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.

Joey Votto thinks he can win the Home Run Derby, but hasn’t been invited yet

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Despite having hit at least 20 home runs in eight of his 11 seasons in the majors, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has never participated in a Home Run Derby. Currently, he’s tied for the National League lead in home runs with 20, and he hasn’t been invited to this year’s festivities at Marlins Park.

In the event he is invited, Votto said he thinks he can win it, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Votto likened himself to Ichiro Suzuki, a player known more for his contact abilities and mastery of the strike zone than power. “Just think of me as the Canadian Ichiro — Japan has theirs and Canada has theirs,” Votto said. “I could pull homers into the seats at will.”

Along with the 20 homers, Votto is currently hitting .306/.419/.601 with 53 RBI, and 52 runs scored in 313 plate appearances.

Teammate Scott Schebler also has 20 home runs at the moment and Adam Duvall, who made it to the semifinals of the Derby last year, has 16. Neither of them have been approached about participating in the Derby, either. Per Rosecrans, in the event each was invited, Duvall said he would consider participating if he wasn’t an All-Star and Schebler would participate regardless. Votto said he would only participate if he made the All-Star team.

There was apparently some miscommunication between Pete Mackanin and Pat Neshek

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The Phillies won their first game since last Thursday, beating the Cardinals 5-1 on Thursday afternoon. Starter Aaron Nola pitched into the eighth inning, but left with one out. Pat Neshek took the mound with a runner on first base and induced an inning-ending double play on a 3-1 count to Tommy Pham.

Given that Neshek only threw five pitches and the Phillies were staked to a four-run lead, it wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable if the sidewinding right-hander came back out to finish the ninth inning as well. But Luis Garcia had that honor, tossing a scoreless final frame to nail down the win in a non-save situation.

After the game, manager Pete Mackanin said he asked Neshek to go back out for the ninth, but Neshek didn’t want to, per Stephen Gross of the Morning Call. Neshek told the media that Mackanin never asked him. There was also a miscommunication on Wednesday. The combination of Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos combined to allow four runs in 2 1/3 innings, helping the Phillies lose 7-6. Neshek never appeared. According to Mackanin, Neshek told him that he wasn’t available to pitch. Neshek said he was told he’d have the day off.

The disconnect between Mackanin and Neshek could speak to a larger divide between the manager and his failing team. The Phillies have underwhelmed across the board due to players like Odubel Herrera (whose head was down and did not see Juan Samuel’s stop sign last night in what became a base running blunder), Maikel Franco, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola (today’s start notwithstanding), and Hector Neris not living up to expectations. The Phillies signed Mackanin to a contract extension last month, but the team has completely fallen apart since then and the latest communications issues certainly don’t reflect well on him. Neither does last night’s travesty of a game.

As for Neshek, he said that going to the Phillies was “the best thing that happened to me in a few years” but also realized, given the state of the team, that it remains very likely he winds up in a new uniform by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. After Thursday’s performance, Neshek is carrying a 0.63 ERA with a 25/4 K/BB ratio in 28 2/3 innings. He very well could be the Phillies’ lone representative at the All-Star Game in Miami next month. That is, if he’s still wearing their uniform. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Nationals have shown interest in Neshek.