Monday, March 31, 2014

Pirates Game 1 Recap - Pirates 1, Cubs 0 (10 inn.)

This is somewhat late and won't have much substance to it because, well, it's late and I am tired and I just wanted to make sure to touch on a few things from the game today. It was actually a pretty awesome game and I was lucky enough to be able to go to my first opening day in about six years so taking in everything was really what I did for much of the day.

The pregame ceremony was pretty awesome. You can tell the crowd was geeked up for it. Jim Leyland got a huge roar from the crowd as he was the first to be announced before giving Clint Hurdle his NL Manager of the Year award. Jack Wilson was decked out in a suit and was bald as ever before awarding Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez with their Silver Slugger awards but the real test came after. Dick Groat got a huge ovation and he was followed by Barry Bonds. I wasn't really sure how this was going to go. In my opinion a big majority of people don't much care for Bonds for various reasons and while that is either right or wrong on opening day people like to drink a little more than usual so I was bracing for a 30/70 split in terms of cheers/boos. I was pleasantly surprised as I thought it was about 50/50 and was a much more warm reception than I was anticipating. I thought overall the awards stuff was great. The Pirates did a great job putting videos together for them and it was a really nice way to award those guys for great years last year. I got chills the entire time.

As for the game itself it was actually a pretty good game. There wasn't a lot of offense but it was a great pitchers dual between Francisco Liriano and Jeff Samardzija. Liriano actually came out of the gate pretty slow but bounced back and threw six good innings while striking out 10 and walking three. He pitched out of some jams and was probably a little better than most expected today. Samardzija was really outstanding. He went seven innings and threw only 89 pitches. He kept the Pirates off balance and even when they did have some guys on base he was able to get out of it. He has always pitched well against the Pirates and today was no different. Luckily Liriano was good on the other side.

The obvious big play in the game was the Neil Walker walk-off but I think what really won the Pirates the game today was the bullpen. They threw four perfect innings thanks to Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Bryan Morris and despite a few bumps you never really felt like the Cubs had much of a chance. All told the bullpen gave up two hits and walked one in the four innings of work and you really can't ask for much more than that. I thought it was good to see that Grilli was getting his fastball back up into the mid-90s after we heard that he wasn't throwing overly hard in spring training so I am glad to see he is back with the velocity.

I haven't been what you would call a huge fan of Walker but I don't think I have been overly critical of him. I think he is a perfectly good player, nothing more, nothing less. There is nothing wrong with that but I think the vibe of Walker is really one extreme or the other. Today Walker got a change-up that was up in the zone and got a good swing on it. Walker has always had the ability to hit the ball out of the park he just hasn't always been able to have it. He's pretty streaky but is a pretty good hitter from the left side of the plate. He was from the left side of the plate and destroyed a mistake. Exactly what you need in a 0-0 game in the 10th inning.

Travis Ishikawa had two hits in three at-bats today. I have no idea. I don't think he's going to be very good and this is only one game but I will take it.

Before I let this go I must say that it was nice to be at the game today and it really seemed like it was just the typical "opening day" crowd. Everyone seemed to be pretty into the game and I got the feel this wasn't people coming to the game hoping this year was different. Things changed last season in terms of what to expect and what this team is capable of. Even though the team might not have got much better from last year on paper this is going to be a really fun team to watch all season and I got the sense everyone is excited for the season.

Pittsburgh is a baseball town again. Really a great thing to say and read.

Pirates Game 1 Preview - vs. Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates - 1:00 p.m.
Jeff Samardzija (0-0, 0.00) vs. Francisco Liriano (0-0, 0.00)


Lineups

Pittsburgh (0-0)
1. Marte 7
2. Snider 9
3. McCutchen 8
4. Alvarez 5
5. Martin 2
6. Walker 4
7. Ishikawa 3
8. Mercer 6
9. Liriano 1

Chicago (0-0)
1. Bonifacio 8
2. Lake 7
3. Castro 6
4. Rizzo 3
5. Olt 5
6. Castillo 2
7. Schierholtz 9
8. Barney 4
9. Samardzija 1

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Penguins Game 75 Preview - vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks

7:30 p.m., CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


The Last Penguins Game:
March 28, 2014 - Pittsburgh 2, Columbus 1 [Recap]


Probables

Pittsburgh (47-22-5) (via Penguins website)

Forwards
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Lee Stempniak
Beau Bennett - Jussi Jokinen – James Neal
Taylor Pyatt – Brandon Sutter – Brian Gibbons
Tanner Glass – Craig Adams - Jayson Megna

Defense
Matt Niskanen – Olli Maatta
Brooks Orpik – Robert Bortuzzo
Deryk Engelland – Rob Scuderi

Goaltender
Marc-Andre Fleury

Chicago (42-18-15) (via Chicago website)

Forwards
Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell - Michal Handzus - Patrick Kane
Kris Versteeg - Andrew Shaw - Brandon Saad
Brandon Bollig - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Defense
Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy - Michal Rozsival

Goaltender
Corey Crawford


Season Series (Chicago leads 1-0)

March 1, 2014 - Chicago 5, Pittsburgh 1




Stats

2014 NL Central and Pirates Preview Recap

If you have been been paying attention to this site or my Twitter feed this week then you know that I have been doing a NL Central preview that started with talking with a blogger with each of the NL Central team and asked them 15 questions concerning this season and what they expect. After those were done I put up a three part Pirates preview that I spent entirely too much of my time on.

If you were unable to check all them out then you are in luck because I have put all the links in one spot where you can look at all the previews.

Chicago Cubs - [Bleacher Nation] - [Preview]

Cincinnati Reds - [Redleg Nation] - [Preview]

Milwaukee Brewers - [Disciples of Uecker] - [Preview]

St. Louis Cardinals - [Cards Conclave] - [Preview]

Pittsburgh Pirates - [Part 1 - Position Player] [Part 2 - Pitching] [Part 3 - Observations & Predictions]

Please give a follow to all the blogs that helped me out with this. This is the third year that I have put this together and they all have been overly helpful and knowledgeable and should be your go-to for discussion on their respective teams.

Hope you all enjoyed it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Overall Thoughts and Predictions

So here is the final of the three part Pirates season preview for the 2014 season. I just wanted to round this all out with some general questions about the season and how I feel overall.

At the end I am going to give some predictions for how I think the NL Central will shake out. Here we go.

1) What is the underlying issue that needs to improve in 2014?

For the 2014 season the Pirates just have to hope that they can repeat some of what they did last year. They got some big time innings from the bullpen and while that was good at the time I think it took a little out of them later in the season. Mark Melancon looked tired and Jason Grilli just didn’t have it after the arm injury he sustained late. The improvement? The starters have to log some more innings. The Pirates bullpen threw the fourth-most innings last season (545.2) and while the bullpen was one of the best in the league you can’t expect to have that happen every season. Here is a breakdown of how the Pirates bullpen threw by month:

March/April: 100.1 IP, 2.96 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 83.3% LOB
May: 92.2 IP, 2.62 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 80.4% LOB
June: 101.2 IP, 3.01 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 80.8% LOB
July: 70.2 IP, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 82.9% LOB
August: 90.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 74.2% LOB
September/October: 90 IP, 3.40 IP, 1.31 WHIP, 71.1% LOB

In March/April the Pirates were second in the league in innings pitched, in May they were eighth, and in June they were first. That is a lot of innings and as you see in the data above they really started to pitch much worse in August/September/October than they did in the earlier months. The league average WHIP for relievers in baseball was 1.29 so while the WHIP for the final three months for the Pirates were league average the fact remains that they put more guys on base and left a lot less guys on base. That isn’t good.

This isn’t to say that this is totally on the guys in the pen. I think the underlying issue here is that the Pirates starters just don’t get deep enough into games. This isn’t really just a Pirates problem as there were only 124 complete games across all over MLB last season (Pirates had three) but the average start for a Pirates starter was 5.71 innings while the league average was 5.91 innings. That doesn’t seem significant but the Pirates aren’t doing their bullpen any favors by making them throw significantly more innings.

2) What is the biggest worry for 2014?

I think there are a few things that are going to be wildly worrisome this season. I talked about the starting pitching getting deeper into games above and I won’t touch on that anymore. The other thing that has me worried for this year is right field at the start of the season. I think Jose Tabata is going to do just fine and doesn’t need to be platooned with but I have a fear that he isn’t going to be able to stay healthy and if he doesn’t the Pirates don’t have much of anything behind him.

If Tabata were to go down I think that Travis Snider would be given the chances but what is the probably that he stays healthy? Other than that can Snider cut it against left handed pitching? Over his career he is a .223/.272/.355 hitter against left handed pitching and that isn’t very good.

Outside of Snider the Pirates could go with Andrew Lambo but if that is an option then who is going to play the other end of the first base platoon? They could go with Jaff Decker who the Pirates got from San Diego in exchange for Alex Dickerson. In the hitter friendly PCL last season he hit .286/.381/.443 but struck out 94 times in 415 plate appearances. He appeared in 13 games for San Diego last year and hit .154/.233/.269 in 3 plate appearances.

The Pirates are most likely going to wait until Gregory Polanco comes up but that likely won’t be until mid-June when they can pass the Super-Two status. That is something to look forward to but with prospects you never know what you are going to get. I think Polanco will turn out fine but what if he doesn’t?

Right field could turn out to be alright if Tabata stays healthy and plays like he did last year and then Polanco comes up and plays like we think he can. If some of those things don’t happen though then things could get really ugly, really fast.

3) What is the biggest unknown for 2014?

The biggest unknown here is absolutely the pitching depth. The Pirates lost A.J. Burnett who was a big piece of the turnaround in the last two years and they replaced him with Edison Volquez. That clearly is a downgrade but how much of a downgrade? Volquez has seemed to pitch a little better than his numbers but can he be consistent enough to where the Pirates don’t have to use five other guys to get starts if he falters?

The other unknown is first base. I should clarify that, the biggest unknown is what kind of production the Pirates are going to get from the other half of the Gaby Sanchez portion of the platoon? With the Pirates sending down Andrew Lambo that means that Travis Ishikawa is going to start the season as the other portion of the platoon.

As I talked about in the player portion of the preview Ishikawa is a marginal hitter and a marginal defensive player. He doesn’t seem like he will do anything of note and when he is going to be playing more than Sanchez because he can hit right handed pitching and there are far more right handed pitchers than left handed pitchers.

I assume that the Pirates will be looking to trade for a first baseman if they really think Lambo can’t be that guy. I mean I am sure Ishikawa is a nice guy but I don’t really have all that much confidence that he is going to be able to do enough. If that is the case then how long before Lambo comes up? What does he have to do to get some time there? How long do the Pirates go if things start to go South? Huge question marks still there, much more than any other position.

4) When will we see Gregory Polanco and what does he bring?

That is the big question as Polanco got sent down the second week of March. Pat over at WHYGAVS did a nice piece in early March about Polanco and what it means for him to be read. If you haven’t read that yet then you should absolutely go over there and read it, it’s well worth your time.

I agree with much of what Pat goes into. I think that you really could defend either side of the argument with wanting to bring him up at the start of the season but then you could defend sending him down to AAA for a few months.

I think I probably side with the Pirates on this one. I know that some are going roll their eyes there but the fact remains that Polanco has only nine plate appearances above AAA. Last season for AA Altoona, where he played 68 games which is all but two of the games he’s played above A+ he hit .263/.354/.407. Polanco had a pretty outstanding stint in winter ball and hit very well in Spring Training but getting some plate appearances at AAA to start the year isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Polanco is an outstanding athlete and from all accounts he seems like he is one of the top-25 but there are other ramifications to bringing Polanco up right away. The first deals with years of control and the other are monetary. Most people are going to be up in arms with the idea that Bob Nutting is pocketing the money and using it at Seven Springs but once you get past that there are some practical purposes to keep him down a few months.

Tim Williams over at Pirates Prospects talked about this a few weeks ago and broke down the reasons. The first is this:

The MLB season is usually about 182 days long, but a year of service time is counted as 172 days. Teams only control players until they have six years of service time. That means if you wait a few weeks to call up a player in year one, you’ll end the year with less than one year of service time.

Far be it for me to want to keep a player for an extra year. The other is the financial part:

MLB players receive three years of arbitration, which take place in years 4-6 of service time. However, MLB designates a percentage of players as “Super Two” players, giving them an extra year of arbitration, which replaces their final year of league minimum salary. The “Super Two” players are the 22 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years. It’s hard to project an accurate cutoff here, so teams usually play it safe and call up players around the middle of June or later to avoid this status.

Breaking this down doesn’t really do much now but an extra year of arbitration could cost the Pirates somewhere in the neighborhood of $15M. Baseball is a business and when your payroll is going to be around $80M-$100M then $15M is a pretty significant chunk.

The Pirates still have Tabata in right and after the year he had last season I don’t think that it is Polanco or something horrible is going to happen in Pittsburgh. Obviously if Tabata and/or Snider bomb or both get hurt that will change the situation but at this time I don’t think it is unreasonable for Polanco to get a little bit of time at AAA. There have been players who have come up with minimal time in the minor leagues but I think that is probably the exception and in my mind you never make significant decisions based on the exception.

Would I like to see Polanco sometime in April after he passes the service time threshold? Hell yea. Will it bother me if the Pirates don’t bring him up until a safe date based on past Super-Two timelines? Not at all. I would expect to see Polanco in the middle of June unless something drastic happens.

5) When will we see Jamison Taillon and what does he bring?

In terms of seeing Taillon I think you can just read what I wrote about about Polanco and then just translate that to Taillon. I think in the overall view is that Taillon has more to work on than Polanco and therefore I think that we might see Polanco a little before Taillon. That might not matter a whole ton but the Pirates have a plan when they are brining their prospects through the system and they are going to make sure Taillon is ready when he comes up.

There are a few concerning things with Taillon coming into 2014. Some of it has to do with Taillon and some of it doesn’t. The stuff that does is that I think there is going to be an unrealistic expectation that Gerrit Cole set last season. Cole came up and really blew the doors off once he got settled in and with Taillon and Cole being linked so closely through the minors I really think people are going to be disappointed. Mike Ferrin and Jason Parks on the Fringe Average Podcast actually talked about Taillon for about eight or nine minutes starting at the eight minute mark.

What those two touched on was that while Taillon doesn’t have the overall pitch arsenal that Cole does he is two years younger and that really illustrates what Taillon can bring if he is ready to debut this year. He still has some work to do developing the changeup the working on the control but once he is ready he can have an impact on the 2014. While it might not be to the extent that Cole did last season I am not sure he really has to be that good.

Last season Taillon pitched 149.1 innings and posted a 3.68 ERA with a 3.27 FIP. He struck out 8.80 hitters per nine innings and walked 3.19 per nine. If you look through the stats from Taillon thus far you might not see the eye-popping strikeout numbers from a guy that throws hard but that has been typical for Pirates pitches, especially Cole, as their philosophy doesn’t reveolve around giving the prospects the ability to rack up big numbers but rather work on fastball command and working the bottom of the zone.

Overall Taillon is going to rely on the fastball that sits in the mid-90’s while he has a very good curveball for his secondary pitch. While those are two great pitches if you only have two pitches as a starter you aren’t going to fair very well. He is working on a changeup which Parks and Ferrin talk about on the podcast above and that will mostly be what they work with in AAA. There is a lot of talk that Taillon has a very hittable fastball and that underscores the importance for him to be down in the zone and hit his spots. By hittable they mean that hitters are able to see his fastball well out of his hand and while you can get a few balls past hitters throwing hard any MLB hitter can time a fastball and pepper it around the park.

Those are a few of the things that will be centered around the decision of when to bring Taillon up but if he can continue to improve like he has so far in his career then he should be able to help out the Pirates down the stretch and sure up the rotation.

Recently it was noted that Taillon had some pain in his elbow. This was not a good thing to hear as a Pirates fan. What is good is that it seems if his ligament was intact and unless there is something pretty drastically different in the second opinion then it just means that he is going to miss a couple weeks of throwing. I am not sure if this really push his timetable back but here is to hoping it is just a few weeks and he is back to throwing the ball.

6) How many wins can we expect from the Pirates in 2014?

A lot of things went right for the Pirates in 2013 and that led to 94 wins and the top Wild Card spot. This year in order to win 94 games a lot more is going to have to go right and while the Pirates are better this year at the start of the season than they were last year they are not as good entering the season as they were at the end of last year. That makes predicting the Pirates a little hard.

I could see this team building on the success of 2013 and winning around the same number of games but at the same time it is really hard to win 94 games in a season. Only two National League teams won more games than the Pirates and only two American League teams won more so it’s not like the Pirates did something that a lot of other teams were able to do.

Before I get into what I think here are what some of the other prediction systems have the Pirates finishing the season:

FanGraphs: 84-78
PECOTA: 78-84

No matter what you look at the Pirates are projected to lose more games in 2014. That isn’t necessarily a horrible thing as you can’t really be expected to win 94 games every season. Actually the highest projected win total by FanGraphs in 91 (Dodgers) and by PECOTA it is 98 wins by the Dodgers then 90 wins by the Rays.

I think the Pirates are going to be right in the NL Wild Card race. Right now it looks like the Cardinals are favorites to win the division and for good reason, they are an amazingly skilled team with an outstanding minor league system and a track record of winning. The Pirates will be fighting for the Wild Card spot, probably with Cincinnati. I don’t see two teams coming out of the NLC again this year so it will probably take 90 wins to get there. I don’t necessarily think the Pirates get 90 win, probably more around 85 but that might be enough to fight for a playoff spot.

7) How will the NL Central finish?

Last season the NL Central was one of the best divisions in baseball if not the best. They had three teams go to the playoffs, capturing both National League Wild Card spots. They were the only division in baseball with three teams that had 90 wins and the other two NL divisions didn’t even have multiple teams with 90 wins. It was a good year all around.

While the Brewers and Cubs were really bad last year I think that they are going to be better this year. The Cubs are going to be a really good team coming up. They aren’t there yet but they are well on their way with a good far system and a few pieces in place. The Brewers might not improve all that much but they always give the Pirates good series and they will be getting Ryan Braun back.

The Cardinals are the class of the division. They are really good and there isn’t much else to say about it. The Reds are really like the Pirates. They have good talent but they still have some holes they need to fix. They have good starting pitching and one of the best players in baseball (Joey Votto) so it will be a dogfight between those two teams.

Here is how I see the NL Central finishing up:

St. Louis – 93-69
Pittsburgh – 85-77
Cincinnati – 84-78
Milwaukee – 77-85
Chicago – 68-94

There you go people. That is all I got for the season preview series. You can take a look at what I [had to say about the position players] and then take a [read about all the pitchers].

You can also take a look at my team-by-team NL Central preview by clicking the links below:

[Chicago Cubs]
[Cincinnati Reds]
[Milwaukee Brewers]
[St. Louis Cardinals]

Friday, March 28, 2014

Penguins Game 74 Recap - Penguins 2, Blue Jackets 1

The Penguins finally won and broke a three game losing streak with a pretty good win over a desperate Columbus team who are fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs. The Penguins weren't perfect as their special teams weren't great again but otherwise they played a tight hockey game and got a pair of goals halfway through the third period and that was all she wrote.

With the win tonight the Penguins have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the eighth straight season. That is the third longest active streak behind Detroit (22 seasons, have no clinched this year) and San Jose (10 seasons, including this year). That is no small feat. Despite the fact that half of the league makes the playoffs to be able to get to the postseason year in and year out says a lot about your franchise and how stable it has been over a long stretch. While I think we all knew it was going to happen it is nice to know it officially happened.

The star of the show tonight was Marc-Andre Fleury who came a few minutes away from a shutout but was still able to stop all but one shot. He made 35 saves on the night and made some really huge saves. The Penguins have had some trouble scoring goals recently and he probably knew he had to be close to perfect to break the team out of this slump and that is exactly what he did. Columbus made it a one-goal game with just over five minutes left and they came with a lot of fire power late and all MAF did was hold the fort and stop a few shots from close range with under 20 seconds left. Big time performance from MAF.

MAF did steal the show tonight but Beau Bennett really had an outstanding game and he was the best player on the ice not named MAF for either team. He wasn't rewarded with a point until he scored a goal just 47 seconds after Chris Kunitz made it 1-0. This was his first game since November and while he did have a pair of games to get back into it in WBS this was a really nice performance. I don't think Bennett is going to be a top-six guy when Evgeni Malkin comes back but if he can play solid hockey like he did tonight he is going to make the bottom-six that much better. Obviously this is only one game and he might have been playing on a lot of adrenalin but that was a really impressive performance.

The Penguins power play was shut out again. They were 0-for-3 on the power play which makes only one power play goal in the last four games (16 opportunities) which is really unlike the power play that leads the league. I am not sure if missing Malkin is the main reason for this but the power play looks a little off and just doesn't give you a good feeling. For me I think it will just come a time where the Penguins will finally cash in and when that happens they can come in bunches. I don't think the power play is a problem but cashing in occasionally would be nice.

Just nice to finally get a win. After back-to-back games the Penguins face Chicago on Sunday night in a huge prime time game so that will be a must watch.

Penguins Game 74 Preview - @ Columbus Blue Jackets


 Columbus Blue Jackets

7:00 p.m., Nationwide Arena, Columbus, OH 

The Last Penguins Game:
March 27, 2014 - Los Angeles 3, Pittsburgh 2 [Recap]


Probables

Pittsburgh (46-22-5) (via Dailyfaceoff)

Forwards
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Lee Stempniak
Jussi Jokinen – Brandon Sutter – James Neal
Taylor Pyatt – Craig Adams – Brian Gibbons
Tanner Glass – Jayson Megna – Beau Bennett

Defense
Matt Niskanen – Olli Maatta
Brooks Orpik – Robert Bortuzzo
Simon Despres – Rob Scuderi

Goaltender
Marc-Andre Fleury

Columbus (37-29-6) (via Dailyfaceoff)

Forwards
Boone Jenner - Ryan Johansen - Nathan Horton
Matt Calvert - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson
Nick Foligno - Artem Anisimov - R.J. Umberger
Derek MacKenzie - Mark Letestu - Blake Comeau

Defense
Dalton Prout - Jack Johnson
James Wisniewski - Fedor Tyutin
Nick Schultz - David Savard

Goaltender
Curtis McElhinney


Season Series (Pittsburgh leads 4-0)

December 29, 2013 - Pittsburgh 5, Columbus 3



December 9, 2013 - Pittsburgh 2, Columbus 1



November 2, 2013 - Pittsburgh 3, Columbus 0



November 1, 2013 - Pittsburgh 4, Columbus 2




Stats

Barry Bonds, Jim Leyland, Jack Wilson to be at Opening Day Festivities











Some really cool stuff coming out about opening day. I think the most interesting tidbit is that Barry Bonds is going to be coming back to present Andrew McCutchen with his MVP trophy. Bonds has taken a lot of heat from Pirates fans for how things went down at the end of his Pirates tenure but I hope that is all over with. I am going to be really interested to see how he is received from the sellout crowd at PNC Park but I know I will be standing and giving my thanks to Bonds who was one of the best players to ever play for the franchise. This is really awesome stuff and something that I didn't really think I would get to see this year.

Not many people are going to talk about Jack Wilson coming back but I am not sure that there is any former Pirates player that loved the city and the team more than he did. I will never forget when he left and how much emotion he showed when he talked about not coming back and what the team meant to him. He played during the really dark times of the Pirate franchise history but it didn't seem to matter. He loved the team and the city and this is going to be a big deal for him. That is awesome.

Jim Leyland better be smoking a cigarette on the field. That's all I am saying.

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Pitching

Over the past four days I have taken a look at all the other NL Central teams and saved the best for last. Yea, I am talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates broke through last year en route to finishing second in the NL Central with 94 wins, defeated Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card, and then barely lost to St. Louis in the NL Division Series. Really fun times last year. That all sets things up for 2014. This was the first year I thought the Pirates had a chance to break “the streak” and make a run at the playoffs but after last season the expectations have changed and bigger things are expected from the team.

The second part of the three part Pirates preview series is going to look at the pitchers. This includes all the starters for this year and then goes in to looking at the bullpen. Just like the hitters there are going to be some guys who are going to have big parts for the team but this just focused on the pitchers I thought would start the year on the club.

Into the player-by-player preview:


Starters

Francisco Liriano

Liriano was signed by the Pirates last year as a bounce back candidate. He had struggled off and on during his career and was coming off a few bad seasons of 5+ ERAs and really wasn’t projected to be a huge difference maker, even if the Pirates were able to turn him around. Well, he was a difference maker and it came in a big way.

Last season Ray Searage and the coaching staff was able to turn Liriano around and take a guy who was walking more than 4.5 batters per nine innings into a guy who walked less than three an inning while still striking out better than a batter per inning.

He started the year off on the DL thanks to breaking his non-throwing hand in a weird Christmas thing but when he came back he came back in a big way. All told he threw 161.0 innings for the Pirates and had his best year since 2006 when he was with the Twins. He go back to getting more ground balls (50.5% in 2013 after being at 43.8% in 2012) and cut his HR/FB rate down from 12.9% in 2012 to 8.3% in 2013. He was a 3.1 fWAR player and both his FIP (2.92) and xFIP (3.12) was nearly dead-on for his ERA (3.02) which shows that it wasn’t luck, he really was that good.

Liriano still has the gas to throw his fastball averaging 93 mph last season but also relied on a deadly slider that he threw better than 36% of his pitches. That rate was much higher than 2012 (32.8%) and was the highest since the 2006 season when he threw it almost 38% of the time. He also got back to throwing the changeup more than 20% of the time (22%) which was only the second year of his career that he went above the 20% mark.

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to see what happens here. If Liriano can keep guys off bases in terms of free passes he is going to be alright. He has a knockout slider that he can use against both lefties and righties and still can dig down and get a fastball by you. He is going to continue to try and get groundballs and work deeper into games. Where he has problems is when he puts guys on base.

Last season there were games that got away from Liriano, but they were few and far between. In 26 starts he gave up four or more runs only six times and went less than six innings only six times. For a guy that had struggled with consistency and control I think that is pretty good and if they can get some of 2013 Liriano it will help them get to where they need to be in 2014.

Gerrit Cole

There are a large contingent of people who are moaning at the idea that A.J. Burnett isn’t going to be on the team and how bad that is going to be for the Pirates in 2014. Granted, Burnett did a lot of great things last year and his production will be missed but a guy named Gerritt Cole is going to be on the big club for the entire year and that should make you giddy with excitement. In turn that full year is going to help offset the loss of Burnett.

Last season Cole threw 117.1 innings in 19 starts and while not all the starts were lights out performances, and some being downright boring, he slowly progressed during the season and ended the year pitching some big time September games and that is where you want your best pitcher to be in playoff baseball.

Cole started the season slow in terms of the strikeout numbers but what he didn’t show in strikeouts he did in keeping the Pirates in baseball games and throwing to locations he needed to throw at. Cole only gave up more than three runs in one game and from August through the end of the regular season he gave up two or fewer runs in seven of his 10 starts. In his two playoff starts he gave up a combined three runs in 11 innings of work. That is what you want your top prospect to do when he comes up for the first time.

The allure of Cole was that he throws a high 90’s fastball and mixed in a curve, slider, and changeup. His four seam fastball averaged 97 mph while his two seam averaged just under 97 mph which were both tops in the league. His curve averaged almost 84 mph and got hitters to whiff on 43% of the swings they got on it while they were only able to foul it off 28% of the time. Cole also used his slider 15.75% of the time and while he didn’t use it a ton he got hitters to whiff 31% of the time.

This kid got stronger every start he was in the big leagues last season and if he improves in 2014 from where he was in 2013 then you are looking at one of the best pitchers in baseball. That is so much fun to think about.

Charlie Morton

I have always been a big fan of Charlie Morton. His career has been up and down since the Pirates got him from the Atlanta Braves as a part of the Nate McLouth deal but he fits into what the Pirates want from their starting pitchers and when he stays healthy he can deliver that.

Morton threw only 116 innings last season which was thanks in part to having surgery on his elbow at the beginning of the 2012 season after throwing only 50.1 innings. Morton is the definition of a groundball pitcher as his groundball rate of 72.8% led all pitcher who threw at least 100 innings last season. Since joining the Pirates in 2009 he posted a groundball rate of 55.5% which is fifth among pitchers that have thrown 500 innings in that time.

Morton isn’t going to strike out a lot of batters but he did show a large uptick in his velocity with his fastball averaging 92.8 mph which was the fastest its been since 2010.

Seeing a ton of groundball is pretty much what you can rely on but the problem Morton has had throughout his career has been how he attacks left handed hitters. Over his career left handed hitters have hit .327/.410/.497 against him while right handed hitters have hit .251/.316/.345.

Last season Morton actually did an outstanding job against right handed hitters (.223/.264/.287) while still struggling against lefties (.312/.425/.419). Morton did make some changes in how he attacked lefties and while it wasn’t very good in 2013 it was a vast improvement from 2011 when lefties hit a gaudy .364/.460/.500 against him in 338 plate appearances.

This season Morton is working on adding a split-change to his grouping of pitches and the Trib’s Travis Sawchik talked about it earlier this month. Morton is hoping this could be a pitch that he could curb the success that left handed hitters have against him and make him an even more valuable pitcher than he was in 2013 where he was worth 1.3 fWAR in only a half season of work.

Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy Rodriguez is one of a what seems like every pitcher that was only able to throw a part of a season last year for the Pirates. He started the year but was able to only throw 62.2 innings thanks to an elbow injury that turned out to be only tendinitis. All things point to him being able to start the season and if they can get a healthy Rodriguez that will be a huge boost to the rotation.

2013 was only the first time in his career throwing less than 100 innings and only the first time since 2009 when he threw less than 190 innings. Before last season he was a guy you could rely to make 30+ starts and someone who was going to go out and give you a solid start each and every time. The start of last year was the same as any other, he posted a 3.59 ERA and while those relied on a little more luck (4.42 FIP, 4.00 xFIP) he was still effective.

Over his career Rodriguez never was able to strike out a lot of hitters with a 7.41 strikeout rate but never really gave away a lot of free bases (3.05 career walk rate). In 2013 he had the best walk rate of his career (1.72) but also had a much higher career HR/FB rate (13.2%) and a much lower groundball rate (42.3%) than he had in 2012 (48%).

I am a big more of a believe in Rodriguez than some others might be. He is 35 years old and after an injury that sat him down for almost the entire year you have to be worried that this is going to be something that comes back to bite him against this season. That being said before last year Rodriguez was the definition of consistency. He isn’t going to wow you with any one particular thing but he doesn’t put free guys on base and is someone that is going to give you strong outing every time out on the bump.

If the Pirates can get someone that they got in 2012 then they are going to be in good shape in the middle of the rotation where Rodriguez will be penciled in behind Morton.

Edison Volquez

When the Pirates lost out on Josh Johnson and knew they weren’t going to bring A.J. Burnett back then they needed someone that could come in an be the fifth starter. They then turned to Edison Volquez on a one year, $5M deal.

I assume the Pirates are brining in Volquez on a reclamation project much like they did with Liriano and Mark Melancon. The problem with this is that I don’t really think Volquez is all that good. The Pirates do a pretty nice job working with pitchers that have had troubles and that gives me a little hope that Volquez can turn things around but how much can he turn them around?

Last season between San Diego and Los Angeles (NL) he posted a 5.71 ERA and was all but a replacement level pitcher (0.4 fWAR). While he has strong strikeout numbers over his career (8.42 K/9) he was down nearly a full batter per nine last season (7.50). Volquez has always had a problem keeping guys off base as he has walked nearly five batters per nine innings over his career.

The difference between a guy like Volquez and some of the other pitching prospects is that Volquez only really had one good year in his career. That happened in 2008 with the Reds when he threw 196 innings, had a 3.21 ERA, and was a 3.9 fWAR pitcher. Since 2008 he has been a combined 1.8 fWAR pitcher. This has all the making of a one-year wonder that he has turned into getting multiple chances.

Although I am down on Volquez there are some things that you can look towards for some positive vibes. He does possess the ability to strike out hitters and still holds a fastball that sat right around 93 last season and has a plus changeup that sits at 83 and he throws 25% of the time. During his 2008 season Volquez threw the changeup 32% of the time so it will be interesting to see if the Pirates try and utilize that pitch more.

While he was fairly bad last year it seems as if he was a little unlucky and pitch well over his peripherals. Volquez had only a 4.24 FIP and a 4.07 xFIP so maybe he wasn’t as bad as things indicated but at the same time you can make your own luck, to an extent.

He was actually alright for the Padres in 2012 when he threw 182.2 innings and struck out 8.57 batters per nine innings. He also posted a 4.14 ERA which was in line with both his FIP (4.06) and xFIP (4.20). If the Pirates can get something like that from him then I think things will have gone pretty well for him. It is going to come down to his control much like it did for Liriano last season. Last year was the first year since 2008 that his walk rate was under 5.00 and when you are putting that many guys on base you are not set up for success. If he can cut the walks back to where he was last year and get the strikeout rate to where he was in 2012 then we will see where it takes them. Right now he is the fifth starter and maybe he can fall in line with the production needed for that spot. If someone goes down or Rodriguez isn’t ready and Volquez has to move up then things are not going to end well, I don’t think. Here is hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Jeff Locke

Locke was a huge story in the first half of the season for how good he was but he was also a big story in the second half of the season for how awful he was. His first half was good enough that he was named an All-Star and seemed almost unhittable at times despite putting unlimited guys on base.

During the first half of the year Locke had a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings and held hitters to a .202/.292/.303 line. I have no idea how he did it as he walked 47 batters and was somehow able to survive with a huge left on base average. Well, things caught up to him. The second half of the season saw him post a 6.15 ERA and he walked 37 hitters in only 57.1 innings and gave up 70 hits after giving up 76 hits in the first half. All told the wheels finally fell off.

Even though Locke largely fell fast back to the mean his FIP (4.03) and xFIP (4.19) were significantly higher than his actual ERA (3.52). To put in perspective how things went I was at a game that Locke pitched last season when he walked seven hitters in 5.2 innings against the Cubs and was able to get out of the game giving up only one run. How? No idea.

The only way Locke is going to be able to help this team is if he can cut down the free passes. He walked 4.55 hitters per nine innings and doesn’t make up for it by striking guys out (6.76 K/9). It is wildly frustrating to watch him pitch because there isn’t much that tells you that he can even come close to replicating what he did in the first half of 2013. If he is thrust into the rotation I will not have a great feeling.

Bullpen

Jason Grilli

You could probably call Grilli the heart and soul of the Pirates. With Burnett gone that is even more true. Last season Grilli was one of the best closers in the game and until his came down with an injury was damn near invincible. The Pirates got him from Philadelphia for literally nothing and since then he’s thrown 141.1 innings and posting a 2.74 ERA with 36 of his 38 career saves. Last season he saved 33 games and had a 2.70 ERA and pair with Melancon it was one of the best 1-2 combos in the league at the backend of the pen.

While Grilli was 37 last year you never really would have known it.. His fastball averaged 93 mph and had a 36.6% strikeout rate. Those are some big time numbers for a guy that is 37 years old. Not only was he getting guys out but he was keeping them off base. His 2.34 BB/9 was the best walk rate of his career and left almost 81% of base runners that reached to note score.

The age is a concern as not a lot of guys can consistently do what he does so close to 40. The forearm strain he suffered near the end of the year. As J.P. Breen talked about on FanGraphs earlier this month Grilli’s velocity never came back after the injury which led him to peg Grilli as the first closer that will lose his job.

Grilli is a fan favorite and despite some bad outings after coming back after the injury I would somewhat be surprised if he completely fell apart. Obviously the age is a concern and injuries coupled with age are never a good thing but with how much the Pirates relied on the backend of the bullpen they are going to need Grilli to be good.

Mark Melancon

As good as Grilli was last year I think Mark Melancon might have been better. When the Joel Hanrahan deal went down a lot was made about the offensive pieces but the key piece in this deal to the front office was Mark Melancon. He had some trouble in Boston and the Pirates thought they could turn him around and oh my did they ever.

He threw 71 innings and struck out almost a batter per inning while walking only one hitter per nine. Actually, 1.01 hitters per nine innings. As in he walked only eight hitters all year. Eight. He had a 1.39 ERA and was a 2.5 fWAR player all while picking up 16 saves after Grilli went down.

Not only was Melancon good on the surface but he was able to get groundballs almost at all. His groundball rate of 60.3% was the best of all the relievers on the Pirates staff sans Chris Leroux who only threw four innings last season. Among all qualified relievers in MLB he ranked sixth in groundball rate. Them there Pirates love groundballs.

He gave up one homerun all season and that came to Joey Votto and he stranded 79.9% of runners. This guy was really that good.

While he was good I think he might have worn down a little last season. Overall he gave up 15 runs all season and eight of those runs came in September. I don’t know how you really qualify that but at the end of the year Melancon wasn’t getting the same bite on his cutter and the stuff just wasn’t there. I am not worried about Melancon at all and if Breen is right about Grilli then I think the Pirates will be in great hands with Melancon.

Tony Watson

One guy that I have be pretty down on in the past has been Tony Watson. In 2011 I wasn’t a fan of him at all and while I thought he had a place on the team I really didn’t think he could be what people wanted him to be. Last year he proved me wrong and started to become that guy that you call on in big situations no matter what side of the plate the bitter was hitting on.

It might be a little more smoke an mirrors as both his FIP (3.20) and xFIP (3.72) were much higher than ERA (2.39). Watson threw a career-high 71.2 innings last season that were split more towards right handed hitters (173 plate appearances) than left handed hitters (107 plate appearances) despite being the top lefty out of the pen. His splits were more favorable when he faced lefties (.206/.229/.255) but he wasn’t bad at all against righties (.192/.262/.321).

What was a little concerning is that Watson’s strikeout rate took a dip last season with only 6.78 strikeouts per nine innings after being around almost nine hitters per nine in 2012. His strikeout rate dropped from nearly 25% to just over 19% and while his walk rate improved dramatically (4.3% in 2013, 10.7% in 2012) he didn’t lose any velocity in his fastball (93.6 mph).

While strikeouts were nice with Watson it seems if he let his defense work a little more for him as he got groundballs at a better rate in 2013 (43.8%) than his career average (~40%) and cut his fly balls down to 37% which could work into explaining his 6.7% HR/FB rate that was down from 8.9% the year prior.

The lack of strikeouts were interesting since he saw a significant increase in swings at pitches outside of the zone. Watson had hitters swinging at non-strikes 37.8% of the time which was up from 30.6% the year before. When you get hitters swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes then you are going to do well for yourself. While he was getting a lot more swings on pitches outside the hitters were actually making more contact on those pitches. In 2012 his O-Contact% (Percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone) was 60.6% but jumped way up to 71.5% last season. Not something I am overly concerned about since those swings won’t produce a lot of hard hit balls but still interesting nonetheless.

Anyways, I have talked about backup plans with the Pirates bullpen but Watson would probably be the first guy to go into that setup spot if Grilli or Melancon would go down or not perform well. I would not have felt good about that a few years ago but much more comfortable now.

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson is the others edge of the pair of left handed relievers the Pirates have. Wilson is another guy that pitched very well for the Bucs last season and was another guy who used a high amount of groundballs to help the Pirates.

Wilson’s was one of the six Pirates relievers who had a groundball rate of 50% of more (53%) and used that to strand 85% of the runners that got on base. That LOB% was 20th among qualified relievers as Wilson pitched 73.2 innings in 2014.

Wilson, like Watson, throws gas from the left hand side. He relies on his fastball that he threw 73% of the time last season and it averaged 95.3 mph on the gun. With a fastball like that you would expect that he would have a better strikeout rate 7.21 per nine innings but I think he gave up some of the strikeouts to be more productive and get out of innings quicker.

One of the things that you would like to see Wilson improve is the inherited runners that he let score. Last season he inherited 31 runners and allowed 11 of them to score. That is a rate of 35% of the runner scoring that is worse than the league average of 27%. For as much as Wilson has to offer he has to limit those opportunities.

All told I would be a little surprised if the Pirates weren’t behind the scenes shopping Wilson around. While it is nice the Pirates have two guys that can throw hard from the left side it isn’t something that every team has and with his success last season a good first half could turn him into a trade chip. Relief pitchers are highly volatile and teams are will to overpay for them.

The other thing that might be better in the long run is to see if you could turn Wilson back into a starter. Through the minors Wilson was a starter and in 2012 before he was a September call-up he started 25 games in the minors and was a starter all before that. I know that can be a tricky move to make but I don’t think it should be something that should be thrown out at this time.

Jeanmar Gomez/Vin Mazzaro

There might not been a duo of guys in any bullpen that outpitched what they were expected to do more than Gomez and Mazzaro. They combined to throw in 91 innings and were really the rocks in the middle of the long relief portion of the pen.

Gomez was used as a spot started and made eight starts on the season. The Pirates turned him into a groundball machine getting a groundball rate of 55.4% and posting a 3.35 ERA in 80.2 innings.

Gomez doesn’t do anything spectacular when he is on the mound and he isn’t going to wow you with his 91 mph fastball but he gets groundballs and he is able to pitch effectively. His strikeout rate was a career-high 15.9% last season and allowed hitters to hit only .215 with a 1.15 WHIP. Not someone you want to rely on a bunch but every pen needs a guy who can come out and make a spot start and be turned to in a long relief role. Gomez is that guy.

Mazzaro is in the same role as Gomez but he will not come out and make starts as all of his 57 appearances came out of the pen last season. It was the first season in his five year career that he didn’t make a start but it was easily his most successful season as a pro.

Mazzaro upped his groundball rate by almost 7% last seasona dn his LOB% went from 66% in 2012 to 78.6% in 2013. Both his FIP (3.31) and xFIP (4.00) were higher than his 2.81 ERA but he miniscule HR/FB rate of 4.5% will account for the much larger xFIP. Going more towards groundballs will do that for your homerun rate.

He isn’t going to strike a ton of guys out (5.51 K/9 career) but he is another useful middle relief guy that the Pirates got after it was thought he was a useless reliever.

Stolmy Pimentel

Many of you might have heard to the 20-80 scouting scale for baseball. Basically where 20 is very poor, 50 is league average, and 80 is elite. People throw around 80’s too often but that is the best of the best and maybe only one or two players have an 80 in a particular skill set. An example of an 80 would be Carlos Gomez’s defense or Giancarlo Stanton’s power. Well, Stolmy Pimentel has an 80 name. No idea how you get a better name than that.

Pimentel was brought over in the Hanrahan deal and right now he has no options left so he will be in the bullpen to start the year. He is an interesting prospect because he was brought up as a starter and while Gomez can give you the spot start I get the feeling that Pimentel will be given an opportunity to start if the team needs a starter for an extended period.

Pimentel threw between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis last season and was overall pretty solid for both. Combined he threw 169.1 innings in the minors and had a 3.35 ERA in 27 starts. He struck out 123 hitters and posted a 1.21 WHIP with a 2.20 K/BB ratio.

He does have some problems with control but does possess a solid fastball (95 mph) and a good changeup (87 mph) so it will be interesting to see if he can continue to hone in on his control then the Pirates will have another solid option from the Hanrahan deal. Again, he is going to break camp with the team because they have no other options they will give him some options.

I have no idea what to make of Pimentel. I have to think the Pirates will give him some chances seeing as they have nowhere to put him if something were to come up. Seeing what they have in Pimentel will be one of the more important higlights of the early season.

Bryan Morris

Bryan Morris is one of that guys that really makes me uncomfortable. Last season Morris wasn’t all that good and was one of the least productive pitchers out of the bullpen with a -1.1fWAR.

Morris is another guy who sacrificed strikeouts for groundballs and while his groundball rate was a healthy 57. 5% that didn’t help he enormous HR/FB rate of 16%. That is a lot of home runs for a guy that is trying to throw groundballs.

He threw 65 innings last year with a 3.46 ERA but his periffials were pretty horrible with a 4.89 FIP and a 4.34 xFIP. Through the minor leagues Morris was stirking out about 8.5 hitters per nine innings but last year that was down to 5.12 and that went with a really high walk rate of almost four batters per nine innings. That just isn’t going to cut it.


There you have the pitching staff. While I don't think it is as strong as it finished last season the rotation and bullpen is stronger than it was at the beginning of 2013. Tune in tomorrow when we wrap things up and look at some key questions and I get my predictions in that are sure to be right (by that I mean be totally wrong).

2014 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals with @PitchersHit8th

Just as quickly as the MLB season ended last year it is ready to kick back up again in 2014. Spring Training has been going on for some time now and as you look at the calendar you realize that opening day is just about a week away and you are ready for months of baseball every day.

The past two years I have done an NL Central preview where I get together with some of the best bloggers from around the NLC and get them to talk about their teams and what we can expect from them. As it was last year I will ask each of them 15 questions and they will give you the low down on what to expect in 2014.

The series is going to go in alphabetical order by the respective teams’ mascots. After the four previews from around the division there will be a three part series previewing the Pirates. The Pirates preview is, um, extensive.

The final part of the preview series is going to be the St. Louis Cardinals and today I will be talking with Nick from Cardinals Conclave and formally the write of Pitchers Hit 8th. If you are not doing so already give the dude a follow. He does great work and was nice enough to answer some questions.

Anyways, hit the jump for the preview questions for the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Penguins Game 73 Recap - Kings 3, Penguins 2

This was the third loss in a row for the Penguins. They have lost five of their last seven games and one of those two wins came in overtime. To say things aren't going well for the Penguins in the month of March would be a pretty vast understatement. A silver lining is that all of those losses have been by one goal but that and a trip to jail will get you a phone call.

The Penguins effort was a lot better tonight. Recently it seems as if the team is sort of disinterested in playing and doesn't have that edge, and while that isn't the case at all it just seems that way. The Penguins came out and played a good hard hockey game and sometimes you lose those. What makes this one a little frustrating is that it comes during a stretch of hockey that they haven't been playing well at all.

The game tonight was all special teams. The Penguins got seven power play opportunities and they failed to score on each and every chance. On the other side the Kings had three power play opportunities and they scored on one of those while they scored another goal just as a Pens penalty expired. The Penguins power play is the best in the league and not too often are they going to get shutout in a game let alone shutout in a game where they had seven chances. In close games they are decided by the special teams and this one was.

Injuries have been bad this year and the Penguins might have lost another one tonight. In the second period Marcel Goc went feet first into the boards and twisted his ankle in a pretty bad way. I am not even going to post the picture of it because it was pretty ugly. Goc was unable to put any pressure on his leg and while I didn't hear anything following the game I wouldn't be surprised if this was an injury that we don't see Goc for some time, if not for the rest of the year.

I guess I will touch on what might have been the turning point. The Penguins had one of their power plays with under half the third period left. They got a puck to the net and while there was a scrum the puck found the back of the net. Everyone on the ice was pretty noncommittal about what happened and after the officials gathered and came to the conclusion that there was goaltender interference on Brandon Sutter. Problem was that Sutter didn't go into Kings goaltender Martin Jones voluntarily or just trying to make something happen, he was cross checked into Jones four times. It was a brutally bad call and made worse by the fact that the Penguins didn't end up tying the game. In my opinion it didn't cost them the game but it certainly didn't help.

This will eventually come to an end but that doesn't make losses like tonight any less frustrating. It was a good effort but that doesn't mean they were going to automatically win. Last year the Penguins didn't lose a game in March and in recent years, including this year, they have had a pretty easy time with little adversity during the regular season. I guess we can hope this builds character but who knows.

Tomorrow a desperate Columbus team is going to host the Penguins are going to need to play their A game to get a win. After all this could be a team they will see in the first round.

Penguins Game 73 Preview - vs. Los Angeles Kings

 Los Angeles Kings

7:00 p.m., CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, PA


The Last Penguins Game
March 24, 2014 - Phoenix 3, Pittsburgh 2 [Recap]


Probables

Pittsburgh (46-21-5) (via Penguins website)

Forwards
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Lee Stempniak
Jussi Jokinen - Brandon Sutter - James Neal
Brian Gibbons - Marcel Goc - Taylor Pyatt
Tanner Glass - Craig Adams - Jayson Megna

Defense
Matt Niskanen - Olli Maatta
Rob Scuderi - Simone Despres
Robert Bortuzzo - Brooks Orpik

Goaltender
Marc-Andre Fleury

Los Angeles (42-25-6) (via Dailyfaceoff)

Forwards
Marian Gaborik - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Tanner Pearson - Jeff Carter - Tyler Toffoli
Dwight King - Jarret Stoll - Dustin Brown
Kyle Clifford - Mike Richards - Trevor Lewis

Defense
Jake Muzzin - Drew Doughty
Slava Voynov - Robyn Regehr
Willie Mitchell - Alec Martinez

Goaltender
Jonathan Quick


Season Series (Pittsburgh leads 1-0)

January 30, 2014 - Pittsburgh 4, Los Angeles 1



Stats

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Position Players

Over the past four days I have taken a look at all the other NL Central teams and saved the best for last. Yea, I am talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates broke through last year en route to finishing second in the NL Central with 94 wins, defeated Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card, and then barely lost to St. Louis in the NL Division Series. Really fun times last year. That all sets things up for 2014. This was the first year I thought the Pirates had a chance to break “the streak” and make a run at the playoffs but after last season the expectations have changed and bigger things are expected from the team.

The first part of the three part Pirates preview series is going to look at the position players. This will include all the starters and a few guys that should make up the bench. I tried to touch on as many of the players as I could and in a lot of cases wrote way too many words about them. There are obviously going to be more players that come in to make a difference but this is a good starting point for the team.

Into the player-by-player preview:

Catcher: Russell Martin

Russell Martin is coming off a really good year for the Pirates. While he was only about a league average hitter with a 101 OPS+ he ended the season as a 4.1 fWAR player. Most of that comes from his outstanding defense. Coming into last season Martin was thought to help the Pirates behind the plate but I am not sure a lot of people could really appreciate how good he was. Baseball Prospectus put together a nice piece earlier this month on pitch framing and blocking and as you read through it you can see that Martin’s name is all over the place.

Being a good defensive catcher the way Martin is will make you more valuable if you are a sub-par offensive player. Last season Martin was right around a league average offensive player so that made him a very valuable catcher even despite his offensive slide down the stretch and him only playing in 127 games.

Last season Martin finished .226/.327/.377 with 15 home runs. On the surface that really isn’t that great but digging a little deeper he brought something to the Pirates that they sorely lacked in previous seasons, a catcher (or player) that could get on base. The .327 on base percentage was only sixth in baseball among the 10 that had enough plate appearances to qualify but Martin was second of those 10 qualified catcher with a 101 point difference between batting average and on base percentage. It would be great if Martin could hit around .250 but even though he wasn’t slugging the ball all over the field for hits he was still getting on base at a good clip and that is really alright in my book.

Martin started the season off strong with a .274/.344/.560 line in March and April but dipped below a .700 OPS in both May and June. He was back up to a pretty good July but for whatever reason he regressed back in August (.213/.304/.413) and September (.127/.214/.222). While Martin played well for the Pirates last season I think that the team will most likely try to get him a little more time off early in the season. His playing time was pretty consistent throughout the year with about 20 games started in each month but for whatever reason in August and September he dipped really hard.

Over his career he has dropped off late in the year but not nearly as much as he did in 2013. In his career he is a .252/.333/.411 hitter in August and a .233/.336/.381 in September/October. That is not nearly the drop-off from his .255/.349/.396 average so that tells me that maybe his age and use over his 1,000+ career games are catching up with him any maybe playing 100 games instead of 130 will make him more valuable despite the decline in use.

Martin has some flaws in his offensive game but I think his defense makes up for it. He finished last year third on the team in walk rate (11.5%) which was only a tenth of a percent lower than Andrew McCutchen. That makes him valuable even if he is only hitting .260. If the Pirates can find a way to manage him a little more at the beginning of the season they can get some more production later in the year when they will really need him.

First Base: Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo and Travis Ishikawa

First base is really going to be interesting for the Pirates. Last year they went in with Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez. A lot of people found that this platoon was a flop and at the end of the season the Pirates were able to swing a deal for Justin Morneau. Truth be told the first base platoon wasn’t all that bad. Last season Pirates first basemen combined for a .264/.346/.422 line and had an OPS+ of 100 which is just league average.

Now being league average at a position where you are supposed to have some power isn’t good but gone from last year is Jones who was awful with a .233/.289/.419 line with 15 home runs in 440 plate appearances. Gone is Jones but the problem is the Pirates have nothing to go with Sanchez in the platoon. That’s the problem.

First, lets touch on Sanchez. For as much as people didn’t like him last year and thought he was bad that certainly wasn’t the case. In 320 plate appearances he went .254/.361/.402 line and had an wRC+ of 117. Where Sanchez is very valuable is against left handed pitching. Last season against lefties Sanchez hit .333/.448/.539 in 102 plate appearances. Over his career Sanchez is a .300/.399/.496 line in 566 plate appearances which is nearly a full year’s worth of plate appearances. That is significant.

The problem? Sanchez is only .242/.313/.387 against right handed pitchers and last year he was only .204/.304/.315 against right handed pitching. While he probably isn’t as bad against righties as he was in 2013 it would be foolish to think that he should be getting any sort of regular at bats against them in 2014.

Despite some bad hitting against righties Sanchez finished the season leading the team in walk rate (13.8%) and struck out only 15.9% of his plate appearances. If they can limit his exposure against right handed pitching and let him thrive against left handed pitching then I think Sanchez can be better than last year.

That brings us to this question, who is going to hit against right handed pitching? I guess that person is Andrew Lambo. This is not ideal. Lambo is not a first baseman and he only has 33 plate appearances in the majors.

Now, Lambo has had a lot of success in the minor leagues. Last season between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis his hit .282/.347/.574 with 32 home runs. He has the ability to make things work but in the (very) small sample size last season he wasn’t overly good. The problem for me is that there are more right handed pitchers than left handed pitchers so the Pirates need someone to be successful and take a lion share of the at bats against right handed pitching. Lambo could come in and make things alright in that aspect but relying on something with almost no experience to be pretty much an every day guy is a scary proposition.

When I originally wrote this I figured it was pretty certain that Lambo was going to be the big side of the platoon and Ishikawa wasn't going to have much of a chance. That proved to be wrong when the Pirates optioned Lambo a few days ago. Ishikawa isn't really all that good and he is a journeyman first baseman that got some time for the Giants from 2006-2010 and then some time for the Brewers in 2012. His career wRC+ is 92, which isn't good, and the projections have him going around a .240/.310/.360 line. If you aren't a mathematician that is a .670 OPS. Yikes.

I guess what might have helped him gain the spot over Lambo is that he had a pretty good spring. At this point (the morning of March 25) he is .333/.467/.708 this spring. Those stats are in 10 games and 30 plate appearances. I really hope this wasn't made on spring training stats, but on the other hand if it was then that says a lot about what the Pirates think of Lambo.

It is a tough call because I think most of baseball, and the Pirates, know what Ishikawa can bring to the table. I really don't think anyone knows what Lambo can do. Sure, he wasn't that great for most of his minor league career but he played pretty well in the minors last season. What do the Pirates have in him? I guess we aren't going to find out for a little while.

Second Base: Neil Walker

Last year in the preview I said that Neil Walker was going to be the big wild card for the Pirates offense. I don’t really think I have a much different opinion this year than I did last year. We know what we are going to get from guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez, and Russell Martin but I don’t really know what I expect from Walker.

I have been vocal against the notion that the Pirates need to sign him to an extension. Walker is a decent piece to the puzzle but I don’t really think he is good enough to warrant seeing as the Pirates have him locked up through 2017.

In 2013 Walker probably had his best season since 2010 when he posted a 114 wRC+ of 114 and a .251/.339/.418 line in 551 plate appearances. He was consistent with a 2.7 fWAR after being 2.6 in each of the previous two seasons. While he has been right around the same production wise Walker has improved in areas. His 9.1% walk rate which was a significant increase from 2012 when it was 7.7% and the highest since he’s been in the majors. Walker also cut his strikeout rate from 19.6% in 2012 to only 15.4% which led to him getting on base more despite almost a 30 point drop in batting average.

The big question with Walker is whether he should just scrap the right handed hitting and focus on being a left handed hitter. Walker hit just .225/.281/.238 as a right handed batter last season and while that happened in only 80 plate appearances I think the Pirates noticed the trend when he was on the bench later in the season against left handed pitching. Walker was good hitting from the left side (.256/.350/.455) and all but one of his extra base hits came as a left handed hitter. He had one double as a right-handed hitter.

In 2011 and 2012 Walker started putting the ball on the ground a bit more than his overall career line would indicate. As you should know from reading you give yourself the best chance to get on base when you are hitting the ball in the air, whether that is via a line drive or through a fly ball. Walker kept his line drive rate around 23-24%, which is where he was in 2012, but he decreased his groundball rate from 42.3% in 2012 to only 38.5% in 2013. His fly ball rate went up (33.7% in 2012, 38.5% in 2013) with his home run/fly ball ratio staying around the same (11%). Pretty easy to diagnose, more fly balls with the same HR/FB rate equals more home runs and a better chance at getting on. Despite having a dip in batting average it is good that Walker is trending at this rate, even if it doesn’t seem like a huge advantage.

Walker might get away from hitting right-handed and in my opinion that is good. While I have never been a huge supporter of Walker in the past I can more than live with him being a top-10 second baseman. Of the 17 qualified second baseman in the league last year Walker ranked eighth with a 114 wRC+ and was ninth in fWAR. He was also seventh in walk rate. Walker is never going to be a top-five second baseman but if he can produce around the 7-10 range then he is going to make the Pirates offense that much better.

It also must be noted that Walker has been a much better defensive player as the years have gone on. Last season he was tied for fifth among second baseman in defensive runs saved (nine). It was the first time in his career he was a plus in DRS and even though his UZR and UZR/150 were both below average Walker is not nearly as big of a liability in the past than he is now. That could be because of the defensive shifting the Pirates do but he still is noticeably better in the field.

Third Base: Pedro Alvarez

The past couple of years I have talked about how I have no idea who Alvarez is as a player. I knew what he probably was but in the end his hot streaks would last longer and it would get me wildly frustrated as to what he could be. I am finally able to say that I know what he is. Here are the things that he is going to do:

- hit a lot of home runs
- strike out 30% of the time
- go on long cold streaks
- go on decent hot streaks where he carries the team
- make the tough play and air mail the easy one

That is Alvarez.

Now that we have that out of the way here is what happened last year. He hit 36 home runs and was a 3.1 fWAR player. He hit .233/.269/.473 and despite the lack of on base prowess he was a well above league average hitter with a 111 wRC+. He ranked right in the middle in terms of fWAR among the 21 qualified third basemen. That being the case he was second in home runs. His wOBA ranked ninth among those third basemen.

With all the home runs and runs driven in there was some concerns with his offensive production. In 2012 his was rate was up to almost 10% and then fell to 7.8% last season. He is always going to struggle to get on base but with the game changing power he has pitchers are going to nibble and Alvarez still is, and probably will always be swing happy.

While Alvarez stuck right around his swing rates from 2012 his O-Contact% (number of pitches contacted on swings at pitches outside the strike zone) was 48.4% and that dropped to 41.1%. His Z-Contact% (number of pitches contacted on swings at pitches inside the strike zone) also went down about 3% while he swung at almost 5% more in his Z-Swing%. Alvarez is swinging more and contacting less. His overall contact rate went from 70.7% in 2012 to 65.9% last year. All of this could be a one-year aberration since these fall a good bit lower than his career averages but still something that is concerning.

Alvarez really didn’t hit all that well outside of June. In June he went on a tear going for a .309/.380/.680 with 10 home runs. Every other month he was under an .800 OPSand was only over .750 two other months. While the 36 home runs were nice he took somewhat of a step back from 2012.

Defensively last season was the first year that Alvarez was a positive defensive runs saved player. Sure his DRS was only three but that is an eight run improvement from 2012 and a 14 run improvement from 2011. While his DRS improved he still is wildly frustrating. FanGraphs introduced a new defensive metric called Inside Edge Fielding where they breakdown defensive plays by the following system:

Impossible (0%)
Remote (1-10%)
Unlikely (10-40%)
About Even (40-60%)
Likely (60-90%)
Almost Certain / Certain (90-100%)

In that system it had Alvarez making only 95.6% of the almost certain/certain plays which is 16th among qualified third basement and only 76.5% of the likely plays (14th). While the routine plays give him trouble he was tied for fifth among third basemen in remote plays (12.5%) and 10th in unlikely plays (33.3%). I still think his defense keeps getting better but if he could just be better at the plays he should make it would go a long way.

Alvarez is never going to be the OBP hitter that gets on base a lot and I think we are all resigned to that fact. If he could just level it out a little bit and maybe be a .245 or .250 hitter that would be great. I am not overly optimistic that he can do that but as long as he puts 35+ in the stands he can be pretty productive.

Shortstop: Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes

Part way through the 2013 season the move that had to be made was finally made. Jordy Mercer took over the shortstop duties from Clint Barmes. Barmes was playing some really bad baseball. His defensive metrics are still off the charts compared to his peers but he went .211/.249/.309 from the plate. Brutally bad.

Mercer finished the year going .285/.336/.435 and while his play, both offensively and defensively, were streaky he gave the Pirates a much better offense offensively. Barmes was still there for the late innings and when the Pirates brought Barmes back this year that is exactly what they were setting up for, and that is OK by me.

Barmes was second in the entire league last year in defensive runs saved (12) and while his defense fell off a little from 2012 he still was outstanding in the field. While Barmes doesn’t have a place on this team as an every day play, or even a platoon player, I think he is perfect in the backup/late inning defensive replacement role.

Now to Mercer. In a weird twist in the month’s of June, July, and August he had exactly 75 at bats. That has nothing to do with him as a player but I found that interesting. Actually, when you look at the month-by-month breakdown Mercer was pretty good. Here, take a look:



I guess looking back I thought he was a little more streaky but looking at the splits it was pretty nice. I mean any time you can add almost 100 points of OBP to your shortstop position you will take it. That comes with the nuance that you are going to get less on the defensive end but that is the tradeoff you take and makes the resigning of Barmes that much more important. Mercer had a negative DRS on the season (-2) that ranked 21st in the league among shortstops with at least 500 innings played at the position.

While Mercer is a step down from Barmes I really do think that Mercer is better than many think. I think watching guys like Jack Wilson, Barmes, and Ronny Cedeno (ha, right) really made people put a higher expectation defensively on shortstops. The Pirates need Mercer at short and it will be fun to see him take the reigns from the start of the season and see how he does.

Left Field: Starling Marte

Starling Marte is a fun baseball player to watch. There are flaws in his game and things he absolutely needs to improve on but man, when he hits a ball into the gap there isn’t anything more excited than watching him turn on the jets to get to third base. He plays an outstanding left field and while that seems like something you can brush off when you consider how massive left field at PNC Park is, a place where the Pirates play half their games, it becomes pretty important to have someone out there that can field their position.

Offensively Marte finished the year hitting .280/.343/.441 and was a 4.6 fWAR player. While he was caught stealing 15 times he did steal 41 bases which is something that hasn’t happened in Pittsburgh in some time.

In his first full year he had some trouble adjusting to the adjustments that other pitchers were making but all told I think it was a pretty big success. I talked about things that he needs to work on and for someone that is going to hit in the leadoff spot you would like him get on base a little more.

I know you probably look above and see the .343 on base percentage and think that is good enough and normally I would agree with you. The problem is that Marte did not do a good job at taking walks (4.4%) and relied on getting hit by a lot of pitches (24). I talked here about the likelihood of Marte being able to rely on HBPs to keep his on base percentage up. Hint: It’s not terribly likely.

Marte is a little swing happy and it got worse this year. While league average O-Swing% is 30% Marte increased his to nearly 37% last season and only contacted 58.5% of those swings which is well below the league average of 68%. I am not sure if this is something that can be change but my gut feeling is that it can’t.

In some respects I don’t think this is as bad for Marte as it would be for a guy like Barmes because even if Marte does make weak contact and send a dribbler in the infield he has more than enough speed to beat it out. Last season Marte had 18 infield hits (23rd in MLB) and while those do include bunt base hits he does have the ability to leg out weakly hit balls.

Bottom line is that Marte is a free-swinging talent. He doesn’t really make enough of his opportunities and somewhat think he is wasted at the top of the order but one thing is for certain, he makes the most out of his talent and he is a lot of fun to watch.

Right Field: Jose Tabata

If you have been following me and reading this site for any amount of time you know that I am a huge Jose Tabata fan. As of right now he is slated to be the Pirates starting right fielder. A lot of people are banking on Gregory Polanco playing for almost the entire year with the Pirates but that is a little out of the realm of possibilities for a number of reasons. Pat over at WHYGAVS actually did a nice post a few weeks ago breaking down why keeping him down isn’t that crazy.

When Polanco comes up is neither here nor there, the fact is that the Pirates are going to rely on Tabata to produce and give him the chance to do so. That is what they should do and despite the fact that they went out and got Marlon Byrd last season to play instead of riding Tabata they went with Byrd.

Truth be told Tabata was actually pretty good last season. He hit .282/.342/.429 with a wRC+ of 118 and ended the season hitting .312/.357/.490 from April 1 forward that included 45 games. That, my friends, ain’t bad. He was decent before an injury caused him to miss a month (.272/.337/.407) but he was much better after he came back (.282/.344/.436).

That is one of the problems with Tabata, he can’t stay healthy. He has yet to play more than 106 games in a season, which happened last season, and he has been really up and down production-wise. He really had his best year in 2010 when he came up as a rookie and hit .299/.346/.400 in 102 games and last year he got back to that. What is a little interesting is how he got to that.

In 2011 he was pretty good for the Pirates and did so with the help of a walk rate of 10.5% but in the last two years it has slowly declined (7.8% - 2012; 6.7% - 2013). While his walk rate is way down his strikeout rate is much lower at 13.2% than it was in 2011 when he struck out 16% of the time. That seems like a tradeoff but getting his walk rate back to 8% or so would be nice, not great, but manageable.

He has lost some of his athleticism and doesn’t play very good defense but I think people are really underrating how solid he has been in his time here. He isn’t going to mash the ball into the river and won’t wow you but a career .274/.339/.385 hitter really isn’t that terrible. He might be better suited for a bench spot but if he can stay healthy (big if) he will be more than fine in right field.

A lot of people think this is going to be a platoon situation but I don’t really think that is a given. Tabata hits better against righties (.279.340/.379) than he does against lefties (.258/.332/.403) and while his average isn’t great against lefties his other two portions of the slash lines are about equal. Travis Snider isn’t going to hit against lefties so I would expect that Tabata will get the chance to play more in right field than anyone else.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen

The Pirates truly have something special in Andrew McCutchen. That might be the understatement of the last 20+ years for the Pirates, even more of an understatement than saying before last season the Pirates were playing bad baseball for 20 years.

There was some sediment among people that they still weren’t sure what McCutchen was all about. I mean he was obviously a great baseball player but with the two collapses that both he and the Pirates had in 2011 and 2012 it was a really tough pill to swallow. With how good he was in 2012 it didn’t seem like it since his massive second half drop off really took away from the good things he had done in the first half.

Well 2013 was a success in every sense of the word. McCutchen earned the NL MVP award along with leading the Pirates to a playoff berth for the first time since 1992. He hit .317/.404/.508 with a wRC+ of 155 and was an 8.2 fWAR player. He wasn’t the best in the game but he can be in that discussion.

Maybe the best part of his season wasn’t that he was able to play though a whole season or that his defense improved or that his base running improved but it was what he did at the plate that took a huge step forward.

Last season McCutchen both increased his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate. In 2012, what some considered to be a breakout season for McCutchen, he stuck out a career-high 19.6% of his plate appearances which was up from his 18.6% rate in 2011. In 2013 his strikeout rate was down to only 15% which denotes a much better contact rate which was back to his career average (80.9%) after being down around 77% the year before. In terms of walk rate he earned the free pass eight more times than in 2012 and posted a walk rate of 11.6%. These are both really nice trends.

What is even more encouraging about last season was his batted ball rates. This is the area of the stat line where you can honestly say that he can still improve and thus make him a better, and more dangerous hitter in 2014 than he was last year. As I talked about before you are much more likely to get a hit off a line drive than a fly ball and more likely a fly ball than a ground ball. McCutchen went in the right direction in all three of those areas in 2013. His ground ball rate dropped from 43.8% in 2012 to 40.7% in 2013. While that drop is good it is even better that those balls he didn’t hit on the ground were created into line drive swings. In 2012 his line drive rate was at 21.9% but last season he jumped up to 24.5%. Turning ground balls into line drives is a great way to stay more consistent and become a more dangerous hitter. McCutchen has actually increased his line drive rate every season since he broke into the league. Great stuff.

I know that people look at his MVP year of 2013 and think that maybe it’s the best that he can do but if he continues to improve and trend in the direction he did from 2012 to 2013 then he is going to be even a more dangerous hitter this year. Scary good.

Bench: Chris Stewart, Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo

I already talked about Barmes and Lambo above so I don’t think I really need to touch on them again. Barmes is going to be a nice guy to start a few times a week and Lambo will be relied on a little more.

The other guy in the platoon role this year, in a way, is Travis Snider. Tabata is going to get the first chance to start in right field but Snider will get some play out there and try to prove that an awful 2013 was more due to injury than him just not being any good.

Last season Snider was awful. He was the least valuable hitter on the big league team last year and in 111 games he hit .215/.281/.333 with a wRC+ of 70. Just brutal. He struck out a good bit (26.3%) and had an alright walk rate (8.4%).

Snider was once a top prospect with Toronto and while he has shown some flashes in 403 career games he’s hit .241/.303/.398 with little or nothing to show for himself. He hits a ton of groundballs (51.6% in 2013), doesn’t hit a lot of line drives (15.2% in 2013), and with little or no speed to speak of that isn’t even remotely worthwhile.

As I said before Snider was injured last year and seems to be a pretty injury prone player. Kinda sounds like Tabata but Tabata actually has shown some talent on the field to give him a chance. If Snider can stay healthy I think we can finally get a clear pitcher of what the Pirates have in him but up until this point it doesn’t look like they have much. I guess you could have worse options but I really am not expecting a lot from Snider in 2014.

Josh Harrison is going to do what he has done every year for the Pirates. He is going to be a super utility guy and give them a few hundred plate appearance and be able to fill in at right field and every infield position except first base. Actually I think he played first base one time before so who knows.

Harrison doesn’t bring much offensively as his walk rate is non-existent (career 4.3%, 2.1% in 2013) and holds a very batting average dependent on base percentage. The good news is that he doesn’t strike out a lot (10.5% in 2013) and is a career .250 hitter so if this is a guy you don’t expect to play a ton he can be very valuable as a swing man. Every team needs a guy like this as you can’t carry a backup for every position on the field.

Chris Stewart is the bench catcher. The Pirates signed him this season after playing for the Yankees the last two years. Stewart isn’t good offensively. At all. He hit .211/.293/.272 in 340 plate appearances last year and if you are looking for him to give you anything offensively then you are already in a bad place.

Stewart is a good pitch framer and really it is the only reason I think the Pirates signed him. They are keeping him on the roster instead of Tony Sanchez which is somewhat of a head scratcher but at the same time I think I can somewhat understand it. I will get into the Sanchez/Stewart situation in a few days as part three of the Pirates preview but the round about answer is the Pirates want Sanchez to play every day and he wouldn’t do that for much of the season as the backup.

I think Sanchez will be the backup around the middle of the season, or if he forces there hand, but Stewart just isn’t good. There might literally be hundreds of guys who could match his offense and the only thing saving him not having a job are his defensive metrics. Put it this way, if Martin goes down I would not expect Stewart to be the starter.

Again, after I wrote this I found out that Stewart had some minor knee surgery and will miss the start of the season. Sanchez will be up with the big club to start the year and when Stewart is healthy and ready to go then Sanchez will go back down to AAA unless something drastic happens.

If you made it through all of that then congratulations. Tomorrow you can come back and check out the second part of the series which looks at the Pirates pitching staff which includes the starters and relievers.