How Should Pirates Use Pablo Reyes In 2019?

By Jason Shetler

p/c: AP

The 2018 Pirates had a fair share of surprises. From a team standpoint, they finished above .500, which most predicted wouldn’t come close to happening. Other notables were the historic second half from Trevor Williams, Richard Rodriguez in general and the acquisition of Chris Archer at the trade deadline. Another surprise that came completely unexpected was Pablo Reyes.

After being signed by the Pirates from the Dominican Republic in 2012, Reyes was viewed as a middle infielder with some offensive tools, but nothing off the charts. In addition, he was not a strong defender. Despite being in the organization for six years, Reyes was never listed as a Top 30 Pirates prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings. Back in 2016, I did a post in regards to Reyes becoming a sleeper prospect in the Pirates system. 

Reyes began this year with the Altoona Curve. He didn’t stay long there, as he received a promotion to the Indianapolis Indians on April 20th. Combined with both affiliates, his OPS was .759, while stealing 16 bases. 

With the expanded roster of September call ups, the Pirates made a surprising move with the addition of Reyes. He found himself at different positions, playing a good bit of right field during Gregory Polanco’s absence. Reyes really opened up a lot of eyes in 18 September games, not just with his ability to make contact, but his pop in the bat. He put up a .483 slugging percentage, along with a 90.3 mph Exit Velocity, which was higher than the 2018 MLB average of 87.3 mph. Reyes finished the season with a 124 OPS+. Now that he will find himself in the Pirates plans for 2019, how should they use him?

The Pirates will be without the services of Polanco for at least the first half of next season, so a short term option for right field is in order. Reyes would be the most likely candidate in regards to what the Pirates have internally. However, they should have money to spend this offseason, making the decision to sign an outfielder more likely. On Wednesday, the Pirates acquired Erik Gonzalez from the Cleveland Indians as part of a five-player deal. Gonzalez will probably make the club, but he’s more of a defensive-oriented utility man, while Reyes is better offensively. During the 2014 season, Josh Harrison was a super utility type who received plenty of at-bats because of his offense, and I could certainly see Reyes being utilized the same way next year. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cole Tucker Looks To Use AFL Showing As a Springboard

By Jason Shetler

p/c: MiLB.com

You would be hard-pressed to find another player currently in the Pirates system who is more athletically gifted than Cole Tucker. The former first round selection of the Bucs in 2014 is the top shortstop prospect in the organization, as well as the fifth overall Pirates prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.

Tucker displays tremendous defensive abilities at shortstop, so there’s no question that he can stick there long term. He’s also become an exceptional base stealer. Over the past two seasons, Tucker has stole 82 bases, with a success rate of 75.2%. 

While Tucker is solid with those two skill sets, the offense hasn’t really been a strong suit for him during the course of his minor league career, which in fairness, takes time to develop for a shortstop, especially one who’s drafted out of high school. In 133 games this year with AA Altoona, he had just a .689 OPS, although his 184 total bases was actually a career high.

After missing out on the Arizona Fall League last year, because of a thumb injury, Tucker is one of seven Pirates prospects taking part this year for the Surprise Saguaros. To suggest that he’s using the AFL as a platform would be an understatement. Tucker is hitting .370, tied for second highest in the league, while his .889 OPS is fifth best among all middle infielders. He’s also been tough to strikeout, putting up an impressive 10.8% K rate.

The 2019 season will see Tucker playing for the Indianapolis Indians. The success that Tucker is having in the AFL against some of the game’s top pitching prospects can hopefully be used as a springboard, since the caliber of pitching that he’s facing in Arizona will be similar to what he’ll see at the AAA level. 

 

 

 

Bucco Nation Mailbag

By Jason Shetler

Thanks to everyone who sent me their Pirates questions for the first offseason edition of the Bucco Nation mailbag. And without further ado, let’s dive right into it.

 

Will the Bucs sign Gold Glove left fielder Corey Dickerson to an extension? – Rich from Coraopolis, PA 

I think it has a good chance of happening this offseason. The Pirates do have money to spend, and some of that would likely go towards the extension. Dickerson continues to be productive offensively, to go along with his much improved defense. In addition, Austin Meadows no longer in the organization makes for an easier decision to keep Dickerson in Pittsburgh beyond 2019. If an extension is reached, I could see it being the three-year variety.

Will Jung-Ho Kang be a regular starter next season? – John from New Brighton, PA

The speculation appears to be that Kang will begin next year in a third base platoon with Colin Moran. While Moran didn’t have a strong first season with the Pirates, there is the potential of him still being a quality bat. Kang’s offensive profile would provide a nice compliment to the lineup, and would spell out Moran against tough, left-handed pitching.

Wouldn’t it make sense to try to expand Jung-Ho Kang’s versatility? – Ethan from Pittsburgh, PA

It’s nice when you have a player who can be versatile, but Neal Huntington has said that he wants Kang to focus on third base. I understand wanting to go the platoon route, given Moran’s potential, as well as Kang not seeing much MLB action over a two-year period and wanting to slowly ease him back in. As I mentioned in John’s question, Moran really struggled versus lefty pitching, and Kang would be able to spell him out to at least get on base more, if nothing else.

How confident are you that the Pirates will get a legitimate shortstop for next season? Also, what are your solutions for the outfield hole Gregory Polanco leaves? – Kayla from Punxsutawney, PA

I’m pretty confident that the Pirates will look to bring in a veteran shortstop this offseason. It’ll be a matter of which avenue they choose to go. While they will examine what’s on the free agent market, there’s also the possibility of trading for a shortstop. The Seattle Mariners look to be headed into a rebuilding process, which would have Jean Segura on the trade block. Segura would be a significant upgrade overall compared to Jordy Mercer and Kevin Newman. The return from the Mariners side however would have to include a top prospect. In terms of a solution for Polanco’s absence, my guess would be a short term, free agent at a reasonable cost.

Do you see the Pirates trying to bring in another starting pitcher? Their depth is pretty thin after the starting five because I doubt Mitch Keller is coming up soon. – Rich from Greensburg, PA

The Pirates rotation is all but set, so any additions they make would be for AAA, most likely on minor league deals. Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes each scuffled as rookies this year. The hope is that it was just growing pains, and that one of them, preferably both, can make adjustments and pitch better next season when they are called upon. Barring injury, Mitch Keller will likely arrive in Pittsburgh at some point during the summer.

Which free agent(s) do you think will sign here in Pittsburgh this offseason? – Greg from Pittsburgh, PA

The Pirates will look to address three needs. Shortstop, right fielder and left-handed reliever. While they will have a good amount of money to spend this offseason, I don’t anticipate it being spent on top tier free agents. However, someone like Freddy Galvis would be in their price range, and he’s a shortstop who can upgrade the position, especially defensively. Gerardo Parra would be a nice, short-term replacement in right field, given his defensive reputation, as well as showing good on base skills. In regards to a veteran southpaw reliever, I could see Zach Duke making a return to Pittsburgh in that role.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corey Dickerson Named Gold Glove Finalist For NL Left Fielders

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Matt Freed – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On Thursday, Major League Baseball announced the finalists for the 2018 Gold Glove awards. Pirates outfielder Corey Dickerson is a finalist among National League left fielders. The other finalists are Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers and Adam Duvall of the Atlanta Braves. 

Dickerson has come a long way with his defensive work in the outfield. From 2013-2015 with the Colorado Rockies, Dickerson was a replacement level defender. He then spent two seasons playing for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016 and 2017, where he made himself a more adequate fielder. 

The Pirates acquired Dickerson from Tampa Bay in February in a deal that involved reliever Daniel Hudson. Dickerson played 124 games in left field for the Bucs this season, and had outstanding metrics. He recorded 16 Defensive Runs Saved, along with seven outfield assists, both of which are career highs. His range was exceptional, leading to an 11.9 UZR/150, while having a dWAR of 1.1. Dickerson looks to become the first Pirates left fielder to win Gold Glove honors since Starling Marte did it back-to-back in 2015 and 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

Elvis Escobar to Pitch Winter Ball In Venezuela

By Jason Shetler

p/c: MiLB.com

Per John Dreker of Pirates Prospects, Elvis Escobar is set to pitch in the Venezuelan Winter League for Cardenales de Lara. Dreker notes that the Pirates will put a limitation on Escobar by not having him pitch on consecutive days.

Escobar signed with the Pirates originally as an outfielder in 2011. He struggled to get anything going offensively, as his career minor league OPS is at .666. 

In late May, Escobar made an appearance on the mound for AA Altoona in a blowout game. His fastball had reached 94 mph. Given his struggles at the plate, he decided to make the conversion to pitcher full-time. 

The Pirates sent Escobar to Low A West Virginia in late June to begin his new gig. He then  rejoined Altoona in late August. Combined with the Power and Curve, Escobar posted a 3.56 ERA, along with a 1.35 WHIP and a K/9 of 10.7 in 18 games pitched. While on the mound, he displayed a mid-90’s fastball and a curveball with big break. If Escobar can show the ability to throw enough strikes, he could wind up being a quality southpaw reliever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pirates to Interview Andy Barkett For Hitting Coach Job

By Jason Shetler

p/c: MLB.com

According to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes, the Pirates will interview Boston Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett for their hitting coach vacancy.

Just a day after the regular season finale, the Pirates decided to relieve Jeff Branson of his duties as hitting coach. Branson had been in that role since 2014. 

Barkett played for the Pirates, appearing in only 17 games during the 2001 season. Following his playing career in 2005, he managed in both the Tigers and Marlins minor league systems. 

In 2016, Barkett returned to the Pirates organization to serve as an assistant minor league hitting coordinator. He then became the manager for AAA Indianapolis in 2017, leading the Indians to an International League West Division title. Prior to this season, Barkett was hired by the Red Sox as the assistant hitting coach under first-year skipper Alex Cora.

 

 

 

Why Pirates Need to Protect Tyler Eppler this Offseason

By Jason Shetler

p/c: Adam Pintar

The Pirates finished this year with a record of 82-79, giving them their first winning season since 2015. Aside from the bullpen, the rotation as a whole was consistently solid. Jameson Taillon was able to take that next step as a frontline starter, Trevor Williams pitched at an All-Star level, Joe Musgrove exceeded expectations in his first year in Pittsburgh and Ivan Nova was good enough. Chris Archer had his moments of pitching subpar, but to his credit, performed much better down the stretch.

Despite the good pitching from their regular starters, they didn’t get much help from their depth options. Nick Kingham had a disappointing rookie showing with the Pirates, while Clay Holmes struggled with his command. One starter who surprisingly wasn’t given an opportunity to pitch for the big club this season was Tyler Eppler. 

After spending the entire 2017 season with AAA Indianapolis, Eppler returned there to begin 2018. He was a workhorse for the Indians this year, compiling 153 innings, third most in the International League. Eppler put up a 3.59 ERA and a FIP of 3.78. Since being drafted by the Bucs in 2014, he’s been one of the best control pitchers in the system, and that was no different this season, posting a 2.3 BB/9.

Eppler was not added to the Pirates 40-man roster last offseason, therefore, exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft. However, he was not selected. He will again be Rule 5 eligible, so he’ll have to be placed on the 40-man or go through the draft process. 

This offseason, Eppler will be pitching in the Dominican Winter League for Toros del Este. If nothing else, it’ll be a showcase for other teams to scout him, although, the Pirates can easily prevent that by just adding him to their roster. Protecting him this offseason needs to be a priority. Other than Mitch Keller arriving at some point in 2019, the Pirates don’t have much else to lean on with their depth, unless Kingham and/or Holmes pitch significantly better. Also keep in mind that they won’t have the services of Chad Kuhl next year, as he’ll be recovering from Tommy John surgery. With his excellent control of a mid-90’s fastball, along with a 6’5, 230 lb frame, Eppler has the potential of at least being a quality backend starter.