Monday, June 6, 2011

Who to Look For in Round 2

The MLB draft starts tonight, and the Pirates have the top pick.  Many of you know that.  You probably also know that they don't really have a clear best player to choose in round 1.  Since I already reviewed my first-round wishlist, let's examine what we could get in the later rounds.

Josh Bell, OF:  Josh Bell is one of the top position players in this draft, and is committed to Texas.  Did I mention that he's committed to Texas?  He recently said that would attend college, and with his mother teaching at the University, he should be a tough sign.  Look for Bell to drop to the supplemental round, at the very least, because of this.

Javier Baez, SS:  Baez has a solid offensive game, and is a fairly good fielder, but could possibly slide down a few rounds, because scouts are unsure about his ability to stick at shortstop.  Even if Baez doesn't stick at SS, he could turn out to be a solid 3B.

Levi Michael, SS: Coming into the season, Michael looked like a potential top 10 pick.  He has fallen off a little bit, as he didn't hit as well as he used to, and his glove has always been average.  However, he has seen his stock rise over the last few weeks, and could end up in the top 20.  If he falls to the Pirates, it would be a blessing, as getting the best college shortstop is a rarity in the second round.

Austin Hedges, C: Hedges is a potential Gold Glove caliber catcher, who can also hold his own at the plate.  If Hedges drops into the second round, the Pirates would have a hard time passing him up, as he could move through the system with their young pitching core of Heredia, Allie, and Taillon.  Hedges is arguably the top catcher in the draft, and would be a great backup plan for Tony Sanchez.

Jackie Bradley Jr, OF:  For those of you who think Anthony Rendon had it rough, take a look at Bradley.  Coming off a CWS championship, Bradley has dealt with injury all season, and has only started to heat up as of late.  Unlike Rendon, JBJ's struggles and injuries may have dropped him to round 2,  but make no mistake, he has legitimate 5-tool potential.

Daniel Norris, LHP: Norris entered this season as the top HS pitcher, but has since been passed up (much like AJ Cole last season).  Norris would be an excellent fit for the Pirates future rotation, as he and Taillon would make a great 1-2, righty-lefty punch at the top.  Norris is very projectable, and built well.  He already possesses a mid-90s fastball, a great changeup, and a solid slider.  All three pitches are potential plus-pitches, and he is arguably the most polished pitcher in the draft, as he has great command.

Matt Purke, LHP: It's very hard not to feel sorry for Purke.  He was drafted by the Rangers in the first round of the 2009 draft, but the MLB would not allow an over-the-slot signing bonus.  So Purke went to college.  He dominated his first year, and looked to be a guaranteed top 5 pick.  Then Purke developed shoulder problems this year, and his stock feel drastically.  Purke has a very good chance to fall to the Pirates in round two, and would remind fans of the Tanner Scheppers pick a few years back, if the Pirates picked him.

Henry Owens, LHP: Owens (no relation to Rudy) has long been considered a top high school arm.  He tops out at 91mph, but could add more velocity with age.  Owens also has very good command of all his pitches, and could be a fit at the top of the rotation.  Many scouts have also compared Owens to Tyler Skaggs, the pitching prospect who was the centerpiece of the Dan Haren deal.

Anthony Meo, RHP:  Meo possesses one of the best pure arms in college, but also lacks the polish that teams like to see from college players.  By lacking polish, Meo has potentially knocked himself out of the first round.  Meo would be a project and could end up in the bullpen, as he only has two pitches, but he does have the potential to be a front-line starter.

After the Pirates first selection, they don't pick again until number 61, so there is no guarantee that any of the mentioned players will be available at that point.  Also, for those of you that love to play drinking games, take a drink every time the TB Rays pick.  See if you make it passed pick #50, as it seems like the Rays have about 45 of those picks.

Draft starts at 7 EST!

Friday, June 3, 2011

How Much is the Pirates Defense Helping the Pitching Staff?

The Philadelphia Phillies come into town today, sporting one of the most dominant pitching rotations we have seen in years.  The Pirates pitching staff, surprisingly, is also turning some heads, as they look to be the best rotation Pittsburgh has seen in a very long time.  The Pirates are ranked in the top five in National League team ERA, and top ten in all of baseball.

Last season, things were different.  The Pirates had the absolute worst team ERA in baseball, and with seemingly mediocre pitchers signed in free agency, nobody could have predicted the success they’ve had thus far.

But the pitching staff has been spectacular up to this point, and starting pitchers had gone 13 consecutive games without giving up more than 2 runs.  The staff success comes as a surprise, though the question that must be asked is: how long can they keep this up?

At this point in the season, it seems like no starter can do wrong.  Charlie Morton has transformed from batting-practice-pitcher to Roy-Halladay-2.0.  Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia are both having career years.  James McDonald has gotten back on track with a 2.86 ERA in May, after a rough April.  And Jeff Karstens has filled in admirably for the injured Ross Ohlendorf.

The pitchers will most likely regress to some extent, however it is not known how much.  One thing I’d like to point out is that the Pirates are playing much better defense than they were last year.  This season, starting fielders possess a combined UZR/150 of 6.5, while last season they possessed an UZR/150 of -41.3, an improvement of 47.8 runs per 150 games.   What this means is that if the current starters were pitching with last season’s defense, their ERA would be increased by about .30.

Defense is a key factor in the pitching staff’s reversal of fortune.  But the pitchers, and Ray Searage, also deserve credit.  They have outpitched all expectations, and seem to be capable of being, at the very least, a middle-of-the-pack pitching staff.  Hopefully this staff can keep the success going, and keep the team in contention, or at least hold us over until the offense wakes up.

On Deck: MLB Draft 2011: Who to Look for in Round 2?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why Has The Team Struggled On Offense?

Okay, maybe not the best timing for this, as the Pirates have had two great offensive performances in a row, and look like they might be breaking out of a prolonged, team-wide slump.  However, even though the last couple games have been tremendous to watch, the biggest problem with the team thus far has been its offense.  If you watched the last two offensive outbursts, you might be wary to say that the offense has awoken, as the majority of hits (especially yesterday) have barely left the infield, Neil Walker's Moon-Shot not included.  That isn't to say that the Pirates aren't hitting well, but there is still room for improvement.  With that being said, let’s examine the reason for the mediocre offense so far this year.

Just last September, Clint Hurdle was the hitting coach for one of the most intimidating lineups in baseball (Texas Rangers), Neil Walker and Jose Tabata were batting around .300, and Pedro Alvarez was showing signs of stardom (batting .306/.355/.577 for the final month of the season).  Fast-forward nine months, and you will see Clint Hurdle managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Neil Walker still having success (but in a little slump), Jose Tabata struggling to repeat his performance, and Pedro Alvarez looking lost at the plate.

So what happened?  Is the “small ball” approach, that Clint Hurdle uses, harming the Pirates offense?  Are Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker suffering from a sophomore slump?  Can the Pirates’ offense come to life?

The first question, whether “small ball” is harming the offensive production can only be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.  In some cases (like having McCutchen bunt a man to 3rd with 0 outs), it has hurt the offensive production, but for the most part I believe small ball works well with our players.  This Pirates team has a ton of speed, especially when Xavier Paul and Josh Harrison are in the lineup.  Stolen bases, drag bunts, and (hopefully at some point) suicide squeezes should be worked into the offense consistently.  With that said, I don’t believe that Hurdle is to blame for the offensive struggles thus far.

My next thought was that perhaps a sophomore slump is responsible for the Pirates offensive funk.  To me, this does seem reasonable, as film has been reviewed in the offseason, and there are more extensive scouting reports on Alvarez, Walker, and Tabata.  Alvarez seems to be the greatest example of this, as pitchers have attacked the outside-bottom corner of the plate with breaking balls all year long.  Pedro, along with the rest of the players must make adjustments to prevent pitchers from having the upper hand.  To me, this seems to be the biggest problem with the Pirates offense.

With the core player’s struggles seemingly linked to their youth, it seems to me that the sooner they can adjust to pitchers, and get back to what they were doing last year, the better off they will be.  Clint Hurdle, and the Pirates’ scouts should have a good idea of how to make these adjustments, but making them will take time.  Over the next couple months, I do expect to see more offensive outbursts (like we have seen in the last couple games).

Outside of the young players, Lyle Overbay has seemed to come alive in recent weeks, and Ronny Cedeno has been batting extremely well.  Cedeno will be one to keep an eye on, as the season goes on, because if he keeps the success at the plate going, he could play a key role of future bucco teams (though as the Mackowiaks, Hyzdus, and Craig Wilsons have taught us, don’t get your hopes up after just a few weeks of baseball).

On-Deck: How Much is the Pirates Defense Helping the Pitching Staff?

Also, the All-Star Ballot is online, so if you haven’t voted yet, check it out.  At the very least, vote Cutch and Walker.   

June 2nd Game Recap: We Blew It!

Well that was great.  If you want a simple recap:  Offense Explodes.  Pitching collapses.  Offense dies.  Game over.

More in-depth: Why couldn’t Carlos Beltran be traded before this game?  He KILLED Maholm today.  Every time he hit the ball today, I thought it was going out.  Unbelievable.  No excuse for blowing a 7 run lead.  I mean… it’s 7 runs!  C’mon!  Leaving Veras in the game after a balk and wild pitch also wasn’t smart, though the game seemed to slip out of reach after the Mets rallied for 7 straight runs.  Oh well.

Bucs are three under, and will face the Phillies tomorrow.  If the Pirates want to save their season’s hopes (doesn’t it seem this way EVERY weekend?), they’ll probably have to beat the Phillies twice.  It won’t be easy, but I think we can do it.  Especially if the Pirates can get their bats going.

June 2nd: Game Preview

Can we score some runs?  Okay, maybe that's not fair, as the Pirates did score 9 yesterday.  But there is a big difference between hitting and getting lucky, and when you score a run and load the bases on a series of hits that barely make it past the pitcher's mound, well... you're getting lucky.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed every second of the last game, but today I'd rather see hits to the OUTFIELD, maybe further if you know what I mean.

Today will be the first chance for the Pirates to get road win #18, which clinch a better road record than last year.  I'm not sure if I should be happy about this, or just stop thinking about the 2010 season altogether.

Game starts at 1:10 (AND IS FEATURED ON MLB NETWORK!!!!).  Go Bucs!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

MLB Draft 2011: Pirates Preview

The MLB draft is just four days away, and as all of you (hopefully) know, the Pirates possess the top pick. With that said, there is still no consensus on what the Pirates will do with the top pick.  This being my first post, I should address that this is a Pirates blog, so without further ado, here is my personal "want" list for the upcoming draft:

1. Dylan Bundy,RHP, Owassa HS:  I'd like for you to take a minute of your time to imagine a right-handed, picture-perfect pitching prospect, and describe him for me.  Good mechanics? Check.  High velocity on fastball?  (100+mph) Check.  Secondary pitch?  (devastating curveball) Check.  Good changeup?  Well... maybe.  He uses a cut-fastball (88mph) as a changeup, and it works effectively.  The consensus among scouts is that Dylan Bundy is better than Jameson Taillon, the Bucs #1 pick in 2010, and pairing these two together could be lethal in 2014, if both arrive in Pittsburgh by then.

2. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Rice U: As much as I'd like to say that I knew he wasn't a great power hitter, I also feel as though this whole season should be thrown out.  Rendon has had a number of nagging injuries this year, and has unfairly fallen on many draft boards.  Last winter, many preferred Rendon to Bryce Harper, but at this point, nobody is quite sure how he will heal from injury, and whether or not he will ever approach his gaudy MLB-projected .300 avg, 30+ HR line that many thought he would be able to hit for just a few months back.

**At this point, I'd just like to say that the Pirates are almost in a no-win situation here.  If Rendon becomes a stud hitter, people will say that he should have gone #1, if a pitcher (Bundy, or the ones I will mention later) become true aces, then they should be the #1 pick.  Without a consensus top player, the Pirates are put in a position in which they absolutely MUST hit on their pick.  So, here are the rest of my top draft prospects:

3: Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA:  First off, I'd like to say that his name would be better if spelled like mine, "G-A-R-R-E-T-T", however, I'd bet he would say the same to me.  For those of you that have followed the draft since Pedro Alvarez was taken, you might remember Gerrit Cole.  Cole was taken #28 by the New York Yankees, and (the life-long Yankees fan) decided not to sign, instead opting to go to UCLA.  Cole has pitched well since then, and even had his name be mentioned in the same breath of Stephen Strasburg, only to struggle in a few starts afterwards and become more of a Kris Benson.  However, you just don't find starters who throw 101 every day.  As much as I hate that argument, it also applies to JaMarcus Russell (you can't teach 6'6"), at the very least, a 100mph fastball will put Cole in the bullpen.  The thing that concerns me is that there are some reports that Cole's "stuff" has become flat.  If this is the reason for his recent poor performances, then I am not worried too much, as he has been throwing 120+ pitches in many of his outings.  I just wish he could be more efficient with his pitches.

4.  Bubba Starling, OF, Gardner-Edgerton HS:  Okay, okay... maybe we don't need another 5-tool centerfielder.  But Starling is special.  He is an extremely good athlete (committed to Nebraska to QB), and a great baseball player.  Actually, if Starling was a college hitter, I'd probably have him above Rendon.  With Tabata and McCutchen playing LF and CF, respectively, I would imagine Starling taking over RF in 2014 or 2015, with two years until McCutchen is able to leave via FA (in my mind, that would be worse than Bonds leaving... mostly because Cutch isn't an egotistical ***hole).  Starling has some decent power-potential, and would be a viable candidate to replace Cutch, if he would leave via free agency, but could also fill a corner-outfield spot if needed.  When I think of him, I often think of Mike Trout, although Trout seems to be a little better in my opinion.

5.  Trevor Bauer, RHP, UCLA: Has anyone ever seen this man pitch and said, "perfect mechanics"?  Probably not.  I'd imagine any comment about him would have to include a "Tim Lincecum" somewhere.  I mean, Bauer is... simply... unique.  When I watched the first 5 seconds of this video, I laughed.  Give it 5 more seconds, and I thought "Tim Lincecum..." etc.  He leads the NCAA in Ks (by 60, FYI), is small in stature, is out-pitching teammate Gerrit Cole, and has nearly the same mechanics as Lincecum.  For the teams that are looking back on the 2006 draft and saying "we should of picked Lincecum" here is your chance.  But with that pick comes the risk, which is why I rank him at number 5.

6. Francisco Lindor, SS, Montverde Academy HS:  This is my wildcard in the draft.  On one hand, I could see him become the next Hanley Ramirez, on the other hand, well... a bust.  In five years, there is no telling what he could be.  Some say he's not built to play SS, others say he's built perfectly.  I have no idea.  If he does maximize his potential, though, I could see him going down as the Pirates second-best all-time shortstop (Honus Wagner is inevitably #1).

7. Danny Hultzen,LHP, Virginia:  Hultzen is a guy who will, no doubt, be talked about every minute leading up to the draft.  Many speculate that the Pirates will take Hultzen at #1, and have him as the most polished left-handed pitcher in the draft.  With all that said, Hultzen doesn't really excite me.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't a Bryan Bullington type of #3 starter (Hultzen would fit nicely behind Taillon in the rotation), but there is something about him pitching that makes me think "This guy is perfect for the Pirates," and although the pitching staff has been tremendous as of late, that is still not a good thing.  What the Pirates lack most is exciting starting pitchers.  When I think of the best pitchers, I think of high strikeout, high velocity guys, who have the potential to throw a no-hitter every time they step on the mound.   Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, and Stephen Strasburg come to mind immediately (if Strasburg can ever recover from Tommy John Surgery).  Hultzen just doesn't seem to be that type of pitcher, and doesn't excite me as a number one pick.  Will he have a nice career?  Probably.  But does he have Hall of Fame potential?  I don't think so.

8. George Springer, OF, UConn:  Let me just start off by saying that I think Springer is an excellent fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He profiles as a RF, a position of need, and can potentially be a middle-of-the-order bat.  Springer has out-played Anthony Rendon this year, and is potentially a top 5 pick in the draft.  Unfortunately for him, the Pirates are really not interested, so I will not discuss him all too much.  For the record, though, I would not be surprised if Springer became a Ryan Braun-lite, in that he is a good all-around hitter, and player.

Anyways, more draft-related material to come in the next four days.  I hope to preview the second round later this week.  Let me know who I missed, and who is too high/low in the comments.  Thanks for reading.