Elias Diaz Could Miss Opening Day

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Tim Williams – Pirates Prospects

Catcher Elias Diaz has an undisclosed illness and may not be ready by Opening Day, this according to Nubyjas Wilborn of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Head Athletic Trainer Todd Tomczyk has said that Diaz will be limited to no activities for a couple weeks, and will then be evaluated on a week-to-week basis.

Diaz had a breakout season at the plate last year, as he and Francisco Cervelli put up one of the best offensive numbers for a catching tandem in 2018. In 82 games, Diaz hit .286, while posting a .792 OPS, a 116 OPS+ and an oWAR of 1.6. Behind the dish, he threw out 28%, which was right at league average.

During the offseason, there had been trade rumors surrounding Cervelli. The chances of Cervelli getting moved seemed likely, since he was entering the final year of his contract, as well as the season Diaz had, which would make Cervelli expendable. 

If Diaz isn’t able to open the season as the backup catcher, Jacob Stallings would be the clear favorite to replace him, with Stallings being out of options. Once Diaz returns, the Pirates will probably have to get Stallings to pass through waivers, since it’s doubtful that they would carry three backstops on their roster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.