TDG’S TRIPLE PLAY: PITTSBURGH PIRATES!
The Triple Play is back for a third season! This regular feature is broken down by staff writers Bob Osgood and Paul Monte and a rotating panel of third writers. If you’re new to the Triple Play, this series breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure! Follow Paul (@3cardmonte13), Greg Gibbons (@midsports10), and Joe Drake (@JDrake349) on twitter and read their analysis here at the site!
Pitcher: Nick Burdi, Age: 27, Position: RP
Analysis by: Greg Gibbons
[Note- This write-up was finished 40 minutes before Burdi hit the IR. Guy cannot catch a break-Ed.]
Talk Burdi to me
The Pittsburgh Pirates have an extremely limited cast of characters on their pitching staff worth covering from a dynasty perspective, mainly highlighted by Mitch Keller and Joe Musgrove. But, if there is anyone else worth keeping an eye on, it’s Nick Burdi. Burdi is a familiar name in dynasty circles, but maybe not always for the right reasons. Following a stellar career at the University of Louisville, the Minnesota Twins made him their second-round pick in the 2014 draft. The 6’3’’ 225-pound right-hander immediately had prospect pedigree as their closer of the future, featuring a fastball that touches triple digits and a devastating slider that already graded as plus. After carving up minor league hitters early in his professional career, it appeared he was on the fast-track to the majors. However, this is where the problems started as he struggled mightily with his control and didn’t fare particularly well in Double-A, faced a series of demotions, and eventually began to deal with elbow problems. Burdi missed nearly the entire 2016 season with a bone bruise in his right elbow and after returning in 2017, the righty posted an impressive 0.53 ERA over 17 innings with 20 strikeouts and only four walks at Double-A before falling victim to Tommy John surgery and missing the remainder of that season as well. That offseason Burdi was left unprotected by the Twins ahead of the Rule 5 draft, where he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies, who promptly traded him to his current home with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Phew, that’s a lot of baggage. But I hate to break it to you, we’re not done yet.
Back pitching again in 2018, Burdi received a cup of coffee with the Pirates in what was an emotional debut after having essentially rehabbed for over two years. Then seemingly healthy entering 2019, Burdi briefly looked like an elite MLB reliever before suffering a horrible nerve injury following a pitch in late April, eventually leading to surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, forcing him to miss the remainder of the year.
Ok, now you’re all caught up.
In summary, all you need to take away here is that Burdi’s medical history is longer than yours. So, what makes Burdi so special that after five professional seasons littered with injuries and only ten major league innings under his belt, we are still talking about him in 2020? What if I told you he has Gerrit Cole’s fastball and Max Scherzer’s slider? Does that pique your interest? If so, let me talk Burdi to you.
Burdi, Burdi, Burdi, Burdi rockin’ everywhere
The Burdi hype train started pulling out of the station again this past March during spring training. The term “finally healthy” might get tossed around too much when talking about Burdi, but this spring was different, and he was as close to fully healthy as we’ve seen since college. Everyone was taking notice of the extra zip on his fastball and improved command. Burdi’s primary (only) two pitches, a four-seam fastball and slider, are special. Below are breakdowns of both pitches, and (left to right) comparisons of Nick Burdi in 2020 to 2018 and a third column showing two of the game’s biggest stars; Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer.
A couple takeaways from the above analysis: Burdi has quite an elite arsenal with numerous similarities to Cole’s fastball and Scherzer’s slider and noting the increases in velocity, spin, and break compared to his 2018 season it’s clear something has clicked. The spin rate alone should be making you drool. Burdi told reporters he spent time during the offseason and quarantine tweaking his mechanics and lowering his release point with a goal of reducing stress on his body, which if successful should help him hold up over the course of a full MLB season, but has also translated into sustainable gains on both of his offerings. I’m not insinuating that Nick Burdi is the bullpen equivalent of Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer, rather, that anyone possessing these types of pitches deserves our attention and can be quite the weapon for the Pirates if it all comes together.
Nick Burdi, 97mph Fastball (called strike) and 87mph Slider (backwards K), Overlay pic.twitter.com/1pfpD3uOv4— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 20, 2020
There are a few big knocks on Burdi’s profile: health, command, and experience. We’ve spent plenty of time covering his injury history already, so let’s look at command, or lack thereof. Throughout his professional career, walks have always been a problem. He’s consistently posted sky-high walk rates, notably in 2015 he walked 35 batters over 63.2 innings and has an MLB career 5.1 walks per nine innings. Burdi generally works to the catcher’s arm side and generates a ton of swing and miss, including a 50% whiff rate on his slider, but his pitches are only hitting the strike zone 48.5% of the time. Further, when Burdi does hit the strike zone he tends to lose pitches over the middle of the plate and can get hurt by the long ball. Though, a notable improvement in 2020 his average exit velocity has dipped to 82.9 mph compared to his career average of 88.3 mph, which generating weaker contact can likely be attributed to his simplified mechanics and improved command. Aside from his health, command is the biggest hurdle Burdi faces in his quest to become a great reliever. Further, Burdi has not pitched more than 20 innings in a season since 2015 and with only a handful of appearances in late-innings situations, it will be hard to move him into a meaningful fantasy role right away.
Burdman flies in any weather
There is a ton to love and hate about Nick Burdi from a fantasy perspective. On one hand, he is an injury-riddled relief pitcher with command issues. On the other hand, he has elite closer upside with one of the better pitch combinations in the game. Regardless of how you view him currently, the most important thing here is his health. We want Burdi to get healthy and need him to stay healthy for an entire season and log meaningful major league innings before his value can really pop. Keone Kela is the incumbent Pirates closer, and at the time of this writing is currently out (COVID-19) but is expected back soon and will retain the closer role. Kela is in the last year of his contract and the Pirates are not likely to be contenders in 2020 so the likelihood he gets traded is high. I have no doubt that the closer role will be Burdi’s for the taking, but until then I suspect that the organization will treat Burdi with “kid gloves” and will limit his appearances. In your dynasty league, if you have the roster space and are into speculating on saves, now is the time to stash Burdi. You’ll want to monitor his health and keep tabs on Kela as the trade deadline nears. Burdi is a low-risk acquisition that could pay huge dividends or could be your next drop.
Hitter: Gregory Polanco, Age: 29, Position: OF
Analysis by: Paul Monte
All we need is just a little patience
Patience is a virtue. Have too much of it and you’ll ruin your fantasy baseball team. Lack in the patience department and watch your competitors pick up your discarded players off the waiver wire and become fantasy stars. It’s a fine line we walk. We have all been on both sides: held that guy who you KNEW you were right about until he started selling car insurance in Topeka, Kansas. Doesn’t it feel great when everyone else has jumped off the bandwagon and you were stubborn and turned out to be right? It’s much easier to hold on to a guy who has draft pedigree, a lofty prospect ranking, and has put up good numbers in the majors. Usually, it’s an injury that derails a career, occasionally it’s personal and legal issues outside of baseball, and sometimes they just lose the skill that they had somehow.
Being Stubborn is a virtue when you’re right – Chuck Knoll
I’m stubborn and because of that, I was excited to hear that now 28-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco was finally healthy. Signed as an amateur free agent in March of 2009, Polanco had steadily climbed the prospect rankings, reaching the top of the ranks for the Pirates and finding himself in the top 20 of most lists in 2014. He debuted that year as a 22-year-old, played half the season and held his own as a rookie. The concern for him then was his power, would it ever come. He hit just 9 home runs in 153 games in 2015 but added 27 stolen bases. You could dream that the power would come, and he could be a 20-30 player, putting him at the top of the OF ranks. The power did arrive in 2016, he hit 22 home runs, but the stolen bases took a hit and dropped to 17. 2017 was a struggle, he missed 54 games and hit just 11 home runs and stole 8 bases. 2018 was both a bounce-back season and the beginning of a two-year spiral with a major shoulder injury.
This is where most would have let him go. Shoulder injuries are difficult for players to deal with and have long term effects. The Pirates had brought Polanco back slowly, but he could never get right and was shut down for most of 2019. Coming into 2020 things seemed to have finally take a turn for the better. He did have a setback as he was diagnosed with Covid-19 and spent some time on the injured list while everyone was ramping back up to game speed. The Pirates do not have playoff aspirations, even in this shortened season with more than half of the league making the playoffs. This should allow Polanco to ease himself back into the lineup. The new DH rule should also help keep his bat in the lineup and his shoulder healthy as he will not have to play in the field as often.
At some point, you need to let go of the ceiling that you had dreamed for a player and reassess where he is now. When healthy, Polanco can still be an asset to your fantasy team. He will turn 29 years old in a couple of weeks and the 2020 season will be one long rehab session for him. His price will never be lower, he even started the 2020 season in a 1-14 slump while striking out 8 times. There are not many players that you can pick up off of the waiver wire with his background and skillset, it may be tough to stomach in 2020 as your roster is likely ravaged by injured players and postponed games. I always want to win, but I am being very careful to make sure I remember that we are in dynasty leagues and 2021 will be here before we know it. Always look ahead while trying to win now.
Prospect: Liover Peguero, Age: 19, Position: SS, Level: Low-A
Analysis by: Joe Drake
Somebody to Liover
“A Jean Segura starter kit.” As my eyes absorb the words of FanGraphs’ Eric Longhagen, I envision a middle infielder who hits for a good average with speed and a little pop. And if you watch a few of Peguero’s at-bats, you can see exactly what Eric is talking about. Peguero is long and lean, but not small, with a strong lower half. The swing starts high and is quick to the ball, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s chopping down which will severely limit the game power — think more line drives for doubles and triples in the gaps. At 6’1” and 160lbs, the frame is there for him to grow into power, but not without an attack angle (the angle at which the bat strikes the ball) adjustment. The good news? It’s easier to adjust your attack angle than it is to add bat speed, but that doesn’t mean you can bank on it happening. The swing may never change.
Be My Liover
So, Joe, what does that mean for his fantasy profile, and are you buying or selling? I’m in on Peguero. To me, he’s a shortstop who’s got the look of a .275 average, 10 homer, 20-25 steal guy. With his bat control and approach, he reminds me of an old school 2-hole hitter. Someone who hits well, can take a walk, has doubles pop, and speed. These days, his skill set probably lands him in the leadoff role assuming the hit tool stays on track. Speaking of Peguero’s approach, color me impressed with an 18% K rate and an 8.6% walk rate in 93 PAs as an 18-year old in Low-A. He was squaring off with guys 2-3 years older than him, fresh out of college — there’s a lot to like about someone his age posting a 101 wRC+ at that level.
We’re probably not talking about potential #1 overall prospect in Liover Peguero, but if you squint, I do think there’s 5-category potential. If you extrapolate his current skill set, Peguero projects to help you in batting average (or OBP), runs, and steals, assuming the Pirates are letting their players run. The lack of homers will be a detriment to your bottom line and his spot in the lineup will probably keep the RBIs down. So, how do we get to a 5-category performer? If the Pirates’ new front office regime is able to successfully add loft to Peguero’s swing without sacrificing his ability to make contact, I think he’d grow into enough power for 20 round-trippers a year while the speed takes a step back.
All You Need is Liover
Let’s run it back. Peguero is currently long and lean with good contact skills and plus speed. As long as he doesn’t fill out too much, he has the arm and defensive chops to stick at short (he’ll battle for that role with Cole Tucker assuming they’re both still Pirates) which maximizes his fantasy value. His most likely outcome is a player who hits at the top of the lineup and boosts your average, runs, and steals. If you’re looking to trade for Peguero, you should be doing so with that profile and level of value in mind. The possibility of him developing more power should be viewed as icing on the cake and not an expected outcome.
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