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2013 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Can the Buccos break .500 for the first time since the 1992 season?

It is absolutely possible. The Pirates finished only four games under the .500 mark (79-83) in 2012 and seem capable of significant improvement in 2013. Andrew McCutchen has been a star for years but truly had a breakout 2012 campaign, posting career highs in batting average (.327), homers (31), RBI (96) and runs scored (107). His .953 OPS was higher than his previous best by a whole 112 points. Maybe some regression is coming, but then again maybe it’s not.

McCutchen isn’t the only difference-maker in the Pirates’ lineup. Starling Marte hit .286/.347/.500 with 12 homers, 13 triples and 21 stolen bases in 100 games last season at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting called up to Pittsburgh and giving the National League a taste of his potential down the stretch. He’ll bat leadoff this year in front of Neil Walker, who proved his legitimacy in 2012 by producing a career-high 14 home runs in 129 games while lifting his average, OBP and slugging percentage all from where they were in 2011.

Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones also produced a career-best home run total last season, slugging 27 in 145 games. He had 16 homers in 148 games in 2011. And then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is entering his physical prime at age 26 and tallied 30 big flies last year at age 25. The Bucs have a handful of legitimate power bats, and free agent acquisition Russell Martin should only help the run-production. He was handed a two-year, $17 million contract this winter to provide needed stability behind the plate.

This is not a bad National League offense, and the rotation looks better than it has in over a decade.

Wandy Rodriguez registered a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings with the Pirates last season after arriving in a July 25 trade with Houston. The veteran left-hander owns a 3.48 ERA in 934 2/3 innings since 2008. A.J. Burnett has found new life in the Steel City and was almost ace-like in 2012, spreading a 3.51 ERA over 200-plus frames. James McDonald has flashed potential, and Gerrit Cole — the No. 1 overall pick from 2011 — is expected to reach the major leagues in June. Jameson Taillon — the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 — is also getting close.

These aren’t your older cousin’s Pirates. Las Vegas gives them an over/under of 77.5 wins. I like the over, and I think they can approach something like 85 victories if their most important players stay healthy all year.

What Else Is Going On?

  • Left-hander Francisco Liriano could also be of help to the Pittsburgh rotation at some point in 2013. He originally agreed to a two-year, $14 million free agent contract with the Bucs in December, but he injured his right (non-throwing) arm before making that deal official and had to settle for an adjusted two-year, $12.75 million pact. Liriano has posted an ugly 5.23 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over his last 291 innings, but he was a force for the Twins in 2010 and he’s only 29 years old. Liriano will be recovered by May.
  • The Pirates held a share of first place in the National League Central on July 25, 2011, only to go 19-43 over their final 62 games. They had a share of first place on July 18, 2012, and then came another late-season fade. Fair or not, much of the blame for this inability to finish strong has fallen on the broad shoulders of manager Clint Hurdle. He is currently under contract through 2014, but failing to meet expectations this year could irk the club’s higher-ups to the point where they want to make a change.
  • The Pittsburgh bullpen isn’t great. Last year’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, was traded to Boston this winter in a six-player swap. Jason Grilli was very good last season and should do fine as the new ninth-inning man, but getting leads to him may be an issue. Mark Melancon, who came to Pittsburgh in that Hanrahan deal, posted a 6.20 ERA across 45 innings with the Red Sox in 2012. Tony Watson is solid but not dominant, and Jared Hughes fits that same profile. It’s not an especially exciting group.
  • Those back-to-back late-season tumbles have only been made possible by back-to-back early-season success, which has helped pumped life into one of the most well-designed sports stadiums in the world. PNC Park hosted 2,091,918 fans in 2012, up from 1,940,429 fans in 2011 and 1,613,399 million in 2010. Pittsburgh is among the best pro sports towns in the country, and Major League Baseball is always going to better off when its team there is worth watching. “Raise the Jolly Roger” and all that.

Prediction: Third place in the National League Central, behind the Reds and Cardinals.

The Chicago Cubs: Spring training games, regular season prices

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Craig Calcaterra
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MESA, AZ — I’ve been covering spring training for eight years, and in just those eight years a lot has changed in the Cactus and Grapefruit League experiences. The parks are bigger and fancier and the vibe is far more akin to a regular season major league one than the intimate and laid back atmosphere most people think of when they picture February and March baseball.

Just imagine, however, how much has changed if you’ve been coming to Florida or Arizona for a really long time.

“When we first started coming, you could bring your own beer in,” says Don Harper, a lifelong Cubs fan from Kennewick, Washington who spends his winters in Arizona. “You couldn’t bring a cooler, but you could bring a case of beer and a bag of ice and you just set it down in between you and you just put the ice on it and keep it cold.”

I asked Don if the beer vendors complained.

“They didn’t sell beer,” he said.

That was three decades and two ballparks ago. They certainly sell beer at the Cubs’ gleaming new facility, Sloan Park. Cups of the stuff cost more than a couple of cases did back when Don first started coming to spring training.

The price of beer is not the only thing that has changed, of course. The price of tickets is not what it used to be either. Don told me that when he started coming to Cubs spring training games tickets ran about seven dollars. If that. It’s a bit pricer now. Face value for a single lawn ticket, where you’ll be sitting on a blanker on the outfield berm — can be as high as $47 depending on the day of the week and the opponent. Infield box seats run as high as $85.

The thing is, though, you’re not getting face value seats for Cubs spring training games. Half of the home games sold out within a week of tickets going on sale in January. Since then just about every other game has sold out or soon will. That will force you to get tickets on the secondary market. According to TickPick, the average — average! — Cubs spring training ticket on the secondary market is $106.30. For a single ticket. It’s easily the highest price for spring training tickets in all of baseball, and is $26 higher than secondary market tickets for the next highest team, the Red Sox:

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That may be shocking or even appalling to some, but as the automatic sellouts at Sloan Park and those high secondary market prices suggest, there are at least 15,000 people or so for each Cubs home game who don’t seem to mind. Supply meet demand meet the defending World Series champions.

I spoke with two younger Cubs fans, Corey Hayden and Eleanor Meloul, who traveled here from Salt Lake City. On Sunday they lucked out and got a couple of lawn seats for $28. On Saturday, however, they paid $100 a piece on StubHub to get some seats just beyond third base. I asked them if there is some price point that would keep them from coming.

“There isn’t one,” Hayden said. “I paid $4,500 for a World Series ticket, so . . .”

Don Harper wouldn’t do that, but he doesn’t really mind the higher prices he’s paying for his spring tickets. Of course, he’s a longtime season ticket holder so he gets access to the face value seats. I asked him whether his spring training habit would end if those prices got jacked up higher, as the market would seem to bear, or if he had to resort to the secondary market.

Don paused and sighed, suggesting it was a tough question. As he considered it, I put a hard number on it, asking him if he’d still go if he had to pay $50 per ticket. “Yeah, probably,” he said. “$75?” I asked. He paused again.

“As long as I got enough money.”

Don is a diehard who, one senses, will always find a way to make it work. Corey spent a wad of cash on that once-in-a-lifetime World Series ticket, but he and Eleanor seem content to bargain hunt for the most part and splurge strategically. If you’re a Cubs fan — and if you’re not rich — that’s what you’ll have to do. The ticket it just too hot.

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.