Five Pirates Thoughts at Five 4/26/21

It’s very early in the season and the Pirates aren’t the only club trying to prove betting on Sports is just as much about luck as it is knowledge. The Giants are off to a 14-8 start, The Mets lead the NL East with a 9-8 record, the Red Sox have jumped to the front of the pack in the AL East while the Yankees are tied for the basement with the Orioles. Even the Royals who head to PNC on Tuesday are sitting in first place in the AL Central.

Much of what I just listed off probably won’t continue as the season evolves but there’s a reason they actually play the games.

1. The Pick is Becoming Clearer

It’s going to be hard to envision the Pirates taking anyone but Jack Leiter for me and if something terrible happened to Leiter I’d be compelled to take Jordan Lawler.

I know many still perceive this to be a two man race between Leiter and Rocker but Kumar is falling down the draft board, in fact most experts have him potentially as the second or even third pitcher taken.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Rocker is a hell of a talent too, but I can’t argue with every professional scout in USA Baseball. Fact is, any of the top 7 or so this season could be excellent players but I only see two of them as actual franchise anchors in 2021 and that’s Leiter and Lawler.

Before you freak out that the Pirates don’t need another middle infielder, again, the position scarcely matters. It’s either a pitcher, a catcher, or a short stop. Occasionally you’ll see an outfielder like this year’s version Jud Fabian out of Florida. But for the most part the best athletes tend to gravitate to SS.

Take a look at International signing boards, half are pitchers, the other half short stops with a sprinkling of catchers.

Back to Leiter,

The curve and fastball are two of his developed pitches. He also has a nice slider, a cutter and a Changeup he’s just started using and developing. All those pitches are certainly nice, a ton of pitchers will say they have all those, most can’t already display the consistent arm slot and deception Leiter does at this age.

If the goal is to draft a starting pitcher, Jack Leiter is the best bet in this draft.

Whoever gets Kumar Rocker will get a really nice pitcher, but I don’t see it at number one overall.

And before you push the catcher, Adrian Del Castillo on me over Lawler, that’s just not how the baseball draft works. You don’t draft for need, because often your need isn’t the same by the time they arrive. It’s also silly to ask me to look at who has what agent or who’s a Boras guy, they’re armatures so we just don’t know.

2. Territorial Pitchings

Kevin Newman is a perfect example of how pitcher approach attacking a player. In the Spring most pitchers will just throw their pitch, they aren’t trying to get hit, they aren’t trying to game plan for specific players. Nobody is looking to get pounded either, but let’s just say the scouting reports are glanced at rather than studied and executed.

Kevin changed his stance slightly this Spring, standing up a bit more and bringing his hands in so he could get through the ball with more power to the opposite field. He put a ton of that on tape this Spring and the league was watching, even while they did nothing to stop in down south.

Once the season started the plan to combat it began. See his new stance helped Kevin make better contact which takes him from a minor annoyance to a dangerous rally starter. Batting stances give and they take away. Make a change to cover the outside of the plate and typically the inside becomes vulnerable.

That’s what happened to Kevin, down and in became a dead zone and very quickly he jumped back to what he had been doing in 2020 to adjust to the attack he was facing, problem is, nobody including Newman wants to see more of what he did in 2020.

Early last week he made the adjustment to get back to what he was doing this Spring and has started spitting on that ball down and in, even if it’s a strike. It’s lead to deeper counts and harder contact early on and the struggle is to keep Kevin from reverting to previous versions of himself every time he struggles.

Now comes the part where you tell me all about his exit velocity showing him to be a terrible hitter. Right, that’s why they are making changes in the first place. His 105.7 exit velocity on Saturday’s homerun certainly shows the life is there and that was on a ball up and outer third which really shouldn’t have been pulled. Meaning it could have actually been hit harder if hit to the right-center gap.

Kevin is worth working with, this isn’t someone the team should give up on, not yet.

3. Winning Matters

Seeing the MLB club win and compete matters. Will it result in a division championship in 2021? Oh, I can’t get there, but it matters because this management team has taken players they already had and have helped them improve.

The Pirates have warts for sure, but by in large we’ve seen improved approaches at the plate. Bulldog efforts from the pitching staff and incremental improvement across the board.

It’s important primarily not because of the record this year or where they finish in 2021, but instead because for this team to actually turn this rebuild into a winning effort, one thing we can’t get there without is the development of talent.

This management team has been in place since late in 2019 and not one pitch has been thrown in a minor league contest.

We have nothing to go on but what we see at the MLB level, and that being the case, there are real signs that development is happening and it’s going well.

All of the prospects being acquired are great for the top prospect boards or the farm system rankings but if you want them to matter for the actual major league squad, each and every one of them will need to be taken from raw talent to finished product. We’ve seen our fair share of Quad A players here in Pittsburgh who go off and figure it out at the next stop, what you’re seeing this season is encouraging that those outcomes will be less frequent.

4. Hey, Maybe the Pirates Don’t Need 14 Pitchers

Don’t get me wrong, there will come a time when the Pirates pitching starts to falter, it happens to every team, every year. I think this bullpen has enough pieces to rebound from it and enough options to not every truly fall off the table, but there will be struggles at some point.

For right now though, the team has barely used Luis Oviedo, Geoff Hartlieb was called up when Chad Kuhl went on IL and wasn’t even used, Sean Poppen was called up over a week ago and has only pitched once.

Now, I could probably point to Rodolfo Castro being called up and scarcely used as well, but when you decide to use 14 pitchers and cut your bench to 4 players it seems to me if you aren’t using 2 or 3 of them regularly perhaps an extra bat would be a wise move.

The Bench as currently constructed is comprised of Todd Frazier, Rodolfo Castro, Michael Perez and Wilmer Difo. Soon Ka’ai Tom will be added to the roster and Rodolfo is a logical corresponding move, but when Ke’Bryan Hayes returns should the next move be to DFA either Frazier or Difo? Maybe it makes more sense to cut back to 13 pitchers at least until a need arises for that extra arm and give yourself a few more options off the bench.

Tom coming in can’t possibly be seen as a sure enough bet to DFA a viable player can it?

My point is, if Poppen isn’t going to pitch, let’s move him back and keep the bat, it’ll give the Bucs more options to pinch hit and to shuffle guys in and out of the lineup to account for slumps or even matchups.

Again, I understand the pitching is important, but I say, use it or lose it.

5. Measuring Stick Week for the Pirates

You can say this already happened when the Bucs took on San Diego and split the series, but let’s be honest, the Cardinals are always seen as the opponent that will show us where we are.

They always pitch, they always get timely hits and no matter how solid their roster they always play the Pirates tough. To be honest, the Pirates often play them tougher than their yearly record would have you believe.

This isn’t the Cardinals we all remember, they’re lighter on pitching than I can recall in modern times both in the bullpen and the rotation. Probable pitchers haven’t been released yet for the series but the Pirates approach to get into the bullpen will play well in this matchup.

The lineup of course has star power and power in general, in fact they only have 3 players on the roster who haven’t hit a home run, but even with a less accomplished starting rotation the Pirates are in a good position to push back on the Cards.

Don’t get me wrong, a series victory by either squad won’t mean much, but much like the series win against the Brewers and Cubs, it’s important for a young club to prove to themselves they can hang with the Bogeyman.

Pirates (11-11) Take Series from Twins with a 6-2 Victory

Starter gets through 4 or 5, bullpen keeps it close, hitting takes advantage of the opposition bullpen. This is the Pirates recipe for success, and today it was the recipe for fully coming back from a 1-6 start to an 11-11, .500 record.

Wil Crowe made his first start as a Pirate today and it was nothing short of a bulldog effort. In 4 innings he allowed 4 hits, 2 walks and racked up 3 very timely strikeouts. He’s raw, and today he and Jacob Stallings figured out early his changeup was really playing, so they rode it. Crowe will be part of this rotation at some point, and today did nothing to make you feel that’s a bad thing.

Oh, he had some help…

He exited after 4 with a 2-1 lead and then the bullpen took over. Clay Holmes went 1.1, Sam Howard went .2 to get them to the 7th clinging to a one run lead.

And then the Pirates took advantage of what is a weakness for so many clubs, the bullpen. Scoring 3 runs in the top of the 7th to really open the game up.

Reynolds provided the capper after Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier had each knocked one in.

Bryan Reynolds is just sick right now, 2 for 4 with a couple doubles, a walk and 2 RBI. If teams still think flipping him to the right side is a good play, they might want to update their analytics.

Chris Stratton came on to handle the 7th and despite a couple singles he delivered to keep the line moving. Have I mentioned how much I love what this pen is doing?

Gregory Polanco added a bomb in the 8th to make it 6-1.

The Pirates stuck with Stratton for the 8th and Nelson Cruz led off with an absolute hammer job to make it 6-2. After that he rebounded to finish strong.

On to the ninth.

The Pirates went down 1-2-3 and David Bednar was brought in to close out the game and all that slacker did was put down the Twins in order.

Bucs Win 6-2, .500 record.

Off tomorrow and back at it at PNC vs the Royals for two starting Tusday.

News & Notes

  • Phillip Evans had a base hit in the first inning and came around to score but he is in the middle of a brutal slump. It’s time to consider dropping him in the lineup and/or giving him a day off following tomorrows off day would be a nice time to do it. He looks beat.
  • Jacob Stallings does just about everything well behind the plate, but something he doesn’t nearly get enough credit for is his ability to diagnose what his battery mate has working quickly. He has helped some of these guys get deeper than they would without him back there thinking for them.
  • Chris Stratton has had outings where he looks unhittable, today he showed that while allowing a couple singles in between. If he’s your weakest link, you have a damn good bullpen.
  • Todd Frazier has started his Pirates career 0 for 15. Don’t get me wrong, just like Polanco he can change a game with one swing, just make sure you remember him and how you don’t speak of him while ripping Greg a new one.
  • Gregory Polanco went 3 for 4 today with a couple singles and a bomb in the 8th.
  • Kevin Newman had an RBI single today, but for the past 4 games he looks a whole lot more like the player who really enjoyed the Florida sun than the struggling shortstop he’s been most of the season. Adjustments made, look for him to recapture a bit of what he had found.
  • 6-3 road trip in the books. Considering they started the season with a brutal 1-5 trip this certainly has to be seen as a coup.
  • Adam Frazier continues to rake. 3 for 5 today and he is the straw that stirs the drink at the top of the order.
  • In the ninth inning up by 4 runs Bryan Reynolds barely moved his bat and was called for a strike. He would eventually strikeout in the at bat but he was about as pissed as I’ve seen him on a baseball field. Admittedly, I’ve only seen him play for the Pirates but if there’s one thing that gets under his skin it’s bad umpiring. You’ll find that with players that truly have incredible plate vision, because they know more often than not a crap call vs correct. Never think these guys don’t care.
  • Pirates relievers have hitters batting .170 against them this season.

The Pirates Bats Have To Play

It couldn’t have been made more apparent than it was in a 2-0, one hit loss at the hands of Minnesota Twins and aging lefty J.A. Happ, that pitching isn’t going to solve all of the Pirates problems; and neither is solid defense for that matter. JT Brubaker and Sam Howard took the mound for Pittsburgh, and in the process did almost every they could to put the Pirates in a position to win. In his seven innings of work Brubaker allowed only 2 runs on 5 hits, while struck out the side in the 8th. It was the kind of pitching performances you wish and hope for from the arms on your roster.

At the same time I watched Happ strike out three, which was actually just Colin Moran twice and Fraizer (Todd) once, walk two and give up one hit, I never felt like he was dominating. Sure a crafty lefty can always be deceiving, but even when I looked into the numbers, it still didn’t seem like the hitters should have been completely overmatched.

On the game Happ had just 7 whiffs and 11 called strikes over his 95 pitches on Friday night, for a CWS% of 18%; where the league average is 28.7% and a good to excellent outing is rated at 30 to 40%. Pitchers in this range are judged to be truly dealing. Clearly you can’t take away the ball one hit performance by Happ, but how much of this was on the Pirates batters?

Now of course many of you will probably be quick to point out that the bats came alive, at least to some degree, in the Pirates 6-2 win on Saturday; but I would caution you to examine how most of those hits came and who they came from. Sure the two homers were impressive, however, outside of that I saw a lot of struggles at the plate and a few pop ups that fell in for hits. And when these troubles or slumps happen, mostly on an individual basis, it is more difficult to also overlook poor defensive performances as well. This is not to say that one aspect of the game is more important than the other, but more often, a strong plate presence can mask difficulties in the field easier than a glove that plays with a bat that doesn’t.

In 2019 Kevin Newman had -7 DRS, 10 errors and a -7 OAA at shortstop, but was immediately heralded as the future at the position due to his .308/.353/.446 slash line with 12 homers and a 109 wRC+. His defensive struggles were all but ignored, and this isn’t even taking into account what the peripherals said about his bat. There wasn’t even really a question that his last plate presence would make him an everyday starter, with a 2.3 fWAR and 3.0 WAR respectively.

Flash forward to present day where Newman is hitting .172 with his one homer from Saturday, but has a 2 OAA, 2 DRS and 0 errors. Obviously, this doesn’t scream everyday short stop, or even second baseman to anyone. Just like Phillip Evans is probably not a full time left fielder based on his -3 OAA and the muff and boot against the Twins on a routine fly ball. However, if he was still hitting closer to where he was a week ago and not the .115 batting average he has posted over the last seven games, it would be a lot easier to overlook this level of play and continue to justify his place in the lineup at really any position; because no matter how much people want to focus on the positives of defense and pitching, the bat is still king in that it will help a player find his way on to the roster and into the lineup over the glove.

This assertion is true time and time again, which is evident by the Pirates leaving Cole Tucker and Jared Oliva in Florida when they headed north to receive individual instruction because they needed to work on being able to hit Major League pitching. No one is questioning their ability to be able to play the outfield, or hopefully shortstop in Tucker’s case, but they have to hit to stick, to contribute and to work towards being in a string of hitters in the lineup that don’t waste starts like Brubaker’s or a shutdown bullpen.

Every time I make this argument, Pirates Fans are also quick to mention a player like Jack Wilson, whose defense was far and away his strong suit. Many will point toward his astronomical numbers of 98 DRS from 2004 through the time he was traded to Seattle in July of 2009, but how many mention his .279 AVG over this same time period. Of course his defensive attributes would still be touted, but it’s less likely that he remains an every day player if he bats .215 or less with the Pirates; and is probably relegated to a utility man role or a late inning defensive substitution. Hell, even the Wizard of Oz, Ozzie Smith, doesn’t reach his level of notoriety if his average hovers at or the .233 AVG he held during his time in San Diego.

Sooner or later the bat has to play.

But, But, What Happens When They Trade All Their Good Players?

It’s the natural go to.

The team isn’t as bad as many assumed and while that doesn’t translate to ready to win it all, it still hits some people right in their precious belief system.

I get it entirely. There are plenty of folks out there who fear nothing more than being wrong or having closely held beliefs challenged.

So when the first prediction didn’t go as planned, let’s move on to the ‘fixer’ prediction, which is the title of this piece.

Fact is, they aren’t wrong. There will be more trades, and if improvement of this franchise and how they operate is the goal, there shouldn’t be too many fans who really get up in arms about it.

Now, it’s slightly disingenuous, they won’t trade all their best players.

I like to look at the roster like this, a series of decisions.

As I’ve told you before, look at the control of a player. For instance, Ke’Bryan Hayes isn’t going anywhere, Bryan Reynolds isn’t going anywhere, JT Brubaker isn’t being dealt.

Hey, that sounds like a bunch of their best players who aren’t leaving.

Let’s look at who the team has to make a decision on this year. Because unless someone were to offer a ridiculous package for someone with more control, these are the guys to really think about. The format, is name followed by last year of team control.

Adam Frazier (2022)

Adam has turned himself into a steady second baseman, and the team has no desire to showcase him as a versatile piece, they simply want him to be a second baseman.

The Pirates have tried to have other middle infielders step up and make Adam expendable but it hasn’t happened yet.

The Pirates will have to decide whether they want to extend or move Frazier this year, because he longer they wait the less they’ll get back for him and the more he’ll cost to keep.

Colin Moran (2023)

The club doesn’t have to make a call on Colin this year, but they still might want to start thinking about it. That one extra year of control makes him ok to stay put with no decision but the club needs to honestly evaluate who they have coming that could reasonably take his spot. I don’t see anything close, so again while they don’t have to make a decision, they might want to explore a modest extension.

I do think Colin is a guy who someone might overpay for, so the Pirates should have their ears open.

Tyler Anderson (2021)

He was a one year signing, and his performance just about guarantees he will be a hot commodity come deadline time. He’s not a rock in the rotation but he’s cheap and extremely movable. Exactly the type of signing the Pirates should have brought in for the outfield.

Trevor Cahill (2021)

Same. With the exception teams might look at him as a nice bullpen piece too. Signing guys like this is about helping the team, but it’s also about helping the team in the future by bringing back more pieces..

Richard Rodriguez (2023)

Teams overpay for closers. They don’t have to move Rich Rod but he statistically has been MLB’s second best reliever over the past two seasons and he could easily return a king’s ransom. Especially if they do it earlier than they need to.

Chris Stratton (2023)

Again, they don’t have to, but it’s time to start thinking about it. He’s a versatile piece in the bullpen and the Pirates are trying to use him all over the place in all types of situations.

Kyle Crick (2023)

Really the same as Stratton but more of a focus on back end duties. He might have a tough time burring his last two seasons by this deadline but I’m sure he’ll get some attention.

After that you have your Todd Frazier, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin types and everyone else is pre-arb. meaning at least 3 more full seasons. Ok, Polanco, and Gonzalez are probably available too.

This isn’t a list of everyone who’s going to be traded, this is a list of just about everyone on the table for decisions.

It’s hardly all their good players, and you can’t look at this team and trick yourself into thinking they’ve arrived. They aren’t there and what’s coming will educate some of these moves.

For instance, Miguel Yajure will wind up in this rotation at some point this year, which I can hardly say would be a downgrade from Anderson or Cahill.

This is what building teams do. So yes, they will trade some of these guys, but unless you think you’re watching a World Series team, it really is just part of the process. Prospects aren’t brought in to be prospects forever, they’re brought in to eventually make veterans expendable which leads to more you guessed it, prospects.

Don’t argue with people who say they will trade players, because they aren’t wrong, but realize it’s not without reason. And it’s certainly not all our good players. It’s a series of decisions.

Cahill Keeps To His Early Season Pattern In Pirates Win

Each time, before Trevor Cahill takes the mound, Pirates Fans hold their collective breaths, wondering what version of the veteran acquisition they are going to get. Thus far in the season he has either gotten bum-rushed from his first pitch; made to wear one because the bullpen would be taxed for seven or eight innings of work, or looked nearly untouchable, as he lulls the opposing batters to sleep with his overarching curve that starts at the eyes and slowly drops until it lands firmly in the zone.

Yesterday in Minneapolis, the later was the norm for Cahill; although it did not result in as many strikeouts as it had during his previous positive outing. However, what it did produce was a lot of soft contact and easily dealt with ground ball outs; eleven to be exact. This efficient outing caused many, who wished him DFA’d just a week ago, to once again ponder the trade value of such a pitcher on the open market because this has to be the real Trevor Cahill, and not the pitcher who gave up 13 earned runs on 17 hits in 8 innings during his two previous poor performances. But in all honesty, both this version and the one that allowed 1 earned run on two hits against the Twins in 6 innings or 1 earned run on 3 hits with 8 strikeouts when facing the Padres, are the exact same Trevor Cahill. Some days he is going to look like one of the best pitchers in the rotation, and the next he may look like a man that has never taken the mound before. It’s just who he is, and I am almost positive players don’t often reinvent themselves 13 years into their Major League careers.

Luckily for the Pirates and their fans, the efficient righty showed up on this chilly Saturday afternoon, and opposite of the previous night, when they were one hit, so did some of the bats; most surprisingly backup catcher Micheal Perez with his 3 for 3 day, which included a no doubt 408 foot homer and 3 RBIs. Not to be completely outdone Kevin Newman immediately followed up Perez’s blast with one of his own; his first on the season.

Following the offense output from some of the least unexpected places, the Pirates bullpen did what has become almost common place for them. The trio of Duane Underwood Jr., Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez struck out 5, walked none and didn’t allow an earned run in 3 innings of work; with the last two only throwing 13 pitches to get the final 6 outs of the contest.

With only 3 hits on the day and an early inning error, which jumpstarted the Pirates offense, the Twins ultimately fell to your Buccos 6-2 on the day and allowed Pittsburgh to come within one game of .500 yet again at 10-11.

News and Notes:

  • After beginning the season on an absolute tear, slashing .326/.420/.581 over the first 12 games Phillip Evans is 3 for 26 with 9 strikeouts over the last 7. Add in a total whiff and boot in the field in the 8th, and one has to wonder how long Shelton will just keep trotting him out there.
  • Colin Moran has also been struggling as of late; hitting .171 over the last week and striking out 3 times in J.A. Happ’s no hit bid on Friday night.
  • Kevin Newman got a much needed boost with a solo shot and a sac fly. Fingers crossed this is exactly what was needed to get things going after a disappointing start to the season.

  • The Pirates currently have a top 10 bullpen on the season, with a 3.44 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP; led by Crick and Rodriguez, who have yet to give up an earned run this year.
  • In the early going the NL Central is exactly as expected as 1st (Milwaukee) and last (Cincinnati) are only separated by 3 games, with only the Brew Crew over .500.

Later today the Pirates will try to take their third series in a row as Wil Crowe (0-0, 13.50) gets the call in his first start of the season against Matt Shoemaker (1-1, 6.28 ERA) for the Twins at 2:10 PM EST at Target Field in Minnesota.

Outfield Depth is a Problem, One That Likely Won’t End Soon

Way back before the 2020 season started, the Pirates and their new management team, looked to start the process of breaking down the team, and restocking the system.

Starling Marte was the move and the return from Arizona has a real chance to be special, but it also created a real problem for the Pirates, it left the club with only one nailed on starting quality outfielder, Bryan Reynolds of course.

It’s the pain of a rebuild. Same pain that the starting rotation is enduring. Believe it or not though, the Pirates were in better position to withstand the effort in the rotation. Players like Mitch Keller, JT Brubaker, and real prospects that could step in soon like Miguel Yajure and even Wil Crowe.

The outfield has not been so fortunate, in fact the only significant outfield prospect brought back in any of the flurry of moves was Hudson Head in the Joe Musgrove deal. He’s a terrifically talented player with a ton of upside, but he’s also nowhere near impacting the Major League Club.

So this forced the Pirates to, um, get creative. They tried Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler and now Ka’ai Tom. All three are players who did well, were top prospects at one time and never really got the shot with their club. All three were low risk shots at finding an answer for right now in the outfield.

Now, saying they were forced to go this way clearly isn’t true. They could have easily invested even a little money into the position but the lure of finding a diamond in the rough who could be an answer now and for the next few seasons was more appealing to this office.

Brian Goodwin was a veteran brought in to offer some professionalism, but a poor Spring and lack of options on Fowler and Alford didn’t allow him to be an option.

When the time came to pull the plug on Alford and Fowler, Goodwin still didn’t earn the promotion. Leaving the club with 2 actual outfielders on the club, one being Gregory Polanco so you could make the argument that number is one.

Now, we haven’t seen Ka’ai Tom do anything yet. He could shock us all and really be a piece, but history tells you for every Phillip Evans, who himself is returning to the mean a bit, there are 15 Anthony Alford types.

In other words, while I hope to be pleasantly surprised, I also don’t expect to be. I mean the entire premise of the Back to the Future movie series was essentially about how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle.

So who is close? Well, prospect wise you’re lookin gat Jared Oliva who is now injured and inactive for at least a month. He has talent, but the club wants to see more power, and I don’t mean they want to turn a single hitter into a 4 hole thumper, I mean they just want to help some gap power emerge so he can use his speed more to push the action.

Next up is Travis Swaggerty, former number one pick, super fast, great defender. He’s also never played above High A and just because he would have played AA last season, doesn’t mean he did the work at the alternate site last year. By all accounts he impressed, even had some experts talking about him making the league this season, but let’s be honest, that comes from shear desperation. He needs time and that’s if you believe time will actually develop him, I mean he’s a career .257 hitter in the minors.

The bottom line, the Pirates don’t have a ton of answers in the system for the outfield and even dreams of seeing Oneil Cruz patrolling RF took a hit with his miserable Spring and offseason in general.

This lack of prospect capital is part of the reason the team needed to tear down in the first place, but it certainly isn’t getting better.

We already touched on Polanco, he’s probably playing his last season as a Pirate, and it will leave Bryan Reynolds on an island as the only experienced outfielder on the club.

Couple things here, first, if this club wants to make that window count, I think they have to do all they can to extend Reynolds. The outfield needs stability, and they need someone who isn’t a hope. They need someone who is a safe bet and the way Reynolds plays ball and the consistency of his approach would be a perfect anchor.

Even if you believe Swaggerty will be ready for 2022, which he certainly could be, it takes more than two. At some point either through actual capital investment or potentially even as part of a baseball trade, this team needs to get some outfield depth that’s closer to the bigs.

I could just as easily titled this piece “why they won’t cut Polanco even if you’re sick of him” because all the roster gymnastics I referenced tell you something very important, there isn’t anybody else. Not right now, and not soon. The chance that Polanco will stumble and bumble his way into 15-20 homeruns and likely finish second on the team in that stat coupled with the fact he is literally one of two qualified outfielders on the 26-man roster is the entire story.

Be irritated with him, be irritated with the team if you like, but it won’t change the reality.

Personally, I think the club could have fairly cheaply bolstered this position and given themselves a real shot at finding help for a couple seasons my taking a swing at a David Dahl type or even a Jackie Bradly Jr.

The payroll is low enough that it wouldn’t have hurt anything and they might have just paid a little for that bridge to Swaggerty.

The club has weak spots in the system, its far better than it was just 18 months ago but in some areas literally nothing has been advanced measurably.

Two names to watch, because if they evolve the outfield will have a really nice facelift on the outlook are Cal Mitchell and newly acquired Canaan Smith-Njigba. Again, they aren’t close, but they both have high ceilings and power.

Expect this position to remain an issue until such a time as they decide it’s worth more than a flyer on players who might help. Even if Tom does well, it won’t answer all the questions this team needs to answer as they continue to build.

Happ, Brubaker Shine, Pirates (9-11) Fall 2-0 to Twins in Series Opener

If you love pitching and defense, with a hint of attention seeking umpiring, man, what a game this was for you.

More on the ump show as my good friend Craig put it in a moment, it really doesn’t deserve the headline today. No today JT Brubaker and J.A. Happ deserve the lion’s share of attention.

Out of sheer respect I’ll start with Happ. He was simply dominant. The ump absolutely stretched this no hit bid out a little, but it takes nothing away from the 7.1 innings of absolute dominance. At least the top of the Bucs order hasn’t exactly been dormant as you know either. Kudos on a beautifully pitched game.

Just the same, it was nice to see Jacob Stallings break out of his funk and break up the bid at the same time with a well struck double.

Back to JT, man, what can you say, he got beat, it happens.

Willians Astudillo took him deep on a very high fastball and Jake Cave tagged him too. Aside from that, dominant.

No walks, not even close often really. Five Strikeouts, two when he really needed them. Sprinkled 3 more hits and gave the Pirates 7 strong innings.

The young man is not a fluke and his demeanor and pitch mix are what led me to call for him to be the perceived best starter on the team.

Moral victories don’t count of course, but there was nothing in this start from Brubaker to dislike.

Well played and enjoyable ballgame all in all.

Back at it tomorrow 2:10, Trevor Cahill (0-2), 969 ERA vs Michael Pineda (1-0), 1.00 ERA,

News & Notes

  • Sam Howard struck out the side in the 8th inning to keep it close, he’s becoming a leverage pitcher in this pen.
  • Tough to find a ton of game notes when the club gets one hit. I can’t even say anyone had a horrific approach or was chasing. Happ was just really good, and nobody was able to step up and square anything he threw until Jake said no.
  • Earlier in the day it was reported, that Hayes was evaluated and treated and is feeling better. The team will get eyes on him when they’re back in Pittsburgh. Sounds like it’s not worse or leading to surgery. Jason Mackey seemed to allude to the idea he might have to “grind” through it. I hope that doesn’t mean he won’t be 100% because I’d rather him just get right first. Also could just be conjecture by a seasoned reporter.
  • Gregory Polanco was benched facing a lefty tonight and Wilmer Difo played RF, aside from a bugaboo on a popup that could have been either on Difo or Todd Frazier he seemed to handle the position well, but it’s also not like Brubaker was making it look like a shooting gallery out there.
  • Todd Frazier is 0-7, only one strikeout and he did drill a homerun in just about anywhere but Detroit. I don’t bring this up to point out one player’s shortcomings, I’m wondering how difficult it must be to jump from the Alternate site to facing MLB pitching. If anyone can do it you’d think it would be a seasoned vet. It’s interesting and I hope someone asks him about it at some point.

The Pirates are Winning, Is This Sustainable?

The easy answer would be, no. I’m not going to trust these 19 games any more than I trusted the 60 games last season.

But maybe that’s too hasty. Here we are 19 games in, 9-10, one game under .500. They’ve played the Reds, Cubs Twice, Padres, Brewers and Detroit. Two bad teams, three teams doing pretty well.

The thing I can say so far, they’ve done all this getting nothing from the center field position. They’ve done all this without their star third baseman. The team has gotten very little from their backup catcher. Kevin Newman looks like a different player than he did this Spring.

Up until yesterday, Mitch Keller has been pretty bad, Trevor Cahill has been good, bad, and downright ugly. Chad Kuhl hasn’t really gotten traction yet and now is on the IL.

Point is, when you read through all of that, this story should really be about explaining to all of you why the start we all expected was actually taking place. Instead, it’s a commentary on how they actually might be underachieving a bit.

The single most optimistic thing I can say about what we’re watching is that this club is one game under .500 and not everything has gone right. Not close actually.

The preseason predictions of 50 win doom many were spewing were always ridiculous, they were based on seeing the results of last season and assuming trading players would make them that much worse. Even that gives the benefit of doubt that folks predicting outcomes like that bothered to look beyond the payroll at all.

Colin Moran was, is and will continue to be an upgrade over Josh Bell, even if we only talk defense. The bullpen was a strength on paper going in, now it’s shown itself to be a strength in games. There is no reward for getting into the Pirates pen, well not if you want to keep piling on anyway.

Is this sustainable? Well, considering they will get Ke’Bryan Hayes back at some point and the bullpen is this good with a solid wave yet to even be used at the training site. Thinking about how underwhelming the rotation has been coupled with the options they still have to call on like Miguel Yahure and Wil Crowe or even a Chase DeJong type.

With Bryan Reynolds sliding over to Center while we wait for the next shot in the dark Ka’ai Tom to make his way here, the lineup just got stronger. The Pirates showed all of us, and the team that they’re happy to give guys a chance, but only to a point. What point? Well, if you run into Dustin Fowler or Anthony Alford, ask them.

When Todd Frazier didn’t make the club out of camp because Phillip Evans played well in Spring and has years of control on top of position flexibility. That very flexibility enabled the club to take advantage of the DFAs of both centerfielders to bring up Frazier to help fill in for the extended loss of Hayes.

This front office provided depth.

The easiest way to digest what we’ve seen and how they’re playing is probably that they look professional. The bullpen shortens games, the lineup is pesky, the players hustle not just when it’s called for but equally for the second out in the third and the last in the 9th.

It’s a fun team to watch and yes, they can actually get better. In fact, based on their own stated intent, they SHOULD get better. For instance, if Mitch Keller’s outing yesterday becomes closer to the norm for him 3/5th of the rotation is on point.

Can they get better? Of course they can, they don’t even have a five man rotation as we speak.

This team is a collection of contradictions to conventional wisdom and I for one appreciate watching a team that clearly has no idea how bad they were supposed to be.

It’s 9 wins. It’s a 1 game under .500 record. But considering they started the season 1-6, its also a sign that they aren’t going to fall to pieces when things don’t go right, hell they’re actually thriving through it.

Long season, but they could easily have gone in the bag after that start, after all it’s what everyone seemingly expected of them, instead they rebounded and maybe they aren’t done improving.

Pirates Take The Series In Detroit On A Solid Start From Keller

I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t a little bit excited by the Pirates jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the 1st, however, at that point my mind was pretty much fixated on how Mitch Keller would begin the game. Over his previous three outings he had fluctuated back and forth between bad start, good start and then another bad start; so this had to be a good one right? I wasn’t so sure.

Even so, I had to watch, and was pleasantly surprised as he hit his spots, got reassuring nods from Jacob Stallings and made it through in a quick 1-2-3 inning. In the second he gave up back to back hits, on a double from Niko Goodrum and a triple from the Rule 5 sensation Akil Baddo, to allow the Tigers to pull within one with two outs, but shut the door before they could do anymore damage.

Then in the fifth Keller served up a homer to JaCoby Jones to tie the game, and followed it up immediately with a base hit to Robbie Grossman. In the past these two scenarios were shining examples of when Keller would unravel and let the opposition break the game wide open. In this game he didn’t; by sticking to the plan, trusting his stuff and pounding the bottom of the zone.

Sure Keller, got lucky at times as pitchers often do on some of his hanging sliders and at least one curveball, but he didn’t serve up a bunch of meatballs as Alex Stumpf put it; hopefully with a lot of sarcasm on his part, which is alway hard to read on Twitter.

In the end Keller existed the game, after 5 innings and 80 pitches, without the ability to earn the win. Nevertheless, he did so without allowing a walk and striking out five Detroit batters.

After his exit, the Pirates bullpen did what they have been doing for most of year; shutting down the opposition and giving their team a chance to win the game, or in some cases not allowing it to get out of hand. Over the final four innings Pittsburgh’s relievers didn’t walk a single batter, struck out three and received an unbelievable assist from Phillip Evans in the bottom of the 7th as he prevented Baddoo’s bomb to left from leaving the yard.

With the bats, a few of the Pirates hitters were pretty clutch, including Colin Moran who came through on the go ahead opposite field base knock; immediately followed by a second RBI single from Erik Gonzalez.

To close out the game, the Pirates called on the man without a heartbeat, Richard Rodriguez. He answered with his third save of the season, as Pittsburgh took the third, and final game of the series, 4-2 to pull within one game of .500 (9-10), yet again in this young season.

News and Notes:

  • Adam Frazier has reached base safely in 13 straight games, and has been collecting a lot of hits along the way. Including this contest where he was 3 for 5, Frazier has collected 23 hits on the season, good for a .329/.415/.471 slash line.
  • Another one of the Pirates who has pretty much done nothing but hit is Erik Gonzalez, as he added two RBIs, for a total of four in the series. Sure he is “just a guy”, but as with any other player he deserves to be in the lineup as long as he is “hot”.

  • Richard Rodriguez has a 0.00 ERA in 8 appearances over 8.1 innings; with 8 strikeouts, 1 walk and a .24 WHIP.
  • Prior to the game Todd “The Toddfather” Frazier got the call up, as Dustin Fowler was expectedly DFA’d after starting the year batting .171 with 20 strikeouts in 41 at bats. Frazier, in the DH spot, would end up going 0 for 4 on the day, but he did give one a ride to center, only to be robbed of a hit by JaCoby Jones.
  • In a twist of fate, or as many like to call it “The Pirates Curse”, Ke’Bryan Hayes will likely spend more time on the IL. While taking swings last night, Hayes re-aggravated his wrist injury, and is on his way to Pittsburgh to be re-evaluated.
  • Also Kuhl to the 10 Day IL and Oliva down for 4 weeks. The hits just keep on coming.

The Pirates will continue their road trip tomorrow as they travel to Minnesota to take on the Twins (6-11). For Pittsburgh, JT Brubaker (2-0, 1.76 ERA) will put his foot on the rubber against a familiar face, J.A. Happ (0-0, 3.12 ERA).

Through The Prospect Porthole: Multiple Moves Made Ahead Of Yesterday’s Doubleheader

After beginning the season batting .083 with 16 strikeouts in only 24 at bats, the opening day starting centerfielder Anthony Alford was regularly discussed as a potential DFA candidate; and this morning, prior to the Pirates first game of a doubleheader in Detroit, the seemingly inevitable finally happened. However, this move did not take place in the manner many may have originally thought it would. With Ke’Bryan Hayes due to come off the IL, following the wrist strain he suffered in the second game of the year, it was assumed the DFA of Alford, Dustin Fowler or Wilmer Difo would soon follow; but Ben Cherington obviously didn’t want to wait that long, choosing instead to replace Alford’s spot on the roster with off-season Rule 5 eligible addition, utility infielder, Rodolfo Castro.

For those of you unfamiliar with Castro, he was previously the #26 Prospect on MLB Pipeline and as high as #12 on FanGraphs. Signed on October 30, 2015 from the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old shortstop, Castro smashed 14 homers and collected 29 total extra base hits in the first half of the season in Low A Greensboro in 2019. This resulted in a mid-season promotion to the High A Bradenton Marauders where he struggled at first; slashing 132/.192/.206 in the month of July with only a single home run. Luckily for Castro he quickly adjusted and things did get better, a lot better. For the month of August he hit .299/.346/.443, with 2 homers and 10 extra base hits in only 26 games.

Last season he was a somewhat surprising addition to the Alternate Site in Altoona, where he regularly caught the eye of the Curve Broadcaster, Garett Mansfield, both at the plate and in the field; where he continued to show versatility, which is a trait that Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton have shown that they look for in players. players. More comfortable at second base, he can slide to shortstop and even third base with ease; doing so at every level.

Given the opportunity to participate in Spring Training, Castro hit homers in back to back games from each side of the plate, but struggled at times to earn a meager .138 batting average. As the season began Castro became a regular on the Taxi Squad for away games, eventually getting the aforementioned promotion, and the ultimately the start at third base in the second game of the doubleheader. At first I believed that Castro’s time on the 26-man roster might consist of some pinch hit and late inning defensive substitution work, however, after some thought I realized how smart it was for Shelton and Cherington to get a first hand look at one of the two guys they chose to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. Sooner or later Cherington will be faced with faced with almost identical 40-man roster decisions as the Pirates have at least 13 players of note that will need similar treatment during the upcoming off-season, and he will need to be certain about these moves, as well as his previous ones.

But, there will be more pressing issues concerning the 40-man, and more importantly the 26-man active roster, as the Pirates made a second transaction on the day by picking up outfielder Ka’ai Tom off of waivers from the Oakland Athletics. Selected by the A’s in the first round of the Rule 5 Draft this past December from the Cleveland Indians, Tom had been drafted in the 5th Round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Kentucky. Since this time he had performed fairly well at each level of the Minors; eventually earning All-Star Honors at both AA and AAA in 2019 as he slashed .290/.380/.532 with 23 homers and 60 extra base hits.

After such a successful season it is a little curious that the Indians wouldn’t choose to add him to their 40-man roster to protect him for the Rule 5 Draft. However, with not every team making a selection it is possible they thought he would slip through; which he almost did as the last player selected in the first round, and 16 of 18 in the Major League portion of the draft.

Nevertheless, following a strong Spring Training, where he batted .310 with a .963 OPS and a homer in 29 at bats, he made the opening day roster; only to be DFA’d after hitting .063 in 16 at bats; which brings us up to speed with the current situation, as the Pirates snatched Tom up off waivers before he could be offered back to the Indians. Although, they are now in the same boat that the A’s were as far as keeping him on the 26-man roster; along with fellow Rule 5 Pick Luis Oviedo, and eventually Jose Soriano when he returns from the IL.

So, who is the odd man out, beyond Alford, when Tom is officially added to the 26-man? Not to mention the corresponding move that will accompany Hayes’ reinstatement to the active roster, as both could be made into crucial decisions depending on how Cherington decides to play it. More than likely the easier of the decisions would involve Castro being optioned back to the AAA/Alternate Site to avoid the potential of losing upwards of three players in as many moves when Hayes returns; considering that Alford is already dangling out on the waiver wire, and could be joined by both Dustin Fowler and Wilmer Difo, as all three are out of Minor League Options. However, one of Fowler and Difo could still be be DFA’d without necessarily needing to make room on the 40-man for Tom. Of course there are other players with actual options available, but these would be extremely unlikely to be moved; including Phillip Evans and Kevin Newman, even in spite of Newman’s recent struggles at the plate.

In all actuality the most probable candidate would have to be Fowler as Tom plays in the outfield, same as Fowler; and obviously the .171 batting average with 20 strike outs in a little over 40 at bats. Also, if I am being honest, both Alford and Fowler are somewhat likely to clear waivers and be optioned to AAA if Cherington so chooses. Not that I think it would matter that much to him if they were lost either.

In the end the addition of Tom is another low risk, potential high reward move by Cherington; which has become a pattern for him in these types of acquisitions. Potentially nothing gained, but absolutely nothing lost.