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.

2016 Winter Meetings Preview

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 26: The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is seen along the Potomac River February 26, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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The baseball world will descend on Washington D.C. — well, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, at the Gaylord Resort at National Harbor — this weekend for the 2016 Winter Meetings. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Twenty free agents from a class of 191 have signed thus far. Among the notable: Yoenis Cespedes, Edinson Volquez, Neil Walker, Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon, and R.A. Dickey. That, of course, leaves a ton of notables left, including Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Turner, Jose Bautista, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Trumbo, Mark Melancon, Rich Hill and a host of others. Here is our rundown of this offseason’s top free agents if you’re curious. As you have come to expect from us, we’ll have a writeup of everyone who signs, faster than almost anyone else will.

Despite the sheer number of available free agents, this is an historically thin free agent class in terms of talent. That means that, for a team to improve significantly, they may be better served by making a trade. We’ve seen a couple already, most notably the deals which sent Taijuan Walker to the Diamondbacks, Jaime Garcia to the Braves and Brian McCann to the Astros. Most experts believe there will be plenty more this winter, and the ball could really get rolling on that in the next week with guys like Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale, Chris Archer, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Brandon Phillips on the block.

Another major activity of the Winter Meetings is the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee vote. Except, this year, there is no Veterans Committee, at least in name. It’s now the “Today’s Game” committee. Here are links to breakdowns of the candidacies of all ten men on the ballot the new committee will consider:

Harold Baines
Albert Belle
Will Clark
Orel Hershiser
Mark McGwire
George Steinbrenner
Davey Johnson
Lou Piniella
John Shuerholz
Bud Selig

Trade deals, free agent negotiations and Hall of Fame votes take place behind closed doors at the Gaylord Resort. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press. This year’s new faces are Torey Lovullo with the Diamondbacks, Rick Renteria with the White Sox and Bud Black with the Rockies. Brian Snitker, now the permanent manager of the Braves, will get his first go-around at the managerial cattle call. I’ll be in the scrum for a lot of these guys — they do them two at a time so I can’t see everyone — and will let you know if they say anything fun.

Outside of the transactions and the Hall of Fame stuff, we have the more mundane Winter Meetings business. And a lot of it. Indeed, the vast majority of the people at the Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings, though this year’s brand new Collective Bargaining Agreement should overshadow that. We’ve already discussed the major points of that and, yesterday, I speculated that, as time goes on, the way this agreement was reached could lead to some serious strife going forward, particularly on the union side. Expect to hear some anonymous rumblings about all of that in the next few days, from players, agents and other interested parties who may not be all that pleased with how it goes.

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected are, but here’s a good place to start your research on that. If your team takes someone in the draft, the most important thing to know is that he’ll either be on the big league roster all year or he’ll have to be returned to his original team. Well, they could be stashed on the disabled list with phantom injuries so they won’t have to be returned, but no team would ever do that, would they? Perish the thought.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene at National Harbor, bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event. As they used to say in radio, tune in to us and rip off the dial. Or, at the very least, keep a tab open to us and refresh a lot.

The Padres non-tendered RHP Tyson Ross

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 04:  Tyson Ross #38 of the San Diego Padres walks off the field as he's taken out of the game in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on opening day at PETCO Park on April 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Per a report by MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, the Padres non-tendered right-handed starter Tyson Ross on Friday, cutting loose their top ace after three seasons with the club.

Ross, 29, was sidelined for the bulk of the season with inflammation in his right shoulder and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in October. His injuries limited him to only 5 1/3 innings in 2016, during which he gave up seven runs and struck out five in a 15-0 blowout against the Dodgers.

Prior to his lengthy stint on the disabled list, the right-hander earned 9.5 fWAR and pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 9.2 K/9 rate in three full seasons with the Padres. He avoided arbitration with a one-year, $9.625 million deal prior to the 2016 season after leading the league with 33 starts and delivering a 3.26 ERA and career-best 4.4 WARP over 196 innings in 2015.

The Padres appear open to bringing Ross back to San Diego, reported Cassavell, albeit not at such a steep cost. Cassavell quoted Padres’ GM A.J. Preller, who was reportedly in trade talks involving Ross but unable to strike a deal, likely due to the right-hander’s recent health issues. Preller denied that those same health issues factored into the club’s decision to non-tender their ace.

With the move, Ross became one of 35 major leaguers to enter free agency on Friday.