Pirates Notebook: The Boost(s) That the Offense Needs Right Now

I feel like this season requires a weekly “Everything is going wrong for the Pirates” update, just to keep current with all of the things that are going wrong.

The last time I covered this topic was when the offense was struggling in every way imaginable. That was when Adam Frazier and David Freese had just gone down with injuries, and when Starling Marte had just gotten suspended. Fortunately, Frazier and Freese are starting to make their way back.

Frazier is currently rehabbing in Indianapolis. He played one game on Monday, and could play another tomorrow morning. Neal Huntington said on Sunday that the next step for Freese is to do some running, and that he may not need a rehab appearance if he can return soon enough.

That will be a nice boost for the Pirates when both hitters return. Prior to their injuries, they were two of the top performers for this weak offense. If they can return with the same production, it will help boost one of the weakest parts of the team this year. The Pirates might get an added boost by keeping some of the more productive prospects who have come up in their absence. The most notable has been Jose Osuna, who looks like a guy who deserves a full-time bench role at this point, getting the spot over either Alen Hanson or John Jaso.

Unfortunately, the pending returns of Freese and Frazier come right after Jameson Taillon went on the disabled list due to surgery for suspected testicular cancer. The Pirates have turned to Trevor Williams for the fifth starter role with Taillon down, and that didn’t go well on Monday night. They have some options in Triple-A, either to pitch out of the bullpen to replace Williams, or to pitch in the rotation. They called on Josh Lindblom for the former role. As for a replacement starter for Williams, not every Indianapolis starter is an option.

“We still have Neverauskas and Santana, and a handful of other guys who can help us. Josh [Lindblom] is a veteran and he can pitch in length,” Huntington said about the pitching staff. “We love what Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler are doing, but they’re not to the point where we feel they could come up here and help us win games.”

Huntington’s comments came before today’s start which saw Holmes strike out eight in seven innings of work. That’s a positive sign, although you’re going to want to see more of that type of production before giving him a call to the majors, rather than just calling him up after his first really good start.

The injuries, suspensions, and struggles are testing the Pirates’ depth, according to Huntington.

“There’s not question our offense has been challenged,” Huntington said. “When you take two core members out and (remove) two other players who you think are going to be contributors, that stings.”

Part of the bind the Pirates are in right now, Huntington feels, is because they spent to their budget this offseason, expecting to build around Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte. They have extra money to spend with those two out, but it’s difficult to spend that money at this point in the season. Any free agent wouldn’t be ready for more than a month. And most teams aren’t looking to trade at this point in the season.

“It’s been interesting,” Huntington said. “We essentially spent to budget in the offseason — not with the expectation that we’d have two players on the restricted list that would create money for us that’s really not usable at this time until he trade market opens up. We created a little bit of money when we made the decision (to release) Jared Hughes. So that’s money available for us, if the opportunity comes available to spend it.”

The good news is that the Pirates have some money to spend to upgrade their team when the trade market does open up. The bad news is that they might not be contenders by the time the trade market does open, due to all of the struggles, injuries, and the loss of Kang and Marte.

“The challenge is that we’ve got to be able to continue to roll forward,” Huntington said. “When Kang is able to get here, or late July when Starling is able to be reinstated, we’ve got to be able to carry the load until we get to that point in time. We’ve got some guys that are trying to do that. We’ve got some guys that are trying to hard to do that instead of just playing their role. We’ve got a team that’s going to continue to show up and fight and win some games.”

Continued Struggles From the Top Players

Travis Barnett wrote about why Gregory Polanco was struggling in a column last week. Interestingly enough, Polanco is hitting .500/.571/.750 since that article went up. As a result, we’re currently planning more articles from Travis, breaking down individual offensive struggles.

Huntington weighed in on Polanco’s struggles this past Sunday.

“It’s fascinating because he was so good and locked in, in the World Baseball Classic and then it’s been a challenge for him,” Huntington said. “The swing has gotten long and he’s tried to generate more. He’s tried to do more. For a man with long levers, trying to do more and trying to generate more creates a long, slow swing. I know they’re working on him right now to try to get it short and quick. A 110 mph line-drive to center field the other night is a good sign.”

Alan Saunders has written about how Polanco is looking to shorten his swing this year, which will certainly help matters. Polanco’s outfield mate, Andrew McCutchen, also continues to struggle at the plate, currently with a .700 OPS. Huntington discussed McCutchen’s struggles, pointing out some optimistic signs.

“You feel for Andrew because the outcomes aren’t where we thought they would be, given some of the indicators,” Huntington said. “The walk rate is better than it was a year ago. The strikeout rate is better than it was a year ago. The line-drive rate is better than it was a year ago. Batting average on balls in play is down, showing that he’s hitting into some bad luck.”

To counter-point this, McCutchen’s 2016 season is a low bar to set for improvements. The walk rate is better this year (10.9% vs 10.2%), but down from 14.3% in 2015, and a career 11.8%. The strikeout rate is down 21.2% to 17.2%, which is actually in line with his career totals. The line drive rate is actually down, going to 14.1% from 22.5%, with the latter being close to his career numbers. The BABIP is down to .230, so you could make the argument that McCutchen is unlucky. However, I don’t know if we’re going to see anything close to the .329 career average, or the .355 range from 2013-14. Those were fueled by McCutchen’s speed, which is declining.

“At the same time, this is a results-driven game,” Huntington added. “We’ve got a handful of guys. Polanco’s results are worse than his indicators. Mercer’s results are significantly worse than his indicators. Cervelli’s results are much worse than his indicators. Again, it looks like Cervelli is turning a corner. We’ll get Andrew to get a bloop here and a bleeder there and the next thing you know it, he’ll be Andrew McCutchen again.”

I don’t agree with the last part, since I’m doubtful that the old Andrew McCutchen will ever return at this point. The best the Pirates can hope for is that they get some kind of production out of him, better than they saw in 2016, while seeing guys like Polanco step up their production in the absence of the normal producers.

The Good News

Not everything is actually going wrong with the Pirates. There are some silver linings which don’t necessarily counter the problems listed above, but do provide a bit of help. One of those silver linings is the production so far from Wade LeBlanc. He’s got a 2.33 ERA and a 3.39 xFIP, seeing his ground ball rate go to 53.4% (after previously being a fly ball pitcher), and doing a good job of getting a decent amount of strikeouts and limiting walks.

The Pirates added LeBlanc last year as a veteran to give them innings in September, hoping there was upside for more.

“Again, a guy that you looked at his metrics and his results weren’t as good as his metrics,” Huntington said. “Was there something that would click here? When we traded for him, it was out of need, but it was need with interest. We were thinking that it may lead to something more and it has.”

The Pirates signed LeBlanc to an extension over the offseason, paying him $800,000 this year, with a $1.2 M option in 2018. If he continues pitching like this, that option will be an easy decision.

“He’s continued to miss barrels and continue to get a lot of soft contact and continue to take the ball in whatever role Clint has asked him to take,” Huntington said. “He was pitching in leverage situations for us in September at times and he’s saved us a couple of times pitching in length and he’s come in and got a couple of big outs in different spots. So, Wade was acquired because of need but there was some potential for longer-term interest, as well.”

A bigger bright spot would be the performance of Ivan Nova, who the Pirates signed this offseason to a three-year deal, after adding him last year at the trade deadline. Coming into tonight’s game with the Dodgers, he had a 2.14 ERA and a 3.16 xFIP in 42 innings, with just one walk (and as I write this, he has issued two walks in tonight’s game).

“Nova has just been so efficient to get early-count soft contact,” Huntington said. “He’s not pitching himself into trouble with walks and we’ve played pretty well defensively behind him. So, it is a nice sequence.”

Nova has joined Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as the highlight of this team, fueling the starting pitching to rank in the top third of NL teams.

“As we’ve talked before, we’re about the middle or upper end of the pack in terms of starter innings this year,” Huntington said. “That’s coming on the heels of Glasnow, who’s probably the low-end and Nova is probably the high-end. It is good to have a veteran that can go out there and give you some innings and even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, battle through it and put you in a position to win a game.”

It hurts a bit knowing that Taillon is now on the disabled list, but the hope is that Nova and Cole can continue keeping this team afloat. With so many things going wrong for the team, the Pirates need Nova to remain consistent. Of course, a bigger help would be getting Freese and Frazier back healthy and productive, along with seeing improvements offensively from struggling guys like Polanco, Cervelli, and McCutchen.

Alan Saunders contributed to this report.

  • Tell me why can’t this team field, hit or run bases? I don’t get to see them much but from what I read about the games, they are their own worst enemies. They make errors, walk batters with 0-2 counts or hit them to put them on base. they can’t hit with runners in scoring position and truly no one seems to care on the team. Hurdle is sleep walking again, and NH is looking at the bright side of a dark, dark day. Sure the injuries are an issue as well as the suspension and visa issue but hell you have to be able to catch, throw and hit. Mental part of the game seems to be missing. What are the coaches for? Shouldn’t they be addressing these shortcomings? If they are, they are not doing a very good job of it. Polanco is not showing anything with the bat, on the bases or in the field. I thought he was supposed to lead the team to the promised land. This season seems over at this point. Have Hurdle play the kids to see what they bring to the table with and eye towards next year. Frazier and Freese are not the panacea. More is needed. Cutch seems done. How do you lose it so quickly?

  • I actually think the line up will be good in about a week:
    1. Harrison (2B)
    2. Bell (1B)
    3. Cutch (CF)
    4. Polanco (RF)
    5. Freese (3B)
    6. Frazier/Osuna (LF)
    7. Cervelli (C)
    8. Mercer/Ngoepe (SS) (NOTE: I think this should be about a 70/30 platoon)

    And I think the bench is ok with a run of the mill back up catcher (Stewart), a slick fielding Ngoepe, the much maligned lefty pinch-hitter and late inning 1Bman (Jaso), the other platoon LFer, and the speedy Hanson. Also, there is really no reason to put Jaso in the outfield anymore unless it is an extra inning affair.

    • Also, Meadows could push Osuna to the bench and Frazier to a back up 2B/3B in mid-June.
      And when Marte returns in mid-July, someone should be available in a trade…

  • Independent of the issues of windows can someone explain the development/coaching in our system that results in guys coming up who are horrible at defense and horrible baserunners? Take for example Adam Frazier…

    • I think it’s a case by case basis. They’ve had guys who are good at defense and good base runners. There are guys who are coming up who are good at both. It’s just that the guys who are bad at these things are noticed more, because people generally don’t care about base running or defense until someone makes a mistake.

      We’ve been talking about Frazier being bad at defense and base running for years. I’m not sure how much coaching can change that with him, or people in similar situations.

  • What I got out of this story is that NH spent most – if not all – of his budget and it is under $100M.

    • Yes but there is nothing to buy with the extra $10 million until the trade deadline at which point Marte will be back – and Kang might even be back.

  • Yes, it’s still early in the season, but some trends are showing their ugly sides. It’s becoming clear that the McCutchen we know and love is gone. Will he ever hit as high as .250 again and can he still hit more than 15 HRs a year? Polanco is looking more and more like an average player in the big leagues, although there’s still time, however it’s time the Pirates don’t have at the moment. Can’t blame Huntington for loss of Marte and Kang, but his bench is sorely short on talent this year. Give Huntington high marks for starting pitching and if Kuhl and Glasnow come along by the end of the year, we could have a very very good starting five! Now if only the bullpen could perform as we have become accustomed to?

    In sum, that 98 win season only two short years ago seems like a dream now, not to be repeated anytime soon. Outside of possible pitching help, no other help appears on the way from our entire minor league system (Austin Meadows a possible exception). The system is full of potentially average position players who can perform well as a team in the minors, but that’s about it.

    That’s the ugly truth at the moment.

    • In the span of less than a year-and-a-half, the Pirates have seemingly morphed from a great all-around team (2nd best in the majors in 2015) to a replica of the mid/late-2000’s Tampa Bay Rays – very good to potentially great starting pitching with foreseeable continual additions from the farm on the way, hoping for the best from intriguing arms in the bullpen, and piecing together high-contact, on-base-oriented lineups with little power or star players (save one guy like Longoria/McCutchen). The problem is that the injuries/suspension have completely killed the offensive approach (which has little margin for error to begin with), and the defense necessary for such an approach is non-existent.

      • We’ve had more than our share of bad luck, NH has been bad, and Cutch has fallen off a cliff… toxic combination.

    • I was thinking the same thing about Polanco. This is no longer a small sample size, we’re in year #4 and Polanco is proving to be a mediocre to good Major League player, No disgrace in that, but not the kind of guy you can build around or expect to carry a team

  • Pirates fan are learning something that should have been evident a long time ago.. Windows are very real and NH isn’t so damn smart that we will be competitive into perpetuity.

  • For the second year in a row, this team is a mess. It appears that our 3 year window has closed.

    Are our players underperforming or performing to their levels? It is beginning to look like the latter, unfortunately.

    • I’m always curious why when a team is contending, there is a “window” that will inevitably close. But when a team struggles, there is no window and the team will never return to contending.

      • Because a “window is opened” when your core/star players play at their peak. 2015 was the pinnacle for that.

        Since then, our core/star players have underperformed and don’t appear to be turning it around any time soon.

        Add in the assumption that Cole, since we only have him for two years after 2017 will be dealt for the highest return, we have no idea whether Taillon will come back 100%, what Marte be like Post -PED, how Kang will hit if/when he gets to America, etc, etc and it doesn’t look promising at this juncture.

        We will be doing a sell off this June of Watson, Cutch (what can you get for a defensively challenged .215 hitter?) and probably Freese, Jaso and other veteran bench parts.

        Our comeback to contention will rely solely on how our prospects perform. So far they are hit or miss due to production (Polanco and so far Bell) and bad luck (JT).

        Time will tell. I hope our “Window” isn’t closed, but it isn’t looking good at this point.

        • Hopefully they add polanco to that sell off list and can sell him based on being a top prospect a few years ago not the 250 hitter he is now

        • The mere mention of trading Cutch last season touched off a large portion of the fan base who put sentiment ahead of baseball sense. He could still have a nice season, but realistically he’s not MVP caliber any more. Hitting around 260 with 20-25 HRs would not be bad, but it won’t bring much in a trade.

      • well you have to make some changes to reopen the window. 2018 is looking good for a new window. The starting pitching will be great and will have 2 players coming back, kang and marte. also meadows should be ready to take over left field. But I think the pirates may have to get some power in the infield some place. Also cutch ,freese, stewart, and jaso will have to be moved this year and watson also will have to be moved. This year is done ,lets see what we have in the minors and build for 2018.

        • Disagree turks – this year is not done. I say that because of the competition. If you’re down on the Bucs right now, I’m glad you’re not a Mets or Giants fan. If you were I fear someone would be writing your eulogy. If they can just hang in there until Marte returns (and assuming Kang will be back before then), you may be surprised at the position the Bucs would be in.

      • Because it is rare to have a special core group of players together that’s why… one should never assume that they will have a core with 7 WAR Cutch, 3 WAR Walker, 4 WAR Marte, the best setup/closing combo in MLB etc, etc to build around.

        Tell me when the window magically opens again. Or should we simply assume that Meadows is going to stroll in as a 4-5 WAR player. That Polanco finally will turn into more than a 2-2.5 WAR player(or less at the rate he’s going this year). That Marte isn’t basically at the peak of his aging curve. That Cervelli will be healthy like he was in 2015 for the next 2 years(as he ages).

        Remember the days when Greg Polanco was supposed to hit the ground running with over 3 WAR as a rookie according to ZIPS. Those were fun days.

    • The real question is what do they do with Cole? We have him through 2019 but if they are in the toilet at the deadline(which it appears they will be) and Cole is pitching at an elite level I think they will be tempted to trade him. He would have incredible value to a contender with 2.5 years of control.

      They probably want to hold onto him for 2018 but if we are in contention in 2018 it will be tough to trade him at deadline. If his elbow or shoulder problems flare up his trade value will drop dramatically.

      I sort of doubt the Pirates hold onto Cole for all his arb years(through 2019). And given how barren the system is with position players after Meadows/Newman I don’t know that they can afford to hold onto him

      At the same time, does anyone really trust NH to maximize his value in terms of prospects?

  • Can someone explain why D. Hudson still gets opportunities that he does? I’m sure I’m suffering from recency bias here after last night’s loss in the 10th, but I can’t recall him contributing much of anything positive to the team season-to-date? Is he truly one of our best arms for the role that he plays? How long is his leash at this point? For me, I’m hoping its a very, very short leash.

    • Kris Mosley
      May 10, 2017 9:06 am

      They already reduced his role. Earlier this year he would’ve pitched in the 8th last night. As far as him pitching in last night’s game it was either him Barbato, or LeBlanc. So I had no problem with his usage last night.
      The bigger problem last night was Polanco not being able to catch a routine fly ball. That cost the game.
      I know P2 says Polanco was a good fielder in the minors, and he looked decent the few times I saw him in Altoona, but my goodness what has happened to him?
      Maybe the negative plays stick out more to me, but Polanco defense seems terrible everywhere.

  • Polanco, with ZERO homers in 33 games, has been a big disappointment so far this season.

    • He also has been lacking defensively.

      Not someone who should be hitting cleanup.

  • When I hear NH say we had “spent our budget” but we are 10-15 million less then last year at the beginning of the year. I make the assumption we had no intention of competing and the results would indicate that. My guess is next year we will have a budget around 80-85 million and NH will rehash statements made 5-7 years ago about attendance and if only we supported the team we would spend blah blah blah.

  • I hope that when the deadline comes, the team is decisive one way or the other. I would be OK with a down year as I would be curious to see NH perform as a seller at the deadline. Maybe I am being premature (or maybe this is a coping mechanism) but it seems like nothing is destined to go the pirates way this year. With a key trade or two at the deadline, I think the team could be right back in it next year.

  • Michael Fiffik, Esquire
    May 10, 2017 7:27 am

    Building around them how exactly? I don’t see it. That bench was short to begin with. The plan really required everything to go right. That never happens. Like Kang could not have been planned for? Did we ever get the truth on when they first knew of Marie’s test result? This is also exposing a possible failure of organizational philosophy regarding making almost everyone a utility player. It’s not working very well.

    • I, too, thought Pirates knew about Marty’s failed drug test earlier than they said, but I was corrected by a writer on this site. Teams are forbidden to know by Collective Bargaining Agreement.

    • If I had to give NH’s eulogy somewhere in first sentence I would have to mention versatility and years of control. They clearly define the man.

  • The shift of Polanco back to right field was interesting. Any word on the idea there? Is it that with the current rag-tag outfield situation, he fits better there, or is it to make him more comfortable in the hopes that will bring his overall play around? Or, more interesting yet, will he play right on the road and left at home?

  • When one is looking for bright spots on the Pirates, and the first thing to come to mind is a middle reliever, well that in itself is pretty telling.

    The start to this season has been an unmitigated disaster. The good news is today is a new day and I’m hopeful they can start to turn it around.

    Let’s go Bucs!

    • I like your enthusiasm, but the spark does not seem to be there for this team this year. Sure, people are missing from the lineup, but the leadership of this team has been lacking – players and management.

    • The first thing that comes to mind is the rotation. I just ordered the final section LeBlanc then Nova because I felt it would be a stronger read to finish with Nova.

  • Sorry NH the way this talent challenged team is playing they are likely to be far far out of contention by the time Marte is eligible to return, and who knows if Kang will ever get a visa. Should have started looking for help the second Kang was arrested for DUI. Also this is where being cheap and losing Miguel Sano for a few hundred thousand dollars saved really stings. Tim: does this system really have one potential impact position player beyond Austin Meadows and maybe Ke’bryan Hayes? Seriously! It seems that the Pirates’ prospects have been grossly overrated!

  • How long in AAA for Holmes?

    • Just a WAG but if Jamo is cleared and back in a month we may not see Holmes. If not and Holmes continues to look good my guess would be in 4-6 more starts. Hopefully Kingham will be in the mix eventually.

    • Bill Harvey
      May 10, 2017 8:11 am

      Probably needs another month of pitching well in AAA. Let’s remember, it too him a month of pitching to make it 5 innings. Plus there is the ever present Super 2 deadline.