MLB Suspension of Play Has Shined A Light on a Long-Buried Issue – MiLB Pay

Many Americans are facing harsh realities brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, obviously, or it wouldn’t be a big deal. This column is not intended to single out MiLB players as the only people suffering or to indicate they have it worse than any one group. But this is an issue that has really caught my attention this season and it started before this virus came to our shores.

Earlier in the Spring some stories started coming out about MiLB players receiving no pay while attending MLB Spring Training camps. I’ve since come to realize not only is this an old story but it’s been covered well by Emily Waldon from the Athletic. Do give it a read if you have a subscription, its really eye opening.

The average salary for most MiLB players sits around 12,500 dollars a year. The lowest level players will earn somewhere in the 300 dollars a week range. A travesty that MLB lobbied the US Congress to keep in place. Providing a living wage to these players was seen as “Killing our Pastime” by MLB and their lobbyists.

The new issue is beyond even that. See now players won’t be paid at all while play is suspended. Sure, this is equal treatment as MLB players will also not be paid, but MLB players have the added benefit of having been paid at least half a million at some point. MiLB players on the other hand are still under contract so they can’t file for unemployment. Nobody will hire them because they can be called back to work at any time. The players are expected to stay in game shape even while practice facilities are closing all around them.

For every player that receives a multi-million dollar signing bonus, there are 200 who received a multi-thousand-dollar offer, long since spent perusing their dream and providing their own equipment. It’s enough to make you wonder why any players would sign out of high school outside of the first round, if you’re going to be dirt poor, might as well get an education in the process, know what I mean?

Many of these players rely on host families and the generosity of the communities they play in to get by. On a recent trip to Altoona I saw this firsthand, many restaurants have signs in front of the building notifying Curve players they eat free or at a nice discount. In lower levels there are literally networks of locals who offer free room and board to help.

This game is an incredible money-making juggernaut, and the riches gained by those who make it are at the very least well earned. What about those who don’t make it though, how do they fare? The answer is fairly obvious. And right now, it’s simply unconscionable to expect them to just be ok.

We see these players as the finished product they become when the reach the Majors and we cavalierly question the work ethic of 75% of the players who make it. At the very least, think of the journey they’ve taken and what they’ve given up getting that one call up. One chance to get an MLB paycheck even if for one game and how life changing that chance could be.

This issue isn’t going to go away, and I want to use my admitted small platform to highlight it. Most seasons, Spring training ends and attention turns immediately to the MLB club, the special circumstances of this season have created an opportunity to keep the focus on the suffering the league is actively working to keep in perpetuity.

Please keep these players in mind, we aren’t the only one’s suffering without baseball.

Who’s Got The Tools?

Each prospect gets a grade for their “tools” and the Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 are no different.

Anyone that has ever studied MLB prospects, even for a second, sees the tool grades front and center. It gives you a snapshot of skills that each player possesses; a guideline to judge them by if you will. Some are elite, some are not so great and all are based on human judgements/assessments, but at least it gives you an idea of how each player stacks up compared to “average”. For project junkies like myself, this will be a nice little recap or refresher, but for any newbies this will be crucial information when examining the intricacies of prospect rankings and player evaluations.

So where did the grading system for prospects come from? The credit as far as history sees it goes to Branch Rickey and for all intents and purposes the general idea is there; an average grade of 50 and standard deviations in increments of 10, with 80 being the highest/best and 20 being the lowest/worst. As it pertains to position players there are “five tools” that are graded; 1) Hitting 2) Power 3) Running 4) Fielding 5) Throwing/Arm. A player is then given an overall grade; a projection for the player’s potential future value. With Pitchers there can be less (or more) than five “tools” graded due to the number of different pitches that one throws. The tools and/or pitches generally graded are, 1) Fastball 2) Changeup 3) Best Breaking Ball 4) Command/Control. As with the hitters, pitchers are also given a overall grade, which utilizes all of the pitches they throw along with their command/control to assist the scout in making a final decision.

All prospects at all levels are graded to some degree and as it is with most of my prospect articles, this could turn into an novel, instead of a simple and compact column if I chose to tackle all of them. For the purpose of this article I have decided to only focus on the Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects according to MLB Pipeline; looking at each individual tool and discussing the top of the class for each, starting with Pitchers and moving on to top position players. Unfortunately the Pirates do not have any Catchers in their Top 30 at the moment, so that is going to have to be its own article at some point.

Pitchers

1) Fastball-#28 Blake Cederlind (70)

For anyone that has seen Cederlind pitch, which should be almost of you by now, it is apparent that his fastball is electric. A two seamer with sinking action, it has already fooled many a major league hitter. He was recently optioned to the AAA Indianapolis Indians, much to the disappointment of the “Baby Thor” Fan Club. Not to worry though, I expect his flowing locks, his fastball and his K-strut back up in the majors sooner rather than later.

2) Changeup-5 Tied (50)

The good news is that 5 pitchers and all 4 in the top 10 have at least an average changeup. This includes #1 Mitch Keller , #4 Quinn Priester, #7 Brennan Malone, #10 Cody Bolton and #26 Travis MacGregor. It is also pretty nice that there are only two pitchers (#13 Tahnaj Thomas and #28 Blake Cederlind) who have a grade of 40, the lowest of any Pirates’ Pitching Prospect. For Thomas it is a newer pitcher and one that he doesn’t use as much. Cederlind uses his primarily as an “off pitch” to keep batters on their toes. Some bad news is that Stephen Strasburg change up that has batters guessing, swinging, missing and freezing.

3) Curveball-#4 Quinn Priester (60)

Priester’s curveball is no joke and just so everyone remembers, this kid taught himself how to pitch. With the combination of spin rate, movement and drop in speed (low-80’s) this secondary pitch projects to miss a lot of bats. Esp when paired with a low-90’s two-seamer and a rising four-seamer that tops out at 97 mph. This young man had the possibility to be something special.

4) Slider-#7 Brennan Malone (60)

Acquired as part of the Starling Marte trade with Arizona, this young man was ranked just one spot behind new teammate, Priester, at #19 in the MLB Pipeline Draft Prospect Rankings prior time them both being drafted in the 1st Round last year at #18 and #33 respectively. It should be noted that his slider (60) has a lower grade than his fastball (65), but still has the “stuff” to get the swing and miss from many opposing batters.

5) Control-3 Tied (55)

#17 Steven Jennings, #21 Max Kranick and # 27 Aaron Shortridge have all exhibited the ability to be fluid and repetitive in their deliveries; leading to precision with each pitch and every pitch type. Jenning’s is far from flashy, with the slider (55) being his only above average pitch. However, he doesn’t throw anything graded below a 50; the vision of consistency. Kranick has show the ability to pepper the strike zone with regularity, reducing the chance for giving up walks. His fastball is now rated above average at 55 due to an increase in velocity, reaching 97 mph at times. Shortridge uses changes in his delivery to mask pitches without compromising command and control; a very difficult task that he completes with easy. He has made improvements to his fastball (55) and slider (50) by dropping his curveball in order to provide clearer focus on these two pitches.

6) Overall-#1 Mitch Keller (55)

It’s not really surprising that the Pirates’ Top Prospect has the highest overall grade of all the pitchers on the list. He has shown the potential; just look at the 12.19 K/9 and a 3.19 FIP. These statistics give us hope for the 2020 season and beyond. However, then you see the .475 BABIP and 7.13 ERA and that hope begins to sink. It’s hard to tell what direction this young man is going to go after small sample size. 48 innings does not make or break a career. I lean much closer to the former numbers and the 55 future value being a better representation of Keller and what we can expect from him moving forward.

Position Players

1) Hit-#2 Ke’Bryan Hayes (60)

For the most part Hayes has shown his ability to put the bat on the ball; plain and simple. Last year in AAA-Indianapolis was the first time in the past three seasons that he has struggled to hit consistently. This could easily be explained away as the result of an injury early on in the year. He started off fairly strong, had two months where he struggled and then finished on a high note. The .291 AVG and 7 homers in July and August seems to be more indicative of the type of hitter that Hayes is, rather than the .207 AVG and 3 homers that accumulated the rest of the season.

2) Run-Ji-Hwan Bae (70)

This guy is lighting quick. There’s no arguing that. This past season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Bae swiped 31 bases, legged out 5 triples and turned quite a few singles into doubles with his aggressive approach on the base paths. Add in the fact that his On Base Percentage was .403 for the season and you have the making of a legit lead off hitter for years to come.

3) Field-Ke’Bryan Hayes (65)

Hayes has won the MiLB Gold Glove at 3rd base three years in a row. He is the best fielding 3rd basemen in the minors and is in the conversation for the best overall defender in the league. His glove can play at the MLB level immediately. For a club looking to upgrade from one of the worst defensive teams in the majors last year, Hayes’ presence at the hot corner would be a shot in the arm to move in a positive direction.

4) Power-Oneil Cruz and Mason Martin (60)

Cruz is a batting practice monster. When he is in the box/cage players, fans and coaches alike are in awe of the sheer strength that this young man possesses. We have even seen this power on display thus far in spring training games. When he gets a hold of a ball, it is gone in an instant and even when he doesn’t, it ends up being an opposite field double over the left fielders head. He has experienced some difficulties with the off speed pitches, but not enough to effect his bottom line production.

Martin’s power was on display across two levels (Low A and High A Advanced) this past season. In 82 games with the Greensboro Grasshoppers Martin crushed 23 home runs and 45 total extra base hits, with a .935 OPS; earning a mid-season promotion to the Bradenton Marauders. With the Marauders his strength was in the forefront again. He hit 12 homers and 26 extra base hits, with a .862 OPS in 49 games. A true power hitter, Martin sometimes sacrifices his OBP and AVG for strikeouts and thus far it has worked out for him to the tune of a 160 wRC+.

5) Arm-Oneil Cruz (70)

When it comes to arm strength, not many in any team’s Top 30 prospect lists comes close to touching Cruz. Currently a short stop, it has probably been his arm that had prevented the Pirates from making a position change as of yet. I have seen many people online and heard them on podcasts speak about moving Cruz to 1st base because of his size. I can’t even think about “hiding” a arm like that at 1st. Right field has been laid out as a possibility. This makes a little more sense, but I lean toward keeping him in the position he is comfortable with and has played his entire professional career.

6) Overall-Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz (55)

As it was Mitch Keller, it is really no surprise that Hayes and Cruz lead all Pirates’ Prospects in overall projected future value for position players. As we discovered earlier in this article Hayes also leads in Hit (60) and Field (65) and is now far behind as it pertains to Run (55), Power (50) and Arm (60). He is clearly the closest thing the Pirates have to a “five tool” player. Cruz is the co-leader in Power (60) and leader in Arm (70). He has an average grade (50) in Hit and Field and is has above average Speed (55), which is not surprising as he can probably round the bases in 10 strides or less. Both of these young men have very high ceilings and high floors. This makes it an almost certainty that they will be contributing members in a Pirates’ uniform for years to come.

The Pittsburgh Pirates may not have a Top 10 Farm System as it stands right now, they are currently ranked #15 by MLB Pipeline. However, as you can clearly see, there is talent in the minors and a variety of players with fairly high potential; along with a few that have ceilings, where the sky is the limit.

Friday Focus – Pittsburgh Pirates Questions Brought About by the Postponement of the Season

As I wrote yesterday the events of the day are far larger than the Pittsburgh Pirates or Sports in general, but this is a Pirates site, and for this installment of Friday Focus, we’re going to spend some time talking about the questions that are now on the table for the Buccos alone rather than the endless possibilities the league as a whole will encounter.

First up is Derek Holland, specifically what will his role be now that the beginning of the season will be delayed. This should provide ample time for Steven Brault to recover as he is already making progress. So, is Holland valuable if he is a bullpen arm? Does that even make sense? Bad timing for everyone of course, but nobody more so than the Dutch Oven perhaps. On the other hand, he’s arguably outperformed some more established members of the Pirates rotation.

Next, if there were talks ongoing for extensions and or trades, do they come to a full stop or could there still be news on those fronts as we head into the hiatus? I had a lot of questions here already, but I’m inclined to believe player movement, a.k.a. trades won’t happen, at least not prior to an announced return date. Extensions could very well be accomplished but with uncertainty about how much money each team is going to lose in this whole deal, these too could be out of commission.

What happens to the Super 2 clock? Say baseball starts up in May, does Ke’Bryan Hayes now have to wait until July or August? Can of worms here for sure and I have no idea how they’ll handle it.

How do you keep pitchers stretched out or for that matter, continue the process of stretching them out? Joe Musgrove spoke to this a bit during the broadcast yesterday a bit when interviewing with Robbie over at ATT Sportsnet. To paraphrase, he doesn’t really know either, but he’ll just keep working out.

The hitters may actually be more of a concern, it typically takes two weeks for the bats to catch up to the arms as it is, now they’ll have to start that process again.

Baseball is a long season and I’m sure all options are on the table, so I’d imagine playing a shortened season is at least in consideration. If you think of all the shucking and jiving that shaving say 30 games would cause it starts to become pretty clear how long this could go to actually still have a season at all. Couple this with the CBA being up and baseball could be gone for quite some time.

We have a professional sports entity here that is older than some countries, it’s going to survive, what it looks like when it returns remains to be seen. Blessings baseball fans, this too shall pass.

Suspended Animation – What Does a World Without Sport Look Like?

Today the sports world completed a clean sweep as the NHL was the last domino to fall. Every major American sports entity has decided to postpone, delay or outright cancel all games.

First of all, let me say this, I don’t plan to take a stand on whether this is an overreaction, appropriate, forward thinking or too late. I simply want to discuss how unprecedented this is in modern times, and, I don’t know.

We now go from discussing who got cut and where they were assigned to wondering if the season will happen. If it does, do they shorten? How do the pitchers finish stretching out? If they just pick up and start the regular season, is it proof the Spring schedule is too long as it is? These are things we’ll talk about as darkness falls over the sporting world and indeed our daily lives.

I’m not here to tell you sports is more important than everyone’s health but man, this is gonna be awfully weird. I watch a ton of these Alaskan survivalist shows, especially when traveling for work and the way they follow the seasons and signs of change to guide their lives resonates with me. No, not because I could do any of that, hell I need a resin block to start a fire in my chimney. Because sports does that very thing for so many of us.

Starting with the Super Bowl, then College Basketball, NBA and NHL are really getting going. Spring Training, Stanley Cup and into the dog days of summer where its all baseball, right into NFL Mini camp and the World Series, College football kickoff and the NFL opening weekend.

They’re as part of our lives as sleeping and working, and if you disagree, you probably haven’t stayed up on a Wednesday night to watch the Bucs in San Francisco for a 10:20 first pitch and gotten up for work at 6 Thursday morning.

Our country thrives on sports and if nothing else, maybe we’ll all realize what we’re missing should this stretch on for a considerable amount of time.

As more clarity is provided to this situation I have every belief we as a people will rebound fully and things will creep back toward normal, but for now our games are gone but unlike some of our fellow citizens, the game will return.

Take care everyone, and more importantly, take care of each other.

Through The Prospect Porthole: The 2019 DSL Pirates2

With MLB Pipeline releasing their Top 30 Prospects last week , some people got their first glimpse into the “channel” from the Dominican Republic that the Pittsburgh Pirates have been trying to create over many years. Two members from the 2019 Dominican Summer League Pirates2 team that was so dominant found their way onto the list, landing at #24 (Alexander Mojica-3B) and #25 (Rodolfo Nolasco-OF) respectfully. However, these are not the only players to look out for from a team that posted a 56-16 record for the season; winning the Northeast Division by a full 21 games. I have previously described this team as completely “stacked” on recent episode of Bucs in The Basement while talking with guest, Gary Morgan and as we take a deeper dive into the team as a whole I am sure you will all agree. 

 

For the season neither Mojica (.351) nor Nolasco (.302) led the DSL Pirates2 in batting average, although they were two of ten regulars that hit over .300 for the year. That honor went to outfielder, Randy Romero who batted an unbelievable .376  in a team leading 218 at bats. So, not a small sample size. In his second full season in the DSL, 19 year-old Romero also collected 19 extra base hits, a .418 OBP (on base percentage) and 36 stolen bases; only being caught on the base paths once. Mojica did lead the team in home runs (8), doubles (14), walks (37), OBP (.468) and SLG (.580); which is probably the reason he was the highest ranked player from this team on the new MLB Pipeline list. 

 

Some other notable players on the offensive side of the game would have to be the Catcher Trio of 17 year-old Geovanny Planchart (.368/.433/.406), 19 year-old Jommer Hernandez (.317/.406/.423) and 18 year-old Fabian Urbina (.296/.397/.426); as well as Short Stop Dariel Lopez (.341/.404/.485), OutfielderJauri Custodio (.324/.358/.448) and Second Basemen Rayber Romero (.314/.438/.400). With all of this offensive output, many of you maybe thinking that the DSL Pirates2 just “out-slugged” every team they played. After you look at the slew of Pitcher for this team, it might just change your mind. 

 

The DSL Pirates2 had 6 pitchers that combined for almost 60% of the team’s 56 wins, led by the 19 year-old lefty reliever from Panama, Jose Amaya. Pitching in 18 games and 39.1 innings Amaya was able to accumulate 10 wins, along with 35 strikeoutsand a 2.97 ERA. Second on the team in wins with 9 was 19year-old right handed starter Sergio Umana from Nicaragua. Umana had a 59K/8BB ratio and a 2.39 ERA in 13 games and 64 innings. One of the most dominant pitchers on the team that was not apart of that 60% was right-handed reliever/“closer”Enmanuel Mejia from the Dominican Republic. In 20.2 innings and 18 games Mejia struck out 37 and recorded a team high 7 saves, while posting a 1.74 ERA and a .823 WHIP. 

 

Unfortunately for the DSL Pirates2 their regular season dominance did not lead to a championship as they were knocked out of the playoffs in the semifinals by the DSL Diamondbacks2 in two games. The DSL Diamondbacks2 would go on to lose to the DSL Royals1 in a full 5 game Championship Series. Now as most of us know, Minor League Championships are a nice bonus, but they are not the ultimate factor in determining success. Success is found by measuring individual development and growth, which is often hard to quantify using just one years worth of statistics. This is something that will have to be re-evaluated over and over again as each of these players move upward through the Pirates Farm System. For some this journey will continue with another year in the DSL, mostly dependent on age and experience; while others will move on to the GCLPirates, the Bristol Pirates, the West Virginia Black Bears, the Greensboro Grasshoppers or maybe even the Bradenton Marauders. Wherever each of these young men end up, the 2019 DSL season will be in the back of my mind, but my main focus will be on the future. 

 

Recent Pirates News Leaves Me with More Questions Than Answers – Help Me Out

I’ve been reading news about the Pirates cuts and assignments they resulted in. Reports about who the team has approached for extensions. Trade rumors and silly ideas that Neil Walker is headed back to Pittsburgh.

I’m filled with more questions than answers if I’m honest on many of these subjects, maybe you have answers, but I’ll take a crack first. I’d love your take, comments are open. Refer to the number in your answer, I’ll take the best and add them into a fresh column.

  1. Colin Moran?
    My Answer
    – He is all but gone. A dance partner away from a trade. And it’s not really about performance as much as some news. First, Ke’Bryan Hayes has capitalized on his opportunity, and it’s not only given him a competitive shot at outright winning the job as starting third basemen for your Pittsburgh Pirates, it brought rumors of an extension being offered. If I’m Colin Moran, I’m looking at my lease papers and seeing the writing on the wall. If the extension get’s done, Hayes starts opening day. Doesn’t and he goes down until Super 2 has come to pass. Either way Moran isn’t in the long-term plans. What say you?
  2. Why is Oneil Cruz still playing Shortstop?
    My Answer
    – Honestly? I don’t know. I don’t doubt his ability there, sure the frame is odd to see out there but he’s smooth for his size and the arm certainly plays. No, my question is not his ability, it’s why approach Kevin Newman for an extension if you think long term Cruz will play the position? Is Tucker less than solid to be part of the plans? Why is Adam Frazier still here? Put Cruz at say third or right field, ok, I get that, this is just hard to think about. Any clue?
  3. Why did the Pirates sign Jerrod Dyson?
    My Answer – Odd singing to say the least. Heredia and Martin provide more and the likelihood of both making the club isn’t huge. It took away an excuse for the JT Riddle signing as well, you could make a case for the signing if he can back up Center in an emergency and a middle infield spot, otherwise, where does he fit really? Dyson is on the downside of a relatively low hill to begin with, and he didn’t seem thrilled to be here either at first. Am I wrong?
  4. What in the world are they doing with Cole Tucker?
    My Answer – Here is the best fielding shortstop on the club, a switch hitter, some pop with energy to spare, and I can’t find a way to see him getting playing time. Who is he going to beat out? Clearly the team thinks Newman is long term, do they see him long term at second then? Are we an Adam Frazier move from this situation making sense? Erik Gonzalez is still around too (he was hurt you might have forgotten), by God Jose Osuna is too! Plenty of people to play third.
  5. Why Joe Musgrove for an extension?
    My Answer – OK I’m cheating here a bit, I’ve already written why I like Joe for an extension in another column. But I’ll elaborate and reiterate here a bit. He isn’t the best pitcher they have, nor the worst, but he shows signs of being fairly durable, and before telling me he is hurt a lot, take a look at how many starting pitchers threw as many games as him last season. 31 starts are above average in that category for sure. He’s a leader, anchor type and perfect for a constant face in the rotation, even if lower half of it.

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.