David and Goliath, a Pittsburgh Pirates Life Goal

Last night I watched a remarkable scene unfold as Robert Morris University punched their ticket to the dance by winning the NEC Championship. It was surreal watching the elation and happening in the same season they opened their new barn too. What a story, and it made me think about the Pirates, specifically the Wild Card runs experienced in 2013-2015.

The Wild Card at times is little more than what Robert Morris accomplished, making the tournament. Of course, with the subtraction of actually having a championship under your belt, albeit a division. For in that moment, Robert Morris wasn’t the DII school who has talent poached from its ranks year after year, the Pirates weren’t that team that hadn’t smelled postseason baseball for nearly a quarter century.

Next season, everything will go right back to normal for Bobby Mo, they’ll be a DII School, with one solitary chance to make the tournament and I hope they do. For the Pirates though, they were able to stick around, they actually got a chance to dance with the big boys for a couple seasons, sadly the result stayed the same despite the increased spending for a season or two.

There are two very big differences and I’ve already touched on them a bit, first, the Pirates did not get to say we are champions, and second, there is no DII in MLB, at least not on the books.

One thing above all pairs these situations together in perpetuity, they are both David in a league of Goliath’s. Oh, I could argue that the Pirates have the ability to give themselves better equipment to work with than the sling they currently employ, but rest assured, the weaponry would never do more than lessen the steepness of the hill they face most seasons.

But that’s the hope, that you make the tournament, either by Wildcard or Division and take the “Any Given Sunday” approach to advancing through the juggernaut of high priced, talent rich teams. If you do everything right, you get a three- or four-year window where even that level of success is realistic. Add in how hard and rare it is to see this executed properly anywhere and the odds get even longer.

Not to say buying a championship is a given, after all Goliath has at least one documented weak spot. It sure is easier to win when the tournament is the starting point, and right here, March 11th, 2020, I can tell you the LA Dodgers are the favorite to win the NL. Will they? Nobody knows, but they’ll be in the dance and I’d rather be in that position than a team that has to do all that stuff exactly right to have a small window of opportunity, especially when it’s an opportunity to try to match up with this particular Goliath.

Baseball’s economic system is an excuse given to owners like Bob Nutting, but it isn’t a baseless one. He uses it to his advantage and excuses himself by citing it far too often, and I say if he doesn’t do something active and visible as the owners and players negotiate, he should no longer be able to use it as a rationale.

It is wholly in his power to stand up for the unfair conditions he openly blames for his team’s payroll. He may not win, but he better fight. He expects his own roster to play David every season, I see no reason we shouldn’t expect the same from him.

I loved the scene the NEC Championship, but make no mistake, that elation comes from the knowledge that this is not every season thing. Its rarity highlights the improbability of victory and amps the energy, much like at PNC back when Cueto dropped the ball. Time to make the playing field more even and the ball is all yours Mr. Nutting.

What’s In A Name: “Behind The Numbers”-Catchers Edition

Back in December of 2019 I wrote an article about what I believed to be the Pirates Real Problem at Catcher, which focused on the lack of depth that the organization had at the Major League and Minor League levels. Just prior to this new Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington had chosen not to tender an offer of arbitration to catcher Elias Diaz, leaving Jacob Stallings the lone catcher on the Pirates’ 40 Man Roster. Since that time Cherington has added one catcher via free agency, Luke Mailie, and invited two veteran catchers to Spring Training as Non-Roster Invitees, John Ryan Murphy and Andrew Susac. There have also been three other catchers invited from within the Pirates’ Current Farm System; Christian Kelley (Indianapolis Indians-AAA), Jason Delay (Altoona Curve-AA) and Arden Pabst (Altoona Curve-AA) to participate in Spring Training activities and games. Not surprisingly, none of the names that I just listed were on the list of Free Agent Targets that many argued over in columns, blogs, articles and forums/group discussions from pretty much the time that the season ended. I will admit that even I had some veteran catchers on a short list of candidates to provide a veteran presence, ability level and knowledge to the only catcher on the roster at the time, Stallings, as well as many of the young pitchers on the Pirates’ staff, none of which have been signed by the Pirates as of the writing of the article. Under the previous regime it became a pattern of signing and/or acquiring a veteran catcher, whether it be Russell Martin for two years or Francisco Cervelli for four, to provide some stability behind the dish. GM Ben Cherington chose not to go that route or at least he has not done so as of yet. Most of the catchers that people were clamoring for the Pirates to sign during the offseason have been scooped up by one team or another. There are couple still out there, but it is unclear as to whether or not coming to Pittsburgh would even be an option for them. However, for this little “experiment” of mine, all of this is irrelevant. 

If this is your first time here, welcome. If it isn’t, thank you for coming back to what will be the final installment in the five part series of players behind the numbers. Thus far I have asked all of you to take a look at Pitchers, Relief Pitchers, Infielders and Outfielders. This time we will obviously be focusing on Catchers. To those of you who participated at any point of the past four weeks, please bear with me as I once again go over the rules for those who missed out the first couple of times. I will be giving you a list that are made up of Current or Former Pirates, Free Agent Targets that have been discussed on various platforms and Free Agents that have signed this off-season. Voting will take place from the moment the article is published on Wednesday Morning, until I wake up Thursday Morning (usually around 5 AM). Once all of the votes have been tallied, I will write a follow up article revealing all of the names of the player from that week’s list and discuss what players have been chosen as the “most wanted” to be in a Pittsburgh Pirate’s Uniform. Now with all that being said, I am relying on all of you guys and gals to be on the honor system. Please do not look up statistics to try to figure out who each player is! Please do not tell anyone who a player is, even if you know it for the same reason I might; which is that I am total “stats nerd”! Please no arguments, only fun discussions! Now that we have all the formalities out of the way, let’s get started!

This week as we focus on Catchers, I will be providing you with both offensive and defensive statistics and metrics. . Every player will be judged and chosen using the same statistics and metrics. The statistics/metrics that will be used to compare the list of Infielders today will be: 1) The Classic Slash Line- AVG. (Batting Average)/OBP (On Base Percentage)/SLG (Slugging Percentage)  2) HR (Home Runs) 3) XBH (Extra Base Hits) 4) wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) 5) WAR (Wins Above Replacement) 6) FRM (Catcher Framing) 6) DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) 6) CS% (Caught Stealing Percentage). For those of you that are familiar with these Statistics you probably already know that I use FanGraphs to do my research, which is not always a favorite of everyone, but it is the one that I use the most due to the fact that is easy to navigate. In the future I would be willing to use any site that is recommended to me, with great explanation as to why it is the superior site. However for the duration of this experiment I will be using the one that I am most comfortable with. So if you need to please use the FanGraphs glossary for further explanation of a specific statistic.

Here is the list of the 13 Catchers (Please Pick 3): 

Player

Slash Line

HRs

XBH

wRC+ 

WAR

FRM

DRS

CS%

A

.232/.332/.435

12

22

103

1.6

3.2

-7

19.4

B

.281/.310/.439

8

20

95

.9

-.9

1

30.3

C

.175/.246/.413

4

7

66

.2

1.1

3

35.5

D

.241/.296/.307

2

16

81

-1.5

-13.1

-23

26.3

E

.238/.347/.443

17

40

113

2.3

-5.6

3

21.1

F

.220/.337/.330

6

11

83

1.2

5.6

2

17.9

G

.262/.325/.382

6

11

82

1.3

6.0

13

40.0

H

.209/.267/.417

12

24

78

-1.0

-7.6

-10

23.3

I

.251/.312/.433

16

32

98

1.6

.6

-3

28.6

J

.251/.318/.393

5

17

91

-.2

-6.5

-6

16.7

K

.232/.305/.355

8

19

77

-.5

-5.8

-14

25.4

L*

.248/.333/.366

3

17

95

2.1

8.2

4

30.2

M

.207/.353/.421

9

17

97

1.3

2.8

2

50.0

*2018-Last Qualifying Season

Please comment below and return tomorrow to find out the results, along with the revealing of each Catcher behind the numbers.

Thank you first and foremost to everyone that has joined us on the new site! We are truly humbled by the support. Also I would ask that everyone be patient as there will be some bumps along the way during the transition. However, as always we will do our best to provide all of you the best and fairest Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball coverage that we can! It is our mission! It is our passion!

Speaking of bumps, I am on the road today, currently watching batting practice at Pirates City, trying to edit this article and the table I created for the players won’t let me edit it so we are just going to have wing it a little bit today. Here goes nothing!

As I discussed earlier in this article, catching was made a priority in the off-season; by the fans, reporters, writers and even the club itself. Now as it sit here exactly two weeks away from opening day, many think that the Pittsburgh Pirates and General Manager Ben Cherington have not done enough to address the position. If you were the GM, who would you have kept, picked up or traded for? Well you all had that “chance” before the big reveal.

Catchers

A) Jason Castro B) Austin Romine C)John Ryan Murphy D) Elias Diaz E) Robinson Chirinos F) Russell Martin G) Jacob Stallings H) Wellington Castillo I) Travis d’Arnaud J) Kevan Smith K) Jonathan Lucroy L) Luke Maile M) Alex Avila

During the vote from yesterday to today the following players were the ones chosen most frequently; Austin Romine, Robinson Chirinos and Jacob Stallings. It would be hard to get input from everyone as to why people picked the catchers they did. Maybe they were looking for offense, others may have been looking strictly at defense, while others took both into consideration. Romine and Stallings are a solid mix of both. Chirinos on the other hand struggled somewhat behind the dish last year. I guess all depends what you are looking for in a catcher. This discussion could take a turn at any point in time with the introduction of “robo-umps”, but for now the value of the catcher position is still up for debate.

 

Past and Present, Pirates Players Review Their Former Bosses

Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Shane Baz, Chris Archer, Kyle Crick, shall I go on? It’s easy to talk about the powers that be, well, when they don’t be anymore. None of them handled things disrespectfully, although some sure wanted to convince them to do so or spin it to sound that way.

So, what actually went wrong and more importantly, are these issues being corrected? Harder to answer than you might think. Ben Cherrington actually retained a decent amount of staff that worked under Neal Huntington most notably Larry Broadway. Larry would probably love for you, me and Dupree to believe that Kyle Stark made him make some of the choices he did, and maybe that’s true, time will tell.

The most accurate answer probably lands with this, Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage were good coaches and time passed them by. Both men were by all accounts wonderful people, and having interacted with them several times, I concur completely. Facts don’t lie though.

Players all through the Pirates system were denied access to advanced analytics, some as basic as FIP or Spin Rate. Now, Mitch Keller taking it to the level of not knowing what FIP stood for because of his former coaches leads me to believe he might have been living under a rock or is in fact the only twenty-something to have never played a video game. That said, knowing about a stat and knowing how to use it to improve or alter your approach are two different things, this is where coaching comes in.

Ray Searage was of the belief that putting too many of these plot points in front of these young men would cause them to question the coaching, hence, not receive the message and work with the program. He wasn’t wrong, but he was totally misguided. The game changed drastically and quickly last decade, and while the coaches embraced some of them like shifts and the like, they missed the boat entirely on giving the players what they were asking for most, numbers and analysis.

This bled through the entire system as Kyle Stark was more interested in making good humans than good ballplayers, not that the two can’t coexist, that he thought given a choice the former outweighed the latter. I’d suggest his track record of success for either was lacking, but such is life.

One of the first things Cherrington did was provide more analytics and help understanding and growing from them to every level of the Pirates system. He followed that by increasing by roughly 25% the analytics department and his new manager Derek Shelton is committed fully to utilizing all the tricks of the trade in the modern game to improve his players. Surely talent wins over educated execution, but this will still have an impact.

Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer openly stated that they did not agree with the pitches they were being told to throw and at times would actively go off the board and do what they thought was best. Wow. Can you imagine reaching the pinnacle of your profession and having someone tell you to ignore the strengths that got you there because that’s not how we do it here?

Before you hammer Searage, J.A. Happ, Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, and Ivan Nova would like a word. See, sometimes what Uncle Ray was preaching happened to be exactly the right message. The new regime will find it no different, some of the pitchers on the staff will excel with the new methods and others will struggle with it. Analytics will cast a far wider net however and that could be really positive for this club.

Five years from now can I promise Mitch Keller won’t be telling us that Derek and crew were filling his head with too many numbers, you know, paralysis by analysis? Of course not, but he certainly won’t be able to say he wasn’t given access to all the information available for his craft.

Rare is the manager who can span eras of sport, eventually the NHL will pivot back from speed and skill to size and grit, signaling the end of Mike Sullivan’s time as head coach in Pittsburgh. Baseball is no different, and it’s precisely why I’ve never understood the never-ending recycling program Dusty Baker has enjoyed through the years. The Pirates have started a new one here, and no matter how long it lasts, arming the players with information will shift the onus back to them a bit. Controlling the tendency to derive fact from the numbers that aren’t there is where the modern coaching staff plays a huge role.

It’s exactly what Rocco has done so well in Minnesota, and exactly why Derek was brought here.

Let there be light.

Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects: The Movers and Shakers Versus The Shook

Each year when MLB Pipeline puts out their Top 30 Prospect Lists for each team there are guys that rise up the charts, some with a bullet, and others that fall, not from grace, but more out of favor if you will. As I discussed in one of my latest articles the “fall” can occur due to injury, regression, underperformance or just plain bad luck; I called this “victims of circumstance”.  The “rise” on the other hand may be due to the “unlocking” of some great tool or potential, a scout being at one of your best games of the year, friends and family pounding the streets getting the word out; in other words just getting noticed and finally getting the recognition you deserve. I do not see these lists as a slight to one player or another, but they have become the “Holy Grail” to prospect enthusiasts and regular fans alike, so they do hold some weight. Within the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Farm System, as with many others, there were a fair share of “risers” and “fallers”, none of whom were new to the Top 30. They were all just reshuffled in a different order. 

 

The Movers and Shakers

1) Tahnaj Thomas-RHP 

As we all know by now Thomas was acquired by Pittsburgh in the Erik Gonzalez-Jordan Luplow Trade between the Pirates and the Indians.  Thomas was originally acquired by the Indians via international free agency in December of 2016 as a 17 year old 3rd-baseman/shortstop out of the Bahamas and was signed for $200,000. After recognizing his raw talent the Indians had Thomas begin to focus on pitching. To begin the 2017 season he was sent to the Dominican Summer League to begin his professional baseball career as a pitcher with the DSL Indians. After only 3 games started and 5.1 innings, Thomas was quickly moved up to the Arizona League Indians (Cleveland’s Rookie Level Affiliate). Thomas finished the season with 5.63 ERA, 34K/33BB and a 1.852 WHIP between the two leagues last in 38.1 innings pitched. Because of Thomas’ pitching inexperience and inconsistency he returned to AZL Indians for the 2018 season. Thomas finished the year only appearing in 8 games, 6 of which he started. He did strike out 27 batters while only walking 10 and lowering his WHIP to 1.169 in 19 innings. At this point he was traded to the Pirates. Upon arriving with he assigned to the Bristol Pirates. It would be his 3rd professional season in a row starting out at the Rookie Level, but this time with a new team/organization.  This is when Tahnaj Thomas started to put everything together. The raw talent that had been discovered by the Indians had been polished and was starting to shine. In his first season in a Pirates’ uniform Thomas struck out 59 batters while only walking 14 in 48.1 innings. He posted career bests in both ERA (3.17) and WHIP (1.117). It was a coming out party for the young right-hander from the Bahamas. As the 2019 season came to an end, with the 2020 season on the horizon the projected outlook for Thomas, who at time was the Pirates seventh best pitching prospect (#18 overall), which became eighth and #20 after the Marte Trade. He possesses a plus fastball (65 grade) that regularly reaches 92-96 mph, with a lot of movement up in the zone. His slider (55 grade) is in the low 80’s and flashes some pretty elusive action. He has recently added a changeup that clearly needs some work, but at only 20 years of age he has time to develop it. In the rankings that are literally “hot of the presses” Thomas comes in at #13, a “rise” in 7 places from his previous spot at #20. 

 

2) Mason Martin-1B

Martin was drafted in the 17 round (508 overall) of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Southridge High School in Kennewick, Washington. Upon being drafted he started his professional career in the Gulf Coast League where he split his time between 1st Base and each of the outfield positions. After hitting .309 with an 1.087 OPS and 11 home runs he was promoted to the West Virginia Black Bears and ultimately the Bristol Pirates by the end of the 2018 season. His power continued throughout this season as he hit 11 home runs, but his batting average sank to .220. Because of these 2018 struggles Mason started this past season with the Pirates Low A team, the Greensboro Grasshoppers instead of beginning the year in High A. It was apparent from the beginning of the season that Mason was ready to move up to the next level. He hit 23 home runs in 82 games to go along with a .262/.361/.578 slash line and 83 RBI’s. Not too shabby, eh? After earning the promotion to the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League, Martin went on to hit 12 additional home runs and drive in 46 more RBI’s for a total of 35 home runs (tied for 4 in all of MiLB) and 129 RBI’s (1 place in all of MiLB). Since he entered the Pirates Minor League system his power has never been a question. He is rated as a 60 for his raw power. His two main issues thus far has been his strike-out rate and his speed, which at times limits his defensive ability . This past summer he posted a 29% Strike-Out Percentage in Greensboro and a 32.3% Strike-Out Percentage in Bradenton. Both a lack of speed and a high strike out rate are common among hitters with Martin’s power. During the off-season he was listed as the Pirates’ #21 prospect, but moved up 6 places, landing at #15 on the current list. 

 

3) Santiago Florez-RHP

On July 2, 2016 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed 16-year-old Santiago Florez to a $150,000 contract. At the time the young man from Barranquilla, Columbia was still growing into what is now a 6’5’’ 222 pound frame, but the Pirates saw potential in his fastball, breaking ball and overall mechanics. After a full year of training and conditioning Florez made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League pitching for the DSL Pirates, starting in 14 of the team’s 71 games that season. In his 14 starts, Florez’s youth showed as he struck out only 30 batters and walked 38 in 53.1 innings. He also posted a less than impressive 4.56 ERA and a 1.519 WHIP. Nevertheless, these less than flashy numbers did not stop the Pirates development arch for Florez, probably due to his inexperience and the fact that he was almost a full 2 years younger than the average player in the league. The next season Florez was sent to the Gulf Coast League to play for the GCL Pirates, where he was almost 2 and half years younger than the average player in the league. Again Florez did not light the world on fire, but he also did not regress either. Instead he continued to progress little by little. In 10 starts and 43.1 innings, Florez lowered his ERA to 4.15, his WHIP to 1.385 and his walks to 23 (down to 4.8 BB/9 from 6.4). He also increased his strikeouts 35 (up to 7.3 SO/9 from 5.1). It should be noted that he did this all in spite of the fact that his season was derailed a little bit by an elbow tweak. For his efforts Florez was rewarded with his first appearance on MLB’s Top 30 Pirates’ Prospects, sneaking in at #30. Last summer Florez continued his steady progression through the system as he was assigned to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s advanced rookie level associate) of the Appalachian League. And just like he had over the past two seasons, he continued to grow and develop. Florez started 10 games, just like he had the previous year, and pitching a few less innings (42.1). For the season Florez posted a 3.46 ERA, a 1.344 WHIP, struck out 36 batters (7.8 per 9) and walked 21 (4.5 per 9). The highlight of Florez’s season came in his next to last start of the season on August 20 against the Bluefield Blue Jays , when he struck out 7, walked none, didn’t allow a run and gave up only 4 hits in 6 innings. At the end of the year, just as he had steadily progressed through the Pirates system, he also steadily progressed up the MLB’s Top 30 Pirates’ Prospects, landing at #22. This year, thanks to his 60 grade fastball, his 55 grade curveball, his young age, his size and his potential; Florez also moved up 6 places in the rankings to #16. 

 

Honorable Mentions: 

#13 to #9-Jared Oliva-OF

#15 to #10-Cody Bolton-RHP

#25 to #21-Max Kranick-RHP

 

The Shook

1) Cal Mitchell-OF 

Mitchell was drafted in the 2nd Round in the MLB June Amateur Draft out of baseball powerhouse Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California. The Broncos are a staple in the top 50 of high school teams in the United States and have produced current MLB players; such as Cole Hamels of the Atlanta Braves and the Pirates own, Trevor Williams. After being drafted 50th overall, Mitchell began his professional career with the GCL Pirates in the Rookie Level of the Minor Leagues. He started out with a mediocre short season at this level. In 43 games and 185 plate appearances the 18 year old hit .245 with 2 HRs and 20 RBIs. After an off-season to prepare for his first full year of baseball Mitchell came into his own for the Pirates then Low A affiliate, West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League. He earned a spot on the SAL All-Star Team and started to show off the bat that scouts saw from in his high school days. Cal slashed .280/.344/.427 with 10 HRs and a total of 42 extra base hits. After a season like this it was an easy decision for the Pirates to promote Mitchell to the High A Bradenton Marauder of the Florida State League. This is where I had my first opportunity to see him play this past year. The power that Mitchell displayed during his time in West Virginia stuck around as hit 15 HRs in the pitcher-friendly league. However, his average dropped down to .251 as he found himself slumping in the middle of the season; only hitting .184 in the month of June. In spite of these struggles, the potential shined through, landing Mitchell as the Pirates’ #5 Prospect this off-season. After some acquisitions, etc. Mitchell now finds himself as the #12 Prospect in the system. 

 

 

2) Kevin Kramer-2B/OF/U

When the second Kevin was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2015 Draft out of UCLA behind 1st Round Pick Kevin Newman, it seemed as if the Pirates had found their double play combo of the future. And these plans had all but come to fruition toward the end of the 2018 season. Kramer was promoted to the Pirates along with Newman in September of 2018 as rosters expanded. Both players struggled, but the Pirates were banking on Kramer being able to get to the level he had shown in Indianapolis that year. He had a career high .856 OPS, .311 AVG and 15 homeruns.   Unfortunately 2019 would not be the type of year that many of us had envisioned for Kramer. While his double play partner was up with the Pirates making a name for himself, Kramer was down in AAA unable to get anything going. His AVG fell to the lowest it had ever been since his first 12 games of in the minors (.260), his OPS dropped to .752 and he hit 5 fewer HRs than he had the year before. Kramer was called up to the Pirates again toward the end of the season and his struggles continued. He had a slash line of .167/.260/.190 with 17 K’s in only 42 at bats and got only one extra base hit. Kramer ended up being listed as the Pirates’ #11 Prospect and came into Spring Training originally list on the depth chart as an outfielder. As the new list was released it was a little disappointing to see that Kramer had dropped to #18 on Pirates’ Top 30 Prospect List. 

 

3) Will Craig-1B

Will Craig is the former 1st-round pick for the Pirates in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft out of Wake Forest. He has steadily climbed the ranks of the minor leagues, by spending on year at each level (From Low A to AAA) since being drafted. In 2018 he unlocked the power that had been trapped inside his large frame, but unfortunately this came at the cost of his better known attributes of working the count and making regular contact. That year for the AA Altoona Curve, Craig lead the organization in home runs (20) and RBIs (102) while slashing .248/.321/.448) He went on continue his success in the Arizona Fall League that year for the Surprise Saguaros (.304/.378/.570 and 6 HRs in only 21 games. This past season in AAA, while playing for the Indianapolis Indians Craig had some highs and some lows. On the surface it may just look like another year of mashing the ball for Craig (.249/.326/.435 with 23 HRs and 78 RBIs), but if you look deeper into the advanced stats you will see the regression that I previously alluded to and that the Pirates, and all of MLB, may be noticing. His K% has almost double from 13.5% to 26.3%, his BB% haddecreased from 15.0% to 7.9%, his wRC+ had decreased from 142 to 92 and his wOBA had decreased from .382 to .329. You may say I am reaching with my use of analytics and I would tend agree with you if the differences were not so significant. In 4 years he went from a borderline elite hitter to a slightly below average guy in spite of a continuous power increase. It could be argued that Craig was/is “blocked” by all-star Josh Bell at 1B, so the Pirates have no place to put him. Once again I would agree with everyone to a certain degree. Bell was having a historic year through the month of June (pretty much up to the All-Star Break). At the break he was batting .302 with 27 HR’s, 84 RBI’s and 30 Doubles. After the break he slumped to .233 with 10 HRs, 32 RBIs and 7 Doubles. Even after Bell was injured toward the end of the season, Craig was not added to the 40 man roster. For the entire year Bell’s defense left much to be desired. He ranked at or near the bottom of every defensive category for 1st Basemen with a .988 Fielding Percentage, 13 errors and -5 Defensive Runs Saved. Craig on the other hand improved his defense dramatically and was Awarded with an MiLB Gold Glove. He even got some reps in RF. To begin this year Craig was listed as the Pirates’ #12 Prospect and had been ranked even higher in previous years, reaching #9 in 2017 as 1stBasement and #8 in 2016 as a 3rd Basemen (his drafted position). This year Craig comes in at #19. 

 

This reshuffling of players has no real bearing on whether or not a certain person will make the 26 Man Roster to begin the season, if they will end up in MLB at some point, if they are destined to become a career minor leaguer or be listed as the dreaded “AAAA” player (something that doesn’t truly exist in my opinion).  Anyone that has had even the shortest interaction with me knows that I see importance in all MiLB players within the Pirates’ Farm System, sometimes to a fault. However, whether a player is #1, #10 or #100 in the organizational “rankings”, the potential is there for them to contribute. So pay attention and stay vigilant because there will always be more “movers and shakers” as the season progresses and the story of each of these players ,along with many others is written. 

 

 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects: Additions By Subtractions

On Wednesday March 4th MLB Pipeline released the Pittsburgh Pirates New Top 30 Prospects list for all the world to see. I know I am not the only one that was clamoring for this to be released, but I definitely think I was more anxious/excited/eager to see the results than many of you out there. As a self-proclaimed “Prospect Junkie” this is my Christmas Morning. I want to see where everyone is on the list, the breakdowns of each player, the projections or grades, those that have made their move onto the list and those that have unfortunately fallen off and not due to “graduation”. For this article I am going to be focusing on the players within the Pittsburgh Pirates Organizations that fall into the last two categories; some of which came as a shock to me and others that I fully expected. 

Additions to the Top 30

1) Alexander Mojica-3B

Coming in at #24, Mojica is a name that many of you who follow Pirates’ Prospects closely may have already been aware of. Originally signed by the Pirates in August of 2018, on the day that he turned 16 years old for $390,000, He played in the DSL for the Pirates2 Team this past summer, not turning 17 until there were 12 games to go in the regular season; which probably makes his performance all the more impressive. For the season Mojica batted .351, with a 1.048 OPS and 23 extra base hits, including 8 homeruns. As if a player with these types of numbers needs any more upside his walk rate (17.0%) was higher than his strike out rate (15.6%), already showing he can be patient at the plate. If there is any downside it would be his speed/run, currently a 30 grade, but I fully expect the power (50 grade) and hit (50 grade)tools to make up for that. His also has a an above average arm (60 grade) and just below average fielding (45 Grade), the latter being something that can improve with time and development. Presently listed with an ETA of 2023, Mojica is a player that clearly fits into the plans for the future of the Pirates. 

 

2) Rodolfo Nolasco-OF

Landing squarely behind his 2019 DSL Teammate, Alexander Mojica, at #25 is this lean and athletic outfielder. Nolasco signed exactly one month earlier, to the day, than Mojica on July 2, 2018 for $235,000. His first year in the Pirates’ Organization may not have been as impressive as Mojica’s, but was not far off as he batted .302, with a .846 OPS and 21 extra base hits; including 5 homeruns. Rated as an “average” player (50 Grade) almost across the board, Nolasco’s power is sometimes underrated (45 Grade); in spite of an exit velocity that has been known to reach 110 mph. To put this into perspective the average exit velocity in the MLB hovers around 90 to 94 mph. Playing the majority of games in RF for the DSL Pirates2 his arm was often tested and he rose to the challenge every single time. As with Mojica, Nolaco’s ETA is listed as 2023. I see it, this as an extreme positive as these two players will be able to grow and move through the system together, inspiring each other along the way. 

 

3) Matthew Fraizer-OF 

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 3rd Round (95thOverall) of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Arizona, Fraizer only played 19 games in his final season as a Wildcat due to a fractured hamate (a type of carpal fracture). This definitely had an effect on his draft stock as he was originally projected to go in one of the first two rounds. The righty throwing, lefty batting outfielder immediately reported to the West Virginia Black Bears (Pittsburgh’s Short Season A Affiliate) in the New York-Pennsylvania League. In 43 games and 154 at bats with the Black Bears, Fraizer slashed .221/.287/266, with 6 extra base hits. I know that these numbers look less than appealing, but considering the time off with injury during the college season I am a little more optimistic. His run grade (60) and average (50) grades as it pertains to hit, field and arm are all positive signs and his power (40) is something that can be improved upon with a full healthy season in either Greensboro and/or Bradenton. His projected ETA with the Pirates is 2022, so it looks like a steady progression is ahead for Fraizer, as long as he does not experience any major setbacks. 

 

Subtractions from the Top 30

1) JT Brubaker-RHP

Brubaker was the Pirates #28 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30 in 2019. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 6th Round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Akron. For the next few years Brubaker methodically moved up through the Pirates’ farm system with little to no fanfare. Then in 2018 he burst onto the scene by leading the entire Pirates system in ERA for the season, dominating in his second year with the Altoona Curve (1.80 ERA, a 1.057 WHIP and 35 Ks in 35 Innings) and continuing to perform well after his promotion to the Indianapolis Indians (3.10 ERA, a 1.319 WHIP and 96 Ks in 119 innings). There was a decent amount of hype and expectations for the young righty coming into 2019 and, in his first 4 starts, he didn’t disappoint. He posted a 2-1 record, a 2.57 ERA, a 1.095 WHIP and 20 Ks in 21 innings. Then came the forearm injury. At the end of April this past year, Brubaker was placed on the 7-Day Injured List with a right forearm strain. Less than two months later Brubaker got the OK to report to the West Virginia Black Bears for a few rehab starts. In 6.2 innings over two starts he had a 1.35 ERA. However, he walked as many as he struck out, 4, and had a 1.350 WHIP. After these two starts he was shut down again for what would end up being the remainder of the season. On September 30, 2019 the Pirates selected Brubaker’s contract from the Indians and added him to the 40-man roster. Unfortunately since JT’s participation in Spring Training has been limited (as it has been with many pitchers) and because the injury took away most of last season, it is understandable that he “fell” out of the top 30. However, I do not see this as a knock on his potential and ability, just that he was a victim of circumstance; including new additions to the system via trade and performance. 

 

2) Jason Martin-OF

Martin was originally drafted by the Houston Astros in the 8th Round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Orange County Lutheran High School in California. Acquired in the infamous Gerrit Cole Trade with Houston, Martin arrived in the Pirates’ System in January of 2018 and was assigned to the Altoona Curve to begin the season. This past season Martin was called up from AAA-Indianapolis twice, but he barely had a chance to do more than get his feet wet before Starling Marte returned from injury and then he was injured himself toward the end of the season. In 40 major league plate appearances he posted a .250/.325/.631 slash line, but showed some promise with a .346 BAbip (Batting Average on Balls In Play). Martin’s minor league career has been very encouraging at times; especially up through at least the middle of the 2018 season when he was promoted from AA-Altoona to AAA-Indianapolis. Prior to this promotion he had been hitting .325, with a .522 OPS and 9 HRs in 68 games. That same year he was listed as high as the Pirates #13 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30 and was listed as the Pirates #18 Prospect this past year, so it seems that something is still there. As with Brubaker, Martin may be the victim of unforeseen circumstances including his own injuries and uncertainty. Although I would say that Martin looked pretty good legging out a triple against the Rays this past Thursday. 

 

3) Luis Esobar-RHP

The 17-year-old infielder Luis Escobar was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in July of 2019. He quickly made the transition from fielder to take his place on the rubber before his debut in the DSL in 2014. Over the next few years Escobar made his way up the Pirates’ farm system, until he hit a bump in the road in 2018 after his promotion to AA Altoona. Prior to this he had landed on the Pirates Top 30 Prospects of 2017, according to MLB Pipeline, at #18 and even reached as high as #11. In 2019 he was listed at #16. In Altoona that year, he just couldn’t seem to find his bearings. He walked almost as many players as he struck out (25K/21BB), which was completely out of character for him. His walk rate had never been the best, hovering between 10 and 12%, but his strike out rate usually made up for that as the lowest it had been since his early years was 21.6%. In Altoona, he had a 13.4% walk rate and 15.9% K rate. Due to these struggles he was sent back down to Bradenton to begin 2019 and made the full transition to a reliever; appearing in 10 games, pitching 13.1 innings, striking out 15 and not allowing a single run. He was immediately promoted to AAA Indianapolis and began switching back and forth between starter 5 games) and reliever (19 games). His K rate stayed solid at 23.7%, but his walk rate rose back up to 13.3%. Due to injuries and struggles in the Pirates’ bullpen he was called up to the big league club and made his debut on July 13, 2019 against the Cubs and gave up 0 earned runs over two innings. His last appearance for the Pirates came on July 24 against the Cardinals, where he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and walked 4 batters in 2 innings. He finished up the year in Indy. During the off-season he was a non-roster invitee to spring training. He has the “stuff” as his fastball is a 60 grade and his curveball is 55; even his changeup is a 50. It is the command and control where he falters, coming in at a 40. If he can get this moving in the right direction he has the potential of being a solid part of the Pirates’ bullpen or a rotation moving forward, Top 30 status or not. Unfortunately for Escobar he had a pretty rough outing a couple of days ago against the Phillies that he can hopefully rebound from. 

I have said it before and I will say it again, a team is not made up of all top 30 prospects; so I do take the rankings with a grain of salt. However, in the same breath, it is difficult to see certain guys falter; just as it is exciting to see other guys take a step forward and be recognized on this list. 

 

The Pirates Need to Extend Someone, Right?

When news broke that Milwaukee had signed standout Christian Yelich long term to a very rich contract, I knew immediately that Pirates fans would start clamoring for someone to be extended. I agree, the Bucs have some players worthy of consideration and some of them would be very wise decisions, others would be a huge stretch. Talk all you want about the Archer trade putting this team back for several years, a bad extension coupled with this frugal budget would do far more damage.

The Pirates don’t have a player like Yelich. I’ll elaborate surely here but they just don’t. Nobody on this club is worth 30 Million a year, now or likely in the future. That doesn’t mean the club shouldn’t consider it however, it may very well be the only way they can actually keep one of their best pieces long term.

Josh Bell, great human, solid in the community, seems happy here, power like nobody else on the roster, All Star. Probably the best candidate for a mega deal on the club right now. You could say Reynolds but for everything he does well, he’s only done it one year and power is in no way his most prolific area of strength. So, let’s focus on Josh, and yes acknowledge that Scott Boras is his agent.

Scott has a ton of clients, not all of them will get top tier money. He knows the market, in fact he probably already knows what Josh profiles to get when he hits free agency and I bet it’s not top tier, not yet. The Bucs could easily pay Josh Bell 30 Million a year, the payroll this season would only go up minimally to pull it off too, and I bet Boras would jump all over it. Betting on Josh to hit 30+ homeruns every season for the next 7 or 8 would probably be enough reason to make a move like this, hell he might even exceed that figure, but what if he is exactly what he is right now? What if this is the very best, he ever performs? Is that money well spent?

I’d say yes, but I’m not thinking like the Pirates have over the years. See Bell is a piece you want and need if you surround him with talent. If this club pays anyone 30 Million, will they ever pay for the rest of the pieces they need? Who will pitch? What happens when Reynolds IS ready for his extension? Start digging into this and it quickly becomes an episode of Ancient Aliens where you take scant evidence and start asking reasonable questions to back your point.

If I’m the Pirates, the first person I give mega money to, assuming they ever do, better be a pitcher. I’d start with considering an extension for Joe Musgrove this season, offer him 13-15 AAV because he has proven at the very least, he is capable and durable. Lock up a cog of your rotation for years to come, not the best pitcher in the world, but someone you can use as a foundation for that rotation. Let Keller show you over the next couple years who he is and consider if Taillon is ever going to factor into the future, maybe take a shot and offer him 4 or 5 years at a reasonable rate if he’ll take it.

If the Pirates are strong in any one area of their system, its position players. Locking down pitching and augmenting with the few pieces that are coming like Quinn Priester and the like will provide a solid rotation to keep the team in the hunt.

Wanting Nutting to spend money is absolutely fair and he certainly should, but there is a finite level this club is capable of sustaining. I’ll not pretend to know exactly what that is as the numbers aren’t public knowledge, but everyone has a top end, even the Dodgers. So, expecting this team, or more accurately wanting this team to extend someone symbolically could actually impede the ability to build a winner off the table.

Folks often point to the extensions that Marte and Polanco signed as youngsters to keep them as Pirates into their thirties. That’s fair, but its also a crap shoot. Marte turned out, not that half of you noticed, Polanco hasn’t, although if he gets right and finds his homerun stroke, he will wind up quite the bargain.

Think of how many correct educated guesses it takes to live like that. You have to either identify a 16 to 20-year-old as having potential and sign them with limited proof they will ever earn your offer to a long-term deal after they’ve reached the majors and put in a year or two of actual big-league play.

Christian Yelich did more than that. He struggled as a rookie but showed capability, no deal. He improved in year two but somehow didn’t convince Miami he was part of a young core. Moved to Milwaukee for a ransom of prospects, none of whom will ever be the player he is today and put in two solid campaigns comparing favorably to names like Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts. His deal is huge, but not blind, they have made a decision that they can afford one big money deal per core. Last time it was Braun, and oddly enough that deal ends right when this one ramps up.

The Pirates have not made moves like this. Closest they came was the Andrew McCutchen deal and if we’re honest, Gerrit Cole is the only other player that was worthy since. Maybe had they offered him a deal like this 4 years ago instead of nickel and diming a kid who felt he was worth more than league minimum he could have remained a Pirate, or maybe he was never going to stay here from the start. Either way, stretching to find someone on the roster who deserves Yelich money would be a fool’s errand and a detriment to the construction of a club that is nowhere near completion.

The MLB Draft Is A Different Animal


In a period of 12 years following the turn of this century there were 17,925 players selected in the MLB June Amateur Draft. Of those almost 18,000 players, approximately 66% percent of them signed with a major league club. Of the 66% percent that signed approximately 11% of them ever made it to the majors. Not were successful in the majors or became everyday players; MADE it to Major League Baseball. Now this does not cover the International Amateur Free Agent and/or International Professional Free Agent Signings, which could skew the numbers a little bit. However, I could not see this having an enormous effect on the 11% percent either up or down, so I would most likely settle on a margin of error of approximately 1 to 2% in either direction. That leaves some 87% to 91% of players that never make it out of the minors and onto a major league roster at any point in time during their careers. This is what I believe makes the MLB Draft so unique. The only one of the Major 4 Sports (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) in America that would be even somewhat similar would be the NHL Draft. For example; from 1995 to 2009 the percentage of players selected in the NFL Draft to make any team roster, maybe not the team they were drafted by, was approximately 75% at its lowest point. This included the guys that were drafted in the final rounds, when no one was even watching. Yet people still try to make comparisons, assumptions, predictions, projections and/or a general who their team should pick statement about the MLB draft; as if they were picking the future starting whatever for their team for the next five to ten years or trying to fill an immediate hole in the roster. That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works!

Nevertheless, many Pittsburgh Pirates Fans and others are using General Manager Ben Cherington’s words of trying to address catcher depth through free agent signings, trade or the draft to justify picking a catcher in the first round in June with either the #7 Overall Pick or the Competitive Balance Round A Pick at #32, when many of them have no idea exactly who is available or how long it will be before the player actually reaches the big league club, if he even does. Here’s something to think about when another Pirates Fan, blogger, beat writer or whoever throws out a name of a catcher that the Pirates could be targeting in the first round. Are you aware that the only high school catcher drafted in the First Round to accumulate a WAR of 5.0 or better, as a catcher, in the last 37 years, is none other than Joe Mauer (Drafted by the Minnesota Twins at 1st Overall in the 2001 MLB June Amateur Draft)? That’s 5.0 WAR for a career, not just one year.

Another trap that we as Pirates Fans fall into is the track record of the previous regimes ability to draft, and beyond that the capability that former General Manager Neil Huntington and his staff had in developing talent. I will see and hear many say that we need to avoid high school right handed pitchers/prep arms or we need to draft some lefties because we don’t have one that worth anything in the system.  Why would you avoid any player because of their right handedness or pick a player just because they happen to be a lefty? This makes absolutely no sense to me. Wouldn’t it make more sense to draft the best player available, no matter the position or dominant hand? Do yourselves a favor and actually look at the MLB Pipeline Top 100 Draft Prospects and see who is actually out there, who the Pirates could realistically take at each of their first two picks and where they could fit into the system for the future; not where they could fit into the team as it currently constructed. 

So who does everyone think that the Pirates should take with their first two picks in the draft now? Has your mind changed at all? Personally, I am still undecided. However, I will still have my own opinions. Hopefully you check back in with me as we progress toward the 2020 MLB Amateur Draft in June, as I will be highlighting players that could be potential future Pirates and those others are mentioning that I would much rather avoid.

Fair Pittsburgh Pirates Coverage – With a Brand-New Address

Welcome to InsideTheBucsBasement.com

First of all, if you’re reading this, chances are you have already followed Craig Toth and my (Gary Morgan) work as we both wrote for InsideThePirates.com an SI Team Channel. Maybe you know Craig from his Bucs in the Basement podcast, no matter what brings you here, welcome and thank you for giving us your attention as we know you have a ton of choices.

So, how did we get here? Well long story short, SI was happy with what we were bringing to the table but had a list of expectations our editor could not meet. Craig and I spent most of last week trying to keep the site alive so we could continue to bring you the coverage and opinions you followed us there for in the first place. It was very difficult to leave unfinished business as Craig hadn’t finished his series “By the Numbers” and I missed a “Friday Focus” for the first time since I launched it.

Our former home may relaunch one day, but we feel it makes a whole lot more sense for us at this time to launch this site and do things our way.

We don’t want to hunt for clicks or meet quotas. We are in this for two things, one, we love writing and talking about baseball, and two, for each other. We are a very nice balance for each other and speaking for myself, Craig makes me a better writer by lending his perspective.

Also, we both felt it was time for Craig’s first love, the podcast, to have a home with his new passion for writing. I’m sure this will lead to me taking up the microphone as well more frequently. Who knows, we can take this whatever direction we choose to steer it.

So that’s what we are, two friends who love baseball and want to call balls and strikes on our favorite baseball team. We’ll call them out when warranted, and when they do things well, we’ll praise them, if that gets us follows or clicks, so be it.

We hope you enjoy what we have coming your way and we look forward to talking baseball with all of you.

Sincerely,

Gary Morgan & Craig Toth
Inside The Bucs Basement Team