Pirates Should Be Able to Extend Jameson Taillon

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Gene J. Puskar – AP

With their second overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates chose Jameson Taillon. The selection was out of the ordinary, as the Pirates rarely went after high school pitchers in the first round, but Taillon’s upside was too undeniable. 

A year after the Pirates had their first winning season and postseason appearance in 20 years, Taillon was projected to join the Bucs at some point in 2014. That wouldn’t be the case however, with the 6’5 right-hander undergoing Tommy John surgery in Spring Training of that year. Taillon’s elbow had been fully recovered, but then had surgery for a sports hernia, which caused him to miss all of 2015.

After missing two full seasons, Taillon finally arrived to Pittsburgh in June of 2016. He had himself a good rookie showing, posting a 3.38 ERA and a bWAR of 2.4 in 18 starts. Looking to build off that, another obstacle was thrown at Taillon, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in May of 2017. Amazingly, he recovered from it five weeks later. Taillon that year had a 4.44 ERA, but had a much better FIP of 3.48 in 25 starts. 

Following the Gerrit Cole trade last offseason, Taillon was looking to step up as the staff leader for 2018. In 32 starts, he put up a 121 ERA+ and a 4.4 bWAR. It was in June that Taillon began to add a slider to his repertoire, and the pitch became another weapon for him. With the slider, Taillon limited batters to a .687 OPS, while getting a ton of chases outside the strikezone with it at 49.8%. The addition of the slider helped him have an exceptional second half ERA of 2.33. 

Taillon enters 2019 in his age 27 season, so he’s right in the prime of his career. This week, Aaron Nola and Luis Severino both agreed to extensions. The Phillies gave Nola four years/$45 million, while the Yankees will be giving Severino four years/$40 million. Those deals should give the Pirates a clear barometer of what to offer Taillon on an extension. 

With GM Neal Huntington, the Pirates have handed out extensions to the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Interestingly enough, only one starting pitcher has received an extension under Huntington, and that was Charlie Morton, who signed for three years at $21 million in December of 2013. Although there always seemed to be speculation of a Gerrit Cole extension, it was likely never going to happen, with Scott Boras as his agent. If the Pirates were to offer Taillon a four-year extension, just like Nola and Severino got, it would cover all of his arbitration years. That would certainly help, given that the Pirates will have several arbitration eligible players next offseason. There’s also no reason a Taillon extension can’t be offered, especially with the money that was saved up for this offseason, and their inexcusable reasons not to spend most of it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pirates Should Go Lonnie Chisenhall/Pablo Reyes Platoon In Right Field

By Jason Shetler

The Pirates entered 2018 with a starting outfield of Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Dickerson had a productive first season in Pittsburgh, while Marte bounced back, after missing some time in 2017 because of a PED suspension. Polanco struggled in the first half, but really finished the year strong, before a shoulder injury in early September ended his season. 

In mid-May, the Pirates called up their top outfield prospect Austin Meadows. Manager Clint Hurdle decided to go with a four-man outfield rotation, which would allow Meadows to find playing time in all three outfield spots. Hurdle’s weird fascination with Sean Rodriguez came into play, as Rodriguez found himself in the outfield, defeating the entire purpose of the four-man outfield experiment. 

At last year’s trade deadline, Meadows was moved to the Tampa Bay Rays in the Chris Archer deal. Following the injury to Polanco, Jordan Luplow was expected to get most of the playing time in right field, but he scuffled, and Pablo Reyes rose to the occasion. Reyes had a very impressive September showing, hitting .293 and posting an .832 OPS. 

During the first week of September, it was announced that Polanco had surgery on his left shoulder, with a recovery time of 7-9 months. More than three months after Meadows was traded, the Pirates dealt Luplow, along with Max Moroff, to the Cleveland Indians as part of a five-player deal that included Erik Gonzalez, who could be Pittsburgh’s Opening Day shortstop.

On November 27th, the Pirates brought in their right field replacement for Polanco, signing Lonnie Chisenhall to a one-year contract worth $2.75 million. Prior to joining the Bucs, Chisenhall spent the first eight years of his MLB career in Cleveland. 

It’s been a frustrating career for Chisenhall, having to make frequent trips to the disabled list. When he is playing however, he can be a pretty good contributor in the lineup. Over the last three seasons, Chisenhall has played a total of only 237 games, but did put up a .354 wOBA and 113 OPS+. He has struggled throughout his career versus lefty pitching, with an OPS of just .699. 

As I mentioned earlier, Pablo Reyes had a phenomenal September, and most of that great work came against southpaws, posting a stellar 1.213 OPS. Since the Pirates don’t have a ton of dollars invested in Chisenhall, it makes for an easier decision to have the two share time in right field, especially given Chisenhall’s injury past. While Reyes probably won’t be able to sustain those numbers against left-handers, he should still do better than Chisenhall in that regard. The potential of a Chisenhall/Reyes platoon in right field I feel would give the Pirates more production on the short-term until Polanco makes his return either in May or June.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking Down the Tom Koehler Signing

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Tom Szczerbowski – Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Pirates made an interesting move, signing veteran right-hander Tom Koehler. The contract is unique in that it’s a minor league deal, but also includes a club option for the 2020 season. 

Koehler is a former 18th round draft selection of the Florida (now Miami) Marlins back in 2008. During his first few years in the Marlins system, he became one of their more “under the radar” pitching prospects. Koehler arrived to Miami in 2012 as a September call up, appearing in eight games, including one spot start.

In 2014, Koehler had his best campaign with the Marlins, as he posted a 3.81 ERA, a 3.84 FIP and a bWAR of 2.3 in 32 starts. Outside of that year however, he had been pretty much replacement level. 

After parts of six seasons in Miami, Koehler was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in August of 2017. He was used primarily as a reliever with the Jays and performed very well, posting a 2.65 ERA, along with a FIP of 3.22 and a 9.5 K/9 in 15 games. 

Despite Koehler’s good work in relief, Toronto still decided to non-tender him after the season. A few weeks later, on December 20th, 2017, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Koehler to a one-year deal for $2 million, which included incentives. The Dodgers were looking to capitalize on Koehler’s mini success pitching in relief the year prior, but they weren’t able to, as he dealt with a strained right shoulder in Spring Training, leading to season-ending shoulder surgery in July. Koehler never appeared in a regular season game for the Dodgers and was given an unconditional release in November.

The Pirates didn’t offer Koehler an invitation to big league camp, since obviously he’s still recovering from the surgery. Most of 2019 will see him try to rehab his way back. Koehler throws a mid-90’s fastball and has a four-pitch mix, with both the curveball and slider being quality offerings. He’ll likely be in Pittsburgh late in the year, either August or September, and if he’s able to return to his 2017 form with Toronto, then the Pirates will have themselves a nice bullpen option heading into 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Nick Burdi Will Be the Most Intriguing Player to Watch for Pirates In Spring Training

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Jeff Roberson – AP

Prior to the 2014 MLB Draft, Nick Burdi was projected as one of the best relief pitchers in college baseball, while pitching for the University of Louisville. In that draft, the Minnesota Twins took Burdi as a second round selection.

During his time in the Twins organization, Burdi flashed dominance with an upper-90’s fastball and plus slider combo. However, injuries started to play a part in his development. Burdi missed a big chunk of the 2016 season, as he sustained a bone bruise on his right elbow. The following year, he underwent Tommy John surgery in May to repair his UCL and was out for the remainder of the season. 

Even with the injuries, Burdi still provided plenty of upside, so it was a surprise that Minnesota left him off their 40-man roster and exposed him to the 2017 Rule 5 Draft. The general consensus was that Burdi would be one of the first players chosen, and indeed that was the case, being selected by the Philadelphia Phillies. Shortly after though, the Phillies dealt Burdi to the Pirates in exchange for half a million in International spending money. 

Burdi spent the first half of last year recovering from the surgery and building his arm strength back up. In mid-July, he returned to the mound on rehab assignment for High A Bradenton, followed by stints with AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis. Burdi would arrive to Pittsburgh as a September call up, but only appeared in two games.

The Pirates bullpen was a plus for them in 2018, with All-Star Felipe Vazquez, trade deadline acquisition Keone Kela and the emergence of both Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. A couple of spots in the bullpen will be up for grabs, one of which opened up due to Edgar Santana having Tommy John. Out of all the players to watch this Spring Training for the Pirates, Burdi will be the most intriguing. In his brief showing with the Bucs last offseason, he displayed a tremendous arsenal, averaging 96.6 mph on the four-seam fastball, a power sinker that averaged 96.1 mph and the slider at 85.7 mph, which creates good velocity separation from his fastball and sinker. Since Burdi is still under Rule 5 restrictions, he would obviously need to make the club in the Spring, but his upside over most of the other reliever candidates gives him a great chance to claim a bullpen spot.

 

 

 

 

 

Francisco Liriano: The Opener for Pirates?

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Mitchell Layton – Getty Images

The Pirates brought back a familiar face to the organization on Monday, as the club agreed to terms with Francisco Liriano on a minor league contract, which does include incentives. Liriano is the second left-handed pitcher to join the Pirates on a minor league deal this offseason, the other being Tyler Lyons on New Year’s Day.

Liriano first arrived to Pittsburgh prior to the 2013 season on a guaranteed contract for one year, plus a club option. After some injury riddled seasons, he pitched very well in 2013 and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year. Following the 2014 season, the Pirates were able to re-sign Liriano for three years at $39 million.

2016 became a struggle for Liriano. During the trade deadline that year, the Pirates dealt the veteran lefty to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Drew Hutchison. Ownership would really come into question with this deal, as the Bucs traded away a pair of prospects in catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez in an effort to get the Jays to take on Liriano’s remaining money. Despite a subpar 2016 campaign, Liriano still performed solidly during his first time around in Pittsburgh, posting a 3.67 ERA and a 3.61 FIP in a total of 107 starts. He also had a K/9 of 9.5, which is the best figure of any Pirates starter to pitch at least three seasons for them.

Last offseason, the Detroit Tigers inked Liriano to a one-year deal worth $4 million to be a veteran presence in their rotation. He appeared in 27 games, making 26 starts, and had a 4.58 ERA, along with a FIP of 5.11 and a career low 7.4 K/9. 

During the Winter Meetings this offseason, the Pirates traded Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox, while then signing Jordan Lyles to a one-year deal for $2 million shortly after. General Manager Neal Huntington said that Lyles has the “inside track” to be the fifth starter in the rotation, but also mentioned that they would consider using The Opener in that spot, a concept made famous by the Tampa Bay Rays a year ago.

Although Liriano had his struggles last season with Detroit, there were a couple of positive takeaways. One was looking good against opposing hitters first time through the lineup, as he held them to a .635 OPS. The other was continuing to dominate left-handed batters, holding them to an OPS of .516. If the Pirates decide to flirt with the idea of The Opener, as opposed to a traditional fifth starter, Liriano would certainly be a perfect candidate for that role. Letting him just pitch the first and second innings of games would not only be ideal, given his numbers first time facing a lineup, but also allows him to stay fresh and not have to log too many innings in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Pirates Prospects Who Could Break Out In 2019

By Jason Shetler

Towards the end of the minor league season last year, I did a post listing prospects in the Pirates system that broke out in 2018. Those prospects included Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig, Oneil Cruz, JT Brubaker, Travis MacGregor, Max Kranick, Jared Oliva and Domingo Robles. Here are five Pirates prospects who could be primed for breakout seasons this year.

Braeden Ogle: In the 2016 MLB Draft, Braeden Ogle was selected by the Pirates in the fourth round out of Jensen Beach High School in Florida. The 6’5 left-hander chose to sign with the Bucs for an above slot amount of $374,300 rather than pitch for the University of Florida. Ogle throws a mid-90’s fastball, along with a solid changeup and improving slider. He made only four starts last season with the Low A West Virginia Power, as he dealt with shoulder inflammation for much of the year. In those four outings, he posted a 2.65 ERA and a K/9 of 11.1, but had a 5.3 BB/9, which leads you to think that the inflammation possibly played a role to the control issues. Ogle will likely return to the Low A level to be with the Pirates new affiliate in Greensboro. He certainly has the upside as a southpaw, so staying healthy is all it could take for him to make that next step as a top tier pitching prospect. 

Brett Kinneman: After a strong collegiate career at NC State, outfielder Brett Kinneman was taken in last year’s draft as a seventh round selection by the Pirates, which appeared to be a real diamond in the rough for them. Kinneman displayed an impressive walk rate (11.5%) in his pro debut season with the West Virginia Black Bears, leading to a .355 wOBA. However, he did have a high strikeout rate (28.2%). Kinneman should start out this season with the High A Bradenton Marauders. If he’s able to cut down on the Ks, then he could begin to tap into his full potential offensively. 

Deon Stafford: With their fifth round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, the Pirates took catcher Deon Stafford out of Saint Joseph’s University. He played his first full season in 2018 with the West Virginia Power. Stafford had a decent walk rate (7.3%), but much like Brett Kinneman, had a high K rate (25.9%). He completely owned lefty pitching, posting a .959 OPS, however, right-handers kept him in check, as he only put up a .685 OPS. Stafford showed some pop in the bat with 11 home runs. There’s been questions about whether or not he will stick behind the plate long term. Last season with the Power, he threw out 27% of baserunners, while having 12 errors and 10 passed balls. Should Stafford improve upon his offensive numbers in 2019, most likely for Bradenton, it won’t matter what position he’ll ultimately play. 

Gage Hinsz: Rarely does a player get drafted out of a high school that doesn’t even have a baseball team, but that was the case with Gage Hinsz. The Montana native instead pitched for the Langley Blaze, a Canadian youth team. In 2014, Hinsz was an 11th round draft choice of the Pirates. He had a commitment to pitch at Oregon State, but decided to turn pro by signing for $580,000. After having moderate success his first few years in the organization, Hinsz struggled in 2017, as he posted an ERA of 5.61, and was limited to 20 games (19 starts) due to shoulder soreness. Entering last year, it was reported that he had to undergo open heart surgery, because of a defective valve. While Hinsz missed the entire 2018 regular season, he was able to somehow recover quickly from the surgery and returned to the mound late in the year to pitch in the Puerto Rican Winter League. His numbers were terrific, with a 1.08 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP and a K/9 of 8.3 in five starts for Gigantes de Carolina. Hinsz will look to carry over those results into this season, and if he does, it would not only emerge him as a top pitching prospect, but also make for a great feel good story. 

Steven Jennings: In terms of non-first round picks in 2017, the Pirates got one of the better prep pitchers that year, selecting Steven Jennings out of Dekalb County High School in Tennessee. Prior to inking a $264,500 signing bonus with the Bucs, Jennings had committed to Ole Miss. He made 13 starts for the Bristol Pirates last season, with a 4.82 ERA, although he did have a .259 batting average against. Walks were on the high side, as his BB/9 was 3.7 . In addition to a low-to-mid-90’s fastball, Jennings throws a plus slider and above average curveball, so the potential is definitely there. He has done good work keeping the ball down in his first two seasons of pro ball, inducing groundballs at a 50% clip. If Jennings can limit the free passes, and also increase his strikeout total, then there’s no reason to think that he can’t take his performance to the next level in 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2019 Pirates Player Projections

By Jason Shetler

The 2019 Pirates will have a lot of their players from last season returning this year. A few notable additions this offseason are outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall and pitcher Jordan Lyles, both of which were signed to one-year deals, as well as infielder Erik Gonzalez, who was acquired from the Cleveland Indians. Here are now are my player projections for the 2019 season. The players listed are only those who are expected to be on the Opening Day roster.

Position players 

Corey Dickerson: .280/.325/.460, 17 HR, 65 RBI, 2.5 WAR
Starling Marte: .275/.335/.450, 16 HR, 75 RBI, 3.5 WAR
Lonnie Chisenhall: .265/.345/.420, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Colin Moran: .265/.340/.475/, 20 HR, 80 RBI, 3.0 WAR
Adam Frazier: .290/.360/.450/, 13 HR, 55 RBI, 3.0 WAR
Josh Bell: .270/.350/.440, 19 HR, 85 RBI, 2.0 WAR
Francisco Cervelli: .250/.355/.390, 8 HR, 50 RBI, 2.5 WAR
Elias Diaz: .260/.310/.410, 7 HR, 30 RBI, 1.0 WAR
Jung-Ho Kang: .255/.340/.445/, 9 HR, 35 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Erik Gonzalez: .245/.290/.400, 5 HR, 20 RBI, 0.5 WAR

Pitchers 

Jameson Taillon: 3.35 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 200 IP, 2.5 BB/9, 8.5 K/9, 4.0 WAR
Chris Archer: 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 180 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 9.0 K/9, 3.0 WAR
Trevor Williams: 4.40 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 155 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 6.5 K/9, 1.5 WAR
Joe Musgrove: 3.20 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 190 IP, 2.0 BB/9, 8.0 K/9, 3.5 WAR
Jordan Lyles: 4.50 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 100 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 7.5 K/9, 0.5 WAR
Richard Rodriguez: 3.55 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 75 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
Keone Kela: 3.35 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 70
 IP, 3.5 BB/9, 11.0 K/9
Kyle Crick: 3.75 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 65 IP, 4.0 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
Felipe Vazquez: 2.30 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 75 IP, 3.0 BB/9, 12.0 K/9