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.

Report: Tim Lincecum is not ready for retirement

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 29:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the Los Angeles Angels during the second inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 29, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Free agent right-hander Tim Lincecum isn’t ready to hang up his cleats just yet. At least, that’s the word from Lincecum’s agent, Rick Thurman, who says the 32-year-old is still “throwing and getting ready for the season” (via Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News).

Lincecum may not be ready to enter retirement, but another quote from Thurman suggests that he’ll be picky about where he pitches next. He doesn’t appear open to pitching overseas, and despite not having a contract for 2017 (or even any serious suitors), the right-hander is set on pitching in the big leagues this year. Whether or not he’s willing to take a bullpen role to do so remains to be seen.

While Baggarly predicts some interest in the veteran righty, there’s not much in Lincecum’s recent history to inspire faith in him as a starter, or even a reliever. He picked up a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Angels following his hip surgery in 2015, and went 2-6 in 2016 with a 9.16 ERA, 5.4 BB/9 and 7.5 SO/9 over 38 1/3 innings. At this point, a minor league contract seems like the surest path back to major league success, though he’s unlikely to find an open spot on the Giants’ or Angels’ rosters anytime soon.

Report: Jeff Manship signs with NC Dinos

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01:  Jeff Manship #53 of the Cleveland Indians throws a pitch during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Six of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 1, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Free agent right-hander Jeff Manship has reportedly signed with the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization, according to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman. The righty was non-tendered by the Indians in December.

Manship, 32, completed his second season with Cleveland in 2016. He delivered a 3.12 ERA, 4.6 BB/9 and 7.5 SO/9 rate over 43 1/3 innings, a slight decline after posting an 0.92 ERA with the club the year before. During eight years in the major leagues, Manship carries a 4.82 career ERA, 3.6 BB/9 and 6.4 SO/9 in multiple stints with the Twins, Rockies, Phillies and Indians.

The right-hander will be joined by fellow MLB transplants Eric Hacker and Xavier Scruggs, each of whom took one-year deals with the Dinos last month. Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors notes that each KBO team is allowed up to three foreign players, so Manship will round out the trio when he joins the roster. Any salary terms have yet to be disclosed.