Springtime Storylines: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Pirates?

5 Comments

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Hurdle and his Bucs.

The Big Question: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the Pirates?

The most disappointing thing about the Pirates’ recent run of futility is how similar the plot has played out in each of the club’s 18 consecutive losing seasons. Since Barry Bonds left after Pittsburgh’s NLCS loss to the Braves in 1992, the story has been the same: bad pitching, underwhelming offense and no long-term game plan to speak of.

The Pirates have employed five different managers since Jim Leyland asked out of his contract following the 1996 season (to manage an immediately successful Marlins team) and they’re now working on a sixth in former Rockies skipper Clint Hurdle. The Hurdle hire was a fine one and he’s been saying all the right things at spring training this year, but managers don’t have the ability to turn around baseball franchises on their own. If a team doesn’t have productive players, its manager can’t write up a winning lineup and can’t schedule a winning rotation. These guys aren’t miracle workers.

For the Pirates to become a winning baseball club again, what they need first is hope. A reason to believe. And we’re not talking about hope as a mindset or even an emotion, we’re talking about real and tangible evidence that good times are on the horizon. Youth, upside, talent, potential and promise — that’s the stuff smaller-market baseball teams must possess in the modern era.

In Pittsburgh these days hope comes in the form of center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a first round draft pick who is finally meeting the hype in a city where big baseball prospects have recently fallen flat. He has a .286/.365/.459 batting line, 28 home runs and 55 stolen bases across his first 262 major league games and he doesn’t turn 25 years old until the end of the 2011 season. Then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, another first round pick gone right with a strong power bat at a position where such a thing is scarce. Venezuelan outfielder Jose Tabata is another exciting young player with great tools.

Hurdle’s job won’t be an easy one, but he’s taking over a better Pirates team than most of his predecessors and there appears to be a small flickering light at the end of the tunnel for the National League’s fifth-oldest franchise. If McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata continue to meet the hype, that light will grow.

So what else is going on?

  • The Pirates have done a better job on the trade market since the sabermetrically-inclined Neal Huntington took over as general manger in September of 2007. Last year that was made evident by a smart late-summer deal that sent aging reliever Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers for young right-hander James McDonald and outfield prospect Andrew Lambo. McDonald went on to post a 3.52 ERA and 61/24 K/BB ratio over 64 innings for the Pirates and will open the 2011 season near the top of the big league staring rotation. Lambo, only 22 years old, is set to open the year at Triple-A Indianapolis.
  • Huntington hasn’t been a complete savior, but he made swift and wide-reaching changes in the Pirates’ scouting and development department that have greatly improved a formerly desolate farm system in just a matter of years. When former general manager Dave Littlefield was let go at the end of the 2007 season, Baseball America had the Bucs’ minor league system at 28th in their annual rankings. This year it ranked 16th. Better drafting and a more aggressive strategy on the international market has quickly injected the organization with a bit of talent and a lot of depth.
  • Situated against the Allegheny River and flanked by the Roberto Clemente Bridge, there isn’t a better modern stadium or all-around baseball setting than what Pittsburgh has in PNC Park. Unfortunately, interest hasn’t been great. The Pirates drew 2.4 million fans in PNC’s debut season back in 2002 but they haven’t topped 1.86 million since and last year saw only 1.61 million people pass through the gates. If the 90-plus loss seasons continue, that’s not going to change.
  • McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata won’t be left alone this season to produce runs. Neil Walker came into his own at the age of 24 last year at Triple-A, posting a .951 OPS, 18 doubles and six homers across 43 games before the Pirates took notice in May and called him up to the big leagues. He continued punishing balls in the majors and will open the 2011 campaign as Pittsburgh’s starting second baseman. Our guess is he’ll make Bucs fans quickly forget about Freddy Sanchez.

So how are they gonna do?

About as bad as they did last year. The Pirates have a pair of hard-throwing relievers at the back end of their bullpen in Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, but getting leads to those two is going to be tough with a starting rotation that still lacks depth. McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata and Walker will continue making strides, but the Bucs drop close to 100 games again and finish last in the National League Central.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

Getty Images
12 Comments

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Rays 4: That’s 12 in a row for Houston, with this one ending dramatically. Down 4-0 early and still down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Marwin Gonzaelz drew a leadoff walk, Max Stassi singled, Tony Kemp bunted the two of them over to second and third, George Springer reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases and then Alex Bregman doubled in two in walkoff fashion. The Astros have won two games with walkoffs this year, both coming off the bat of Bregman.

Diamondbacks 7, Angels 4Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer and Zack Greinke was solid, as the Dbacks won by three. It could’ve been a different outcome if it were not for this play from Jarrod Dyson — made when Justin Upton was batting with the bases loaded — which may very well have saved four:

The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 16. The Angels have lost 7 of 8 and have gone from 3.5 back in the AL West to 10.5 back in that stretch. Mike Trout reached base four times. Over the last seven games, he has reached base in 24 of 33 plate appearances. The Angels are 1-6 in that stretch.

Indians 6, White Sox 2: Trevor Bauer tossed seven shutout innings allowing only three hits and would’ve gone longer if it wasn’t for a rain delay. Jason Kipnis homered and drove in two and Roberto Perez knocked in two with a ground rule double. The White Sox have lost five in a row. Matt Davidson homered. He’s like a poor man’s Mike Trout insofar as the “he does well, the team loses lots” thing goes.

Pirates 1, Brewers 0: Jordy Mercer‘s seventh inning RBI double plated the game’s only run. Trevor Williams allowed only one hit in seven shutout innings for the Buccos, outdueling Jhoulys Chacin. The Brewers notched only two hits all game long. Or all game short, as this one lasted only two hours and thirty-two minutes.

Phillies 6, Cardinals 5: Phillies starter Nick Pivetta struck out 13 while allowing only two runs in seven and a third, but the bullpen blew it and the Cards to tie things up in the ninth on, of all things, a dropped third strike that allowed a run to score. On to extras, where the Cardinals took a one-run lead in the 10th. In the bottom half the Phillies rallied, however, putting two men on. With two outs, Aaron Altherr lined one into left field. Rather than keep the ball in front of him, limiting the damage and giving his team a chance to end it with one more out, Marcell Ozuna tried to dive for the ball and . . . missed. It trickled past him and the Phillies won it in a walkoff:

Nationals 5, Yankees 3; Yankees 4, Nationals 2: The first game was the resumption of a game from May 15 that was suspended due to rain. Juan Soto of the Nationals was in the minors on May 15, but played in the resumption, hitting a two-run homer which gave the Nats the win. Technically he is considered to have done so on May 15 even though he did not make his big league debut until May 20. He also happened to go 3-for-4 with an RBI for Double-A Harrisburg on May 15. Some day you can look up stats online and win a bar bet with that, at least if you find websites that don’t put asterisks on such things. In the game actually scheduled for last night Sonny Gray allowed two over five, Aaron Hicks hit a two-run homer and Giancarlo Stanton drove in two.

Rangers 6, Royals 3Adrian Beltre hit a three-run homer, Shin-Soo Choo went deep and Bartolo Colon earned his 244th victory, passing Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for the most by a pitcher born in the Dominican Republic. The Royals — who just before the game, traded away closer Kelvin Herrera to the Washington Nationals — have lost seven straight and 13 of 14. The Rangers have won three in a row.

Mets 12, Rockies 2: For the first time in ages Jacob deGrom got some dang run support. Most of it came late, as New York scored nine of their 12 runs from the seventh inning on, but that’s better than what deGrom has been getting. For his part, he allowed two runs — one earned — over eight innings of work and likely enjoyed the heck out of himself watching Brandon Nimmo hit an inside-the-park homer to lead the game off AND hit a conventional bomb in the seventh. Wilmer Flores and Devin Mesoraco went yard too. Here are Nimmo’s heroics. Come for the long drive, stay for the Rockies’ awful defense which allowed the inside-the-parker to happen:

Marlins 5, Giants 4: San Francisco had a 4-0 lead as late as the fifth inning and still led 4-2 in the ninth when Hunter Strickland tried to close it out but didn’t. Brian Anderson led off with a walk and the next man up, J.T. Realmuto, doubled him in. Then Justin Bour walked, Cameron Maybin erased him with a fielder’s choice and took first base followed by Lewis Brinson singling in Realmuto. The next batter up, Miguel Rojas singled in Maybin to complete the rally which held up.

Dodgers vs. Cubs — POSTPONED:

Now I will stand in the rain on the corner
I watch the people go shuffling downtown
Another ten minutes no longer
And then I’m turning around, ’round
And the clock on the wall’s moving slower
Oh, my heart it sinks to the ground
And the storm that I thought would blow over
Clouds the light of the love that I found, found
Light of the love that I found
Light of the love that I found
Oh, that I found