By Jason Shetler
The rosters were announced on Monday for the 2017 Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game. To no surprise, Mitch Keller and Kevin Kramer are the Pirates prospects who will take part in it. The game will be televised Saturday at 8 PM ET on MLB Network.
Keller of course is the Pirates top pitching prospect, and is rated the 18th best overall prospect in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 rankings. He entered this year’s AFL as one of the best pitchers. Keller has posted a 2.53 ERA, along with a 1.03 WHIP for the Glendale Desert Dogs. He has been working on his changeup in the AFL, as well as making up for lost time, because of a DL stint earlier in the year, dealing with lower back stiffness.
Kramer is currently the ninth best prospect in the Pirates system. He was on the verge of having a breakout season this year with the Altoona Curve, until a right hand fracture in June placed him on the shelf. Despite missing time with the injury, Kramer has picked up where he left off, hitting .291 and posting an OPS of .895 for Glendale. He has played exclusively at shortstop in the AFL.
By Jason Shetler
The Pirates have re-signed pitcher Casey Sadler and catcher Jin-De Jhang to minor league deals, sources tell Pirates Prospects.
Sadler returned to the mound in 2017, this after missing all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. He made his season debut in May for High A Bradenton, making six relief appearances to a 0.75 ERA. Sadler also pitched in ten games (six starts) for AA Altoona, posting an ERA of 3.91, as well as ten games (one start) with AAA Indianapolis, in which he posted a 6.38 ERA. Sadler’s last appearance for the Pirates came in April of 2015 when he was used as a spot starter. He will probably pitch with Indianapolis next season as a swingman.
Jhang spent the entire 2017 season playing for Altoona. The 24-year-old native of Taiwan struggled at the plate with the Curve this season, as he batted .231, along with a .591 OPS in 296 plate appearances. Jhang however was outstanding behind the dish, throwing out baserunners at a very impressive rate of 47% in 65 games. He could begin 2018 with Indianapolis as a backup catcher.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Matt Freed – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Thursday, Rawlings announced the finalists for the Gold Glove awards at each position. David Freese was named as one of the candidates for National League third basemen. The other finalists are Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals and Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies.
Freese returned to the Pirates in 2017, this after signing a two-year extension with the club in August of last year. The plan was for him to be a vital part of the bench, but he was inserted as the third baseman, following Jung-Ho Kang’s inability to receive a working visa to the States, because of a third DUI offense last December.
Even in his age 34 season, Freese played a solid third base defensively. In 116 games played at the hot corner this year, he put up a 5.5 UZR/150, along with a dWAR of 0.9 and a career best seven Defensive Runs Saved. Freese will look to become the first ever Pirates third baseman to win Gold Glove honors.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Gene J. Puskar – AP
Jordy Mercer replaced Clint Barmes as the Pirates shortstop in the second half of the 2013 season. After question marks surrounded his defensive play entering 2014, he made significant improvements, to the point that most sabermetricians considered him one of the better defenders at shortstop that year.
If you follow me on Twitter, or just read the blog, I’ve mentioned how over the past couple of years that Mercer has been one of the more underrated shortstops in baseball. Not just for his defensive work, but also his ability to hit left-handed pitching consistently.
Mercer did well in the first half of this year, as he put up a .769 OPS. He struggled in the second half however, posting an OPS of .680. Overall, he posted a .733 OPS, which is still decent for a shortstop, while his 14 home runs were the most by a Pirates shortstop since Jay Bell in 1991. There has been speculation though about Mercer being a possible non-tender candidate. Is there a chance that Mercer and the Pirates part ways?
This offseason will be Mercer’s final year of arbitration eligibility. His projected arbitration figure, according to MLB Trade Rumors, is set at $6.5 million. The Pirates will need a shortstop for the beginning of 2018, since Kevin Newman will likely be with AAA Indianapolis until midseason. Mercer had a 1.4 WAR this season, so while the projected $6.5 figure may seem a little high, he is better than any internal option the Pirates have currently. If nothing else, Mercer is above replacement level and a league average shortstop to have around until Newman arrives to Pittsburgh at some point next year.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Jayne Kamin-Oncea – USA Today Sports
During the 2016 season, the Pirates called up several of their pitching prospects, including Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl. While Taillon was the Pirates best rookie pitcher in 2016, Kuhl had a decent rookie campaign in his own right, posting a 4.20 ERA and a 3.95 FIP.
Entering the final week of Spring Training, Kuhl was penciled in as the fourth starter in the rotation. The first half of the season did not go well for him, as he posted a 4.96 ERA and a .281 batting average against. With those struggles came debate as to whether or not Kuhl would be better suited in the bullpen. He was able to perform much better in the second half as a starter, putting up an ERA of 3.63, while holding the opposition to a .254 average. So, why was Chad Kuhl more effective in the second half of the season?
Kuhl displayed great velocity on his sinker at 96.0 mph on average. He appeared to rely too heavily on it in the first half, which made him hittable. In addition, his terrific slider was a weapon against right-handed hitters, but not so much versus left-handed bats. In the second half, Kuhl began incorporating the curveball more. Here is the monthly percentage of curveballs used by Kuhl.
While the slider is still Kuhl’s best secondary offering, the curveball was an above average pitch for him, once he began throwing it more. Kuhl put up a 9.0 K/9 in the second half compared to a 7.3 K/9 in the first half. The average velocity on his curve was 83.0 mph, which was a 13 mph separation from his sinker. This combination helped keep hitters off balance, leading to more strikeouts and just overall better success in the second half of the season as a result.
By Jason Shetler
p/c: Tim Williams – Pirates Prospects
Despite the initial criticism of the Mark Melancon deal around the 2016 trade deadline, the Pirates end of the deal is shaping up to be an absolute steal. Felipe Rivero is coming off a stellar 2017 campaign, and has now emerged as one of the more dominating relievers in the game. While Rivero is considered the centerpiece of the Melancon trade, Taylor Hearn was the other player involved.
Hearn spent the 2017 season with the Bradenton Marauders. Before the year, MLB Pipeline had him as the 13th best prospect in the Pirates system. He is now #11 in the updated rankings. In 18 games (17 starts) for the Marauders, Hearn posted a 4.12 ERA, but his other figures stood out more, with a 3.41 FIP and a 2.84 xFIP. His K/9 was at a 10.9 clip, while he put up a 49% groundball rate.
In mid-July, Hearn sustained an oblique injury, which landed him on the disabled list. He was able to make a rehab outing with the GCL Pirates before the season ended. Hearn is one of a handful of Pirates prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League for the Glendale Desert Dogs. He is essentially pitching long relief with them. So how should the Pirates use Hearn moving forward?
Hearn has outstanding velocity on the fastball for a starter at 97-98 mph, which was rated the best fastball in the Florida State League this year by Baseball America. He relies heavily on the fastball, and needs to incorporate his secondary pitches more often. His slider is considered above average, but again, he hasn’t thrown it enough. Aside from needing to command his pitches consistently, Hearn’s changeup is likely going to dictate whether he remains a starter. It’s currently a below average pitch, which will have to improve, especially against right-handed batters at the upper levels. The general consensus is that Hearn will pitch in the big leagues as a reliever. The Pirates however should continue to use him as a starter in the minors, to see if he can develop his changeup, and if he’s able to make it a “respectable” offering before he arrives to Pittsburgh, then he should stick as a rotation arm.