By Jason Shetler
p/c: Matt Freed – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Entering last season, the Pirates planned on using John Jaso as their leadoff batter. While Jaso wasn’t the most conventional leadoff man, he had the reputation of getting on base. The one problem that occurred was Jaso being in a first base platoon with David Freese, so Jaso sat versus left-handed starters. Jordy Mercer at one point was used in the leadoff spot against lefties, while Josh Harrison was plugged in during the second half of the season. The Pirates lacked a consistent leadoff man in 2016, and the question becomes who will fill that role this season? – Personally, I think it’s time for the Bucs to use Francisco Cervelli in that spot.
After the Pirates were unable to re-sign Russell Martin following the 2014 season, they decided to go the “Moneyball” direction by acquiring Cervelli from the New York Yankees in exchange for lefty reliever Justin Wilson. Making just $987,500 in 2015, Cervelli gave the Pirates a solid on base presence in the lineup, posting a .370 OBP, which was second best among NL catchers behind only Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants. 2016 was an injury plagued season for Cervelli, but he did manage to put up an OBP of .377, which would have been tops among all MLB backstops had he qualified for enough plate appearances. To further make the case for Cervelli to be placed in the leadoff spot, here are his stats with the bases empty last two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Bases empty: .380 OBP, 117 wRC+, 11.1 BB%, 20.5 K%
Cervelli’s OBP has shown to be even better when there’s nobody on base. He’s done a terrific job of creating runs, as his wRC+ is well above league average, while the walk rate is solid. The strikeout rate isn’t terribly high for someone who can work deep counts as much as Cervelli does. Because Cervelli is productive against right-handers and left-handers in the on base department, he becomes the best viable option for the Pirates to have leading off in 2017.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: David Hague
According to Pirates Head Athletic Trainer Todd Tomczyk, Josh Bell is “slightly ahead of schedule” in his rehab.
Bell is recovering from minor knee surgery, which he underwent on February 1st. The switch-hitting first baseman was cleared for baseball activities this week, including hitting and fielding. Bell currently isn’t running at full speed, so he won’t be able to play in any games just yet. The Pirates are evaluating if Bell can be ready by Opening Day. Barring any major setback, I’d be surprised if he isn’t ready by then, especially since the season doesn’t start in more than a month.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Jared Wickerham – Getty Images
The Pirates have announced that Joel Hanrahan has been hired to serve as the assistant pitching coach for the West Virginia Black Bears.
Hanrahan pitched seven seasons in the big leagues, with his best work coming with the Pirates. During his four years in Pittsburgh, he posted an ERA of 2.59 along with a 151 ERA+ and was named an All-Star in 2011 and 2012.
Prior to the 2013 season, the Pirates dealt Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox for a package that included Mark Melancon. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013. He attempted to make a comeback for the 2015 season, as he signed with the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately, he had another Tommy John procedure done, and was released by the Tigers in Spring Training that year. Hanrahan announced his retirement in November of last year.
By Jason Shetler
Multiple outlets are reporting that Francisco Cervelli has sustained a right foot injury, and the Pirates say he will be “day-to-day”. The injury occurred during a workout Sunday morning at Pirate City. No word yet on how Cervelli injured the foot.
The injury bug played a role with Cervelli last year, fracturing a hamate bone in his left hand, which required surgery in June, as well as an injury to his right foot that happened in August.
When healthy, Cervelli has been one of the best on base threats in terms of catchers, posting a .370 OBP in 2015 and a .377 OBP in 2016. He’s also one of the better pitch framers behind the plate. Cervelli is scheduled to play for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Pirates will let him participate, given the potential nature of this injury.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Joe Sargent – Getty Images
Entering Spring Training last year, the Pirates were looking to find a short term replacement for Jung-Ho Kang, who was expected to miss at least the first month of the season, as he was recovering from a torn meniscus and fractured tibia that he sustained in September of 2015.
Last offseason, Jason Rogers was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers, and he appeared to be a possibility to replace Kang. In the second week of Spring however, the Pirates made a surprising move by signing David Freese to a one-year deal for $3 million. While the money was very reasonable, another factor was draft pick compensation not being attached to the former World Series MVP.
Freese played well overall in his first season in Pittsburgh last year. He not only received playing time at third base, but also at first base, as he platooned with John Jaso. Freese was phenomenal versus lefty pitching, posting a .963 OPS against them. His bat speed remained solid with an average Exit Velocity of 91.5 mph, which was above the MLB average in 2016 (89.6 mph). Defensively, Freese was above average at third base with a 5.2 UZR/150 along with five Defensive Runs Saved.
In August, Freese and the Pirates agreed to terms on a two-year extension worth $11 million, which includes a $6 million club option for 2019. Freese will be put in a first base platoon again this season, only this time with Josh Bell. He also might find himself getting significant playing time at third base, depending on what kind of punishment Kang receives for his role in a DUI accident back in December. Even as he enters his age 34 season, Freese continues to be a very good all-around third baseman, so he would be more than capable of filling in for Kang. Based on his solid work versus southpaws, as well as his defensive play, the extension could pay great dividends for the Pirates.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: David Goldman – AP
The Pirates had themselves a quiet offseason for the most part. The only significant moves was bringing back Ivan Nova for the rotation and signing Daniel Hudson to essentially replace Neftali Feliz in the bullpen.
One move that came as a real surprise was the Rule 5 selection of Tyler Webb, a left-handed pitcher who was left unprotected by the New York Yankees. This marked the first time since 2011 that the Pirates selected a Rule 5 player in the Major League portion of the draft, which is surprising, given that the team is more of a contender than a rebuilder.
Webb spent all of 2016 pitching at the AAA level for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In 72.2 innings of work with the RailRiders, he put up a 3.59 ERA with an even better 2.76 Fielding Independent Pitching. His K/9 was very impressive at 10.1, while he posted a 2.9 BB/9, which isn’t bad for someone who has the ability to miss bats. Although Webb’s fastball sits in the low-90’s, it’s considered deceptive with the movement he has on it. Because he’s 6’6, he’s able to throw it on a downward plane. Webb has a changeup, which is his best secondary pitch, and he’s not afraid to throw it in any count. He also has a slider that keeps improving.
Prior to Webb being taken by the Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft, the last two pitchers who were selected by GM Neal Huntington was Evan Meek and Donnie Veal. Even though Meek made the club in 2008 and Veal in 2009, the situations were much different, as the Pirates were in the early stages of Huntington’s rebuilding process. What also makes the selection of Webb interesting is the fact that the Pirates already had a good amount of left-handed arms in the pen. During the offseason, Antonio Bastardo was reportedly on the trade block, and could still be an option to move, if Webb is able to really impress for much of the Spring. Another scenario is designating Wade LeBlanc for assignment to make room on the roster for Webb. The Pirates don’t have much invested in LeBlanc, as he’s due to make only $800,000 for this year. I certainly think Tyler Webb has a legitimate shot to make the club out of Spring Training, but if not, he would just be sent back to the Yankees without any issue.