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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.

Marlins 2B Dee Gordon suspended 80 games for PEDs

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LOS ANGELES — Dee Gordon has been suspended 80 games by Major League Baseball after the Miami Marlins second baseman tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Gordon tested positive for exogenous Testosterone and Clostebol, MLB said in a release after the Marlins’ 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night.

The fleet-footed Gordon won the National League batting title by hitting .333 last season and signed a $50 million, 5-year deal with Miami in January. He’s made two All-Star teams in his six seasons and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at second base last year.

Gordon, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Gordon, had a key hit in Miami’s win over the Dodgers on Thursday. He’s batting .266 with six stolen bases this season.

Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Marlins president David Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did. He is an important member of this organization and will be for many years to come. It’s a huge, huge disappointment to the kids, to our fans, to his teammates and to everyone in our organization every single day.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization. But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

Devon Travis will start taking at-bats in extended spring training

Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis hits a RBI double to center field against the Tampa Bay Rays during third inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 15, 2015 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)  MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis underwent left shoulder surgery last September. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm caught up with Jays head athletic trainer George Poulis for updates on several injured players, including Travis. Here’s what Poulis had to say about Travis:

“He’s going to get some live at-bats with the extended team down in Florida on Friday. Big step for him, he’s very excited, he’s doing great, and we’re very optimistic, but no timeline right now on his return. We’re just going day by day, step by step.

“When you have something like that, it continues to heal even when you’re playing. We’re just trying to acclimate him and condition him to withstand all of the stress that he’s going to put on his shoulder … He won’t play in the field right now. We’ll mix that in, as well, but right now he’s just going to get some at-bats.”

The key phrase, of course, is “no timetable”. The second baseman’s rehab has gone slower than expected. Getting into some extended spring training games, though, signals progress.

Travis, 25, broke out last season, hitting .304/.361/.498 with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 239 plate appearances last season. The Jays have had Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney handle second base duties this year, but their aggregate .560 OPS is the worst mark in the American League.

Report: Alex Rios has received offers, but is seeking a significant role

Kansas City Royals right fielder Alex Rios watches during batting practice before Game 6 of baseball's American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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We’re almost into May and outfielder Alex Rios remains teamless. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports that Rios has received offers, but he hasn’t accepted any yet because he’s seeking a job with a “significant role”. Ostensibly, that means a starting role or possibly a platoon role.

Rios, 35, was on last year’s championship-winning Royals team, but he hit a meager .255/.287/.353 with four home runs and 32 RBI in 411 plate appearances. It’s understandable if teams aren’t willing to gamble on him rediscovering his once-potent bat now that he’s in his mid-30’s.

Rios earned $11 million last year on a one-year deal with the Royals. Now, he may have to settle for a minor league contract. If Rios doesn’t receive a palatable offer, Heyman suggests he may retire.

Video: Manny Machado clubs a grand slam to break it open against the White Sox

Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado celebrates scoring on a two-run double by Gerardo Parra during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, in Toronto. The Orioles won 10-2. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP)
Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP
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Manny Machado is good at baseball. The Orioles’ third baseman busted Thursday’s game wide open when he clubbed a grand slam to left-center field off of reliever Jake Petricka to boost his team’s lead to 10-2 in the sixth inning.

The blast was Machado’s second career grand slam and his seventh home run of the season. Along with that, he’s hitting .337/.394/.686 with 16 RBI on the season.