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Pittsburgh Pirates: Wandy Rodriguez Injury Could Spell Trouble for Rotation

The Pittsburgh Pirates‘ difficult start to the 2013 season encountered another obstacle Monday night, as starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez left the Bucs’ 5-3 victory in the third inning with a tight left hamstring.

Rodriguez was expected to be re-evaluated on Tuesday, and the extent of the injury is at this point unclear. But if Rodriguez is sidelined for an extended period of time, the Pirates’ suddenly thin rotation will face a big challenge.

The Pirates’ rotation features several hit or miss players, with Rodriguez perhaps representing the safest option Clint Hurdle has at his disposal. Though A.J. Burnett, the Bucs’ clear ace at this point, put together a rather consistent year in 2012, he does not have a track record anywhere close to Wandy‘s in this department.

The current Pittsburgh rotation also features James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez, two pitchers who are capable of excellence or incompetence on any given day. Rodriguez is an important stabilizing force for this ballclub.

Tim Williams posted a good breakdown of Rodriguez’s potential replacements this morning, and though the options look decent at first glance they underscore the fact that the Bucs are not prepared for this injury.

Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin, the two most likely fill-ins, both may very well be deserving of Major League jobs, and each will likely make it to Pittsburgh at some point this season. But the Pirates’ brass did not believe either pitcher was a better short-term option than Jonathan Sanchez a week ago, which is rather disconcerting.

The organizational view is clearly that McPherson, who struggled towards the back end of Spring Training, and Irwin both would benefit from more time in Triple-A. For this reason it may be more likely that Irwin, who is slightly more “Major League-ready” but has a lower ceiling, gets the first call-up.

Neither option is a total disaster for the Bucs, but the Pittsburgh rotation was already in a pretty tenuous position to begin with. The Pirates’ offense may find the need to break out of its early-season doldrums even more urgent soon.

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Pittsburgh Pirates Need to Improve Approach at the Plate

The Pittsburgh Pirates have started 2013 in a very similar manner to 2012, struggling to get anything going at the plate. Despite four solid pitching performances in a row, the Bucs are 1-3 heading into Saturday night’s tilt with Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.

The Pirates have scored six runs in four games, with three of those runs coming against struggling Chicago Cubs closer Carlos Marmol.

While it is way too early to react strongly to specific results, the Bucs’ overall approach at the plate does not suggest that a significant improvement is around the corner.

It is one thing to go on a cold streak because batted balls simply aren’t finding holes, as can often happen in the sport. It’s another to pile up heavy strikeout numbers while drawing few walks and swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, as the Pirates are currently doing.

The biggest culprits at this early stage are Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Starling Marte, three players who are critical complementary components of the Pirates offense. Marte took a very good walk in his first plate appearance before reverting to his historical on-base struggles, while Alvarez and Jones have just looked out of sync.

Alvarez, whose contact issues have always been one of his biggest flaws, has already struck out twice in situations with a man on third base and less than two outs, including a three-pitch strikeout at the hands of Marmol Thursday night.

Jones also has the distinction of striking out against Marmol, as he was the only Pirate the Cubs closer successfully retired on Opening Day.

Each player has fallen victim to sliders that were not particularly sharp, starting at the knees at best and breaking into the dirt well before crossing home plate. At this point, there is no reason to throw either player—or most Pirates for that matter—a fastball in the strike zone.

For his part, Clint Hurdle thinks the Pirates’ offensive approach is improving (per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review):

While this may be true on the margin, one of the very things that has been discouraging about the Pirates’ early-season offensive performance is their propensity to swing at bad pitches even when the count is full. 

The Bucs’ recent offensive flaw has always been getting on base, as the team has plenty of power and speed. It is way too early in the season to be sure that a given trend will continue, but Pirate fans were certainly hoping for a very different start. 

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Pittsburgh Pirates’ Season Preview: Starting Pitcher

The Pittsburgh Pirates‘ starting rotation has been a key component of the team’s first-half success in 2011 and 2012, keeping the team afloat while the offense struggled at the start of the season.

While there are many question marks in this year’s rotation, the Bucs also boast several higher ceiling pitchers in addition to more credible depth than they have had in previously.

It will be interesting to see how the back of the Pirates’ rotation, which is not fully set yet, shakes out over the first few months of the season, as well as when they give some of their higher-impact prospects a shot in Pittsburgh.



The Pirates enter the season with only two real “sure things” at the top of their rotation. Both A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez may see some decline, but each comes off a strong 2012 season and can be labeled a somewhat reliable veteran at this point.

Yankees fans would probably argue with this description of Burnett, who saw substantial improvement in his first season in Pittsburgh thanks to an improved walk rate. But his advanced metrics were generally decent in New York. Meanwhile, Rodriguez is staving off decreased strikeout rates thanks to solid command.

James McDonald, the team’s No. 3 starter, is the biggest wild card in the rotation and likely on the team as a whole. McDonald was one of the best pitchers in the National League before the All-Star break, and he was worse than replacement level after it. If McDonald can locate his fastball, he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter.

The No. 4 and No. 5 slots in the rotation are essentially up for grabs, though Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens likely have the inside track on those positions when healthy. Their inability to stay healthy is essentially the only thing these two pitchers have in common. Liriano can strike out anyone but remains extremely erratic, while Karstens relies on command and consistency.

Liriano and Karstens almost certainly will not both be in the Opening Day rotation (Liriano in particularly is not likely to return from his most recent injury by then), so other candidates may be considered. At the moment, the erratic Jonathan Sanchez and former prospect Jeff Locke appear to have the inside track. The Sanchez experiment will end quickly if he cannot throw strikes, while Locke can be a serviceable No. 4 or No. 5 starter until a better option comes along. 



Even with seven players listed in the “Starters” category, there are still a few additional pitchers who may fit into the Pirates’ 2013 rotation plans.

Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Chris Leroux can start if necessary, though all profile as nothing more than sixth starter or swing reliever types. Given that they are no better than the ninth or tenth options on this team, that is fine for the Pirates, and it’s important both to have these types of players and not have them be your first option if a starting pitcher gets injured.

Kyle McPherson is another former prospect who is just about ready to join the big club, but unlike Locke, McPherson is ripe for a little more seasoning, as he has only pitched 18 innings in Triple-A. McPherson has a higher ceiling than Locke, as well, as he has the ability to post somewhat serviceable strikeout numbers while maintaining his pinpoint control.

Phil Irwin is another relatively under-the-radar prospect who may be able to help the big-league club this season. Irwin displayed superior control in Double-A before before excelling in a brief Triple-A debut, and he is another player the Pirates can look to for solid starts as the season wears on.

Top prospect Gerrit Cole is the big name to watch here. Cole will start the season in Triple-A, but the Pirates’ No. 1 prospect will likely be in Pittsburgh by the middle of the season. He will probably take a few lumps early, but Cole is the kind of player who can give the Pirates a huge boost toward contention, the race for .500, or whatever it is they find themselves playing for in July.


Down on the Farm

Even after accounting for Cole, there is no shortage of high-impact pitching talent in the Pirates’ farm system. 

Slotting in just behind Cole is Jameson Taillon, who is probably a year behind Cole in his development but also profiles as a potential future ace. Taillon, who turned some heads with a strong performance against the United States in this year’s World Baseball Classic, should spend most of the season in Triple-A (even if he doesn’t start there) before making his Pittsburgh debut in 2014.

Luis Heredia is still considered to have ace stuff as well, though at the young age of 18 he remains a long way from the majors. Heredia seems to be progressing solidly though, and Pirates fans look forward to potentially seeing him pitch more innings in full-season ball this year.

As usual, the Pirates have several projectable right-handed pitchers worth watching in the lower to mid levels of the system. The more well-known names here are Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes and Tyler Glasnow, while new draftees Adrian Sampson and Jonathan Sandfort look to replenish the ranks.

Other names of interest for Bucs’ fans, due to either draft pedigree or recent acquisitions, include Zack Von Rosenborg and Stolmy Pimentel

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Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview: Outfield

As the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ young talent has started to graduate from their farm system in recent years, their outfield has become a much more exciting unit.

Entering 2013, the Bucs likely have two thirds of their outfield set for the better part of the decade, with several interesting candidates to fill the third position in the short- or long-term future.

There are still questions to be answered, and the Pirates cannot necessarily expect above-average production from any position other than center field. But the Bucs’ outfield is starting to look like a long-term strength,



The Pirates have two young, athletic players that should be patrolling their outfield for years to come in superstar Andrew McCutchen and prospect Starling Marte. It is pretty clear what McCutchen will bring to the Bucs this year, but Marte’s contribution is less certain.

As he has been for the past four seasons, McCutchen will be the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s 2013 offense. The main question he must answer is whether he can sustain his MVP-caliber 2012 performance over the course of a full season.

Given that McCutchen was worth more than seven wins last year, despite a noticeable drop-off in the season’s final third, his ceiling remains frighteningly high.

Marte has a somewhat similar ceiling to McCutchen. H is an excellent defensive player with great bat speed and more power than is first anticipated. But unlike McCutchen, Marte has yet to mature and refine his approach in order to become a consistently productive offensive player. The Pirates have a lot to gain if he can make that leap.

The Pirates’ third outfield position is not as set in stone, and the Bucs could see a bit of a revolving door in right field if no player claims an everyday role. For the time being, former Toronto prospect Travis Snider is penciled in as the starter. Snider has power, can take a walk and plays decent defense but needs to cut down on his strikeouts. 



Jose Tabata is currently the odd-man out in the Pirates’ outfield, but if he sustains his strong spring play, then he may see a lot of at-bats fairly early in the season.

Like Snider, Tabata is a former top prospect that hasn’t put it all together yet. He has frustrated Pittsburgh management with his immaturity at times, but he is still only 24 years old and is actually one of the best players on the team at getting on base.

Alex Presley will likely make the team as well.

Presley probably is what he is at this point, a decent contact hitter that contributes in the field and on the basepaths but doesn’t provide much power or patience. 

Jerry Sands may also factor into the Bucs’ outfield equation before the year is through, and strong play from Gaby Sanchez could result in Garrett Jones getting more starts in right field.


Down on the Farm

The Pirates have a deep organizational pipeline in the outfield right now, with a few high-ceiling prospects supported by decent depth.

Twenty-one year-old Gregory Polanco, coming off a breakout 2012 season in Single-A, headlines the system. Polanco is another athletic center field type who looks to have all the requisite hit tools, though he is still several years from the majors.

Josh Bell, the recipient of a big signing bonus less than two years ago, is often a forgotten man in the Bucs’ organization. Nagging injuries mean he has only had 62 professional at-bats, but he remains the Pirates’ best power-hitting prospect.

Barrett Barnes, the Pirates’ sandwich-round pick in the 2012 draft, is another player who sits at the higher end of most Pittsburgh top prospect lists. A .401 on-base percentage in 153 plate appearances in his debut did nothing to harm his status.

Other outfielders to watch in the lower levels of the organization include Adalberto Santos, Willy Garcia and Elvis Escobar

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Early Spring Training Trends and Observations

The first week of Spring Training has come and gone, and there are a few interesting developments within the Pirates organization.

The majority of Spring Training results are meaningless (Andrew McCutchen isn’t going to bat .143 this season), but the Pirates have so many interesting, fringe-starter types on their roster that there is more information worth monitoring than usual.


The #MartePartay Begins

Starling Marte has gotten off to a very good start to Spring Training, which is exactly what Pirate fans wanted to see from a player who can be a staple in Pittsburgh for a long time.

The #MartePartay started before the Pirates’ first game, as Marte hit home run in an intrasquad game and hasn’t looked back since. He has five hits in 12 at-bats and his approach has generally looked sound.

It is certainly to early to suggest that he has made the leap, but Marte is already an elite defensive player and it is a very good sign if his offensive game is beginning to mature.


Bench Players Announce Themselves

Gaby Sanchez and Jordy Mercer, two players once thought to have bright major league futures, have had a very good first week.

Sanchez has reached base in seven of his 11 plate appearances and hit two home runs in a game over the weekend. He is only one year removed from two productive seasons, and if he can match his .340+ OBP from those years he will be a very useful player. Garrett Jones can also play right field, so there is playing time available if Sanchez steps up.

Mercer has reached base on six of his first 10 plate appearances and is slugging .833. The Pirates do not have a long-term solution at shortstop (aside from potentially Alen Hanson, a top prospect who will start the year in High-A), so they will be watching Mercer closely.


Erratic Pitching Continues

There have been much fewer positives for Pirate pitchers. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon looked good in their first appearances, but several major league wild cards have struggled and often looked, well, wild.

Justin Wilson and Jonathan Sanchez both have a tremendous amount of talent, but a history of struggling to find the plate. Those struggles have reared their ugly head this spring, with the two pitchers combining to walk seven batters in 5.1 innings. Wilson at least has four strikeouts to go with his two walks.

James McDonald wasn’t wild in his first start, but he struggled nonetheless, allowing three home runs. Fastball command remains an area of focus for him.

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Pittsburgh Pirates: 5 Pitchers and Catchers to Watch in Spring Training

Spring training is around the corner, and in only a couple days, the Pittsburgh Pirates will once again begin the quest to break their streak of what is now 20 consecutive losing seasons.

On February 11, pitchers and catchers will report to Bradenton as the Bucs start preparing for their 2013 campaign.

There is a fair amount of intrigue surrounding Pittsburgh pitchers this spring. The Pirates may have a somewhat open competition at the back of the rotation over the next six weeks, with several young pitchers ready to make their mark and a top prospect waiting in the wings. 

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Pittsburgh Pirates: What Does Jerry Sands Bring to the Bucs?

Rather than ruminate over a potential trade—where we don’t know the identities of half of the players—that would send closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, Pirates fans should instead concentrate on what is known.

And what we do know is the following: Hanrahan is almost certainly on his way to Boston, and Jerry Sands and Stolmy Pimentel are very likely to be members of the Pirate organization next season. 

So what we can do is look at what Jerry Sands, the more notable player of the two who are seemingly on their way to Pittsburgh, brings to the table. And he appears to be an intriguing corner outfield option who possesses a fair amount of question marks. 

There are two primary views about Sands right now, and both revolve around the polarizing stats he posted in the minor leagues. The first camp points to his elite walk and power numbers and thinks he has a bright future. The second camp disregards his power numbers due to a hitter-friendly Triple-A park and sees a player who strikes out a lot and was the third-best hitter on his minor league team last year.

As is often the case, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the fact that Sands played in the PCL likely inflated his Triple-A stat lines, which saw him post slugging percentages of .586 and .524 in consecutive seasons.

But Sands has posted a slugging percentage above .500 at every minor league level, not just in the PCL, and he has compiled a walk rate of over 10 percent in every season except one. Bill James projects an OPS of .812 for Sands in 2013, which would certainly make him a useful player though not a star in a corner outfield role.

The question then becomes where Sands fits on the roster. Is it as simple as either letting him and Travis Snider compete for the right field job and seeing who lives up to their potential or just platooning the two? Or will the Pirates move Garrett Jones?

It seems like between Snider, Marte and Sands (yes, there is even more depth with the likes of Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Clint Robinson but none of these players has earned a starting job at this point) the Pirates have three players whose value is at least somewhat derived from projection. Trading Jones and relying on all three as full-time players may be a bit risky.

That said, the Bucs have to feel more comfortable jumping on an offer for Jones now if they feel like they are getting a good deal. Including Marte in a blockbuster trade for a proven outfielder like Giancarlo Stanton or Justin Upton becomes more enticing as well.

The Pirates are building solid depth in the outfield, and they are doing so through players who have at least a decent likelihood of major league success. In a vacuum, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

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Pittsburgh Pirates Take a Smart Gamble on Francisco Liriano

I was planning to post on the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ options at the starting pitcher position today, but it appears the Bucs have already settled their rotation

Francisco Liriano is a polarizing player who is only two years removed from a season in which he was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Yet, he clearly has not been that player during over the last few years.

The reason to be leery of this signing is pretty evident; Liriano has demonstrated very poor control during each of the last two seasons, walking more than five batters per nine innings in 2011. Liriano also has been homer-prone of late and has struggled with runners on base.

$14 million over two years is a decent risk for a team in the Pirates’ financial position to take. Yet, this is absolutely a gamble worth taking for the Bucs.

The Pirates do not have many ordinary means of acquiring elite players in free agency, as their budget does not allow Neal Huntington to spend upwards of $15 million a year on one player. The only way for the Bucs to come out of free agency with an elite player is to guess correctly on someone with elite potential, who also comes with questions attached.

Liriano, who struck out more than a batter an inning in his disappointing 2011 season, is exactly that kind of player.

Liriano has always had the pedigree of a potential ace, and he was exactly that in 2010 when he was worth six wins above replacement.

It is obviously unreasonable to expect Liriano to revert to this high level of production, but the talent and strikeout ability make him the right pitcher to take a chance on. Even if he only slightly outperforms his 2011 season, Liriano can be a league-average pitcher (with subpar walk rates mitigated by the strikeouts) and well worth the money the Pirates are paying him. 

There are reasons to expect improvement from Liriano.

He is moving to a park that favors left-handed pitchers, particularly when it comes to home run prevention, and he will have a better defense behind him than he has in recent years. Liriano should also benefit from moving to the National League.

The Pirates have had very recent success with this “reclamation projection” strategy, as A.J. Burnett put together a much better year in Pittsburgh than he had in recent seasons with the New York Yankees. This approach clearly will not always work, but if the Bucs pick their spots there’s no reason not to take another chance.

The Pittsburgh rotation suddenly has a pretty high ceiling, with Burnett, Liriano and James McDonald all capable of stellar outings, and top prospect Gerrit Cole likely to join the club in the middle of the season.

There is a large gap between that ceiling and the floor, especially given the variability of many above the pitchers’ performances. But the Pirates need to substantially exceed individual projections in order to have the kind of season they want to have, so they are right to invest in this kind of variability.

The Pirates have rightfully indicated that they will not be satisfied with mediocrity.

Their actions are backing up their statements, as they have shown an exciting penchant to seek high-impact talent during the last year. 

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Pittsburgh Pirates’ Offseason Primer: Shortstop

Incumbent shortstop Clint Barmes struggled significantly at the plate this season, and it is fair to ask whether the Pirates should rely in him in 2013.

Barmes was a defensive ace last season, and he provided the Bucs with a fair amount of value as a result. But he was still below league average at the position overall, and while his strong defense will likely continue, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him regress some from what was a career year in the field.

Like the catcher market, the market for shortstops is thin as usual. However there are some intriguing options for the Pirates to pursue, perhaps more substantial than in the catcher market, with the knowledge that Barmes will remain in the roster as a decent backup plan.


Free Agents

None of the free agent options at shortstop come without risk, and as a result it may be possible for the Pirates to sign someone to a one-year contract. Several of these options carry a fair amount of upside with them, as well.

Stephen Drew, coming off an injury, is likely the most promising name of the bunch. Traditionally a league-average hitter from the shortstop position, Drew would be a huge upgrade if healthy. Alex Gonzalez is in a similar situation and is essentially a poor man’s version of Drew. There is a decent chance that both players will look to prove they are healthy this year before seeking their next contracts.

Marco Scutaro, who at this point is ideally a second baseman but may still be able to handle the shortstop position, is another option. Scutaro remains a very solid hitter who would add on-base ability to a Pittsburgh offense that lacks it. 


Trade Targets

There are usually few quality shortstops available for trade, but this year there are a couple established players who are in positions where their teams might at least listen if the offer were substantial enough.

Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado are two of the best prospects in all of baseball, so while the Rangers and Orioles are not expressly interested in trading either Elvis Andrus or J.J. Hardy, the Pirates would at least be able to broach the subject. 

It would require a substantial offer to acquire either player, especially Andrus, who is one of the better players in all of baseball. But it isn’t out of the question, and the Pirates are one of the few teams with the collection of players and prospects necessary to get a deal done.


Internal Options

The Pirates do not really have any short-term internal solutions at shortstop, as top prospect Alen Hanson is still a few years away,

Jordy Mercer and Chase D’Arnaud, the two true shortstops in the upper levels of the system, are still trying to prove they can be everyday players at the Major League level. Neither has proven that they have enough pop to be much of an upgrade over Bames at the plate.

Brock Holt impressed in his late-season call-up in 2012, but he cooled off towards the end of the season and he has not yet proven that he can handle the position defensively.



There is decent chance that Clint Barmes is the Pirates’ shortstop on opening day. But given that the Pirates are comfortable with this, they should be willing to make a run at a few riskier acquisitions.

Even if Drew or Scutaro would command a decent amount of money, they could probably be signed to one-year deals which would substantially mitigate any risk. The Bucs would then be able to roll the dice with a superior offensive player while having a Barmes ready to play if the gamble didn’t pay off.

It would also be nice to see the Pirates make a sincere run at a player like Andrus. A team in Pittsburgh’s position should be looking for cornerstones at hard-to-fill positions; you can always find a first baseman at a moderate price. If the Bucs can capitalize on Joel Hanrahan’s value to make him the centerpiece of a trade, all the better. 

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MLB Playoffs: Major League Baseball Needs to Change Its Seeding Method

On Friday night, the 93-69 Texas Rangers were eliminated from the American League playoffs by the 93-69 Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, the 88-74 Detroit Tigers rested at home, awaiting Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

And why did this happen? Why was a team that finished five games behind two others in the regular season awarded a bye in the playoffs for its accomplishments? Because Major League Baseball, like most sports leagues, places way too much value on winning one’s division.

In 2012, the six best records in the American League were compiled by teams from the AL East and AL West. The Tigers, who hold the seventh-best record in the American League, made the playoffs ahead of the Rays and the Angels, who both posted better regular-season records. This seems like a big enough reward for winning one’s division already.

Not to mention that the Tigers played a substantially easier schedule than their AL East and AL West counterparts by virtue of baseball’s unbalanced schedule. The Tigers finished with the seventh-best record despite the fact that the three teams with better records each had to play their more successful divisions more than twice as often as the Tigers did, while Detroit was playing the likes of the Royals and the Twins.

Favorably seeding division winners is not unique to baseball. In fact, only the NBA currently supports a seeding system in which a non-division winner can rank ahead of a division winner. Yet in baseball, where the regular season is supposed to be paramount and the lowest number of teams make the playoffs, this sub-optimal seeding progress seems the most egregious.

Seeding inequity is made worse by the new baseball playoff system, which pits wild-card teams against each other in a one-game playoff. Essentially, the Rangers and Orioles were both only half of a playoff team, despite the fact that each team would have won the AL Central by five games while facing a more difficult strength of schedule.

Due to the geographical differentiations within leagues and the historical significance of certain divisional rivalries, it’s understandable that division winners make the playoffs. They are representing their geography, and they deserve some chance to show that, for whatever reason, they may be better than their record indicates.

But division winners should be seeded according to their records; if they are truly Cinderella stories, they should start at the back of the pack. And no 93-69 team should ever be eliminated while a team that finished five games behind it in the regular season rests at home.

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