The Pirates Just Aren’t Good

There are many reasons for it and many people to blame but the Pirates just aren’t a good baseball team and while there were some legitimate reasons to think they might be good enough to compete for a wild card at the beginning of the year we have enough evidence now to know that probably isn’t happening.

The first reaction of a lot of fans is to blame the ownership and the front office and they deserve to share some of the blame. One of my biggest pet peeves with this group is that they haven’t done enough insulating. What I mean by that is they always seem to be lacking depth in a key area. This year there were three or potentially even 4 areas including outfield, back of the rotation, right handed relief and depending on how you choose to view it shortstop (if you want to count Kang there they were probably fine).

The blame doesn’t simply stop there nor is that the primary reason the Pirates are struggling. The Pirates two best position players find themselves banned from the league right no because of their own actions. It is inarguable that the absence of these two has had a huge negative effect on the offense and will continue to do so. Very few teams can survive let alone thrive if they lose two players as good as the Pirates have.

There is more to the story then simply the front office failures and the poor decision making of a couple excellent players. Injuries are currently preventing the team from using the primary backups to those two great talents and another great talent finds himself with a potential scary medical diagnosis. Clint Hurdle has also made his share of poor managerial decisions and players the Pirates are counting on (and had reason to count on) are struggling.

The bottom line is the Pirates are lacking some of their top end talent, missing some capable guys due to injuries, have other guys struggling, have made a few poor personal and managing decisions and just aren’t getting any favors from the baseball gods. It is an organizational failure and there really isn’t much that can be done to fix it at the moment.

The team is not doomed to years of non-competitiveness though. Currently the roster has 9 rookies (a number even the Steelers struggle to reach) meaning they are an exceptionally young group that will grown. Brighter days are likely ahead but man is the present ever going to be rough.

Surviving the April Showers

Look I’m not going to say April went well for the Pirates because it quite clearly did not. In fact nearly everything that could go wrong did. The team lost its best player for a half a season to suspension and its best power hitting appears at the very least highly questionable to make it to this country anytime this season. Add in some terrible offensive and defensive play along with some bullpen and Glasnow meltdowns and you get a rough month.

Still despite all of that the team managed to go 11-13 in a month where a full quarter of their schedule was against the defending World Series champions and probable best team in baseball. Even outside those Cubs games the schedule wasn’t particularly easy. The team survived the month and there is something to be said about that.

My expectations of this team have undoubtedly changed. I was thinking they would stick around the edges of the wild card race all year with a chance to grab one and now I see them as a team just a step below that. You know what though there is no reason they still can’t stay in this thing.

It is less likely sure but the schedule softens up a bit here in the coming weeks and the starting pitching looks like a strength. The bats and the gloves likely won’t be great but they won’t be as bad as they were for the first month of the season (at least I don’t think they will). The team is going to start playing better and facing competition that isn’t quite as stiff.

This Pirates team may not be what any of hoped for but it is what we have and it is still a pretty good team. For years we would have all loved a team anywhere near this talented but the last few seasons have spoiled us some. If this team is good enough to survive a terrible month where everything went wrong then it is good enough to compete once things start going well. It may not be pretty at times but I still feel we may be in for an exciting summer.

Where Are The Cows?

Battling Bucs is returning but just barely. I find myself wanting a place to journal my thoughts and here is as good as any. There won’t be posts every day and in fact there may not be any for an entire month. I expect absolutely no one to read this but I needed somewhere to write my thoughts down.

Not too long ago when you looked over the Pirates farm system you seen a lot of cows (prospects) out in the pasture (outfield) but now I find myself wondering just where did they all go. The Pirates have for some reason or other not just dried up their supply of outfield prospects but are barely carrying any at all on their minor league squads and it perplexes me.

MLB: Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen

AAA: Austin Meadows, Danny Ortiz

AA: Jordan Luplow, Elvis Escobar, Michael Suchy

A+: Logan Hill, Casey Hughston, Kevin Krause*

A: Ty Moore, Sandy Santos, Clark Eagan, Alexis Bastardo

Listed above is every true outfielder the Pirates have on the active rosters of their five highest levels. Note the top two levels have just two outfielders when there are three starting spots. Even down in A+ where they have three outfielders Kevin Krause is a catcher being converted to the position. The only level where there is an outfielder on the bench is in A ball.

It is a weird trend and there isn’t just one cause. The Pirates have had trouble signing quality Latin American talent lately and have also not done too well at developing college hitters which combined with a large quantity of infielders they are trying to find playing time for has led them to a development process where players are being developed to play both spots. This is fine in theory but the lack of outfielders will likely hurt the Pirates in the long run.

The Pirates do have a fairly large collection of young Latin American outfielders in the lower levels of the system and perhaps they will end up being the answer to this growing problem but early returns have not been promising. My suggestion is for the 2017 draft to be heavy with college outfielders. There needs to be a few quality picks early on but largely this is about a quantity approach. The organization needs outfielders to cover the middle levels of the system and will likely have to bring in more minor league free agents to cover AAA in the next one or two seasons.

It was a good sign to see the Pirates rely so lightly on minor league free agents this year but the downside of that is it has let them with a glut of utility infielders and a shortage of outfielders. This in turn has led to guys like Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna and John Jaso getting significantly more outfield time than they should. Solving this problem will likely have a ripple effect on another organization weakness in defense. These are issues that are slowly but surely rotting away at the solid foundation this front office has built and it needs addressed soon before everything comes tumbling down. So Neal Huntington go get us some cows.

 

Shutting Down Battling Bucs

As is probably pretty evident by now the frequency of my postings here at Battling Bucs has dwindled down to almost zero over the last couple of weeks. This is due to conditions in my life making it harder for me to find time to commit to blogging. I have a new full time job taking some of my time, I have a wedding I am in the process of planning taking some of my time and many other factors are pulling my attention away from this wonderful blog. Although it didn’t even make it two full years this blog has meant a lot to me, no it never got to be ultra-popular or anything like that but it provided me with an outlet to speak my piece and post my opinions on a franchise dear to my heart, the Pittsburgh Pirates. It has been a great run and I’d like to thank all my readers. Your site views have been much appreciated.

For the last three months before April began I pored just about everything I could into this site and that made it great I shot up the MLB blogs leader boards all the way into the top 30 and I was climbing. My desire is to go on and see if I can’t make a run at the top spot but I don’t have the time or resources to make that possible. I guess you could say LIFE is forcing this closure. It is the ending of an era for me and in a way kind of the end of my college days, yes I have been out of college for almost a year now but this blog was born from those days and kept me connected to them. I always say I am lucky in that my childhood still lives on and in some ways always will. I have two things left keeping me tied to it The Simpsons and of course the Pirates but even those two are in some ways fading. The Simpsons for as great as the show has been is nearing the end of its run and the Pirates very soon are going to post a winning season (maybe not this year or next but its coming) officially ending the chapter of poor baseball I have endured all my life. Being a little philosophical here for a moment life or more specifically time as it does with everyone has defeated me and now I must move on.

My passion for the Pirates still grows everyday and I catch as many games as I possibly can. My desire to write about them and share my opinions and analysis with others is still there as well. Make no mistake I’m not done blogging but I can no longer upkeep this site. As some of you are probably aware a short while ago I joined some other bloggers over at the Pittsburgh Sports Forum and started writing some posts for them. I will continue to do so and I hope you all will come over there and check out my posts. It is a better outlet for me in this transition time in my life. Who knows when things settle down and if life provides me with the opportunity Battling Bucs could one day rise again but for the time being it shutting down.

One last time I would like to thank everyone who has read my site these last almost two years. It has been a pleasure to share my opinions with all of you. May our Pirates do something truly special this year and may this year be the start of a magnificent run.

Let’s Go Bucs!

The 2009 Draft

When looking at Huntington’s draft record it is often criticized as being poor. There is nothing wrong with this opinion as it has a lot of support but it is based upon essentially one draft. It’s too early to judge the 2010-12 drafts and the 2008 draft why not stellar was fairly solid producing 5 players who have played in the majors for the Pirates plus the main piece of the Wandy Rodriguez trade. One could argue it should be better (which I believe it should have been) but I don’t really think there is an argument to be made that it was flat-out bad. That leaves the 2009 draft which by all accounts does indeed look like a bad draft. The first round pick hasn’t developed as expected and none of the overslot high school arms have really broken out to this point. My question is how does it compare with other teams? I don’t really have the time to compare it to the drafts of the other 29 teams in the league so I chose 4 teams which I felt made sense.

Two teams I chose were the San Diego Padres and the Baltimore Orioles. The reason I selected these two is quite simple they selected 3rd and 5th in the 2009 draft respectively meaning one pick ahead of and one pick behind the Pirates. The other two teams I selected were the Oakland Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers. The reasons I selected these two are a bit more obscure. I selected the Athletics because they are a small market team well-known for having a consistently good minor league system so I figured they would show me what a good draft looked like. I selected the Brewers because they are a small market team in the Pirates division. Basically they just appear to me to be a team in a very similar situation to the Pirates.

I broke the draft down into five sections: Round 1, Rounds 2-5, Rounds 6-10, Rounds 11-20 and Rounds 21 and up. I noted every player who actually either appeared in the major leagues for these teams or who are still in the system and considered a prospect. So there is no bias on my part in picking who is still a prospect I used John Sickles top 20 lists he published in late 2012 and early 2013. Below are my findings:

Round 1

Padres: Donavan Tate, Grade C

Orioles: Matthew Hobgood, Grade NA

Athletics: Grant Green, Grade B-

Brewers: Eric Artnett, Grade NA; Kentrail Davis, Grade C; Kyle Heckathron, Grade C

Pirates: Tony Sanchez, Grade C; Victor Black, Grade C+

Analysis: Not a very inspiring group of prospects here. Tate, an OF, struggled last year at the age of 21 between the A and A+ levels posting a combined OPS of .620. Hobgood is a pitcher who didn’t pitch at all in 2012 but in 2011 as a 20 year old posted a 8.76 combined ERA in rookie and short season ball. Grant Green (who I’ll admit was who I wanted the Pirates to pick) is the best prospect of the group and at age 24 he posted a .796 OPS in the PCL (AAA league know for high offensive numbers). He has lost a lot of his appeal since draft day as he no longer looks like an everyday shortstop.

The Brewers had their regular 1st round pick and two supplemental picks. Last season Arnett pitched as a 24 year old in A+ and posted a 3.56 ERA while pitching exclusively in relief. Kentrail Davis is an OF who at age 24 last season posted a .761 OPS in AA, the Brewers are having him repeat the level this season. Kyle Heckathorn is a pitcher who last season at age 24 posted a 4.75 ERA while splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen. The Brewers promoted him to AAA this season and he now appears to be focusing exclusively on relief. Tony Sanchez split time between AA and AAA last season and as a 24 year old posted a .739 OPS for the year. Victor Black was a supplemental pick of the Pirates and is the second best prospect in this group, last season at age 24 he posted a 1.65 ERA out of the AA bullpen.

Rounds 2-5

Padres: Everett Williams (Round 2), Grade C; Keyvius Sampson (Round 4), Grade B-

Orioles: Tyler Townsend (Round 3), Grade C

Athletics: NA

Brewers: Cameron Garfield (Round 2), Grade C+; Josh Prince (Round 3), Grade C

Pirates: Zack Dodson (Round 4), Grade C

Analysis: Another fairly uninspiring group. Looking at the Padres they have Williams, an OF, who posted a .651 OPS as a 21 year old in A+ last season, and Sampson a starting pitcher who posed a 5.00 ERA as a 21 year old in AA last season. The Padres by grades have the most impressive group. Tyler Townsend is a 1B prospect in the Orioles system, last season he played at four different levels ranging from rookie ball all the way to AA. He was 24 years old and his overall OPS was .773, his longest stint was in A+ where in 136 PA he posted a .711 OPS. The Athletics have no one drafted in round drafted in rounds 2-5 who Sickles mentions on his prospect list.

Cameron Garfield was drafted by the Brewers with their second 2nd round pick in 2009 and is a catcher. Last season at age 21 he hit well in half a season at A ball posting a .910 OPS, this was his 3rd year at that level largely due to an injury that wiped out nearly all of his 2011 season. Prince was originally drafted as a SS but the Brewers has him playing primarily CF last season. At the AA level at age 24 he showed good speed stealing 24 bases but his bat was a little weak compiling only a .706 OPS. The only Pirates selection of note remaining from the 2009 is Zach Dodson. Dodson was one of many prep arms drafted by the Pirates that year and like the rest he hasn’t developed. Last year in his second season in A ball Dodson actually posted worse numbers than the year before putting up a 4.86 ERA as a 21 year old.

Rounds 6-10

Padres: Mike Mikolas (Round 7), MLB; James Needy (Round 6), Grade C

Orioles: Ryan Berry (Round 9), Grade C

Athletics: Ian Krol (Round 7), Grade C+

Brewers: Hiram Burgos (Round 6), Grade C+; Khris Davis (Round 7), Grade C+

Pirates: Zach Von Rosenberg (Round 6), Grade C; Brock Holt (Round 9), MLB

Analysis: This group is a little bit more interesting as we have our first major league ball players. There are 4 in all between these five teams and two of them came from these rounds. It should be noted the other two are actually the more noteworthy MLB players. Mikolas is a relief pitcher whom the Padres drafted in the 7th round. Starting in 2010 he focused full time on relief. As a 23 year old in 2012 he split last season between AA, AAA and the majors. In the minor leagues he posted a combined ERA of 2.92. During his major league stint he pitched 32.1 innings with an ERA of 3.62 and a WAR of 0.1. Milkolas failed to make the Padres this year out of spring and is back in AAA. James Needy is a pitcher. Last season at 21 years old he pitched primarily in A ball but the Padres gave him 8.1 combined innings in AA and AAA as well. He pitched well posting a 1.79 ERA primarily in relief at all 3 levels combined.

Berry is a pitcher in the Orioles system who spent last year primarily in A+ but did get into one game at the AA level. His ERA at the two levels combined was 3.21 and he did this  as a 23 year old relief pitcher. Krol spent his 2012 season splitting time between A+ and AA. He didn’t pitch the greatest posting a 5.20 ERA but he was young for the levels at only 21 years old.The Brewers have probably the strongest group remaining from these rounds. Burgos is a pitcher last season he split his time between A+, AA and AAA. He pitched a total of 171 innings with over 40 IP at each level and compiled a fantastic ERA of 1.95. At 24 years old he was age appropriate for the upper levels. Davis is a left fielder who at the age of 24 put together a really strong season in 2012 at the AA and AAA levels. He also had a short stint in rookie ball which I’m guessing was injury related but overall he posted a 1.055 OPS. On the downside injuries did limit him to 316 PA.

Von Rosenberg received the largest bonus of all the Pirates overslot high school arms in 2009. He repeated A ball last season as a 21 year old and saw improvements in his ERA lowering it to 4.38 but his walks rose and strike outs dropped. Brock Holt is obviously no longer with the Pirates but he did play in the majors for them so he is worth noting. Last season before being promoted to the majors Holt split time between AA and AAA. He hit the ball well at AA and caught fire at AAA making his overall OPS a good looking .859.  While in the majors Holt collected only 72 PA and posted a .682 OPS and he was exactly a replacement level player posting a 0.0 WAR.

Rounds 11-20

Padres: NA

Orioles: Michael Ohlman (Round 11), Grade C; Ty Kelly (Round 13), Grade C

Athletics: NA

Brewers: Scooter Gennett (Round 16), Grade B-

Pirates: NA

Analysis: Very slim pickings in these rounds as according to Sickles only 3 players have retained prospect status. The Padres, Athletics and Pirates have no players of note. Ohlman was drafted by the Orioles as a catcher but last season he split his time fairly evenly between catcher and 1st base so the Orioles are at least considering him for other positions. During the 2012 season he was 21 years old and spent the season primarily in A ball with a short stint in rookie ball and a bit longer stint in Australian Baseball League. Not exactly sure why he was playing in Australia but he is back now. At the A ball level he put up a solid .868 OPS. Kelly’s primary position appears to be 3rd base but last year he spent more time at 2nd than third and also spent a significant amount of time in LF so he appears to be a player without a set position. As a 23 year old he split his time in 2012 between A+, AA and AAA. Kelly dominated in A+ posting a .973 OPS and played well in AA (.797 OPS) and even respectably in AAA (.739 OPS).

Gennett is the best prospect the Brewers have remaining in this draft (although they do have a solid major league I will get to in a little bit). He is a 2B and spent 2012 as a 22 year old in AA. His numbers at the level were good considering he was young for the league as he posted a .714 OPS.

Rounds 21-50

Padres: NA

Orioles: Brenden Webb (Round 30), Grade C; Time Berry (Round 50), Grade C

Athletics: Dan Straily (Round 24), Grade B/MLB; Conner Crumbliss (Round 28), Grade C

Brewers: Mike Fiers (Round 22), MLB

Pirates: Phillip Irwin (Round 21), Grade C+

Analysis: The Padres once again have no noteworthy players meaning the latest they selected a noteworthy player was the 7th round. The Athletics selected the best prospect amongst these 5 teams in the 24th round in Dan Straily. Straily split his minor league time last season as a 23 year old between AA and AAA and posted a 2.78 ERA. He only pitched 39.1 innings in the majors last season which is how he has retained his prospect status. Straily pitched well in his limited time posting a 3.89 ERA. Crumbliss primarily plays the outfield now although he does have significant time at 2B during his early minor league days. Last season Crumliss spent the year at AA where at 25 he was a little old for the level but he hit well posting an .805 OPS.

To date the most successful major leaguer of this group is Mike Fiers. Fiers actually made his major league debut in 2011 making him the fastest player to reach the majors out of these 5 teams. Fiers did spend some time in AAA last season making 10 starts and posting an ERA of 4.42.His time in the majors was even better as he posted a 3.74 ERA over 22 starts and was worth 1.8 WAR (career WAR is currently 1.6). Fiers is the elder statesman of this group too as he was 27 years old last year. Irwin is the only Pirates draft pick past round 20 that has managed to retain his prospect value. Irwin played at the A+, AA and AAA levels last season but by far spent most of his time at the AA level. At 25 years old he was old for the level but he posted a good 2.83 combined ERA between all 3 levels.

Summary

Padres: 1 MLB player (0.1 WAR), 1 B- grade prospect, 3 C grade prospects (5 total players)

Orioles: 6 grade C prospects (6 total players)

Athletics: 1 B grade prospect with MLB time (0.6 WAR), 1 B- grade prospect, 1 C+ grade prospect, 1 C grade prospect (4 total players)

Brewers: 1 MLB player (1.6 WAR), 1 B- grade prospect, 3 C+ grade prospects, 3 C grade prospects (8 total players)

Pirates: 1 MLB player (0.0 WAR), 2 C+ grade prospects, 3 C grade prospects (6 total players)

Usually this is where I would give my opinion of the situation but this exercise wasn’t for me to spout off my opinion but rather to show how the Pirates 2009 draft currently stands compared to other teams in similar situations. These teams are not cherry picked by me to try and prove any point. The Padres and Orioles are listed do to the proximity of where they drafted, the Athletics are listed due to the fact they are a proven successful small market club and the Brewers are listed because they are a small market team within the Pirates division.

I will note once again that the Pirates had an additional pick in the 1st round and that the Brewers had two additional picks in the first round and an additional pick in the second round. When looking at the drafts those are factors that need to be considered. This is not a perfect look at what each team got from the 2009 draft or even the team’s ability to identify talent. There are undoubtedly players drafted by these teams that went unsigned and others who were traded perhaps for a very useful major league piece however my attempt here is just to show what each team has remaining that they brought into their own system directly through this particular draft.

Hitting, Where are thou?

Once again the Pirates find themselves with no hitting to begin the season. This year if you can believe it has actually been worse than the start of the 2012 season. It is mind-boggling that a team can hit this bad at the start of the season but it is happening. Once again though people are overreacting some, the Pirates are not this bad of a hitting team. Make no mistake they aren’t a good hitting team but they aren’t a historically bad hitting team either. In the coming weeks the Pirates will likely rebound some and becomes the below average offensive team they are but that still leaves us with the question of why we are once again seeing such a poor start.

Any number of factors could be in play here. It is possible the team did an inadequate job getting the hitters ready during spring. It is possible the collection of hitters the Pirates have assembled could be prone to poor starts. It is possible it could just simply be bad luck. Or it could be something else or some combination. It is impossible to figure out just what is at play here but I’d like to take a deeper look at the mix of hitters the Pirates have in their lineup.

The Pirates lineup is loaded with high strikeout guys. The major league average strikeout rate for non pitchers last season was 21.4% so keep that in mind when looking at these numbers.

Russell Martin: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Garrett Jones: 20.0% K rate in 2012

Gaby Sanchez: 17.2% K rate in 2012

Neil Walker: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Pedro Alvarez: 30.7% K rate in 2012

Clint Barmes: 21.5% K rate in 2012

Starling Marte: 27.5% K rate in 2012

Andrew McCutchen: 19.6% K rate in 2012

Travis Snider: 25.9% K rate in 2012

Jose Tabata: 15.5% K rate in 2012

The above are the Pirates 10 regular players. A fair number of them were below the average K rate last season but only two Sanchez and Tabata were significantly lower. What does that mean? It means on days when Snider and Jones both starts which should be against just about every right handed pitcher the Pirates are fielding an entire lineup of players who are going to strike out in at least about 1 out of every 5 at bats. In theory that isn’t a big deal but of course the strike outs don’t come exactly 5 at bats a part. Players get cold and when average to high strike out players get cold guess what they strike out a lot. Not exactly rocket science there. Strike outs in return limit the number of balls put in play and limit the chances of getting a good bounce. Without a good bounce hitters continue to hit without runners on where they see fewer pitchers to hit so they continue to struggle and the strike outs continue to mount. It’s all a cyclical effect. A couple hitters start off cold and struggle to put the ball in play creates fewer good hitting opportunities for the players hitting well so they in return get cold and start hitting fewer balls and striking out more. What this Pirates lineup lacks are some low strikeout guys who can work counts and get on base or even players who just manage to make contact a lot.

The Pirates find themselves in a tough cycle to break out of. Ideally a lineup like this would have a different type of bench supporting it but the Pirates really don’t have that. Sanchez and Tabata can mix things up a little bit but McKenry and McDonald are largely useless to change much. The last bench player Harrison is an interesting player though. Harrison won’t work hardly at all but he won’t strike out much either so having a bat like him who will make contact in the lineup could be a good thing. Problem is unless you are facing a left handed pitcher where do you play him? The Pirates really can’t sit Walker or Alvarez against right handers and Harrison isn’t good enough defensively to warrant starting him over Barmes, Marte or Snider. I thought this past weekend when facing two left handers in a row was a perfect opportunity to play Harrison for a couple games and see if his contact skills couldn’t ignite some sort of spark but alas that didn’t happen. In reality that is all Harrison brings to the table the ability to make contact on a consistent basis and that is something this Pirates team desperately needs.

With all that being said the Pirates non pitchers currently have a ridiculously low .169 BABIP. Simply put that isn’t going to continue forever and in time more balls will begin to fall in and the Pirates will in return score more runs. Still even with bad luck playing a huge role in this current offensive mess it would be nice if the Pirates lineup had or at least could be complimented with some good contact hitters who can manage to get on base at a high level. The front office has done a fair job of assembling some decent arms and some decent power hitters but it has been a miserable failure at balancing out the lineup and providing it with any kind of useable depth.

Battling Bucs is Cutting Back

I must sadly report that with life catching up with me I am going to have to trim back my posting here at Battling Bucs. I have been doing everything I could to try to keep up my post per day rate over the last month and a half but I will no longer be able to do so. The site won’t end as I’ll continue trying to do a couple of posts per week and I’ll chime in with my thoughts on important Pirates moves. You can still follow me on Twitter and I’m doing some blogging on Pittsburgh Sport Forum so you can also check me out there. I’m not going to disappear from the online Pirates  fan community but I will have to scale back. I guess life catches up with all of us in time. Thank you to all of you who have stopped by and read my blog and I hope you continue to do so even if it will be running at a reduced pace.