2019 Pirates Breakout Prospect Watch: Gage Hinsz

By Jason Shetler

p/c: piratesprospects.com

Gage Hinsz certainly has one of the more interesting back stories among prospects currently in the Pirates system. Hinsz is from Montana, a state that isn’t known for producing much in terms of baseball talent. He attended Billings West High School, but what’s remarkable is that his high school didn’t even have a baseball team. Instead, he pitched for the Langley Blaze, a youth baseball team located in British Columbia, Canada.

The Pirates took Hinsz in the 2014 MLB Draft. Prior to that draft, he had a commitment to pitch at Oregon State, but decided to sign with the Bucs for $580,000, which is good money for an 11th round pick. The selection of Hinsz appeared to be a diamond in the rough, as Baseball America projected him as a sixth rounder.

After appearing in three games for the GCL Pirates in 2014, Hinsz spent the 2015 season with the Bristol Pirates, where he put up a 3.79 ERA in 38 innings pitched. Despite the decent ERA, he had control problems, posting a 5.4 BB/9. 

2016 was Hinsz’s first full season of pro ball, spending it with Low A West Virginia. In 17 starts for the Power, Hinsz posted an ERA of 3.66, while significantly cutting down on the walks, with a 2.4 BB/9. He showed an increase in fastball velocity that year, going from low-90’s to mid-90’s. 

Hinsz pitched all of 2017 at High A with the Bradenton Marauders. It was a struggle for him that season, as he had a 5.61 ERA in 94.2 innings of work. He also dealt with shoulder soreness. The strikeout figure was very low for Hinsz, as he only put up a K/9 of 4.9, however, that could be contributed to trying to pitch through the shoulder injury.

Shocking news hit the Pirates organization earlier this year, as it was reported by John Dreker of Pirates Prospects that Hinsz had to undergo open heart surgery to replace a defective valve. He of course missed the entire 2018 season, but baseball was obviously secondary at that point. After being fully recovered, Hinsz remarkably returned to the mound this year, pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League for Gigantes de Carolina. His numbers there are sensational, as he’s posted a 1.08 ERA, a WHIP of 0.92, a 2.5 BB/9 and an 8.3 K/9 in five starts, making for perhaps the most phenomenal story this offseason.

Hinsz will begin next season either with Bradenton or AA Altoona. He turns 23 in April, so he still has time to develop into a top tier pitching prospect in the system. Throughout his minor league career, Hinsz has done pretty well keeping balls on the ground, posting a 47% groundball rate, which is a combination of a good curveball, as well as being able to throw on a downhill plane. If Hinsz can continue to throw strikes consistently, rack up strikeouts like he has in the PRWL, and most importantly, stay healthy, then he should be able to take a big step forward in 2019. 





Cole Tucker Listed as a 2019 Breakout Prospect

By Jason Shetler

p/c: MiLB.com

On Saturday, MLB Pipeline released a list of prospects from each team that could become breakout performers next season. Getting that nod for the Pirates is Cole Tucker. 

Tucker came into this year playing for AA Altoona, and spent the entire season with the Curve. The Bucs fifth overall prospect posted only a .689 OPS, but did manage to put up a career best 184 total bases in 133 games. 

This year’s Arizona Fall League featured seven Pirates prospects, with Tucker being one of them. He was able to stand out against some of the top pitching prospects in the game, posting a stellar on base percentage of .442, which was fourth highest in the AFL, while drawing free passes at a 12.9% clip. 

Tucker will enter 2019 in just his age 22 season, and looks to use his AFL showing as a springboard for the AAA level with Indianapolis. Given that the Pirates will likely address the need for a shortstop this offseason, Tucker probably won’t see time with the big club until September when the roster expands.







The Case for Pirates Using The Opener

By Jason Shetler

Baseball has had its different trends over the years. The most popular in particular is the amount of infield shifting that teams incorporate. Others of note are using your best hitter in second spot of the lineup, instead of what traditionally was third, and closers/relief aces pitching in high leverage spots before the ninth rather than just being reserved for a save opportunity.

Another trend that began to take shape in 2018 was “The Opener”. The Tampa Bay Rays became the poster child for this sabermetric strategy. On May 19th, the Rays had Sergio Romo begin the game. Before this, Romo made 588 career relief appearances without making a start. The Rays wound up winning 90 games this year, with The Opener playing a part, as they were 34-26 when using it.

While a few other teams experimented with The Opener during the season, Oakland Athletics Manager Bob Melvin decided to use it for the American League Wild Card Game versus the New York Yankees. Liam Hendriks was given that assignment, but unfortunately for him and the A’s, it didn’t pan out.

During the Winter Meetings last week, Pirates GM Neal Huntington floated the idea of using The Opener in 2019. The comments came after the Bucs traded Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox in an effort to dump salary. The Pirates rotation currently consists of Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. According to Huntington, newly signed Jordan Lyles will have the “inside track” as the fifth starter. Other candidates for that spot will be Nick Kingham, who is out of options, and presumably Steven Brault. Now it’s time to make the case on why I think they should go with The Opener instead.

Despite a winning season in 2018, the Pirates had their troubles of having clean first innings. In fact, they allowed more runs in the first inning than any other this past season. Although he will be the frontrunner to be the fifth starter, Jordan Lyles had numerous chances in the past as a starter, and struggled each time. Nick Kingham was a big reason why the Pirates allowed so many first inning runs, and I’m not sure if Steven Brault is a viable rotation option. 

The main concept behind The Opener is maximizing opportunities to limit runs with quality relievers, as opposed to a fifth starter, who are normally average to below average pitchers. The Pirates certainly have the bullpen arms for it, with the likes of Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez and even Felipe Vazquez. For a Pirates team that has four good starters in their rotation, implementing The Opener as the fifth option would potentially increase the chances of winning more games next season.




Should Pirates Take a Chance On Troy Tulowitzki?

By Jason Shetler 

p/c: Getty images

One of the main needs for the Pirates to address is shortstop. Following the departure of Jordy Mercer, who recently signed with the Detroit Tigers, and the struggles of former first round pick Kevin Newman, the Bucs will need to find a way to upgrade the shortstop position. 

So far this offseason, the Pirates reportedly checked in on free agent infielder Jed Lowrie, and have also been linked to Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed. In November, they added to their infield depth by acquiring Erik Gonzalez from the Cleveland Indians as part of a five-player trade.

There were some very surprising decisions made during the Winter Meetings, most notably former Pirate Andrew McCutchen receiving a three-year deal worth $50 million from the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals trading away Tanner Roark to the Cincinnati Reds. Another move that opened up plenty of eyes was the Toronto Blue Jays decision to release Troy Tulowitzki, despite the fact that he’ll still be owed $38 million. 

While with the Colorado Rockies, Tulowitzki established himself as the best all-around shortstop in the game. The Blue Jays acquired the five-time All-Star around the 2015 trade deadline. Even with his talent, Tulowitzki has been struck by the injury bug quite a bit during his big league career, and 2018 was no different, as he missed the entire season due to surgery on his bone spurs.

Since Toronto is responsible for paying Tulowitzki the rest of his $38 million, the next team to sign him will be getting his services for obviously way less. Several clubs are already looking at Tulowitzki, and you would have to assume that the Pirates are expressing some level of interest. So the question becomes – Should they take a chance on trying to sign him?

In his prime, Tulowitzki put up very strong offensive numbers for a shortstop, although there will always be the argument of the Coors Field Effect. One thing Coors Field couldn’t affect however was his outstanding defense. Unfortunately for Tulowitzki, he’ll be entering 2019 in his age 34 season, which is past a player’s prime. In Tulowitzki’s case, it’s not just about being a 34-year-old, but a 34-year-old who’s had numerous injuries in the past. Prior to this year, he played in only 66 games with the Blue Jays in 2017, and was replacement level, with a 0.1 bWAR, his lowest bWAR figure since his rookie season in 2006 (-0.4). If you’re the Pirates, do you want to outbid yourselves for a veteran shortstop with significant question marks? – I do think they should look to address their need at shortstop, but I don’t see Tulowitzki being the answer.





Assessment of the Winter Meetings for Pirates

By Jason Shetler

Now that the 2018 Winter Meetings from Vegas has come and gone, here is a recap of what the Pirates did, as well as an assessment of each of the moves that were made.

With 2019 being Ivan Nova’s walk year, there had been speculation of the veteran righty possibly getting traded this offseason. On Tuesday, the Pirates dealt Nova to the Chicago White Sox for minor league pitcher Yordi Rosario and $500,000 in International pool money.

Also on Tuesday, pitcher Jordan Lyles agreed to terms on a one-year/$2 million deal with the Pirates. The official signing is expected to be made by the end of the week. Since Nova was traded, the Pirates can simply add Lyles to the 40-man roster, without a corresponding move.

During the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday, the Pirates chose not to make a selection for the MLB phase, but they also didn’t lose anyone to another big league club. Given the Rule 5 implications the Bucs still have with pitcher Nick Burdi, it’s not surprising that they decided to decline this time around. 

For the MiLB portion of the draft, three minor league players will now be in the Pirates system next season. Those players are outfielder Randolph Gassaway (Orioles), pitcher Winston Nicacio (Cardinals) and pitcher Kristofer Melendez (Acquired from Padres for cash). 

Starting with the Rule 5 additions, Gassaway is likely going to be in the outfield mix with Altoona, while Nicacio and Melendez will provide pitching depth at the lower levels. Nicacio and Melendez are both arms who have the potential of becoming better prospects. The Nova trade has been categorized as a salary dump, since he’s owed $9.2 million for next year, and also the lack of a good return. Nova had a 1.1 fWAR this past season, so I don’t have a problem moving him, as long as they can effectively allocate money to address their other needs, most notably shortstop, and don’t decide to have Lyles as his replacement in the rotation. In my opinion, Lyles is much better suited as a reliever, just as he showed with the Milwaukee Brewers this year, posting a 2.49 FIP, a 126 ERA+ and a K/9 of 12.1. That success would make him a nice addition to an already solid Pirates bullpen. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit for the Pirates this week was GM Neal Huntington mentioning The Opener, which I certainly wouldn’t rule out. The Pirates could use a four-man rotation, and go with The Opener, as opposed to an average fifth starter. Of course it depends on if they decide to add a starter between now and start of the 2019 season. All and all though, I did feel it was a lackluster Winter Meetings for them. 

Pirates Get a Couple of Interesting Rule 5 Pitchers

By Jason Shetler

The 2018 Winter Meetings wrapped up on Thursday with the annual Rule 5 Draft. Having the 17th pick in the MLB portion of the draft, the Pirates chose to pass on their selection. It didn’t come as much of a surprise, since they still have Rule 5 restrictions on reliever Nick Burdi, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in last year’s draft. The good news for the Pirates was none of their minor leaguers being taken in the big league phase. 

In the MiLB phase, the Bucs selected three minor leaguers to add to their organization depth. Of those three, two of them are pitchers. Winston Nicacio was taken from the St. Louis Cardinals, while Cristofer Melendez was acquired from the San Diego Padres for cash, this after originally being in the Chicago White Sox system.

Nicacio was signed by the Cardinals out of the Dominican Republic in 2015. The 21-year-old right-hander pitched this year with Short A State College and Low A Peoria, appearing in 16 games, five of which were starts. He posted a combined 4.72 ERA, but did hold opposing batters to a .232 average. Nicacio has a fastball that tops out at 94 mph with good movement, along with a plus slider and a decent changeup. He will likely begin 2019 pitching for Greensboro, the new Low A affiliate of the Pirates.

Just like Nicacio, Melendez is also a Dominican born righty. He first signed with the Houston Astros in 2014. After struggling for three seasons in the Astros system, Melendez joined the White Sox organization on a minor league deal in April of this year. His numbers were outstanding in 2018 for the DSL White Sox, as he put up an ERA of 1.54, a 0.95 WHIP and a strong 11.9 K/9 in 70.1 innings. I couldn’t find the exact fastball velocity for Melendez, but it supposedly “jumps out of his hand”, so I assume he’s a hard-thrower. His other pitches are an above average curveball and changeup. Melendez will probably pitch short season ball next year with either the GCL Pirates or West Virginia.

The selection of Nicacio and trade for Melendez were mainly done to provide pitching depth in the lower levels of the Pirates system. While neither profile as top pitching prospects, there appears to be enough upside with both to be intriguing projects that could lead to them becoming quality arms at some point.










Pirates Could Use “The Opener” In 2019

By Jason Shetler

On Tuesday, Pirates GM Neal Huntington mentioned to members of the media that the team might consider using “The Opener” for this upcoming season. 

The Opener became a sabermetric sensation in 2018. This unorthodox strategy was first used by the Tampa Bay Rays for much of this past season, as a way to setup the best pitching matchup in an effort to achieve a scoreless first inning and sometimes second inning. There were a few other teams who tried it on for size, most notably the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card Game against the New York Yankees. To no surprise, baseball purists, and even some players, heavily scrutinized the strategy, suggesting that it was an attempt to “ruin” the game. Whether you agree or disagree with the Rays using it, the result was a 90-win campaign. 

On the same day that Huntington made the comment, Ivan Nova was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. The Pirates rotation is currently Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. Unless the Bucs decide to add to the rotation between now and the start of the 2019 season, it’s possible that they could experiment with The Opener every fifth day.