The Pirates were “behind the times” in their approach to developing pitchers under the previous front-office/coaching regime, right-hander Tyler Glasnow opines in a fascinating interview with Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Glasnow details the manner in which the Pirates emphasized pitching down and inside even as the rest of the league evolved to attacking the top of the strike zone with four-seamers and ramping up the usage of breaking balls. The right-hander calls the Pirates’ approach “a good strategy for [2013-15]” but an outdated one in the current era of data-driven approaches to pitching and game-planning. Glasnow explains how he began working at the top of the strike zone on his own toward the end of his time as a Pirate — he was never approached by the club about doing so — and that was the first thing the Rays encouraged him to do following the trade. The interview is rife with interesting (and, if you’re a Pirates fan, frustrating) quotes from Glasnow and is well worth a full look regardless of which team you follow.
The Major League Baseball Players Association has now expanded its grievance proceeding against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic reports (subscription link). The union is in both cases challenging the team’s use of revenue-sharing funds.
As the MLBPA looks for ways to spur teams to spend, it has targeted the ever-stingy Bucs. An initial grievance proceeding included the Pittsburgh organization as well as the A’s, Rays, and Marlins.
It seems the initial action covered spending over the 2017-18 offseason, with the new one relating to the winter of 2018-19. Biertempfel spoke with union chief Tony Clark, who didn’t weigh in on this particular matter but did state that his organization remains concerned with “revenue-sharing recipients who remain in that perpetual rebuilding mode.”
The Pirates, of course, claim not to be rebuilding. Newly hired GM Ben Cherington has spoken instead of a “build.” Parsing the terminology won’t change the substance. After a winter in which the team traded Starling Marte and didn’t add back much salary, the Bucs are presently slated to open the season with approximately $57MM in player salaries on their books. That marks the club’s lowest Opening Day payroll since 2011 and fourth-straight year-over-year decline.
This grievance is obviously only one part of a broader union strategy to push back against some broader trends, but ir remains unclear precisely what remedy the MLBPA can hope to achieve through this mechanism. A team is required to spend revenue-sharing funds “in an effort to improve its performance on the field,” though the collective bargaining agreement contemplates quite a few things beyond MLB salaries as fitting that definition. At the time the first grievance was filed, then-Pirates president Frank Coonelly called it “patently baseless.”
As Biertempfel notes, there’s some interesting potential interaction here between this story and the recent reports of extension possibilities for the Pirates organization. Investing in existing players wouldn’t change the immediate mix of talent, so perhaps it wouldn’t speak directly to the union’s position. But it would go some way towards quelling the understandable angst emanating from the ranks of Pirates fans over the organization’s spending.
The Pirates expect to “explore multiyear deals” with certain of the team’s early-career MLB players, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (via Twitter). The likelihood of agreement isn’t clear.
Recent reporting indicated that teams around the league are pursuing quite a few deals of this kind. It’s not surprising to see the Bucs participating in that effort. Early-career extensions have long been a key part of the team’s strategy. And while the team is in flux from a competitive standpoint, all teams are interested in scenarios that increase the value of their existing control rights over players.
Heyman lists several potential candidates, though it’s not clear which have actually been targeted by the Pittsburgh organization. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds, middle infielder Kevin Newman, and starter Joe Musgrove are all tabbed as possibilities — just the trio you’d likely have thought of.
Reynolds hasn’t even cracked a full year of service, but is coming off of an extremely impressive 2019 debut that might’ve earned him a Rookie of the Year award in some seasons. Newman is still two full seasons away from arbitration. He also put up a strong effort last year, slashing .308/.353/.446 in his first full season in the bigs.
It’s a bit of a different situation for Musgrove, who is already into arbitration eligibility at 27 years of age. He’s slated to earn $2.8MM for the coming season, so he has already locked in significant earnings. Musgrove has been a solid rotation piece since coming over before the 2018 season, compiling 285 2/3 total innings of 4.28 ERA ball.
The Pirates have shut left-hander Steven Brault down due to a strained muscle in his left shoulder, the team announced this morning. He’ll be reevaluated in two weeks’ time.
Brault, 27, pitched a career-high 113 1/3 innings at the Major League level in 2019 but struggled to a career-worst 5.16 ERA in that time. He averaged 8.0 strikeouts, 4.2 walks and 1.19 homers per nine innings pitched along the way.
Additional details on the injury weren’t provided, but it obviously casts doubt upon Brault’s readiness to begin the season. He’s worked both as a starter and as a reliever in the Majors and seemed likely to slot into the 2020 rotation prior to this morning’s announcement. The Bucs are thin on starting pitching options on the 40-man roster following injuries to Jameson Taillon (2019 Tommy John surgery), Chad Kuhl (2018 Tommy John surgery) and Clay Holmes (broken foot).
An absence for Brault could further open the door for non-roster southpaw Derek Holland to make the Opening Day rotation alongside Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and Mitch Keller. The Pirates could also look to the handful of remaining free agents or pursue some alternative depth options later in camp as veterans opt out of minor league deals and as other players are exposed to waivers.
Right-hander Tom Koehler, in camp with the Pirates as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training, announced his retirement from baseball on Instagram this morning. The 33-year-old Koehler says he’s looking forward to “starting [his] next chapter in the game,” whenever and whatever that may hold. For now, it seems as though he’ll take some time with his family.
From 2013-16, Koehler was a solid and durable constant at the back of the Marlins’ rotation, averaging 30 starts per season while pitching to a 4.14 ERA with averages of 6.8 strikeouts, 3.7 walks and 1.0 home runs per nine innings pitched. He struggled early in the 2017 season and found himself traded to the Blue Jays, with whom he posted an intriguing 15-game relief stint (2.65 ERA, 18-to-6 K/BB ratio in 17 innings). That showing prompted the Dodgers to take a look at Koehler in the offseason with the hope that he could transform his career as a late-inning bullpen piece.
Instead, Koehler was beset by shoulder injuries in 2018. After spending more than half the season trying to rehab an anterior capsule strain and make his Dodgers debut, Koehler underwent surgery that ended his 2018 season. He never threw a pitch at the MLB level for the Dodgers. He signed with the Pirates both last offseason and earlier this winter but wasn’t able to get back onto the hill.
It’s a tough way to end a playing career, although as an 18th-round senior sign back in 2008, Koehler exceeded any and all expectations. The Stony Brook alum pitched in 161 Major League games, totaling 784 1/3 innings of 4.39 ERA ball along the way. Koehler’s 36-55 record is more an indictment on the sub-par Marlins rosters surrounding him for much of his career than on his own abilities on the mound. He was generally a serviceable option, twice leading the club in games started and once leading them in innings pitched. Koehler was never a household name but pitched into his arbitration years, helping him to secure more than $12MM in total salary. Best wishes to Koehler in whatever path he next pursues.
Pirates right-hander Clay Holmes is set to begin the season on the injured list after suffering a fracture in his right foot on Saturday. The reliever was struck by a line drive in yesterday’s game, and manager Derek Shelton told The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel (Twitter link) and other reporters that Holmes will be in a walking boot for the next four to six weeks. Considering the rehab time and how long it could take Holmes to ramp up after missing so much of Spring Training, it doesn’t seem likely that Holmes will suit up for the Pirates’ big league squad until mid-April at the earliest.
Over 50 innings out of Pittsburgh’s bullpen last season, Holmes posted a 5.58 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 60.3 % grounder rate, and 6.5 BB/9. Control has been Holmes’ biggest issue both in his brief Major League career (59 walks over his 76 1/3 frames with the Pirates) and even in the minors, as he posted pretty average walk rates at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels. On the plus side, Holmes misses a good number of bats and does an outstanding job at keeping the ball on the ground, with over a 60% grounder rate throughout his minor league career. 2019 was his first full season as a relief pitcher, so there could still be some untapped upside as Holmes completely adjusts to his new role.
Holmes was one of several arms competing for a job in Pittsburgh’s 2020 bullpen, and faced a bit more pressure considering he is out of minor league options. Going on the IL won’t impact his roster status, and it could even provide a clearer route to regaining a bullpen spot — if another reliever is struggling around the time Holmes is set to return, the Pirates will have a fairly easy decision.
- The Pirates have signed infielder Sherman Johnson to a minor-league contract with an invitation to MLB spring training (h/t to Andersen Pickard). The 29-year-old tallied 11 MLB plate appearances with the 2018 Angels but has otherwise spent his entire pro career in the minors. In parts of four Triple-A seasons, Johnson has compiled a .241/.347/.364 slash while mostly lining up at second and third base. The Florida State product entered pro ball as a 12th-round pick in 2012.
Despite Kiermaier’s statesman status as the longest-tenured Ray, the club has taken an aggressive approach to finding players capable of roaming the grass in center. He remains a defensive stud, but his health is perpetually in question and his offense has slipped over the past two seasons. His two-year slash line checks in at just .223/.280/.386 across 847 plate appearances. Despite roughly 21% less offensive production than average (79 wRC+), Kiermaier’s A-1 defensive abilities and plus baserunning skills maintain his viability as a starter. Margot fits the same profile, but five years younger and he bats from the right side.
The Rays know what they like, apparently, because they are continuing to experiment with power-shy Lucius Fox in centerfield, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Fox has been an infielder for most of his career, primarily at shortstop, though he’s gotten looks at second and third as well. Fox is a tremendous speedster, making him a fit for center from a raw tools standpoint, but he has yet to log any professional time in the outfield. It hasn’t clicked yet for Fox offensively with a .244/.337/.325 line across four seasons in the minor leagues.
Before acquiring Margot, the Rays also picked up Randy Arozarena in the Matthew Liberatore trade. Arozarena now seems likely to start the year in Triple-A, but he’s another option for center. He also happens to be coming off a monster year in Triple-A, where he hit .358/.435/.593 in 64 games after earning a promotion from Double-A. He excelled in a small-sample 19 games with the Cardinals at the end of the year, making their playoff roster as a speed option off the bench. Purely from a numbers standpoint, Arozarena could have the highest-ceiling of all their current options.
The Rays clearly prefer a gold glove roving-type in centerfield, but Austin Meadows could also fill in there in a pinch. It is telling, however, that he has only logged 13 innings in center since being acquired from the Pirates.
Fortunately, there hasn’t been much in the way of negative health news to this point of Spring Training. Let’s check in on a few issues that have arisen …
- Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez is feeling both excitement and some trepidation as he nears readiness to test his recently tweaked shoulder, as Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Indication remains that Suarez could conceivably be ready to roll on Opening Day. He says he’s getting his timing down even as he avoids throwing or swinging full-bore. But there are also some nerves as he prepares to ramp up. “Just a little bit because I know I have something there,” Suarez said when asked whether he’s nervous. “I don’t want to get hurt again. I have to be careful. We’ll see what happens.”
- After a disappointing 2019 season, the last thing Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty wants to deal with is another injury issue. Right now, the hope is that his oblique/rib cage problem isn’t going to represent a major limitation, as Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports. But Piscotty might be down for another week and it’s beginning to look like Opening Day readiness could be in doubt. That’d be a disappointment, of course, but it’s surely better than rushing back and ending up with a bigger problem.
- Neck tightness kept Pirates righty Chris Archer from making a scheduled outing today, as Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic was among those to report on Twitter. There hasn’t been a substantial update just yet, but there’s no reason to believe that this is more than a minor blip.
- It’s a similar situation in Indians’ camp, where righties Emmanuel Clase and Aaron Civale have been limited. As MLB.com’s Mandy Bell tweets, the former is dealing with lat discomfort and the latter a sore groin. While Clase is going to slow his build-up to let things calm down, Civale is preparing to throw a sim game.
The Pirates are more likely than not to land outside the playoff picture in 2020, but they’ve not given up the notion of wreaking some havoc on the NL Central this year. To do so, however, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman will need to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, writes Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. True enough, Reynolds and Newman came out the gate strong in 2019, posting 3.2 fWAR and 2.4 fWAR, respectively. And yet, teaming their rookie duo with Josh Bell’s breakout bat still only amounted to the 20th-ranked offense by runs scored (758 runs), 19th by wRC+ (92). Beyond these three, the other two Pirates rounding out their top-5 by wRC+ in 2019 now play for different teams (Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson), and the sixth is a pitcher (Steven Brault). Immediately upon the close of 2019, the Pirates had planned to give Brault a go as a two-way player, but with new leadership up and down the organization, it’s unclear what his role will be. Regardless, Jarrod Dyson is the biggest addition made the to position player group this winter. Reynolds and Newman are core pieces of this lineup, and the good news is this: if they do slump in their sophomore seasons, they should have enough leash to find their way back. Let’s jump from the bottom of the NL Central to the top and check in with the reigning divisional champs…