pirates had the top system according to Baseball America, which coincides with the team lovingly known as The Freak Show, who in spite of a ridiculously low $9 Million payroll almost made the playoffs. No matter your stance on ownership, prospects or the upper echelon of management, particularly the GM, it becomes clear that an elite farm system is one of the major keys to the Pirates overall success.

An example of this is when, just last week, I saw jealously, not just by Pirates Fans, over the moves the Padres had made to acquire both Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in a twenty-four hour period. Everyone knows how the did this. The Padres Farm System was absolutely stacked, and still is to some degree, with players throughout the MLB Top 100; fluctuating between #1 and #2 overall for a couple of seasons. It’s a fair simple formula actually; acquire prospects and trade for talent when the organization is overflowing with talent to the point that there isn’t room for all of your prospects at the Major League Level. To those of your that are doubting this process, please explain to me how the Pirates got AJ Burnett, the Batman, who won over countless Pirates Fans by telling Hanley Ramirez to “Sit The F- Down!” Or may the endearing Francisco Cervelli. Or Marlon Byrd, who’s homer actually proceeded the Russell Martin, “Cuuuueeeetoooo!” blast. You guessed it; the Pirates built up their farm system and made some trades.

Now just because it worked at least once before, does that mean it is going to work again? Absolutely not. There is no guarantee with prospects, or trades for that matter. However, it is happening, no matter what your opinion on the matter is. Just look at the growing prospect talk, not only on Pirates blogs, but also from those who cover the team more directly. In addition to this increase, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that the Pirates Media Department created a Twitter Profile, just for the Young Bucs. That is where the discussion is headed. And, you can either come along, kicking and screaming if you prefer; although it will do no good, or find another team to put your support behind. The choice is yours.

Rich, Cheap and Totally Endorsed by MLB

Yesterday the Cleveland Indians, soon to be Cleveland Something Else, made the entirely expected move of trading Francisco Lindor. Cleveland exploded on their owners the Dolan’s as they moved a cool 40 million plus off their payroll as they also included Carlos Carrasco in exchange for 4 prospects from the New York Mets.

Now, being a Pittsburgh fan, I’m not in a position to judge, lord knows I’ve witnessed my fair share of salary dumps.

Cleveland has been a popular comparison point for many fans since Sandy Alomar Jr. was helping the club escape the stigma of being Hollywood’s definition of pathetic. I’ll certainly not be using this situation to try to paint Bob Nutting as anything less than what he is, instead I’m going to try to talk about the situation in general and the growing list of fans who have seen enough.

First of all, why is this different than Tampa moving Blake Snell? Well, despite all their success Tampa they went to the World Series last season with a payroll only larger than Baltimore and Pittsburgh. This is simply how Tampa operates, in other words, they don’t ever get to the point when they have a bloated payroll to expel.

The Indians have really tried. They’ve retained players like Jose Ramirez and probably kept Lindor a season longer than what would have provided the best return for the dynamic young star. They’ve been competitive but fallen short in a division with the Twins over the past few seasons and last year they were eclipsed by the early arriving White Sox.

From our neck of the woods, fans in Pittsburgh have always pointed to Cleveland. At least they try! They keep their stars! They’re going for it!

It’s true, it’s been true, they’ve been middle of the road salary wise for the best part of a decade, but it’s never led to the ultimate prize. Even when they’ve seemingly had a team put together that could really take a crack at it they’ve run into the high power Yankees or Red Sox in the playoffs.

I mean, read the comments under the Indians post. Beside the obvious references to now being ‘just as bad as Pittsburgh’ man does it sound familiar.

They probably could have done a little better, but not much. You have to consider the list of teams that consider themselves in position to add that much payroll. Steve Cohen is new, he came in with a promise to buy his fans some new toys and he did. He’s probably dipping into his personal wealth to do so and that’s swell, it’s also not sustainable. He may have come in as a rich fan and may move heaven and earth to give it a shot, but rich people don’t amass wealth by finding ways to lose money, eventually he too will have to face reality.

I’d like to believe after trying to keep up with the Jones’ for as long as Cleveland has perhaps there would be a little more trust built up there but all it’s done is reaped comparisons to the universally disliked Bob Nutting for the Dolans.

For some teams the added strain of the 2020 season have taken their top end budget down dramatically. Taking some teams from trying to provide some fun for their fans to the ultimate realization that they just weren’t going to get there in 2021 so they might as well not lose money.

It’s taken half the landing spots away for free agents and expensive trade chips and almost more importantly, it’s created an even greater chasm between the haves and have nots.

Again, Tampa has shown if you have no emotion or allegiance the job can be done although even that hasn’t brought home a winner.

Surely not all the teams shedding salary can be stupid enough to tank at the same time right? Well, right. It’s not about getting the top pick, although they’d all take it happily, it’s about the understanding that they won’t beat there competitors with what they have and can’t afford to put enough into the team on something that is anything but a sure bet.

I’m not going to go into my standard sermon about the cap but I will say this. What baseball makes as a whole continuing to look healthy doesn’t make it good for the game. Tampa being in contention doesn’t mean they’re playing the same game that the Dodgers and Yankees are, it just means they’ve managed to use their resources better than anyone else. They’ve essentially given up on the idea they’ll ever have a locked in fan base that sells out their dump of a stadium game in and out in favor of depending only on the money they get from sharing. Congrats to them, they do it well, but it’s left them with a franchise where the identity is the system, not the players on the field.

I can hear Pirates fans right now saying we too don’t have identity grounded in players, well, at least not any recently. Very true, and they’ve done it poorly by in large. I don’t excuse Bob Nutting for his part in all this but I also don’t dismiss the role the system plays in allowing for the total sell offs happening all over the league this year.

Baseball has never realized just how hard they make it to be a fan of the sport they run for most of the franchises. And that goes for players and owners.

In fact, here is a tweet that caught my eye from Jameson Taillon yesterday.

I mean, yeah Jamo. Maybe you should get behind a movement to help bring that kind of joy to every MLB city in the league. Even his beloved Astros are in the process of realizing they can’t keep the wheels on the cart much longer and this team is largely a result of the very sell offs being lamented.

I know Jameson to be a smart guy, but I can think of little more distasteful than players complaining that teams can’t keep stars while actively railing against the most obvious fix to the situation in modern sports.

Another Year Of Individual Development, Instead Of Team Results

As a fan who watches most, if not all of the Pittsburgh Pirates games in any given season, I go into every year and actually each individual game wanting the same thing; for my team to win. I know these are not realistic expectations, and at times borders on insanity, but I maintain these aspirations just the same. However, in the back of my mind, a place that I call my analytical brain, I understand that there are other goals that often take precedence over these lofty ambitions; especially for a team that is entering what many would describe, albeit incorrectly, as the thirty to forty plus year rebuild of the Pittsburgh Pirates. This blatant falsehood, along with other misconstrued misconceptions and sprinkled with a tiny bit of truth, have been molded into perceived facts by many within the Pittsburgh Pirates Fan Community. These beliefs are filled with so many holes that they are easily sunk when even the slightest amount of proverbial water is added to their already sinking ship.

As an aside I can provide a near airtight explanation of the Pirates Journey from 1979 to Present Day, all while pinpointing the actual rebuild points along this timeline if you are interested. I have done it before, and so often, that I am certain that I have it memorized word for word.

However, for right now I would like to address the somewhat delusional take concerning the Pirates ability to compete within a weakening NL Central; but more the potentially unintended backing of an ideology that success is achieved by simply competing against the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. This philosophy or culture is one built from a twenty year history of losing seasons, where a .500 record or more accurately 82 wins was the goal. You don’t have to look to far back to see that merely contesting for, or actually earning, a playoff spot in the struggling division should clearly not be the level the Pirates attempt to attain. Just last year the Pirates four division rivals made the playoffs during a shortened season, with an expanded field, which deserves some consideration. Between them, they did not win a single playoff game; this obviously included the the Reds, who didn’t score a run in 22 innings against the Braves.

If this is your goal I will give the Pirates a fighting chance, but I still don’t like the odds. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be a goal in the first place and even if they are able to scratch and claw there way in, do you honestly believe there is anyway they beat the recently reinforced Padres or the defending World Champion Dodgers in the best of three, five or seven? Of course not! So, what’s the point of hoping or encouraging these beliefs?

For me, the goals I have for the Pittsburgh Pirates are much more on an individual level, on a player by player basis. And I am not talking about the game within game as Uncle Ray Searage once alluded to. It’s a point by point level of production, improvement or development, along with assessment and evaluation, I would like to see for players within the entire organization; both at the Major and Minor League Levels, assuming and hoping there is a MiLB season this year.

• In 2019 Bryan Reynolds got his opportunity to come up to the majors, held on to the left field position and never let go. A viable Rookie of the Year candidate and potential batting champ, he slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers, an OPS+ of 130 and a wRC+ of 131. However, 2020 was an extremely trying year for Reynolds at the plate. For the first time in his professional career he struggled by only hitting .189; while his K% ballooned from 22.2% to 27.4% and both his OPS+ and wRC+ fell by nearly 60 points. The saving Grace on the season was his defense, which took a step forward, as evidenced by an increase of DRS that would equate to 14 if it was extrapolated across an entire season and his improved arm strength. On the year he had more outfield assists, 5, in 435 innings than the 4 he had in 1055 innings during his rookie campaign. Many are predicting a bounce back year for Reynolds due to his track record of success and I for one am hopefully optimistic about the possibility.

Kevin Newman was provided with the same break as Reynolds in the 2019 season, and performed almost as well; 4.1 WAR versus 3.1 and 3.2 fWAR to 2.4. His batting average of .308, which surged in the second half of the season, seemed to make fans optimistic that the Pirates had found their every day shortstop; thanks in part to a Eric Gonzalez miscue toward the beginning of the year. As the off-season progressed experts and amateurs alike, myself included, began to question Newman’s ability to repeat the success he experienced in 2019 due to the advanced metrics, which showed a potential for regression. Then after a few weeks I wrote an article about how Newman could possibly be defying these odds, however, this was not meant to be as Newman began to succumb to the reality of analytics. He ended the year as a .224 hitter, with a 54 wRC+; and unlike Reynold his defense didn’t really improve. In the 2020 season his estimated DRS fell by 10 points at SS and 23 at 2B from the previous, while his OAA at 2B came in at -6. If Newman is unable to recreate his offensive success from 2019 and/or make any defensive adjustments in 2021, it could be a very long season for Kevin Newman.

•The crow I could possibly eat after Ke’Bryan Hayes’ magical month in the Majors is still sitting on my plate, and in all honesty I will happily devour it if it means Hayes is even anywhere near the player, particularly the hitter, he was in September. In 95 plate appearances across 24 games batted .376 with a 1.124 OPS and 5 homers. His defensive ability, which has never been in question, resulted in 3 OAA and 4 DRS. In his short stint at the Major League Level, Hayes ultimately led the team with a 1.9 WAR; which is awesome and depressing all at the same time. Now Hayes does not need to be the same caliber of player he was in his first month and I hope no one expects him to be. It is obvious he made some sort of swing adjustment during the off-season and probably further refined it at the alternate site in Altoona, but if you are looking for a guy who hits 30 to 35 bombs I still don’t see it. Pitchers will adjust and so will he, nevertheless, a career .279 hitter in the Minors, with 25 homers in 5 years does not become a pure power hitter at the drop of a hat.

•For the first two years of his time with the Pirates, Colin Moran was the definition of a consistent league average hitter, as he batted .277 exactly in both years with 24 combined homers and a wRC+ of 98. Hindered by subpar defense at third base; totaling a -32 DRS, -9 OAA in 2019 and -6 OAA in 2020. After beginning the year back at the hot corner, Moran slid across the diamond, where he found success in both aspects of the game; at least for the majority of the shortened season. In the end he slashed .247/.325/.472 with 10 homers and an above average 114 wRC+. The main area of improvement was a his 0 OAA at first base. During the upcoming season, thanks to the opening created by the Josh Bell trade, Moran is primed to hold down the position for the entire year. His current ZiPS Projection of 1.2 fWAR sounds just a little low to me for a full season at first, and obviously isn’t ideal even if it increases just slightly, but it would be a career high for the Red Beard either way.

• During his initial cup of coffee in the Majors , Mitch Keller was an analytical enigma as he posted a 7.13 ERA while his FIP sat nicely at 3.19. This made sense when you took into his 12.19 K to 3.00 BB/9, to go along with a historically poor defensive supporting cast. Most were expecting a regression, the positive kind, to the mean in 2020. As far as ERA was concerned this came to fruition as he ended the year with a solid 2.91. His FIP on the other hand rose to 6.75, his K/9 plummeted to 6.65 and his BB/9 skyrocketed to 7.48. Many people love to point out the fact that he did not allow a hit and let only one earned run to cross the plate in his last 11 innings of work, however, he also walked 10 batters during that time; including 8 in his last outing of the year. I understand that this is the smallest of sample sizes in an already shortened season, and one that was abbreviated even more so for Keller due to an injury, but it continues to cause me some concern. On a positive note, we have seen the most diverse mix of the best and worst of Mitch Keller over his first two seasons and the kid will still only be 25 years old to start the year, so there is still time for development and refinement of his pitching; because the one thing he sure doesn’t lack is confidence.

JT Brubaker lost the majority of his 2019 Minor League season to a forearm strain, with his last appearance of the year coming on June 23rd in a rehab start. Then as the initial Spring Training began, their was some point uncertainty as to were this young man would fit in the either the starting rotation or bullpen. However, thanks to hard work, some luck due to pitching injuries and an expanded opening day roster, Brubaker found himself with the Pirates to begin the season. In 11 appearances, 9 of them starts, he fought his way to a somewhat respectable 4.94 ERA, a 1.373 WHIP and a 4.08 FIP; earning what I believe will be a shot at the back end of the rotation to begin 2021. Fellow pitcher Cody Ponce came in with a similar outlook to Brubaker’s after having been added to the team’s 40-man roster over the off-season, however, unlike Brubaker, he found himself down in Altoona to start the year; though it wouldn’t be too long before he had his number called for a 7 inning double, which kind of became his specialty. In his first MLB start, which followed two rocky relief appearances, in the second game of a double header with the St. Louis, he exceeded the expectations of many by lasting 5 2/3 innings, spreading out 5 hits, striking out 2 and not allowing a run; earning his first big league win. He would perform this service in two more doubleheaders in August, both against the Cincinnati Reds, and both going for no decisions as he lasted 4 innings each time; totaling 7 Ks, 3 BBs and 4 earned runs. On the season Ponce earned a 3.18 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, but a less than optimal, and somewhat demonic, 6.66 FIP.

• Last year Chad Kuhl made his comeback after being on the shelf following his Tommy John surgery; now it is Jameson Taillon’s turn subsequent to his second. Kuhl began the season as part of a piggyback with Steven Brault, battled a blister and finished strong; posting a 4.27 ERA and a 1.360 WHIP, which would find its way down to 2.66 if you took away one poor showing. Most importantly he was able to build up to 5 and 7 innings in his last two starts, throwing 98 pitches in his final outing of the year, while maintaining solid average velocities on his sinker (93.9 mph), slider (87.8 mph), curveball (81.3 mph) and changeup (88.1 mph); all of which were only a tick lower than pre-injury status. Now as far as Taillon is concerned, this is not his first rodeo as it pertains to returning from injury and he deserves all the credit in the world for perseverance in the face of adversity; unfortunately as far as his baseball career is concerned, the ability to get and stay healthy is of utmost importance. In his last full healthy season, back in 2018, Taillon earned a 3.20 ERA, a 1.178 WHIP and an FIP- of 85 across 32 starts; including two complete games, one being a shutout. These types numbers could be seen as a possibility, and for a player like Taillon, they truly are, because anytime he comes back from injury it is usually stronger and better than before.

•Everyone has seen Oneil Cruz’ power potential on display at this point in his career, and there is no denying his natural ability and athleticism.

I am just cautious, maybe to a fault, concerning the belief that Cruz’ bat is ready for the Majors at this very moment; not even taking into consideration the possible need for a positional change. During this most recent DOWL regular season he batted .245 with no homers, 14 strike outs and one walk in 49 at bats. His numbers don’t exactly jump off the page across Advanced A and AA in 2019 either, but were more promising, as he hit .298 with 8 combined. Having said all this, it should be noted that Cruz just recently turned 22 and has regularly had to make adjustments due to his ever increasing frame, so I won’t jump to any conclusions just yet. However, I am pretty steadfast about the need to continue his bat development and plate discipline, and possibly making a move to right field or somewhere else, at the AAA level for an entire season next year.

• Currently listed at the Pirates #6 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline with an ETA of 2021, Travis Swaggerty spent the entire last season at the Alternate Site in Altoona. Prior to that he was in Bradenton for all of 2019, where he slashed .265/.347/.381 with 9 homers. According to the experts his main calling card his speed on both offense and defense, with an average hit and power tool. Surprisingly he had reverse splits, performing better against lefties, in Advanced A. It should also be noted that he really came on in the last two months of the season, hitting .328 with a .894 OPS. A true centerfielder by trade, many are counting on Swaggerty, to take the reins in front of the shrubbery in the outfield sooner rather than later. I for one am not in that camp just yet and would like to see how he fares with the jump to AAA, especially with the bat, before passing any judgements.

• One downfall of the Pirates Farm System, and there have been many, is the lack of development, along with acquisition, of impact players on the International Market. In one of my first articles for our new site I wrote about the dominant DSL Pirates2 team of 2019, including top prospects according to Fangraphs, #36 Alexander Mojica and #19 Rodolfo Nolasco. There are also other international prospects, like Rodolfo Castro, who was just added to the Pirates 40-man, Santiago Florez and others that have started to make an impact in the system. Back in February of 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates’ owner and chairman, Bob Nutting, spoke of his plans to expand the team’s already existing Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic; doubling the facilities that were present at that time, a project that had cost the Pirates approximately $5 million dollars. Some may see this as a sort of punchline to a bad Pirates joke, just because it involves Nutting, but it’s one of the ways the system can be built back up again. When Cherington took the job a little over a year ago, he continued to make this a priority, using and acquiring International Bonus Pool Space to sign Solomon Maguire, Po-Yu Chen, Weslyn Toussaint, Juan Machado and Wilber Dotel. As I wrote about a little over a week ago, this process continues on January 15th.

• With his initial first round draft selection, at pick #7, Cherington selected Nick Gonzales from New Mexico State. After winning the Cape Cod League MVP in 2019, he returned to college and began the year by slashing .448/.610/1.155 with 12 homers through the first 16 games before the season was shutdown. An athletic power hitting middle infielder, Gonzales, rocketed up the Pirates Top Prospects list, landing at #1. After being drafted he continued to impress, both at the Altoona Alternate Site and during the Instructional League. Now everyone is wondering what level of the Minors, Gonzales is going to officially begin his professional career at. Currently Fangraphs Roster Resource has him listed at AA-Altoona, while I have also heard about the possibility of Advanced A-Greensboro. No matter where it is, this is player that will be tracked closely during the 2021 season.

Quinn Priester, Brennan Malone, Carmen Mlodzinski and Tahnaj Thomas, along with a few other possible options, could find themselves on the same pitching staff in the Minors, when the season finally begins. Which one(s) will rise to the top? Only time will tell; however, I believe that these are the types of competitions Cherington is talking about in the organization that will force players to improve. The ability ,or lack there of, in developing these four pitchers and many like them could ultimately determine the success (or failure) of the current rebuild.

Clearly these are not the only players in the Pittsburgh Pirates Organization that are worth keeping tabs on during the upcoming season, but it is a good start. Some my question why I left players like Cole Tucker off my radar, however, if you know me, I have been fairly transparent with my assessment of Tucker. So, unless he starts hitting, he is a player that I am no longer closely monitoring. One that was tough to leave off the list was Mason Martin, expect for the fact that I have already written about him at least three times, and am pretty certain about my assessment of his abilities. As the off-season progresses and surely when the season is in full swing the focus of my player evaluations will continuously change, so stay tuned.

Don’t Be Shocked if Joe Musgrove is the Only Other Move Before the Season

Now, before we dig in on this please don’t confuse this with the team feeling they’re competitive or asking far too much for assets, no, this is more about reading the tea leaves and making some assumptions based on what the market is telling us.

It’s also got a whole lot to do with who has real value in the marketplace and position competition for suitors to choose from.

Joe is the big chip, well, the big chip they’re willing to part with. This isn’t breaking news to anyone paying attention but before we reach Spring Training, whenever that ends up being, I fully believe this deal will get done.

Why Joe in particular? Well, he’s got the most value and there will be more interested parties which should help Ben get a decent package back. He’s affordable and for a team in contention will slot in as a nice middle of the rotation guy.

For what he can provide, at what he’ll cost, there isn’t a single other player on the market that compares.

That concludes the list of players like that the Pirates currently employ.

I know I can hear your arguments even as I type. What about Frazier? Rodriguez? Stratton?

Well, I just don’t feel the need to get into trying to predict relievers being traded. They could trade none or all of them. Those aren’t moves that are going to move the needle, at best they return a couple prospects, nobody who will crack the Pirates top 30, at least not immediately. Frazier just has far too many competitors out there. Too many who will make similar money and on top of that, far fewer shoppers.

None of this means they can’t move Frazier during the season when injury and more visibility about playoff prospects become apparent, but right now I just don’t see it.

As much as people would like to see the Bucs as quickly as possible get the ugly part of this rebuild accomplished so we can get to the business of truly watching this team take shape, the market and indeed COVID have made that path much harder to accomplish.

See, there is competition out there that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be there. In any given season It’s pretty rare to have more than 5 teams who would universally be considered sellers. This season I could make a case for up to 10. Think about a player like Jacob Stallings, solid catcher who showed the ability to manage a pitching staff, play excellent defense and he’s not an automatic out. He’s older but his control isn’t, all that should add up to a very popular target for teams to ask a clearly selling team about.

He doesn’t have competition from Realmuto or Yadi, those guys are in a different class and they require a bigger financial commitment but they will eliminate two teams from the pool of the needy. The Cubs enter the chat offering the clearly superior Wilson Contreras and at the very least you start to see Jacob is nobody’s first choice. Do the math and you see that of the teams apparently going for it in 2021 there are 3 logical landing spots for starting catchers. If you’re going to trade Jake, ideally he wouldn’t be a backup because he’s not a free agent until 2025 and he’s worth more to the Pirates young pitching staff than what a backup catcher would return to the club.

That’s a long way of saying, and trying to show, willingness isn’t really the problem on the Pirates part, nor is it asking price as much as competition and willingness to spend from other clubs.

The bottom line for the Pirates is this. Most everyone is available, but if they aren’t going to further the objective of bringing top quality prospects back to the club there is little reason to force something and almost nobody makes enough to care either way financially.

New Year, Ne….Never mind, It’s The Pirates

Yesterday marked the beginning of the first full week of the MLB off-season in the new year; a time of new beginnings and resolutions, along with hopeful optimism, no matter how realistic any of these might be in the long term. For Pittsburgh Pirates Fans the 2020 season, and the few months that followed, were fully cemented in the rear view; as much as they could be, with an outlook toward the future and the eventual 2021 season that would expectantly take place slightly over the horizon.

However, this feeling wouldn’t last long, as few days earlier I was lying on the floor, nursing what some would assume was a hangover from a giant New Years Eve party the night before, but was more of regular exhaustion from staying up past my bedtime. Out of what can only described as habit, or due to being a glutton for punishment, I opened social media to look for any new Pirates headlines. Almost immediately my efforts were rewarded as reports of Pittsburgh’s previous interests in Toronto Blue Jays top catching prospect Alejandro Kirk exploded of the screen from multiple sports outlets. As I read multiple interpretations of the situation, that more than likely took place at the most recent trade deadline, a couple of thoughts instantaneously came to mind.

First of all, I would hope that Cherington, who knows the Blue Jays Farm System as well as or better than almost anyone else, would show interest in one of their top prospects. This is called being diligent, while sticking to his goals of identifying and acquiring talent for the organization. Kirk, to his credit, emerged as the top catching prospect with the Jays after an impressive campaign with the Lansing Lugnuts and the Dunedin Blue Jays between Low and Advanced A in 2019; where he slashed .290/.403/.465 with 7 homers and 39 extra base hits. Listed as the #6 prospect in the system according to MLB Pipeline and 86th overall in Fangraphs Top 100, Kirk eventually found his way to the Majors in 2020, after the deadline. In 24 at bats, beginning on September 12th, he batted .375 with a home run and 2 doubles. So, it makes you wonder in all honesty, who wouldn’t want a player of his caliber in their organization?

I also couldn’t help but to think about how this report, or rumor, would ultimately be twisted into how Cherington had screwed up the potential acquisition of a top tier talent at an identified position of need within the Pirates Farm System. This opinion, justified of not, has been an assumed deficiency of management over the past several years; even though Cherington has only been on the job a little over a year. He is automatically lumped in with the previous regime because his last name ends with -Ington and Bob Nutting is still the owner; which allegedly botched a trade with the Dodgers at the 2019 Trade Deadline, amongst many other indiscretions.

Once again, as has become a pattern with Pittsburgh Pirates Fans, we were forced to look into the past instead of toward the future; making as assume that it was the Same Old Buccos. And maybe it was. And maybe no one will never know this for sure, but it will still be assumed by some. Therefore, jading any possible move that Cherington makes, even before he he makes it; unless by some set of circumstances Kirk comes walking on the field at Pirates City at the start of Spring Training. Presuming this is the move that the majority of Pirates Fans would have him make in the first place.

Five Pirates Thoughts at Five 1-4-21

The Calendar turned and no new moves were made to the Pittsburgh Pirates Roster but activity still swirls around the league.

1. Emotionless Business

Every small to mid market looks up to the only team that has truly created sustained competitiveness, the Tampa Bay Rays. National writers year after year chastise them for ‘blowing up’ their roster or ‘shedding salary’ and the narrative tends to last until sometime in May or June when they look up and see them 2 games in front of the Yankees for the AL East Title.

The latest move was Blake Snell to San Diego for a bunch of prospects and the reaction was pretty evenly split between those waiting in line to bask in the brilliance of the Friars ongoing collection of players and those wagging a finger at the Rays for doing their fans dirty.

At some point the law of averages will catch up to the Rays, eventually they’ll make a bad move, but I find it incredibly disingenuous to find fault in how a franchise in their position have mastered a system to work within baseball’s unfair economics while ignoring the environment itself.

Many like to think they would be happy if the Pirates eventually got to this point and ran the organization like the Rays but the reaction around here to moves that very much so look like Tampa moves have brought venom typically reserved for Nutting himself. It takes real guts to run a system like Tampa and more importantly it takes moving pieces that haven’t exhausted their usefulness to keep the shelves stocked. It takes the logo coming first, no matter what the player has done for you.

Hate the game, not the team that figured out how to work within it. More importantly if you envy them, understand what that looks like, not just the record. And it still won’t equal many, if any, championships. Baseball has a problem.

2. The Exodus

Names started leaking out early in the off season of players accepting offers to play in some of the Asian pro ball leagues. Sure Jose Osuna and Dovydas Neverauskas were a couple of them but now names like Justin Smoak are starting to see they may very well be left out in the cold if they wait for an opportunity in MLB.

I don’t think any of the top tier guys will end up going this route, but things are trending toward a bunch of free agents having to accept minor league deals or these alternate leagues.

Part of me believes the teams want to save money, of course, but another thing that might be at play here is the contraction of MiLB teams and last season’s expanded rosters starting the clock on some players not planned to begin in 2020.

Truth is we won’t fully understand all the things that the 2020 season caused for years.

3. Future Congestion

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that players from the 2019 and 2020 draft classes have had their separation stolen from them. I wonder the impact this might have on MLB clubs in the future. The Pirates are actually a pretty cool case study here and it will be interesting to see where they place players come February to start.

For instance, Nick Gonzales was already thought to be a pretty advanced prospect and he trained last season with the team in the Altoona site. Now, did he learn or show enough to skip A ball altogether or will they still begin his career there as even a formality?

We really just don’t know, and we’ll learn a ton from where they place guys and I expect ETAs to be adjusted up and down the ranks.

4. The Pirates Aren’t Moving Players ‘just to move them’

I know many of you believe that’s what they’re doing but honestly, it’s just silly bitterness. Nutting has given you plenty of reasons to question his willingness to spend but the man isn’t making trade suggestions. We’ve told you before that the team only had Polanco’s contract and Archer’s buyout as actual commitments for 2021, but it actually means something. None of these guys walk if they don’t get trades done.

None of these guys have to be traded to meet some imaginary payroll figure. If they don’t get a prospect package they’re looking for, expect them to all play.

But, but, why are they only trying to trade the guys who make the most then Gary! Well, simple, they’re the guys on Arb 2. After this season their most expensive player (and only committed money) Polanco will most likely be gone and if they’re still in the process of moving players take a stab at which guys will be on the block again. The Arb 2, and any hold over Arb 3 guys.

You can hate it, but please stop acting like it doesn’t make sense. White knuckling to a roster that lost 2/3 of their games in 2020 makes about as much sense as pretending they’re a signing away.

5. Number 4 System in Baseball?

I trust Fangraphs, they do great work and for how they measure systems in baseball I can’t argue with the ranking they bestowed on the Pirates system, but don’t let that lull you to sleep or believe it’s mission accomplished time here in Pittsburgh.

Before the Pirates can truly look to the system as the talent factory it needs to be they’ll first need to actually show they can develop. Through no fault of their own we haven’t seen any players move period and pretending that the top 100 in MLB pipeline is static will get you nowhere.

You’ll know the system is truly healthy when you start seeing 5-7 Pirates Prospects consistently listed as top 100 players and that kind of constant presence takes time to create. What should scare the entire league is the fact that the Dodgers look like they do and still always have a top 5 system. Excellence at every level.

Where is All the Adam Frazier Buzz?

His name has been a popular choice when people talk about the Pirates continuing the rebuild of the system but as we sit here in the middle of the third trade cycle since is it fair to assume nobody is interested?

Now, to be fair, I first started pointing to Adam as a movable piece because of where he plays more so than how he plays. I felt it was dealing from a position of strength, or at least options since strength would denote that excellence is somehow being blocked. Now I’m starting to wonder if the market at the very least doesn’t match what the Pirates think they need in exchange.

So, today, let’s talk about Adam and see if we can’t make some sense of the situation.

What is Adam Frazier?

Well, this is one of those guys who most everyone has a quick answer on, but let’s try to keep this as fact based as possible.

He’s become a terrific fielder, and worked hard to do it. He certainly isn’t getting Gold Glove nods via his bat like so many have throughout the years but he isn’t flashy either. He makes the plays he should, a few he probably shouldn’t and almost always makes the smart play.

Hey, for the Pirates lately, none of that is a given.

The bat plays, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. For his career he’s a 6.9 WAR player. He’ll give you a .280 average and his OPS will reside somewhere in the high .700s.

No matter how you slice it, that’s a solid bat. A complimentary bat, not a feature bat.

I think that’s fair.

He’s also not an outfielder. Oh, he can play the position in a pinch and he has the athleticism to get to balls, but on an everyday basis, his arm isn’t cut for it. Over time it will get exposed and man, once you find a position where you become Gold Glove level that’s really where you hold most value.

What’s His Value, and What Does it Come From?

Well, that depends on how you like to look at value. If you believe Baseball is one big math problem and all it takes is finding a package that adds up close to break even on surplus value. It’s a good way to look at it, but important to note every team uses different math.

Why? Well it’s baseball of course it’s convoluted. The basic idea is you take the player’s WAR balanced by their salary and if they have more than one year left toss in xWAR and expected salary to calculate a surplus.

Now, I avoid math whenever possible so let’s just say smart people use voodoo behind the scenes to make the math come together.

Back to the different math, well some clubs will put more value on certain metrics which changes the weight and ultimately outcome of the entire equation.

OK, that concludes the nerdy numbers part of this examination.

Next, value doesn’t live in a vacuum. if Adam is the only second baseman available near his production level there’s a great chance he nets full value. If there are 4 or 5 other players close in value and available chances are they all knock each other back a bit.

It’s not much different than a free agent if you really think about it. Some seasons there are seemingly 15 top tier pitching options, some seasons there are 3. The value of those 3 skyrocket, while the year with 15 will typically drive down the cost of 13 or 14 of them.

Now pretend the team is an agent and they’re trying to get the best price for their client, the market will play just as big a role as the player himself.

Should We Still Expect a Move?

Yes.

First, the Pirates are motivated sellers and no matter the amount of mental gymnastics you try to perform it’s really hard to make a case that Frazier should stay and compete as the prospects start making their way to PNC.

Most of the top competition for Frazier is on the free agent side of life this year, and only a few would be what you’d consider major upgrades from what Frazier could provide far cheaper.

He’ll get moved, but all the factors involved lead me to expect just a little below max value in return.