NLDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

Games, Players, Playoffs

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

Keys for the Cardinals: Get runners on base; continue trend of hot hitting with runners in scoring position; try not to leave the game in the hands of the bullpen; get the goods from their proven post-season performers.

The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored using a similar formula as the Yankees of the 1990s used by having a very high teamwide on-base percentage and no big home run hitters. Instead of having that one basher in the middle of the lineup hitting 35-45 homers as they did with Albert Pujols, they spread the wealth in the home run department with six hitters in double figures. Not one, however, had more than 24. In addition, the Cardinals had a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals bullpen is deep and diverse. Edward Mujica pitched well for much of the season as the team’s accidental closer after Jason Motte was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. Mujica saved 37 games and walked only five batters in 64.2 innings. Home runs have always been his bugaboo and he surrendered nine. With Mujica’s struggles, the Cardinals have to decide whether to stick to the regular season script and leave him in the role, go with Trevor Rosenthal or a closer-by-committee.

The Cardinals have a roster full of players who’ve put up big numbers in the post-season with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Players who’ve performed in the post-season have a tendency to do it again.

Keys for the Pirates: Don’t wait too long with their starting pitchers; don’t change their game; keep the Cardinals off the bases; get into the Cardinals’ bullpen.

The Cardinals were vulnerable to lefty pitchers but with Francisco Liriano having started the Wild Card Game against the Reds, he won’t pitch until game three in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are starting A.J. Burnett in game one and Gerrit Cole in game two. Even though he struggled in September, I might’ve rolled the dice and started Jeff Locke in game one if I were manager Clint Hurdle. The Pirates have a deep bullpen and shouldn’t wait too long with their starting pitchers before making a change. Locke as a middle reliever might end up being more effective than having him start.

As stated earlier, the Cardinals get a lot of runners on base. The Pirates have a solid defense and have to shun the walk – this is especially true for Burnett with his scattershot control.

If the Pirates don’t get the Cardinals starting pitchers’ pitch counts up and force manager Mike Matheny to go to the bullpen, they might not get a shot at Mujica.

The Pirates won their games this season with good starting pitching, speed, power from Pedro Alvarez, a great back of the bullpen and defense. They have to maintain all facets of their game.

What will happen:

The Cardinals are built more for the long season than for a short series. While they have those aforementioned big time post-season players, the Pirates have the pitching and bullpen depth to neutralize them. If the Cardinals don’t get runners on the bases, they’re not going to score because they don’t hit enough home runs and the Pirates don’t surrender many home runs. Mujica is not trustworthy as a post-season closer and if it comes down to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, everyone in St. Louis will be holding their collective breaths waiting for the inevitable longball.

The Pirates are riding a wave with their veteran acquisitions Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd leading the way joining Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker in the lineup. A lack of post-season experience could be a problem. The Cardinals have loads of it and the Pirates have nearly none. It could also go the other way. With the first playoff appearance and playoff win in two decades under their belts, the Pirates won’t feel the pressure. That’s one instance when the Wild Card Game will benefit a young and inexperienced team.

I don’t like the way Matheny handles the bullpen as if he’s panicky and desperate not to do the wrong thing rather than do the right thing.

The Pirates’ method of winning has a better chance to carry over into the post-season. They rely on fundamentals, speed and pop; the Cardinals relied on getting on base and clutch hitting. The Pirates are younger, stronger, faster and hungrier than the Cardinals. They’re better too.

PREDICTION: PIRATES IN THREE




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Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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The Pirates Navy SEALs Training: Designed to Kill and Get Executives Fired

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Ordinarily, I’d want to have a deeper understanding of exactly what the Pirates were doing when they decided to implement Navy SEALs training techniques for their minor leaguers. It was possible that the Pirates took aspects of the training—including the mindset—and adapted them to baseball. Many different training techniques that have become of value to baseball players such as plyometrics; parachute training; isometrics; cross-training by throwing a football all would’ve been seen as idiotic as recently as 20 years ago. Football coaches—including Vince Lombardi—used to refuse to give water to their players during summer training camp. Watch the film The Junction Boys about Paul “Bear” Bryant to see how deranged training camps were for college kids, the majority of whom were playing because they wanted to. So if the Pirates took the camaraderie that is instilled by Navy SEAL training and the fitness along with it, why not?

But according to the linked pieces I found here on Larry Brown Sports, the Pirates are reinventing the wheel and doing it in a way designed to get the executives who decided it was a good idea fired and drummed out of baseball entirely.

You can read the Dejan Kovasevic piece; the Pirates’ assistant GM Kyle Stark’s email here; and Jeff Passan’s column about it in which he discusses hand-to-hand combat and baseball’s reaction to this decision.

They want them to take the attitude of the Hells Angels? I certainly would prefer not to have my baseball players taking the personae of a sleazy, borderline satirical group with absurd militaristic designations such as “Sergeant-at-Arms” or other stranger-than-fiction silliness. But this is what the Pirates have chosen to do for reasons known only to them. There’s nothing wrong with fostering brotherhood, bonding, or a “take no crap” attitude. But to force teenagers who have substantial money invested in them into this type of training when it’s never been done before is a combination of arrogance and stupidity.

There’s thinking outside the box and tweaking innings pitched and pitch counts; there are theories of teaching hitting advocating patience or aggressiveness; there are varying theories of defensive shifts and positioning. There are many things in baseball that could and should be changed. I’d be an advocate of shortening spring training, among other things. But this? This is something that is so antithetic to baseball—the same sport for which John Kruk said something to the tune of, “I’m ain’t an athlete, I’m a baseball player,”—that people who decided to try it are going to get fired and deserve it.

This isn’t debating on the merits of running sprints vs weight training; it’s training more directed at slitting Stephen Strasburg’s throat rather than getting a hit off of him.

The Pirates were on the way to a very positive place earlier this season and still might be. There’s plenty of talent on the big league roster and in the organization. I see them as similar to the Minnesota Twins of 2001, a team that got off to a great start after years and years of futility and essentially collapsed in August and September, but used the experience as a life-lesson and became the dominant team in the AL Central for a decade with the only thing missing from their list of accomplishments being a World Series. Clint Hurdle has altered the culture and the Pirates are a good bet to take the next step of their innocent climb in 2013 and if I were to start a club with any player, Andrew McCutchen would be at the very top of that list. The future is still bright for the Pirates, but they’re going to be doing it with a new braintrust in the front office.

Stark can live out his tough guy fantasy in some other industry. GM Neal Huntington can go because he was the one who apparently okayed this. Frank Coonelly can be dispatched because he’s been clueless from the time he was appointed as the team president. There are better baseball people and human beings in front offices everywhere for the Pirates to hire.

Hells Angels?

Maybe Stark and Huntington can join them. They’ll be out of work soon enough.

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The Pirates Are Where The Astros Hope To Be 3-5 Years From Now

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Reviving a dead franchise doesn’t happen overnight and creating a Frankenstein monster of discarded body parts (AKA players who no one else wants and have to be overpaid to join a perennial loser) while hoping for lightning to strike at just the right moment is random, desperate and doomed to fail. The Pirates of the past two decades were in the same position as the current Astros club multiple times with rebuilds, plans, schemes and different architects. Now the Pirates are winning with their own young players and a low payroll. The Astros are starting over after years of trying to win immediately and neglecting the farm system. Both sides are acting intelligently.

The Pirates have the prospects to get any player they want via trade, but chose to take the conservative route in getting Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros.

The Astros are clearing the decks in preparation for their move to the American League.

Both sides gain from the deal that sent Rodriguez from the Astros to the Pirates for three minor leaguers, lefty pitcher Rudy Owens; lefty pitcher Colton Cain; and outfielder Robbie Grossman. Rodriguez’s contract stipulations and the amount the Astros are paying is below, clipped from this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Rodriguez’s contract pays him $10 million this season and $13 million next year as part of a three-year, $34 million contract he signed before the 2011 season. He has a $13 million club option for 2014 that becomes a player option because he was traded.

According to an industry source, the Pirates are responsible for $1.7 million of Rodriguez’s remaining salary in 2012, $8.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014. The Pirates only receive cash from the Astros in 2014 if Rodriguez exercises his option.

Rodriguez has long been underrated, is durable, and throws strikes.

In addition to the Rodriguez move, the Pirates are recalling top outfield prospect Starling Marte. It’s doubtful that they’re doing it to showcase him for a trade as other clubs would; the Pirates let their prospects play and it appears as if they’re saying that they’re going to win with their youngsters and a financially sensible plan rather than deal them for veterans, increase the payroll and commit to older players. It’s simplistic to say, “Get ‘X’ veteran star and a young team on the way up will automatically be a contender,” but it doesn’t work that way. The Pirates have turned the corner, in part, because this group was allowed to develop together and there are no star divas in the clubhouse to interfere with manager Clint Hurdle’s discipline. I’d be hesitant to mess with the chemistry by importing a star. Rodriguez is not a star, but he’s pretty good and he’ll benefit from the Pirates vast home park and good defense.

For the Astros, the criticism of Jeff Luhnow sounds similar to the grumpy and idiotic ranting of the crotchety old men who wouldn’t understand OPS if it was mixed in their Metamucil as they scoffed and ridiculed the Astros’ hiring of “non” baseball people Sig Mejdal and Stephanie Wilka to be integral parts of his front office. Luhnow partially invites the eye-rolling with the new age titles such as “Director of Decision Sciences” for his hires and his over-technical manner of speaking as if to say, “These are complicated matters,” when they’re really not all that complicated. But none of that matters once the decisions start being made and the Astros are making the right decisions. Are they supposed to spend money on mediocre veteran players to win 70 games when, by the end of this season and next, it’s going to do more damage to the organization?

They’re moving to the American League West in 2013 to a division with the Rangers, Angels, resurgent Athletics and a Mariners organization flush with young pitching. It makes zero sense to keep or acquire veterans now. As for the suggestion that the Astros are getting middling prospects for their veterans, what were they supposed to get? Their system was barren when Luhnow arrived and he’s stocking it with volume and players he might be able to use. He’s slashing players with high salaries like Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers who aren’t going to be with the team if and when they turn the corner into contention. He’s doing the smart thing.

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National League—Mid-Season Award Winners

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Yesterday I listed my American League mid-season award winners. Now here’s the National League along with my preseason picks from my book.

MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF—Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s a pleasure to watch a player who I knew would be a star the first time I saw him run out a triple begin achieve that vision; that he’s doing so for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 and suddenly finds itself in first place in the NL Central and is a legitimate playoff contender makes it all the more gratifying,

McCutchen is leading the Majors in batting at .362; he has a .414 OBP and .625 slugging with 18 homers and 14 stolen bases. It was almost as if he was sending a message on Sunday to let the world know that he’s not playing around; that this is the real McCutchen as he went 3 for 5 with 2 homers.

I’ve seen some random, inaccurate comparisons to Barry Bonds but in reality McCutchen is more like an Eric Davis-squared and is fulfilling what Davis was supposed to be but just barely missed becoming—an MVP.

2. Joey Votto, 1B—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds’ leader on and off the field is celebrating his new, long-term contract by replicating his MVP season of 2010. Votto is leading the Majors is OBP and OPS, has 35 doubles, 14 homers and is leading the NL in walks.

3. David Wright, 3B—New York Mets

It’s amazing what happens when a star player is healthy and playing in a home ballpark that no longer makes it necessary to change one’s swing to have a hope of hitting a few home runs.

Wright’s having his best season since 2007-2008 when he was an All-Star, MVP candidate, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner.

4. Ryan Braun, LF—Milwaukee Brewers

Those hoping he’d fall flat on his face after getting out of a PED suspension on a technicality are being horribly disappointed.

5. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

Sylvester Stallone couldn’t conjure a story this ridiculous.

In my book I picked Troy Tulowitzki. He’s been injured.

Cy Young Award

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP—New York Mets

It’s not simply that he’s dominating and doing it with a knuckleball, but he’s throwing a knuckleball at 80+ mph and is able to control it. Hitters have looked helpless and he’s been the Mets’ stopper when they’ve appeared to waver in their greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts play.

2. Matt Cain, RHP—San Francisco Giants

The ace of the Giants’ staff is not named Tim Lincecum anymore.

3. Johnny Cueto, RHP—Cincinnati Reds

Cueto’s ill-conceived comments about Tony LaRussa aside, he’s had a great year.

4. James McDonald, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Another Pirates’ player whose talent I lusted after is fulfilling his potential. This is how fiction-style stories of teams rising from the depths are written.

5. Cole Hamels, LHP—Philadelphia Phillies

His rumored trade availability, pending free agency and “look how tough I am” antics are obscuring how well he’s pitched as the Phillies’ empire crumbles around him.

My preseason pick was Lincecum. I think we can forget that now.

Rookie of the Year

1.  Bryce Harper, OF—Washington Nationals

Considering his arrogant statements and behavior in the minors, I was dubious about his maturity. He’s proven me wrong and been an absolute professional handling the scrutiny like a 10-year veteran.

On the field, he’s the real deal.

2. Wade Miley, LHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

Miley has picked up for the inconsistent Ian Kennedy and the injured Joe Saunders and Daniel Hudson; the Diamondbacks would be buried in the NL West without him.

3. Todd Frazier, INF—Cincinnati Reds

He’s had more than a few big hits in picking up for the injured Scott Rolen.

4. Norichika Aoki, OF—Milwaukee Brewers

He’s 30 and a rookie in name only, but he’s batting .300 and has played well for the Brewers.

5. Wilin Rosario, C—Colorado Rockies

He’s struggled defensively and is a hacker, but he does have 14 homers.

My preseason pick was Yonder Alonso.

Manager of the Year

1. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates

He…doesn’t…take…crap.

2. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

Johnson was always a bridesmaid in the Manager of the Year voting. He still is. He’s dealt with the new age game that clearly grates on him with the pitch counts and the relentless “experts” from the outside questioning him; he’s also dealt with the Harper/Stephen Strasburg sideshows far better than other veteran managers dropped into the middle of it would.

3. Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

They Dodgers have slumped lately, but Mattingly has proven he can handle pretty much anything.

4. Terry Collins, New York Mets

What he’s done with this team amid all the off-field distractions and non-existent expectations is Amazin’.

5. Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Lincecum’s been horrific and he lost his closer but still has the Giants hovering around first place in the NL West.

My preseason pick was Johnson.

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Surprise Buyers—National League

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Yesterday I looked at the American League teams that are somewhat surprisingly in contention and what they should and shouldn’t do. Now let’s look at the National League.

New York Mets

It has to have flashed through the minds of everyone in the organization that if they somehow managed to get into the playoffs, the last thing any opposing club is going to want to see is R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana coming at them in a short series.

The jury is still out on them considering their second half swoons of years past, but few objective people thought they’d have gotten to July not only with the Wilpons still owning the team, but in serious playoff contention.

They’re looking for bullpen help and reportedly contacted the Padres about Huston Street. I’d call the Padres, but not for Street. My preference would be Luke Gregerson.

Grant Balfour of the A’s should be on the radar as well.

They could use an outfield bat. It doesn’t sound as if Seth Smith is available from the A’s right now, but he should be in play at the deadline. The Mets had interest in him over the winter.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager Clint Hurdle should have business cards made up that say:

Clint Hurdle

Former SI Coverboy

Busted Prospect Turned 4-A Journeyman

Hitting Coach

Manager Who Knows How to Run A Bullpen

Doesn’t…Take…Crap

The Pirates are for real. They catch the ball and they pitch. Early in the season that kept them around the .500 mark. Now Pedro Alvarez is hitting for some power to assist MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. They still need one and maybe two bats to be serious contenders. They’re not going to gut the system nor are they taking on a lot of money which limits what they can do. Two players from the Padres make sense. Carlos Quentin is going to get traded and is a free agent at the end of the season. Chase Headley is being bandied about.

I’d be hesitant to do anything too drastic and mess with the Pirates’ current chemistry nor would I go for a big name and sabotage what they’re building.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Carlos Lee has long been an underrated player and is better with the glove at both first base and in the outfield than he’s ever been given credit for. The change to a pennant race might wake up his power bat. But the Dodgers need a bigger, more productive power hitter than Lee.

I’d focus on Justin Morneau.

They could use a starting pitcher and some bullpen help. Ryan Dempster, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke have been linked with the Dodgers. Balfour, Street, Brandon League, Brian Fuentes and any other available reliever will be a target.

GM Ned Colletti is aggressive and will trade prospects to gets what he wants in trying to win now.

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The Pirates Are On The Right Track—Believe It

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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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2012 National League Central Predicted Standings

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Wins Losses GB
1. Cincinnati Reds 91 71
2. Milwaukee Brewers 87 75 4
3. St. Louis Cardinals 77 85 14
4. Pittsburgh Pirates 77 85 14
5. Chicago Cubs 73 89 18
6. Houston Astros 60 102 31

Cincinnati Reds

Dusty Baker’s teams have a tendency to win when his job is on the line or his contract is coming to a conclusion—and this is the final year of his contract.

GM Walt Jocketty made a bold move in trading a large portion of the Reds’ farm system to get an ace-quality starter in Mat Latos and bolstered his bullpen by signing Ryan Madson and trading for Sean Marshall.

Offensively, the Reds have some question marks but were second in the National League in runs scored last season and first in 2010. Scott Rolen’s injuries are an issue and shortstop is likely to be manned by a talented rookie Zack Cozart.

But with a deep starting rotation; a very good bullpen; Joey Votto in the middle of the lineup; the emerging Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs; and the additions from the winter, the Reds are a championship threat.

Milwaukee Brewers

If Mat Gamel hits and Aramis Ramirez posts his normal numbers, they’ll have enough offense without Prince Fielder. Alex Gonzalez is a good pickup offensively and defensively to replace the limited Yuniesky Betancourt; Zack Greinke is sure to have a big year heading towards free agency; and the bullpen is superlative with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.

The questions surrounding the Ryan Braun failed drug test and technical knockout of his 50-game suspension are not going to go away.

Braun has to hit from the beginning of the season to the end and he’s still going to be hounded with a press contingent waiting for a reasonable answer as to how he failed the test in the first place. A slow start will be the death knell to his season and probably the Brewers’ playoff hopes.

And don’t forget how much vitriol their arrogance engendered throughout baseball last season. When the world-at-large was pulling for a Tony LaRussa –led team, you know their oppenents were despised.

There’s a 2006 Mets feeling about the Brewers that they missed their chance and we know what happened to the Mets in the aftermath of their upset loss to the Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

It’s idiotic to base one’s hopes for a repeat championship on the idea that losing the generation’s best manager (Tony LaRussa); hitter (Albert Pujols); and a magician of a pitching coach (Dave Duncan) are going to be easily covered with Mike Matheny (never managed before—ever); signing Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base (they’re older players); and Derek Lilliquist (um…).

You cannot dismiss the contributions of those three men—all of whom are Hall of Famers.

As respected and well-liked as Matheny is, there’s a learning curve to manage.

The Cardinals have starting pitching, but their bullpen is still a question mark and Matheny’s handling of said bullpen is going to be an issue.

Beltran and Berkman will make up for Pujols’s production to a degree, but if you’re banking your hopes on David Freese being the same star he was in the playoffs and Rafael Furcal, Jon Jay and Skip Schumaker, you’re dreaming.

This team is rife for a big fall and major turmoil.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll never know what the Pirates’ 2011 season would’ve become had they not been so horribly robbed in that play at the plate and egregious call by Jerry Meals in the 19-inning game against the Braves in late July. Those who think that an entire season can’t hinge on one game are wrong.

The Pirates did many good things mostly as a result of manager Clint Hurdle’s simple mandate of discipline and not taking crap.

They’ve locked up key players Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and acquired cheap, high-ceiling veteran starters A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.

They’re not ready to contend, but they’re getting better and if things go well, they have a shot at third place.

Chicago Cubs

Those expecting a Theo Epstein arrival/revival and immediate rise to championship-level status as happened when he took over the Red Sox need to take a step back.

The Red Sox had a lot of talent and money to spend when Epstein took over in 2003; the Cubs are trying to clear onerous contracts of declining veterans like Alfonso Soriano and already got rid of Carlos Zambrano (and are paying him to pitch for the Marlins).

A large part of my analysis isn’t simply based on what a team has when the season starts, but what’s going to happen as the season moves along. The Cubs are going to be ready to deal with Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Marlon Byrd possibly on the move.

It’s not going to be a quick fix to repair this organization.

Houston Astros

There’s a perception that simply because they hired a stat-savvy GM in Jeff Luhnow and he’s at work rebuilding the system that the Astros are “guaranteed” to have success in the near future.

Are you aware of what happened to similar thinking baseball people like Paul DePodesta and Jack Zduriencik?

The Astros neglected their minor league system for so long that they’re tantamount to an expansion team. Luhnow brought in high-end talent like Fernando Martinez cheaply; he’s scouring the scrapheap with Livan Hernandez for big league competence while he cleans up the mess; and he’s hired like-minded people to help him.

But it’s not a guarantee and his “success” with the Cardinals minor league system is based on perception depending on your own beliefs and/or biases on how to run a club rather than bottom-line reality.

Here’s what we can agree on: in 2012, they’re going to be terrible.

Click here for a full sample of Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide (this link is of the Blue Jays) of team predictions/projections. My book can be purchased on KindleSmashwordsBN and Lulu with other outlets on the way.

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The Pirates Take Advantage of the Yankees

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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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Why Would A.J. Burnett Want to Go to the Pirates?

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I can understand why the Pirates would want A.J. Burnett; why the Yankees want to trade A.J. Burnett; and Garrett Jones is a cheap lefty bat who’d hit 20+ homers in Yankee Stadium as a DH.

But why would A.J. Burnett want to go to the Pirates?

Burnett has two years remaining on his contract at $16.5 million annually and can block trades to 10 teams. As the Mets proved last July with Francisco Rodriguez, the intricacies of those no-trade clauses aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface. K-Rod had the right to block deals to certain teams, but his agent at the time had yet to submit that list to the Mets and when he hired his new agent Scott Boras, the Mets reacted swiftly and decisively in dumping K-Rod on the Brewers, a team that K-Rod would’ve blocked a deal to.

Whether or not the Yankees would be able to do it without Burnett’s okay—or if he left the Pirates off the list—is secondary.

Would Burnett, at 35, want to go to the Pirates and have little-to-no chance at contending in 2012 and probably 2013? The Pirates are kindasorta on the right track with young talent coming through their system and Clint Hurdle instilling discipline in the clubhouse, but what’s the motivation for Burnett other than to get away from the Yankees? Getting away from the Yankees is something he has never acknowledged he wants to do.

Of course the Yankees want to get rid of him and maybe he’d like to go elsewhere, but they signed him to that contract and are going to have to pay a substantial portion of it to move him.

Burnett would presumably welcome a trade to any team in the NL West, back to Miami to play for the Marlins, the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs or White Sox. But why would he choose to go to the Pirates? If he goes to a good team in a big ballpark, chances are he’d put up solid enough numbers this year and next to be able to sell himself to some other team for a 2-3 year contract worth another $30 million.

Maybe the Yankees would pull a repeat of the Carl Pavano episode and pursue Burnett again.

But the Pirates? Why?

As is customary, the Pirates’ plans are haphazard and inexplicable. First they let it be known that they’re willing to discuss trading one of the best young players in baseball, Andrew McCutchen, then they’re discussing Burnett.

Is there a plan in place? Or is this a similar decision along the lines of the trading deadline in 2007 when the prior regime led by Dave Littlefield acquired Matt Morris and his onerous contract while the team was 20 games under .500, 14 games out of first place and headed toward a 68-94 finish. They traded a player they could’ve used in Rajai Davis to the Giants to get Morris and the $15 million remaining on his contract.

Is there something in the water at PNC Park that leads the Pirates to doing things that make no sense?

If the Yankees are giving Burnett away and paying his salary, then, yes, a team is going to take him. But it goes back to the question of what would spur the Yankees to do that in the first place.

The rumors discussed don’t make sense for anyone apart from the Yankees. But as we’ve learned repeatedly, that’s all that really matters in Yankeeland. It’s in line with the team’s, media’s and fan base’s air of entitlement that if the Yankees want, therefore the Yankees should get.

At least that’s they way they see it.

Never mind reality.

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