The Pirates Are On The Right Track—Believe It

All Star Game, Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

For the second straight game the Pirates won and did it with a journeyman righty reliever, Juan Cruz, saving both games because All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan is day-to-day with a tight hamstring.

The Pirates are 5-7 after 12 games almost exclusively because, apart from megastar-in-waiting Andrew McCutchen, they haven’t hit. But if they do hit and continue pitching the way they have; if they get the above-and-beyond performances from pitchers like Cruz and the rest of the bullpen of misfits and youngsters; if they pick one another up like a team, they’re going to sneak up on some people.

After so many years of one step forward and three steps back mostly because of self-inflicted damage, tone deafness, missteps in talent recognition and mistaken acquisitions and subtractions, the Pirates are finally (really) on the right track.

Manager Clint Hurdle has instilled discipline and a no excuses attitude; the front office is taking steps to keep the young players they’ve cultivated with the signings of McCutchen and Jose Tabata and they’re interested in an extension with Neil Walker. The rotation is filled with talented journeymen like Erik Bedard and, when he gets back, A.J. Burnett. I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Correia and James McDonald; and Charlie Morton is still growing accustomed to the Roy Halladay imitation he’s trying to pull off with his motion.

They’re talented and are learning to play the game correctly as a unit.

This isn’t to suggest they’re on the verge of a 2008 Rays-type run into the playoffs, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll finish at or near .500; and if they’re loitering around the outskirts of contention in July/August, they might be too hard-headed (stemming from their manager) to know that they’re not supposed to be doing what they’re doing.

They do have to start hitting.

Their free agent signings to improve the offense—Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas—are batting under .100 as is former 2nd overall pick in the draft Pedro Alvarez. (Alvarez homered today.)

No matter how good their pitching is, they have to hit or find a way to manufacture runs.

But they’re no longer a punching bag nor are they the weak kid in the schoolyard for the bullies like the Yankees and Red Sox to plunder for players at the trading deadline while doling a few prospects on them as a courtesy.

The Pirates have starting and relief pitching; they catch the ball defensively; they have some pop and speed in their lineup; and their manager doesn’t tolerate the old attitude of, “We’re the Pirates and we’re not supposed to win.”

They’re on the way up.

Believe it.

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The Pirates Take Advantage of the Yankees

All Star Game, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

The way a team like the Pirates has to function is by taking advantage of the big market clubs in the opposite fashion to the way those big market clubs take advantage of them. That’s what they did in getting A.J. Burnett—a talented and enigmatic arm—for just about nothing.

By design, by luck or both the Pirates aren’t the desolate wasteland they’ve been for most of the past 20 years.

That’s not to suggest they’re contenders, but they’ve taken some steps to create a viable big league club rather than a punching bag and target for looting by the bullies at the trading deadline.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened had the Pirates won the 19-inning game against the Braves on July 26th in which home plate ump Jerry Meals made one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen in my life by declaring Julio Lugo safe on a play at the plate where he was clearly out by a mile.

At the time, the Pirates were one of the pleasant surprises in all of baseball with a record of 53-47 and tied for first place in the NL Central.

They lost the next game in 10 innings, won the finale of the Braves series then proceeded to lose 10 in a row and 14 out of 16.

Can one game affect an entire season if it’s sufficiently draining, emotional and so egregious an error on the part of an outside force?

I say it can.

Naturally as the Pirates came undone, the “experts” made their snide comments to the tune of, “Remember when the Pirates were ‘contenders’?” as if they knew what was going to happen.

Well, they didn’t know. They were validating their preseason analysis of the Pirates where they’d lose close to 100 games. It was ego, not contextualized understanding. It’s similar to taking credit for the Cardinals winning the World Series when almost the whole roster was turned over at mid-season. The team that was analyzed in the preseason wasn’t the team that won the World Series, so how do you take credit for it?

The Cardinals were essentially finished by August 31st, 8 1/2 games behind in the NL Central and the Wild Card. Helped along by the Braves collapse and their own hot streak, they made the playoffs and wound up winning the World Series.

It’s post-event gloating to say one was “right” about something when there was nothing to be right about.

No, the Pirates didn’t have the personnel to hang with the upper echelon teams in the National League, but maybe with that win against the Braves, they could’ve finished at 82-80 rather than 72-90. How would that have looked on the resume of manager Clint Hurdle and in the scope of their rebuilding process? It certainly would’ve helped their young players to be part of a winning team and for available free agents to stop seeing the Pirates as a last ditch destination and instead a place where they could go to possibly be part of a renaissance for what was once a great baseball town.

The Pirates wound up at 72-90, but Hurdle’s clubhouse discipline (his biggest attribute is that he doesn’t take crap) did help the team look and play better. That doesn’t show up in any numerical formula and until someone comes up with a Not Taking Crap metric, we won’t be able to judge it.

Now the Pirates have traded for Burnett, gotten the Yankees to take two very low-level prospects and pay a massive chunk ($20 million) of Burnett’s salary.

Out of necessity, they’re signing oft-injured and talented arms like Erik Bedard and trading for Burnett. But in the best-case scenario, they’ll get good work from the veteran pitchers and show improvement in the standings. Middle-case, they’ve got players to trade at the deadline for a better return that what they gave up to get them.

They’re probably not going to get the great bullpen work they did last season; they haven’t upgraded the offense and are relying on improvement from Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, plus the continued rise of Andrew McCutchen; but their rotation with Burnett, Bedard, James McDonald, Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton is okay and Joel Hanrahan is a top closer.

The NL Central is vulnerable. The Cardinals are in serious flux; the Brewers are waiting out the news whether they’ll be without Ryan Braun for 50 games; the Reds are good, but short in depth.

If everything goes well, the Pirates could finish in third place and over .500.

Considering their circumstances, that’s very, very good and it’s refreshing that they used the Yankees’ desperation to get rid of Burnett to their own benefit.

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The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Management, Media, Players

Some players aren’t playing up to their career expectations. They could be doing better; they could be doing worse.

Is it real? It it Memorex? Is it a train wreck?

Let’s take a look.

Russell Martin, C—New York Yankees

After looking like has on the way to stardom early in his career, Martin was steadily declining with the Dodgers due to injuries and apparent apathy. He got off to a blazing start this year with the Yankees and has, again, steadily declined.

You can say he’s hurt with a back problem, but even if he was healthy, the American League was going to catch up to him. Look at his current numbers and they’re right in line with what he posted in 2009-2010.

Casey Kotchman, 1B—Tampa Bay Rays

Kotchman is batting .345.

Kotchman will not continue batting .345.

Put it this way, his average when he hits a line drive is over .890. In comparison when Evan Longoria and Albert Pujols hit line drives, their averages are over .660.

Kotchman is going to plummet to earth soon.

Joaquin Benoit, RHP—Detroit Tigers

The risk you run when paying a 33-year-old journeyman $16.5 million after his one big season is that he’ll regress. That’s what happened with Benoit early in the season for the Tigers. He was horrific for April and most of May.

He’s been very good since late May; his strikeout numbers and control are solid; and he’s only allowed one homer. Benoit should be good for the rest of the season.

Adam Dunn, DH—Chicago White Sox

Dunn is batting under .200 and hasn’t been hitting for much power.

He’s pressing and getting used to a new league and a new role as full-time DH. Dunn’s going to start hitting homers consistently and he always gets on base.

Joakim Soria, RHP—Kansas City Royals

Soria was misused by former Royals manager Trey Hillman so there’s the possibility that something’s wrong with him and he’s not saying anything; but if he’s healthy, he’ll be fine and closing effectively again before long.

Justin Morneau, 1B—Minnesota Twins

I would be very concerned about Morneau if I were the Twins. He’s been able to play after missing most of last season after a concussion and post-concussion syndrome, but he’s batting .220 with no power (4 homers, 0 at home).

Alexi Ogando, RHP—Texas Rangers

He throws strikes; doesn’t allow many homers; doesn’t allow many hits or walks; and pitches deeply into games.

It’s not a hard formula.

Chone Figgins, 3B—Seattle Mariners

Whatever happened to this guy on the way from Anaheim to Seattle, it appears permanent—at least as long as he’s playing for the Mariners. I didn’t like the signing, but unless you chopped off one of Figgins’s arms you couldn’t have expected him to be this bad.

Dan Uggla, 2B—Atlanta Braves

Uggla’s trying too hard and he may have overdone the weights this past winter. He’ll start hitting. Soon.

John Buck, C—Florida Marlins

Normally a smart organization, the Marlins made a huge mistake giving Buck $18 million.

Justin Turner, INF—New York Mets

Jason Bay, LF—New York Mets

Turner is a pump-and-dump player; he’s becoming a cult hero, but is not a long term solution as anything other than a utility player and as far as utility players go, I prefer Daniel Murphy.

Bay has been too good a hitter for too long to continue struggling so terribly unless he’s hurt. Like Uggla and Dunn, he’s pressing and will eventually hit.

Charlie Morton, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

People went overboard when the season started as Morton pitched brilliantly. You can take a replication of Roy Halladay‘s motion to a point, but then the individual’s abilities have to take over.

Morton’s biggest leap forward this year wasn’t in imitating Halladay, but by only allowing 2 homers so far. His control hasn’t been great, but it’s been in line with what it’s always been. He’s not an ace, but he can be an effective starter as long as he avoids the long ball.

Ryan Roberts, OF—Arizona Diamondbacks

Roberts might be a Casey Blake-type player who’s a late-bloomer and needed nothing more than the knowledge that his name is going to be in the lineup every day. He played well—similarly to the way he’s playing now—in 2009 and put up decent power numbers consistently in the minors.

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