2017 Will be an Important Year for Alen Hanson

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

p/c: Justin K. Aller – Getty Images

Back in 2009, Alen Hanson signed with the Pirates out of the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old. He made his professional debut the following year, playing for the Pirates Dominican Summer League affiliate. 

Hanson played his first full season with the West Virginia Power in 2012, and had a breakout year, as he batted .309 along with a .909 OPS and stole 35 bases. Entering the 2013 season, he was rated a Top 100 prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com, and remained on both lists in 2014.

For as good as Hanson was offensively for a shortstop, there were questions about his defense, which prompted the Pirates to have him play more second base last year with the Indianapolis Indians. 

Despite a good showing in Spring Training this year, Hanson did not make the club. The biggest reason being Super 2. He received his call up in May, replacing Starling Marte who was on paternity leave. In his second game, he collected his first big league hit as a pinch-hitter. Once Marte returned, Hanson was optioned back to Indianapolis. He rejoined the Pirates on the final day of August. 

The 2017 season will be an important one for Hanson. Because it’s unlikely that Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez are going to re-sign with the Pirates, it would be nice to see Hanson replace one of them as an internal option. Not long ago, he was a Top 5 prospect in the system, so he needs to show that he contribute with the Pirates. Since Hanson wouldn’t have to compete for an everyday job, he just needs to perform well enough in Spring Training for a bench role. While I’m not suggesting that failing to make the 2017 Opening Day roster will “make or break” Hanson’s career, it would however be beneficial for him to be a vital part of the Pirates in some capacity sooner rather than later.





Why the Pirates Should Trade for Shelby Miller

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Matt York - AP

p/c: Matt York – AP

After being selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the 2009 MLB Draft, Shelby Miller joined the Red Birds in 2013 and had a terrific rookie campaign, posting a 3.06 ERA with a 122 ERA+ and a WAR of 3.4 in 31 starts. 

In an effort to improve their outfield both offensively and defensively for the 2015 season, the Cardinals traded Miller to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Heyward. While the outstanding season Heyward had in his one year in St. Louis resulted in him signing a lucrative contract with the Chicago Cubs, Miller was superb in his own right, as he posted an ERA of 3.02 along with a 127 ERA+ and a 3.6 WAR in 33 starts with the Braves. 

Last offseason, the Arizona Diamondbacks were looking to make a splash, and made two bold moves during the Winter Meetings. The first was signing Zack Greinke to a mega deal. The other was acquiring Miller from the Braves. Although it wasn’t a surprise that Miller was on the trade block, it’s what now former Dbacks GM Dave Stewart gave up to get Miller. Atlanta received a package containing Gold Glove caliber outfielder Ender Inciarte, highly touted pitching prospect Aaron Blair and 2015 #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson. 

The first half of this season began rough for Miller with a 7.14 ERA. His struggles led to him getting optioned to AAA Reno in July. After rejoining the Dbacks rotation in late August, he pitched better with an ERA of 3.98. While the 2016 season was disappointing overall for Miller, here’s why I think the Pirates should make a play for him.

The Pirates probably won’t be able to bring back Ivan Nova, given how extremely well he pitched in Pittsburgh after coming over from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline, as well as the money he’ll potentially receive in a subpar free agent market for starting pitching. The trade route for a starter appears a more likely alternative for the Pirates, and so why not buy low on Shelby Miller? 

Miller’s ERA was on the high side this year, but he did experience some bad luck as well with a .340 BABIP. He was also pitching his home games at Chase Field, one of the most hitter friendly ballparks in the National League. His salary for this season was $4.35 million, and that figure won’t go up much in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Miller is only a year removed from almost being a four-win pitcher in terms of WAR, so it would give the Pirates the opportunity to acquire a potential bounce back pitcher at a reasonable cost.





Five Pirates Prospects Who Potentially Could Break Out in 2017

By Jason Shetler

The Pirates had a pair of prospects this year who had themselves breakout seasons. Outfielder Tito Polo put up solid numbers before getting dealt to the New York Yankees in August to complete the Ivan Nova deal. The other was Mitch Keller, who not only was entering this year in his first full season of pro ball, but was named the 2016 Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in the process. So which prospects have the potential to be breakout performers next season? – Here are five possible candidates. 

Gage Hinsz: The Pirates selected Gage Hinsz in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of high school. 2016 didn’t start off promising for Hinsz, as he dealt with an injury and had to build himself back up in Extended Spring Training. He then joined the West Virginia Power in June. In 17 starts for the Power, Hinsz put up a 3.66 ERA and a .266 batting average against. He’s likely to begin next year in Bradenton. With the combination of his good stuff and the pitcher friendly Florida State League, Hinsz could have a breakout season. 

Ke’Bryan Hayes: After not being able to re-sign Russell Martin following the 2014 season, the Pirates received a 2015 first round compensation draft pick after Martin rejected their qualifying offer. That pick was used on Ke’Bryan Hayes, the son of former Pirate Charlie Hayes. The younger Hayes was off to a terrific start this year with the West Virginia Power, posting an .826 OPS in April. However, he struggled the rest of the way with an OPS of .626. Since Hayes will be 20 next year, which is still very young, he’ll likely head back to West Virginia. Seeing Low A level pitching for a second time around could result in much better offensive numbers for Hayes, as well as a promotion to Bradenton before 2017 ends.

Kevin Kramer: With their second round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, the Pirates chose second baseman Kevin Kramer out of UCLA. He spent the entire 2016 season with the Bradenton Marauders. Kramer put up above average numbers offensively, as he posted a .352 on base percentage and had 29 doubles, which were tied for most in the FSL. With the consistent gap power he showed this year, perhaps it could translate into some home run power next season with Altoona. If that happens, Kramer could become a Neil Walker type with the bat.

Luis Escobar: The Pirates in recent years have done good work infusing Latin American talent into the system. From the pitching side, Luis Escobar is certainly a talented arm. Signed by the Pirates out of Colombia in 2013, Escobar pitched very well this year in Morgantown for the West Virginia Black Bears, posting an ERA of 2.93 along with a 1.15 WHIP and holding opponents to a .208 average in 15 games (12 starts). Aside from throwing a mid-90’s fastball that can top out at 97 mph, he showed significant improvement of his changeup, which is really good to see from a young pitcher. If Escobar is able to repeat the success he had in 2016 in a full season with the West Virginia Power next year, there’s not much doubt that he’ll himself a breakout campaign. 

Taylor Hearn: In the 2012 MLB Draft, Taylor Hearn was taken by the Pirates in the 22nd round, but did not sign. Fast forward four years later, and Hearn is now in the Pirates organization after being acquired from the Washington Nationals two days before the trade deadline in the Mark Melancon deal. While still in the Nats system, Hearn sustained a foot injury in April and was limited to only 22.2 innings with their Low A affiliate Hagerstown. He also pitched 22.2 innings of work with the West Virginia Power, putting up a 1.99 ERA with a WHIP of 1.10 and consistently striking out batters with a 14.3 K/9. For a lefty, Hearn is an absolute flamethrower, as he can hit 99 mph on the fastball. As I mentioned earlier, the Florida State League is considered pitcher friendly, and if Hearn is able to stay healthy with the Bradenton Marauders, his numbers could be sensational in 2017.








Unsung Heroes in Pirates Postseason History

By Jason Shetler

When it comes to the baseball postseason, we tend to remember the most iconic moments from the years gone by. But sometimes there are moments that get overshadowed by others. The Pirates have captured five World Series titles, and while we certainly remember the great moments, there are some moments from players who don’t receive enough recognition. Here now are the unsung heroes from each World Series championship in Pirates history. 

Tommy Leach 1909: In December of 1899, the Pirates pulled off their greatest trade in franchise history when they acquired Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke from the Louisville Colonels. Another player who came to Pittsburgh in that deal was outfielder Tommy Leach. The 1909 World Series is remembered most for Wagner besting Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, as well as Babe Adams pitching three complete game victories. One overlooked player in that series was Leach, as he batted .360 and posted a .949 OPS. 

Ray Kremer 1925: In Game 6 of the 1925 World Series, Ray Kremer pitched a complete game victory. Trailing in Game 7 to the Washington Senators, Pirates manager Bill McKechnie decided to have Kremer pitch in relief on just two days rest. Kremer was solid in his four innings of work, as he gave the Pirates the opportunity to rally from behind against one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, Walter Johnson. 

Hal Smith 1960: Perhaps the biggest underdog in any particular World Series was the 1960 Pirates. Despite being outscored by the New York Yankees 55-27, the Pirates won the series on a ninth inning, game-winning home run from Bill Mazeroski. What rarely ever gets mentioned however is what led to that moment. In the eighth inning, backup catcher Hal Smith came on as a pinch-hitter and delivered a three-run homer that gave the Pirates the lead. Because the Yankees tied the game in the ninth, Smith’s moment gets lost. Had the Pirates hung onto the lead, the first walkoff home run in World Series history would not have happened. 

Dave Giusti 1971: The Pirates acquired Dave Giusti from the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 1970 season. The former All-Star closer was at his best during the 1971 postseason when he pitched a combined 10.2 scoreless innings along with a 0.75 WHIP in the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants and the World Series versus the Baltimore Orioles. While the 71′ postseason were showcases for both Roberto Clemente and Steve Blass, Giusti’s performances don’t get enough attention. 

Phil Garner 1979: Phil Garner joined the Pirates in Spring Training of 1977 as part of a nine-player deal with the Oakland Athletics. The man affectionately known as ” Scrap Iron” was the Pirates third baseman when he arrived to Pittsburgh. During the 1979 season, the Pirates made a blockbuster trade by acquiring Bill Madlock from the San Francisco Giants. In the process, Garner moved over to second base. Willie Stargell was of course the Pirates team leader and the 1979 World Series MVP. His five home runs still remains a franchise postseason record. Although Stargell gets the most accolades from that postseason, and rightfully so, Garner was extremely productive as well, batting .417 with a 1.295 OPS versus the Reds and hit .500 with an OPS of 1.238 against the Orioles in the Fall Classic. 





Baseball America Ranks Stephen Alemais Among Best Defensive Players in the 2016 Draft

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Tim Williams - Pirates Prospects

p/c: Tim Williams – Pirates Prospects

Baseball America came out with their 2016 draft class review, which contains category rankings of the best tool players. In the category of best defensive players, Pirates prospect Stephen Alemais was ranked #4 on that list.

The Pirates drafted Alemais out of Tulane University with their third round selection. He was considered the top college shortstop entering this year’s draft. Alemais started off his pro career with the West Virginia Black Bears and was then promoted to the West Virginia Power in August.

Combined with the two teams, Alemais was outstanding defensively, posting a .962 fielding percentage along with a 4.28 RF/9, which is Gold Glove caliber and turned 21 double plays in 50 games played. His offense is a work in progress, as he put up just a .592 OPS combined with both affiliates. Alemais is likely to begin next season for the Bradenton Marauders.



Pirates Plan to Make John Jaso More Versatile

By Jason Shetler

p/c: MLB.com

p/c: MLB.com

According to MLB.com Pirates beat reporter Adam Berry, the Pirates want John Jaso to work out at third base and the outfield during the winter. 

After non-tendering Pedro Alvarez last offseason, the Pirates replaced him with Jaso. Although Jaso was brought in to provide them better on base ability than Alvarez, he practically had no experience as a first baseman entering 2016. Much to the surprise of many, Jaso handled himself very well at first base this year, committing only five errors in 800 chances. 

Jaso’s role with the Pirates will be different in 2017, as he goes from left-handed first base platoon to utility man. During his entire professional career, he’s never played third base, and I can’t see him getting much playing time there with Jung-Ho Kang and a returning David Freese, unless an injury occurs to one of them. Jaso however has played some outfield, doing so with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015. 





Should the Pirates Go “Bullpen by Committee” in 2017?

By Jason Shetler

In the early stages of the 2016 MLB postseason, we’ve witnessed bullpen usage play a huge role, both bad and good. The first example being in the American League Wild Card Game. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter refused to use closer Zach Britton with the scored tied in extra innings of an elimination game, because he wanted to hold off on using him for a save situation. The Orioles were defeated by the Toronto Blue Jays, and the reliever who is a possible AL Cy Young candidate for this year never entered the game. The other example was the Los Angeles Dodgers series clinching victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night. Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts not only used his closer Kenley Jansen in a non-save situation, but had him pitching the seventh inning with a one run lead, and the decision paid off. 

The Pirates bullpen was certainly a disappointment in 2016. Although they had Mark Melancon back for a fourth season, the middle part of the bullpen was very inconsistent and Melancon wasn’t receiving a good amount of save chances, even though he was stellar in the opportunities he did receive. Melancon was dealt to the Nationals around the trade deadline for Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. I had no problem with trading Melancon. Couple reasons being his very high trade value and because he was going to be a free agent after the season. Rivero was outstanding coming over, so that certainly helps as well. Following Melancon’s departure, Tony Watson was inserted as the closer and wasn’t exactly lights out in the role. With sabermetricians encouraging teams to go with a “bullpen by committee”, particularly MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, is it something the Pirates should consider for next season?

As it stands right now, the Pirates bullpen have relievers with little to no experience in closing out games. Because of this, it would seem like a good opportunity to not have a set closer and just use the best reliever in the most high pressured situation, regardless of what inning. The old school argument is that the ninth inning closer’s role is the most important, which I disagree with, because if your relievers aren’t doing their jobs in the seventh and eighth innings, then obviously your closer becomes irrelevant in terms of picking up a save. For example, if you think Felipe Rivero is the best option for the Pirates to use as a closer in the ninth inning, then why wouldn’t he be your best option if a game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning? 

Most managers like to preserve their closers for a save situation on the road in an extra inning game, and Clint Hurdle is certainly in that category. By going with a bullpen by committee, it would allow Hurdle to use his best relief option in extra innings, as opposed to waiting to use someone for a save just because they have the designation of “closer”. Grady Little, who now works in the Pirates front office as a senior advisor, was ironically the last manager to incorporate a bullpen by committee for a full season, doing so with the Boston Red Sox in 2003. While it’s probably unlikely that the Pirates will consider this, I personally think the strategy would make their bullpen better for next season.