Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AnalysisMLBNational LeagueNL CentralPittsburgh Pirates

Pirates- What To Watch This Spring

Chad Kuhl vs Steven Brault vs Derek Holland – The Fifth Starter Battle

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The opening day rotation is likely to consist of Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer, Mitch Keller, and Trevor Williams. So there is a 5th spot up for grabs, and there are 3 leading candidates for the job, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Derek Holland.

The Case for Kuhl

Kuhl debuted with the Pirates in 2016, and was a starter for the team during the 2017 and 2018 before having Tommy John surgery in July of 2018, and missed all of 2019. Kuhl has a career 4.37 ERA and 4.30 FIP partnered with a 22.1% k rate and 8.7% BB rate . Kuhl has been a league average starting pitcher, showing flashes of brilliance followed by blow ups. However according to Brooks Baseball Kuhl made a promising change in 2018 just before he went on the injured list. After throwing exclusively a 2-seam fastball his entire career, Kuhl introduced a 4-seamer. He increased the usage of his 4-seamer to 25 percent in June 2018. While the results were not great with the addition of the 4-seamer, it did allow him to reduce his walk rate and xFIP to career lows. It will be important to watch Kuhl’s velocity in spring training, once he started throwing the 4-seam fastball he was sitting 95-97, up from 93-96 with the sinker. If Kuhl could pick up where he left off in 2019 he could be a more than serviceable 5th starter. 

The Case for Brault

Brault debuted with the Pirates in 2016, he has since posted a career 4.88 ERA and 4.80 FIP with an 18.8% K rate and 11.3% BB rate, while bouncing between starting and relieving. Despite his career numbers being sub par, Brault was the Pirates best pitcher during June and July of 2019 posting ERA’s of 2.42 and 2.25 and FIPs of 3.56 and 2.71. During that stretch Brault mixed up his pitch mix pairing more sliders and change ups with his fastball,  as opposed to his cutter that he was throwing nearly 20% of the time early in the season. Then in August Brault reverted back to throwing more sinkers and cutters in place of his slider and change up (likely at the request of the coaches staff, who preached a pitch to contact style for years). The results were not encouraging, as Brault posted an ERA of 6.32 and a 5.02 FIP from August 1st to the end of the season. If the new front office and coaching staff can help Brault get back to using the pitch mix that worked for him in June and July, he has shown that he can have excellent results, and would be a good choice for the starting rotation. 

Derek Holland

Holland was brought in on a minor league deal to compete for a rotation spot and serve as a veteran presence. Based on his career trajectory he should serve as nothing more than rotation depth or a left handed bullpen option.

Prediction

After showing flashes of brilliance last summer Steven Brault will be given the first opportunity to be the team’s 5th starter. Kuhl’s velocity and slider should play well out of the bullpen. However if Brault falters at all expect Kuhl to be waiting in the wings to get another shot at the rotation. 

The Good, The Bad, The Unknown – The Infield

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First Base (The Good)

The first base position is the only position on the infield that I expect the same player to start the first and last game of the season, Josh Bell. 

Middle Infield (The Unknown) 

Adam Frazier will start opening day at the keystone for the second consecutive year. Frazier is a career .278/.342./420 hitter, who has a career 7.4% BB% and a 13.4% K%.  While the career slash line is one of a slightly league average hitter (103wRC+), 2019 was not filled with promise for Frazier on the offensive side of the ball. He posted a 97wRC+, with a bottom 4% barrel rate, of 1.9%. Frazier did however improve his second base defense, leading all second baseman in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metrics. With his below league average bat and good infield defense, Frazier is about a league average second baseman with limited upside.

After a breakout rookie campaign in which he slashed .308/.322./446, a 110 wRC+, Kevin Newman earned himself a spot as the Pirates opening day Shortstop. While Newman’s offensive numbers show those of a good major league hitter his defense at shortstop leaves a lot to be desired. He posted a -5.2 UZR in 2019 at shortstop in 824 innings, and -8 outs above average. While his defense at shortstop was bad, he may be a better fit for the keystone. Newman posted 1 DRS and 1.9 UZR in just 157 Inning played at the position, but more on that later. 

The other MI options for the Pirates are former top prospect Cole Tucker, career utility man Erik Gonzalez, and recently signed, JT Riddle. Tucker had a sub par major league debut in 2019, after hitting a walk off 5th inning home run (lightning suspended game) in his first game he went on to slash just .211/.266/.361 and a lowly 61 wRC+. Despite his abysmal debut at the plate he did show solid defense at short posting a .9 UZR and 1 DRS in 318 Innings. Defense has always been Tucker’s calling card coming through the minors. Fangraphs rates Tucker’s future field rating at 55 with a 70 grade arm. If Tucker can maintain his defensive prowess he could be a good major league player if he could just get to a place where he is an average hitter. Gonzalez made his debut in 2016 with the Cleveland Indians, he was traded to the Pirates in November of 2018. Gonzalez is a good enough defender to play every position on the dirt, but has never posted a wRC+ north of 81 in his major league career. He is best suited for a utility role and not full time playing time. The signing of JT Riddle to a major league deal was confusing, as he profiles similarly to Gonzalez, as well as the current iteration of Tucker, as a good defender and below average bat. 

Third Base (The Bad)

Colin Moran will start for the third consecutive at the hot corner for the Pirates, but will it be his last?  Given every day playing time over the last 2 year Moran has been a below average third baseman. Moran posted a 102 wRC+ and a 92 wRC+ in 2018 and 2019 respectively, while also posting -10 and -7 outs above average at third base. A career below average hitter and below average defensive player, Moran does not appear to be long for a starting gig in the major leagues, so who are the Pirates other options? 

While some of the Pirates middle infield options could, at the very least provide solid defense, they do not have to offensive prowess to play every day at third. However top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes could be ready to take over the position during the season after playing all of 2019 at AAA Indianapolis. While his .265/.336/.415 line at AAA in 2019 was not impressive, his .293/.375./.444 at AA in 2018 was extremely encouraging. If Hayes can replicate his 2018 performance to open the season at AAA Indianapolis he would be called up to debut rather quickly. It should also be mentioned that Hayes has won 3 consecutive minor league gold gloves at third base. Once Hayes takes over, he should be able to hold the position for years. 

Prediction  

The opening day infield will consist of Josh Bell at first, Adam Frazier at second, Colin Moran at third, and Kevin Newman at short. The season finale will feature 2 new faces and 1 player at a new position. Josh Bell will be at first base, Kevin Newman at second, Ke’Bryan Hayes at third, and Cole Tucker at short. 

The Old, The Young, and The Injured

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The Old

Newly Signed Jarrod Dyson will be manning center field for the Pirates on opening day. Dyson has been under appreciated for years, he is an elite defender, excellent on the base paths, and knows who he is at the plate. Without a clear platoon partner on the roster (Jason Martin is also a LHH) Dyson is going to be the every day center fielder, where he excelled defensively in 2019 with 6 outs above average. His defense in center field, as well as his success in the base paths, with an 82% success rate on SB attempt last year, are big reasons why he was signed and he should be good for the teams pitching staff as well as the batters around him in the order. While Dyson will start the season as the every day center fielder for the Pirates, we should not expect him to stand in the way of any prospects, if they are big league ready, namely Jared Oliva. Oliva broke out in AA Altoona in 2019 batting .277/.352/.398 with an 8.3% walk rate and 20.5% strikeout rate.

The Young

Like first base, Pirates fans will know what to expect when they look out towards left field at PNC park, Bryan Reynolds. Reynolds has yet to hit under .300 at any level, including his debut season in 2019 when he slashed .314/.377/.504. Reynolds can play all 3 outfield positions, but if Ben Cherington is to be believed he will be locking down left field all year, and we should expect more of the same offensively from 2019. 

The Injured

 In 2018 Gregory Polanco had the best season of his career, slashing .254/.340/.499  posting a 123 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR. His 2018 season ended when he injured his shoulder sliding into a base. 2019 was a lost season for Polanco, as he appeared in 44 games, but was clearly never healthy. Polanco may be the most important outfielder to watch in the outfield. If he is healthy and can pick up where he left off offensively in 2018, he could be a key piece on the next contending Pirates team. If he is not healthy or under performs the front office can start looking for their right fielder of the future.  

Prediction

 Gregory Polanco will stay healthy and post his first ever 3 WAR season. Bryan Reynolds will bat over .300 again, and hit 25 home runs. Jared Oliva will replace Jarrod Dyson in July and go on to produce a wRC+ over 110 and play solid center field defense.