The World Baseball Classic is in its final stages, meaning that both the end of spring training and the start of the regular season are in sight. We’d better get through the remaining installments in this series quickly.
The World Baseball Classic is in its final stages, meaning that both the end of spring training and the start of the regular season are in sight. We’d better get through the remaining installments in this series quickly.
BRADENTON, Fla. – Gerrit Cole was really never himself last season, certainly never his 2015-self — his best self — when he finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.
The trouble started early when Cole sustained an injury while working out in the offseason, rib inflammation which disrupted and delayed the beginning of spring training for him. From that point, as he tried to play catch up, his season was interrupted three times by trips to the disabled list.
After a healthy 2015 during which he reached 200 innings for the first time in his professional career — a season in which he recorded a 2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP and 5.4 WAR — Cole landed on the disabled list on June 11 for a strained right triceps. He returned to the DL on August 25 for right elbow inflammation and was placed on the DL again on September 13 with right elbow posterior inflammation after lasting 13 batters in his return from the DL. His season ended with 116 innings of work, 2.5 WAR and a 3.88 ERA. It wasn’t until the newly married Cole was honeymooning in the Caribbean in November — Cole is married to the sister of former UCLA teammate Brandon Crawford — that he said he felt healthy again.
“I did everything I could,” Cole said. “That was the frustrating part. Scratching and clawing to find answers and not getting them. I was just determined [this offseason] to put myself in the best position I could this year. I just started attacking things from Day 1. I was pretty beat up all year, and out of shape toward the end of the year. I figured I’d take every single day we had [this offseason] and try to get better. I started with small stuff initially and built from there.”
I’ve chronicled Cole’s career closely. He was handled carefully as an amateur, not permitted to throw year round like other Southern Californian kids, in part because his father read about the Verducci Effect. While the merits of the Verducci Effect have since been refuted and challenged, the general premise that overworked young arms are at greater risk of injury is generally accepted. As a professional, Cole has explored just about everything that might keep him healthy, from wearable technology that monitors stress levels and energy usage to the ancient Eastern practice of “cupping.”
Last month, I explored whether more MLB hitters will get off the ground to improve their offensive numbers. As background for that piece, I asked private hitting instructor Doug Latta, who believes in lifting the ball, why there has been resistance to the the uppercut swing. Latta’s philosophy helped two of his clients, Justin Turner and Marlon Byrd, become dramatically better hitters.
We know fly balls are much more valuable than ground balls. In 2016, batters hit .241 with a .715 slugging mark and a wRC+ of 139 on fly balls versus a .238 average, .258 slugging mark and of wRC+ of 27 on ground balls.
“You see a (Josh) Donaldson, you see a Turner, you hear people talking a little more. Now you can quantify [quality of contact]… But it’s still a small movement,” Latta told me. “The results speak for themselves, but you are taking on 100 years of thought.”
Latta noted how slow the game is to move from conventional thought, and there appears to be little change in GB/FB tendencies league wide.
If the Pirates are going to make it back into the playoffs, it stands to reason they could need a hell of a bullpen. It’s something they’ve leveraged before — between 2013 and 2015, when the Pirates made the playoffs in all three years, they had the highest bullpen WPA in baseball. It was one of their various subtle strengths, and it made them tougher than many predicted.
Of course, the Pirates no longer have one of the major pieces that lifted them up. Mark Melancon is on the Giants now, by way of the Nationals, who received him last July in exchange for two players. It was almost inevitable the Pirates would sell him, and many compared the move unfavorably to the haul the Yankees got for Aroldis Chapman. Yet, for one thing, look — Mark Melancon isn’t Aroldis Chapman. Don’t be ridiculous. And also, don’t sell Felipe Rivero short. Taylor Hearn is a moderately interesting prospect, but Rivero is interesting as a relief pitcher now, and he might be primed to be the Pirates’ next big thing.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the Pirates announced they were moving their Face of the Franchise, Andrew McCutchen, to right field.
Since his major-league debut in 2009, the Pirates’ most valuable and exciting player since Barry Bonds has played 10,317.1 innings in the field. All have come in center field. But due to McCutchen’s decline in the field, and the Gold Glove-caliber skill of of Starling Marte, the Pirates are re-arranging their outfield. Gregory Polanco will play left field.
Clint Hurdle announces Pirates expected outfield defensive changes for 2017. pic.twitter.com/FFcEqNaUeV
— Pirates (@Pirates) February 5, 2017
One could argue the move should have happened much earlier.
McCutchen’s uncharacteristically poor age-29 season was largely fueled by a defensive decline, though McCutchen also posted career-low speed measures across the board. McCutchen, who was very much available in this offseason’s trade market, posted a mark of -28 Defensive Runs Saved last season, the worst in baseball. Flanking him in the outfield was Marte, who won his second straight Gold Glove and produced +19 DRS. While the Pirates’ shallower outfield alignment strategy did not help McCutchen, that positioning combined with poor execution off the mound, McCutchen is still in he midst of a multi-year decline defensively.
McCutchen was worth +5 DRS in 2013, -13 in 2014, -8 in 2015 and -28 last season.
Here’s McCutchen’s defensive work in 2016 via data visualization from BaseballSavant.com:
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged they were considering moving McCutchen at the end of the season. Huntington noted that McCutchen’s DRS number “grabs your attention.” On Sunday they made it official.
It’s no secret that this winter has not been kind to veteran hitters, particularly those with limited defensive ability. Mike Napoli is still a free agent, as are Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez. Brandon Moss just signed with the Royals yesterday, getting a backloaded $12 million on a two year deal. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo all took significant discounts relative to their initial asking prices. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the market for offense-first players was remarkably poor this year, to the point where it could be seen as an overcorrection; perfectly useful players are signing for less than what similarly valuable players with different skills are getting paid.
What is perhaps most interesting about this development, however, is that the teams who could are most in need of a first base upgrade are also teams that should be trying to squeak out every marginal win they can find.
A humorous anecdote from the Pirates’ offseason CARE-a-van tour to share with you by way of Stephen Nesbitt from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Recently, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect, Tyler Glasnow, heard something pretty funny. He was at a bowling event for Pirates Charities, and one fan piped up with this wisecrack, something about how it would be cool if Glasnow could throw strikes on the baseball field, too.
“Touche,” Glasnow said, laughing, as he retold [last month]. “It’s all right.”
Whether or not Glasnow is able to consistently repeat his delivery and throw strikes, challenging given his 6-foot-8 frame, is of great interest and importance to the Pirates.
It could determine whether he ultimately resides in a major-league rotation or bullpen. It will determine whether he is a successful major-league pitcher. After having been rated as a consensus top-50 prospect for three straight years since he burst on the scene with a plus-plus fastball at Low-A West Virginia in 2013, Glasnow experienced a rocky start to his major-league career last season. He walked 12% of batters faced – in line with his minor-league rate – and allowed quite a bit of solid contact during his small-sample debut of 23 innings.
Glasnow is of interest at the moment for two reasons. For starters, the Pirates’ ZiPS forecasts were published earlier this week and were optimistic about two players who have quite a bit of uncertainty in their 2017 forecasts: Andrew McCutchen and Glasnow. ZiPS calls for Glasnow to produce the second-most wins among Pittsburgh starting pitchers in 2017, more than Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova, who are locks for the rotation, and Chad Kuhl, who probably has the inside track on another spot entering spring.
As MLB.com’s Adam Berry reported in the fall, Glasnow is not guaranteed a rotation spot.
“The ceiling is so high, but there’s clearly some work that remains,” general manager Neal Huntington said at the General Managers Meetings. “If he pitches the way he’s capable of, that’s a very exciting addition to the rotation. He’s absolutely in the mix.”
Glasnow is one of the great wild cards to watch this spring.
He must tighten up his command and address his issues with the running game. Base-stealers were successful 81% of the time against Glasnow in the minors and stole nine bases in nine attempts at the MLB level last season. If he gets those issues under control, then his history of missing bats could vault him near the top of the rotation. Indeed, ZiPS forecasts an elite 27% strikeout rate and 3.60 ERA. Glasnow struck out 22% percent of batters he faced in 23.1 innings last season.
Glasnow is also interesting because of a mechanical issue, which might help his development.
Joe Blanton was all kinds of “meh” as a starting pitcher.
In 1,553 career innings a starter – his role during the first nine years of his career – Blanton produced a 4.47 ERA and 4.20 FIP. He was a back-of-the-rotation arm. He soaked up innings. His starts were not going to spike ratings or attendance or win expectancy.
But in 2015 he found himself in the Kansas City bullpen and something strange occurred: he became one of the game’s most effective relievers despite an atypical tools profile.
Blanton was effective in the Royals’ bullpen, and when he was traded to the Pirates at the trade deadline, he was again successful in a relief role. During the following offseason, he signed a modest one-year, $4 million deal with the Dodgers and was, again, successful pitching out of the bullpen.
Since 2015, Blanton has appeared in 107 games, all as a reliever. In that time he ranks 11th in ERA (2.29) among all relievers, 24th in FIP (3.02) and 26th in K-BB% (19.1 points).
So what’s strange — in an era during which we hear more interest and talk about teams relying more heavily on their bullpens, when we saw inspired bullpen usage by the Cleveland Indians and other clubs in the postseason — what’s strange is Blanton remains available in free agency.
After having typically appeared in the very famous pages of Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have been released at FanGraphs the past few years. The exercise continues this offseason. Below are the projections for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Szymborski can be found at ESPN and on Twitter at @DSzymborski.
Other Projections: Arizona / Atlanta / Baltimore / Boston / Chicago AL / Chicago NL / Cleveland / Detroit / Houston / Kansas City / Los Angeles AL / Los Angeles NL / Milwaukee / Minnesota / New York AL / Miami / St. Louis / San Diego / San Francisco / Seattle / Tampa Bay / Toronto / Washington.
The projected starting lineup for the 2017 edition of the Pirates bears a strong resemblance to the one with which the club entered last season. The only substantive difference, actually, occurs at first base, where some combination of Josh Bell (612 PA, 1.6 zWAR) and David Freese (469, 1.9) appear likely to receive the bulk of plate appearances. On the whole, the result is an above-average squad. A group of eight average players would produce something like 16 wins; this group, meanwhile, is forecast for about 21.
Despite a poor 2016 campaign, Andrew McCutchen (641, 4.1) receives the club’s top wins projection for this next season. Much of that is due to positive regression on the offensive front, ZiPS calling for a 128 OPS+ after last season’s 103 mark. The defensive prognosis is less enthusiastic: McCutchen is forecast by Dan Szymborski’s computer for -10 runs in center field.
If the projections are right, the Brewers found more sneaky value in their 2017 first baseman, Eric Thames, who spent the last few years launching home runs in South Korea.
On the surface, Feliz was solid last season, and produced value for the Pirates on a one-year deal. After three seasons marred by injury and inconsistency with the Rangers and Tigers, Feliz struck out 28% of the batters he faced in 2016, posted a 19-point difference between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%), and recorded his hardest average fastball velocity (96.1 mph) since 2011.
While a .240 BABIP kept his ERA at a reasonable 3.52, that’s also probably a function of his approach: Feliz’s fly-ball tendencies have helped him to a .241 BABIP for his career.
He looks like another Ray Searage special.
The signing of Eric Thames and the projections subsequently produced for him represent two of the more interesting, if lower-profile, developments of the offseason. Since Thames took his quick left-handed swing across the Pacific, he’s become one of the top sluggers in the hitter-friendly Korea Baseball Organization.
If you have 30 free minutes you can watch all 47 of his 2015 home runs thanks to YouTube:
Despite having already played in the majors, Thames is something of a mystery, a curiosity, in transitioning from a foreign professional league. If the projections are accurate, however – and his Davenport translations are pretty close to other, former international unknowns like Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Jung Ho Kang – then the Brewers have themselves a steal.
In the cases both of Cespedes and Kang, who played in foreign leagues that draw fewer scouts, analytics played a considerable role in the decision to sign them. Analytics and projections also played a significant part in the Thames signing, as Brewers GM David Stearns told David Laurila in the latter’s Sunday notes this weekend.
Kang was the first KBO hitter to make the jump directly to the majors. There were no direct comparisons. But plenty of South Korean stars had played in the Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization, so the Pirates looked at their production in Japan and then studied the more sizable sample of NPB position players who have played in the majors.
Back in 2013, the A’s were also creative in projecting Cespedes, then a trailblazing Cuban defector, as detailed by Ben Reiter in Sports Illustrated.
“[Farhan] Zaidi built a model that analyzed not just the grades the scouts had given to Cespedes on the usual eight-point scale, but also the scouts themselves. Say three guys have a six power on him, three guys have seven power on him. What kind of minor leaguers or major leaguers do those guys have those grades on?”
The A’s did not miss a chance to scout Cespedes when access was available. The Pirates did send scouts over to evaluate Kang in addition to video analysis (though Kang’s off-the-field issues were apparently not discovered). Still, recent success stories of players signed from foreign pro leagues are analytics-heavy because they’ve had to be. There are few scouting resources committed to South Korea and Japan. Cuba has been difficult to scout due to political reasons.
But what are MLB clubs missing at the professional and amateur levels by not having more of a scouting presence in places like South Korea? And why are such areas not heavily staffed?
Below is an analysis of the prospects in the Pittsburh Pirates farm system. Scouting reports are compiled with information provided by industry sources as well as from my own observations. The KATOH statistical projections, probable-outcome graphs, and (further down) Mahalanobis comps have been provided by Chris Mitchell. For more information on thes 20-80 scouting scale by which all of my prospect content is governed you can click here. For further explanation of the merits and drawbacks of Future Value, read this. -Eric Longenhagen
The KATOH projection system uses minor-league data and Baseball America prospect rankings to forecast future performance in the major leagues. For each player, KATOH produces a WAR forecast for his first six years in the major leagues. There are drawbacks to scouting the stat line, so take these projections with a grain of salt. Due to their purely objective nature, the projections here can be useful in identifying prospects who might be overlooked or overrated. Due to sample-size concerns, only players with at least 200 minor-league plate appearances or batters faced last season have received projections. -Chris Mitchell
65 FV Prospects
|Hit||Raw Power||Game Power||Run||Fielding||Throw|
Slashed .266/.333/.536 between Double- and Triple-A as a 21-year-old.
Meadows dominated Double-A for 45 games before receiving a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-June. Soon after that, he spent a month on the DL with a hamstring injury, the third one with which Meadows has dealt in as many years (he had reoccurring hammy issues in 2014) and never got things going after he returned, slashing .214/.297/.460. Even so, that’s not alarming in any way for a 21-year-old, especially in a small sample.
On May 12, 2015, Pirates relief pitcher Arquimedes Caminero
reached 103 mph in the ninth inning against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, according to Brooks Baseball. The pitch was the fastest thrown by a Pirates pitcher in the PITCHf/x era.
The pitch was thrown with the greatest velocity by a pitcher drafted and developed by the Pirates under general manager Neal Huntington.
The Marlins gave Edinson Volquez two years and $22 million. Now, I know what you might be thinking: The Marlins might have to issue bigger guarantees in order to convince players to join them. But I don’t know that for sure. What I do know for sure is that Volquez turns 34 next summer. Last season he had a worse-than-average ERA, a worse-than-average FIP, and a worse-than-average xFIP. Those same three things apply, also, to his overall career numbers. Volquez isn’t much. Fifth starter, perhaps.
The Pirates have given Ivan Nova three years and $26 million. Now, I know what you might be thinking: I should add in the modest performance-based incentives. But I just want to deal with the guarantee. Nova turns 30 in a matter of weeks. Last season he had an average ERA, an average FIP, and a better-than-average xFIP. This was supposed to be a terrible offseason to look for free-agent starters, but the Pirates still seem to have gotten something of a deal.
Somewhere around two years and $6 million a year: those appear to be the terms for a certain kind of match this offseason. A match between budget-conscious teams seeking to acquire meaningful (if flawed) talent and players willing to forgo a bigger one-year deal in order to gain an extra year of security. Matt Joyce, Steve Pearce, Wilson Ramos, Sean Rodriguez, even Junichi Tazawa — they’ve all given us brief glimpses into above-average work, and longer looks at less exciting work.
In a way, Daniel Hudson fits right into this collection of players: according to Jeff Passan, he received a two-year, $11 million deal from the Pirates. If he’s their closer for the next two years, that will be a bargain; he could also return hardly anything. In either case, discussing the deal in such simple terms is selling his story way, way too short.
The Pirates almost traded Andrew McCutchen. That’s all anyone could really think about when McCutchen was present at the Pirates’ annual PirateFest, the Saturday after the end of the winter meetings. Maybe the public never should’ve had any idea in the first place, but teams leak information, and the McCutchen rumors ran rampant. It made the occasion a little awkward, an occasion where fans would prefer to simply embrace the homegrown superstar, free of complicating thoughts. It’s anyone’s guess how much longer McCutchen might last where he is.
The reality of the Pirates’ situation is that the commitment to McCutchen probably isn’t forever. He’s under contract one more year, with a club option after that, and it’s hard to see the two parties together in 2019. It would’ve made plenty of sense for the Pirates to make a deal last week. It also made plenty of sense for the Pirates to hold off. It would now appear McCutchen will at least open the next season in Pittsburgh. Beyond that, it’s murky, but no one yet has to say their goodbyes.
About a month ago at this site, Dave Cameron argued that any offers for Andrew McCutchen this offseason would likely reflect McCutchen’s potential for a rebound from a poor and (until recently) anomalous 2016 season. Last week, Jeff Sullivan argued that the Washington Nationals represented an ideal fit for McCutchen. Finally, this past week, it seemed — for a time, at least — as though a deal between the Pirates and Nationals would come to fruition, with the latter club prepared to offer major prospects for the former’s star.
The deal didn’t happen, though, and the Nationals, after having negotiated for and failing to get Chris Sale from the White Sox, ultimately acquired Adam Eaton from that same team. That haul, or something close to it, could have gone to Pittsburgh in the Pirates’ quest to contend beyond 2017. This seems like a bad outcome for the Pirates, but it could prove to be a blessing in disguise for a team that still has a shot at contention next season.
The conventional wisdom around the Pirates’ interest in trading McCutchen is that they perhaps know something the rest of us don’t about one of the best players of the last decade. From 2011 through 2015, Andrew McCutchen averaged nearly seven wins above replacement per season. That’s a Hall of Fame-level peak, but last season, McCutchen’s bat went from spectacular to slightly above average. Add in below-average defense, and at the still-young age of 29, McCutchen went from Hall of Fame to below average in the blink of an eye. Given the height of the aforementioned peak, it’s entirely reasonable to expect a bounce-back season for McCutchen. That Pittsburgh would move McCutchen might suggest that the bounce back isn’t quite as likely as one might think. I’m not so sure.
The Pirates are in a unique situation: they have a corner outfielder in Starling Marte who could play quite capable defense in center field, another young corner outfielder in Gregory Polanco who has improved in his time in the majors, and one of the best prospects in baseball in Austin Meadows, who also plays the corner outfield. Marte is locked up through 2021 on a cheap, team-friendly deal. Polanco is in the same situation through 2023, and if the team calls up Meadows sometime in 2017, they will retain his services through the 2023 season. Andrew McCutchen has two team-friendly seasons left, totaling $28.5 million. While his 2016 campaign was disappointing, his value on the trade market remains incredibly high.
Teams have gotten pretty good about handling trade rumors. The teams themselves don’t operate any differently, but whenever any big name is discussed, you just about always hear the team isn’t shopping him. Rather, the front office will frequently indicate it’s open to anything. “Listening to offers,” as if there’s any other way. Big names still get traded as often as ever, but teams try to reduce anxiety in the meantime. They don’t want people stressing out until or unless there’s something worth stressing over.
The Andrew McCutchen offers have taken on a different feel. At first, it felt like, all right, maybe the Pirates would be open to trading him. But Wednesday, reports emerged that the Pirates are the ones being aggressive. I don’t know if that’s coming from the Pirates organization or somewhere(s) else, but this is pretty unusual. Pair that with the news that Austin Meadows will be playing an outfield corner and you definitely get the sense McCutchen’s days with the Pirates are numbered.
As Ken Rosenthal and others have written, it looks more likely than ever that McCutchen’s going to be dealt. If it happens, it would hardly be a shock to see it happen before the end of next week’s winter meetings. McCutchen is still to be considered a premium outfielder, so any number of teams would love to pick him up. After examining the landscape, though, I don’t see a better fit than the Nationals.
$11.5 million is what the Braves will give Sean Rodriguez over the next two years, and that seems fine even if he reverts to a utility infielder that faces mostly lefties. But there’s a few things Rodriguez did right last year, and if he does those things right again, he’ll be worth much more than the money he’s due. A team like the Braves needed to make a signing like this.
Buy low and sell high. It’s the investing concept we’re all taught at a young age, and it makes everything sound so simple. If you buy assets when their value is about to go up, and sell them when it’s about to go down, then you’ll get rich. Super easy! Everyone should do it! Get excited!
Life, however, is more complicated than that. The high and low points of a trend graph are easy to spot when looking retrospectively, but when you’re in the midst of the graph, determining whether things are about to go up or down is more difficult. Forecasting isn’t as easy as buy low/sell high makes it sound.
So, with that said, let’s talk about Andrew McCutchen.