Pirates Prospects » Analysis http://www.piratesprospects.com Your best source for news on the Pittsburgh Pirates and their minor league system. Sat, 26 Jul 2014 05:54:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Pirates Approach to the Trade Deadline Probably Won’t Change From Previous Years http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/pirates-approach-to-the-trade-deadline-probably-wont-change-from-previous-years.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/pirates-approach-to-the-trade-deadline-probably-wont-change-from-previous-years.html#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 20:31:05 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=84271 Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington spoke to the media on Sunday, and with a little over a week to go until the trade deadline, it’s no surprise that a lot of the discussion was about possible trades the Pirates could make.

“We feel good about this group,” Huntington said. “We feel good that we’re in the middle of the division race, that we’re in the middle of the Wild Card race and we’ve got some guys that still have room to grow. We don’t have a ton of guys having career years, we’ve got some guys that we think are on the rebound, that we think are ready to take some steps forward. But there are some players out there, whether it is starting pitching or relievers, position players, role players that can help us, that can be upgrades over what we have. And we wouldn’t be doing our jobs to take a look at that. The challenge becomes what cost are projected current wins versus projected future wins. And that’s always going to be a balance we’re going to walk, but overall we do like this club.”

So far, the Pirates have been connected to pitching more than any other position. They had some glaring needs last year at first base and right field. The right field spot doesn’t seem to be a need anymore. Gregory Polanco is struggling, but that’s to be expected from a rookie just making the jump to the majors. First base has seen some struggles, but it doesn’t seem like the Pirates will be making a deal at that position, based on Huntington’s comments on Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez.

“The positive sign is Ike probably has one of the better on base percentages of our group,” Huntington said. “It’s just the power hasn’t been there that we expected. You see it in batting practice, you see him drive balls. Just not doing it in a consistent basis in a game for the last six or so weeks. Gaby has shown some positive signs, he can still do damage against left-handers pitching, you don’t want to overexpose him against right handers. That is one of the areas where if those guys get going and doing what they are capable of, we’re going to get quality production from that spot. We’ve got a handful of other spots that if they can step up a little bit, we’ll have an even better offense.”

The interesting thing about Davis is that he has a career .698 OPS in the first half, and an .866 OPS in the second half. This year he had a .698 OPS in the first half. If he can repeat his second half success, then that would be a huge boost for the offense, and an upgrade wouldn’t be needed.

The pitching seems to be the focus, and specifically relief pitching. Relief pitching seems to be a focus for every contending team this year, as we can see by Ken Rosenthal’s update on teams looking for relievers.

I wrote last week about how the deadline should be moved back, and how the second Wild Card has created a situation where you have so many teams who still believe they’re in the hunt, and very few teams who are sellers. That has created an extreme seller’s market, which Huntington talked about.

“It’s the basic law of supply and demand,” Huntington said. “There are not a lot of teams looking to sell. There are a lot of teams that are looking to buy. There’s not a ton of players out there that are significant upgrades. There are some guys that you think can be. So, as a result the asking prices are higher than you’d like them to be…it’s that balance between what you give up for a projected current wins at the cost of the future.”

Even though the Pirates have been linked to a lot of relievers, I can’t seem them making a big splash for a reliever. That has never been their style, and the current market for relievers will only drive the prices up, making it more likely that a Huston Street return will be needed for any future deals. As for the starting pitching market, that’s also a market that has seen some high prices, especially with the Jeff Samardzija trade that sent Addison Russell to the Chicago Cubs. The Street and Samardzija trades are examples of big prices that will probably be used by other selling teams as the market for future trades.

“It’s like a free agent contract,” Huntington said on the impact of the Samardzija trade. “It seems to be the outlier. Then that becomes the standard that everyone asks for. Teams are aggressive. To make a move in the early part of July or the end part of July, you’ve got to preempt the market. You’ve got to be aggressive in order to do that. It’s not necessarily the wrong thing to do. In some situations it’s absolutely the right thing to do. We just haven’t found that right fit yet.”

Last year the Pirates didn’t make any trades in July, and then added Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, and John Buck in late August. Based on the current market, and the situation with so many buyers and not enough sellers, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them do that again.

“It’d be disingenuous of me to say that we passed in July to wait for August,” Huntington said. “We worked hard in July. We just didn’t find what we thought was the right fit. We stayed with it in August. We’ll do the exact same thing this year. We’ll work hard in July to find the right fit and if we don’t, then we’ll continue to work hard in August. And, if we find the right fit in August, great. And, if we don’t than that means we didn’t find the right balance and we didn’t think it was the right fit for us.”

I have a hard time believing the Pirates won’t make a move. Whether it’s July or August when they make a trade, Huntington has been active in each of the last few deadlines. They added Byrd and Morneau last year. In 2012 it was Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, and Gaby Sanchez. In 2011 they traded for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. The common trend here is that the Pirates didn’t give up any impact guys. They gave up good prospects like Robbie Grossman and Dilson Herrera, but we didn’t see a top of the system guy traded. I don’t expect that to change this year.

The Pirates are in a good situation this year. Their pitching has been good, but they don’t have anyone looking like a top of the rotation guy. Their hitting has been good, and that’s with a few players under-performing. They don’t really have a glaring need like previous years. They also have depth options in the system, like Brandon Cumpton and Nick Kingham for the rotation in the second half. But based on Huntington’s comments on Sunday, I don’t expect them to be content with the current set up.

“As we sit here right now, we’ve got some internal options that if they step forward we’re going to get some quality production from them,” Huntington said. “But, we’ll still look for a way to get better if there is the right opportunity.”

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The ‘Stubborn’ Approach That Has the Pirates Leading the NL in OBP http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/the-stubborn-approach-that-has-the-pirates-leading-the-nl-in-obp.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/the-stubborn-approach-that-has-the-pirates-leading-the-nl-in-obp.html#comments Sun, 20 Jul 2014 17:00:49 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83970

When the Pittsburgh Pirates began the 2014 season, an offensive approach touting the importance of on-base percentage was emphasized after the team finished ninth in the National League with a below-average .313 clip.

After 97 games this season, the Pirates lead the National League with a .332 OBP, and are scoring over 4 runs per game.

Year On-Base Percentage League Rank Runs Per Game League Rank
2013 .313 8th 3.91 9th
2014 .332 1st 4.10 6th

Alongside the improvements in OBP, the Pirates are among the top N.L. teams with a 8.8 percent walk rate (3rd), a .388 slugging percentage (5th) and are one of just three teams with a wRC+ over 100 at 104, second to only the Dodgers (106).

Being “intelligently aggressive” is the catchphrase general manager Neal Huntington uses to describe his team’s offensive success. That, in tandem with manager Clint Hurdle’s mantra of “staying stubborn in your approach”, has paid dividends.

“Our guys have attacked their pitch when they’ve gotten it,” Huntington said. “They’ve not been afraid to take pitchers’ pitches early in counts, instead of putting pitches in play weakly which is what we’d done early.”

Think of it this way; the hot topic at this year’s All-Star Break wasn’t when the offense will finally break out, as it usually would be, but instead what the team can do to improve the back-end of the bullpen.

But the Pirates are 51-46 just after the break, and remain in contention mostly due to their offensive performance while the pitching staff continues to sort itself out amidst injuries and inconsistency.

Consistent Improvement

Month Games AVG R OBP SLG OPS wRC+
March/April 26 .222 96 .296 .351 .647 84
May 29 .276 111 .347 .401 .748 113
June 27 .270 128 .350 .404 .754 114
July 15 .253 63 .330 .398 .729 105

There isn’t too much of a secret to the way the Pirates recovered from an atrocious start at the plate, when their on-base percentage was equal to the Colorado Rockies’ batting average for the first month of the season.

Teams generally perform below their abilities at the plate during the first few weeks of the season, so the slow start to April should’ve been taken with a grain of salt. As hitters establish some rhythm and get into the literal “swing” of things, numbers rise as the calendar turns and that’s exactly what’s happened for the Pirates.

As for the Rockies, their April was an extreme outlier. The next best-hitting team was the Miami Marlins who hit .260.

Of course, the Pirates’ April was still quite bad. Their .222 average was third-worst in the league.

While Pittsburgh has benefited from the passage of time, the team has also gotten contributions from three individuals that helped the offense turn into one of the National League’s best so far this season.

The People’s Right Fielder

As discussed earlier in the week, the Pirates may not be in contention right now if it wasn’t for Josh Harrison’s play — especially at the plate — after he became a regular in the lineup, which he did around May 20.

His role at the plate in that span has helped the team turn its offensive fortunes nearly as much as anyone else in the batter’s box.

“First month, we were in a little rough patch and guys were still trying to figure it out,” Harrison said. “It’s one of those things where May comes and guys start to get a feel for it. They’ve had 100 ABs for the season and they start to get a feel for their set-up and their approach, and how guys are pitching them. “

Josh Harrison's hitting earned him regular time, and helped the Pirates stay afloat.(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Josh Harrison’s hitting earned him regular time, and helped the Pirates stay afloat.(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Harrison started to “figure it out” in a big way once he became a regular.

In 207 plate appearances since May 20, Harrison has batted .295/.335/.420. And, he’s created 13 percent more runs than the average hitter with a 113 wRC+ in that span.

Month PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
May 87 .317 .356 .488 .844 139
June 110 .317 .358 .465 .823 131

He’s also been worth 2.2 WAR in his 79 games played, 53 of which have been starts. Most of those came in the Pirates’ two best-hitting months of 2014, which also happened to be Harrison’s hottest months.

His numbers have been good this season, and gave the Pirates stability in the outfield while they awaited the arrival of Gregory Polanco. Harrison has struggled in the early weeks of July, but maintains the importance of sticking to his approach and not becoming “result-oriented” despite his success.

“It can tear you up,” Harrison said. “You can do everything right and not get the results, but at the same time if you do stick with that approach and do what you’re supposed to, you’re going to be rewarded.”

The reward for Harrison includes consistent playing time despite Polanco’s presence.

The Right Fielder of the Present (and Future)

Speaking of the highly-touted right fielder, Gregory Polanco’s role in the lineup has helped complete the Pirates’ offense.

Hurdle mixed and matched in the leadoff spot prior to Polanco’s arrival June 10, a process that resulted in a few days on the bench for Starling Marte.

Now, the Pirates have their leadoff hitter in Polanco and a formidable trio at the top of the lineup with him, Marte and McCutchen awaiting opposing pitchers in their first inning of work each game.

Despite a slump to begin July, Polanco has accorded himself through his first month of major-league play.

AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
.255 .342 .336 .678 99

With another dangerous bat in the Pirates’ lineup, the numbers for the hitters around Polanco have spiked up–especially Marte’s.

Marte AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
March 31 – June 9 .240 .311 .371 .683 96
June 10 – July 19 .303 .374 .438 .812 134

The friendship between the two Dominicans is well-documented, but it’s relatively difficult to quantify how that might impact Marte’s hitting.

Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte

Gregory Polanco’s arrival has seemingly brought out the best of Starling Marte. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

But for one thing, Marte is seeing better pitches to hit since Polanco joined the big-league club. Since June 10, Marte has seen 48.4 percent of pitches come through the strike zone — a seven percent boost from the 42.2 percent clip he received prior to Polanco’s arrival.

Polanco’s call-up also coincided with the beginning of McCutchen’s torrid hitting, but his numbers have also improved since.

McCutchen AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
March 31 – June 9 .309 .423 .509 .932 166
June 10 – July 19 .341 .409 .667 1.076 197

At any rate, Polanco’s presence in the lineup may be what has allowed McCutchen’s power numbers to improve lately, with nine of his 17 home runs coming in the stretch since June 10.

Andrew McCutchen Heading to Another MVP Award

When attempting to implement a new philosophy, it’s generally a good sign when a team’s best player is one to tout what’s being preached. The Pirates are fortunate to have Andrew McCutchen, who’s talked about staying stubborn in one’s approach as much as his hitting coach, Jeff Branson.

The 2013 National League Most Valuable Player believes his approach helped him post a scorching hot month of June in which he recorded a 1.096 OPS with eight home runs, and 12 doubles.

As McCutchen raked, he propelled the Pirates to a 17-10 June record that helped them overcome a slow start in April and May, and the team jumped back into contention as a result.

Month AVG HR OPS wRC+
March/April .286 4 .908 158
May .310 0 .815 142
June .343 8 1.096 204
July .356 5 1.198 228

It was no wonder he was named the National League’s Player of the Month, and his approach had a lot to do with that success.

“It’s paying dividends,” he said. “Definitely.”

In June and through the early parts of July, McCutchen is red-hot. He’s creating double the average number of runs, and his 177 wRC+ for the season is tops in the N.L. and bested only by Mike Trout.

Andrew McCutchen might be setting himself up for another MVP Award. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen might be setting himself up for another MVP Award. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

His 4.6 WAR ranks second in the N.L., topped only by Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

Stubbornness in McCutchen’s approach has also been a major factor in what’s been most important for the center fielder, especially as opposing pitchers are giving him less and less to hit after his MVP season.

“Staying within myself is the biggest thing,” McCutchen said. “Staying within myself, seeing the ball deep, letting it travel and just trying to drive the ball.”

As McCutchen and the Pirates continue to stick to what they do best at the plate, the pitching staff has the leeway necessary to round into form. If that happens, the Pirates can be just as dangerous as any other team as they enter the home stretch of the 2014 season.

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Prospect Highlights: First Look at a GCL Pirates Pitcher With a Tale of Perseverance http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/prospect-highlights-first-look-at-a-gcl-pirates-pitcher-with-a-tale-of-perseverance.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/prospect-highlights-first-look-at-a-gcl-pirates-pitcher-with-a-tale-of-perseverance.html#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 15:08:43 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83917 Yesterday, we shared some great video of 19-year-old five-tool outfielder Tito Polo from Tuesday’s GCL Pirates game. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, the link includes four of his plate appearances from the game.  You don’t often see video from down in the GCL, but we are lucky enough to get our own video once in awhile, as well as some help from the GCL Pirates fan page. So you’re getting a chance to see some of these of these players much earlier than usual. Today, we take a look at a pitcher from the GCL Pirates for the first time, one that has a very interesting story. Yunior Montero

Today’s featured player is Yunior Montero, who is an incredible case of perseverance in a young pitcher. He was signed by the Pirates in 2009 for $45,000 and then MLB stepped in and said they couldn’t verify his age/identity, so his contract was voided. Well, Montero got a lot better while he was waiting for the verification process and the Pirates had to fork over $185,000 to sign him a second time because other teams saw his progress. Montero pitched for the DSL Pirates in 2011, starting the second game of the season. In his pro debut, he threw five shutout innings, allowing two hits, a walk and he struck out four batters. It sure looked like the Pirates had a stud pitcher. He was still just 17 years old, a 6’4″ right-hander that threw 94 MPH and he dominated in his pro debut after being forced to sit out a year.

That one start for Montero turned out to be his only game for a long time. The higher ups at MLB again stepped in and voided his contract, again it was due to identity issues. This time, it caused him to miss the rest of the 2011 season, all of 2012 and he didn’t sign again until the 2013 July 2nd signing period started. The third time seems to be a charm, but it really makes you wonder what went on with Montero. His name has never changed and his age hasn’t either, he is 20 years old right now, turns 21 in August and he was signed in August of 2009, meaning that he turned 16 then, which is the age in which international players can first sign. These last three years, he has just been pitching on the side, still showing the potential he had back in 2010, when he signed a six-figure deal, but he didn’t get anywhere near that amount the third time he signed.

Montero’s struggles didn’t exactly end when he signed his third contract in early July last year. If all went well with it, he would have pitched in the DSL last season. He was working out daily at the Pirates Academy and I was told by other that he was anxiously waiting to get back on the mound, basically a young man on a mission. While he was signed again, the contract wasn’t approved right away and he watched the 2013 season slip by. Montero finally got his contract approved and the Pirates realized that he had the potential to move up, despite the lack of in-game experience.

So now after 4 1/2 years of delays and MLB red tape, Yunior Montero is finally doing what he loves, what his arm was made for, pitching in games that count. He is in the bullpen for the GCL Pirates. He has thrown 11 innings over seven appearances, posting a 2.45 ERA, with two walks, seven strikeouts and a .279 BAA. Not bad for someone that has spent the last three years waiting to finally get his opportunity to play baseball.

Below is video from the last out of his appearance on Tuesday, followed by another showing a grounder to shortstop.

Ground out to shortstop, scored a base hit and throwing error by Cole Tucker, which allowed the runner from second to score. This play actually allowed the go-ahead run to score, which saddled Montero with his first career loss.

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Why the Pirates Will Be Fine if They Don’t Make a Big Addition to the Bullpen http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/why-the-pirates-will-be-fine-if-they-dont-make-a-big-addition-to-the-bullpen.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/why-the-pirates-will-be-fine-if-they-dont-make-a-big-addition-to-the-bullpen.html#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:16:22 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83858 It seems like every year around this time I get into the same debates involving the bullpen. If you’ve read this site over the last few years, you know that I’m totally against paying anything for relief pitching. That involves trading prospects to add a reliever, or spending ridiculous amounts of money for a guy who has a limited upside due to his role. And so anytime the ideas come up to trade for a “Proven Closer” to boost the bullpen, I’m against it.

That idea is coming up this week, with a lot of Pirates fans wanting Huston Street. The Pirates seem to have some sort of interest, as they’ve checked on Street. This is a good time to remind everyone that “checking on” a player doesn’t really mean anything. Teams would be foolish to not check on Street, or any other player rumored to be available. You never know when you could get a great deal that you wouldn’t have gotten without checking. But I don’t think that will be the case with Street.

I don’t think the Pirates should deal for Street, or any other big name reliever. They’ve got plenty of prospects in the system, so a trade wouldn’t hurt them for the long-term. They’ve got money to spend, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford it. But spending prospects or money just because you’ve got that to spend is never a wise approach. In the case of relievers, you don’t need to spend to get quality. If you are spending to get quality, what you’re really spending for is comfort. A lot of teams do this, and it baffles me that the process continues, even though we have so much information that relievers are extremely volatile and not worth the expense.

I could talk about how spending for relievers is a bad idea because of how volatile they are. I could talk about how relievers really don’t provide a big impact, especially when you’re talking middle relievers. But if I’m talking about why they Pirates shouldn’t spend on relievers, all I really need to do is look at their history. That history shows that the Pirates don’t need to spend on relievers to get a quality mid-season addition. Here is a look at all of their mid-season moves over the last few years.

2013

The Pirates didn’t really need much bullpen help during the 2013 season, as everyone in their group was performing well. The only outside move they made was signing Kyle Farnsworth as a minor league free agent during the season. He signed on August 16th, after being released by the Rays, and was called up in September when rosters expanded. Farnsworth had limited playing time, but only allowed one run in 8.2 innings, with nine strikeouts six hits, and three walks.

2012

Not every move has worked out for the Pirates. In 2012 they traded Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls and signed Hisanori Takahashi as a free agent at the end of August. The Takahashi move didn’t work out, as he gave up eight runs in 8.1 innings with the Pirates.

The deal for Qualls is an interesting situation that highlights how volatile relievers can be. The Pirates didn’t give up much in McGehee, trading a player who was no longer needed with the addition of Gaby Sanchez. They got Qualls, who had been struggling with New York. Those struggles continued with the Pirates, as he posted a 6.59 ERA in 13.2 innings, with a 6:2 K/BB ratio.

What makes this interesting is that Qualls went to Miami in 2013 and put up a 2.61 ERA in 62 innings, with a 7.1 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. This year he has a 1.95 ERA in 32.1 innings, with an 8.1 K/9 and a 1.1 BB/9. The move for Qualls didn’t work for the Pirates, but they obviously saw the potential for him to put up much better numbers than what he was doing in 2012. He just waited to put up those numbers after he left the Pirates.

2011

Prior to their first big collapse, the Pirates were in their first year as mid-season contenders in a long time. They weren’t strong contenders, mostly hanging around because of the weakness of the rest of the NL Central. They needed bullpen help, but rather than making a big trade for a reliever, they made a minor move, signing a veteran pitcher as a free agent. That veteran was Jason Grilli, who was free for anyone to take from the Philadelphia Triple-A squad. He had a clause in his contract that allowed any team to sign him to a major league deal. The Phillies could either refuse and add him to their own MLB team, or release him and allow him to sign with the new team. They obviously chose the latter.

Grilli posted a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings with the Pirates, with a 10.2 K/9 and a 4.1 BB/9 ratio. He went on to be one of the best relievers in baseball over the next two seasons, before dropping off this year with the Pirates. He has started to turn things around since being traded to the Angels, with a 1.29 ERA in 7 innings, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9.

The irony here for the Phillies is that they went out and signed Jonathan Papelbon to a massive four-year, $50 M deal the following off-season. Grilli ended up costing the Pirates a little less than $4 M combined in 2011-13.

2010

The 2010 season didn’t really matter as far as in-season moves, as the Pirates were clear sellers and one of the worst teams in baseball. At the trade deadline, they dealt most of their bullpen, sending off D.J. Carrasco, Javier Lopez, and Octavio Dotel in three separate deals. The returns didn’t provide any lasting impact. The biggest impact was James McDonald, who had some decent results in 2010-12, before falling off last year. They still have Andrew Lambo from that same deal, which sent Dotel to the Dodgers.

Less than a week after the deadline, the Pirates claimed two relievers off waivers. They got Chan Ho Park, who was only with the team through the end of the season, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since. He had a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings, with a 7.3 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. That was good production, although it was limited by taking place during two meaningless months.

The bigger impact was the addition of Chris Resop. He was claimed off waivers, and combined for a 3.88 ERA in 162.1 innings for the Pirates from 2011-13. During the 2013 off-season he was traded for Zack Thornton, who was one of two players dealt to the Mets this year for Ike Davis.

2009

This was another year where the Pirates were a horrible team, and weren’t really making mid-season moves aimed at a strong second half. However, they did make a big move to add a reliever, and at the time that reliever wasn’t even the main focus of his deal.

The Pirates were rumored to be going after Lastings Milledge of the Washington Nationals, offering Nyjer Morgan in return. The deal was rumored for a few weeks before it finally happened. When it did happen, there was a second part of the deal added — a swap of Sean Burnett for Joel Hanrahan. That swap was meant to even out the deal for Washington, as Hanrahan was struggling, and Burnett was looking like a good lefty reliever. It ended up that Hanrahan was the best player in the deal.

He immediately turned things around with the Pirates, posting a 1.72 ERA in 31.1 innings, along with a 10.6 K/9 and a 5.7 BB/9. The walks improved going forward, as Hanrahan eventually became a top closer in 2011. His walks struggled in 2012, and he dealt with some injuries, but the overall results were still there. The Pirates dealt him that off-season, getting four players in return. One of those players was Mark Melancon, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball the last two years. He has also been much better than Huston Street, so paying for Street to replace Melancon as the closer would make no sense at all.

Going Cheap With Relievers Isn’t a Bad Thing

Looking at the common trend with the above moves, we can see that the Pirates don’t pay for relievers. They don’t deal prospects to help their bullpen. Instead they use waiver claims, sign free agents, or trade from their bench or bullpen to get potential short and long-term pieces.

The thing about this approach is that the Pirates have had a ton of success. They haven’t been perfect, as we’ve seen with Qualls and Takahashi. But for the most part, they’ve done an outstanding job of paying nothing for strong relief pitching. You could expand that track record by looking at off-season moves that brought in guys like Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, or even looking at their decision to turn struggling minor league starters into strong MLB relievers (Tony Watson, Jared Hughes).

The first attempt the Pirates have made this year has been dealing for Ernesto Frieri. That has not worked out in the first seven games that Frieri has pitched. The irony is that it looked like Frieri had the better chance of rebounding than Grilli, and it has been Grilli who has rebounded so far (although with a lower strikeout rate than normal).

I don’t know if Frieri represents the final approach to adding bullpen help. I do know that after the trade, it was mentioned that the Pirates were looking at him for a few years. With that in mind, I don’t think they’re going to be cutting him loose after just seven appearances.

It’s also possible that the recently signed Rafael Perez could work into the mix. He’s not far removed from being a strong MLB reliever, and right now he’s being used as a starter with Indianapolis. That’s probably to fill out the Triple-A rotation, but also to get Perez more innings and more of a look.

The Pirates might add more guys to help out their bullpen over the next few weeks. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the additions are the same low-key deals. I would be surprised if they pay big in prospects, or take on a guy who is making a lot of money. That’s just not what they do when it comes to the bullpen. And I’m fine with that. There are some who would call the Pirates cheap, citing basic analysis that trading prospects or spending money is the only way to make a good move. As we’ve seen throughout the last few years, the Pirates have a great track record of adding relievers without paying for them. There’s no reason that approach should change now.

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All-Stars Responsible for Pirates’ Early-Season Recovery http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/all-stars-responsible-for-pirates-early-season-recovery.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/all-stars-responsible-for-pirates-early-season-recovery.html#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 15:00:02 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83679


The Pittsburgh Pirates began the 2014 season in a fashion rather unbecoming after they finally ended professional sports’ longest losing streak with 95 victories last year and pushed the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals to five games in the 2013 National League Division Series.

By May 20, the Pirates were 8 games under .500 at 18-26, 8 games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and 5.5 out of a playoff spot. The team looked listless as their playoff odds plummeted daily.

But nearly two months later, the Pirates are back in contention after posting one of the league’s best records since early May. They won 15 of their last 22 games before the break and own a record of 49-46, placing them 3.5 back of Milwaukee and only 3 games out of the playoffs.

Three players will represent Pittsburgh at Target Field tonight in Minneapolis, Minn., in the 85th rendition of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. And they are the three with whom the Pirates’ recent surge has been closely tied the most.

Andrew McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen’s two home runs Saturday night in Cincinnati will be looked at over and over for the next week as one of the primary reasons he is the starting center fielder for year’s National League All-Star team.

After all, it was the first time in franchise history a player hit a game-tying home run and then the game-winner in the same contest. And his performance in those two at-bats–especially after the Pirates blew a four-run lead the night before–is certainly worthy of that attention.

But look back at a game five days earlier, when the Pirates faced their former ace A.J. Burnett in the final game of their series with Philadelphia on July 6. Burnett struck out the first two hitters he faced, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison, on seven pitches and appeared prime for a dominant outing.

McCutchen leads the Pirates in nearly every major offensive category (Photo Credit: David Hague)

McCutchen leads the Pirates in nearly every major offensive category. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

In stepped McCutchen, who grounded Burnett’s 1-2 off-speed offering deep in the shortstop hole that was fielded by third baseman Cody Asche. McCutchen sped down the first-base line to beat the throw over and keep Burnett from a perfect first.

Neil Walker followed with a single and Russell Martin drove the two home with a two-run double off Burnett that wouldn’t have been possible without McCutchen’s hustle.

“That’s my game,” McCutchen said. “I go up, hit a ball on the ground and I have an opportunity to do something with it. That’s what I use my legs for and that’s what I’m going to always be like.”

That’s also why McCutchen is the league’s Most Valuable Player, and his team’s success is so closely tied to his performance. Hence, it’s no coincidence the Pirates’ best months came when McCutchen played his best baseball.

Month McCutchen OPS Team Record
March/April .908 10-16
May .815 15-14
June 1.096 17-10
July 1.319 7-6

At the break, McCutchen leads the Pirates in batting average, runs scored, home runs, runs batted in and OPS.

And, the center fielder ranks second in the National League with a .995 OPS and a 4.9 WAR headed to the All-Star Break.

McCutchen’s fourth selection to the All-Star comes by fan vote and he will start for the first time. National recognition is the final step in his emergence as a superstar, and general manager Neal Huntington sees his cornerstone finally receiving much-deserved attention.

“As I’ve said a hundred times before, when your best player is your hardest worker, you’re in a great spot as an organization,” Huntington said. “It’s so much fun to see the national fans begin to truly recognize what a great player and what a great person he is.”

Josh Harrison

There’s no doubt McCutchen has been most integral to the Pirates’ fortunes this season. But when it comes to the team turning itself around and returning to winning ways, Josh Harrison is nearly on his teammates’ level.

When the 2014 season began, it was clear from the get-go Gregory Polanco would not arrive in Pittsburgh for at least two months. So, the door was open for someone to cement himself as worthy of playing time–and certainly not a demotion–by the time Polanco assumed his mantle as the starting right fielder.

Jose Tabata and Travis Snider seemingly stood in front of the beckoning doorway with their arms crossed, insistent on not crossing the threshold.

Harrison, who always has believed he could produce on an everyday basis if given the chance, sprinted through the door, slammed it behind him and became a fan-favorite along the way.

When Clint Hurdle finally turned to Harrison as the Pirates’ regular right fielder, he started 19 of the team’s 29 games in May and finished the month with an .844 OPS. We waited for the floor to fall out and Harrison to return to his regular production as a mid-.600 OPS guy he was the previous three years.

Instead, he just kept hitting and making diving plays in the outfield.

Harrison's .294 batting average provided a much-needed spark to a floundering offense. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Harrison’s .297 batting average provided a much-needed spark to a floundering offense. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

“I knew given the opportunity to play I could go out and just do what I do and you know, everything else takes care of itself,” Harrison said. “I don’t really worry about other things except for going out and doing what I do. I’ve been blessed to play this game and I just go out and have fun.”

His passion for the game was on display no greater than when he hit the dirt multiple times to duck under tags during a rundown June 27 in the 10th inning against the New York Mets.

He didn’t score after reaching third, so instead delivered a walk-off double in the 11th inning.

After the team’s beginning to the season, the People’s Right Fielder jolted the Pirates to their first winning month of the season despite falling seven games below .500 in early May.

Harrison was just as important as McCutchen in the Pirates’ successful June that vaulted them back into contention, posting a .317/.358/.465 line in 24 starts.

Meanwhile, since Polanco debuted, Tabata was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis and Snider has made just 31 plate appearances.

There’s obviously a slight caveat with Harrison’s appearance as an All-Star, being that his manager was selected by NL All-Star skipper Mike Matheny to the coaching staff. And one has to believe Hurdle was in his ear about adding Harrison to the roster, especially considering Hurdle’s experience managing in the 2008 Midsummer Classic that lasted 14 innings.

“If you look at the All-Star Game and you think about having a guy that adds value in so many different places, and I’m one of the few guys that can speak to ‘What if it goes 15?’” Hurdle said. “What value can he bring? Whether it’s speed, it’s all over the place. This is a wild card.”

Of course, that isn’t to say Harrison doesn’t deserve the honor and recognition. He’s been worth 2.1 extra wins in starting just 53 of the team’s 95 games this season.

Tony Watson

Despite a shaky finish to his first half in Cincinnati, Tony Watson was the rock of the Pirates’ bullpen in the first half.

It wasn’t absurd to expect the relief unit to see a slight drop-off in performance after the insane way it pitched a season ago when it posted a 2.89 ERA and was worth 3.9 WAR.

But to expect the implosion of Jason Grilli, inconsistency from nearly every member of the ‘pen, 15 blown saves and a 3.42 ERA? That steep of a decline is a bit unexpected.

Watson emerged as a stabilizing force in a bullpen fraught with inconsistency this season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Watson emerged as a stabilizing force in a bullpen fraught with inconsistency this season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

As for Watson, whose ERA dropped as low as 0.84 before allowing three runs Friday, his incredible success wasn’t quite as expected either.

“I think it’d be disingenuous of me to say that we thought he’d roll out there with a sub-1 ERA at some point,” Huntington said. “But what’s most impressive at some point is the command of the fastball, the velocity of the fastball, the deception of the fastball. The changeup that he’ll mix in right or left and the breaking ball’s continued to get better.”

Huntington has watched the reliever develop since shortly after he was chosen in the ninth round of the 2007 draft, months before Huntington was hired as the organization’s general manager. Watson was transitioned into the bullpen during his 2010 season at Double-A Altoona, where he posted a 1.73 ERA in 34 appearances.

READ: How Tony Watson Went From a Non-Prospect in Double-A to an All-Star Reliever

“He’s very intelligent, he’s very gifted and he’s also incredibly dedicated to his craft,” Huntington said.

He’s only gotten better since he became a reliever, and that dedication has helped him continue to improve after he finished 2013 with a 2.39 ERA in 67 games last season. Watson finished his last season with the sixth-best ERA among all left-handed relievers.

Watson’s pitched in an average leverage situation of 1.82 (entailing high-leverage, FYI), recorded 22 shutdowns against just 5 meltdowns and added 1.67 points worth of win probability–tops among Pittsburgh relievers, seventh among all in the N.L.

“You look at it and you’re not surprised that he’s having a good season,” Huntington said. “We’ve had some guys in the past that have had great off-seasons but you don’t know that they’re going to be able to replicate it.”

Watson said his offseason was a “fun” one because he spent it at Pirate City, working alongside starters Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton to carry over their success from 2013 into the next season. Most valuable to Watson was having the eyes of pitching coach Ray Searage and Triple-A pitching guru Jim Benedict on his bullpen sessions.

“If you’re home, your mechanics might be out of whack and you might get in bad habits,” Watson said. “They saw things right away, you fix them, then you just go on to the next bullpen, then carry that into the spring.”

With Grilli’s departure, Watson is now a part of the late-inning tandem Hurdle will turn to when he needs a lead protected. While he laments the loss of one of the bullpen leaders, Watson likes knowing his role is cemented.

“Any time that you have an idea when the phone might ring, it helps,” he said.

And with Grilli’s departure, Watson also filled the role vacated on the Pirates’ “leadership council.” One would think his qualities of “fearlessness” and “commitment to being great”, as Huntington puts it, might have something to do with that.

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Jeff Locke’s Success is Real, Thanks to His Drastically Improved Control http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/jeff-lockes-success-is-real-thanks-to-his-drastically-improved-control.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/jeff-lockes-success-is-real-thanks-to-his-drastically-improved-control.html#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83757 It was almost one year ago that Jeff Locke found himself with the best players in the game in New York after a dominant first half of the season. However, the southpaw found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, in Bradenton toward the beginning of this season.

There is no secret what led to Locke’s downfall last season. Before the break last season, Locke walked 47 hitters in 109 innings. Following the midseason classic, he allowed 37 walks in almost half as many innings – 57.  After enduring the struggles in the second half last year and working his way back, Locke thinks that he may have pinpointed his issues and improved upon them.

“Last year, I really focused on trying not to let guys score,” Locke said. “I didn’t care if I walked them or give up a hit. There are so many times that I could have prevented a guy from scoring in games where I would go six innings with two or three hits, but six walks. They still count the same. Guys are still on base and you are pitching from the stretch.”

Locke thinks that one big difference from last season into this campaign is confidence when going after hitters. This confidence and fearlessness is another aspect that helps to limit his walk totals.

“The first full season up here, I think there is a lot of times where I have given hitters credit and tried to nibble and not get hurt,” Locke said. “It’s resulted in deep counts and walks. Then you are forced to throw strikes. I was really digging myself a hole. Whereas this year, I am really looking to throw those strikes and let the defense work for me.”

After logging 56 minor league innings this year and finding his way back to Pittsburgh, Locke has regained the command and the stuff that made him an All-Star just a year ago. He has posted a 2.89 ERA in eight starts in the majors. That’s supported by a 3.35 xFIP, which kills the regression talk that surrounded Locke when he put up impressive numbers in the first half last year. The work Locke has put into his new approach has allowed the command to improve. He has 56 innings this year, which almost matches his second half totals from last year. In those innings, he has allowed six walks, which is 31 fewer than his second half totals from 2013.

“Everything is really starting to come along,” Locke said. “We are getting ahead of guys and that is one big thing that we are trying to emphasize. I know that I had so many walks last year…This year, we are just trying to get ahead with strike one. If they swing at it and put it in play, great. If not, then they are behind in the count.”

However, this same command was not present in Indianapolis. Locke walked 22 hitters in 50 innings, while posting a 4.14 ERA. He also allowed 51 hits in Triple-A. While finding the command at the big league level is baffling, Locke credits a great deal of it to the work with Russell Martin.

“Obviously, you always have to feel like you have an advantage when someone like Russell Martin is back there catching you,” Locke said. “We have been on such a good run the last couple years. There is not a whole lot of shaking that is going on and we seem to know what we want to do.”

In addition, Locke credits Martin with allowing the pitchers to work with what they do best, rather than just playing into the scouting report and opposing hitter weaknesses.

Along with Martin, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that Locke’s ability to work in a speedy nature since being recalled aids him in getting some plays behind him.

“The combination of things, when you work quickly and you throw strikes, defensive plays get made more often than not,” Hurdle said. “That has really worked to Jeff’s benefit this year as well, but he has stepped up his game and deserves all of the credit. He’s been focused and been relentless. He keeps throwing strikes.”

While Locke may have some assistance from his defense, he has had some tough luck this season. Even with this, Hurdle is impressed with the progression of Locke throughout.

“I am seeing improvement across the board,” Hurdle said. “That is three games, I think, where he has left the game with the lead and did not get a good mark. The fastball command, strikes, and efficiency (have been great).”

As for the rest of the season, Locke has a few goals. However, they are all team based and looking to repeat the first half success.

“I am just taking the ball every fifth day and try to be as efficient as I can,” Locke said. “I am not taking the closer’s mentality, but I am going out to see how many innings that I can go and close out. I am trying to see how many innings that I can go that night to give the bullpen a rest and not make the offense feel like they have to go out and get 10.”

While the second half was a bugaboo for Locke last season, it would be difficult to see a collapse of the same magnitude. Locke seems to have figured out the cause of his command issues last season, and getting ahead in the count will work the advantage of every pitcher. While Locke is not a top of the rotation option, he is a solid contributor to the rotation down the stretch and created a real shot in the arm when the starters needed it the most.

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How Tony Watson Went From a Non-Prospect in Double-A to an All-Star Reliever http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/how-tony-watson-went-from-a-non-prospect-in-double-a-to-an-all-star-reliever.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/how-tony-watson-went-from-a-non-prospect-in-double-a-to-an-all-star-reliever.html#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 17:07:32 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83661 After putting up some of the best numbers of any reliever in baseball this season, Tony Watson was named to the National League All-Star team. The accomplishment is special for any player, and rare for middle relievers. In Watson’s case, it’s extremely surprising when you consider that just a few years ago he looked like a prospect who would top out at the Double-A level.

Watson was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, after putting up a 3.56 ERA in 151.2 innings as a starter with Lynchburg, in what was a very thin system at the time. He moved up to Altoona the following year, but an injury limited him to just five starts.

The progression to the bullpen began in 2010. The Pirates had a strong rotation in Altoona that season, which moved Watson to a long-relief role. In 111.1 innings that season, Watson struck out 105 hitters and had an ERA of 2.67. Even with those numbers, he wasn’t seen as a prospect. He was rated the number 50 prospect in our 2011 Prospect Guide, heading into the 2011 season. Baseball America didn’t have him in their top 30, ranking behind guys like Diego Moreno, Ramon Aguero, and ranking as the second best lefty relief prospect behind Daniel Moskos. In the Pirates prospects rankings, he was second as a lefty reliever behind Moskos, and also rated behind Moreno, Donald Veal, and other guys who haven’t gone on to become All-Stars in the majors.

Watson became a full time reliever in 2011, and proved all of the rankings wrong. In 34.1 innings in Triple-A, he had a 2.36 ERA and 35 strikeouts. Watson was called up to the majors in June that year, and hasn’t looked back.

“It has been a wild ride for a couple of years,” Watson said. “I was a starter all of the way through college and was drafted as a starter. I was in the minor leagues as a starter. In 2011, I got added to the 40 man and moved to the bullpen. A couple of months in Indianapolis, and I started having some success out of the bullpen. I came up here and my stuff played up a tick once I got in a groove.”

The stuff playing up was a big change for Watson. He sat in the mid-to-upper 80s as a starter, and averaged 89 while touching 91 as a reliever in Altoona. His fastball averaged 91 MPH in 2011 in the majors, but has jumped to 93-94 MPH since then. He also added a sinker in 2012, and has used that as his primary pitch the last three years.

In addition, Watson credits manager Clint Hurdle with some of the success. Hurdle put him in some tight situations early and allowed him to gain valuable experience in using his stuff and getting out of those situations.

“I have been here a few years now, and I really enjoy what I do,” Watson said. “With myself and Justin Wilson, it’s just a lot of fun coming into a situation when the game is on the line. You can make a big pitch and get the team back to the dugout.”

Working primarily in the late innings, Watson has compiled a 1.42 ERA in 45 appearances, with a 2.80 xFIP. His K/9 has jumped to 10.2. He has only allowed 37 hits in 44 innings. Friday night, when Watson allowed three runs, was the first time that he has allowed more than one earned run in an outing since Aug. 3, 2013 against Colorado.

“[Friday night] was the first sideways outing that he has had in 93 games,” Hurdle said. “That is pretty impressive and speaks volumes to the work that has been done so far. He continues to grow and develop. As you saw last night, he is upfront and does not back away. He is a stand-up guy and a good pitcher.”

It is the success that Watson has enjoyed this season in tight situations, combined with the strong numbers that have earned him a spot with the best players in the National League.

“It is a special honor,” Watson said. “It is kind of a surreal feeling. Now that it is getting closer, it is kind of setting in. They keep saying that it really won’t set in until you get announced out there in the lineup with all of those guys. It is really special to get to represent the Pirates and the guys in this clubhouse.”

Not only does Watson get to be part of the trio representing the Pirates in Minnesota, he has also embraced a leadership role internally. Watson recently replaced Jason Grilli on the team’s leadership council.

“I just try to come in here and be the same guy every day,” Watson said. “It is just such a long season that you have to stay consistent with everything that you do with the highs and the lows. If you just stay even keel and go about your business, that’s how I looked at the older guys going about their business when I came up here.”

Watson said that it is about taking care of what you can control. He said that he leads by example and does not look to say too much to the newcomers. It makes Watson feel good that he is able to embrace this role.

It is the leadership, plus the success on the field that made Watson such a key player in the clubhouse and allowing him to get the national recognition that he has earned this season when he takes the field on Tuesday.

Tim Williams contributed to this story.

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It Looks Like the Pirates Have Lost Wei-Chung Wang to the Brewers http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/it-looks-like-the-pirates-have-lost-wei-chung-wang-to-the-brewers.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/it-looks-like-the-pirates-have-lost-wei-chung-wang-to-the-brewers.html#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 17:31:16 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83526 The Milwaukee Brewers surprised a lot of people during the Rule 5 draft when they selected left-handed pitcher Wei-Chung Wang from the Pittsburgh Pirates, drafting the lefty out of the GCL. Wang was eligible for the draft due to a technicality with his signing. When he originally signed with the Pirates, his contract was voided due to an elbow issue. Wang had Tommy John surgery, then signed a second contract. Players who sign a second contract with an organization are eligible for the Rule 5 draft immediately, even if they haven’t been in the league for 4-5 Rule 5 drafts.

Wang returned from Tommy John surgery in 2013, and had great numbers in the GCL, while flashing a fastball that hit mid-90s, and some good off-speed stuff. He had the look of a potential middle of the rotation lefty, if he could work out as a starter.

When Milwaukee took him in the Rule 5 draft, it seemed unlikely that they would be able to protect him all year. Today it seems like a guarantee that Milwaukee will be able to keep Wang on the roster, despite being in first place.

The Brewers placed Wang on the disabled list today with shoulder tightness, after calling up top prospect Jimmy Nelson for tomorrow’s start. A Rule 5 player can only be kept if he remains on the active roster or the disabled list all season. He must spend at least 90 days on the active roster to remain with the new team. Wang has already spent 90 days on the active roster with Milwaukee. Now they can stash him on the DL until the end of the season, or until rosters expand in September, at which point it won’t matter if he’s on the active roster.

This is a process familiar to the Pirates, as they did the same thing in 2009 with Donnie Veal.

It’s hard to blame the Pirates for this situation. The odds of a guy going from the GCL to the majors, and sticking, are small. The odds of it happening for a contender are even worse. If the Pirates would have protected Wang, then they would have had to speed up his development by starting the process of burning his option years. He could have gone to West Virginia as a starter this year, and he could have had one year at each level (I believe he would have qualified for a fourth option year under this scenario). That leaves no margin for error with his development, and would have made it less likely that he would have realized his upside.

Wang was ranked 30th overall in our prospect rankings prior to the Rule 5 draft.

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Tony Sanchez endures month-long slump http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/tony-sanchez-endures-month-long-slump.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/tony-sanchez-endures-month-long-slump.html#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 17:23:42 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83303 June was simply a month to forget for Tony Sanchez. From June 5 to June 30, Sanchez went 5-for-55 at the plate, dropping his season average at Triple-A under the Mendoza line.

“I hit .280 in that small sample size in the big leagues,” Sanchez said. “I came down here expecting to hit .380. Baseball doesn’t work that way, but it’s not like I came down here and changed any mechanics or changed my mindset. I am doing the exact same thing that I was doing up there, down here.”

The catcher is currently hitting .203 with five home runs and eight doubles. He has a .682 OPS on the season.

Sanchez got off to a quick start after being optioned to Indianapolis on May 23. In his first nine games, he went 10-for-32 with a pair of home runs and three doubles. However, June brought the drought.

While two of the five hits in the drought were home runs, Sanchez is pleased to have June in the rear view mirror. Sanchez is off to a better start in July, with a .280 average and an .819 OPS in 25 at-bats.

“There’s nothing different [in July] really,” Sanchez said. “I have been watching plenty of video and putting in countless hours in the cage – [Indianapolis hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo], Rudy [Pena] and I. There is nothing that I am doing pre-pitch from what I was doing in the big leagues to what I am doing here. I just seemed to run into a spell of bad luck.”

Sanchez pointed to slumps “all of 2011 and 2012” as experience in learning how to deal with them and break out of them. He said that knowing what he is capable of at this level and the next level keeps those valley fairly short typically.

While Pagliarulo said that the Indianapolis staff is pretty cohesive, he said that a change of environment can always take its toll on a player. He thinks that it may have contributed to the slump.

“When you have a major league player who comes down, you have a lot of things going on,” Pagliarulo said. “We try to simulate what they do in Pittsburgh, here, to make it easier on the players. There is always that adjustment period and I think that he is over it.”

Sanchez pointed to his defensive duties as an aspect to aid those slumps. Finding a happy medium between the two helps keep his mind off the declines.

“Thank goodness that I catch,” Sanchez said. “I couldn’t imagine being an outfielder and hitting under .200 for the month of June because that would be borderline miserable. I have my [at bat], then I have about 10 seconds in the dugout where I can think about it before I have to know how I am attacking the next three guys in that lineup that we are facing.”

Sanchez said that this thought process helps him sometimes and is taxing to him others. He does not put a lot of stake in his at bats at times, while he is focusing more on his job behind the plate.

Sanchez has also seen his share of troubles behind the dish with Indianapolis this season. He has only caught 6-of-43 attempted base stealers this season. He also has seven errors and four passed balls.

“I have actually never felt better behind the plate,” Sanchez said. “I came down here with the mindset that I need to get more consistent behind the plate with my throwing. For them to want me to be the guy next year, I need to be consistent and I can’t be a liability. I can’t have two good days and have one bad day. I have to be that same guy every day of the week and give nine quality innings back there.”

While he is not sure whether the defensive focus took a toll on his hitting, Sanchez said that he also does not care because he is feeling good behind the dish currently.

Pagliarulo pointed out that he has seen progress in the defensive game for Sanchez, while stating that his at bats in the past week have been excellent. The defensive work that he alluded to includes communication and work that has been put in with the pitching staff and the coaches. He said that most important thing is getting Sanchez back to where he should be when he goes back up.

While Sanchez would rather be in Pittsburgh, he realizes that he is gaining experience catching some of the hurlers that he could see there next season, including Jeff Locke, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton, and even possibly Nick Kingham. He also had an opportunity to catch Francisco Liriano on a rehab assignment on July 8.

“It’s huge,” Sanchez said about catching those pitchers. “In a night like [July 8], Liriano comes in and I know what to throw to get him right and make sure he feels right getting him ready for the big leagues…I have caught Jeff Locke since 2009, so I know him like the back of my hand. It does make it easier when you catch those guys and have a relationship with them.”

While it is clear that defense is really the major obstacle keeping Sanchez in Indianapolis and not Pittsburgh, the size of the slump has to be disconcerting as well after he saw some offensive success in the big leagues. However, still being on the 40 man roster, there is no doubt that Sanchez will get another look in September. The success that he has both offensively and defensively will go a long way toward his future, as the Pirates will eventually have to decide on Russell Martin, along with the backup catcher next year.

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Thoughts on Yesterday’s Pirates Roster Moves http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/thoughts-on-yesterdays-pirates-roster-moves.html http://www.piratesprospects.com/2014/07/thoughts-on-yesterdays-pirates-roster-moves.html#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 15:49:00 +0000 http://www.piratesprospects.com/?p=83435 The Pittsburgh Pirates made several roster moves yesterday, calling up Matt Hague, announcing plans to send Vance Worley to the bullpen, and designating Duke Welker for assignment. Here are some thoughts on each of those moves, and what they mean for the short and long-term for the Pirates.

Matt Hague Joins the Pirates

Hague has been having a strong year with Indianapolis. He originally broke in with the Pirates in 2012, after putting up some impressive power numbers during Spring Training. Those power numbers disappeared after Spring ended, and didn’t return through the 2013 season. They’re back in 2014, as Hague has put up 13 doubles and 13 homers in 285 at-bats in Triple-A. He is 28, and in his fourth year at the Triple-A level, so his power resurgence does come with a disclaimer. That said, one thing he continues to do well is hit left-handers.

Hague has a .906 OPS against lefties this year in 95 plate appearances. This is something he’s learned to do well. He had an .865 OPS in 153 plate appearances against lefties last year in Triple-A, and an .810 OPS in 178 plate appearances against lefties in 2011. His only down year in his time in Triple-A was a .726 OPS in 2012.

Hague was called up to replace Starling Marte for a few days, although the decision to call him up specifically was interesting. Hague wasn’t on the 40-man roster, and the Pirates could have just called up Jaff Decker for a few days if they needed a short-term replacement. Decker is an outfielder, which would have made more sense with Marte on leave. He has also been productive lately, and was on the 40-man roster. I don’t know if Hague’s call-up is just a short-term deal, or if he’s getting a look off the bench. If it’s the latter, then he could provide the Pirates with a bat versus left-handers at first or third base, and the potential to eventually take over for Gaby Sanchez in the first base platoon if all goes well.

Vance Worley to the Bullpen

I wrote about the tough decision the Pirates would have when Francisco Liriano returns, noting that they’d have to send either Vance Worley or Edinson Volquez to the bullpen. Both pitchers have had success in the rotation, and both deserve to be an MLB starter right now. The Pirates decided to keep Volquez in the rotation, and send Worley to the bullpen when Liriano returns on Sunday.

I’m guessing that Brandon Cumpton will be the guy who goes down at that point, which is something that could happen today if the Pirates want an extra reliever or bench bat for a few days.

When Gerrit Cole eventually returns, the Pirates will have to make a tougher decision in the bullpen. That might involve the end of the Ernesto Frieri experiment, or it could involve a tough decision on Stolmy Pimentel, Jeanmar Gomez (who has been more productive than Pirates fans give him credit for), or optioning a very productive Jared Hughes to preserve depth.

Duke Welker Designated For Assignment

This move was inevitable. Welker had Tommy John surgery, and will be out for the rest of the year, along with the first half of next season. He’s out of options, so the Pirates would have had to put him on the 60-day DL next year, then bring him up when he’s healthy. Basically this is the exact same situation as Kyle McPherson last off-season. The Pirates removed McPherson from the 40-man, then re-signed him to a minor league deal. I’d expect the same with Welker. If he clears waivers, they could keep him around, although he’d be eligible for minor league free agency this off-season. I’d expect them to sign him back, using him as bullpen depth out of Triple-A in the second half.

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