Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview Bullpen: The Shark Tank Is Still Loaded

Hey gang!

Back for the last edition of the Pirate preview, looking at the bullpen.

I've always thought the idea of a fish tank in the clubhouse was a great idea. However, the times get really exciting as our leader of the Shark Tank begins work in the ninth inning, taking a bite out of dominant hitters and closing out victories for the Pirates. I remember starting 2014 with "Grilled Cheese Time", but by midseason, we were seeing "Landshark" sightings. For those of you that don't remember the old Landshark sketches on Saturday Night Live, take a look at the video below. Unfortunately, I couldn't find one of the original bits that was way funnier, but you'll get the idea from this clip from Monday Night Football.

That's where the bullpen begins, Mark Melancon. He became the closer shortly before Jason Grilli got shipped to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. Melancon finished the season 3-5 in 72 appearances, with 33 saves, striking out 71 in 71 innings pitched. The amazing stat of Melancon's year is that he only walked 11 batters in 2014. His 1.90 ERA also tells us that if the Landshark was called upon, it was game over.

Even in the eighth inning, thinks looked good with a Bucco lead. All Star Tony Watson had a stellar season, going 10-2 in a league leading 78 appearances. His earned run average was 1.63 in 77 1/3 innings, striking out 81 batters and only walking 15. Watson added a pair saves to the team total as well.

As good as Watson was a season ago, the Pirate pen got stronger and may have received another option for the eighth in newcomer Antonio Bastardo. He was acquired from the Phillies on December 10 after a decent season as the bridge to the ninth for Jonathan Papelbon. Bastardo was 5-7 in 67 games (64 IP), walking only 34 while striking out 81 with a 3.94 earned run average in the band box in Philadelphia. Those numbers will get better at PNC Park.

Four more return from that 2014 bullpen. Jared Hughes went 7-5 in 63 appearances (64 1/3 IP) with a 1.96 ERA, walking 19 batters and striking out 36. Stolmy Pimentel battled back from injuries to post a 2-1 mark in 20 games. His ERA was high (5.23) despite better numbers after coming back. He struck out 38 in 32 1/3 innings pitched and walked 16. John Holdzkom made a great late season run in nine games, striking out 14 in nine innings pitched and walked only two batters. Bobby LaFromboise also made an impact in six games after being acquired from Seattle in 3 2/3 innings for the Black and Gold.

The Pirates have also made a couple interesting pickups in the offseason to this point (1/26/15). Former Bucco Brad Lincoln returned to the fold as a free agent pickup after spending most of last season at Philadelphia's AAA affiliate in Lehigh Valley. At Lehigh, Lincoln was tried out as a starter after several seasons in Pittsburgh and Toronto as a reliever with the hopes of someday closing. As a starter, Lincoln made 22 starts, going 6-11 with a complete game, walking 58 and striking out 112 in 123 1/3 innings. His ERA was 5.11, a little high, but decent after being in the bullpen for so long. The Pirates could end up using him as a long relief man or spot starter.

The other pickup was Rob Scahill from the Colorado Rockies. He made only 12 appearances for the Rox, pitching 15 innings, walking nine and striking out 11. My outlook for Scahill is probably Indianapolis until later, much like Vin Mazzaro a year ago.

As you can see, the Pirates' bullpen looks pretty solid to this point. There are a few guys still out there that could make decent to good pickups.

First, there hasn't been much news on former Washington Nationals Rafael Soriano this offseason. I know that Soriano lost the closer's job in 2014, but had a pretty good season. He 4-1 with 32 saves in 64 appearances for the Nationals. In 62 innings, he walked 19 and struk out 59. Since 2012, Soriano has had 117 saves between New York and Washington. Remember, before he took the Yankees' job from Mariano Rivera that he was also a great eighth inning guy as well. While he might be good enough to take the closer's role and/or eighth inning role, the price tag might be too high on him to take. His price may be declining and if the Pirates could get him at a reasonable price, he very well would be worth looking at.

Casey Janssen is also still available after being a teammate of Lincoln's in Toronto. Janssen was the closer for the Blue Jays in 2014 going 3-3 in 50 appearances. He had 25 saves in 45 2/3 innings pitched, walking seven and striking out 28. The Nationals checked in with him recently (January 18), but that is really the first news on Janssen since he hired a new agent on November 4. That tells me that Janssen is probably looking for a closer job, but I would not make him the closer over Melancon. He might be a good fall back option, but not a primary guy for closer duties.

Another arm that has been a closer before is Chris Perez, a Dodger in 2014. Perez struggled in Los Angeles as the Dodgers looked for a guy to handle the eighth inning to set up Kenley Jansen. However, Perez did not fare well. He wasn't atrocious in 49 games for the Dodgers though as he had a 4.27 ERA over 46 1/3 innings. He struck out 39 and walked 25, but he also be an arm for Ray Searage to look at to help recover.

The final arm for suggestion is also a project. Mike Adams, a former teammate of Lincoln and Bastardo's, struggled in returning from rotator cuff problems over the last couple seasons. In 22 games, Adams went 2-1 in 18 2/3 innings with a 2.89 ERA, walking eight and striking out 21. He may still have something left and is probably worth a least a look.

So at the moment, that's how the Pirates look for 2015. Starting next time, we'll begin to look at divisional opponents, starting with our biggest rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. We'll look first at their position players including offseason acquisitions and other potential minor league stars on the horizon.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitching Preview...Batman & Robin Reunited, Liriano Returns

Hey gang!

After a quick look at the outfield last time, I decided to break up the pitching into starters and relievers because this article would be extra long if I put both together. Thanks for those of you that voted on my survey as to who we'll cover after the Pirates. By a slim margin, the Cardinals won out over the Cubs, so those will be next as we'll stay in the NL Central. But first things first...

We talked about Russell Martin leaving and how that may or may not affect the Pirates' pitching in 2015, but one thing remains, pitching coach Ray Searage. The man that has become almost magical with arms is back. I saw a beautiful picture of him on Jameson Taillon's twitter feed a week ago working with the youngster and the hopes to get Taillon back on track in 2015. As we go through a few of these starters and potential starters, I'll talk briefly on a few I think Searage might be most helpful to in 2015.

However, a man he will get to work with again is A J Burnett. Burnett returns to the Steel City for less money and one last run for a World Series. I always thought Burnett leaving was a bad decision, for him and for the Pirates. In Philadelphia, the Phillies used him to his maximum, but without the backing in the field, he was hung with a National League worst 18 losses. He won eight games in those 34 starts over 213 2/3 innings. While he was out on the hill, he also walked a league leading 96 batters, or four batters every nine innings. He did continue to strike guys out at an eight per game rate with 190 for the season. That was down from his 9.8 K/9 IP average and 209 strikeouts in Pittsburgh in 2013. He won't lose 18 again.

Francisco Liriano liked Pittsburgh so much, he re-signed with the Buccos for three years in the offseason. While his win-loss total fell, it was not representative of his brilliant second half. Liriano ended up 7-10, while striking out 175 in 162 1/3 innings. his highest strikeout total since 2010 in Minnesota. He went 6-3 in 14 starts after the All Star Break, including going 4-0 in September as he was finally healthy. The Pirates are looking for more of September in 2015.

Gerrit Cole continued to live up to the number one pick from 2011 as he went 11-5 in 22 starts. He walked only 40 batters while striking out 138 batters for the Pirates in 2014. He was out with injuries twice (in May and August), but also won four in a row in September as he returned strong. He struck out a season-high 12 batters on the season's final day in a 4-1 loss to Cincinnati.

Spots four and five in the rotation will be up for grabs. I'll start with the most likely to get the two spots, then talk about other guys who could get the shot or a chance later in the season to join the rotation.

We'll start with Uncle Charlie, Charlie Morton. Morton returns after missing the last two months with recurring hip problems. His 2014 wasn't going well after getting that four-year deal before the season. He was only 6-12 in 157 1/3 innings while leading the league for the second consecutive year in hit batsmen (19 in 2014, 16 in 2013). Seeing that, control is still an issue with Morton. He struck out 126 and walked 57. That hip problem could loom large and might even place him in the pen before all is said and done, just as the Pirates kept him in late September. Morton will probably start the season as the Pirates' #4.

The "Vanimal" Vance Worley, came back from the dead in 2014. After a great rookie campaign in Philadelphia that ended with him finishing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting at 11-3 in 131 2/3 innings, he struggled mightily in 2012 and was traded to Minnesota in 2013 to another tough campaign. However, Searage helped him regain his confidence and form while going 8-4 in 17 starts after making it to Pittsburgh on June 15, including a complete game shutout on July 28 against the Giants and eight innings of another shutout, a 1-0 variety against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 21. Worley, in my mind, should be the #4 starter, but probably will be #5.

That leaves Batman's (AJ) Robin, Jeff Locke, out in the cold temporarily. Locke rebounded from losing all confidence after the All Star Game in 2013 to mount a good comeback in 2014, going 7-6 in 21 starts. His strikeout rate was down slightly (from 6.8/9 to 6.1/9), but cut his walk ratio to almost half (from 4.5/9 to 2.7/9) after leading the National League in free passes in 2013 with 84. While he might make the squad out of camp, it might not be surprising to see him make a few starts at Indianapolis to keep his arm strength up until he is needed in the 'Burgh.

It also leaves newly married Brandon Cumpton awaiting another call-up as well. He went 3-4 in 10 starts in Pittsburgh with a 4.89 ERA in 70 innings. He was better in Indianapolis, going 5-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 71 innings, but only struck out 37, while walking 20 batters. Cumpton will need to work on control and lower the walk ratio with Searage to get another extended look in 2015.

Another intriguing arm that should get a look is Casey Sadler. Sadler won 11 games in each of 2013 (at AA Altoona) and 2014 (at AAA Indianapolis) as a starter. The Pirates gave him a look in the bullpen in September in six appearances, but his numbers as a starter make him a possibility at some point in 2015.

We talked about the potential signing of Jung-ho Kang from the Korean Baseball Organization during the infield preview and that deal was finalized last week. The Pirates took a flier on another KBO pitcher in Radhames Liz. Last year, Liz spent time in AA and AAA of Toronto's organization going 3-2 in 12 starts with a 2.95 ERA. Before that, Liz spent three seasons with the LG Twins of the KBO going 26-38 with a 3.58 ERA. In his limited numbers with the Jays, he struck out 44 and walked 24, so working on his control is something that will continue in Indy, most likely.

I talked earlier about the picture of Jameson Taillon and he heads a class of draftees over the past five years that might finally show Neal Huntington's talent evaluation to be spot on. Taillon spent last season recovering from Tommy John surgery and the effects were showing in the middle of 2013 as he 5-10 across Altoona and Indianapolis. However, hopes are high for Taillon that he will make a full recovery in 2015 and prove that second overall pick in 2010 was a wise one.

I am starting to believe that Altoona is a great stop for our pitchers to learn and get better. Proof is Adrian Sampson, who had struggled through 2013 in A ball, but pitched brilliant at Altoona in 2014. Sampson went 10-5 and came within an out of a no-hitter during the season. In 24 starts over 148 innings, he walked only 30, while striking out 99. His 2.55 ERA is just another highlight from the Pirates' 5th round pick in 2012.

Nick Kingham got the ball rolling in Altoona as well in 2014, but the fruit began showing as he hit AAA. At Indianapolis, he followed up a struggling 1-7 at Altoona, going 5-4 in 14 starts (88 IP), with a 3.58 ERA, striking out 65 and walking only 27. He may start at Indy for the first half, but may see Pittsburgh by season's end.

Finally, the horizon is still bright for 2011 fifth round pick Tyler Glasnow. At A Bradenton last season, Glasnow went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA in 124 innings (23 starts), striking out 157 batters while walking only 57. Granted, his walk total still needs work and his strikeout rate of 11.4 K/9 will drop as he advances through the ranks, but he may get a September call-up just to see what he has.

I want to end my look at potential starters with a guy a lot of people may not have noticed the Pirates pick up in this offseason. Former Padre Clayton Richard won 14 games for the Friars in 2010 and 2012. He had arm problems and had surgery in 2013. He was a late season sign for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014. He had a few starts at AA Mobile, but got a September call to AAA Reno. He made one start and in it, he took home the win pitching 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs and 11 hits, a quality start. This may be Searage's project for 2015. Yes, while he gave up a lot of homers in 2012 in San Diego, the Padres put him out there for over 200 innings twice in his time there (201.2 in 2010 and 218.2 in 2012). He could become an innings eater and a pitcher that can keep the Pirates in the game. He's my pick to surprise in 2015.

There you have it, the starter preview. In our final edition for the Pirates, we'll look at the bullpen next time.

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, January 18, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirate Outfield Preview...More Than a Cup of Coffee

Hey gang!

The last few articles have covered the Pirate infield and behind the dish. Today, we take a look at a pretty solid slate of positions in the outfield.

We begin with the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player in center, Andrew McCutchen. Things won't change in 2015 as he will be manning center field. In 2012 and 2013, he led the league in games played in center and would've again last season if not for the Arizona Diamondbacks and their need to have revenge for Ernesto Frieri's fastball across the hands of Paul Goldschmidt.

Offensively, Cutch has been awesome over the last three seasons. I don't understand critics that want him to hit more homers. Yes, his homers have fallen from the 31 in 2012, but remember the rest of the game that Cutch brings to the table. The guy steals 20 bases, hits .314 or better, drives in 80+ runs and leads the National League in on base percentage (.410 in 2014). What more can you ask from a guy that has finished top three in the NL MVP voting three straight seasons.

Left field is nearly as solid. Starling Marte has been almost as good since coming up in July 2012. Last season, most of the numbers continued to improve (29 doubles, 13 homers, 56 RBI), including his batting average getting up to .291. Marte might have been the hottest hitting Pirate not named Russell Martin after he returned from injury in August. His 30 stolen bases were down from 41 in 2013, but he also was caught less often. Defensively, he was in left field more often (124 games) than everyone except Dom Brown in Philly (132) and Matt Holiday in St. Louis (136). Had he not been in center during McCutchen's 15-day DL stint, he would have led the league in left. His five errors were tied for the most in the league with a handful of guys, including Brown.

Rounding out the outfield in right is "El Coffee", Gregory Polanco. His cup of coffee was 89 games in 2014 and there were flashes of what Pirate fans have seen at every level of the minors in him. However, teams began figuring out that he struggled with the breaking balls. Even though Polanco hit seven homers and stole 14 bases, he also struck out 59 times. Most of those were after that extremely hot first month up. He ended the season hitting .235, but that will improve. On defense, he finished 2014 with five outfield assists, including two double plays, which tied him for third in the National League among right fielders.

That sounds pretty good for an outfield expected to be in the Steel City through 2018. Just thinking about the potential of 70-80 stolen bases, 60-70 homers, a cumulative batting average around .300, along with solid defense that will get you 15-25 outfield assists in a season makes most Pirate fans drool. Admittedly though, there are doubters after the tough late August and September run that Polanco had. Can he get back to the form that made him draw comparisons to the late, great Roberto Clemente? While I think that he'll bounce back, the Pirates are not short on guys that can fill time in right (or anywhere else) if the need arises.

When I talked about the first basemen, we already talked about Corey Hart and Andrew Lambo, along with their potential to back up Pedro Alvarez. Those words hold true in right field as well. While Hart would probably be better suited to back up Pedro, Lambo has been in right more often and could serve better here, if needed.

However, our super sub, bat off the bench, is nothing short of a Lunch Box Hero. Travis Snider came up in the Blue Jays' organization back in 2008-09 and showed flashes of greatness in Toronto. The problem with Snider was his streakiness. After coming here in the Brad Lincoln trade at the 2012 trade deadline, Snider struggled with injuries hampering him through the 2013 season. In 2014, a healthy Snider became our best bat off the bench, leading the league in pinch hits, and was clutch in the field in both right and left field, only committing one error.

Beyond Snider, the Pirates have to be looking to rid themselves of an awful contract of Jose Tabata. Even though Tabata is not on the 40-man roster, the Pirates are guaranteed to be out $8.5 million over the next two years. The team also has options that end up totaling $22.5 million from 2017-19. At this point, I can't see any way that the Pirates would even take the first team option in 2017 at $6.5 million. Tabata has lost all power and most of the speed that came with him from the Yankees years ago. I'd like to say he's become a doubles hitter, but I think even that might be complementary of how bad his skills have eroded.

The outfield is pretty much set for a long time and that is a good thing as most of the Pirate prospects for the outfield are only in High A, maybe AA Altoona for 2015. Next up, we'll look at the pitching staff and bullpen for 2015.

Remember, I am looking at you guys to tell me who you'd like to see covered next after the Buccos. Click here to go to the one question survey. If you can't get there, you can always leave your suggestion in the comments.

Thanks for reading,

Kang signs, Survey time

Hey gang!

Since last time, Jung-ho Kang has signed a four-year deal to play with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I know it has been a while since I've posted, but later today, hopefully, we'll have up the new article on the Pirate outfield. After the Pirate pitching article, which is next after the outfield outlook, I'm going to start looking at other teams in the dead time of January. Here's where you get to tell me who you would like to look at next. Just go to the Survey Monkey survey and toss in your thoughts. Thanks!

Go here!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Infield Overview-How Kang "Kong" Will Fit In

Hey gang!

Last time, we talked about how Pedro Alvarez' switch to first base will have a major impact. This time, we'll talk about how the rest of the infield shapes up, from second base to the left side of the diamond.

We'll begin with Jung-ho Kang, the Korean star that the Pirates received rights to negotiate with, thanks to their $5 million bid for the rights. While it isn't a sure thing that Kang will sign, the Pirate organization is very optimistic that a deal will get done.

The background on Kang is this: He has been with Nexen in the Korean baseball leagues since 2010. In his progression, his power numbers have went up while his speed numbers have gone down. Kang stole 21 bases as recently as 2012, but managed only three in 2014. However, Kang led the league in homers (40) and runs batted in (117) with 36 doubles. While other writers have said that he is decent to below average, I was unable to find statistics to back any of their opinions. Let's be honest, though. Kang was signed for the potential King Kong numbers he could post. How will the offense translate? Hopefully, with big dividends.

That leaves the next question. Where will Kang end up in the Pirates already crowded infield. For now, the starters are somewhat entrenched in their positions. Neil Walker won a Silver Slugger in 2014 at second base and Josh Harrison was an All Star and played so well last season that he displaced Alvarez from the hot corner. Jordy Mercer played well at shortstop, but admittedly his numbers were down from 2013.

The first primary thought is that if Kang puts up the same offense as he did in Korea that he would displace Mercer and start at short. There is an adjustment to Major League Baseball from Korea and many believe that he will start as a bench player, helping give the Pirates their best bench in many years. If the bench is as those critics suggest, we may see a bench of Travis Snider, Corey Hart, Andrew Lambo, and Sean Rodriguez (whom we'll talk about later).Of those pundits, the thought is to watch Kang play his way into a starting role, no matter where it might be among the three positions.

There are some baseball observers that say signing Kang would make Walker expendable and potentially a trade chip. While that may be true, it probably isn't the way the Pirates are thinking yet. Walker is signed through 2017 and is coming off his greatest offensive season. Walker hit 23 homers, 25 doubles and drove in 76 runs while hitting .271 last season. His defense is also improving each season as his errors have dropped since 2012 (9 in 2012, 7 in 2013 and 5 in 2014). He was fourth in assists, putouts and double plays turned by National League second basemen, only behind the Phillies' Chase Utley, the Marlins' new acquisition Dee Gordon (from LA) and Colorado's DJ Lamahieu. I don't foresee Walker going anywhere, but Kang would be of help if his back trouble from previous seasons returns.

Josh Harrison came out of nowhere in 2014 to be an All Star and eventually replaced Alvarez at third once the injury bug finally closed out his season. Alvarez wasn't going back to third after leading the league in errors the past three seasons, but Kang is also insurance if Harrison regresses from his strong season. In 2014, Harrison hit .315 in 143 games, smashed 38 doubles and 13 homers while showing above average speed with 18 steals and seven triples. He improved the third base position as well with only three errors in 73 games at the hot corner.

Kang's best shot at a starting role is at shortstop. After Jordy Mercer burst onto the scene in 2013, his 2014 season was slightly less impressive. However, Mercer hit well considering that he spent most of the season hit in the eighth hole, right before the pitcher. Mercer hit .255, with 27 doubles and 12 homers, along with driving in 55 runs. On defense, he was among average shortstops with 11 errors and finished second in the NL in assists for shortstops (behind the Brewers' Juan Segura). If Mercer starts slow offensively, he might be one that gets pulled for Kang.

The good news for Pirate fans is that Kang is not the end of capable backups for all three. we'll use the rest of this column to talk about others that may garner some time in the Bucco infield.
in the offseason.

The primary utility infielder will most likely be Sean Rodriguez, traded from the Rays on December 1. He been good over the years in Tampa and last season was no exception. His .211 batting average is a bit of a deterrent and misleading as he also hit 12 homers with 41 RBI in 96 games. On defense, he made only three errors in the field (2 at 2B, 1 at 3B). While Snider and Hart will most likely be the first two of the bench offensively, Rodriguez will probably be first for defensive purposes.

The Pirates also picked up three players off of waivers for the infield. The first is former Twin Pedro Florimon. Florimon started out well in Minnesota, but fell off the cliff and was eventually demoted. The Twins tried to stay with him through 33 games in 2014, but going 7-for-76 for a .092 was his undoing. He started to rebound at the Twins' AAA Rochester with 17 doubles and 12 steals in 85 games. However, his defense suffered with 18 errors (14 at SS, 4 at 3B). The Pirates are hoping that the change of scenery and the positive reward of returning to the big league club is incentive for a turnaround.

The Pirates also picked up Jake Elmore from Cincinnati. Elmore had his best season in 2012 with Arizona's minor league affiliate in Reno with 30 doubles, 32 steals and nine triples. That season he committed only seven errors (5 at 3B, 2 at 2B). Between Sacramento and Louisville in 2014, he hit .279 and again had seven errors (3 at 2B, 4 at SS).  The other waiver pickup was Justin Sellers, picked up from Cleveland on October 25. Sellers has floated around AAA teams since 2010 for the most part and struggled defensively at short in 2014 with 23 errors between Albuquerque and Columbus.

The other future hope is in Alen Hanson. He had success in the Arizona Fall League at second base and had a good offensive season at AA Altoona. He hit .280 with the Curve, with 21 doubles, 12 triples, 11 homers, and 25 steals. His defense led to the move to second after 29 errors at short. He closed the season with only four errors at second. Hanson probably won't reach Pittsburgh in 2015 unless he thrives at AAA Indianapolis and gets a September call-up.

The Buccos are pretty well set in the infield. Some have reported the possibility of picking up Ben Zobrist in another trade with the Rays. I won't go as far as saying we don't need him, because he is a proven bat and can play practically anywhere. His veteran presence would make him welcome, but I don't see the need to have him at all costs at this point.

Next time, we'll take a look at the Pirate outfield, the strongest group of the Pirates.

Thanks for reading,

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 Baseball Hall of Fame...Who would I have in?

Hey gang!

Tomorrow, January 6, 2015, is announcement day for the 2015 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I'll talk about who I think should go in, who might go in, who shouldn't go in and those that we will be waving au revoir to after the announcement.

Shameless book plug. If you remember 2013, nobody got in and that happened to be the year that I wrote my thoughts in book form. If you'd love to help me out and purchase a copy from the Kindle Store, you can get that book, 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame Nominees: The Case For 37 Men. Click the book title and you can purchase it through Amazon for only 99 cents. I get 35% of the profits, meaning Amazon gets the rest. Now onto the list for this year.

This year, there are 34 men vying for votes. We'll start with a short list of the guys who I don't think will get 5% of the vote, which is a requirement to stay on the ballot for next year. I am not slighting any player on the list, as we know it is an honor to even be considered, but there are some that I know won't get the votes needed. Here they are (alphabetically): Rich Aurilia, Aaron Boone, Tony Clark, Jermaine Dye, Darin Erstad, Cliff Floyd, Brian Giles, Tom Gordon, Eddie Guardado, and  Jason Schmidt. Those were all first year ballot eligible.

That brings us to 22 left. Three guys are in their 13th year or later and will be leaving the list after they don't get the 75% vote to be inducted as the Hall of Fame is changing their standard to ten years on the ballot, rather than 15 years. Those guys are Lee Smith, Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly. Smith had 29.9% in his 12th year on the ballot, with his highest percentage three years ago with just over 50 percent of the votes in 2012. Trammell is on his 15th ballot and had 20.8% a year ago. Finally, Mattingly had 8.2% of the vote in his 14th try, so this is #15 for him as well. Down to 19 left.

Let's take a look at those last 19 men. I'll do it alphabetically, telling you a little about each, what I think their chances are and if I would vote them in for 2015.

Jeff Bagwell (5th ballot, 54.3% last year): Bags was the heart of the Houston Astro teams of the 90's and the early part of the 2000's. He was the 1991 NL ROY and won the NL MVP in 1994. He also finished runner-up to the MVP in 1999 and went to four All Star Games. He hit 449 homers his 15 seasons in Houston, but has been grazed by the PED scandal just enough to keep him on the outside. He's been in the 54-60% for the last three years and I do think, in time, he will get there.

Craig Biggio (3rd, 74.8%): As much as Bagwell was the heart, Biggio was the soul of the Astros from 1988-2008. He missed induction by one vote last year. The 7-time National League All Star converted from catcher to second base and didn't miss a beat. His 668 doubles leave him fifth all-time. If there is such a thing as a lock, he should be it. He is probably near the top of my ballot, if I had one.

Barry Bonds (3rd, 34.7%): If pure numbers and records made a Hall of Famer, Bonds would be as much of a shoo-in as say, Pete Rose. Bonds holds the single-season and career home run records and has been National League Most Valuable Player seven times. However, two things hold Barry back from the Hall. First and foremost is the argument of PED use. The second is that he is not well liked by a media that likes to be liked by its players. Me personally, I'll let him in when they let Rose in, which might be sooner than you think with Bud Selig gone.

Roger Clemens (3rd, 35.4%): Clemens is the pitching equivalent of Bonds. He has won six Cy Young awards, 354 games (good enough for ninth all-time), and was on two World Series championships with the New York Yankees. However, he is under scrutiny because of the McNamara case and like Bonds, was not well liked by everyone in the media, the guys who have the votes to induct him. He is probably not getting in this year and may struggle as long as the media has that vote. Again, I'd let him in in time.

Carlos Delgado (1st): Delgado spent most of his career north of the border, playing for the Toronto Blue Jays. Even though he hit 473 career homers (two behind Hall of Famer Willie Stargell), he never played in a postseason until 2006 with the New York Mets. With only one postseason appearance, three All Star appearances and a runner-up placing in the AL MVP in 2003 (a close loss to Alex Rodriguez' last season in Texas), his homer total falls below the 500 that writers love to see to be more of a shoo-in to the Hall. As with Stargell, some get in with less, but Stargell owns two World Series rings that Delgado didn't even get a sniff at. One of my personal favorite players, but he will not get in. A pretty career though.

Nomar Garciaparra (1st): Nomar was in a great class of shortstops of Jeter, Ripken and A Rod for most of the 90's. Unfortunately, the Red Sox had more success after he was traded to Chicago in 2004, winning their first World Series since 1918 three months after Nomar was given the heave-ho. A 5-time All Star and a career .313 hitter, he was also the 1997 AL Rookie of the Year. Yet, in all of that personal success, the teams he was around never won a World Series and that will hurt his chances to being inducted in Cooperstown. He'll get some votes due to a large Red Sox vote following, but I doubt he makes the Hall. I know he doesn't get my vote.

Randy Johnson: (1st): The Big Unit was a dominant force from almost day one. A 5-time Cy Young award winner, winner of 303 games and co-MVP of the 2001 World Series as he and Curt Schilling led the Arizona Diamondbacks to the championship over the New York Yankees. His 4,875 strikeouts are second only to Nolan Ryan in history as he led the league in strikeouts nine times. I can't see Johnson failing to make the induction this year. He's as good as gold to be enshrined this July.

Jeff Kent (2nd, 15.2%): Although he garnered some public support as a castaway on Survivor, his career was equally impressive. He won the NL Most Valuable Player award in 2000 as he hit .334, with 33 homers and 125 RBI, leading the San Francisco Giants to the NLDS that year. He and Barry Bonds helped lead the Giants to the World Series in 2002 and helped the Giants, Astros and Dodgers get to the NLCS in his career. Even though he was a 5-time All Star, I don't think he has enough to get in the Hall. A great career, but just short of a Hall of Fame career.

Edgar Martinez (6th, 25.2%): Martinez played third base and was part of the early generation of good designated hitters. While only Paul Molitor has been inducted from that era, designated hitters are garnering more attention with the likes of David Ortiz in the last few years. The 7-time AL All Star ended his career with a .312 lifetime batting average. What hurts Edgar, is that unlike Molitor and Ortiz, he has no World Series rings. He won AL batting titles in 1992 and 1995, but I don't see that as enough to get the call for Edgar.

Pedro Martinez (1st): Pedro rose to fame in the backdrop of Montreal, but in Boston is where Martinez made himself a star. He was traded to the Red Sox after winning the NL Cy Young in 1997 and added two more Cy Youngs to his hardware in 1999 and 2000. He finally got his World Series ring in 2004. He finished with 8 All Star appearances and 219 career wins. Pedro also crossed the 3,000 strikeout threshold in 2007 with the New York Mets. His celebrity and the northeast contingent will probably get him in Cooperstown, even though I'm not sure it will be this year. He'd be on my ballot as his character is one of those that makes baseball fun.

Fred McGriff (6th, 11.7%): Before 50 homers became the norm in the late 90's, McGriff was among the league leaders every year in Toronto and walked off with two AL home run titles as a member of the Blue Jays. However, he didn't get his World Series ring until 1995 as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He finished his career in Tampa Bay with 493 home runs. While he was a vital part of the Braves back-to-back World Series appearances in 1995 and 1996, along with being the main cog in Toronto in the late 80's, it probably won't get him to Cooperstown. With as many guys getting votes this year, it wouldn't surprise me if he fell below the 5% threshold for next year's ballot.

Mark McGwire (9th, 11%): Big Mac gives me more emotional heartache than any player up for nomination for the Hall of Fame. In Oakland, he won the AL Rookie of the Year while breaking the rookie homer record with 49 in 1987, then followed that up taking his teams to the World Series in three consecutive years, winning in 1989 over the Giants. However, it was 1998 that I and most baseball fans will never forget. He and Sammy Sosa brought life back to baseball (along with Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak) with a home run breaking season for the ages. As they competed in September, McGwire eventually became the single-season home run champion (until Bonds broke the record three years later) with 70 home runs. The downfall and what I think will hold McGwire out of the Hall is his testimony (or lack thereof) in 2005 before Congress. His tears and pain as he testified were obvious and incriminated the game of PED use. He might be the exception of the PED users that I would grant induction, purely because of what he meant to bringing back the game in '98.

Mike Mussina (2nd, 20.3%): Mussina was a durable starter in all of his 18 seasons in MLB, even though he did not win 20 games in any season until his last in New York as a Yankee. He won 270 games over those 18 years and may become this generation's Bert Blyleven. He will probably have to wait even though he was a winner no matter where he was, whether that be Baltimore or New York. He would be on my ballot because he was as consistent as they come.

Troy Percival (1st): A 4-time All Star was overshadowed in his own bullpen as his Anaheim Angels won the 2002 World Series. His 358 saves are not an automatic, as fellow closer Lee Smith has struggled and failed to get into Cooperstown, despite being reliable to close out games. He saved 30 or more games in eight out of nine seasons in Anaheim and had 28 in 2008 for the Tampa Bay Rays. Based on closer history, you have to be really special to get in. Odds are he won't. It would surprise me if he doesn't get the 5% to hang on for a while though.

Mike Piazza (3rd, 62.2%): To be honest, I am kind of surprised to see Piazza still on the outside. He holds almost every offensive catcher record including 427 homers. He did it all under the spotlight of Los Angeles and New York. He only made the World Series in 2001, but dominated the catcher position from his NL Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993, until he finished his career in Oakland in 2007. He should be in this year. I can't see the writers waiting another year on Piazza.

Tim Raines (8th, 46.1%): From his rookie season in 1981 in Montreal, Rock rolled and ran the bases as well as Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. He led the NL in stolen bases from 1981 through 1984, with his high of 90 in 1983. Raines had 10 or more steals in 16 consecutive seasons through 1996. He is fifth all-time in career steals. He won a World Series in 1996 with the Yankees, despite not stealing a base in the series. The bad news for Rock is that homers are valued more than steals by the writers (Chicks dig the long ball, player) and that means that Rock may be sitting outside the Hall until the Veterans Committee vote him in. I loved watching him play and for me, he's on my ballot, right next to Craig Biggio).

Curt Schilling (3rd, 29.2%): I can only see that personality is holding him back from Hall induction. He speaks his mind and that rubs people the wrong way. A 7-time All Star and 3-time World Series champion tells you the most important stat, Schilling is a winner. He won 20 games in a season three times and was Co-MVP of the World Series in 2001 with Arizona. Then, he followed that up with possibly the greatest performance in World Series history while leading the Red Sox to the World Series in 2004 in the "Bloody Sock" game. For historical perspective alone, he's on my ballot. Unfortunately, it may take time to convince the writers of MLB.

Gary Sheffield (1st): A 9-time All Star, playing 22 seasons between eight different teams, he won his lone World Series appearance as a member of the Florida Marlins in 1997. He is 25th on the all-time homers list with 509. He also won a batting title in 1992 while a member of the San Diego Padres. Known for his power, you may be surprised to know that he is a lifetime .292 hitter. He finished as the runner-up to the AL Most Valuable Player award to Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels in 2004. While he has the homer numbers that the voters like, he may not have enough accolades and post-season numbers to get him to Cooperstown. Some of his numbers surprised me, but not enough to get my vote.

John Smoltz (1st): Smoltz pitched his first 19 seasons in Atlanta and did everything well. He won 24 games to lead the majors in the Braves' lone World Series victory season in 1996. After missing an entire season in 2000 due to injury, he came back in 2001 as the Braves' closer through 2004, making him the only pitcher in major league history with 200 wins and 150 saves in a career. Along with last year inductees, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz helped the Braves dominate over a decade in the NL East. Even though they only won in 1996, they appeared in five World Series together in the 90's. He also struck out 3,084 batters throughout his career. Smoltz is as much of a slam-dunk as his teammates' induction a year ago. He definitely gets my vote and should be inducted in July.

Sammy Sosa (3rd, 7.2%): Up until 2004, I would've said that Swingin' Sammy was a guarantee for the Hall. He was as much a part of the bringing back of baseball with Mark McGwire in 1998, even winning the MVP over him in the National League that year. From 1998-2001, Sosa became the only player in major league history to have four consecutive 50 homer seasons. However, in 2003, the wheels began to fall off for Sosa. Sosa spent time on the disabled list with toenail issues and then the infamous corked bat incident in June. After coming back from the suspension, helped lead the Cubs to the NLCS and the Cubs lost to the Marlins in seven games. At the end of the 2004 season, the love for Sosa had worn out and he left the team before the final game's completion. Even though he finished out strong in Texas in 2007 with 21 homers to finish his career with 609, good enough for eighth on the all-time list, the damage had been done with the PED discussion in front of Congress two years earlier. While I might consider a vote for Sammy, most voters aren't even thinking about it. It has become so bad for Sammy that he may fall under the 5% threshold this year.

Larry Walker (5th, 10.2%): Walker started his career and might have sown his legacy had the 1994 season gone to completion. He was leading the Montreal Expos to the best record in the game. Then the strike came. Once it was over, Walker went to Colorado for 10 seasons and continued to show that he was one of the best hitters in the game, winning three batting titles in 1998, 1999 and 2001 and won the NL Most Valuable Player award in 1997 . While critics complain that his hitting was stilted thanks to the air of the mountains of Colorado, Walker closed out his career with a .313 lifetime batting average. In 2004, he was traded to St. Louis and helped the Cardinals to the World Series and while his teammates were faltering, Walker hit .357 and smashed a pair of home runs in the sweep by Boston. Even though I consider Walker one of the most underrated players in the game, because of his time in Colorado, he probably won't get the votes. However, he would get the nod from me.

So there you have it. My ballot would include Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mark McGwire, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Rock Raines, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz and Larry Walker. I know that is 11, but if I had to leave one of those off this year, I'd say Walker.

My honest feeling tomorrow is that Biggio, Johnson, Piazza and Smoltz will get the votes necessary, even though I'd love to see a couple more. The biggest class ever was five in the first year of the Hall in 1936. Give me your takes.

Thanks for reading,

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates First Base Preview...Last Ride For El Toro?

Hey gang!

After Russell Martin's departure, which I talked about last time, the biggest question for the Pirates might be how is Pedro Alvarez going to be in 2015. Looking back at 2014 is probably painful for "El Toro," seeing his season end on the injured list after a disastrous year that ended with him losing his job at third base and now being tried out at first.

The infield gets a big switch on the corners. Josh Harrison will take over for Pedro, something that we'll talk about shortly, and Alvarez will try to learn a new position, manning first base. Critics of Pedro talked incessantly about how his poor defense, a league leading 25 errors in 2014 and also 27 in 2013,getting in his head and affecting his offensive numbers. After a National League leading 36 homers in 2013 (tied with Paul Goldschmidt), his bashing tailed off to 18 homers. What people get upset over is the enormous amount of strikeouts that he has had over the past two seasons. Those total 299 strikeouts over the past two years, leading the NL with 186 in 2013.

The biggest question for 2015 is how he will handle the move from third to first. Most of his errors are because of throws. He won't have to throw as often at first base. We know that he can make great catches, but his concentration will now be receiving the ball. The biggest surprise to most people will be that his hitting didn't fall off as far as people would like to believe. While the homer and runs batted in production was down, his batting remained almost the same, only dipping from .233 to .231. Even more surprising, his on base percentage went up, from .296 to .312. Let's be honest, the Pedro Alvarez we want to see is the power hitting consecutive 30 homer campaigns (done in 2012-13) with less strikeouts and solid defense at first. I believe if he listens to hitting coach Jeff Branson more (some members of the press make comments about how he doesn't listen well) and less to those critics, I think he will find his way back and hopefully be a better hitter (not just basher) in 2015.

However, the Pirates have begun a contingency plan in the case that doesn't happen. The Pirates have already worked with youngsters Andrew Lambo and Josh Bell, both outfielders, to adjust to first base. Part of the reason is because of the future in the Pirates outfield with Marte, McCutchen and Polanco, left to right. All three of them are signed through at least 2018, so there is no room for either in the outfield, except as a reserve.

The tryout for Lambo began at Indianapolis in 2014 with 17 of his 61 games at first base. He had only two errors and hit rather well at Indy with a .328 in 262 at bats, hitting 19 doubles, 11 homers and 42 runs batted in. He's been a late-season call up twice now, but has pedestrian numbers in 39 games over those two seasons (.246 with six doubles in 69 at bats).

The Josh Bell experiment might take longer as he did adjust decently to AA, but lost most of his power while at Altoona. In the Arizona Fall League, the Pirates began the switch to first. Time will tell if it ends up being successful. In the short term, it didn't look good for his offense. he hit .214 in 84 at bats with eight doubles among his 18 hits for the Scottsdale Scorpions. His slugging percentage has dropped almost two hundred points since leaving the friendly confines of A Bradenton. Finding that stroke will be important for him to be a fixture at first in the future for the Buccos.

The Pirates also invested in the free agent market for insurance for first base. They picked up former Milwaukee Brewer Corey Hart in the middle of December. Keep in mind that his 2014 was primarily as a designated hitter for the Seattle Mariners. In 68 games, he had only six homers and 21 RBI, while hitting a paltry .203. The Pirates are hoping that Hart continues to get healthier and return to the form that he had in Milwaukee, where he had 30 homer seasons in 2010 and 2012.

Outside of those possibilities, the Pirates could look to the trade market. However, if Pedro falters, he won't have much value at all and will probably never see that juicy contract that agent Scott Boras is hoping to get by the end of 2017, when he will become a free agent. If you have any trade ideas, post them in the comments.

Next time we look at the Pirates, it will be for the rest of the infield. Next up, I'll give you my picks if I had a ballot for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Thanks for reading,