Aramis Ramirez – One Man, Multiple Lessons

How can one man have spent the majority of his career outside of your organization and still be one of the most important figures in its history? I’ve thought about that question a lot recently and I firmly believe those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The trade of Aramis Ramirez to the Chicago Cubs in 2003 is one of those moments worth studying.

First, let me say this isn’t going to be just another sour grapes piece. Bad trades happen all the time and we’ll just get sidetracked if we start going down that road with no context. Instead, let’s look at this by way of the lessons that we, and the Pirates, should have learned from not only the trade of Aramis but his entire career.

Let’s begin by telling his story a bit, Ramirez was a Dominican born player who signed with Pittsburgh at the age of 16, 4 years later he made his debut with the Pirates at third base in 1998. He would struggle to get his footing until 2001 when he really broke out hitting 34 homeruns with an average in the .300 range. His defense was less than ideal to be kind.

WAR
When Aramis retired, he did so with a career WAR around 34. When the Pirates traded the youngster in 2003, he had a cumulative WAR of 1.3. The lesson learned here is that a youngster trying to make their way in the league, perhaps WAR is not the be all end all for determining whether they are a good player or not. Way back when this trade was consummated, WAR was not a thing, at least not the way it is today. I hear the same thing today all the time about players being “worthless” based on their current figure. WAR is a guide, a useful tool to help determine the value of a player, but it isn’t a completed story. A four-year sample is not as powerful as a 10-year sample.

Trade Talent for More Talent
Sound familiar? Josh Bell’s career lines up very nicely with Aramis’ as they both struggled with consistency when they got here, they both had a huge breakout season and defense was the worst part of each of their games.

In 2003 Pittsburgh erupted to the news that Aramis had been traded to the Cubs, and that was following a sub-par season that saw his average drop to .234 with 18 homeruns following his stellar 2001 season that saw him hit .300 with 34 homeruns. So why was Pittsburgh upset? Seems like we should have been saying he was a DH trapped in the NL, or a defensive liability. One thing that hasn’t changed in damn near 20 years, the Pirates didn’t feel they could afford to sign him long term. So, they moved him with two remaining years of control. I could detail who they got back for him, but trust me, no household names in the mix. In fact, I’ll go a step further, if you remember them at all, its because you are bitter about this trade, not because you remember something they did on the field.

Bob Nutting Has Destroyed this Franchise Alone
Well, he hasn’t helped it or turned it around, but he also was not responsible for this event. Everything I wrote in the last entry up there is still happening today, think maybe the system has a little something to do with decisions made here? If anything, I could use Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to illustrate the Pirates trying to avoid this very situation. Signing all three of these players to contracts that ensured they would be here at least a season past arbitration is a direct response to the memory of moving Ramirez too early. Still, the drumbeat of the necessity of moving Bell goes on. I mean, did I mention they even tossed in a salary dump of Kenny Loften to get this deal through?

Time
Once Aramis was traded to the Cubbies, his defense actually got worse. He led the majors in 2003 with 33 errors at the hot corner. Man, if his name was Pedro, they probably would have benched him for Sean Rodriguez. He became a steady third basemen as his career progressed, and spent his entire career in the NL, never becoming a DH. Like any skill, it takes time and patience to develop.

Aramis is not one of the best players to ever swing a bat and he was in no danger of being confused with Pops if he spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. If the franchise could at least learn from his story and avoid repeating the mistakes and mistaken narratives that created many of the decisions made, perhaps Ramirez could yet become one of the Pirates’ most important figures.

Through The Prospect Port Hole: Juan Jerez

After a quick trip back to the states to profile right handed pitching prospect Colin Selby, my attention was drawn back to the Dominican Summer League and the Pirates1 squad. I understand that it is very hard to project the abilities of a 16 or 17 year old kid, but what are you supposed to react when a young man is already exhibiting the traits of a MLB player of the future at such a young age? It is hard not to get excited when this potential is wrapped up inside of raw talent. This is how I felt when I first saw the now 18 year old Juan Jerez with a bat in his hand. As always I temper my expectations because a lot can happen between the DSL and PNC Park, but it is fun to imagine the possibilities.

Juan Jerez was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates for $380,000 as an International Free Agent from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic on July 2, 2018. The 6’ 160 lb infielder went into training for a year before being assigned to the DSL Pirates1 to begin the 2019 season. Many were not sure what to expect from him considering his size and overall build, but once he took the field, he impressed even the most conservative scouts.

Jerez puts on a show at a workout prior to his signing by the Pirates during the 2018 International Bonus Period. https://youtu.be/TRh0s6XBuZ4

Jerez’s first year in professional baseball was an overwhelming success for the the 17 year old, suiting up against players who were almost a year older than him on average. He slashed .272/.324/.469, with 7 home runs and a total of 25 extra base hits. Looking a little bit deeper into the numbers his BABIP was a solid .309, his wOBA was .371 and he posted an above average 114 wRC+. His walk rate of 5.5% leaves a little bit to be desired. However, keeping his Strike Our Rate below 20% (18.9% to be exact) is fairly impressive for a player of his age and experience.

No matter the circumstances Jerez would obviously have been starting back in the DSL to begin the 2020 season. His hit tool and game power still need to be developed further, with the hopes of them meeting their future values of 55 and 45 respectively. His defense could also use a little bit of polishing as he currently projects to be a 2nd Basemen with the potential to play shortstop long term. It could be as many as 4 or 5 years before we see Jerez walking on to the field in Pittsburgh, but as this young man has already shown us, he is full of surprises.

The Draft Provides More Than Talent Infusion

There will be ratings and scouting. Development success and setbacks. Those that can’t get the mental aspect of the professional game and others still who realize they lack the physical tools to make this dream a reality. The story doesn’t end with stardom or bust, there are many who will carve out a niche and success will be measured in a different way.

Some will ascend like Andrew McCutchen, who is still in the midst of his career story. The talent on the field pales only by the person he is off the field. Pittsburgh is not longer where he works, but it has become his home and we’re a better community for it.

The ultimate example of a player rising above everything they did on the field is probably Birthday Boy Steve Blass. He was a champion, yeah, that’s part of the story, but he became possibly the greatest ambassador for Pittsburgh Pirates baseball that ever lived. How many can say they won a World Series here and then went on to call games for parts of 4 decades?

Who knows, maybe in 2043 we’ll be talking about Travis Swaggerty joining the galactic broadcast network (I hear they won’t black out games out of market), the point is you aren’t just drafting a player, you’re drafting someone who will become part of the franchise story.

When you think of it like that it almost makes sense the Kyle Stark put so much emphasis on the non-baseball aspects of growth. OK, I’m done, back to that being silly.

Craig and I have been blessed to talk to and write about a bunch of players in our time covering the Pirates, and you can tell some have that Blass Ambassador gene baked in from the word go. Others prefer to let their game do the talking, and that’s great, there’s room for both and need for both.

Some like Doug Drabek will go on to coach the game, others will become scouts evaluating talent and no doubt calling back to their own experiences to make the process better and more effective.

There is no nice way to say this, some won’t make it, that’s just reality. In fact, most won’t make it. But, bust is a bit strong. Many of the players chosen this season will play a huge role in the development of those picked 15 years from now. A baseball life is non-linear and putting everyone into a pass/fail bucket isn’t seeing the whole picture.

The draft brings hope of renewal and a freshness to the entire system. Last year’s picks become the grizzled veterans (some still struggling to sport facial hair mind you) on the Single A squads that our friend Rob wants so desperately to pare back. They look up to the draft picks from 3 or 4 seasons ago who are just starting to nip at the heels of cracking a major league roster.

One day soon for the first time a kid with cotton candy stains all over their jersey will reach out with excitement and a baseball to beg someone young enough to remember themselves doing the same thing for an autograph. For some, it will be the first of many. Soon their signature will become little more than a scribble, others will come to grips with how rare this opportunity actually is and will sign everything like they’re handing in a thesis at the end of a master’s program.

Baseball is a journey and its different for everyone, for many it begins right here with the draft. The talent will be right there in black and white, but the ability to marry the talent with the want to is where the rubber hits the road.

Good luck to all the 2020 MLB Armature Draft Picks!

The 2020 MLB Amateur Draft: The Pittsburgh Pirates Top 2 Picks

In an agreement between Major League Baseball (aka Rob Manfred) and the MLB Players Association (aka Tony Clark) a compromise was reached concerning the 2020 “June” Amateur Draft. This arrangement allows Manfred to move the draft back to as late as July 20th, to cut the number of rounds from 40 to as little as 5 (this can be increased to 10 at his and the owners discretion) and to set the rounds of the 2021 MLB draft at 20. As I had mentioned in a previous article this lines up perfectly with Rob’s Plan to contract Minor League Baseball, but I digress.

There are some additional consequences of the shorted draft; especially this year. In the past players picked in rounds 6 through 10 were slotted to receive $125,000 to $300,000 signing bonuses. This will be reduced to a maximum of $20,000 for players signed as non-drafted free agents after the first 5 rounds have concluded, if the draft is not eventually extended to 10 rounds. Many college juniors may return for their senior years and high schoolers may hold firm to their college commitments if they fall in this range, whereas both of these groups could have been enticed to enter professional baseball during prior years. However, at least these guys have an option. The group of players that are holding onto the short end of the stick are the college seniors that fall outside the projected top tier levels of talent. They also did not have an full spring season to prove themselves and potentially raise their draft stock.

A freeze was put in place on any MLB transactions as part of the deal, which as it currently stands also has some possible ramifications on the draft process. Due to this stoppage Competitive Balance Picks are not allowed to be traded at this time. I assume this will be lifted if baseball resumes prior to the draft date, but nothing is certain at this point. So as it stands presently the Pittsburgh Pirates will have the #7 and #31 picks in the “first” round of this summer’s draft, which includes Competitive Balance Round A.

These two picks are extremely important to Ben Cherington as they are his first as the Pirates General Manager, along what will be his next steps in acquiring talent to build the system from within. He took his first step by trading Centerfielder Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects Liover Peguero (SS) and Brennan Malone (RHP). Both players were in Arizona’s Top 10 and now slot in at #5 and #7 respectively in the Pirates Top 30 Prospects in MLB Pipeline. So what approach does GMBC take with the first pick at #7? As I see it he has one of three options: 1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor 2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward 3) The Out of the Box. Each of these choices have their benefits, but the one of them sticks out as the best option in my opinion. Of course all of these could change based upon availability due to possible surprise picks ahead of them.

Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington’s first major move was to trade Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two of their Top 10 Prospects.

With the 7th Pick in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates Select…

1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor Pick(s)

Reid Detmers (LHP)-Louisville

Detmers is possibly the most polished and MLB-ready arm in the draft. He has three pitches (a fastball, a nasty curve and a sinking change up) in his repertoire, all of which he can through with above average command and control. His fastball tops out at around 95, his curveball freezes hitters as it swoops into the strike zone at 75 and the curveball is a happy medium. In limited work this spring Detmers allowed only three runs, while striking out 48 and walking six in 22 innings. Did I mention he is a lefty? This isn’t a must, but it is totally a bonus. In my opinion he projects as a 3-4 starter in the rotation for years to come, a plug and play if you will and a true innings eater.

Jared Kelley (RHP)-Refugio (Texas)

Now I understand that college arms may be easier to tempt, but this young man is primed for the big time. At only 18 years old he already has a MLB ready fastball that tops out at 98, an above average changeup that sinks away from hitters and a slurve will take minimal work to perfect. During his junior year in 2019 he posted an 11-0 record with a 0.24 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 65 innings. He clearly has the potential to be the ace of any rotation and could reach PNC Park in less time than many other high school arms. A lot of projections have him reaching the majors before his 21st birthday.

Note: It has been pointed out to me that Kelley probably doesn’t fit in the “low risk” category as a high school pitcher and potentially not even the highest ranked HS hurler in the draft. I guess I just like Jared Kelley a lot, but I can see why I shouldn’t call any HS pitcher low risk; they are higher risk by nature. If picks changed in front of the Pirates, I would put at least two or three players in his place or possibly move Max Meyer up. Meyer only “scares” me because of the potential to become a bullpen arm. I tweeted this concern earlier in the week and maybe not so jokingly got called out by Matt Capps for it.

2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward Pick(s)

Austin Hendrick (OF)-West Allegheny (Pennsylvania)

Call me a homer, I don’t care; this young man has the potential to be a star in the MLB. His raw power is undeniable, his athleticism could possibly play in any of the outfield spots and the upside is higher than most of the other players that could be taken at this spot. The downside is the swing and miss, which has become an issue at times. I feel like adjustments can be made to reduce these concerns, so I would have no issue with the Pirates taking him with their first pick in the draft. Now if you want to say that they should pick a player such as Zac Veen in this spot over Hendrick, you won’t get much argument from me. Just don’t discount him just because he is a local boy and don’t think I am I including him for that reason either.

Nick Bitsko (RHP)-Central Bucks (Pennsylvania)

A late addition to this year’s draft; it wasn’t announced until January that he would be graduating this year, Bitsko is 6’4 and 220 pounds at only 17 years old. He consistently hits 92 to 96 on the gun with his fastball and has a lights out curveball that comes in at around 80 mph. Both pitches consistently flirt with the strike zone and produce a lot of whiffs. Add in a developing change up and this young man has all the makings of a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

3) The Outside The Box Pick(s)

Heston Kjerstad (OF)-Arkansas

Kjerstad was hitting .448/.513/.791 with six homers in 16 games prior to the abrupt stop to the season. Over the past few years he has been among the top performers in the SEC, one of the nation’s toughest conferences. His freshman year he broke the school record for home runs by smashing 14 and hit 17 more as a sophomore. As it is with most power hitters he has the potential to sacrifice average for the swing and miss, but I really don’t see this as a major concern. His only downside is a lack of speed, which more than likely relegates him to the RF position exclusively. However, there are worse fates as I imagine his home run total would makes us as Pirates fans forget all about this.

Note: After discussions with a trusted source (to me) I have come to the realization that this out of the box thinking in choosing a college bat, especially in this spot may only apply to my way of thinking and not GMBC’s. I have been a long time opponent to the Pirates selection of Travis Swaggerty in the 1st Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft, not because I don’t like Swaggerty as a player, but due to the fact that I just haven’t seen the type of production I have come to expect from a top 10 pick.

Patrick Bailey (C)-North Carolina State

Bailey is possibly the best all-around catcher in the draft, as far as defensive ability and offensive potential go. As a switch hitter, he has shown power from both sides of the plate and an uncanny ability to get on base. He has a live arm that will hold runners in check and is above average in framing and blocking. Prior to the remainder of the season being cancelled he was hitting 296/.466/.685 with six homers in 17 games.

With the 31st Pick in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates Select…

1) The Safe/Low Risk/High Floor Pick

Alika Williams (SS)-Arizona State

Sometimes you just look at a young player and say that kid can just flat out play. This is clearly the case with Williams. He attended the prestigious 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 (Trevor Williams), as well as Pirates Prospect Cal Mitchell. Drafted in 2017 he chose to attend ASU instead. In his last full season (2019) he slashed .333/.429/.474 with 4 home runs. He does not have overwhelming power, but he does show patience at the plate resulting in walks above strikeouts. In the field he has above average tools, Arm (55) and Field (55). All of these attributes combined should make him an everyday player in the MLB.

2) The High Risk/Potential High Reward Pick

Masyn Winn (RHP/SS)-Kingwood (Texas)

Winn is a legitimate two way player as far as potential, as well as in practice. He has a fast ball that tops out at 98 and a curveball that sits at around 80, both with above average spin and movement. His athleticism and arm allows him to play a consistent shortstop, which is where many scouts predict he will end up. The bat is his only concern as of right now, but not as far as power is concerned. Winn needs to learn composure at the plate, a skill that can be developed and comes with maturity. He is currently a strong commit to Arkansas. I believe this can be changed with a solid bonus offer and talks of a big league career.

3) The Outside The Box Pick

Blaze Jordan (1B)-DeSoto Central (Mississippi)

POWER! That’s it. That’s the assessment. But in all seriousness, this young man does have ridiculous power. How many people can say they hit a pair of 500 foot homers at the age of 13? My guess is not many and maybe only one. A combination of strength and speed in his swing often results in towering shots and high exit velocity, nearly 107 mph. Currently positioned at third base due to hard work and conditioning, a move to 1st base seems like the most likely landing spot for Jordan. At only 17 years old he still has room to grow, which is unbelievable seeing as he already supports a 6’2” 220 lb frame. It might be a little bit of a pipe dream or a shot in the dark, but I would love to see what he could bring to the table in a Pirates uniform.

Obviously I am not in the room with GMBC, Kevan Graves, Steve Sanders and the rest of the crew so I can’t know exactly what they are thinking. However, I have almost as much access as their scouts do right now, at least as far as videos go and just like them I have seen these guys play for years. Also as anyone knows, the draft is a little bit of a crap shoot, but super fun to speculate about anyway. Even though it is not a regular year there are still some assessments and predictions that can be made. With that being said, let me hear yours! (Or just tell me mine are awesome!)

Ten Players Pirates Fans Hate Themselves for Loving

I suppose this list starts with a requirement. You almost have to be more than a Pirates fan, you have to be a baseball fan as well. Its easier to think you’re ready than to actually out loud admit it sometimes. Many Penguins fans have learned they don’t secretly have a soft spot for Alex Ovechkin alone. Here We Go!

  1. Eddie Murray – OK, it makes it a bit easier to admit since the Buccos won against his Baltimore Orioles in 1979. But Eddie was one Bad Man. He hit for power and average, played slick defense and did it from both sides of the plate. He probably stuck around a bit too long and some folks around my age may not remember him when he was EDDIE.
  2. Gary Carter – Arguably the best catcher of his era both defensively and offensively, Gary started his career with Montreal, but where I learned to love him was during the 1988-89 seasons when he was with the Mets. The Pirates were approaching contention and the Mets were the main obstacle, admitting you liked watching Carter do his thing was not a popular opinion.
  3. Daryl Strawberry – Same reason as Carter really. Strawberry had just about the smoothest swing I’d ever seen at the time, plus he guest starred on the Simpsons (back when it was good). You wanted to see the Pirates win, but if Daryl hit one out in the process, that was ok.
  4. Barry Larkin – From 1986 to 2004 Barry held down Short Stop for the Reds. That alone is enough reason for a Pirates fan to dislike the guy. I loved watching the guy play, he was an incredible fielder and well, a career .295 hitter kinda says it all. He spanned multiple eras of baseball and finished his entire career in one place.
  5. Anthony Rizzo – Rizzo conflicts me. I hate the way he hangs over the plate and kills the strike zone, when I really think about it though, and if I’m honest, I hat the umps for letting it happen. Anthony is steady, strong and plays a great first base too. boy it pains me to like any Cubs but God help me he’s a great player to watch.
  6. Chipper Jones – Quite possibly the best Third Baseman of my lifetime. He crushed everyone from both sides of the plate and I’m pretty sure he hustled even on vacations with his family. Nobody stuck the knife in and twisted quite like the Atlanta Braves, but Chipper was special.
  7. Christian Yelich – OK, you’re right he hasn’t been around as long as these other entries, but how often can you witness visible torque in a swing? I mean you can see everything coil and fire through the zone. He has power but somehow makes it look effortless. I love watching the guy hit.
  8. Matt Carpenter – He kills the Pirates. He kills alot of teams. I love his swing and his seemingly endless versatility, is there a position the Cards haven’t played him at? Think about it, they need a first basemen, Matt can take it. Need a power hitter, Matt will just start swinging for homeruns more. Can’t find anyone to hit leadoff, Matt will just adjust and take more walks, maybe even show some steal ability. You’re lying if you say you wouldn’t love him on your club.
  9. Charlie Blackmon – Maybe its the beard, he wore it before it was cool you know. Surely there have been better Rockies players, hell even right now Story and Arenado are better, but Blackmon always caught my eye. He’s fast, hits for power and can admirably play any outfield position. Hits lefties and righties. Just a fun player to watch.
  10. Gerrit Cole – I simply loved watching him pitch in Houston. Doesn’t matter if you believe he was held back here or just found his game and put it all together in Houston, the man was just close to impossible to hit. Wish it would have been in Pittsburgh, but I can’t hold it against him.

So who did I miss? Only picking ten was a challenge but these are some of my very favorites. Share your memories! It makes it so much more fun than just adding to the list.

Friday Focus – All Draft Systems are Not Created Equal

Of all major North American sports, baseball has probably the hardest to swallow draft system. Who is this guy? When will he make it to the majors? What position will he play? These are all questions that most fans have when they see who their MLB club picked.

Sure, you have your Bryce Harper, or Ken Griffey Jr that crop up every so often and that’s good for the game in many ways. It also causes the casual fan to wonder why there aren’t more of them. When stacked up against the other leagues, it’s easy to see MLB has the least focused on and furthermore, least understood of all draft systems. Let’s look at the others and work our way back to MLB.

NFL
The NFL has seven rounds of their draft and by the end of it, most interested fans will have heard of half of them at least. College football’s popularity helps this situation tremendously. Fans are already familiar with at least the highlight reel that some of these players have banked.

Now, it is not a guarantee that you’ve arrived being drafted. Being selected in the first 3 or 4 rounds will get you a better than average chance of sticking with the club. 5 through 7 and you must outplay a veteran or perhaps were deemed a “project” in the first place and the practice squad is your best bet.

Teams can trade any and all draft picks with impunity, creating extra buzz in some markets that may get upwards of 7 out of the top 60 players selected. When you only play 11 men on a field at a time you can see how quickly that could make an impact.

There is no lottery to choose draft slots and this has become an issue in other sports, where tanking, essentially voluntarily stinking out loud for a season, to get the top pick dinged the integrity of the game. Football has largely avoided this because one player on a 53-man roster is hardly enough to turn the fortunes of an entire franchise around. See Cleveland.

NBA
The NBA benefits from the popularity of the college game too. In fact, the tournament that we sadly missed this March makes household names out of many who won’t even make the lottery. The NBA has had to address the tanking issue, and in 1985 instituted the draft lottery. Every team that misses the playoffs has a chance of “winning” the right to make the number one selection overall. Some years that means more than others, but it almost always means a franchise level talent coming into the system.

Here in Pittsburgh, of course we don’t have an NBA franchise so surely this audience will have a bit less interest in how this one functions, but nationally it is easily number 2.

Players drafted in either of the total of two rounds have an excellent chance of playing for the franchise that selected them. The NBA also has a pick trading system that is a bit different, you may trade future draft picks but may not do it in consecutive years.

If you are selected, making the club is pretty likely, starting not so much. The Lottery picks are the “sure fire” picks.

NHL
The NHL is probably as close to MLB’s cousin as you’ll find. This is mostly due to the fact that most players selected will either join a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to further develop or an equivalent in Europe. They could also potentially be sent to one of the organization’s minor league system teams, and some could even remain in college. Again, as with MLB there are of course your Conner McDavid and Sidney Crosby level players, but most won’t immediately jump into the league.

The NHL does have an interesting twist on this though, rookie players can play a number of games, essentially a trial period with the NHL club. If that threshold is met, they must stay. This exact scenario played out with Marc Andre Fleury back in the day. As ever the NHL strives to be the most complicated organization in the world, many of the arcane rules are  constructed simply to protect the Canadian Junior Hockey system, see when the draft changed from 20 to 18 many feared players going to the AHL for development, so the NHL decided you had to be 20 to play there, hence keeping the QMJHL relevant.

Now, being drafted in the first round is no guarantee in hockey, there are significant hurdles to jump and teams swing and miss all the time. The developmental nature of the NHL draft has much the same effect as MLB for this very reason.

MLB
I told you we’d get back here. MLB’s draft will of course be altered this season but most of that won’t matter for this discussion.

A typical MLB draft consists of each club having an opportunity to select up to 40 players in 40 rounds. On top of that there are supplemental picks based on losing type A and type B free agents. This is intended to help the “small market” clubs to feel less compelled to trade players on expiring contracts. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked on the level they hoped.

NCAA baseball has seen a bit of an uptick in interest over the past half-decade but nowhere near the level of basketball or football, so MLB does not benefit from the name recognition of those sports. More than anything though, knowing the percentage of these players selected that will actually impact the team you love is daunting to get past. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed most as I read my partner Craig’s Prospect Port Hole columns is how frequently players are moved around the diamond, some on and off the mound. I’m not sure why this took me off guard to be honest, if you think back most of us who played baseball at any level remember the “best” athletes pitched and played at least one other position. Think about it, the only position on the field where having a great arm isn’t mission critical is first base, maybe second base? So, it stands to reason most would have pitched at some point.

It also means when your favorite team picks that top ranked Short Stop, perhaps we are out in front of our skis a bit when we lose our minds that we don’t need another middle infielder.

Another hitch in MLB’s giddy up is the selection of pitchers. It’s easy to get excited about the draft of that corn-fed Iowa boy who hits 100 on the gun and struck out 215 in his Senior year of High School, but what if he ends up being a back end of the bullpen arm? Many people feel that is a waste of a top pick, but there is upside. First, their progression through the ranks stands to be far faster than a starter, and second, there will likely not be much coaching to drop velocity in order to increase the number of innings that can be tossed. At the end of the day, you need those guys too and drafting players who will make the league is not easy, maybe that is enough.

There are some who will put mock drafts together for MLB and I know for a fact one of them works here. Just remember, this draft is a different animal. The Pirates can’t say, “hey, we need catchers, let’s make sure we get one in the first round” because there may very well be no catchers there. Think back and remember Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher, obviously he did not remain in that position.

As a general philosophy, when you are drafting players that might not push to make the height of the sport for 5 or 6 years, it’s wise to pick best players regardless of position.

Rob Manfred wants badly to have MLB create TV content that goes beyond playing games, and that wish predated the COVID-19 crisis. The draft would seem to be low hanging fruit. Perhaps they could look to create a show that follows the perceived top 50 picks in the draft to build some anticipation or name recognition out there.

I didn’t even touch on the fact that none of this takes international players into account, and that accounts for a whole lot of the players that make it to the league. It probably makes the odds even steeper for those taken in the draft.

A common phrase for years around here has been build through the draft. It’s a whole lot easier in other sports to do that and this all plays into the difficulty of being one of the teams that can’t afford to fill holes with money.

Five Pirates Thoughts at Five

I love doing these five thought pieces for the site. First of all, you have all been so wonderful with responses and those answers have led to full on columns more than once. It wasn’t intended as such but this has in many ways become a virtual pitch meeting! Here We Go!

  1. So, everyone wants live sports badly. I know more than a few people, one of which I may or may not see in the mirror everyday, who have taken to watching Marble Races. Who has watched a Chinese Professional Baseball game? Broadcasting in English as we speak. Maybe I’m not desperate enough yet, but I’m teetering.
  2. A tradition of charity has been a big part of the legacy the Pittsburgh Pirates have created. Roberto Clemente literally giving his life in the pursuit of humanitarianism is a guiding light that the franchise has followed ever since. What has been your favorite charitable contribution you’ve seen from the Bucs over this event? I’d probably have to say the pizza for the health care workers, or the blood drive led by Burdi.
  3. I’ve seen quite a bit of people posting themselves playing Wiffleball with their kids. First, I’m glad to see people playing it again but it got me thinking. Did anyone ever like using any bat that wasn’t the “banana bat”? That long yellow non-tapered joy that allowed you to crush a Wiffleball into next week? Did anyone else add weight to the bat with Duct tape? Who threw a wicked curve? Ghost runners? I think Joey Cora still looks like he’s using them sometimes.
  4. Dr. Fauci saying sports could start up under circumstances is nothing to really write home about. I mean if he said absolutely not and the president agrees and so do the governors, ok that would be a big deal. This changes nothing really and I just can’t find an angle to make myself believe it does.
  5. I understand the folks who want to see Dave Parker’s number retired in Pittsburgh, but I guess I have a more strict way of looking at it. To me, I don’t think anyone has been worthy since Stargell. I guess my criteria is something like this, played most of their career here, won it all, here, and at least have an argument for making the hall. Can you think of anyone outside of Parker who you’d even consider? Maybe Drabek? Also, Clemente should be retired league-wide.

Through The Prospect Port Hole: Colin Selby

For a Major League Baseball team to be successful in each years June Amateur Draft they not only have to “hit” on the early draft picks, but also do deep dives to discover hidden gems as you move past the top 5 to 10 rounds. Sometimes these searches take you to places that have only produced a handful of players drafted in the past 50 years. In 2018 this was the case for Pittsburgh Pirates as they identified a potential diamond in the rough from a small liberal arts college in Ashland, Virginia.

Colin Selby was drafted in the 16th Round of the MLB June Amateur Draft from Randolph–Macon College. This 6’1” 210 pound right handed pitcher had spent his college years at a Division III school, but had caught the eye of some MLB scouts due to his command/control; limiting base runners at a well above average rate, while striking out 126 batters in only 97 innings of work. Immediately after being picked by the Pirates he was assigned to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie Level Affiliate) of the Appalachian League. Having already pitched more innings than he had in the previous two years combined Selby struggled to a degree in his 11 starts for Bristol that year; ending the season with a 4.50 ERA, a 1.238 WHIP and 41 K’s in 47.2 innings pitched.

Selby starts his professional career with the Bristol Pirates in the summer of 2018.

In spite of a less than optimal start to his professional career, Selby had shown more than enough to earn a promotion to the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affiliate) of the South Atlantic League to begin the 2019 season. Surrounded by a talented group of starting pitchers including Pittsburgh Pirates #17 Prospect, Steven Jennings, Noe Toribio and Brad Case, along with others; Selby established himself as one of the more consistent pitchers in the rotation. Also taking into account a stint on the IL for the majority of August, his numbers are all the more impressive to me. In 88 innings pitched the young hurler produced a 1.114 WHIP and a 2.97 ERA. He also increased his K/9 to 8.8.

Had the MiLB season started on its normal track this spring, Selby would have more than likely found himself in a Bradenton Marauders uniform along side the aforementioned Case, #21 Pirates Prospect Max Kranick and #27 Pirates Prospect Aaron Shortridge in the starting rotation. With a mid-90’s fastball, two solid secondary pitches in his slider and changeup and good command of all three he should continue to build upon his K/9 and maintain a consistent WHIP. This sets him up to be a strong back of the rotation starter for the Pirates in the near future, with an ETA at PNC Park of 2023.

Passing It On: The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

If I randomly polled Pittsburgh Pirates fans in my general age group as to the pinnacle of their fandom, the vast majority of them would more than likely recall the magical night of the Pirates Wild Card/“Blackout” Game versus the Reds on October 1, 2013. Believe me that is definitely up there and I can’t really disagree with anyone that would give this as their because fandom is a very personal journey, but for me there were a few moments during the previous year that hold a more special place in heart and are forever etched in my memory.

During the 2011 season the Pirates gave fans more hope than they had experienced in years. Up until back to back heartbreaking losses in Atlanta in late July, they were in middle of playoff hunt and in a dead heat with the Brewers and the Cardinals for the Division Title. After an epic second half collapse they finished 18 games under .500 and 24 games out of 1st Place. However, they brought life back into the city and had many of us looking forward to what would come next. I for one couldn’t wait and neither could my soon to be 5 year old daughter Grace, who had become the constant by my side as we watched game after game together.

As the 2012 season began the Pirates got off to a slow start, which just extended the disappointment felt by many at the end of the preceding year. As the season progressed they fought and clawed their way to a 25-25 record through the first 50 games. During the weekend prior to this my Mom and Dad gave me an early Birthday/Father’s Day present of 4 tickets to the Pirates game on Sunday June 10th, which would be the first one I would attend that season.

It was an extremely hot afternoon (88 Degrees) when the game began; luckily we had seats in 316 section with the Press Box blocking out the sun the majority of the time. Gracie had the number 22 for McCutchen on the back of her shirt, a last minute purchase at the local Kmart; immediately cementing him as her favorite player for life. Much to her delight, and mine, McCutchen put the Pirates on the board with a double in the bottom of the 1st; bringing in Alex Presley. He then blasted a home run to left field, with Neil Walker standing on 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd. Gracie kept on telling me that she hit a home run because she matched McCutchen. We spent the rest of the game talking about the rules of baseball, why the fielders shifted on certain at bats and why Neil Walker was my favorite player, not Andrew McCutchen. As the game ended the Pirates held on for a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals and moved into a tie for 1st place in the process.

My daughter, Gracie, at the Pirates game in her Andrew McCutchen Shersey.

The next game that we would attend that season was a fairly monumental one for my family as four generations, from my 84 year old Grandma Caramellino to my 13 month old son Carter, went to the game together for the first time ever. As the Pirates hosted the Miami Marlins, my family and I packed into PNC Park to see our team win its third game in a row and to 12 games over .500. As the game went on Carter began to get fussy and my Grandma was starting to get tired, so slowly we began to trickle out to our cars. Gracie and I held on to the final out because she wanted to see the celebration fireworks and wanted to make sure the Pirates held on for the win. This time it was my favorite player, Walker, that played the role of hero with the go ahead home run in the bottom of the 5th.

(Top): My Sister, Dana with my Son, Carter.
(Bottom): Gracie with my Dad, Bill. Bill is sporting the Homestead Grays hat, which was discussed during a previous article.

As summer went on Pirates fever reached its peak. Walking through the streets in Koppel, PA, I could hear the sounds of the game coming out of radios from people’s porches and through open windows as the volume was turned up a little too loud. Sitting down at the bar inside Buster’s Place or McDowell’s Inn, patrons were actually paying attention as the Pirates played, rather than treating it as background noise. On July 31st we were all locked to the television screen as A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th against the Cubs, which is the closest I have come to watching a no-no from start to finish in my life, either on tv or in person. Me and my friend who were were watching the game together did speak a word from at least the 5th inning on. After the game I called my Grandma Caramellino and the first thing she said to me was how much she couldn’t stand Pedro Alvarez for not being patient at the plate. She was a big fan of Billy Beane as you can imagine.

The rest of the season is somewhat of a blur of win streaks and longer losing streaks (7 games at the beginning of September). That year the Pirates had three players with over 25 homer runs (McCutchen 31, Alvarez 30 and Garrett “G.I.” Jones), three pitchers with over 10 Wins (Burnett 16, James McDonald 12 and Kevin Correia 12) and a team ERA of 3.86. Unfortunately they dropped below .500 for the 20th Season in a row after being as many as 16 games over on August 6th, finishing 4 games under and 18 games out of 1st Place. It was disheartening to say the least.

Of the many letdowns that occurred during the 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were also so many bright spots; especially considering my own personal fandom journey as a life long supporter of the Pirates, who was now passing along my passion to my daughter, Gracie. Over the previous year and even more so during the 2012 season as she became my side-kick in watching every pitch and discussing the intricacies that exist in each and every game. That summer she fell love with baseball just as I had when I was right around her age. 2012 was also one of last years I was able to have meaningful conversations with my Grandma Caramellino about the game she had introduced me to and that had been a part of building the unbreakable bond between us.

My Mom and my Grandma Caramellino at the last game we attended together on July 3, 2013, a 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Playing the Odds – Why the Pirates and Other Small Market Teams Usually learn the House Always Wins

Over the last couple days, I’ve been writing about ways the shortened and/or cancelled season may affect the Pirates and effect some decisions they will have to make moving forward.

Today I’d like to talk about the elephant that is always in the room for Pittsburgh, yup, today we’re going to talk about the feasibility of actually building through the draft and creating a window where winning is not only possible but expected.

It’s daunting to say the least. In order for any of this to work there is a series of things that must be done well. Additionally, they have to be done in the right order.

To illustrate this properly, let’s start with what was to be this season’s club, You’re 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates. We are going to break this team apart by doing all the things that a small market club must do to compete in this league. Ben Cherrington has already stated his intention is to build on this team’s core. I can make a case for this being wrong a whole lot more easily than defend it as plausible. For the sake of this examination, let’s go forward with what has been publicly put forward as the intention.

  1. Identify Your Strengths – OK, 2021 is the target, right Ben? Jameson Taillon should be back, immediately you should be filled with questions about how he returns, will he stay healthy, is he ultimately a number one? Assuming you believe he is Jamo has two more years of arbitration, hitting free agency in 2023. If the plan is truly for the Bucs to compete in 2021 and beyond, locking in your ‘ace’ is probably a smart idea.
    It’s a gamble to be sure, but the level of talent he brings to the table is not readily available. He also has had two reconstructive elbow surgeries. All of this adds up to a potential bargain of an extension. Well, we locked that down. Bryan Reynolds is obviously a good one, although we have not seen him do it as a sophomore which can get scary. What about Kevin Newman? Great rookie campaign but the numbers don’t make it seem sustainable. Is he your short stop moving forward or is it Tucker or even Cruz? Someone needs chosen, maybe Newman is your Second baseman that’s fair I suppose. Either way, if you aren’t going to sign Frazier, probably need to move him.
    I personally feel Josh Bell is a must for an extension, especially with the DH most likely coming to the NL. I also see this as wholly unlikely, so trade him, but do realize you are creating a hole, one that the Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled to fill for quite some time.
    I guess you’d have to say Hayes is the future at Third Base. We’ll see, but part of this process is betting on youngsters, Mitch Keller is very much in that class.
  2. Identify Your Weaknesses – Here we go, I’m sure I could write 20 pages and not cover everything people want mentioned but I’ll try it anyhow by going vague. Pitching I mentioned just above is about two deep. I don’t expect Trevor Williams to be here as part of the solution and Joe Musgrove is a swing player. I like him personally as a 3-5 starter but he won’t come free. If the Pirates think he is indeed part of the core, at this point it will take more money to ensure he is here.  There is an overwhelming lack of power on the MLB club and less in the minors than people care to believe. That has to come from somewhere.

Before I continue, let’s just take a little side trip. Money is always going to be an obstacle and it’s not just because Bob is a greedy owner. See in those first two points I already identified roughly 20-25 million additional that would need to be added to ensure we KEEP some players around. Note, we haven’t added a damn thing yet. All we’ve done at this point is try to identify our core, and if Ben is to be believed, we certainly have one here already. So as of right now we look something like this for a core, right or wrong.

SP – Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove, Maybe Chad Kuhl
RP – Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana, Maybe Blake Cederlind
1B – ?? (Again, I’d keep Bell or at least try but Craig might be the answer)
2B – Kevin Newman
SS – Cruz or Tucker
3B – Hayes, I guess although I question his power output
LF – Bryan Reynolds
CF – ??
RF – Polanco can’t be part of the core unless you extend him beyond 2023, otherwise he is a seat warmer for the heir apparent
C – Jacob Stallings, first, he’s better than many think, and second, who the hell else could it be?

  • Identify Who is the Next Wave – This one is where the gambling really starts, I’ve already taken a flyer on Hayes and Cruz so those two are pretty obvious. I guess Craig is next up for first base. Pitchers we are looking at Brubaker and a plethora of others of which you can expect a roster worth to at least contribute.
    See, this is where this all starts unravelling, the Pirates have a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the Starters who are here to the starters who can reasonably be expected to be part of the next core as they are in Single A at the moment. Relievers, I actually believe they will be ok there. Middle infield will be pushed for some time and there are some speedy talented outfielders that could shock us all and accelerate their progression.

Again, we have to break out here, see the Pirates have a decent farm system, problem is, most of the really high-end talent is at least two and more likely three years away. That might help the next core but not reinforce this one. Quinn Priester isn’t going to come up in 2022 and be ready to make Joe Musgrove expendable in other words.

  • Draft Well – Easier said than done. Teams not named the Pirates swing and miss on this regularly. Certainly, they can improve over what Neal Huntington did in his time but how much? After all, as easy a target as he makes the man did build a gaping wide-open window from 2013 through 2015.
  • Develop Well – Same exact paragraph as the last. Points four and five are like saying a sniper needs to be able to fire a weapon, of course these things need handled and well.

I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know in some form or another. I put it all together because even this simplistic representation is nothing compared to the actual luck and timing that has to play out in order to build a winning club. It get’s even harder when you building in preconceived ideas of where you are currently. Get that wrong and you could go off on a detour for years to come.

Say you believe in that rotation up there and invest in it as such, well you better be right because if Jamo has another surgery no amount of comeback videos and no matter how great of an attitude he has will make him what the Pirates need him to be. Same with Keller, to assume he will develop into the front-end pitcher the Pirates need to develop to compete is not easy to accomplish. I mean some guys with stuff like that get shipped off to Tampa for a veteran sometimes.

The bottom line is that building a team like this takes planning, luck, execution and money. People often point out that the Dodgers are mostly built with homegrown talent, and they’re of course correct, but they can afford to make sure Cody Bellinger will be in Blue for as long as they need him to be. Josh Bell is not the player that Cody is to be kind but keeping him is all but a pipe dream for Pittsburgh. Its one thing to say your club is homegrown, its another entirely to try to win with a club that is almost 100% homegrown AND have them all come up together, peak together, stay healthy and have the depth to backfill for those you can’t keep.

The economics of baseball have made that scenario a reality for so many clubs, some more than others. Look at a team like San Diego, here they are spending money to get Hosmer and Machado, they’ve got an exciting young group of players, but what are they missing? Pitching, top end pitching and while they certainly outspend the Pirates by a country mile, they still can’t afford to go get that one thing they need most. They are one of the “have nots” in sheeps clothing if you will.

Colorado has had offensive talent for decades, some of the best in the league, no pitching. While the Dodgers have honestly drafted and developed their fair share of pitching, they have also been capable of bringing in Greinke, or Price, or Hill, or well, anyone they want or think they need.

That’s where the money really does make the playing field more uneven than a basement floor in Western PA. Everyone makes mistakes, some can buy their way out of it to finish painting the picture they want to see. The Pirates are not in that class, and unless things change, that rough road map up there is the future.

Blame Bob, its easy and at least partially true. Bob’s a rich guy, if he wanted to, he could certainly do what San Diego has, but it would not make winning a championship more realistic.

Winning is possible in every market in the league, just know it also takes a good five year stretch of almost no mistakes and a little luck.

In the end, the house usually wins, but the big boys want you to look at the Kansas City Royals holding up that big check, so you keep playing the game.

When the CBA is negotiated this time, maybe its time to even the odds a bit.