Did Pirates Make the Right Decision Putting Francisco Liriano On the Opening Day Roster?

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Matt Freed – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen were trying to find an identity for a good portion of the first half. Things started to steadily fall into place, as with an All-Star season turned in by Felipe Vazquez, the Pirates received significant contributions from both Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. During last year’s trade deadline, the Bucs bolstered the bullpen even more by acquiring Keone Kela from the Texas Rangers.

For as solid as the Pirates pen became over the course of last season, their one glaring hole was a reliable lefty reliever outside of Vazquez. Josh Smoker made the 2018 Opening Day roster, but his stay in Pittsburgh was short-lived, and he was quite frankly an utter dumpster fire. The Pirates took a flyer on Enny Romero, claiming him off waivers from the Washington Nationals in mid-April. Romero dealt with a shoulder injury, and after coming off the DL, he was designated by the club in early July. Despite Steven Brault being with the Pirates for much of last year, the control was a major issue for him, as his 5.6 BB/9 was the highest mark of any Pirates pitcher in 2018 with a minimum of 50 innings pitched.

After signing Tyler Lyons to a minor league deal on New Year’s Day, the Pirates decided to give a similar deal to a familiar name in Francisco Liriano on February 5th. From 2013-2015, Liriano was a vital cog in the Pirates rotation, helping lead them to three consecutive playoff seasons. Coming off a subpar season with the Detroit Tigers as a starter a year ago, he entered Spring Training looking to compete with Lyons for a spot as a lefty reliever. Although his command was shaky at times in the Spring, Liriano was still able to outperform Lyons. On Saturday, the Pirates announced that Liriano had made the 2019 Opening Day roster, but did they make the right decision?

As mentioned before, Liriano’s 2018 campaign was a mediocre one in the Tigers rotation. Aside from having a high 4.9 BB/9, he posted a K/9 of 7.4, which was the lowest of his 13 MLB seasons. During his big league career, Liriano would get tons of swings and misses, due in large part to his wipeout slider. The swing and miss rate for his career is 12.6%, but that figure took a dip last year at 10.0%. However, Liriano remained dominant with left on left matchups, as lefty batters only managed a .516 OPS against. 

Pirates GM Neal Huntington hasn’t ruled out the concept of The Opener to be used at some point this year. Last season, Liriano held opponents to a .635 OPS against first time through the lineup, so he could be a candidate for that spot, if they choose to flirt with the idea. Because Liriano will be making very less in 2019, it wouldn’t hurt to try and utilize him in a LOOGY role against left-handed batters, even in high leverage situations, so I don’t mind him being on the roster to begin the year. The Pirates will likely have Liriano on a short leash if he struggles, since there isn’t a lot invested in him monetarily.

 

 

 

 

 

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Clay Holmes Will Pitch as a Reliever for Indianapolis

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Aaron Doster – USA Today Sports

On the same day that Clay Holmes was optioned to AAA Indianapolis, Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said after Thursday’s game that the hard-throwing righty will be used as a multiple-inning relief arm.

Holmes had pitched primarily as a starter the past two seasons with Indianapolis, posting a 3.38 ERA, along with a 3.51 FIP and a groundball rate of 61% in a total of 47 games. 

On April 6th of last year, Holmes made his debut for the Pirates. His first taste of big league action in 2018 was a real struggle for him, as he posted a 6.84 ERA and a very high 2.01 WHIP in 11 games, four of which were starts. 

Holmes does possess outstanding stuff, such as an upper-90’s four-seamer, a power sinker, a cutter and curveball. The command of those pitches while with the Pirates however left a lot to be desired, and he’ll need to throw more consistent strikes, if he wants to be a mainstay at the Major League level. Holmes made some starts during Spring Training, so he’s certainly stretched out enough to handle multiple innings in the Indianapolis bullpen. The decision to make Holmes a reliever is likely done to give him a definitive role once he returns to Pittsburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Kramer to Play Some Outfield with Indianapolis

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Aaron Doster – USA Today Sports

According to Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington, second baseman Kevin Kramer will get some outfield time with AAA Indianapolis this season.

Kramer spent majority of last year playing for Indianapolis, which was his first season with the Bucs AAA affiliate. The former second round selection had outstanding numbers with the Indians, batting .311, while posting an .856 OPS in 129 games played. Kramer’s productive work earned him a September call up to Pittsburgh. He struggled mightily with the Pirates however, as he had only a .175 on base percentage, and struck out half the time in 40 plate appearances, mostly as a pinch-hitter. 

Second base is the primary position for Kramer. He’s played some shortstop, but has only done it in spurts during his first year of pro ball in 2015, the 2017 Arizona Fall League and last season. Kramer added third base to his resume a year ago, playing 19 games there. He’s never played any outfield in his professional career.

On Monday, the Pirates optioned Kramer to Indy. While he wasn’t a long shot to make the club, it also appeared unlikely that he would. Huntington says that the decision to have Kramer play some outfield this year isn’t trying to create a utility player, but to find a pathway for him to get back to Pittsburgh since they like his bat and will need him at some point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should Colin Moran Make Pirates Opening Day Roster?

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Justin K. Aller – Getty Images

Prior to last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates dealt Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. With the uncertainty of Jung-Ho Kang, the Pirates were expected to get a third baseman in the trade, and did so by acquiring Colin Moran as one of four players that Houston included in the deal. 

Moran’s first full season in the Majors last year had its share of positives and negatives. For the first three months of the season, Moran performed well with a .781 OPS. He then hit a rough patch in July and August, combining for just a .661 OPS. Moran however did end his season on a high note, as he put up an OPS of .912 in September. 

Jung-Ho Kang made his return to the Pirates in 2018 during the season finale in Cincinnati. After much speculation about Kang’s $5.5 million club option for 2019, the Pirates chose to decline the option, but they re-signed Kang to a one-year deal worth $3 million, with incentives at $2.5 million, so he can still earn that $5.5, if he’s able to reach his incentives. 

Both Kang and Moran entered Spring Training vying for a spot to be the Pirates regular third baseman. Kang to this point has displayed much more power with five home runs compared to just one for Moran. While not etched in stone yet, Kang is likely the favorite to win the job. If that winds up being the case, then should Moran still make the Opening Day roster?

Moran does have an option remaining, so the Pirates could send him to AAA Indianapolis,  without the consequences of being claimed off waivers. The problem is that Ke’Bryan Hayes is projected to be the everyday third baseman with Indy to begin the season, so having Moran there would take away at-bats from Hayes, which obviously wouldn’t be ideal for a top prospect and his development. 

The power numbers were subpar for Moran in 2018, as hit 11 home runs and posted only a .407 slugging percentage in 465 plate appearances. However, he did pretty good work reaching base, posting a .340 on base percentage. As an offensive performer, Moran had an oWAR of 1.9, which certainly isn’t great, but also not terrible. He was productive as a pinch-hitter, batting .423 (11-for-26) in that role. With the exception of Melky Cabrera, who will likely be the fourth outfielder, the Pirates don’t have many left-handed hitting options for the bench, so Moran would fit that spot on the roster. While Moran may not profile as a consistent regular, he could still be serviceable as an offensive-minded bench bat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gregory Polanco Sees Live Game Action

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Mark Alberti – Icon Sportswire

For the first time since undergoing shoulder surgery in September, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco saw live game action on Tuesday in a Minor League Spring Game at Pirate City. He made five plate appearances as a DH, recording a single and a walk. 

Polanco entered last year in his fifth season as the Pirates starting right fielder. He got off slow in April and May, as he had a .711 OPS. From June onward however, he was very productive at the plate, posting an OPS of .974. For the season offensively, Polanco put up a 128 OPS+, along with a 2.5 oWAR in 130 games. 

Prior to participating in Tuesday’s Minor League Game, the Pirates had Polanco taking BP in the cages, as well as having him throw from 90 to 100 feet. The projected target for him to rejoin the Pirates is May. Lonnie Chisenhall, who the Pirates signed to a one-year deal in November, will be the short-term replacement in right field until Polanco returns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geoff Hartlieb Emerging As a Top Relief Arm In the Pirates System

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Pirates Prospects

The Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves a diamond in the rough with pitcher Geoff Hartlieb. Orginially drafted by the New York Mets in 2015, Hartlieb was chosen by the Pirates in the 2016 MLB Draft as a 29th round selection out of Lindenwood University, which is located in Missouri. 

Shortly after being signed, the 6’6 right-hander reported to Bristol, the Pirates advanced rookie affiliate. In 16 appearances with Bristol, Hartlieb had a 4.44 ERA, but a lower xFIP of 3.95. A couple of positive takeaways from his first season of pro ball was a 9.6 K/9 and a 49% groundball rate.

Hartlieb began 2017 for the Low A West Virginia Power, before receiving a promotion to the High A level with the Bradenton Marauders in June. He combined to make 39 appearances at the two levels, posting an ERA of 2.12, along with an 8.8 K/9 and getting grounders at a 59% clip. 

Last season, Hartlieb pitched for AA Altoona, where he posted a 3.24 ERA, a 3.47 FIP and a K/9 of 8.6 in 47 relief outings. He was even more of a worm killer in 2018, registering a very impressive groundball rate of 63%. Hartlieb was one of a handful of Pirates prospects who took part in the Arizona Fall League.

Hartlieb’s stuff is certainly intriguing, throwing a power sinker that can generate plenty of velocity and movement, as well as a good slider. In his first big league Spring Training camp with the Bucs, he’s been able to reach 97 mph. Hartlieb doesn’t profile as the prototypical sinkerballer, not just in terms of velocity, but also his ability to rack up strikeouts. The Pirates haven’t had a solid homegrown sinkerball reliever since Jared Hughes. During Pittsburgh’s three year playoff stretch from 2013-2015, Hughes became a vital part of the bullpen, and was able to add another element by consistently inducing groundballs, especially when it came to stranding inherited baserunners in high leverage situations, so the Pirates are hopeful that Hartlieb can be that reliever for them at some point. He’s likely to start out the 2019 season with AAA Indianapolis and could arrive to Pittsburgh as a possible September call up.

 

 

 

 

 

Trevor Williams Adding a Curveball to His Arsenal

By Jason Shetler

p/c: John Bazemore – AP

After arriving to Pittsburgh as a September call up in 2016, Trevor Williams was one of a few candidates looking to crack the 2017 Opening Day roster as the fifth starter in the Pirates rotation. Although Tyler Glasnow was awarded the spot, Williams did good work in Spring Training to make the Pirates roster as a long reliever in the bullpen.

In early May of 2017, Manager Clint Hurdle inserted Williams into the rotation, this after Jameson Taillon had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Once Taillon returned to the club in June, Williams remained in the rotation, following the struggles of Glasnow. As a starter that year, Williams had a 3.96 ERA, while the opposition had a .710 OPS against. 

The first half of last season wasn’t terrible for Williams, but it also wasn’t anything to write home about, as he posted a 4.36 ERA. He was then able to make incredible adjustments in the second half, putting up a sparkling 1.38 ERA, which is now the lowest second half ERA of any Pirates starter in history, and held batters to an OPS against of just .578. Overall, Williams made 31 starts, posting a 125 ERA+. His phenomenal second half numbers almost led to him becoming a four-win pitcher with a 3.8 bWAR. Opposing hitters managed only an 85.6 mph Exit Velocity off Williams. The 2018 MLB average was 87.4 mph.

Even with the solid season he had in 2018, most are expecting Williams to show possible regression this year. A couple of signs from last year were his BABIP and xFIP, which were .261 and 4.54 respectively. 

Williams is wanting to incorporate the curveball more into his repertoire. According to Statcast, he used the curveball just six times last season. Early on in Spring Training, Williams had been throwing it 10-15 times during simulated games at Pirate City. In his first Grapefruit League start on Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays, he threw the same amount of curveballs than he did all of 2018. Although Williams averaged 91.7 mph on the four-seam fastball a year ago, the six curves were averaged at 75.9 mph, so having a slower breaking ball will allow him to create significant velocity separation, despite having a low-90’s fastball.