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

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series
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, 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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