BRADENTON, Fla. – There were very few bright spots today in the Pirates’ 12-0 loss to the Blue Jays. Perhaps the biggest one might have been the performance of Ivan Nova, who made his first start of Spring Training and pitched two perfect innings. After the start, Nova reflected on how this spring is going so far, considering it’s the first one for him with the Pirates, and the first one away from the Yankees.

“I think this is the best one so far,” Nova said with a smile.

Sure, you’d expect him to say that about a team that just gave him a three-year deal. But there’s a bit more to this situation. Nova has a spot in Pittsburgh. He spent years battling for one of the final rotation spots in New York, moving back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. This weekend, he was named the starter for the Pirates on Opening Day in Pittsburgh, leaving no doubt about his place on the team.

“The way that they treat me here, I know I can finally be relaxed, knowing you’re going to pitch one of the five games to start the year,” Nova said. “You’ve prepared for this opportunity. It’s hard not knowing if you’re in the rotation or in the bullpen. You practice, but you don’t know how to prepare yourself. This year I’ve been different because I know when I’m going to pitch.”

That relaxed attitude is part of what Nova attributes his late-2016 success towards. He looks to have brought that over to the 2017 season, and if that did play a big role in his turnaround, then the Pirates can expect good things from him. Clint Hurdle felt the same way about how Nova has looked.

“I think he’s in a committed spot,” Hurdle said. “Comfort is a word that can be taken many different ways. I think he’s comfortable, but committed. I think he’s found a rhythm and rhyme that fits him well. He has a purpose on the staff. He brings some experience and direction. He’s done some things and he’s got more things he wants to do, and more challenges in front of himself.”

As for today’s outing, Hurdle was impressed with the results. Nova got through the appearance so quickly that he had to finish off in the bullpen by throwing about 15 extra pitches.

“I thought he was so efficient,” Hurdle said. “We had to run him back to the bullpen to throw another 12 or 15 pitches. The changeup played well. Fastball down, with some angle and some sink. He looked clean on the mound.”

Tony Watson Struggles

I don’t put much into a Spring Training outing, especially early in camp. Aside from small sample sizes, and players working on specific things, there’s also the fact that it’s extremely early in the season. You always want to see guys do well, but when they don’t, it becomes a slippery slope of deciding who to worry about.

Typically, if fans were worried about a player heading into the season, a bad outing will further those concerns. Jameson Taillon had a good season last year, and didn’t have a good spring debut on Sunday. So there wasn’t much concern about his poor outing. Tony Watson had a down year last year, then had a horrible outing today, getting hit pretty hard. That’s going to lead to concern.

What is more concerning is the fact that Watson’s velocity was down. The radar readings on the scoreboard aren’t accurate, but they were mostly around 87-88 MPH. From what I’ve seen, the radar readings are closer to accurate below 90 MPH. They’re off when the pitch is 90 or above, usually high by 2-4 MPH. So it’s not like Watson was throwing hard and the radar gun wasn’t picking it up.

The popular theory last year was that Watson fell apart when he became the closer. The reality is that he struggled all year, which is something Hurdle brought up today.

“I think Tony would be the first one to tell you, it wasn’t his best year from start to finish,” Hurdle said. “As far as execution, as far as quality of pitches. That being said, he’d earned every opportunity in our mind when the move was made to get that first crack at [the closer’s role].”

Watson was one of the best relievers in baseball from 2013-2015. He was also one of the most used relievers in baseball during that same span. This usage only fuels the concern about him, especially with low velocity (which may also just be an early camp issue). Hurdle said today that he believes the workload led to the 2016 struggles.

“I believe last year, it was the volume of work over time that caught up to him at some point in time last year,” Hurdle said. “It just got to be a heavy load. For him to gut through it, pitch through it, pitch effective baseball for the most part. You pitch in that closing situation, everything gets magnified, and rightfully so, because you’re at the end. There’s no room for mistake.”

Hurdle said that they’ve discussed the offseason program and the Spring Training schedule with Watson, looking at how they’ll use him with his workload in mind. But the big concern would be whether Watson is fatigued, and whether he can bounce back from that with some rest. I wouldn’t get too worked up at this point. It was only two years ago that fans thought Mark Melancon was finished due to a poor April with lower velocity, and he bounced back. But this is definitely a situation to keep an eye on.

Other Notes

**Hurdle said that Austin Meadows will mostly play center field while he is in MLB camp, rather than moving him around the outfield.

**Francisco Cervelli returned to the lineup today, and Hurdle discussed what went into the decision for the return.

“We were targeting today if everything went well. We had good reports on him yesterday while we were away, playing a game. He’s back in play. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He was able to go out there, get a couple of at-bats, and catch Ivan and a couple of the other bullpen guys. I thought it was a good day for him.”

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  1. I thought the rotation forced Hurdle into misusing the bullpen last year. I seem to recall him going to Watson a lot in April. I especially remember him being used in the first three games of the season during the sweep of St Louis

    • If Watson has the dreaded dead arm from overuse, it’s partly his own fault by being so dependable. Any Manager would’ve continued to go to Watson if he was available to pitch the last few years.

  2. I’m unsure of the rationale for having Meadows play exclusively CF in Spring Training. Sure, if you can play CF, you’re usually pretty likely to be able to handle a corner spot. But, if there is one thing we *know*, it’s that if Meadows ends up playing for the Pirates, the one position he will *not* play is CF. Seemingly, even if Marte were to get hurt, I presume that they’d either slide Cutch back to CF (most likely), perhaps move Polanco over to CF (still more likely than Meadows), and lastly, call up Meadows and say, “You’re our CF”.

    This isn’t a really big deal, assuming no injuries occur and Meadows learns the ropes in CF at AAA. But, I’d probably have him playing everywhere, definitely RF, over a strict CF duty. Am I missing something obvious that makes this rationale inaccurate?

    • When he’s in Indy, which he will be for the first half of the season, he’ll be in center. So the team is probably just getting him ready for his season, not necessarily his end of the season. They can move him around as needed in AAA games.

      • Perhaps. Though, I’d be remiss to point out that preparing him for the Majors is infinitely more important than preparing him for Indianapolis. If, as you say, they move him around a bunch at Indy, this becomes a moot point, I guess. But, if they continue to stick him in CF w/ no movement, I feel like they’re missing an opportunity to expose him to those positions that he’d be much more likely to play if a promotion is warranted (or needed).

        This seems so obvious to me that it further seems obvious that they’ll do just what you say at Indy. If they don’t however, I’m confused. Anyways…

  3. The Nationals still need a closer….send them Watson for a Top 20 prospect, and create an opening in the bullpen (and eliminate one of those lefties).

  4. Over/Under on Hudson moving into closer role is May 1st. What side you on? I’ll take the under.

    • No. I got over to the stadium from Pirate City right before the game, then had interviews with current Pirates during and after the game. I didn’t even know McGuire was on the trip until he came up to the plate.

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