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Springtime Storylines: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Pirates?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Hurdle and his Bucs.

The Big Question: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Pirates?

The most disappointing thing about the Pirates’ recent run of futility is how similar the plot has played out in each of the club’s 18 consecutive losing seasons. Since Barry Bonds left after Pittsburgh’s NLCS loss to the Braves in 1992, the story has been the same: bad pitching, underwhelming offense and no long-term game plan to speak of.

The Pirates have employed five different managers since Jim Leyland asked out of his contract following the 1996 season (to manage an immediately successful Marlins team) and they’re now working on a sixth in former Rockies skipper Clint Hurdle. The Hurdle hire was a fine one and he’s been saying all the right things at spring training this year, but managers don’t have the ability to turn around baseball franchises on their own. If a team doesn’t have productive players, its manager can’t write up a winning lineup and can’t schedule a winning rotation. These guys aren’t miracle workers.

For the Pirates to become a winning baseball club again, what they need first is hope. A reason to believe. And we’re not talking about hope as a mindset or even an emotion, we’re talking about real and tangible evidence that good times are on the horizon. Youth, upside, talent, potential and promise — that’s the stuff smaller-market baseball teams must possess in the modern era.

In Pittsburgh these days hope comes in the form of center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a first round draft pick who is finally meeting the hype in a city where big baseball prospects have recently fallen flat. He has a .286/.365/.459 batting line, 28 home runs and 55 stolen bases across his first 262 major league games and he doesn’t turn 25 years old until the end of the 2011 season. Then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, another first round pick gone right with a strong power bat at a position where such a thing is scarce. Venezuelan outfielder Jose Tabata is another exciting young player with great tools.

Hurdle’s job won’t be an easy one, but he’s taking over a better Pirates team than most of his predecessors and there appears to be a small flickering light at the end of the tunnel for the National League’s fifth-oldest franchise. If McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata continue to meet the hype, that light will grow.

So what else is going on?

  • The Pirates have done a better job on the trade market since the sabermetrically-inclined Neal Huntington took over as general manger in September of 2007. Last year that was made evident by a smart late-summer deal that sent aging reliever Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers for young right-hander James McDonald and outfield prospect Andrew Lambo. McDonald went on to post a 3.52 ERA and 61/24 K/BB ratio over 64 innings for the Pirates and will open the 2011 season near the top of the big league staring rotation. Lambo, only 22 years old, is set to open the year at Triple-A Indianapolis.
  • Huntington hasn’t been a complete savior, but he made swift and wide-reaching changes in the Pirates’ scouting and development department that have greatly improved a formerly desolate farm system in just a matter of years. When former general manager Dave Littlefield was let go at the end of the 2007 season, Baseball America had the Bucs’ minor league system at 28th in their annual rankings. This year it ranked 16th. Better drafting and a more aggressive strategy on the international market has quickly injected the organization with a bit of talent and a lot of depth.
  • Situated against the Allegheny River and flanked by the Roberto Clemente Bridge, there isn’t a better modern stadium or all-around baseball setting than what Pittsburgh has in PNC Park. Unfortunately, interest hasn’t been great. The Pirates drew 2.4 million fans in PNC’s debut season back in 2002 but they haven’t topped 1.86 million since and last year saw only 1.61 million people pass through the gates. If the 90-plus loss seasons continue, that’s not going to change.
  • McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata won’t be left alone this season to produce runs. Neil Walker came into his own at the age of 24 last year at Triple-A, posting a .951 OPS, 18 doubles and six homers across 43 games before the Pirates took notice in May and called him up to the big leagues. He continued punishing balls in the majors and will open the 2011 campaign as Pittsburgh’s starting second baseman. Our guess is he’ll make Bucs fans quickly forget about Freddy Sanchez.

So how are they gonna do?

About as bad as they did last year. The Pirates have a pair of hard-throwing relievers at the back end of their bullpen in Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, but getting leads to those two is going to be tough with a starting rotation that still lacks depth. McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata and Walker will continue making strides, but the Bucs drop close to 100 games again and finish last in the National League Central.

Shapiro, Murray defend Dellin Betances after arbitration feud

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Dellin Betances #68 of the New York Yankees and the American League pitches against the National League during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The dust hasn’t quite settled after right-hander Dellin Betances‘ arbitration hearing with the Yankees on Saturday. The case was decided in the team’s favor, awarding Betances with a $3 million salary for the 2017 season instead of the $5 million he initially requested. Yankees’ president Randy Levine held a press conference to voice his outrage over the figure presented by Betances and his agency, saying it had “no bearings in reality” since Betances does not have the elite closer status required for a salary bump of that magnitude.

Needless to say, the comments caused some consternation within Betances’ camp. The reliever publicly addressed the outburst, telling the press that he was prepared to put his differences with the team aside until he heard what Levine had to say. Via MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch:

Players union executive Rick Shapiro and Betances’ agent, Jim Murray, also spoke out in the right-hander’s favor. Shapiro presented Betances’ case during the hearing on Saturday and called Levine’s comments “an absolute disgrace to the arbitration process and to all of Major League Baseball.” In a report from FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Shapiro added: “The only thing that has been unprecedented in the last 36 hours is that a club official, after winning a case, called a news conference to effectively gloat about his victory – that’s unprecedented.”

Murray spoke exclusively to Rosenthal, accusing the president of effectively bullying the 28-year-old during the arbitration process and claiming that Levine had both mispronounced Betances’ name throughout the hearing and blamed the reliever for “declining ticket sales and their lack of playoff history.” Like Betances, Murray said that the agency was ready to accept the arbiter’s decision and move on before Levine’s decision to air his grievances to the media. “The only person overreaching in this entire situation is Randy,” Murray told Rosenthal. “He might as well be an astronaut because nobody on earth would agree with what he is saying. Even the others in the room would disagree with him.”

Royals will experiment with Alex Gordon in all three outfield spots this year

CLEVELAND, OH -  MAY 7: Alex Gordon #4 of the Kansas City Royals reacts to a fan while on first base during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 7, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Royals’ manager Ned Yost is shaking things up in 2017, starting with left fielder Alex Gordon. Yost told MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan that “every scenario is open,” and expects to utilize Gordon in right and center field this spring while he figures out where to position Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss.

Gordon, 33, hasn’t manned right field since a three-game experiment with the Royals back in 2010 and has yet to play center field during any regular season to date. The focus, however, isn’t on Gordon’s capabilities. Among the three outfielders, he carries the best defensive profile and appears to be the most versatile of the bunch.

According to Flanagan, Soler and Moss are average on defense and will continue working closely with Royals’ coach Rusty Kuntz as the season approaches. One arrangement could see Gordon in center field, flanked by Soler in right field and Moss in left, though Yost foresees Soler taking some reps at DH if his defensive chops aren’t up to snuff.

While Moss is prepared to see starts at either outfield corner, Yost appears to be set on keeping Soler in right field, at least for the time being. The club is hoping for a bounce-back season from the 24-year-old outfielder, who was acquired from the Cubs in December after batting a lackluster .238/.333/.436 and sustaining a slew of minor injuries throughout the 2016 season.