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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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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The Pirates, Andrew McCutchen and the Crocodile Arm Snap

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With the Pirates, there’s always been a reluctance to believe that they’re doing something smart without doing something foolish immediately thereafter.

It’s like feeding a crocodile—arm extended, cringing, hoping that the only thing taken is the food and not the arm up to the elbow.

In retrospect the Pirates maneuvers of perpetual housecleanings and bargain basement payrolls didn’t turn out as badly as they looked upon their completion. Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouthAdam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Octavio Dotel and Freddy Sanchez were all dealt away in recent years. Most didn’t perform up to expectations with their new clubs and the Pirates got some usable pieces for them after savage critiques in their immediate aftermath.

The deals may not have worked out as hoped for the Pirates and they probably could’ve gotten more for than they did for some of the above-listed players, but apart from Bay, most were total disappointments in their new venues in one way or another.

Of course there are the things like non-tendering Matt Capps and declining the option on Paul Maholm, but potholes of idiocy will continue to exist no matter how desperately they’re patched over.

From those trades, they have James McDonald, Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens and a couple of minor leaguers that might eventually be of use.

Now the Pirates have signed star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a 6-year, $51.5 million contract to buy out his arbitration years and first two seasons of free agency—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story.

After the Pirates had implied that they’d be willing to listen to offers on McCutchen, the crocodile-cringe became more pronounced.

“Uh oh, the Pirates are about to do something stupid.”

The entire “we’ll listen on anyone including McCutchen” rhetoric was like something out of The Onion. “You can call and we’ll listen. Then we’ll laugh and tell you to take a hike.”

The “stupid” was ever-present, but for now it’s gone.

McCutchen is a foundational star at a hard-to-fill position and only getting better at age 25. He’s exactly the type of player a club either spends their money to keep or gives up the majority of their farm system to get.

With him onboard, the Pirates are turning their attention to signing Pittsburgh native and second baseman Neil Walker to a contract extension.

With the young stars in the fold for the long-term; Clint Hurdle—a manager who doesn’t take crap or “we’re the Pirates” as an excuse for losing; and an improved farm system, the Pirates are capable—you’re reading it here first—of a .500 season in 2012 and finishing as high as third place in their division.

Keeping McCutchen is a great decision and indicative that the Pirates’ front office is no longer content to be the big league talent mill for the bullies and are looking to follow the lead of clubs like the Rays who develop and try to win simultaneously.

The Pirates have an advantage the Rays don’t: a beautiful, fan friendly ballpark.

Believe it or not, the Pirates are on the way to getting much, much better.

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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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An Early, Forgotten Casualty In The McCourt Ownership

Games, Management, Media, Players

Now that the Frank McCourt ownership of the Dodgers is (maybe) reaching its conclusion, early mistakes are washed away in the litany of gaffes which have occurred.

One forgotten error was the decision to replace inherited GM Dan Evans.

Evans is the unsung hero in the on-field success the Dodgers had under McCourt’s ownership. It was Evans who built the foundation of the team in 2002 as, in subsequent years, he kept Jim Tracy as manager; made Eric Gagne a closer; acquired Guillermo Mota for nothing; managed to get the Yankees to take Kevin Brown‘s contract off the Dodgers hands; and was at the helm when the team drafted James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, James McDonald, Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp.

Had Evans and Tracy been left alone, the Dodgers could’ve been an annual contender with homegrown and cheaper talent. The club had been built organically and grown up together, with Tracy at the helm and a cohesion on and off the field.

McCourt, whose 13-year-old son was enamored with Paul DePodesta after reading Moneyball, had an influence on the Dodgers new owner—his dad—as Evans interviewed for the job he already had and didn’t get it.

DePodesta took over and Evans left the organization.

Evans landed on his feet first as a scout for the Mariners and then as, get this, CEO and president of West Coast Sports Management. He’s an agent.

With a little luck and presumably much to the chagrin of MLB, the Dodgers could have won a World Series or two during McCourt’s tumultuous (and ongoing) time with the Dodgers. Had that happened, would Evans have received his share of the credit?

He deserved it. Whether he would’ve gotten it is a different matter entirely.

Evans should never have been forced out as Dodgers GM. But like the McCourt ownership, it’s 20/20 hindsight.

In an odd quirk, Evans wasn’t the Dodgers GM for much longer than DePodesta was with a far greater record of success. But it’s DePodesta who’s constantly defended by people who try to alter his 20-months as Dodgers GM as something for which he’s not responsible and Evans is forgotten.

Acknowledged or not, he still warrants recognition for being a smart baseball man and for the part he played in the successful Dodgers teams of recent years.

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