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Pirates’ first half grades

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

It’s report card time. Or report cards. Eli and I are going to do separate ones because we’re two separate people.

Catcher: B-

On the whole, the first half has been encouraging for the team’s receiving situation. The biggest issue has been Francisco Cervelli’s injuries, with the concussion problem being rather ominous. Cervelli’s bat has rebounded partially; his ISO is actually higher than in 2015. It’s been helpful for Elias Diaz to get meaningful major league time, during which he’s established that he can play in the majors, even if he’s not going to be a star. Chris Stewart’s hitting has collapsed, as his BABIP-driven 2014-15 success appears to be a thing of the past. Diaz presents a nice solution to the problem and would let Cervelli take more time off . . . if he was still in the majors.

Infield: B

Despite some bizarre defensive follies early in the season, the infield production has been more encouraging than not. Josh Harrison has recaptured a little of his 2014 magic and Jordy Mercer has retained the improvement he showed last year in his plate discipline while also adding power. The two of them have combined for three more HRs than they hit all of last year. Mercer also, according to the analytics, has bounced back from a down year defensively. David Freese has slumped lately, but there were times earlier this year when he and Adam Frazier (whom I’ll include in the outfield) were about the only things keeping the offense alive. Then there’s Josh Bell, whose glove had Pirate fans terrified but who’s actually been about average at first, even if he’ll never win style points. His bat has been mildly disappointing, but a lot of it seems to be a BABIP issue, which should correct itself. It’s worth remembering that the issue with Bell has mainly been power and he’s clearly made progress there. The utility job has been a disaster, but the situation should improve because Starling Marte’s return will free Frazier to play mostly in the infield. And also because Max Moroff’s hitting can’t possibly get any worse, right?

Outfield: D

This is an F without Andrew McCutchen’s remarkable resurgence. This had to be the team’s strong point and instead it’s been a major weakness. Frazier helped a lot for a while, but he’s slumped badly. Jose Osuna’s development has been a plus, as has John Jaso’s improved power (although he seems to have sacrificed OBP for it.) But the defense without Marte has been bad on a biblical scale. Then there’s Gregory Polanco, who’s turning into one of the most frustrating players in recent Pirate history.

Rotation: C

This has been a case of extremes. On the one hand, there’s Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, early-season Gerrit Cole and post-first-start Trevor Williams. On the other, there’s Tyler Glasnow, the rest of Cole, and Chad Kuhl. The bad performances have been so extreme, though, that they may be disproportionately impacting the team’s bullpen, as their obsession with middle relievers seems to keep growing and growing. Maybe the most interesting thing about the rotation is that the above six pitchers have made all the starts. That’s remarkable given how bad parts of the rotation have been at times. It’s not like there are no alternatives. Steve Brault has been one of the best pitchers in the upper minors for about two months, but he hasn’t gotten a shot. And Glasnow has pitched well since he went to AAA.

Bullpen: D

Another grade gets saved from an F by one player. That would, of course, be Felipe Rivero. I could point to all sorts of crazy numbers to show how good he’s been, but here’s just one: of his six saves, four have required him to get more than three outs. But Rivero’s awesomeness just highlights the mess that makes up the rest of the bullpen. Juan Nicasio has been good, especially for somebody who was expected to be mainly a middle reliever. And Wade LeBlanc has been good except for a terrible month of June. Of the six other relievers who made more than four appearances, the only one with an xFIP below 4.51 was Edgar Santana at 3.99, and he just got sent down.

Manager: C+

I like to use a simple exercise to grade the manager. I make a subjective judgment about the talent level on the team and then compare that to their actual record. The Pirates are five games below .500. With a toxic waste dump masquerading as a bullpen, the team’s ostensible ace pitching like a fifth starter, possibly its two best all-around players out for most or all of the first half, the face of the franchise AWOL for two months, and scattered other problems, I think it’s a wonder that they’re not at least ten games under. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the team’s veteran fixation and the growing obsession with managing the bullpen by loading it with middle relievers reflect Hurdle’s preferences to some degree. Hurdle didn’t, for instance, send the team’s second best catcher to the minors, but he gave Stewart preference over Diaz for starts when the team had three catchers. I’ve also never liked his in-game management much. And he deserves some blame for the situation with Alen Hanson. Having a young player on the roster and not playing him is guaranteed to fail. Still, when I look at the record in light of everything that’s gone wrong, it’s hard to see an argument that Hurdle has hurt this team.

Front Office - Off-Season: C+

The front office is the biggest subject (with players you can just look at the stats, after all), so I’ll tackle it in two parts.

I’m always bemused by off-season front office grades, because the media and probably a large percentage of fans grade a GM’s off-season almost entirely by how much money he spends. Nearly every off-season, one or two teams get lionized for going “all in” on Big Names only to have it blow up in their faces. The Diamondbacks, Padres and White Sox are all examples from recent seasons. And no matter how many times this happens, nobody learns anything. And obviously, the Pirates always grade poorly in this methodology.

What nobody seems to consider is moves not made. Like not trading Andrew McCutchen. Beyond that, I’ve noticed one thing that never gets mentioned is the fact that Neal Huntington spent many months insisting that the Pirates’ analysis showed McCutchen should bounce back. He obviously priced McCutchen accordingly and nobody met that price. But I doubt anybody will ever credit Huntington for being right about that. Huntington also brought Nova back, a move that’s been a savior to the rotation. That move worked out better than probably a very large majority of Big Name free agent signings, but the dollars involved weren’t huge so apparently it doesn’t count.

Two big criticisms of Huntington’s off-season — the supposed failures to get a fourth outfielder or a replacement for Jung-Ho Kang -- make no sense to me. The Pirates have two fourth outfielders in Jaso and Osuna, and they’ve been decent. They’re not good defensively, but if they had good gloves and good bats, they wouldn’t be fourth outfielders, they’d be starting somewhere. With Kang, the Pirates already had a replacement in Freese. He’s not great, but he’s been OK. The idea seems to be that they were supposed to have a backup plan that was as good as Kang. If it was that easy, every team would have 10-12 players as good as Kang. The criticisms aren’t realistic.

You could probably fault the decision to go with Tyler Glasnow, but I think the Pirates have to take gambles like that. (The same could be said of sticking with Polanco.) Teams win with star players and the Pirates’ best chance for acquiring players like that is to develop them. If they’re going to succeed, their chances are better with high-reward, high-risk players than with the sort of low-upside veterans who are most often going to be the alternatives.

Then there’s the bullpen, and that’s been a massive failure. The front office obviously judged badly with Daniel Hudson. It also did so with Antonio Bastardo and Tony Watson. Both had terrible springs and there were warning signs aplenty with Watson going well back into last season. The team needed to load up on relievers who had the potential to pitch in the late innings and, instead, it loaded up on middle relievers. The bench didn’t work out much better, as Phil Gosselin and Hanson turned out to be bad judgments as well.

Front Office - In-Season: F

I don’t want to belabor things that get repeated a hundred times here every day. The Pirates have had a multitude of problems open up during the season, a large percentage of them in the bullpen, and the front office has completely failed to address them. When you’re overworking four relievers while the three or four others in the bullpen are going five, six and seven days at a time without pitching, that’s clearly a sign that you’ve got a bunch of relievers the manager doesn’t trust. It’s all the more disturbing when two of the four overworked relievers have pitched badly. Yet apart from belatedly ditching Bastardo, Huntington seems perfectly fine with the situation. The only changes from the opening day bullpen have been to add two more low-upside middle relievers in Jhan Marinez and, just a few days ago, A.J. Schugel. (I kinda like Schugel, but I’ve always suspected I was going overboard on him.) It’s not like they don’t have two potential late-inning guys in AAA, in Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas. Yeah, they’ll probably struggle a bit, but at least there’s some upside. I absolutely don’t understand the handling of the bullpen, both the middle-reliever obsession and the absence of urgency. The team also is unwilling to move starters to the bullpen, which they could try with Chad Kuhl and/or Steve Brault.

It is clear to me, though, that Huntington is far too concerned with preserving assets. He’s often said that relievers are volatile, but apart from avoiding big contracts he doesn’t seem to take his own advice to heart. One corollary to that basic truth is that bullpens will need a lot of adjustment during the season. Yet Huntington was extremely reluctant to part ways with Antonio Bastardo, for heaven’s sake.

I’m not so sure the handling of the rotation has been a lot better. I don’t fault the team for sticking with Glasnow as long as they did, for the reasons stated above. But Chad Kuhl hasn’t pitched well and Steve Brault has been one of the best pitchers in the upper minors for the last couple months. (Baseball America just put out a minor league all-star team and listed Brault first among the starting pitchers.) They even have Kuhl working on a new pitch in the majors. Wouldn’t they be better served by having him do that in AAA and giving Brault another shot? But, again, a sense of urgency just isn’t there.