First Pitch: The Pirates Correct Their Biggest Off-Season Mistake

BRADENTON, Fla. – I’ve never been in the group that thinks the Pirates are heading for a down year in 2016. True, they’re probably not going to win 98 games again, but how many teams sustain that type of success. I also think it will be difficult challenging the Cubs for the division, but isn’t winning the division supposed to be difficult? The idea that a team would only have a shot if their division was easy is something that seems to be left over from the days when the Pirates were losing, and the only conceivable way to imagine them ever winning the division is if they played in a division with nothing but Triple-A teams.

I’ve been high on the Pirates’ chances this year because I look at the offense, and I see a strong group, thanks to their focus on high OBP guys, and optimizing the lineup.

I see a bullpen that will return two of the best relievers in baseball, along with several guys who can hit upper 90s with their fastballs.

I see a top farm system that is about to spill over into the majors, with a few of the best prospects in the game, and a lot of other talented guys on both sides of the ball who can help in 2016.

I see a rotation that is headlined by Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, two of the top 30 starters in baseball last year.

But there was one flaw I saw, and everyone else saw as well: the rest of that rotation.

I was fine with the pickup of Jon Niese. He’s been a 2.0+ WAR pitcher for several years, and pitched that way in the first half last year, before struggling down the stretch with the Mets. He’s not a high upside guy, but he could be a dependable starter who puts up league average numbers over a full season, and that has value.

I’m also fine giving Jeff Locke one more chance. He’s been good in the first half each year, and struggles in the second half. If that trend holds up, then he’ll transition well to Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon at mid-season. But the Pirates have been working on his delivery this year, making it more simple with the aim for more consistent command. So maybe that leads to better results and more consistency than we’ve seen in the past. And really, Locke’s numbers as a starter the last three years, good and bad included, have been league average.

The problem I had was Ryan Vogelsong. I looked at Vogelsong, and best case, I saw a league average pitcher. And that’s not in the same way as Niese and Locke, where they were actually putting up close to league average numbers, while benefitting from being ground ball left-handers playing for the Pirates in PNC Park. This was a longer shot for Vogelsong.

I wrote many times this off-season that the Pirates needed more upside for the back of the rotation. Having guys like Niese and Locke is fine, especially since you’re only relying on them for half a season until the prospects arrive. But you need at least one classic Pirates reclamation project. They didn’t add Mat Latos, or anyone else who fit the bill. This is what I wrote about Vogelsong back in January:

I think he’d be a great fit for the current bullpen philosophy of having a lot of long relievers who could take over early for the rotation, as well as being the top depth option early in the season if a starter goes down. But that requires another starter to be brought in.

As it turned out, they already had that starter.

Juan Nicasio has looked great all throughout Spring Training. The numbers were obviously there, but the stuff was what really impressed. He worked 90-95 MPH with his fastball out of the rotation, showing great command of the pitch. He showed a difficult slider which saw improvements last year, and those improvements carried over to the current season. He worked on his changeup, and showed some promise there, possibly ending his struggles from the last few years against lefties.

Nicasio looks like your typical Pirates reclamation project. He’s got the stuff, which never worked out in the past. He’s made the changes that might be necessary for his stuff to work in Pittsburgh. In this case, one of the biggest things might be carrying a reliever mentality over to the rotation, and focusing on one inning at a time. It sounds a little clichéd, but that’s a real problem with some starting pitchers, where they get too caught up in the big picture of throwing over an entire start, rather than focusing on the many small sections that make up that start.

Would anyone be surprised if we reach mid-season and Juan Nicasio is being talked about as the steal of the off-season? He fits the Edinson Volquez/J.A. Happ mold of a guy who has never really had success, but where you look at the stuff and wonder why the success never came. Then the success arrives, and it all makes sense. The bonus here is that the Pirates control Nicasio through the 2017 season, so if this does happen, they’ve got a starter for more than just a year (or two months, in Happ’s case).

That would be great for the long-term rotation, especially when you consider that the 2017 season could ideally feature Cole, Liriano, Glasnow, and Taillon all pitching up to their upsides. Nicasio might have more upside than anyone else competing for a final spot, and would create a solid overall group if he does pan out like the reclamation projects who came before him.

But let’s scale it back and look at 2016. The truth is that the Pirates don’t need Nicasio to put up top of the rotation numbers like Volquez and Happ. They just need him to not be a back of the rotation guy like Vogelsong, Niese, and Locke. You add a solid middle of the rotation option to the current group, and consider the prospects who will arrive at mid-season, and the questions start disappearing about this section of the team. It’s not the Mets rotation, but when paired with all of the other good things going on with this team, you’ve got a rotation that can really help the Pirates contend.

The biggest mistake the Pirates made this off-season was going with Vogelsong as a starter in the rotation, rather than going for a higher upside guy. Today’s move wasn’t planned from the beginning, but from what I’ve seen of Nicasio this spring, it fixes the biggest mistake the Pirates made this off-season, and gives the classic Pirates reclamation project to watch in 2016.

**I will be starting the season previews this weekend for the Major League club, and we’re working on season previews for the four minor league affiliates (plus figuring out the roster situations), with those previews going up early next week. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you should do so before the season starts, so you don’t miss any of our coverage.

**Juan Nicasio Wins a Rotation Spot, Ryan Vogelsong Moved to the Bullpen

**David Todd Podcast: Injury Updates, Opening Day Roster and Juan Nicasio

**Injury Updates: Kang, Diaz, Hughes, Polanco, Mercer, Tarpley, Tucker, Mathisen

**Averaging Out the Farm System Rankings

  • Just a side note, but I can’t off hand think who ST is? Is it asking too much to use a real typed out name for most players when referring to them?

    It’d be nice to be able to read a comment without pausing to try and figure out who is being talked about?

  • I feel alot less certain about this year than last year honestly…ST has not looked good. Niese pitching as terribly as he has really worries me. Locke being Locke is concerning. Its about the numbers, its more about the fact that Locke cant be counted on to hold a lead or get a big out when he needs one. Not consistently atleast. I dont have much confidence in him in a high leverage situation. Nicasio really is the optimistic wild card we can cross our fingers on. My only question will be if the pitching doesnt pan out, will Huntington be catching some heat for this?

    • “Will NH catch heat for this”

      Well, he catches heat every offseason from a chunk of the fanbase/local media, so its about degrees of heat at that point. He’s not going on the hot seat for one down year, if anything it’d just mean the following year carries huge expectations.

  • My problem is still that you promoted a guy that had to be pulled from the rotation last year to your #4 starter on no merit, and a guy who couldn’t make the Mets rotation (granted, one of the best in baseball) your #3 starter. Locke has been league avg on a whole, but he’s been so hot or cold. If he’s cold in April/May we are in trouble.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    March 31, 2016 11:06 am

    I do not agree that signing Vogelsong and putting him in the rotation was the FO’s BIGGEST mistake this off-season, although it was part of it. The biggest mistake was not signing a legitimate #3 starting pitcher, and the end result is we have a very weak #3 thru #5 backend of the rotation – even though I like Nicasio much better than Vogelsong in that mix.
    As the team is currently constructed, I am predicting an 85-90 win season – and most likely a third place finish. Whether that is good enough to win a date in the one game playoff again remains to be seen. The only way I see this team performing at a higher level and competing for the division title is if Taillion and Glasnow are given legitimate chances to improve the rotation by June, and that they perform at a level that one would expect given their stuff and prospect status. Those two guys are the two biggest keys, with the third being Polanco becoming the star he has been projected to be…if he takes that next big step, that will help this offense immeasurably.
    Other keys, although not in my top 3, are; (a) finding a competent second LH reliever to pair with Watson, (b) getting Kang back and 100% by May 1, (c) since I am not convinced Jaso is the answer, Bell forcing the Pirates to promote him by June 1 and he becoming another difference maker in the lineup.
    In my opinion, our only hope is in the three young prospects mentioned above – who need to step up this year and elevate the team up to the level of the Cubs and Cards….if they do that, watch out for this team….we could end up being very good again…

    • Signing Vogelsong over a guy with higher upside was the mistake.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        March 31, 2016 1:06 pm

        I agree with that….but tripling down on Locke again was/is another mistake – we’ve been down that road twice before….and thinking that Niese was an adequate #3 starter, and paying him $10M/year was/is another mistake.

        • Calling something a clear mistake before the results even come in.

          Bold strategy cotton.

          I get why people think it might become a mistake, but thats not an actual fact currently.

          • BuccosFanStuckinMD
            March 31, 2016 7:03 pm

            Okay, we will see how it works out and then we can be in touch…if I am wrong, I will be happy and will gladly admit it. But, I am not confident in Niese.

        • I’d have to disagree with this statement as much as I agree with your original statement…..Niese is absolutely worth his contract in this market and then some……as a #4 starter. It isn’t his fault we never signed a #3 so he wouldn’t be forced into that slot. Having Locke as your #5 isn’t bad either, as long as you have a strong #3. The only mistake is not signing a #3………..all the other stuff is quibbling about nothing. If we were looking at: Cole, Liriano, Happ, Neise, Locke right now, I think noone would be complaining much.

  • Nuke Laloosh
    March 31, 2016 9:53 am

    So, Nicasio is a reclamation project signed for one year and if he is reclaimed by Searage, we lose him, just like Volquez. It might not be feasible from a signing standpoint, but wouldn’t a one year deal with a club option for a second be more logical? Obviously they know more than me about signing FA and what is possible.

  • I think it’s a little inaccurate to say Volquez had top of the rotation results. You could cite his ERA, but his FIP and xFIP were above 4 and while I was plenty happy with Volquez, I never felt like I was watching a TOR SP. Instead he was just what we want Nicasio to be–a solid middle of the rotation guy.

    • That’s why I said results. I wrote at the time that it probably wasn’t sustainable unless he made some changes.

      • It still depends on what numbers you use as most of the numbers (really everything except for W/L and ERA) don’t suggest top of the rotation.

        I just wouldn’t group Happ and Volquez. Happ’s performance was truly exceptional (and we shouldn’t expect a repeat) whereas Volquez’s performance is more in line with what we can hope for from Nicasio and future reclamation projects.

  • Eh Volquez was the Reds’ ace, an allstar and thought more highly of than Cueto for a little while.

    • And then half a decade of suck happened and he was considered an afterthought to any serious rotation.

      So its a relatively fair comparison to make. In fact, that big year Volquez did have in 2008 saw periphs a bit worse than the SSS 72 innings from Nicasio in 2011. ERA was different, but so were the teams and ballparks.

  • I do not see the Vogelsong assignment to the rotation as a mistake. It was a choice driven by the circumstances the Pirates confronted. Those circumstances: Salary inflation in the starting pitcher market; multiple star-quality prospects on the cusp of their promotion to the Majors; organization budget constraints; the implementation of Coonington’s favorite strategy, if we need a nail, get ten nails to diminish the risk of nail failure.

    And,if Nicasio struggles, the Pirates can turn to Vogelsong to help out until the prospects arrive.

    • I said it before and i’ll say it again- BS. If you are trying to win the division in 2016, its a mistake. That’s how you have to look at it.

      • 2 + 2 = 27 is a mistake. Signing Vogelsong when circumstances force this move is not a mistake. It’s certainly not a mistake when the Pirates have the Indianapolis rotation waiting for their chances.

        • Our disagreement is in whether or not you believe “circumstances” forced this mistake. I do not believe they did. You do. I’m calling the belief that we couldn’t afford a guy with a #3 upside…….BS, and buying into too much of the kool-aid theory

          • The Pirates could afford David Price. But signing Price or Grinke would have been financially ruinous over the long term — unnecessary too.

            I did not drink kool-aid to draw this conclusion. I only needed to be a realist.

            • No- if any move would be financially ruinous over the long term, it means they can’t afford them by definition. You aren’t listing #3 pitchers, you are listing aces. You are way too far to the left on your absolute thinking, come back towards the middle just a bit for me please.

              • I do not write what I write to mollify my critics. I write to develop positions I can live with. I’ve accomplished that goal here.

                I did not identify Price as a player the Pirates could afford to pay his market value even though he was an ace. I used Price as my example of a player who the Pirates could pay a market value wage but should not because the Pirates would need to go into debt or dump salary to pay. If the Pirates were to make a $30 M per year commitment to any player, that player would need to be a Trout or Harper, and even then a Trout oR Harper would undermine the construction of the roster.

                As for a #3 starter’s FA salary, paying an older, risky player more than McCutchen, Marte, etc. Makes no sense when the team has prospects on hand who will be better pitchers, make league minimum salaries, will trade off salary for risk, will enable the team to have more cost controlled players who produce surplus value.

                It’s not obvious to me what you mean when you claim I sit on the left and need to move to the middle. So, I’ll not respond to that.

                • I meant simply that you fail to compromise on points of view, using very skewed exaggerated extreme to make your point (like using the fact that we cannot afford an ace without it being ruinous, so therefore Vogelsong is a reasonable option). We would not have had to put ourselves into potential financial ruin or salary dump mode in order to pay Happ 3/36 for example-or to sign Fister- or to sign Latos- or a handful of other pitchers whom might have had the same downside of Vogelson, but with a heck of a lot more upside. There is no reason for you to believe otherwise

  • Off Topic, but the OBP’s of the new guys brought to camp this year to try to emphasize that aspect of the game –

    Morse .436
    Jaso .419
    Joyce .404
    Rogers .390
    Fig’s .320

  • First off Nicasio has had very little prior success as a starter, whereas Volquez and Haap had big years earlier in their careers. Nicasio’s stuff is like Volquez’s though. Haap’s is not as good. Although Nicasio does look like a good option for the rotation, the bullpen is a lot weaker. Instead of Blanton, Bastardo and Hughes they will have Vogelsong (weak stuff poor bullpen track record), Luebke (good stuff, but years removed from major league action), and an apparent AAAA type.
    Overall, defensively and offensively, especially when Kang returns, the team is improved, but both the rotation and pen look weaker.

    • Tough to compare last years end of season bullpen vs this year’s beginning of season bullpen. Blanton was playing catch in his backyard a little over a year ago. Soria was in another uniform. We have two of the best late inning relievers in the game and a system with depth that will provide options via the current system or trades.

    • Just remember Bastardo was coming off a bad year and Blanton was about retired due to his ineffectiveness………don’t look backward with rose colored glasses.

  • “We’re talking about a guy that’s not too far removed from having Colorado skewed numbers that aren’t bad as a starter. As you talk about that 4-5 spot in your rotation, with the defense that we feel we put out there. With some adjustments that Ray [Searage] and [Euclides Rojas] and our staff have been able to make with some guys. With the outstanding work that our catchers do. We do think that we can get a little more out of him. We think there are things that we can help him with.” — NH 12/12/15

    I wouldn’t claim it was their plan for Nicasio to *be* in the rotation — it was too much of a longshot — but I believe it was always their plan to try him out there. They did try him out there, after all.

    • Good points, and pitching in Colorado has to be a major consideration. He had 70 Starts for the Rockies from 2011 thru 2014 and was 21 – 22; during that period, the Rockies were a combined 94 games under .500, so I think it is safe to say he pitched very well for a team that struggled in every aspect of the game.

      And, he is still only 29.

      • Did you just use a pitcher’s record to cite whether or not he pitched well? He had a 4.07 xFIP and a 5.03 ERA. That’s not very good. Last year Colby Lewis went 17-9. Chris Archer, Tyson Ross, and Jon Lester all had losing records. Lewis had 4.66 ERA but by your logic above he’s a good pitcher because he went 17-9.

        • The nerd stats are useful, but at the end they are meaningless. The goal is to give up one less run than your opposition and get the W.

          As long as your a little better then your competition, you are golden, ponyboy

          • Nolan Ryan – 1987: 2.76 ERA (led the league), 270 k’s (led the league), allowed only 6.5 hits per 9 (led the league.) Led the league in 7 different pitching categories that year…but 8 wins, 16 losses. Clearly a bum.

            Individual wins and losses attributed to a single player in a team sport when that player doesn’t even play the whole game (nor is even eligible for a Win for the majority of innings pitched) are beyond meaningless.

          • Tell that Felix Hernandez. I’d much rather had a pitcher that gives up 2 runs per game than one that regularly gives up 4 or 5. What Nicasio’s CO record tells me is that his offense baled him out a lot. Those nerd stats are absolutely useful and a big reason why the Pirates have been winning the last few years.

            • It could also just show that offense in general is inflated in that park and conditions. Pitchers stats are worse, hitters are better, and wins and losses get even harder to use as proof of a quality anything.

              I pity any pitcher with decent offspeed stuff that has to play multiple years in COL.

              • Nicasio’s stats were not worse in CO than they were away from home- if I remember Tim’s article correctly from a few months ago

          • Sizzling hot take.

          • I’m not going to beat you up like the other guys, just going to make one valuable point. Looking back to say…..early 80’s and prior, starting pitchers typically pitched 7+ innings and routinely pitched complete games. In that era, pitchers like Jack Morris whom never had a great ERA but won games………you could make that argument. In this day and age where most of these guys are barely pitching 6 innings, whether or not they get a win isn’t because they earned it by keeping their team ahead deep into the game, but rather because either their offense or bullpen bailed them out after a short performance to keep them ahead. Wins mean you gave your team a chance…..or rather, didn’t screw up so bad they couldn’t overcome it. That is not a ringing endorsement of even competency anymore.

            • A pitcher wins because when his team pitches next inning they are ahead. For a starting pitcher, that means that after he pitched a majority of a 9 inning game, his team is winning. That’s more important then his xfip. . The bull pen and/or offense has to ‘bail out’ any pitcher that goes 6,7 8, 9 innings. That’s the way the game is set up. If your team over comes your screw ups , you get a no decision. If a team doesn’t, you get the L. A pitcher with a high number of wins means that they were more then competent .

  • Looking on from Australia I am very pleased to see Nicasio make the rotation!!! The Pirates’ situation this off-season has been a bit odd, as they really only need a short-term bridge (hopefully) to potential TOR arms in Taillon & Glasnow. So they don’t want to block those guys. And at the same time the price of decent starting pitching/reclamation candidates has skyrocketed! Let’s hope that Nicasio gives them a solid #3 performance until mid-June – anything more would be a big-time plus! And who knows….although past results are not indicative (haha, not necessarily in the case of Ray Searage!) maybe the history with past “reclamation” projects has the arrows looking up here too as well!

  • Excellent overview – will be a battle in the Central this year…Cutch for MVP

    • Certainly looks in ST to be in prime form…especially out of thst 2spot…6 ST hrs.

  • I’m not as sanguine with the outlook of the starters heading north. Nicasio maybe the new reclamation project but it was not by design. I agree Vogelsong wasn’t the answer but neither is Locke. Oh well it is the hand that’s been dealt.

    • Are we sure it wasn’t by design? Nicasio was signed before Vogelsong, the Pirates said from day 1 they were going to stretch him out, and treated him as a starter the whole time. Just because different media outlets viewed him as a reliever, doesn’t mean he pirates didn’t intend for him to have a shot to be in the rotation the whole tkme

  • Good write-up and very accurate assessment of the situation.

    I’m sure Vogelsong is upset about being bumped to the bullpen, but after last season, he should be grateful that he received a major league contract and a (pretty much) guarantee to be on a team’s opening day roster.

    I hope he can useful in the Joe Blanton/Vance Worley/Jeanmar Gomez role this season.