Monday, April 22, 2013

In Praise of the Pirates Bullpen Construction

General Manager Neal Huntington has always been skilled at one thing: putting together a bullpen. Usually, that means picking free agents up off of the scrap heap and squeezing every last ounce of talent out of them. This year, he took a different approach. He re-signed Jason Grilli, traded incumbent closer Joel Hanrahan in a deal that brought back former closer Mark Melancon and acquired some long-men in Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro, who also double as rotation depth.

So far, so good. No, really good. Pirates relievers are second in majors with a 1.89 ERA. This is particularly impressive as they've had to pitch a lot of innings to pick up the Pirates starters, who currently rank 11th in the NL in ERA. Grilli is 7-for-7 in save opportunities. Melancon has given up only 1 run in 11 innings with no walks and 10 strikeouts working as the eighth-inning set-up man. The back end of the bullpen looks just like Huntington hoped when he dreamed it up. But, it takes more than two relievers to fill out a bullpen.

For the first time in his tenure as manager, Clint Hurdle has two reliable lefties at his disposal out of the pen. Rookie Justin Wilson joins Tony Watson to create dream match-ups for their skipper. Neither is a LOOGY, though. Both of these guys can go multiple innings if need-be and can get both righties and lefties out.

The true brilliance of Huntington's plan, though, comes in the form of the easily-forgotten long men: Gomez and Mazzaro. Remember that starting pitcher ERA problem? After A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, the starting pitching has been a mess. James McDonald, Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez have been hit-or-miss...mostly miss. This has led to some awfully short outings out of the rotation.

That's where Gomez and Mazzaro come in. Having two reliable long-men in the pen (guys who can have a lot of success going once through the opposing team's lineup) is a huge asset to this club. It allows Hurdle to have an early hook with his starters and prevents games from getting out of hand early. In Sunday's victory over the Braves, for example, starter Jonathan Sanchez managed to slog through three ugly innings. He gave up two runs on four hits and three walks, somehow lowering his ERA to 11.12. Out came the hook and in came Gomez, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings. He was followed by Wilson, Hughes and Watson, whose scoreless work set up Grilli's seventh save in as many opportunities.

This is a recipe for success. Obviously, the starters need to start pulling their weight or the pen will get overworked (indeed Melancon has already been pitching more innings than you'd like to see). Still, the bullpen construction continues to be a strength for the Huntington-led Pirates and this one may be his best yet. The next time Hurdle makes a call down to the "Shark Tank" (as they lovingly call themselves), you can bet they'll be up to the challenge.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shouldn't there be accountability?

I'm hoping this post is a day too late. The Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs today to snap a seven-game losing streak and help preserve their playoff hopes and their chances of breaking a streak of 19-straight losing seasons. But the game was a microcosm of the last two seasons: build up a lead and let it steadily slip away. Luckily, Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan was able to stop the bleeding by striking out Dave Sappelt with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. That does not obscure the fact, however, that the Pirates have been on an historically bad downward slide that is made worse by a similar precipitous free-fall a year ago.

If things continue to go poorly, someone needs to be held accountable. I like Clint Hurdles enthusiasm and his endless reserves of positive energy, but his in-game decision-making has been questionable at best. His Spring Training mantra that hung on the lips of every player who survived last season's implosion seems to have fallen on deaf ears. These Pirates have not yet learned how to "Finish". At some point, management has to notice.

Speaking of management, Neal Huntington's record continues to be spotty. I loved his plan of re-stocking the farm system through trades and being aggressive in the draft, but his ability to judge talent has come into question. Just look at his free agent signings: Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard, Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Bobby Crosby, Ramon Vazquez and so on. At some point you have to say he has vision, but not execution.

This year's trade deadline, too, was baffling to many observers. The Pirates had a real chance in a weakened NL Central to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. Their deadline acquisitions, though, were underwhelming and looked toward the future, not the present. Sure, guys like Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez are likely upgrades over Alex Presley and Casey McGehee, but not considerably. Huntington liked their talent and thought they could be had at a modest acquisition cost and (most importantly to him) they were under team control for many years. Look, I get it. The economics of baseball are tough. But at some point you have to put your foot down, forget about next year, and start investing in right now. When the Pirates were playing well earlier this summer, average attendance was up over 2,500 a night. The Pirates have also announced a ticket increase next year after many years stagnancy. That's fine, but then you've got to remember that the priority is the team on the field in the major leagues each day. Otherwise, you can keep saying "next year" until that's the year after McCutchen's contract expires, or more likely, the year after Huntington is dismissed.

Maybe this team was playing over their heads for four months. That was certainly the case last year. But last year's team didn't have A.J. Burnett or Wandy Rodriguez or a mashing Pedro Alvarez. It can't always be the same excuse. I know they're trying. I know they haven't given up, but many fans are. There needs to be some accountability here, even if it's painful. Too much is at stake for the city, the fans, the team. I hope I'm wrong about all of this. I hope there's enough time to go on a run and be competitive in the playoff race down to the last series. I hope they do break their streak of 19 losing seasons. I just hope that if those things don't happen, someone stands up and tells us why.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Are the Pirates done?

Stick a fork in them. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment after another loss to the Reds last night extended the Pirates losing streak to five straight. ESPN even displayed an eerie graphic that highlighted the Pirates struggles of late. It showed how the Pirates fared in the 20 games following their 19-inning marathons in both 2011 and 2012. Staring back at us from the screen were identical 5-15 records. Deja vu indeed.

That's only part of the story, though. Sure, the Pirates have been struggling since the All-Star break and the comparisons to last year are undeniable. I highlighted some of the similarities last month. Still, there are differences that could indicate that the Pirates are not quite done. That 19-inning fiasco happened weeks earlier last year and the result was so devastating, the Pirates never regained their footing. This year, the Pirates won that game, but were forced to take a late flight to the west coast and battle a surging San Diego Padres team that swept them. This was at the end of a brutal stretch of 20 straight games without an off-day. "Clay Pigeon-Gate" aside, it was going to take some time for the team to recover from essentially playing 21 games in 20 days.

The team's offense has been woeful of late, but part of that can be attributed to the loss of Neil Walker. This team is ill-equipped to go without one of their key offensive cogs for any stretch of time. The rotation has also been healthier than last year at this time, but getting Jeff Karstens back on the mound will go a long way toward maintaining some consistency. Most importantly, the team is only 2.5 games back of the final NL Wild Card spot. That should help the team maintain focus and composure, as opposed to last year when their slide took them out of the playoff hunt almost immediately.

Despite the uncanny similarities between last fall and this one, this team still has time to turn it around. They are close enough to the playoffs (and ending their stretch of 19-straight losing seasons) that a brief spate of wins followed by steady play might do the trick. I'm certainly not as optimistic about achieving either goal as I was a month ago, but I do see this team as different from last year's and I do think they have enough veterans on this team to dig their feet into the dirt and change the momentum. The team can take a big step in that direction tonight in Cincinnati with their ace A.J. Burnett on the mound.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Can Pirates fans do more to help?

There's been a lot of criticism lately by members of the Pittsburgh media regarding attendance at Pirates games. With the Pirates in the thick of the playoff hunt in September for the first time in 20 years, it's easy to see why certain members of the media would be concerned about the somewhat lackluster attendance at PNC Park in recent weeks. TV viewership is up, though, and weekend attendance has been strong.

I experienced the latter this past weekend when I attended the Cubs-Pirates contest Saturday night. The announced attendance exceeded 32,000 and the place was packed with folks of all ages. Here's the catch: it was fireworks night. For those who don't know, Pittsburghers love fireworks. They will go to great lengths to see them. The Pirates have frequently sold out their fireworks nights, even when the team was well out of playoff contention and in the midst of their epic streak of losing seasons.

So, to some degree, it could be considered a mild surprise that the game wasn't totally sold out. Furthermore, the size of the crowd is not the only determining factor when considering fan support. How many of those folks were there to see the fireworks? How many came as part of a bachelor party? How many came because they literally couldn't think of anything else to do? I do understand that those groups comprise parts of many fan bases, but in this case it seemed like they made up the majority of those in attendance. There was a moment late in the game that painfully illustrated this for me.

It was the top of the 8th inning with two on and two outs. The game was tied. Pirates reliever Jason Grilli was on the mound. You may remember that I recently wrote about Grilli being the linchpin in the Pirates bullpen. His season has, in many ways, been historically great. In what was a critical moment, in an important game, in the middle of a playoff race, the fans at PNC Park figured it was an appropriate time to start the wave. Now, I'm not just talking about a few distracted kids. I'm talking about 25,000+ "fans" enthusiastically standing and whooping for about eight straight minutes; meanwhile on the field, their best reliever was trying to concentrate on ending the inning and getting the team to their at-bats with the game still tied. Now, I'm not trying to say people can't do the wave, but there is a time and a place for it and this was not it.

Grilli began fidgeting on the mound and stepped off the rubber several times as he tried to maintain composure. The wave would come around to behind home plate just about every time Grilli was set to pitch. And it kept going. And going. Grilli promptly gave up a single which drove in what turned out to be the game-winning run. Now, the "fans" stopped doing the wave and began booing loudly. Whether they were booing the umpire who called the runner safe on a somewhat close play at home or were booing their erstwhile hero Jason Grilli, I cannot be sure. But it felt wrong. All of it.

Now, Grilli is a professional. He's been in the league a long time and should be able to block out distractions; but in this case, why should he have to? After all, these are his home fans. The batter didn't have to worry so much about it. He had a nice backdrop of the batter's eye in center. But Grilli had it all around him and in front of him. And the fans didn't get it. I actually think some of them were booing not about the ump or about Grilli giving up the hit, but rather booing the fact that their epic wave had died. There was one fan sitting behind me who kept shouting about how exciting the wave was and would yell at his neighbors to join in, castigating those who refused. It was disheartening. The Pirates were 1.5 games out of their first potential playoff spot since I was 12 years old. It was a tie game. A loss would mean handing the series to the lowly Cubs and giving them the chance at an eventual series sweep. And the majority of the 32,000+ at PNC Park were fixated not on the batter, nor the struggling pitcher, nor the potential winning run dancing off of second base. No, they were caught up in the wave. I'm sure they enjoyed the fireworks.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

When will we see Gerrit Cole in Pittsburgh?

Tomorrow night, Gerrit Cole will take the mound for the Indianapolis Indians in the AAA playoffs. It will be his second start at AAA after breezing through stops in Bradenton and Altoona. It's pretty clear that the Pirates number one prospect is on the rise and his arrival in Pittsburgh is not far off. So, when should we expect to see Gerrit Cole in a Pirates uniform?

Well, the answer is sometime next year, though it's unclear when. The Pirates probably felt he would be ready by the middle of next season, which would be ideal financially as he would be able to avoid Super-Two arbitration status. But Cole's meteoric rise this year had some in the organization wondering whether or not he should be considered for a call-up this season to help the Pirates down the stretch. That's highly unlikely to happen, but it does make one wonder whether or not he'll be given a legitimate shot to make the team out of spring training.

He's certainly got the stuff to compete at the highest level right now. He's got an upper-90s fastball that holds its velocity deep into his starts a la Justin Verlander. In the Arizona Fall League, he topped out at 102 MPH. He has a plus slider and changeup and has been developing a 2-seam fastball as well.

His stuff has translated well to the field, too. In 13 games with High-A Bradenton, he had a 2.69 ERA, a 9.27 K/9 rate and a 2.82 BB/9 rate. That prompted the Pirates to promote him to AA Altoona where he didn't seem to be bothered by the competition change. In 12 starts there, he posted a 2.90 ERA, a 9.15 K/9 rate and a 3.51 BB/9 rate. His great stuff and remarkable consistency led to a promotion to AAA Indy in advance of their playoffs. His debut was a success with Cole getting the win while giving up three runs in 6.0 innings, walking one and striking out seven.

Next season, the Pirates have A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez under contract. James McDonald will be first-time arbitration eligible and will be tendered a contract. After that, the rotation gets a bit fuzzy. Jeff Karstens will be in his third year of arbitration and the Bucs are likely to tender him a contract, but he'll be due for a hefty raise over the $3.1 million he makes this year, so the Pirates could also consider him a non-tender candidate. Charlie Morton should be back to full health, but will the Pirates want to invest another $2.5 million on a guy who's been erratic and is coming off of a major injury?

That leaves two potential rotation spots up for grabs. Besides Karstens and Morton, there are a ton of AAA pitchers who will get a long look: Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson and Chris Leroux. The Pirates may also want to pursue a starter on the free-agent market. I would not count out Cole, though. Eventually, Baseball America's sixth-ranked midseason prospect will get a shot and unlike so many other young pitchers, he'll probably be up to stay. None of those guys above, including Karstens, will block Cole. When Cole is ready, the future ace will be up. After what we've seen this year, that time is coming sooner rather than later.

Should Brock Holt be in the lineup every day?

When Starling Marte made his debut earlier this year, we discovered two things about relying on rookies at the top of the lineup:

1) They can provide a boost of energy and excitement


2) There will be growing pains.

So, given that, does Brock Holt provide this Pirates team with the best chance to win at the top of the lineup? I'll argue the answer is yes.

In a must-win statement game against the Houston Astros (the same Houston Astros who beat the listless Pirates the previous day to extend their losing streak to 4), Brock Holt was the star of the show. Sure, Andrew McCutchen re-took the batting title lead with a four-hit night of his own, but it was the young Holt's four hits that captured the collective imagination of Pirates nation. After weeks of suffering through lineups headed by the likes of Jose Tabata and Alex Presley, this Holt-led offense was humming.

It's no surprise really. Despite a rough outing on Monday, Holt has been rolling all year long. Holt cruised through AA this season posting a .322/.389/.432 line for Altoona; but, that wasn't good enough for the breakout star. Upon his promotion to AAA, he became even hotter...way hotter. In 24 games with Indianapolis, Holt elevated his game to a new level posting an incredible line of .432/.476/.537. Not bad for a guy without much power. He had hitting streaks of 5 games and 10 games in only 24 AAA starts. No one in the organization has been hotter of late.

And that's why he's gotta be playing every day. The team has been struggling to find consistency on offense and Holt may just be the spark plug that this group needs. With Holt setting the table for McCutchen (who's been coming around) and Alvarez (recently named NL Player of the Week), this offense has a real chance to win games for them. Also, when they can get an early lead, it seems to settle the starting pitchers down a bit. Look at Wandy Rodriguez's last two starts as exhibits A and B.

Now, Holt is not well-equipped to play shortstop. He's passable there at best. Until Neil Walker is healthy and in the lineup every day, Holt should be at second base. Every. Day. When Walker is healthy, Holt needs to get some starts at short. Barmes is a nice defensive shortstop, but even with these little spurts of life in his bat, he's a liability at the plate. Use Barmes on days when you've got a pitch-to-contact guy on the mound or as a defensive replacement. We're starting to see that at first base, where Garrett Jones gets the bulk of the at-bats, but Gaby Sanchez often spells him in the latter innings to provide better defense. One thing is for certain, as long as Holt is hitting, he's a must-start. He hustles, he gets on base, he makes good things happen. That kind of all-in attitude, that kind of passionate play is infectious. And the best part about it is he plays under control. You'll see him have much better at-bats than Barmes or even the aforementioned Starling Marte. We all know that Marte has more upside and is the more likely player to become a fixture in future Pirates lineups, but right now, Holt is the guy I want at the top of the lineup as the Pirates fight for their playoff lives.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Did the Pirates get their "postseason" roster right?

Today was the deadline for teams to add players to their 25-man roster in order for them to be eligible for the playoffs. Obviously, guys on the DL don't count, so there's some leeway here, but basically, what you see is what you get. So, the question is, did the Pirates get it right?

Today the Pirates added Kyle McPherson to their bullpen and Alex Presley to their outfield mix. In corresponding moves, Chase d'Arnaud was optioned to High-A Bradenton and Jeff Clement was outrighted there after clearing waivers. This means Clement was removed from the 40-man roster and would have to be added again before being recalled. The Pirates now have two open spots on their 40-man roster. Sending them to A-ball allows them to be recalled as early as Monday (rather than wait the usual 10 days) since Bradenton's season ends on Sunday.

Early indications were that Jeff Locke would also join the team this weekend as a starter once rosters expanded on September 1. Presumably, others would follow: Justin Wilson, Eric Fryer, etc. So, given what we know, how did the Pirates do? I think the general consensus is OK. Adding Presley makes sense as Jose Tabata is a giant question mark and more still needs to be seen from Starling Marte to be sure he's worth a playoff roster spot. Two of those three will likely be on the roster if the Pirates secure a playoff spot.

The McPherson move is solid, but a little puzzling. McPherson had a scoreless appearance in his first taste of the big-leagues earlier this month. He's a guy that could pitch either out of the bullpen or as a starter down the stretch. He's got nice swing-and-miss stuff and eventually profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Frankly, I'd rather have seen that spot go to Justin Wilson. Presumably, the Pirates feel that they're OK with lefties in the pen now that they've claimed Hinsanori Takahashi off of waivers, but Wilson profiles as a potential late-inning guy with a hard fastball and electric movement. Command has been an issue in the past, but he's looked sharp this year and also had a nice scoreless stint in the majors, striking out the side against the Padres. The other obvious choice would have been Bryan Morris. Folks have been clamoring for his call-up for ages now and he's another hard-throwing bullpen guy who could fill the void left by Brad Lincoln. In other words, a guy who could go multiple innings when needed or come in to put out a fire. He's an excellent strikeout guy and would have been a nice weapon come playoff time.

The other move I would have considered is adding Jeff Locke to the rotation now so he'd be eligible for the playoffs. Teams don't always need a fifth starter come playoff time, but he could also be used out of the pen. He had a couple scoreless appearances out of the pen in the majors earlier this year. I would have advocated dumping Kevin Correia in favor of Locke. Locke's a better pitcher right now and has plenty more upside. He probably profiles as a number four starter in the future. I doubt it will happen, but I'm still holding out hope that the Pirates make this move after they take on the Brewers tonight.

Overall, the Pirates improved their potential playoff roster with their moves today. I think Clement and d'Arnaud were smart call-ups at the time, but neither one of those guys belongs on a playoff roster, even taking into account d'Arnaud's ability as a baserunner. Presley gives the Pirates another outfield option and McPherson could be a nice addition to the pen. I just wish more consideration would have been given to guys like Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris who may actually profile as relievers long-term and who have electric stuff. Correia has kept the team in games this year, but he's nearing the end of his usefulness, especially with so many better potential options still sitting at AAA. Regardless, the focus now needs to turn away from roster construction and on to getting ready for a dogfight for one of the few available playoff spots.