Pirates Add Luis Heredia to Altoona Roster; John Kuchno Released

By Jason Shetler

The Pirates have announced that pitcher Luis Heredia is being added to the Altoona Curve roster, while pitcher John Kuchno has been released from the organization. 

Heredia was signed by the Pirates out of Mexico as a 16-year-old in 2010 for a franchise record setting signing bonus of $2.6 million. The 6’5 right-hander had very good fastball velocity for a teenager. Heredia began the 2015 season with the Bradenton Marauders at age 20, which is young for the High A level. In 21 starts that year, he had a 5.44 ERA, along with a 1.73 WHIP. During Spring Training of last year, the Pirates made the decision to make Heredia a reliever full-time. He posted a 3.64 ERA, but allowed a good amount of batters to reach base with a WHIP of 1.58 in 45 appearances for Bradenton. Heredia threw the sinker more last season, and it resulted in a career best 61% groundball rate. He had a medical issue, which had kept him in Extended Spring Training to build himself back up. 

Kuchno had been in the Pirates organization since 2012, after being selected as an 18th round pick out of Ohio State. The 25-year-old righty profiled as a sinkerballer, as he put up a groundball rate of 57% during his six seasons in the system. Kuchno’s best year came in 2015 when he posted an ERA of 3.46 and a 1.29 WHIP in 40 appearances with Altoona. He spent last season pitching for Altoona and Indianapolis, posting a 4.59 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP in a combined 38 games. Prior to his release, Kuchno gave up nine earned runs in 9.2 innings pitched with the Curve this season.

Gerrit Cole’s Stuff Looks Stronger than Ever

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Jeff Haynes – AP

The 2015 season was not only Gerrit Cole’s personal best, but was the best by a Pirates starter in quite sometime. In 32 starts that year, Cole put up a 2.60 ERA, an ERA+ of 149, a 4.5 WAR and was a 19-game winner (if you still put stock in wins). That terrific work was good enough for him to finish fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. 

Cole was looking to build off his strong 2015 campaign, but injuries played a significant part last year. His first trip to the disabled list was in June, because of a right triceps strain, while the other was in September, due to right elbow inflammation. Cole was limited to 21 starts in 2016, posting a 3.88 ERA and a 109 ERA+. The Fielding Independent Pitching however was more respectable at 3.33.

Now fully recovered, the stuff is looking more like vintage Cole, even better, as a matter of fact. In five April outings, his average fastball velocity is at 96.3 mph, which is second best among NL starters behind only Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets. According to Statcast, batters have an average Exit Velocity of 89.2 mph off Cole, lower than the MLB average at 89.6 mph. FanGraphs’ Pitch Values measures how effective pitchers are with their offerings, and according to those metrics, Cole’s slider and changeup are both above average. He is actually throwing his changeup more now than ever before at 13.2%, with an average velocity of 89.0 mph, second highest behind Syndergaard, while slider velocity is at 88.3 mph, seventh best in the NL. 

The Pirates rotation has performed well for the most part in April, and the biggest reason has been limiting the free passes. While Ivan Nova’s excellent control is a huge factor, the control has been outstanding for Cole as well in the early going of 2017. So far, Cole is posting a 1.8 BB/9, thanks in part to throwing first pitch strikes 67.7% of the time, better than the 60.3% mark he put up last season. The swing and miss rate was also down for him in 2016 at 8.5%, but that percentage is back up to 9.6%, which is right around his career rate of 9.5%. If Cole can maintain the stuff he has shown in April, and is able to return to his 2015 form, then it would obviously be a big shot in the arm for the Pirates, especially with Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl all in their first full seasons in a big league rotation. 






External Outfield Options for the Pirates

By Jared Lankes

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has acknowledged that they are looking externally for an outfielder that can fill-in for Starling Marte after he was slapped with a 80-game PED suspension. This need got greater once the Pirates had to place IF/OF Adam Frazier on the DL with a hamstring strain. Currently, the Pirates are using a combo of Harrison, Osuna, and Jaso in the OF (Frazier too when healthy). Bell, Gosselin, and Hanson can also play in the outfield as far as technicalities are concerned. The issue present is that none of these guys are true outfielders. The 3rd outfielder option for the Pirates currently comprises of: Three 1st basemen, three middle infielders, and a few utility players that can barely play outfield. Combined all this, and it is easy to discern why Neal Huntington has been hunting for an external option to fill that spot. Now, there are many options out there, so just who would the Pirates be interested in getting? I look into a few options here.

 Chris Marrero: Chris Marrero was just recently let go by the Giants as they shook up the roster by adding Christian Arroyo and Drew Stubbs to it. Marrero, 28, has never been good in the MLB and has been a minor leaguer much of his career. I cannot see the Pirates even considering him even though he’d come as a player making close to the league minimum with years of control attached. However, he would not represent any sort of upgrade over what the team already has.

 Jeff Francoeur: It seems like Francouer has been around awhile, hasn’t it? Well, this 33 year old just won’t go away it appears. Yes, he is a free agent that is vying for a spot on an MLB roster and one may have opened up for him. Francoeur has not been great but was akin to a solid bench player the last few years and could certainly provide himself as a good fill-in option. His defense is still rock solid, and you have to imagine his arm is still outstanding. His hitting isn’t great at this point, but he can at least hold his own at the plate. Additionally, he’d bring another nice veteran presence to an otherwise young group. He can immediately fill-in to right field and bats right-handed, which is more likely the route the Pirates are going towards when looking for outfielders.

Leonys Martin: Martin was shockingly designated for assignment by the Mariners. The 29-year old broke into the bigs with the Rangers in 2011 and showed off fine defensive skills, which is still there. He had some good years with the bat early in his career, but much of his value has always been defense. His hitting ability has not been there since going to Seattle, but the astounding defense and base-running skills are still there, which make him an intriguing option for the Pirates. His defense and base running are things the Pirates would desire as that has been two of the weakest aspects of the team so far in 2017. However, you look at the Pirates roster, and you see so many lefty bats (Polanco, Frazier, Jaso, and switch hitters Bell and Hanson will bat mostly lefty as righty pitchers will be seen more). Another lefty bat may be a little much, especially when Marte gets back and Martin would get placed on a bench that is already unbalanced in that direction.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis: Nieuwenhuis was designated for assignment but quickly passed through waivers and ourighted by the Brewers to AAA. Nieuwenhuis has never really done anything with the bat and is known more for good defense. However, just like Martin, he is a lefty hitter that has really no bat and is great on defense and baserunning. What makes this unlikely, however, is that the Pirates could have had him on waivers for nothing. Pirates certainly wouldn’t trade anything for him when they could have had him for free. This is another reason to figure that the Pirates don’t want another left-handed hitter because they could have had one rather easily.

Angel Pagan: Pagan was looking for a contract for awhile and wanted a major league contract. No team was meeting his demands, so he quit with his ambitions and elected to stay at home with the family and take at least a year off. Maybe he quit too early though as a spot on the Pirates and an opportunity to start for a bit opened up right as he packed it up and went home (literally). The veteran switch hitter is most remembered here in Pittsburgh for not being able to hang on to an ball Erik Kratz hit last season that went for a homerun in a game where Locke outdueled Bumgarner and Kratz’s homer stood up in a 1-0 Pirates win (what a legendary game). It would have been ironic if he would have come to the Pirates after that happened. But alas, he is temporarily retired, and it looks like it will remain that way unless the Pirates majorly overpay.

Coco Crisp: Coco Crisp is another outfielder that just could not find any love this offseason in the free agent market. The 37-year old switch hitter has been a very solid hitter his whole career, and has proven to be a good bench option the last few seasons, even starting a pretty good bit for the AL Champion Indians at the latter portion of last season. What Coco Crisp can provide you, besides possibly the coolest name in the MLB, is consistency. He isn’t a great player either way, but he is solid enough to fill-in a spot in order to help a team stay afloat. In addition to that, you can never have enough switch hitters, especially veteran ones who have proven their ability to hit from both sides of the dish. Between that and the fact that he is still a good athlete in the outfield, I could certainly see the Pirates entertaining this idea.

It is difficult to figure out whether the Pirates even sign an outfielder externally, and if they would, which one they bring in. Would they want a consistent defender, an expert baserunner, a veteran outfielder with a cannon arm, or someone that does all these things at least decently. You also have to wonder whether they want a lefty batter, a righty batter, a switch hitter, or if it doesn’t even matter. There are a lot of factors that come into play here as to what the Pirates will do in the outfield until Marte gets back. Now, there are no superstars or even star players hanging out there for the Pirates to nab and expect production similar to Marte. However, there are some players out there that make you cringe less watching them play outfield as opposed to the guys currently on the roster.

Clay Holmes Opening Some Eyes with His Velocity

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Kim Klement – USA Today Sports

In the 2011 MLB Draft, the Pirates chose a pair of diamond in the rough starting pitchers. The first was Tyler Glasnow, who was taken in the fifth round, while the other was Clay Holmes, a ninth round selection. Upon being drafted, Glasnow had better velocity on the fastball than Holmes, and also had a curveball that was considered a plus pitch. The combination of an upper-90’s heater and a swing and miss curve helped Glasnow become the Pirates top pitching prospect. Holmes profiled more as a groundball pitcher. In his first two seasons of pro ball, 2012 with the State College Spikes and 2013 for the West Virginia Power, he posted a 3.18 ERA, along with a 57% groundball rate. 

During Spring Training of 2014, Holmes experienced elbow discomfort and had to miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. He successfully recovered from the injury in 2015, and made nine rehab starts combined with the GCL Pirates and the Bradenton Marauders, posting a 2.48 ERA and a groundball rate of 58%. Altoona is where Holmes pitched all of 2016. In 26 starts for the Curve, he had an ERA of 4.22, but did put up a career best 62% groundball rate. This past offseason, Holmes was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. The Pirates however placed him on the 40-man roster prior to the Winter Meetings. 

As I mentioned earlier, Holmes is a groundball pitcher, but what is now beginning to really stand out is the velocity on his fastball. In his third start of the season on Thursday for the Indianapolis Indians, he displayed perhaps the best fastball velocity of his minor league career, registering 96-97 mph and topping out at 99 mph, all while tossing six shutout innings versus the Durham Bulls. Prior to that outing, I never recalled him hitting 99 on the gun with the fastball. When I spoke with John Dreker of Pirates Prospects, he mentioned that Holmes has been throwing harder this year. The current velocity is a real significant spike compared to what it was before having Tommy John, which ranged from 90-93 mph. With the combination of added velocity and terrific sink on the fastball, Holmes would certainly be an intriguing option to have compete for a spot in the Pirates rotation in Spring Training next year.






Bucco Nation Mailbag

By Jason Shetler

Thanks to everyone who tweeted or messaged me their Pirates questions for the first regular season edition of the “Bucco Nation mailbag”. And with that being said, let’s dive right into it.

What do the Pirates do about Starling Marte? – Try to deal him when suspension is over? Or continue with him and hope he doesn’t use PEDs again? – James from Pittsburgh, PA

I would be really shocked if the Pirates had thoughts about trading Marte based on the situation. Just let him serve his punishment, and just hope that he learned his lesson, because he is far too valuable an asset for this team offensively, defensively and on the basepaths.

Do we expect Jose Osuna to stay up or do you see Austin Meadows making some appearances? – And will Alen Hanson see some regular starts anytime this season? – Brock from Tyrone, PA

Obviously, if Osuna performs well, then he should remain with the club. Perhaps he gets put into a right field platoon with John Jaso for the time being. Should Osuna struggle, Meadows should receive the next call up. Truthfully, I would like to see Meadows get his feet wet at the big league level before Marte makes his return from suspension. To answer your second question, I don’t see Alen Hanson receiving much playing time this season, unless a couple of infielders sustain an injury.

Is it inevitable that Andrew McCutchen, Tony Watson and Josh Harrison will be traded at the deadline? – Joey from North Hills, PA

Should the Pirates find themselves in seller mode, then I think it’s very fair to say that all three will be out of Pittsburgh. Austin Meadows is the heir apparent to McCutchen, while Watson is a free agent after the season. In the case of Harrison, he has a salary that the Pirates would like to unload. In addition, they have Adam Frazier, who could replace Harrison at a much cheaper cost.

After the recent PED suspension of Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen showing he can still play center field, what do you think the chances are that the Pirates sign McCutchen to another long term contract, especially with Austin Meadows in the wings? -Cory from Danville, PA

Honestly, I would say the chances of re-signing McCutchen to another long term extension is slim. Not only because Meadows is knocking on the big league door, and could probably get called up now, if the Pirates chose to, but McCutchen is now in his age 30 season, and isn’t far off from exiting his prime. The one thing you want to avoid is extending a player who’s in there 30’s to a long term deal, because you obviously don’t want to pay someone significant dollars for their declining years.

Are the Pirates good enough to stay in the race as is or do they need to go out and get a bat, and if so, who and at position? – Rich from Coraopolis, PA

The Pirates pitching so far in April has been a pleasant surprise. If they can continue that great work, they can certainly compete for a Wild Card spot. However, the offense has really lacked consistency in the early going, and there’s no sugarcoating it. My guess is they would go with internal options to try and boost the offense. For example, Frazier getting more regular playing time over Harrison or Meadows joining the club.












Pirates Acquire Johnny Barbato from Yankees

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Icon Sportswire

The Pirates have announced that pitcher Johnny Barbato has been acquired from the New York Yankees for either a player to be named later or cash considerations. He will report to AAA Indianapolis. 

Barbato was selected as a sixth round pick by the San Diego Padres in the 2010 MLB Draft out of high school. The 24-year-old righty joined the Yankees organization prior to the 2015 season, after being traded from the Padres in exchange for pitcher Shawn Kelley. 

Most of the 2016 season for Barbato was spent at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he posted a 2.61 ERA, along with a 1.26 WHIP and a K/9 of 9.1 in 48.1 innings. He also pitched with the Yankees, posting an ERA of 7.62, with a much more forgiving 4.45 FIP and 3.74 xFIP in 13 innings of work. Barbato put up a 10.4 K/9 for the Yankees, and displayed a really good fastball, with an average velocity of 94.6 mph.





Will 2017 Finally be the Year Gift Ngoepe Joins the Pirates?

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Kim Klement – USA Today Sports

In the early part of Neal Huntington’s tenure as Pirates General Manager, there was a big emphasis on signing players from different countries, even those that really weren’t a hotbed for baseball talent. The most notable example was Rinku Singh and Danish Patel, who participated in a contest in India called “The Million Dollar Arm”. Both Singh and Patel had never played baseball prior to being signed by the Pirates in 2008. 

Another interesting player signing that year, which didn’t receive as much attention, was Gift Ngoepe, a switch-hitting shortstop, who became the first black South African player to sign a professional baseball contract. During his time in the Pirates organization, Ngoepe has drawn rave reviews for his defense. So much so, that most baseball publications have considered him the best defensive infielder in the system. While the defense has been nothing short of stellar, the offense leaves quite a bit to be desired. 

In Spring Training of 2015, Ngoepe informed Pirates management that he was no longer going to be a switch-hitter, admitting that he feels much more comfortable as a right-handed batter. The change seemed to do some good, as he put a .333 on base percentage that year combined with the Altoona Curve and the Indianapolis Indians. However, he was unable to adjust to a full season of AAA pitching last year, posting a woeful .289 on base with the Indians.

Although Ngoepe was a long shot to make the Pirates out of Spring Training this year, he made a strong impression at the plate, as he posted a .500 OBP in 48 plate appearances. That performance has carried over in the early going of the season for Indianapolis, with an OBP of .387. The BABIP however is at .471, so that on base mark will come back down to earth. The league average OBP for a player is about .330, so if Ngoepe can keep it around there or better, to go along with his elite level defense, then he would be deserving of a call up to Pittsburgh at some point this season, and perhaps a legitimate opportunity to make the Pirates bench out of Spring Training next year.





Al Oliver to be Honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

By Jason Shetler

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has announced that five players will be honored for their fourth annual “Hall of Game” class on June 10th. Those players are Dave Stewart, Lee Smith, Maury Wills, Tony Perez and Al Oliver. 

Oliver signed with the Pirates as an amateur player in 1964. He spent the first ten seasons of his Major League career in Pittsburgh. Oliver was a three-time All-Star with the Pirates in 1972, 1975 and 1976, and played an integral part in the Bucs World Series championship club in 1971. 

Prior to the 1978 season, Oliver was involved in a four-team trade that sent him to the Texas Rangers and Bert Blyleven to the Pirates. While with the Rangers, he was a two-time All-Star in 1980 and 1981. Oliver was then a two-time All-Star for the Montreal Expos, capturing the NL batting title with them in 1982. He also played for the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays. During his 18-year big league career, Oliver batted .303, while posting a .795 OPS in 2,368 games.