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.

Giants beat Mariners again in road game playing at home

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SAN FRANCISCO — The nomadic Seattle Mariners are taking their bats from the Bay Area to Southern California for three more “home games” on the road.

Wilmer Flores hit a go-ahead, two-run triple in the seventh inning of the San Francisco Giants‘ 6-4 win Thursday that sent Seattle to a second home defeat played in San Francisco’s ballpark because of dangerous air quality in Western Washington.

The series was moved because of smoke from all the West Coast wildfires. Now, the Mariners are altering their air travel reservations once more and headed to San Diego for a weekend series at Petco Park.

“It’s disappointing, but its the world we’re living in in 2020,” Mariners starter Nick Margevicius said. “There’s a lot of things we can’t control, a lot of things in the season, a lot of things in the world right now.”

Darin Ruf homered in the second inning to back Giants starter Tyler Anderson, who hurt his own cause when he was ejected in the bottom of the third by plate umpire Edwin Moscoso for emphatically expressing his displeasure with a walk to Kyle Lewis.

“Tyler knows that that just can’t happen,” mangaer Gabe Kapler said. “It puts us in a really tough spot.”

Wandy Peralta followed Anderson and threw 49 pitches over a career-high three innings, and Rico Garcia (1-1) worked one inning for his first major league win. Sam Selman finished for his first career save, stranding two runners when Lewis lined out and Kyle Seager flied out.

“Peralta came up huge for us,” Kapler said. “As tough as that was it was equally rewarding and in some ways inspiring to see him come out and give us the length that he did and battle. It gave us a chance to climb back into the game. I thought our guys continued to be resilient.”

JP Crawford hit a two-run single in the second following RBI singles by Tim Lopes and Phillip Ervin, but Seattle’s bullpen couldn’t hold a three-run lead.

Margevicius was staked to an early lead but Kendall Graveman (0-3) couldn’t hold it. The Mariners capitalized in the second after Anderson hit Seager in the backside.

Seattle has fared better against San Diego this season after losing all four to San Francisco. Manager Scott Servais had prepared himself for the possibility his club might have to stay on the road a little longer.

“I think with our players and everybody else it was going to be a two-day trip. That’s what we were led to believe that everything was going to clear up in Seattle,” Servais said. “We can’t control the weather it’s bigger than all of us and with what’s going on there with the smoke. Certainly understand why we have to go but I don’t think anybody was really prepared for it.”

Brandon Crawford contributed a sacrifice fly and Evan Longoria and Alex Dickerson RBI singles for the Giants.

Austin Slater returned at designated hitter for San Francisco and went 0 for 2 with a walk as he works back from a painful right elbow. Luis Basabe singled in the sixth for his first career hit and also stole his first base.

“I didn’t think about it,” said Basabe, who will gift the special souvenir ball to his mother. “I was just happy to get the opportunity.”

Justin Smoak made his Giants home debut as a pinch hitter in the sixth facing his former club after he signed a minor league deal earlier this month following his release by the Brewers.

Anderson, who was trying to win consecutive starts for the first time this season, received his second career ejection. The other was Aug. 13, 2016, while with Colorado.