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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.

Diamondbacks name Dan Haren as pitching strategist

PHOENIX - APRIL 05:  Starting pitcher Dan Haren #15 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches against the San Diego Padres during the Opening Day major league baseball game at Chase Field on April 5, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Padres 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Diamondbacks announced on Tuesday afternoon that former major leaguer Dan Haren has been named the organization’s new pitching strategist. The role will include working with the front office, the major league coaching staff, and the analytics department.

Haren, 36, ended his 13-year playing career after the 2015 season. He finished with a 153-131 record and a 3.75 ERA across 2,419 2/3 innings.

Since retiring, Haren has been one of the more enjoyable players to follow on Twitter. He promised to teach his disciples how to tweet as part of his new responsibilities.

Pablo Sandoval is in the best shape of his life

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For a guy who won a World Series MVP Award and has been to a couple of All-Star Games, it’s amazing how many stories have been written about Pablo Sandoval‘s off-the-field exploits compared to his on-the-field exploits. Specifically, stories about his conditioning. Or lack of conditioning. Of him getting into shape, falling out of shape and getting back into shape again. It’s been this way since he emerged as an everyday player in 2009.

And it continues anew:

There is no claim here that Sandoval is, in fact, in The Best Shape of His Life. However, longtime BSOHL fans know that the claim is not about the magic words being used. The idea is that, in the offseason, players with something to prove will routinely make an effort to create the impression that they are a new man. Often it is from claiming that one is in The Best Shape of His Life. Often it comes from surrogates talking about how many pounds of fat one has lost or pounds of pure muscle one has added. Sometimes — as here — it comes in the form of showing post-workout photos.

Whatever the purpose of the photo, Sandoval is certainly looking good compared to where he was last spring:

FORT MYERS, - MARCH 14: Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox makes the throw to first on the ground ball from Jason Rogers (not in photo) of the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fourth inning of the Spring Training Game on March 14, 2016 at Jet Blue Park at Fenway South, Florida. The Pirates defeated the Red Sox 3-1. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Or at the end of the 2015 season:

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 31: Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox warms up prior to the first inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on August 31, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Red Sox won the game 4-3. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Even if this is part of a plan to get Sandoval some good press heading into the 2017 season, I’m happy to see that he appears to be recovered from shoulder surgery and appears to be taking good care of himself and is thinking about his baseball futrue.

Either way, expect the Panda Weight Watch to continue at Red Sox spring training come February.