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.

Mets closer Jeurys Familia receives a 15-game suspension for domestic violence

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Mets closer Jeurys Familia has received a 15-game suspension for domestic violence.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Familia saved 51 games for the Mets last year while posting a 2.55 ERA. The Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.

Familia has released a statement:

Today, I accepted a 15-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my inappropriate behavior on October 31, 2016. With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening. I did,however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball’s investigation, and I’ve taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man.

I apologize to the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and all my fans. I look forward to rejoining the Mets and being part of another World Series run. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has a statement as well:

My office has completed its investigation into the events leading up to Jeurys Familia’s arrest on October 31, 2016.  Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB’s Department of Investigations.  My office also received cooperation from the Fort Lee Municipal Prosecutor.  The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016.  Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions.  Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 ninety-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type.  Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.

2017 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

Every year, Major League Baseball plays host to two casts of characters: the contenders and the rebuilders. You might find slight variations — the rebuilders who stand a chance of contending, the contenders on the verge of rebuilding, or those stuck somewhere in between — but by and large, the lines are clearly drawn.

The 2017 Brewers, for better or worse, are rebuilders. Sure, you won’t find them at the bottom of the NL Central come October (that place is unequivocally reserved for the Reds), but neither will you see them snag a Wild Card berth or run away with the division title. This is the year of cultivating a fertile farm system, giving their big league prospects room to stretch and grow and figuring out whether Ryan Braun has a future in Milwaukee beyond 2017.

If the Brewers did anything right this winter, it was deepening their reserves at nearly every position. Behind the plate, Andrew Susac, Manny Pina and newly-acquired Jett Bandy bandied for the spot. Susac injured his back during camp, and while the MRI results didn’t reveal any significant damage, it doesn’t look like he’ll be healthy in time for Opening Day. Milwaukee skipper Craig Counsell has yet to identify a full-time catcher and could start the year with Pina and Bandy in a hybrid role after both backstops impressed during spring training.

Eric Thames replaced Chris Carter at first base, and while he’s expected to split duties with Jesus Aguilar, appears to be an unconventional acquisition for the Brewers. On paper, the two look miles apart. Carter slashed .222/.321/.499 with 41 home runs and an .821 OPS for the club in 2016, pairing his league-leading homers with a league-leading 206 strikeouts. Thames, meanwhile, flamed out in the majors in 2012 and has not returned to the major league stage since. Never mind that he has only ever played the outfield or that he’s technically made only 181 big league appearances in the last five years, though. Over the past three seasons, he mashed an incredible .349/.457/.721 with 124 home runs and a 1.178 OPS for the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization, and the three-year, $16 million contract he signed with Milwaukee will look like a steal if he can replicate those numbers in the United States.

The outfield posed another set of questions for the team, who was looking to fill right and center field with a combination of Keon Broxton, Hernan Perez, Domingo Santana, Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Kyle Wren. Broxton and Santana claimed spots in center and right, respectively, with Nieuwenhuis beating out the rest of the backup candidates to secure his position as the team’s fourth outfielder. Braun will resume his station in left field after a quiet spring training, during which he declined to participate in the World Baseball Classic or most of the Cactus League competition in order to stay healthy for the upcoming season. (At least, that’s one plausible reason. He also told the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal’s Todd Rosiak, “I just don’t feel like I need at-bats to feel ready for games.”)

Of course, every team in the throes of rebuilding has at least one weak spot, and the Brewers are no exception. The starting rotation lacks clarity and talent outside of Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, both of whom flourished in their sophomore campaigns with Milwaukee in 2016. The club acquired left-hander Tommy Milone on the cheap, adding him to a lengthy list of candidates that included right-handers Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza and Jimmy Nelson. Spring training did little to illuminate a clear path for the rotation: Garza imploded, Peralta shone, and Nelson and Anderson proved inconsistent at best.

The bullpen doesn’t look much better beyond newly-minted closer Neftali Feliz, who signed a one-year, $5.35 million deal with the Brewers after polishing off a healthy, productive season with the Pirates in 2016. While his bounce-back season looked like a good omen for Milwaukee, Feliz struggled through a rough spring, working 10 hits, six runs, three walks and seven strikeouts through nine innings in camp. He appears to be fully recovered from the “biceps fatigue” that curtailed his last season in Pittsburgh, and Counsell believes that he’ll improve with more reps this spring.

Elsewhere in the bullpen, the club is hurting for left-handed relief after optioning their only lefty candidate, Brent Suter, to Triple-A Colorado Springs last week. A suitable replacement for Suter has yet to be named, but there’s some chatter that Milone could assume a position in the bullpen if necessary.

Overall, the Brewers didn’t improve their major league roster as much as they stabilized it, opting for low-cost stopgaps while they condition younger, less-seasoned players waiting to break through to the bigs. A plethora of high-caliber prospects crowd the upper rungs of their farm system, so much so that the club has had difficulty trying to find enough room for all of them to develop at the appropriate level. Just take Triple-A Colorado Springs, which boasts a talented outfield of Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell and Brett Phillips and rotation battles among Hiram Burgos, Josh Hader, Paolo Espino, Wilkerson, Taylor Jungmann, Wei-Chung Wang and the aforementioned Brent Suter, among others.

Milwaukee is looking at a bright future, to be sure, but that future won’t be fully realized right now. The Brewers’ 2017 season will undoubtedly be more satisfying for its front office than its fans, unless those fans also have a ticket to Security Service Field. Given a few more years to develop their prospects and build out their farm system, however, these rebuilders could begin to look something like contenders.

Prediction: 4th place in NL Central.