Friday, September 21, 2012

Neal's Draft Class - Should we fire Neal

Now let me be clear up front.  I think it would be a mistake not to retain Neal Hunington.  I think the clear improvement in the on field product at basically every level is reason enough.  I think the vast improvement in the Latin American presence is reason enough.  But recently a lot of criticism has arisen over his drafts.  The good people at Bucs Dugout for example make a case for why the draft classes of NH are not good.  I want to take my own look at the class of 08-12 to see if Neal's drafts are as bad as some think.

We should begin by looking at 1st round picks because that is where every team has a shot at an impact player.  Neal changed the thinking of the Front Office and has gone for the big name, usually.  In 08 it was Pedro Alvarez.  He may have been rushed, but he appears to be the impact player now.  In 09 it was Tony Sanchez, which we will come back to as Tony is still in the minors.  In 10 it was Taillon, who still appears to be on track as an ace.  In 11 it was Gerrit Cole, who is another ace.  In 12 it was Mark Appell, who did not sign.  So, we see three of the five NH did what he should and has helped the franchise.  Appell's case is interesting since he did not sign, but it is under the new system.  The Pirates did everything they could without being punished by MLB, and Appel just would not sign.  And they get a comp pick at #9 overall next year, so it makes trying to sign Appel a good gamble.  Appel was the best talent on the board.  In 09 the draft class was weak, and NH had a strategy to sign lots of HS arms later in the draft and so he saved some money.  In the end, Sanchez will still be a starting catcher for the Pirates, perhaps as soon as next year.  I would stop short of saying he is an impact player, but he will be a starter, so it is hard to classify it as a failure pick.  And for the record only three All Stars have come out of that draft, one of which is Strassborg, who was already gone by the Pirates 4th pick.  The other two are Aaron Crow, as a bullpen arm, and Mike Trout, who was a high school bat at the time.  Just to show the Pirates were not alone in that mess, the second overall pick was Dustin Ackley who hit .232 this year for the Mariners.  Third overall pick Donavan Tate played in High A ball this year.  Mike Minor and Mike Leake are good pitchers the Pirates might could have gotten, but not a big whiff.

Let us now look at this strategy of signing younger players with big bonuses to see if has worked out.
In 08 we signed 8 guys to bonuses over 100,000.  Jordy Mercer, Chase d'Arnaud, and Justin Wilson appear poised to make contributions the Pirates and have already played for them.  Robbie Grossman was traded in the Wandy deal, so he was clearly good enough to aid the team as a trade piece.  Can't hold that against him.  Benji Gonzales, Wes Freeman, Quinton Miller, and Jeremy Farell appear to be organizational guys only.  So NH hit 50%.

In 09 there were there were 12 late round big bonus guys.  Brock Holt is already on the team and looks very good at the plate.  Others who appear ready or on track to help the Pirates include only Victor Black.  Black may even break camp with the Pirates and looks like a future closer.  However before throwing out the rest of this class, we need to note that Colton Cain was part of the Wandy trade, and Brooks Pounders was traded for Navarro this past off season.  Both those guys then need to count as good picks.  In addition, it is still to early to give up on Dodson and Von Rosenberg.  ZVR showed improvement and Dodson had a good year in the past before an injury.  Next year is make or break for both.  That makes the success rate at a possible 50% again, but will probably be a little lower if ZVR and Dodson do not pan out.

2010 was a major year where the Pirates signed Stetson Allie to a big multimillion dollar deal.  He has since been removed as a pitcher and put in the field.  No matter what happens in my opinion that is a big whiff.  At least let him try to be a closer.  That is the biggest mistake made by NH, but I hardly think it is worth burying him over.  Let us also remember that Brandon Crumpton still looks like a back of the rotation possibility, Tyler Waldron looks like a bullpen contributor.  Nick Kingham also looks like a middle to back of the rotation guy.  So three decent picks who are all on pace.  Mel Rojas Jr. and Drew Maggi are not tearing it up with the bats, but neither looks overmatched at this point either.  Both could show a little more plate discipline, but they are still on track as potential MLB guys . Ryan Hafner followed up his good last season with an absolute disaster this year.  Still, he was always a project and it is too early to give up on him.  Jared Lakind is probably too early to give up on either, but he and Sadler look like misses.  So here you have 3 good picks, 3 misses (including a big one), and 3 maybes.

In 2011 the Pirates took 11 more big bonus guys.  And it is too early to rule any of these guys out and it  should be noted that the Pirates likely knew this was the last year they could do the bonus game, so why not throw a lot of money around.  They did, so maybe we ought to be a little easy on them for going for broke the last year one could.  Josh Bell is the highlight of this group, and he was doing great before a knee injury ended the season for him.  While Dickerson (3rd round pick) was disappointing, but not awful, the Pirates look pretty good in this group.  Candon Myles hit .279 and has speed.  Colten Brewer had an up and down year but is striking out 6.5 per 9 innings.  Tyler Glasnow was at 10 K/9.  Jake Burnette struggled, but was pitching at Low A, which ought to be remembered.  The same is true of Jason Creasy.  They are still interesting prospects.  Clay Holmes also pitched at Low A, and frankly was pretty good winning 5.  Walks are a bit high, but that is to be expected.  I think Holmes may make the jump to West Virginia this next year.  Taylor Lewis was okay, and Dan Gamache was good and shows utility infield kind of defense.  The only one that looks to be shaping up as a miss is Jordan Cooper who is throwing out the bullpen and giving up lots of long balls (almost 3 per 9 innings).  

2012 is way to early to read, but the number of big bonuses is now really kind of set at 10 thanks to the new CBA.  The Pirates look like they got a real winner in Wyatt Mathewson who tore up Rookie league along with Max Moroff.  Interestingly Moroff walked more than he struck out.  Eric Wood did well there too.  Barrett Barnes looked good in Low A.  Sandfort struggled a bit in 8 appearances, but that is to be expected.  Adrian Sampson was striking out 9 per 9 innings with a nice 2.82 ERA.  And John Kuchno only threw 5 innings.  

And remember this does not say anything about late round finds that are turning out well and signed for under $100,000 like Matt Curry and Phil Irwin, both of whom look like the have at least limited MLB roles in their future.  

It is possible that the draft strategy of Neal Hunington is only going to be right 50% of the time.  Still, is that a bad failure rate?  The big miss of Allie has many questioning the decisions.  Even if you think that this is an unacceptable draft philosophy it is all moot now.  MLB got rid of that possibility in the CBA with the hard slotting system.  Now Neal cannot do it anymore.  So, I think the draft should not be a reason to fire NH.  And I think it is a possibility that the Pirates are going to end up with a lot of good players from the last two drafts under the old system (10 and 11).  I think you can see that Neal grew in his drafts.  In 09 he threw money at young projectable pitchers.  He still did a lot of that in 10 and 11, but also moved on to get good position players.  Players like Josh Bell, Candon Myles, and Max Moroff are exciting additions and less likely to flop big as some high school pitching arms.  The growth of the Pirates in the draft has me excited for drafts, which was never true under the old regime.  Let us not forget how bad it was when we drafted Daniel Moskos and Bryan Bullington.  Those days are gone.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why 2 Wild Cards is a bad idea

The Pirates are one game over .500 now, and probably will finish the season well under.  But the Pirates still have a chance to make the playoffs as they are only 3 games out (if the Cards lose tonight and they are down 4 in the 8th).

This is a prime example of why the two wild card teams is a bad idea.  Right now no one in the NL wants that final wild card spot.  The hottest team is the Brewers who are tied with the Pirates, and also lost tonight now that the post season is a real possibility.  For any of these teams to play post season ball will be an embarrassment.

What is worse is how two wild cards is ruining what would be an amazing division chase in the AL East.  Baltimore is tied for the lead with the Yanks, and the Rays are just 2 out.  Can you imagine the drama if only the winner of the division moved on?  These games where they have been playing head to head would come close to beating out the beginning of the NFL.  Would this be a huge collapse for the Yanks?  It would be panic time in the Bronx.  Instead both Baltimore and the Yanks are in playoff position and the only story is if the Rays can come back to overtake one of them.  Worse yet, with a second wild card the Rays could also make the playoffs if the A's falter at all.  Three teams from one division could all make the playoffs.  A potentially historic division race rendered pointless.  Thanks MLB.  Thanks for nothing.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What the Pirates still need . . .

While it is entirely possible that the Pirates make the playoffs this year, they are clearly a team lacking something.  They are not playoff ready.  What exactly is it?

I have a slightly different view than many.  I think the Pirates are pretty set at the positions.  Sure you could upgrade a few, and probably for a World Series run, one of the weak positions needs to be upgraded.  The weak positions are: catcher, short stop, and corner outfield.  However, corner outfield was a bit of problem this year because of the unexpected regression of Jose Tabata.  And with Sterling Marte coming up, I think the corner outfield position is going to be fine.  I think with only a weak short stop who can play defense, and a catcher who is at least a power threat from time to time, the Pirates are  fine offensively.  

The problem is with pitching.  And it is not with the bullpen.  The Pirates have bullpen depth in AAA including Morris, Wilson, and soon Victor Black.  Plus, the front office has a track record of adding the right free agent pieces there.  It is starting pitching that is the problem.  

Let me start with James McDonald.  Everyone has him penciled in next year as a key piece of the rotation, but I think he is a liability.  McDonald had a good first half and has struggled lately.  Sounds a lot like Charlie Morton last year.  Morton has been on the DL, but if you remember was not so good at the beginning of this year.  The problem with the Pirates staff is that they are depending on people who have a one good year, or a good half a year.  Other than Burnett, who is aging, the Pirates do not have a dependable front line starter.  In Jeff Karstens they have a dependable back of the rotation guy.  He is not going to overpower any teams, but will keep you in most games.  Wandy Rodreguiz was a great trade acquisition because of this very reason.  He has been the guy on the Astros, which means he is probably a 3 man.  So the Pirates have three guys in their rotation for next year.  McDonald will not duplicate his early success, and will end up hurting the team as he has at the end of the year.  Correia is more effective.  

The hope for next year is not Cole, who has yet to show his stuff in AAA.  He may be up mid year at the earliest, but he should not be counted on as a front line guy.  Jeff Locke could be ready.  They need him to turn out to be a good pitcher since they traded away Rudy Owens.  Kyle McPhearson also has the high K rate and a speedy fastball, but he was injured most of this year, so expect him to repeat AAA.  The load then is squarely on the shoulders of Locke.  That is not really a recipe for a good run next year.  Hopefully the Pirates will be able to compete again, but it could be another disappointing season next year.  

The Pirates need to set their sights on 2014.  That year should be a full year of a now fairly experienced Gerrit  Cole, a second year for Locke, and the year Taillon arrives mid season.  Add that to Wandy, Burnett, and maybe McPhearson, and the Pirate rotation starts to look like a top of the line rotation.  That is when I expect to make the deep run into the playoffs and World Series.  

Of course the Pirates could surprise me with a Free Agent signing that addresses the problem, but it is going to be a tough market to do that.  I think they feel they addressed it as best they could with Wandy.  The future is very bright for the Pirates, but unless the Cards collapse, this year is not the year.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Minor League Success

I have been as caught up as anyone in the Pirates push for the Post Season.  Half a game out, and with an easier schedule than the Cards and the Dodgers, making the playoffs is a real possibility.

However, measuring the improvement in the franchise is best done at the minor league level.  And while wins and losses are often not important for prospects, I think they give a bit of the overall health of the franchise.

The Pirates have long been good in Latin America, and that continues this year with the DSL.  The playoffs are on going, but the Pirate affiliate has advanced to the finals.  Continued dominance is never a bad thing.

The rookie league GCL Pirates won the GCL with a sweep through the playoffs.  Great pitching from 2011 high school draft picks, and hot hitting by Wyatt Matheson, 2012 2nd round pick, as well as Dilsen Herrera (Latin America prospect) propelled this team to greatness.  It is the first time the GCL Pirates have ever won.

State College was awful again, but not as awful as normal.  The Pirates just don't put a large stock in drafting college players, and are not afraid to skip this level with players like Josh Bell.

West Virginia did well this year.  They are about 4 games out with 3 remaining.  They are above .500, and have shown great hitting all year.  Jose Osuna and Alen Hansen are break out stars along with Gregory Polanco.  Dan Gamache had a good year as well Slugging over .426.  If Josh Bell had been healthy this would have been one offensive team to keep an eye upon.  Nick Kingham had a great second half to lead the pitchers.  He ended up with 117 Ks.  Overall a good year.  Kingham is still a top 15 prospect.

Bradenton is about 5.5 games out right now, and that is an impressive feat when you think of all the players they lost as the year went along.  Gerrit Cole was an early move up and Jameson Taillon has been gone for a couple of rotations as well.  Oddly enough Bradenton was hammered in the first half standings, so they have shown real improvement as the year went on.

Altoona has 3 games left and is one game under .500.  This is also pretty impressive considering they lost so much.  Robbie Grossman, who is still near the top on the team in homers, was traded before the deadline.  Brock Holt, who was hitting above .300, was promoted to AAA.  As was Gerrit Cole.  The surprising thing about the Altoona was the pitching.  Phil Irwin has been under the radar, but no more.  He pitched great all year: ERA 2.93 with 83/17 K/BB ratio.  Very impressive.  He would have been the most impressive if not for Victor Black showing himself to be a major league closer.  Black's fast ball is live, and he recorded 85 K's from the bullpen.  I wish there was a stat for 1-2-3 innings because I would bet Black would dominate that.  Expect Black on the 40 man and starting off in AAA next year, but getting an early call up to the bigs.  He could very well be Hanrahan's replacement.  Oh and Brandon Crumpton was not bad either.  He also had 85 Ks, but walks were a little high.

Indy was the place that surprised the most, and shows the great future of the Pirates.  The Pirates were able to raid Indy regularly for good players, and the team kept playing well.  This shows there is some major league ready talent in Indy.  Rudy Owens pitched well enough to anchor a trade.  Jeff Locke pitched great, and is joining the big leagues now.  As is Kyle MchPhearson.  Jordy Mercer was good while he was there.  Alex Presley has rejoined the big leagues and continues to play great at AAA.  Chase d'Arnaud had a good second half.  Brock Holt was out of his mind good for his short stint.  Justin Wilson looks like a big leaguer.  Even Sanchez appears to be able to hit up here.  Bryan Morris and Dan McCutchen don't look bad, but may not be ready.  So, overall this is a great team.  A few possible stars and lots of major league quality guys.  That is something I don't think you could have said for a long time.  They are in the playoffs and AAA Indy will get some experience playing post season ball.  They will do so without some of their regulars, but will have Gerrit Cole for the playoffs.  Worth watching.

Overall the Pirates strategy of drafting high talent is paying off.  Von Rosenburg may not be what we had hoped, but Colton Cain was good enough to be traded, and help the big league team.  The high schoolers since then are pitching well at State College and GCL.  I think there is some real reason to be excited for the future of the Pirates.