Pirates Spring Baseball

Springtime Storylines: Are the Pittsburgh Pirates getting any closer to breaking .500?

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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 2012 season. Up first: The Pirates. Yarrr?

The Big Question: Are the Buccos getting closer to snapping their streak of losing seasons?

Most of these team previews will operate in the present with all focus being paid to 2012. But the Pirates haven’t won more than 79 games since 1992, the year Kriss Kross released “Jump” and a Western starring Clint Eastwood was awarded Best Picture. Bucs fans don’t have the luxury of spring training hope, and you don’t come here for soft analysis.

(Did that sound tough? … Tough AND cool, you say? This pop culture reference schtick really works)

The answer to The Big Question up top is “yes” because simple math says it has to be. The Pirates were in first place in the National League Central standings as late as July 25 last season and finished with their lowest loss total (90) since 2004. They also prevented runs at a rate not seen in Pittsburgh since ’02.

And while the neon light at the end of the tunnel isn’t flashing “PLAYOFFS” quite yet, the Pirates are beginning to develop better talent and are finally starting to make helpful (rather than hurtful) off-field moves.

This offseason serves as a nice example. The Bucs weren’t swayed by left-hander Paul Maholm’s decent showing in 2011 and swiftly declined his $9.75 million club option for 2012. He posted a 96 ERA+ (below the league average) in his six full years in the Pittsburgh rotation. Jose Veras, a steady but replaceable middle reliever, was traded to the Brewers for Casey McGehee, who slugged 23 homers alongside an .801 OPS in 2010 and can push youngster Pedro Alvarez at the hot corner. Veteran starter Erik Bedard was brought aboard on a low-risk one-year, $4.5 million free agent contract. Clint Barmes was given a two-year, $10.5 million free agent deal to provide a reliable temporary fix at shortstop.

The Pirates also locked up one of the game’s best young center fielders, Andrew McCutchen, to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension this spring. That deal has an extremely team-friendly feel.

Put simply: better decisions are being made in the Pirates front office. That might not have an impact in 2012 or even 2013, but Pittsburgh’s baseball club is like a ship on the horizon … dammit, that’s too corny.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Pirates have been aggressive recently on the international market and in the draft, building a farm system that could soon yield a couple of front-line starters. Gerrit Cole, a power pitcher from UCLA, was last year’s No. 1 overall pick and is already a Top 12 prospect according to Baseball America. Jameson Taillon posted a 3.98 ERA  and 97 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings at Single-A last season as a 19-year-old. Luis Heredia is just 17 years old and far more raw than the other two, but he was a high-profile international signee out of Mexico — the type of player the Pirates would, in the past, ignore.
  • The Bucs drafted high school outfielder Josh Bell in the second round last June. Many teams figured he was unsignable because of a strong commitment to the University of Texas, but the Pirates threw a second-round record $5 million signing bonus at him and were able to strike an agreement. Pittsburgh spent a franchise-record $11.9 million on the 2010 draft, then smashed that this past year with over $17 million in contracts. Small-market teams must develop their own (cost-controlled) talent. The Pirates are finally making investments on the right side of baseball’s massive money pot.
  • Hugging the Roberto Clemente Bridge and offering sweeping views of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline, PNC Park is widely regarded as one of the best stadium settings in all of professional sports. Last year’s competitive first half helped attendance shoot above 1.9 million for the first time since the park opened in 2001. The Pirates would probably like to consistently hover above the two million mark.
  • He doesn’t draw a ton of praise outside of fantasy baseball circles, but hard-throwing Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan registered a dominant 1.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 61/16 K/BB ratio in 68 2/3 innings last season while converting 40-of-44 save opportunities. If the Pirates’ still-shaky starting rotation can manage to get him leads, Hanrahan has the goods to turn those leads into victories.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Pirates showed promise in the first half of 2011 and are coming off a productive winter. With slightly better performances from the likes of Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Garrett Jones, Pittsburgh could challenge for 75-80 wins this season. Which should be good enough for fourth place in the six-team NL Central — above the Cubs and Astros but again behind the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers.

Red Sox move Clay Buchholz to the bullpen

BOSTON, MA - MAY 26:  Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox is relieved during the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies  at Fenway Park on May 26, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Red Sox manager John Farrell announced Friday that Clay Buchholz has been moved to the bullpen.

Buchholz was lit up for six runs on Thursday in just the latest poor outing in a year full of them thus far. His ERA now sits at a lofty 6.35 and he is posting a career low strikeout rate of 5.9 per nine innings while both his walk rate and his home run rates have spiked. His WHIP — 1.465 — is the worst he’s posted since 2008.

Eduardo Rodriguez will take his place in the rotation when he comes off the disabled list. He’ll get what would have been Buchholz’s next start on Tuesday.

According to the depth chart, Buchholz was the Red Sox’ second starter. He’s been their worst starter by far this year, however, and now he’s likely a long man who will be seeing mopup duty for the foreseeable future.

Jurickson Profar called up, to get his first MLB action since 2013

Jurickson Profar
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The Texas Rangers have called up infielder Jurickson Profar from Triple-A Round Rock. He’s starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Rangers.

Profar has not seen action in the bigs since the end of the 2013 season, having missed two seasons with shoulder injuries. He has batted .284/.356/.426 with five homers and four steals across 189 plate appearances with Round Rock this season, however, and seems to be healthy again. His stay with the Rangers could be short — he’s basically coming up to fill in for Roughned Odor — but he’s still just 23 and it’s not hard to imagine him making another go of it as a big league regular eventually.

Here’s hoping anyway.

Jose Bautista’s suspension is upheld

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Major League Baseball has upheld Jose Bautista‘s one-game suspension arising out of the Rougned Odor fracas. Bautista tried to have it thrown out on appeal, but really, if you get one game they’re not gonna budge on that. Maybe if they start with half-game suspensions they’ll be room to work, but when the choice is one or none, MLB is going to stick with one.

Bautista will serve the suspension tonight against the Red Sox. Ezequiel Carrera will take his place in right field.

What’s on tap: previewing tonight’s action

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 13:  Julio Urias of the World Team during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Target Field on July 13, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The big game is in New York, where Julio Urias makes his major league debut against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. Urias, 19, has 27 consecutive scoreless innings under his belt. All at Triple-A, of course. The debuts of young pitchers tend not to go too well, but at the very least you’ll see a guy with electric stuff and you’ll be able to say you saw him back when he was just a lad.

Another nice matchup pits Jaime Garcia against Max Scherzer. Garcia has struggled of late but is always capable of a big game. Scherzer has had some of the biggest games of the past couple of years. Masahiro Tanaka vs. Chris Archer is another matchup with star power, even if Archer hasn’t lived up to his billing of late. Tanaka has only pitched on game in Tropicana Field but it was a great game, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out eight. He may be the only person alive who likes it there.

Here’s tonight’s slate. And, well, this afternoon’s game in Chicago too:

Philadelphia Phillies (Adam Morgan) @ Chicago Cubs (Jon Lester), 2:20 PM EDT, Wrigley Field

St. Louis Cardinals (Jaime Garcia) @ Washington Nationals (Max Scherzer), 7:05 PM EDT, Nationals Park

Boston Red Sox (Joe Kelly) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT, Rogers Centre

Baltimore Orioles (Mike Wright) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 7:10 PM EDT, Progressive Field

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ New York Mets (Jacob deGrom), 7:10 PM EDT, Citi Field

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer), 7:10 PM EDT, Tropicana Field

Miami Marlins (Adam Conley) @ Atlanta Braves (Williams Perez), 7:35 PM EDT, Turner Field

Pittsburgh Pirates (Jonathon Niese) @ Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels), 8:05 PM EDT, Globe Life Park in Arlington

Cincinnati Reds (John Lamb) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Zach Davies), 8:10 PM EDT, Miller Park

Chicago White Sox (Miguel Gonzalez) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 8:15 PM EDT, Kauffman Stadium

San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain) @ Colorado Rockies (Tyler Chatwood), 8:40 PM EDT, Coors Field

San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray), 9:40 PM EDT, Chase Field

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Oakland Athletics (Sean Manaea), 10:05 PM EDT, Oakland Coliseum

Houston Astros (Mike Fiers) @ Los Angeles Angels (Matt Shoemaker), 10:05 PM EDT, Angel Stadium of Anaheim