Top 10 Pittsburgh Pirates of 2014

By Jason Shetler

With the regular season now in the books, here are the Top 10 Pirates of 2014.

10. Tony Watson – After an impressive 2013 season, Watson was even better this year. He became the Pirates setup man midseason when Jason Grilli struggled and Mark Melancon took over the closers role. Watson posted a 1.63 ERA along with a 1.02 WHIP in 78 appearances, which was tied for second most in the Majors. He also made some history this season, becoming the first Pirates left-handed reliever to be named an All-Star.

9. Mark Melancon – The season that Melancon had last year was extremely impressive, and he was able to build off that success this season. The 29-year-old right-hander took over as the Pirates closer in June where he converted 33 saves in 37 chances while posting a 1.90 ERA, an 0.87 WHIP and a 57% groundball rate.

8. Gerrit Cole – After a good rookie showing in 2013, Cole entered 2014 in his first full season in the Pirates rotation. Despite two separate stints on the DL with shoulder fatigue and soreness in his lat muscle, Cole put up a 3.65 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and a 9.0 K/9 in 22 starts while posting a 2.1 WAR.

7. Francisco Liriano – With A.J. Burnett signing on with the Philadelphia Phillies this year, Liriano took over as the veteran ace of the staff for the Bucs. The 2013 National League Comeback Player of the Year struggled in the first half where he put up a 4.72 ERA while also dealing with a left oblique strain. His second half was significantly better, as he posted a 2.20 ERA. Overall, Liriano had a 3.38 ERA with a 1.6 WAR in 29 starts while posting a 9.7 K/9, his best ratio since 2006. 

6. Starling Marte – Fresh off signing a long term extension a week before Spring Training, Marte struggled mightily in April, so much so that he was removed from the leadoff spot in May. He performed better that month, but dealt with a concussion in June. After coming back from the injury, Marte posted a .975 OPS in the second half. In 135 games, he batted .291 with an .809 OPS, stole 30 bases and posted a 4.0 WAR. Marte wasn’t as good defensively as last season, but he was still an above average defender with a 5.1 UZR/150. 

5. Edinson Volquez – For a signing that was widely criticized with fans and media, Volquez ended up being the Pirates most consistent starter in 2014. In 31 starts, Volquez posted a 3.04 ERA along with a 1.23 WHIP and a 2.4 WAR. His ERA was the lowest by a Pirates right-hander with at least 30 starts since Doug Drabek in 1990. Volquez also put up a career best 3.3 BB/9, this after posting a 4.3 BB/9 prior to joining the Pirates. 

4. Neil Walker – 2014 was a career year for Walker, as he posted an .809 OPS in 137 games played. He hit 23 home runs, surpassing Bill Mazeroski’s franchise mark for a second baseman. Prior to this season, Walker hadn’t done much against left-handed pitching, and there were talks about the Pirates possibly having him give up switch-hitting. He was able to silence the critics by hitting .280 while putting up a .353 on base vs southpaws. 

3. Josh Harrison – Not since Freddy Sanchez in 2006 has a Pirates player had a breakout season quite like the one Josh Harrison had this year. Harrison began the season as a utility man, and began to start getting regular playing time in both right field and third base. In total, he played in 143 games, as he hit .315 along with an .837 OPS, 18 stolen bases, a 4.8 WAR and received a well deserved trip to the All-Star Game. Defensively, he was good overall, posting a 16.1 UZR/150 in right field and a 7.0 UZR/150 at third base. Harrison finished runner-up for the National League batting crown, as he lost out to former Pirate Justin Morneau. 

2. Russell Martin – Martin was a vital part of the Pirates success in 2013, and it’s really no surprise that he was again in 2014. Although he suffered a hamstring injury in late April, it didn’t slow him down at all. Martin batted .290 while posting an .832 OPS and had a 5.2 WAR in 111 games. He put up a .402 on base, becoming the first Pirates catcher since Jason Kendall in 2000 to have an OBP of .400 or better. Behind the plate, Martin was solid once again, as he threw out 39% of runners, 11% above the league average. 

1. Andrew McCutchen – The 2013 National League MVP picked up where he left off this season. In 146 games played, McCutchen hit .314 to go along with an NL best .952 OPS. He also posted an on base of .400 or higher (.410) for the third straight season, and had a 6.9 WAR, all this despite playing through a sore rib down the stretch. McCutchen went to his fourth consecutive All-Star Game this year, as he became the first Pirates center fielder to be named an All-Star four times. Should McCutchen win the NL MVP again, he would be the first Pirate to do so in back-to-back seasons. 

Jeff Banister Could Be Frontrunner for Astros Managerial Job

By Jason Shetler

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According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Biertempfel, Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister has already completed two interviews with the Houston Astros, and could be the frontrunner for their managerial vacancy. The Astros fired their manager Bo Porter on September 1st.

Banister has spent 29 years in the Pirates organization as a player, coach and manager. He got his opportunity to join the Pirates in 2010 where he replaced Gary Varsho as the bench coach. Following that season, the Pirates fired John Russell, and Banister was considered a candidate for the job before Clint Hurdle was ultimately named the manager. However, he was retained by the Pirates to be the bench coach under Hurdle. Like Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a sabermetric strategist, so it would appear to make sense for Luhnow to hire someone like Banister who’s worked in an organization that embraces analytics.

Should Travis Snider Be the Pirates Starting Right Fielder Next Season?

By Jason Shetler 

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When the Pirates acquired Travis Snider at the 2012 trade deadline, they were hoping he would come in and provide some much needed offense, something the Toronto Blue Jays were expecting him to do when he was drafted by them as a first rounder back in 2006. Snider hit well initially during that month of August, but suffered a hamstring injury, which led to a mediocre September. Last season, Snider was paired up with Jose Tabata to form a right field platoon. Despite some pretty good work in pinch-hit situations, Snider really struggled overall, posting a .614 OPS. The Pirates made a surprising decision last offseason by tendering a contract to Snider worth $1.2 million to avoid arbitration. He entered this year platooning with Tabata once again, until Gregory Polanco was ready to come up midseason. Both Snider and Tabata performed badly to the point where Josh Harrison had to take over in right field until Polanco’s arrival. After a miserable first half, Snider has really turned things around in the second half. Here are the overall numbers on the season to this point.

.338 on base, .775 OPS (.886 OPS in the second half), 121 wRC+, 10% walk rate, 19% strikeout rate, 1.5 WAR 

Snider’s numbers this season as a whole are significantly better compared to last year. His walk numbers have gone up by 2% while his strikeout rate has improved by 7%, and his wRC+ (ability to create runs) is up almost 50 points compared to a year ago. What’s really remarkable about Snider this year is how he’s been able to mash left-handed pitching, as he’s hitting .381 while posting a 1.054 OPS. I would expect the Pirates to pay him roughly around $3 million to avoid arbitration this offseason, which would be a bargain, assuming he can carry his strong second half stats into 2015. While Gregory Polanco wasn’t able to make an instant impact in Pittsburgh this season, he’ll still be the Pirates long term future right fielder. With Snider being more productive at the big league level this year, as well as only being 27 next year and in his prime, it would make sense to have him as the Pirates starting right fielder, at least for the short term. 

 

 

What Should the Pirates Postseason Roster Look Like?

By Jason Shetler 

The Pirates have guaranteed themselves at least a spot in the National League Wild Card Game. Here’s what the roster should look like for that game, and the National League Division Series, should they advance. 

Starters

Left Field: Starling Marte

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen

Right Field: Travis Snider

Third Base: Josh Harrison 

Shortstop: Jordy Mercer 

Second Base: Neil Walker

First Base: Gaby Sanchez (At least for the WC game against Madison Bumgarner) 

Catcher: Russell Martin

Bench

Andrew Lambo

Chris Stewart

Clint Barmes 

Gregory Polanco

Ike Davis (When not facing a left-handed starter) 

Jose Tabata 

Rotation

Gerrit Cole

Francisco Liriano

Edinson Volquez 

Vance Worley 

Bullpen

Jared Hughes

Jeff Locke (Situational lefty)

John Axford

John Holdzkom

Justin Wilson (Situational lefty)

Tony Watson 

Mark Melancon 

Pirates Claim Chaz Roe From Yankees

By Jason Shetler 

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According to the MLB transactions page, the Pirates have claimed pitcher Chaz Roe off waivers from the New York Yankees. To make room on the 40-man roster, Charlie Morton has been transferred to the 60-day disabled list. 

A first round supplemental pick of the Colorado Rockies back in 2005, Roe began this season pitching for the Miami Marlins AAA affiliate New Orleans. In 47 appearances, he posted a 3.66 ERA along with a 1.16 WHIP and a 10.1 K/9. Roe was traded to the Yankees on the final day of August and pitched just three games while posting an ERA of 9.00. He was DFA’d by the Yanks last week when Masahiro Tanaka was activated from the DL. 

Roe certainly fits Neal Huntington’s preference of a reliever who has some control issues, but also can rack up a bunch of strikeouts. If anything, he could provide the Pirates with another power arm to turn to for next season. 

Cole Tucker and Mitch Keller Ranked in Baseball America’s GCL Top 20

By Jason Shetler 

Earlier today, Baseball America released their list of the Top 20 prospects in the Gulf Coast League for this season. Two Pirates prospects made the list with shortstop Cole Tucker ranked at #11 and pitcher Mitch Keller coming in at #13. 

Tucker was taken in the first round (24th overall) by the Pirates in this year’s draft, and signed with them for $1.8 million, which was below slot money. Prior to signing, he had committed to play for Arizona. In 48 games played for the GCL Pirates, Tucker batted .267 with a .724 OPS and stole 13 bases. He also did a good job of drawing walks at a 12% mark. 

Keller was drafted by the Pirates in the second round this year. He had a commitment to pitch at North Carolina, but like Tucker, decided to sign with the Pirates instead. His signing bonus was for $1 million, above slot money. Keller pitched in nine games (eight starts) for the GCL Pirates where he posted a 1.98 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .196 batting average against. He put up a solid 9.6 K/9, however his BB/9 was on the high side at 4.3. 

Both Tucker and Keller are likely to start next season for the West Virginia Power. 

 

Why Clint Hurdle Has Done a Better Managerial Job This Season Than Last Year

By Jason Shetler

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Two years ago, the Pirates suffered one of the biggest season collapses in baseball history. 2013 was a completely different story, as they cruised to a 94-win season and a postseason birth for the first time since Barry Bonds last dawned a Pirates uniform. The formula last season was dominant pitching and just enough offense. While the Pirates got great contributions in the rotation from the likes of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, the bullpen, statistically speaking, was arguably the best in franchise history.

Question marks surrounded the Pirates entering 2014, in regards to not re-signing Burnett, as well as Garrett Jones (both fan favorites), but also bringing in struggling veteran Edinson Volquez as a reclamation project to essentially replace Burnett. The Pirates certainly had some bumps in the road the first half with injuries and inconsistencies, but were able to right the ship (no pun intended) in the second half and clinch a playoff spot for the second consecutive season. As good as the Pirates were a year ago, here’s why I think Clint Hurdle has done a better managerial job this season.

As mentioned, the Pirates dealt with significant injuries, most notably Russell Martin and Starling Marte in the first half, and Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen in the second half. Not to mention Gerrit Cole being on the DL on two separate occasions. In addition to the injury bug, guys like Marte and Jordy Mercer struggled badly in the early going. Hurdle decided to remove Marte from the leadoff spot and stick with Mercer at shortstop, and both moves have paid dividends. Perhaps Hurdle’s biggest challenge was trying to find Josh Harrison consistent playing time off the bench, which is very difficult to do with a utility player who’s performing well. Some fans and media have been critical of the way Hurdle handles the bullpen, such as not bringing in relievers during the middle of an inning much, but the thing to remember is that Hurdle has always done that since he’s been in Pittsburgh. And no one was criticizing his bullpen moves last season, because the bullpen was just lights out. Also remember in August when the Pirates rode a short bench with the likes of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez? – Hurdle to his credit was able to get through that, making the work he’s done in 2014 that more impressive.

There’s not much doubt that Hurdle is a candidate again for National League Manager of the Year. If the Pirates somehow over take the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central crown, then I think Hurdle has to be pretty much a lock for the award again.