mccutchen walker

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


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.

Theo Epstein on sportswriters: “The life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself…”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 07:  Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein stands on the field during batting practice before the game between the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field on October 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Rick Morissey of the Chicago Sun-Times published an article on Sunday giving a bit of insight into Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. When Epsten was younger, he dabbled in sportswriting, but quickly realized the trade wasn’t for him.

As Morissey details, when Epstein was 19 years old writing for Yale’s student newspaper, he wrote an article suggesting the school’s football coach should be fired during what would become a 3-7 season. Epstein was told during the meeting that one writer would defend the coach and one would call for his job. “It was a lesson in the way that the world of journalism sometimes works. It was an eye-opener for me. I regret it, and I’ve happily moved on.”

Epstein continued, “I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94. I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar. Not to generalize.” He added, “But I really respect writing and respect sportswriters.”

He’s not wrong, and he seems to have found his calling as a front office executive. His Cubs are back in the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Jason Kipnis injured his ankle celebrating the pennant with Francisco Lindor

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17:  Jose Ramirez #11, Francisco Lindor #12, Jason Kipnis #22 and Mike Napoli #26 of the Cleveland Indians celebrate after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays with a score of 4 to 2 in game three of the American League Championship Series at Rogers Centre on October 17, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis tweeted on Sunday, “Got a little too close to [Francisco Lindor] during the celebration!! Freak accident but should be good to go by Tuesday! #cantkeepmeoutofthisgame!”

Per’s Jordan Bastian, manager Terry Francona said Kipnis is dealing with a low ankle sprain, but he’s expected to be ready to go when the World Series begins on Tuesday. Kipnis went through fielding drills on Sunday.

Kipnis is hitting .167/.219/.367 with a pair of homers and four RBI in eight games this postseason.