Weekly Countdown From 25-to-1 Has Starting Pitching On Top

PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – Welcome to a new weekly feature on 937TheFan.com, where we’ll take the 25 active players on the Pirates’ Major League roster and rank them, 1 down through 25.

Because who doesn’t enjoy a good power ranking, huh?

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We have 7 weeks and 45 ballgames under our belts, so with the Bucs sitting at 20-24 and 5 games back in the division despite the lack of Jung-ho Kang, Starling Marte, and Jameson Taillon and a pair of 2-week DL stints for Adam Frazier & David Freese at the end of April/beginning of May, now is as good a time as ever to look at which players have helped their team stay afloat and which have – well, not helped so much.

We’ll count them down from, 25 to 1.

25) Jhan Marinez – Marinez has yet to make an appearance as a Pirate since being claimed off of waivers from the Brewers on Friday, so he comes in at the bottom of this week’s rankings for no other reason than he’s the new kid in class, essentially swapped for Jared Hughes via the waiver wire in the Pirates low-leverage righty reliever role.

24) John Jaso – If Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Moneyball fame was the Greek God of Walks, Jaso is the Californian Deity of Free Passes. He drew 3 in Wednesday’s 6-1 over the Nats. That said, if not for his $4 million salary and career-long history of On Base success (97 points higher in OBP than BA for his career and 117 points higher this season), there’s no way the Pirates would be suffering his 20% K rate and .176 average. Once Gregory Polanco is off the DL later this week, there will be no reason to continue inserting him into the starting lineup, either.

23) Daniel Hudson – For the money being spent on him ($11 million spilt evenly between 2017 & 2018), Hudson has been woefully disappointing thus far. His perseverance has been tested in the past, coming back from two Tommy John surgeries while in Arizona, but that may also inform us of why he’s struggling: Any 30-year old with two TJ’s on his resume is likely to hit a wall, and with the velocity he acquired via a move to the ‘pen after those surgeries waning this season, we may be seeing signs of the one-time 16-game winner hitting the end of the road.

22) Alen Hanson – A classic example of potential unrealized, Hanson was at one point seen as one of the next big things in the Pirates’ system. He’s now filling nothing more than a role usually reserved for September call-ups: A late-inning pinch-runner. A .163 BA and .200 OBP make him virtually useless as a pinch-hitter, and while he continues to work on his defense, he only continues to draw a Major League salary due to the club’s belief that he’ll be claimed on waivers as soon as they try to pass him through to Indianapolis. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. At this point though, who cares?

21) Danny Ortiz – A career minor leaguer, Ortiz was discarded by the Twins this past offseason and had a week of firsts: First MLB hit on Thursday, his first MLB start on Friday, and that’s happy stuff. For him. For Neal Huntington, it’s a reminder that he’s currently woefully thin in the outfield and is up against the spending limit imposed on him by the highest levels of executive leadership. Could the Bucs have claimed Leonys Martin when he was Designated For Assignment by the Seattle Mariners just five days after Starling Marte was suspended? Sure. Would they have had to foot the bill on his entire $4.85 million salary this season, and do so for a 4th OF with a .236 career BA and 22% career K rate, despite his career number of 45 Defensive Runs Saved? Yes. They chose not to. And then Gregory Polanco went on the DL. So you get Danny Ortiz patrolling the PNC Park outfield.

20) Jose Osuna – Receiving the polar opposite of the reaction Jaso has received from fans is Osuna, who despite hitting just .212, is still clamored for by offensively-starved Bucco supports. Part of that is a byproduct of Jaso being terrible the first month-and-a-half, and then telling fans they should try Major League hitting if they think it’s so easy. Osuna has been nothing but humble and down-to-earth as he experiences the bigs for the first time. He’s also shown some pop, with half of his hits going for extra bases. That give fans some hope that perhaps he can be the power bat off the bench Matt Joyce was a year ago.

19) Trevor Williams – Being a great human being does not correlate directly to being a great, young pitcher. Williams is finding that out the hard way. With an ERA over 6.00 after getting rag dolled by the Dodgers in his first start of the season a couple of weeks ago, he has settled though, giving up just a combined 4 ER in his last two starts and inducing  more soft contact, the Ray Searage prescription for efficiency. Consistently doing that is going to be a project for him though, and as such, he’s only in this rotation for the time-being until Taillon gets a green light to get back to pitching or the organization decides to give Williams’ good friend Steven Brault another big league opportunity, as he’s given up just 3 ER in Indianapolis in the month of May after a slow start.

18) Johnny Barbato – Another righty reliever who’s been given the opportunity to work in low leverage situations as the Bucs continue to try to find their Inherited Runners Houdini, the role Hughes filled for so long. They’d prefer it be Juan Nicasio, but Nicasio has had to step-up to a back-end role due to Hudson’s failings. Since being acquired from the Yankees and walking into a clubhouse full of familiar faces such as Ivan Nova, Chris Stewart, & Francisco Cervelli, he’s provide the staff’s 2nd best BA against, .186, to Felipe Rivero’s team-leading .167.

17) Tyler Glasnow – It would be great to have a firm belief that someday soon – maybe even this season – Glasnow’s name will be much higher on this list, but as it stands now, we simply haven’t seen the consistency necessary for Glasnow to be anything more than a volatile 4th starter at this point. That being said, we’ve also seen flashes of what could have him working at the top of this rotation with Taillon someday. As with Williams, finding consistency will be key.

16) Jordy Mercer – Mercer’s defense and veteran presence in the clubhouse keep him the lineup 24 out of every 25 games or so. His early scuffles at the top of the order didn’t do the club’s struggling offense any favors though, and he and his .203 BA/.317OBP have found themselves back in the 7th and 8th spot more often than not, which is where his bat belongs.

15) Chad Kuhl – It’s funny, for all we make of Gerrit Cole’s emotional volatility on the mound or Glasnow’s ability to mentally stay focused on the task at hand when presented with challenging situations, we never really discuss Kuhl. He’s right there with Glasow for the ability to go sideways during a start if something doesn’t go his way, and it can be compounded by his quiet fire that’s second only to Cole. The good news? He got over a situation like that in the top of the 5th against the Phillies on Sunday afternoon to retire two via strikeout and leave two stranded.

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14) Chris Stewart – Why such a high ranking for the veteran back-up catcher? Well, the .267 average helps (30 some points above his career mark). The 25% Caught Stealing rate also helps, especially when compared to Francisco Cervelli’s 18.2% rate, which is 2nd worst in MLB among catchers with at least 200 innings behind the plate this year. But what may be most impressive is handle on the pitching staff, especially starters. It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned jam-wriggling by Kuhl on Sunday afternoon was done with ‘Stewie’ backstopping. Not that it wouldn’t have happened with Cervelli back there, but Stewart’s command of the Pirates’ young starters – and we’ll include Cole for these purposes – provides his biggest value.

13) Gift Ngoepe – Get past the feel good story of Ngoepe, his incredibly positive attitude, his high work ethic, and his incredible glove, and you’re left with a 42% strikeout rate. He is this generation’s Mike Benjamin: Mostly swing-and-miss but over .300 on balls-in-play, and everyone loves him because he’s got a quirk. Ngoepe’s claim to fame as the first ever Major Leaguer from the continent of Africa is a good bit more impactful than Benjamin’s pointy, mutton-chop sideburns, but there you have it.

12) Andrew McCutchen – The ‘Face of the Franchise’TM continues to struggle to stay above .200, but does so while leading the team in RBIs, and alongside the occasional multi-hit game and home run, continues to also provide fans fleeting flashes of hope that he may somehow be snapping out of his 14-month long slump. Regardless, he can now add “getting double-switched out in a 2-run ball game” to the long mental list of disrespects he’s been on the receiving end of from the Pirates, Clint Hurdle, Neal Huntington, and their management team going back to the shopping of him at the deadline last July. If this heaping chip of resentment he’s now carrying on his shoulder can manifest itself into offense, he’ll snap out of it and become All-Star level Cutch again. More than likely though, he’ll continue to scuffle, eroding his trade value to minimal levels, and sit just above Gift Ngoepe on lists like this.

11) Francisco Cervelli – Sitting 33 points below his career average, Cervelli is right around his 9% career walk rate, which means he’s not getting on base anywhere near as much as he should be. The excuse for him has been that he’s suffering from a career-low .255 BABIP, and it helps that he’s tied for 3rd on the team in extra base hits. He has to improve throwing out runners though, as noted above.

10) Wade LeBlanc – What? Wade LeBlanc is one of the 10 best players on this team?!? Yes. Yes, he is. When you consider how atrocious the offense has been for great stretches of time, and that the pitching staff has kept them within shouting distance of .500, you have to consider the lynchpin presence of long relief – especially early in the season – when young starters are happy to get through 5 innings without blowing up. LeBlanc has been enormous in that role, and despite being less-than-perfect in the few higher leverage situations he’s seen, continues to run a WHIP right around 1.00, better than every reliever not named Felipe Rivero. None of us saw this coming, and the bottom may drop out of these lovely 88-mph fastballs anytime, so enjoy it while you can.

9) Tony Watson – Watson continues to hold down the closer’s job in the bullpen the best up-and-coming closer in the game in it (Yes, we’ll get to Felipe momentarily.), and has reaped the benefits of being a free agent-to be, as everything even resembling a save opportunity has come his way, and he’s 10-for-11 on those chances, putting him in the Top 10 in MLB in Saves. That means a better return in the inevitable trade deadline deal coming this July. That value will only improve as Watson continues to close those saves with clean innings, as he did twice in the series against Philadelphia.

8) Juan Nicasio – As mentioned earlier, Nicasio wasn’t supposed to be a part of the solution in the back end of the bullpen, but he’s quietly taken over the role that was supposed to belong to Hudson, and done so with a sub-2.00 ERA and as the only member of the staff here since Opening Day who has yet to give up a home run. Quiet dependability is necessary in any bullpen, and Nicasio’s providing that.

7) David Freese – What little offense the Pirates had in in early April was due to basically two people, and Freese was at the top of that very short list, leading the team in every offensive metric before going on the DL. Since returning from injury though, Freese is slashing just .125/.250/.250/.500 while striking out 32% of the time in 28 Plate Appearances. If he goes in the tank long term, the absence of Kang is going to be even harder to stomach, unless Hurdle & Huntington entrust second base to Adam Frazier and move Josh Harrison to the hot corner, where his defense would be a bonus over Freese’s.

6) Adam Frazier – I know, it’s hard to believe anyone, let alone 5 players on this ball club, have been better than Frazier, but this initial power ranking is based on the first 7 weeks as a whole, and not just the last 7 days, when Frazier hit .500, good for the 2nd best BA in baseball over that time period, prompting Freese to openly contend that Frazier could compete for a batting title if he gets enough Plate Appearances. He’s not blowing smoke, either. On the season Frazier’s .369 BA/.418 OBP would rank  2nd/11th respectively if dropped in with qualifiers. He’s working on a 6-game multi-hit streak, which in-and-of itself is fairly amazing. If he continues at this rate, he should be permanently cemented in left field and the leadoff spot until Starling Marte returns in July.

5) Josh Bell – The most impressive part of Josh Bell’s season isn’t that he’s leading the team in homers, with 9, split almost evenly from each side of the pate, and not that he’s turned around since a slow start to the month of April. The most impressive part has been that Bell is already playing first base better than was ever expected. His range is limited, and his footwork and instincts still need work, but how many of us were willing to put up with a HUGE, 20+ error learning curve from Bell given his offensive ability? Couple his more-than-serviceable defense with the tinkering he’s done at the plate to find his power, and you’ve got the most complete player on this team right now with McCutchen in the tank and Marte suspended. Well, maybe the 2nd most complete…

4) Josh Harrison – J-Hay can play anywhere on the field, and can also hit lead off when pressed into service, and because of those abilities to do just about anything – even the ridiculous and the sublime, such as popping up on a slide 3 feet short of the bag in order to avoid a tag on an otherwise ill-advised attempt at a hustle double – the Pirates have found a 1-2 combo at the top of the order, regardless of which position either plays in the field.  A .286/.317/.481 hitter in the #1 spot, most of which was during Frazier’s absence, Harrison has been right there with Freese and Frazier in sustaining the Pirates’ offense in April when Polanco and McCutchen began their stints in witness protection.

3) Felipe Rivero – He will be the best closer the Pirates have had in years, and arguably one of the 2 or 3 best in baseball when he gets the job later this summer, and his promotion will be well-deserved. If you want to sum up Rivero’s season to date in one at-bat, go back to the Top of the 7th on Thursday afternoon. The Bucs, nursing an 8-4 lead, were staring down Bryce Harper less than 48 hours after he’d nearly ripped hole in the Clement Wall with a line drive homer. With runners on the corners, the Nationals were one swing away from pulling within a run. Hurdle summoned Rivero, and he pulled out five consecutive heaters ranging from 99-100mph in order to get Harper swinging on a full count fastball and end the threat, effectively icing a series win against the best team in the National League.

2) Ivan Nova – The numbers Nova has put up since becoming a Pirate on August 1st, 2016 speak for themselves: Just 7 walks in 126.1 innings, an ERA of 2.85, and 5 complete games. He is this team’s new A.J. Burnett, taking younger and/or less experienced players under his wing, following the plan Ray Searage has laid out for him, and becoming the kind of stopper that ensures a losing streak should never go beyond 4 games. Moreover, he’s provided at least 6 innings of work in every start in 2017, meaning the effects of short outings by younger starters on the team’s bullpen have been minimized somewhat by his uncanny efficiency.

1) Gerrit Cole – After suffering the worst run support of any National League pitcher over the first month of the season, Cole would’ve been forgiven if he’d lost his cool. Instead, he’s seemingly found a new level of Zen on the mound.  Remove his first start of the season in Boston – really, the last time he noticeably lost his cool – and you’ve got a 2.25 ERA and 0.96 WHIP, which would be good for 7th and 6th, respectively, in MLB in those metrics, and just behind a guy named Clayton Kershaw in each. He is still the key to this team getting past a Wild Card Game should they return to one with him still here, and is showing signs that he’s finally become the legit ‘ace’ we saw flashes of a couple of seasons ago. When the Pirates were scoring runs during their 2013-2015 run, we’d say “As Cutch goes, so go the Pirates.” Now, when pitching is the key to the Bucs’ survival sans Marte and Kang (and effectively without McCutchen as well), it is “As Cole goes, so go the Pirates.”

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Next week we’ll update these power rankings in a slightly less verbose manner after a 4-game set in Atlanta and 3 at home against the Mets.