July 31, 2011

Finally, A Trade

The Lyle Overbay era is over! The Pirates added veteran first baseman Derrek Lee.tonight for minor leaguer Aaron Baker. Expect Lee to start at first base for the rest of the season. The Orioles were in New York this weekend so Lee should be in Philadelphia for tomorrow's game - one the Pirates really need.

This isn't the move I was hoping for. The 35-year-old Lee is an upgrade over Overbay both at the plate and in the field, but still is hitting only .246/.302/.404 this season. The biggest sign of decline to me is in his plate discipline: Lee averaged 73 walks from 2007-2010 but has just 25 free passes this year against 83 strikeouts.

However, Lee is also a player who is capable of summoning the old magic for a two-month straight run. Last year, he was hitting .251/.335/.416 for the Cubs through 109 games. Traded to the Braves on August 18, he improved to .287/.384/.465 down the stretch to help Atlanta win the NL wild card. He'll also obviously be back in the National League with this deal. Lee struggled early after moving to the American League after 14 years in the NL, and for any player the NL Central certainly is an easier division to play in than the AL East.

Analysis of intangibles is largely bullshit, but for what it's worth, Lee is considered a great guy and a great teammate. He has 324 career home runs, 1,925 hits, four playoff appearances, and a World Series ring with the Marlins in 2003. Rarely does a team win a championship without one or two seasoned veteranhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs like Lee.

Fangraphs predicts Lee will hit .266/.340/.448 for the rest of this season. Those on-base and slugging numbers would put him second on the team to Andrew McCutchen in both categories. I would use the addition of a decent power bat to justify moving McCutchen up to second in the order, giving a lineup for the time being of: Paul, McCutchen, Lee, Walker, Jones, Alvarez, Cedeno, McKenry.

I'm on board with the Lee deal - it's a clear upgrade if only an incremental one. The Pirates gave up a 23-year-old Class A first baseman who was an 11th round pick and didn't make the top 30 prospects prior to the season. Yet it shouldn't be the only deal the Pirates make. With Garrett Jones hitting .230/.317/.404 and Matt Diaz hitting .262/.295/.333, there's a clear need for an outfielder and I want to see one added tomorrow afternoon.

Who will Lee replace on the roster? Well, the obvious move would be to designate Overbay for assignment. Yet on the bench, Overbay would still be the Pirates' best left-handed pinch hitter. I think the Pirates will simply send Pedro Ciriaco back to Indianapolis. We'll see him again in September.

July 18, 2011

2011 Champs Win Another Series

Showing resiliency that will be the key to this year's World Series victories in Games 2 through 5, the Pirates won another must-win game Sunday after blowing Saturday's game in horrific fashion.

Saturday night, the Pirates led 4-3 in the eighth inning when terrible shit ensued. Pirates setup man Jose Veras is being blamed for the loss and he did walk the leadoff man, but Hunter Pence would easily have been caught stealing third easily if Michael McKenry didn't inexplicably fail to make any throw at all on the play. Clint Barmes also reached on a Brandon Wood error. It's a rare situation of the defense letting us down. Anwyay, my expected celebration Natural Lights ended up as consolation Natural Lights as the Pirates' latest stay in first ended in 24 hours.

The Pirates bounced back on Sunday of course, winning yet another series. They're now 17-0 in must win games this season. Unofficially, the Pirates have now won every series for the past 14 years except this year's matchup with the future 2011 AL pennant winners, the Cleveland Indians.

Neil Walker got six hits in the two days to raise his batting line to .273/.336/.410. But Chase d'Arnaud, still batting second, went 0-for-6 with four strikeouts Sunday and now has just a .244 on base percentage. If he's staying in the lineup it should be in the eighth position, but I would just send him back to Indianapolis whenever Ronny Cedeno comes back. Four years ago I would have used the word 'when' so that use of 'whenever' really makes me a true fan.

Joe Beimel made a triumphant return to the bullpen, pitching two-thirds of a scoreless inning. The Root Sports announcers claimed he was mad about giving up a hit. Joe Beimel has never shown any emotion ever, not even after giving up a home run. He's holding off on emotions until the World Series. It's the smart thing to do.

July 16, 2011

Game 92: Pirates (48-43) at Astros

The first place Pirates go with the same lineup today except for replacing Josh Harrison at third base with Brandon Wood. Meanwhile at Indianapolis, Steven Pearce has homered on both days of his rehab assignment. I wonder if Pearce and not Pedro Alvarez should be the player being readied to replace Harrison and Wood at third base.

The Pirates got a chance with the All-Star break to realign their rotation, adn Paul Maholm is the #2 guy after Jeff Karstens. Maholm is ninth in the National League in ERA (2.96). Astros starter Bud Norris is a tough opponent who has more than a strikeout an inning for his career. He has already faced the Pirates three times this year, allowing only six runs total.

Despite all the people saying the Pirates are playing over their heads, by run differential Pittsburgh has won only one more game than would be expected. The Pirates have scored 358 runs and allowed 346 for an expected record of 47-44. Defending champion Cincinnati (+33) actually leads the division in this category, suggesting it might be a bit early to root for the Cardinals.



Presley lf (.357/.422/.554)
d'Arnaud ss (.233/.253/.315)
Walker 2b (.263/.327/.395)
McCutchen cf (.290/.390/.508)
Jones rf (.245/.333/.428)
Overbay 1b (.238/.310/.353)
Wood 3b (.211/.276/.331)
McKenry c (.236/.273/.319)
Maholm p (6-9, 2.96)

Bourn cf (.287/.350/.393)
Sanchez 3b (.256/.309/.317)
Keppinger 2b (.300/.314/.387)
Pence rf (.323/.364/.494)
Lee 1b (.269/.316/.424)
Michaels lf (.208/.348/.313)
Barmes ss (.247/.320/.374)
Quintero c (.231/.266/.299)
Norris p (5-6, 3.46)

Game time is 7:05.

Karstens Shutout Puts Bucs In First

Jeff Karstens turned in the season's best pitching performance last night, shutting out the Astros 4-0 on just 83 pitches. He allowed only five singles and no walks and threw only 19 balls the whole game.

This game felt over in the third inning when Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run triple to make the score 3-0. When was the last time the Pirates had a pitcher who could give you that feeling so early on? Karstens (8-4, 2.34) now ranks third in the NL in ERA behind only Jair Jurrjens (12-3, 1.87) and Cole Hamels (11-4, 2.32). While sabermetric sites claim Karstens' ERA is "lucky", inducing weak contact is more than just luck. This game provides the perfect illustration. Astros starter Brett Myers struck out 11 but was gone after six innings, three runs and 111 pitchers. Meanwhile, Karstens struck out just two but seemed like he could have pitched 12 innigns easily.

McCutchen drove in his 55th and 56th runs and also reached base on a walk. Alex Presley scored twice, stole his third base, and now has 11 runs scored in 14 games. Chase d'Arnaud, 2-for-5 with a run scored, was the only other player to reach base twice.

Before the Pirates game was over, the Reds' Brandon Phillips hit a walkoff two-run homer to beat the Cardinals, 6-5. This put the Pirates fractions of a percentage point ahead of St. Louis, while they remain three games ahead of Cincinnati. If you think first place in July isn't significant, Tony La Russa used four players from his bench and all seven of his relief pitchers in the losing effort. When the Brewers went down 4-0 to the Rockies an hour later - despite the return of Ryan Braun to the lineup - the Pirates sat on top of the division for the first time this year.The only bad news of the night occurred in Bradenton, where Jose Tabata was scratched from his rehab assignment due to tightness in the same quadricep muscle that landed him on the disabled list one month ago. The Pirates downplayed the significance of the setback but already have said he won't play tonight either, making me think it could be a bigger deal than they're letting on.

July 15, 2011

Game 91: Pirates (47-43) at Astros

I've managed to post one series preview in the past two months, so clearly I'll be able to handle doing a preview for every game from now on. Joe Beimel is back on the roster, Daniel Moskos is in Indianapolis, and the Pirates are in Houston this weekend to play baseball's worst team in a series sure to spark terrible trade speculation. Last time we played the Astros, someone called The Fan to suggest trading Ronny Cedeno straight up for Hunter Pence. it's a great move, and Neil Huntington will pull that one off on the same day he trades wives with Gavin Rossdale.One sports question I've always wondered is what a team's reaction is to making these decisions. Is it "I think we'll go with Brett Myers to start the first game after the break."? Or is it "Goddamn it, we've somehow fucked this up to a point where we have to start Brett Motherfucking Myers."



Bourn cf (.287/.351/.395)
Downs 3b (.270/.368/.540)
Keppinger 2b (.301/.316/.390)
Pence rf (.323/.364/.496)
Lee lf (.268/.316/.425)
Wallace 1b (.285/.364/.406)
Barmes ss (.250/.324/.379)
Quintero c (.235/.270/.304)
Myers p (3-9, 4.88)

Presley lf (.365/.424/.577)
d'Arnaud ss (.221/.243/.309)
Walker 2b (.264/.329/.398)
McCutchen cf (.291/.390/.505)
Jones rf (.248/.335/.434)
Overbay 1b (.240/.310/.357)
Harrison 3b (.274/.282/.321)
McKenry c (.246/.274/.333)
Karstens p (7-4, 2.55)

By coming up at the same time as Alex Presley, Chase d'Arnaud has gotten a reputation for getting off to a good start at the top of the lineup. It's understandable - I got a reputation for being a degenerate by living across the street from a halfway house - but it's also undeserved when he hasn't been hitting, has five errors, and generally looks like a guy who should still be in the minor leagues. With no news on Ronny Cedeno's return, it's fine to leave d'Arnaud in there but he should be moved down in the lineup if he doesn't hit this weekend.

Game time is at 8:05, sweethearts.

The Romantic Trade Market

Film officially died with the release of "Tooth Fairy," but life is long and there's not much to do so I still watch Movies on Demand. Amid the typical disappointments - the main character in "Hendrix" dies at age 27! - once in a while I am still able to take some inspiration from a true piece of art. My recent viewing of "She's out of My League" is a perfect example. It inspired me to win the World Series.

The main character spends most of the movie pursuing a woman with great success, despite his friends' claims that he'll never get anywhere with someone so attractive. This culminates in what should have been a sex scene. The couple is making out, clothes are coming off, music is playing, the characters have wanted this for a long time. But what does our hero do? He blows it by stopping all this to give an explanation of the fact that she's too good looking to possibly have sex with him.

Of course, this is Hollywood so the two end up reconciling. Rest assured that this move will not lead to success if tried in real life.

It's fitting that this movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, because the plot could have been lifted from the Pirates' 2011 season. This spring, fans hoped for 74 wins, a fifth place finish, and continued improvement from the young core - basically our awful ex back complete with a couple of promises to change. It seemed like a joke that the Pirates listed the opportunity to buy playoff tickets as one of my season ticket holder benefits. The Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers were out of our league and we were as likely to finish ahead of all three as we were to meet a natural blonde on East Carson Street. Yet we pursued them nonetheless. There was a goal we wanted. We got enough positive feedback that we didn't give up - and now here we are, 60% of the way through the movie, a game behind the Cardinals and half a game behind the Brewers. First place wants us, first place has put on sexy music to seduce us, first place's top is on the floor next to our bed. And Pittsburgh wants to tell first place that we're not good enough.

I've been listening to more sports radio than anyone should, and the overwhelming sense I get is that Pirates fans don't want to go all in this year. Don't "mortgage the future." This year is just a step ahead in building for 2012, or 2013, or 2014. A new player could mess with the team chemistry. The pitching can't hold up long enough to stay in the race. The Pirates would just lose to the Phillies even if they won the division. Getting our injured players back is just as good as trading for a star player. Winning even 75, or 82, games would be a big improvement. Basically, Pirates fans don't think we're good enough for first place. And it's not just fans - Neil Huntington has already said that the Pirates won't trade a major prospect. God forbid, indeed.

In fact, there are more people who want to trade away Paul Maholm for prospects than who want to add a big bat to this year's team. Many of these same fans were against dismantling a 67 win team by trading Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, and Xavier Nady. Yet it's fine to trade a pitcher who leads the team in innings and is #9 in the league in ERA.

Speaking of World Series titles, the 2006 Cardinals had just 83 wins, four poor hitters in their starting lineup, and only two starters with under a 5.00 ERA. The 2010 Giants fielded an everyday lineup of guys who were last good five years ago, finishing 17th in baseball in runs scored. Unless you're in a four team league, a World Series title is a longshot for every team, every year. It's still the goal.

I would absolutely trade a major prospect for a big bat. Life happens in the present tense. What future are we building for, if not the future where the Pirates are a game out of first place in mid-July? A pennant race is something this town hasn't seen in 19 years. Nobody calls in sick to their first day of work.

I hear our #2 prospect Starling Marte is untouchable. I would absolutely trade Starling Marte for a legitimate power hitter. I hear he's great defensively, but his career high in walks is 16 and he's never hit double digit home runs. He's the same age as Jose Tabata and both are getting on base at the same rate, except that Marte is doing it in Altoona and Tabata is doing it in the big leagues. Carlos Pena has 19 major league home runs this year and 163 since 2007. Who's a better bet to succeed, Pena right now or Marte in 2014? Which team is guaranteed to be in a pennant race, this one or the one in 2014?

Our #2 prospect, Tony Sanchez, certainly won't be moved. He's hitting .239 and slugging .307 for Altoona right now. He's a 23-year old catcher who has allowed 80% of opposing baserunners to steal successfully since 2010. I wouldn't sell low on him, but I don't see why he's off limits. Carlos Beltran has 28 doubles, 13 home runs, and 47 walks this year.

In real life, there's no last chance right before the credits roll. A team that's a game out of first place is a player away from winning the division, and July is the time to get one. Whether their fans know it or not, the Pirates owe it to the city to add a true impact bat this month.

July 13, 2011

First Half Grades - Hitters

This is a really boring post topic and who really cares, but in a pennant race it's important to backdate some posts so it looks like I have a decent amount of recent updates to my blog.

Andrew McCutchen: A+
88 G, .291/.390/.505, 54 Runs, 14 HR, 54 RBI, 15 SB
McCutchen is the National League's first half MVP. In all of baseball, no player means as much to a contending team as McCutchen. He's a cornerstone of this franchise and it's past time to sign him to a long-term contract.

Alex Presley: A+
13 G, .365/.424/.577, 9 Runs, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 2 SB
Presley has been nothing short of a revelation atop the lineup. Of course he won't keep up this pace, but you have to keep putting him atop the lineup at this point even when Jose Tabata and others return.

Chris Snyder: A-
34 G, .271/.376/.396, 13 Runs, 3 HR, 17 RBI
Before getting injured, Snyder played his usual solid defense and surprisingly was one of the NL's best offensive catchers. He is certainly missed but after undergoing back surgery, I have my doubts that he'll be back this season.

Ryan Doumit: B+
34 G, .269/.333/.441, 7 Runs, 4 HR, 15 RBI
Doumit earned a B+ at Memorial Day and still hasn't played since. I'm expecting him back in early August. If he continues his strong hitting, he'll be a welcome addition to the lineup.

Neil Walker: B
88 G, .264/.329/.398, 47 Runs, 8 HR, 59 RBI, 5 SB
Walker's offense has decreased in his second season but he has still amassed great counting stats by virtue of his lineup position. Miscast as a middle of the order power hitter, Walker nevertheless has established himself as one of the National League's better second basemen.

Garrett Jones: B
81 G, .248/.335/.434, 27 Runs, 9 HR, 34 RBI, 4 SB
Jones has quietly been the Pirates' second best hitter in the past month, yet has unfairly been criticized from fans and the media. He's putting up the same ratios as trade candidates like Ryan Ludwick and Josh Willingham. If the Pirates do add a right fielder I would play Jones at first over Lyle Overbay.

José Tabata: B
71 G, .265/.351/.354, 39 Runs, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 14 SB
Tabata's stats don't look impressive at first glance but in the decreased offensive environment this year, he was actually one of the best leadoff hitters in the National League. So far he's failed to develop any power but has improved in the field by getting better jumps on balls. Hopefully upon his return, his left quad injury won't affect the speed which is a major part of his game.

Steven Pearce: B
28 G, .291/.339/.382, 6 Runs, 1 HR, 10 RBI
Pearce hasn't played since Memorial Day so his grade remains at a B. If he continues this production he'll be a valuable bench bat down the stretch. He's been the Pirates' only acceptable hitter who can play third base.

Michael McKenry: B-
22 G, .246/.274/.333, 8 Runs, 1 HR, 6 RBI
McKenry provided the highlight of the first half with his home run Friday night off Carlos Marmol. Apart from that, he performed about as well on offense as you would expect of an AAA catcher. McKenry has done a great job defensively, particularly with framing pitches and handling balls in the dirt.

Ronny Cedeno: C+
79 G, .252/.311/.346, 30 Runs, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 1 SB
Baseball IQ will always be an issue for Ronny but he's the Pirates' best option right now to play shortstop. His offense and defense have both improved noticeably since March. None of his numbers are great but he's performed as well as anyone who might be available in a trade. He's hit and fielded much better than Chase d'Arnaud but I wouldn't be surprised if d'Arnaud still pushes him for playing time once Cedeno returns from a concussion. Since April 29 Cedeno has hit .279/.347/.391.

Matt Diaz: C+
67 G, .283/.313/.358, 11 Runs, 0 HR, 15 RBI, 24 SB
Diaz doesn't walk and seems to have lost all of his power, making him a questionable choice for anything but a bench role. All of his hits seem to be solid line drives but he's not reaching on any of the lucky hits that would boost his stats to more acceptable levels. Still, he's hit .321/.351/.413 since May 3 and is undeserving of the level of criticism he has received.

Xavier Paul: C
60 G, .263/.292/.360, 16 Runs, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 9 SB
Although he hasn't been nearly as useful as his manager or fans seem to think, Paul has proved to be a decent reserve outfielder. It looks like Paul's speed and defense will keep him on the roster all year. He'll never be more than a fifth outfielder unless he learns plate discipline.

Josh Harrison: C-
36 G, .274/.282/.321, 10 Runs, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB
Harrison has done as well as could be expected given his minor league record. However, a player with no home runs can't get away with having one walk. He probably belongs in the minors but sadly has still been the Pirates' best third baseman this year.

Lyle Overbay: D
87 G, .240/.310/.357, 34 Runs, 6 HR, 34 RBI, 1 SB
For the most part, Overbay has given the Pirates nothing this year. His numbers are unacceptable for a first baseman, especially one who is third on the team with 333 plate appearances. He brought a good defensive reputation to Pittsburgh but hasn't done much to live up to it as he's struggled to catch throws both in the dirt and over his head. I can't imagine Overbay keeps the job much longer.

Brandon Wood: D
52 G, .211/.276/.331, 14 Runs, 4 HR, 16 RBI
Wood has improved his performance from embarrassing to merely below average, but all of his skills still appear to be replacement level. The Pirates need to make some move so that the likes of Wood and Harrison aren't playing regularly down the stretch.

Pedro Alvarez: D
36 G, .208/.283/.304, 12 Runs, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB
2011 still looks like a lost season for Alvarez. The Pirates can't afford to let Alvarez find his stroke at the plate in the middle of a pennant race. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't come back to the majors until September.

Chase d'Arnaud: D
16 G, .221/.243/.309, 9 Runs, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 5 SB
d'Arnaud has only one major league skill at this point, his blazing speed. It's early still but he hasn't hit or fielded well enough so far to justify his spot on the roster, much less his lineup position.

July 3, 2011

McCutchen All-Star Reaction

As I'm sure you've read, Andrew McCutchen was not selected for the All-Star game today. Obviously this is a terrible decision, but it's not one I didn't expect. Entering today Baseball Reference judged him as the second most valuable position player in the National League after Matt Kemp, with McCutchen generating five additional wins for the Pirates to Kemp's 5.2 for the Dodgers. Deducting at least ten wins for Kemp's decision to cheat on Rihanna - I'm not a great man but I could be faithful to her of all people - McCutchen is statistically the best player in the league. He's the fourth best offensive player in the NL and second best on defense. Yet he will be at home for the All-Star break, because God forbid anyone would bother checking how each player in the league is doing before picking the best players in the league.

Let's start with the fan voting: the NL's starting outfield is a joke. Kemp, Braun, and Berkman would be a great outfield in an NFL-style league where completely different players would take the field. Then look at the reserves. I'll give you Holliday, Pence, and Upton, but Jay Bruce and Carlos Beltran are a couple of players who could never and no longer can field, respectively, yet are no more effective than Cutch on offense. To make things quite real, McCutchen wasn't even one of five players in the "Final Vote." It's a definite sign of disrespect, but it's actually one that helps the Pirates.

Let's look at the actual effect of this decision. McCutchen was promoted in June 2009. Since then, the Pirates have played 356 games with McCutchen starting 340 of them. He plays all out at all times and has suffered at least ten injuries that I can think of in that time, but he almost always is in the lineup the next day. What he's missing out on is traveling to Arizona, being interviewed by pretty much no one since the national media don't care about the Pirates, maybe pinch-hitting once, and then flying back. If we were 20 games back as usual it would actually suck to miss that - yet the Pirates are in the thick of a pennant race in a division that could easily be won. Wouldn't it be better for our start player to go back to his bullshit hometown in Florida and get four days of rest?

Moreover, one key to the Pirates' success is the fact that teams take them lightly. Maybe we would have won two of three from both the Red Sox and Phillies anyway, but don't think it didn't help that these juggernaut teams viewed the Pirates as a break in the schedule, a series where they wouldn't have to play their best ball. The lack of All-Stars only helps that perception. Evan Meek last year had an ERA below 1.00 when he was selected and the national media still demeaned the pick. We want this to happen. We want Joel Hanrahan to not even pitch in the game - as he surely will not - even though he is the best closer in baseball. The last thing we need now is other teams realizing our players are good.

An All-Star snub is fine. Pittsburgh Pirates players will get recognition from managers, players, fans, and the national media - after we win the World Series.

July 1, 2011

Series Preview: Washington Nationals

At press time Joe Paterno is arguably still alive, so the Washington Nationals continue to ignore a great rivalry by refusing to play the Washington Wild Things every year like they should. The best we get is this series between the Pirates and Nationals. The two clubs play four games in the next 48 hours and despite a 7-3 run, at least two wins feel like a necessity to me.If the Pirates can become a legit contender as if nothing ever happened, then I can preview series as if I didn't skip two months of posts. Washington is the most similar team in baseball to this year's Pirates, a perennial last place team which has emerged with somewhat of a breakout season thanks to pitching. The Nationals rank 11th in the National League with 3.88 runs per game; the Pirates rank 13th with 3.80. The Pirates are allowing 3.90 runs per game, sixth best in the league; Washington's 3.83 runs allowed rank fifth. The Pirates are 41-39, the Nationals are 40-41. The difference is that the Nationals play in the NL East and are threatening to fall out of contention as they trail the Phillies by 9.5 games and the Braves by 5.5. Also important, this babe to your right may look scantily clad but that's actually the most clothing any babe has worn out in D.C. after 11 p.m.

Unlike the Pirates, the Nationals spent a lot of money to try and succeed this year. But after signing a seven year, $126 million contract, Jayson Werth has hit only .223/.326/.390 and is currently day to day with a sore left knee. Another free agent, Adam LaRoche, hit only .172/.288/.258 and is now injured for the season. A couple of stars have emerged, however: first baseman Michael Morse, hitting .300/.350/.550 including 15 home runs and 46 RBI, and second baseman Danny Espinosa, .238/.323/.465 with 15 homers and 48 RBI. Ryan Zimmerman, .241/.321/.404, was injured for most of the year but is starting to get his bat going.

Washington Nationals: Friday 7:05, Saturday 3:30 (2), Sunday 1:35
Tonight, Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.77) makes his triumphant return to the rotation. The Pirates claimed Morton was fatigued but make no mistake, his start was skipped due to recent performance. The Nationals are a good lineup to get Morton back to his earlier form. The Nationals go with our old friend Tom Gorzellany (2-6, 4.18). Was there ever a pitcher who seemed more likely to drop off the face of the earth after the Pirates traded him? My pick is the Pirates.

Saturday, the Pirates give the ball to James McDonald (5-4, 4.52) against John Lannan (5-5, 3.48). I picked up John Lannan in fantasy baseball for his two start week so obviously he has no chance to win either game. My pick is the Pirates. But is that the only game? No. The Pirates are dicked into playing a doubleheader. I have visited Washington probably 30 times and the only truly nice day I ever experienced there was Tuesday, May 17, when the scheduled game was postponed on an 80 degree sunny day. It was a complete bush league move, and one that ironically results in a bush league pitcher going for the Pirates tomorrow night as Brad Lincoln (6-7, 4.14 at Altoona) will be called up to face Livan Hernandez (5-8, 3.81). Look for Xavier Paul to be placed on the disabled list to make room for Lincoln; the Pirates are already down to three bench bats with Paul and Walker unable to go and certainly can't go with just two.

I have heard multiple radio callers say that Paul Maholm should be traded because Lincoln can adequately fill in. Lincoln is giving up more than a hit an inning in AA and flamed out in Pittsburgh last year when none of these people were watching. These were no doubt the same people who thought Brent Johnson could win the Vezina and Charlie Batch would be better than Marino if only they could start every game. Yet I've lived in Pittsburgh for three years and it's very rare that anything happens to stop annoying and ignorant sports radio calls; thus my pick is the Pirates.

In Sunday's, finale, Pittsburgh will go with Kevin Correia (10-6, 3.79) against Jason Marquis (7-2, 3.62). I am also using Marquis in fantasy this week. Using these Nationals pitchers is reminiscent of when I would go to Michigan football games and bet on the opposing team so that if they lost, I wouldn't have to pay for the trip. It sounded like a good idea, but Rich Rodriguez wasn't the coach so really the only result was losing a lot of bets. My pick,fs of course, is the Pirates.

Time To Trade For A Catcher

Most trade discussion in Pittsburgh has centered around the possibility of getting a power bat, with names like Josh Willingham, Ryan Ludwick, and Mike Cuddyer floated as options. While any of those players would undoubtedly improve the Pirates' lineup, adding another catcher is a much more obvious need at this point.

For the first two months of the season, the Pirates fielded one of baseball's best catching tandems with Chris Snyder (.271/.376/.396) and Ryan Doumit (.269/.333/.441) both providing positive offensive contributions. The position is now a black hole in the lineup: since Snyder's injury on June 8, Pirates catchers have gone 9-for-69 with four runs scored, two doubles, a walk, 19 strikeouts, and no RBI for a hideous .130/.143/.159 batting line.

Neil Huntington recently said that the Pirates preferred to wait for their injured players to return rather than overpay for a catcher in trade. Really? Snyder is probably out for the season after back surgery. Doumit is a month away from returning. Jason Jaramillo will start rehabbing his injured wrist in a week or two, but this is the same guy who hit .149/.227/.207 last year. Without a trade, the best case scenario is that the Pirates get zero offense from the position for another month and then rely for the rest of the season on the health of a player who has been on the disabled list eight different times since 2006 and is coming back from a broken ankle.

The terrible production from the catcher spot creates the best opportunity for an upgrade. The difference in production between McKenry and an average MLB catcher is 132 points of OBP and 137 points of slugging percentage. Regardless of who the Pirates trade or how much they spend, unless Honus Wagner is available there's no way to upgrade any other position by that much.

With half the season left and considering the frequency of catcher injuries, it's unlikely that a contender would trade even a backup catcher. But there are 11 teams already out of the race that would likely give up their backup for a marginal prospect. Here are a few players who could be available:

Ivan Rodriguez, Nationals - Pudge's formerly potent bat has declined to typical backup catcher territory, as he's only hitting .215/.276/.336 this year in his age 39 season. But his arm is still strong - he's thrown out 48% of base stealers - and he was durable enough to start 103 games in 2010. He has a World Series ring and would presumably enjoy being in a pennant race in what is probably his final season. At 40-41 the Nationals aren't having a bad season, but they realistically have no shot at overtaking Atlanta or Philadelphia. A series win this weekend would quickly turn the Nats into sellers.

José Molina, Blue Jays - José inexplicably is having his best offensive season at age 36, hitting .301/.381/.441 on the year. His career batting line of .240/.286/.342 is more indicative of his true skills. With J.P. Arencibia establishing himself as a starter, Molina clearly isn't part of the Jays future. We also witnessed with Wednesday's pickoff of Garrett Jones that José has lost nothing off of his arm.

Matt Treanor, Royals - The Royals have actually given Treanor a majority of the playing time, but it's hard to imagine this 35-year-old career backup being part of the next winning Royals team. He's never been able to hit for average but is walking at a career best rate, resulting in a respectable .216/.354/.304 batting line. Matt also has thrown out 30% of base stealers.

Koyie Hill, Cubs - The switch-hitter is not even close to Doumit's class but has a respectable .224/.287/.353 batting line. He's only thrown out 17% of base stealers this year, but has caught 27% for his career. The Cubs should be in full rebuild mode at this point and although Hill at 32 is the youngest player on this list, with Geovany Soto on board they would really have no reason not to jettison Hill for even a marginal prospect.

Obviously none of these names would excite the Pirates fan base - but all would represent major upgrades. Remember, the Pirates got a much better catcher last year for D.J. Carrasco, Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby. The Pirates so far are contending by accident in 2011. For a general manager who seems reluctant to swing a big deal at this point, a low-profile addition of a legitimate major league catcher would at least represent a start towards a real attempt to win this division.

May 31, 2011

First Quarter Grades - Pitchers

This continues the grades which started this morning with the hitters. There is much better news here. The Pirates rank fifth in the National League and eighth in baseball with a 3.55 ERA, and almost every pitcher they've used has been impressive.

Joel Hanrahan: A
24 IP, 0-1, 1.52, 1.14 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 14 Saves
Hanrahan has quietly become one of baseball's elite closers in his first year on the job. He amazingly has added velocity to his fastball which now averages 97 mph. He now uses his slider only 14% of the time (39% in 2010) which has resulted in a decreased strikeout rate. Joel has not required more than 13 pitches to get out of an inning since May 6. He hasn't blown a save this season, his only loss came on an unearned run, and he is fifth in MLB with 14 saves. Unless he gets lit up in June he will earn his first All-Star appearance.

Charlie Morton: A
68 IP, 5-2, 2.51, 1.37 WHIP, 4.9 K/9
Morton has been nothing short of a revelation this season. I was one of many people who thought he didn't deserve a rotation spot, and I am happy to be wrong. He has never thrown less than five innings and completed two games while averaging nearly seven innings a start. Charlie has gotten ground ball outs whenever he needed them, including a team-high 11 ground ball double plays. He permitted only two home runs. In previous years he struggled with men on base, but this year batters have hit only .228/.308/.254 off Morton with men on. This is the breakout year Morton and the Pirates needed.

Daniel McCutchen: A
23 IP, 1-1, 1.19, 1.02 WHIP, 4.4 K/9
With numbers like these there's nothing to do other than give Daniel McCutchen a grade of A. He didn't even make the club out of spring training, but was quickly called up and has been deployed in every situation imaginable. He has had two one-batter appearances and four of two innings or more, and has been used in every inning from the fourth through the ninth. Through it all, he showed impeccable control and often got out of innings in ten or fewer pitches.

Paul Maholm: A-
71 IP, 2-7, 3.18, 1.18 WHIP, 6.1 K/9
Won-loss record aside, Maholm is having the best year of his career. Batters have hit only .225/.293/.322 against the lefthander, all career best marks. He also has upped his strikeout rate despite throwing his fastball at only 88 mph. Maholm is having an All-Star season but unfortunately the Pirates scored only six runs in his seven losses. Be assured that the league has taken notice, and Maholm will bring a considerable return if the Pirates trade him this summer as has been widely speculated.

Kevin Correia: A-
71 IP, 7-4, 3.44, 1.19 WHIP, 3.8 K/9
I've never seen a pitcher be this effective while striking out so few batters, but Correia has done it all year. He leads the league in wins and has already allowed zero runs three different times this year. Correia also has shut down the running game, allowing only four steals. He even pitched a scoreless inning in relief between starts during the first homestand. When Kevin was named to start on Opening Day, many people probably thought he didn't deserve to be the ace of a rotation. Yet thus far he has been one of three aces for the Pirates.

José Veras: A-
21 IP, 1-1, 2.53, 1.13 WHIP, 12.7 K/9
With Evan Meek injured, Veras emerged as a lights out setup man in Pittsburgh. So far he has struck out over a third of batters while holding righthanded hitters to a .149 batting average. Unlike most relievers, Veras has three plus pitches: a 94 mph heater, a split-fingered fastball, and his out pitch, a big curveball which he throws 38% of the time.

Jeff Karstens: B+
50 IP, 3-4, 3.58, 1.29 WHIP, 7.2 K/9
Karstens was great in long relief and like he does every year, earned the fifth starter role. In eight starts he allowed two or fewer earned runs five times. Karstens also is striking out batters at a career high rate while walking them at a career low rate (2.0 BB/9). His only problem has been the home run; he has allowed one every five innings. The word is that Ross Ohlendorf will regain his rotation spot when he comes back from injury, pushing Karstens back into long relief.

Chris Resop: B
24 IP, 1-1, 4.13, 1.33 WHIP, 10.9 K/9
Relying on a 93 mph fastball with movement, Resop is second on the team in strikeout frequency and along with Hanrahan, Veras, and Evan Meek, gives the Pirates a potentially lights out back end of the bullpen. Not many teams can deploy four righthanders who all can strike out over a batter an inning. Resop recovered from a poor stretch in the first half of May but has apparently been demoted from his setup role with Meek's return. He needs to cut back on walks.

Joe Beimel: C
13 IP, 0-1, 5.40, 1.50 WHIP, 6.8 K/9
Between disabled list stints, Beimel featured the most intimidating entrance music I've ever heard (Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down"). His ERA is misleading as he had 14 good appearances and four bad ones. He held lefties to a .200/.231/.280 batting line but struggled when he was left in to face strings of righthanded hitters. Bonus points for being the only pitcher I've ever seen who went all out on his warmup pitches.

James McDonald: C-
53 IP, 3-3, 5.23, 1.50 WHIP, 7.6 K/9
After two months as the Pirates' best pitcher at the end of last season, McDonald got off to a terrible start and had a 10.12 ERA through four starts. Since then he has pitched quite well, with a 2.60 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. McDonald's ERA should continue to decrease throughout the season, but he needs to walk fewer batters and go deeper into games to be a #1, #2 or #3 starter.

Mike Crotta: F
11 IP, 0-1, 9.28, 2.34 WHIP, 5.9 K/9
There's nothing to say here, Crotta simply got lit up. As I speculated before the season, Mike just wasn't ready for a major league role. In his last five appearances here he retired only three of 13 batters. He throws a 93 mph fastball but major league batters knew it was coming and hit it. To succeed in the major leagues he needs to add another breaking pitch and add movement to his fastball.

Evan Meek: Incomplete
10 IP, 0-1, 4.50, 1.80 WHIP, 10.8 K/9
Meek looked hurt to me while he struggled early. He's pitched two scoreless innings since returning from injury while appearing to regain his All-Star form. Because of his injury and the fact that over half his runs were allowed in one game, I won't judge Meek so far.

First Quarter Grades - Hitters

Memorial Day is the traditional quarter post in the baseball season. The Pirates are 24-28, down but not out, trailing the first place Cardinals by 6.5 games and the wild card leading Marlins by five. I thought I would grade the Pirates offensive players for their seasons thus far. Pitchers are coming up.

Overall, these hitters have been a disappointing bunch who have mostly underperformed their career averages. Of course, who among us isn't underperforming compared to our best years? Here goes:

Andrew McCutchen: A-
50 G, .253/.356/.459, 29 Runs, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 9 SB
McCutchen has improved his defense to the point where whenever a ball is hit near center field, I expect it to be caught. He doesn't necessarily have more range than he showed the last two years, but the same balls that would pop out of his glove last year are caught in spectacular fashion this season. His arm has gotten more accurate as well; he's already gunned down five baserunners.

On offense, Cutch's batting average is down but he is putting up the same on base and slugging numbers as he has in his career. His 29 walks lead the team and he is second in runs, RBI and steals. We're stlil awaiting a breakout season on offense, but he's also still only 24.

Chris Snyder: A-
28 G, .289/.381/.434, 11 Runs, 3 HR, 13 RBI
Snyder recovered from an early season DL stint to excel in a semi-regular role behind the plate, starting 25 of 41 games since his return. After hitting .200 and .207 the last two years, at age 30 Snyder is putting up the numbers of a great leadoff hitter including the best batting average and OBP of his career. One wonders why he still bats behind players like Matt Diaz and Brandon Wood in the lineup.

Chris has thrown out only 21% of base stealers but has been steady behind the plate (last night's game notwithstanding) and deserves a lot of credit for the Pirates' resurgent starting pitching.

Ryan Doumit: B+
34 G, .269/.333/.441, 7 Runs, 4 HR, 15 RBI
Doumit has excelled in a reserve role and is the league's best backup catcher. He provided many highlights with his bat and is hitting better than he has in any season except his career year in 2008. He has improved his contact and power hitting from the right side of the plate.

Doumit has also improved his receiving and throwing skills, and has only one passed ball this season while throwing out an acceptable 23% of runners. A switch-hitting catcher with power would be useful on any team - unfortunately, Doumit's trade value took a major hit when he sprained his left ankle on Sunday and was placed on the disabled list.

Neil Walker: B+
51 G, .265/.330/.418, 30 Runs, 6 HR, 31 RBI, 2 SB
Walker has proved his rookie season was not a fluke. He leads the team in runs and RBI and has a shot at 100 of both, which is enough to make him one of the league's best hitting second baseman. Unfortunately, he is getting on base less and getting fewer extra base hits than last season while striking out more. This decline is entirely due to his struggles from the right side of the plate where he's hit .231/.281/.308.

Like McCutchen, Walker is providing enough offense to tantalize fans who see that he's one step away from being a legitimate star. Neil has greatly improved his defense and is now an above average major league defender in only his second year at a very tough position.

Garrett Jones: B
45 G, .229/.340/.412, 14 Runs, 6 HR, 17 RBI, 2 SB
Miscast by John Russell as an everyday first baseman last season, Jones has settled into a platoon role in right field. He has made all 37 of his starts against righthanded pitchers and has hit for power while walking in a career high 14% of his plate appearances. Garrett's defense has also improved, perhaps as a result of only concentrating on one position. Jones's brief turn as a superstar in 2009 won't be repeated but he is an asset to the Pirates especially at a $455,000 salary.

José Tabata: B
47 G, .246/.350/.353, 27 Runs, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 13 SB
Tabata's batting average is well down but he has actually improved his OBP over 2010 thanks to a dramatic increase in his walk rate. If he can continue to walk in 14% of his plate appearances, José is almost guaranteed toget on base at a decent rate with his speed. He's stealing more bases than in 2010 as well, which combined with his on base skills would make him useful in a center field role. However, he needs to hit for more power to be a starting left fielder for many more years. That should come since Tabata is only 22. In the field, José has shown good range but at times has gotten poor jumps on balls.

Steven Pearce: B
28 G, .291/.339/.382, 6 Runs, 1 HR, 10 RBI
After bouncing back and forth between Indianapolis and the majors since 2007, Pearce has established himself as a useful bench player this year. He's started six games each at first and third base and before his recent trip to the disabled list was playing himself into a platoon with Lyle Overbay by hitting .300/.361/.433 against lefthanded pitchers. He will never be an MLB regular but he will be missed while on the DL.

Lyle Overbay: C-
50 G, .237/.306/.379, 22 Runs, 5 HR, 19 RBI, 1 SB
With a 34-year-old power hitter, it's always hard to decide what's a poor start and what's a player with his best days behind him. Overbay hit four of his home runs in May so I'm willing to continue to give him a shot. The main red flag for me is that he is walking at his lowest rate in the last five seasons. He has been an average first baseman defensively, which is a huge improvement over anyone the Pirates used in 2010. He has played all out in every game I've seen and is reportedly a good influence on young players.

Slow start notwithstanding, Overbay can still achieve the 20 home run, 85 RBI, above average defensive season that the Pirates envisioned when they signed him. That's incidentally the same thing Adam LaRoche did here for three years, with the result being inexplicable hatred from Pittsburgh fans.

Ronny Cedeno: C-
50 G, .242/.304/.340, 18 Runs, 2 HR, 17 RBI, 1 SB
Cedeno remains the Pirates' starting shortstop by default. He actually has hit quite well in May (.288/.374/.413) but his overall numbers are still fair to poor. After 623 games in the major leagues, Ronny makes mistakes in the field, at the plate, and on the bases that would embarrass rookies. In particular, it's happened more than a few times that he fields the ball seemingly with plenty of time to get an out, and simply doesn't make a throw. This is a player that needs to be replaced by Opening Day 2012 at the latest.

Matt Diaz: D
37 G, .244/.270/.314, 6 Runs, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 2 SB
Signed as a righthanded platoon partner for Jones, Diaz has hit only .205/.239/.227 against lefthanders and hasn't been much better against righties. It's too early to judge him on 89 plate appearances, but a 33-year-old corner outfielder who suddenly loses his power is a cause for concern particularly when that player is on a two-year contract. The hits Diaz has been getting are solid line drives and I'm not ready to give up after 89 plate appearances. Despite his struggles at the plate, Matt has acted like the 33-year-old veteran that he is; he has still played good defense and runs full speed on every groundout and pop-up.

Pedro Alvarez: D
36 G, .208/.283/.304, 12 Runs, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB
Alvarez was a disaster at the plate before going on the disabled list. A team can tolerate a player who strikes out in 30% of his plate appearances if he also homers once every six games, as Alvarez did in 2010. This year it's a home run every 18 games, and his walk rate is down too. Alvarez avoids an F grade only because he improved his defense noticeably. He still makes too many mistakes but has good instincts and a cannon for an arm. Alvarez is only 24 and once he returns from injuty will still have plenty of time to salvage this season.

Xavier Paul: D
25 G, .225/.279/.275, 6 Runs, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 3 SB
Paul always had good numbers in AAA ball but unfortunately looks overmatched in the majors. He's struck out in 32% of his plate appearances which is a bad recipe for a player who also hasn't shown any power. When he enters as part of a double switch or remains in the game after pinch hitting, the Pirates' late inning offense suffers. Paul's speed and defense are nice, but a pinch runner/defensive replacement only has a place in the major leagues after rosters expand in September--especially when none of the other four outfielders are particularly slow or poor defensively.

Brandon Wood: F
22 G, .169/.246/.220, 3 Runs, 0 HR, 6 RBI
I'm not sure how someone can be a major league player without speed, defensive skills, or the ability to hit for power or average. Wood was decent for his first nine games here (.292/.370/.417) but only has three hits since. I have never seen a third baseman in his ninth professional season have less of a clue at how to field a bunt. He should be released when Alvarez returns if not sooner.

April 26, 2011

Pirates Add Outfielder Xavier Paul

The Pirates claimed reserve outfielder Xavier Paul today. He will join the team in the next few days necessitating a corresponding move.

Paul has hit only .233/.280/.329 in 160 major league plate appearances with the Dodgers. However, he dominated AAA pitching with a batting line of .320/.380/.502 for three seasons including .325/.384/.579 in 2010. He is 26 and bats lefthanded.

It looks from here like the odd man out will be another lefthanded hitting outfielder, John Bowker. Bowker is a year older than Paul and has hit .238/.288/.391 in 607 MLB plate appearances, so it seems like there might be a little more upside with Paul.

To me, there's no reason to have a player on the roster who does nothing but pinch hit unless that player is a legitimate power bat. Paul is faster than Bowker and could pinch run once in a while, but he's not likely to start many games. Constant shuffling of marginal players is nothing new in Pittsburgh; the solution is to be in first place and win the World Series so we don't have waiver priority to claim these guys in the future.

April 23, 2011

Series Preview: Washington Nationals

With Major League Baseball's recent takeover of the Dodgers, I am reminded of their takeover of the Expos. MLB took over the team because it supposedly couldn't compete, but then they went 83-79 in 2002 and 2003 despite MLB spending no money on them. One of those years, they were in contention when rosters expanded in September - yet MLB wouldn't let the team bring up any prospects like all 29 other teams do every year. They also imposed a ridiculous travel schedule in which the Expos played a quarter of their "home" games in Puerto Rico. By 2005 the once-proud Expos franchise was in Washington, playing in a crumbling stadium. Having been to RFK I am actually kind of shocked they got a building permit.

Now MLB has taken over the Dodgers, allegedly because their owner Frank McCourt got divorced and can't afford to field a competitive team. In this McCourt era where he supposedly ran the team into the ground, the Dodgers reached the playoffs four times in seven years, making the NLCS in two of the last three years. Under McCourt's ownership, in 2008 there was more excitement surrounding the Dodgers than there had been in 20 years. The '08 and '09 teams were the first Dodger teams to win a playoff series since 1988. I find it hard to believe that with MLB controlling the Dodgers' finances, anything will be much better.

This preview hasn't really said a lot about the Nationals. The real key to this team is Matt Stairs. It always is Matt Stairs. Here's a picture of Miguel Batista hitting on Miss Iowa at a Nationals game.Pirates vs. Washington Nationals
Saturday 7:05, Sunday 1:35, Monday 7:05

Today the Nationals go with the veteran Livan Hernandez (2-1, 2.88) while the Pirates counter with Jeff Karstens (1-0, 4.50). I would have thought that there is nothing else to say about Livan Hernandez by way of previewing this, his 450th major league start. And I would be wrong. Leave it to Clint Hurdle, as per Colin Dunlap of the Post-Gazette:

"He’s like the big guy at the company picnic who drinks all the beer and wins all the trophies."

We all were thinking it but no one was saying it. My pick is the Pirates.

Sunday the Pirates go with ace Kevin Correia (3-1, 2.48) against Jason Marquis (1-0, 3.26). It says something about the state of pitching when Jason Marquis has a winning record in his career and has made an All-Star team in the past two years. Marquis had the distinction in 2006 of winning a World Series ring and signing an $11 million contract in the following off-season despite going 14-16 with a 6.02 ERA, leading the league in home runs allowed (35) and earned runs alowed (130). It's a charmed life. My pick is the Pirates.

By the way, it's really hard to tell if a woman just doesn't want to hang out with you, or if she legitimately doesn't want to go to a Pirates-Nationals game. Pirates-Nationals and Pirates-Astros games aren't good for those who can't handle rejection.

Monday, the Pirates will give the ball to Paul Maholm (0-3, 4.30) against John Lannan (2-1, 3.43). John Lannan wrote a lot of songs about peace but he beat his wife. My pick is the Pirates.

April 22, 2011

J-Rod Era Ends, Wood Claimed

The Josh Rodriguez experiment ended yesterday as the Pirates designated their utility infielder for assignment. You have to wonder what happened here.

The Pirates owned the first pick in the Rule V draft and presumably had plenty of time to decide on who they wanted. I was on board with the choice of Rodriguez since he had hit well in AAA and was capable of playing shortstop. It seemed like a good idea to bring in absolutely anyone to replace Ronny Cedeno.

Rodriguez got into only seven of the 19 games played so far, starting three times. The first time he played a full game was also apparently his final appearance in a Pirates uniform Thursday night. Josh went 1-for-3, drove in a run and also reached base another time via hit by pitch. Then a day after collecting his first major league hit, Rodriguez was gone.

One wonders why Ronny Cedeno deserves to get a shot at a 592nd game playing in the big leagues tonight, a game which will also be his 204th game in a Pirates uniform. After 1,915 major league plate appearances in which Cedeno hit .242/.282/.351 overall, Pirates management is intent on continuing to give him a shot to see if he can turn things around. Yet after 14 plate appearances, Josh Rodriguez is judged not a major league shortstop.

I'm not saying Rodriguez was the definitive answer, but we'll never know. I am reminded of the time when Brandon Phillips batted .000 in nine plate appearances for the 2005 Indians. The Tribe sent their infielder to Cincinnati for a player to be named later. It was a shortsighted move not because everyone knew what Phillips would become, but because no one knew what Phillips would become.

To be sure, Neil Huntington has had his share of success in the Rule V draft. One All-Star setup man isn't a bad haul in a four year stretch. But with the second and first picks in the draft the past two years, how did we end up with two players who batted a grand total of 25 times in Pittsburgh?

Brandon Wood Claimed
The reason for this claim is that with the #1 waiver priority, the Pirates claimed infielder Brandon Wood from the Angels. I remembered Wood being a top prospect, but it's also true that he's hit .168/.197/.259 in 494 plate appearances in his MLB career. Now OBP isn't everything, but .197 is pretty bad considering National League pitchers compiled a .177 OBP last year. No matter, he isn't Ronny Cedeno so I'd like to see him starting and find out if he can ever learn to hit the curveball. Wood did put up very good numbers for several years in AAA, so maybe he can figure things out in Pittsburgh.

April 19, 2011

Series Preview: Florida Marlins

The second place Pittsburgh Pirates (8-8) start a three game series in Miami tonight against the Florida Marlins (8-6). This is Pittsburgh's only trip to Florida this year. After a few years as a .500 or slightly better team, the Marlins retooled by signing a lot of famous Cleveland sports. Their retooled three-star outfield of Grady Sizemore, Bernie Kosar, and Don King has the Marlins flying high in second place. The fans have really embraced this team as average attendance is up to 21,278. To be fair, a lot of those people are not baseball fans but they just came to see the great tradition and game day experience of venerable Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Dolphins/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium.

The Pirates are fresh off a 3-1 series win in Cincinnati which propelled them to within a game of the division leading Reds. The top Pirates at the plate have been Jose Tabata, .317/.427/.524 with 14 runs scored and eight steals, and Neil Walker, .290/.380/.516 with 13 runs scored and 12 RBI. The Marlins' lineup has struggled overall but the standouts so far are left fielder Logan Morrison, .327/.429/.654 with four homers and 11 RBI, and first baseman Gaby Sanchez, .340/.419/.472 with nine runs scored. This is a midweek series which will hardly get much airtime on Baseball Tonight, but these are a couple of young teams hoping to prove they're for real - more interesting to me than the Yankees.Pirates vs. Florida Marlins
Tuesday 7:10, Wednesday 7:10, Thursday 7:10

Paul Maholm (0-2, 2.33) gets the ball for the Pirates today. Maholm has pitched brilliantly in two of his three starts but the Pirates lost all of them, getting only five runs on offense total in the three games. This continues to be an important season for Maholm as he needs to prove he's a durable and reliable starter in his contract year. Florida's starter Josh Johnson (2-0, 1.35), on the other hand, has blossomed into a legit ace and a Cy Young candidate. He has a 2.73 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 8.6 K/9 since 2009 and brings it with a 94 mph fastball, 87 mph changeup, 86 mph slider, and now a slow curveball which he has mixed in a few times a game for the first time this year. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow Charlie Morton (2-0, 1.64) goes for the Pirates against Ricky Nolasco (1-0, 4.05). Morton continues to prove me wrong for saying he shouldn't be in the starting rotation, although at some point he will need to throw more strikes to stay effective. Fangraphs posted an unreasonably detailed article on Morton yesterday. Nolasco has decent stats but looks to me like a candidate for arm trouble - he was injured last year and now his fastball velocity is down and so are his strikeout totals, while his home run totals are up. My pick is the Pirates.

James McDonald (0-1, 7.47) will look for his first win Thursday in a game which closes out this road trip. Despite disappointing results, McDonald's fastball velocity is where it was last year and his curveball still looks great. He and Ryan Doumit need to use that curve as a strikeout pitch; it's his best pitch by far yet he's only throwing it 20% of the time this season. The Marlins counter with Chris Volstad (0-1, 5.59), who is about as average as a pitcher can be - he is 27-27, 4.50 in his career and has no great pitches and no poor ones. My pick is the Pirates.

April 18, 2011

A Relief Ace Emerges

When Joel Hanrahan came over to the Pirates from Washington, he looked like a classic mediocre pitcher. He was 27 and owned a 5.30 ERA in 115 career games. He also had a 7.71 season ERA at the time of the trade in June 2009 and had walked five batters per nine innings in his career.

Hanrahan had an excellent second half in 2009, only not much of anyone was watching. For the Pirates that year he had a 1.72 ERA in 33 games, struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and allowed zero home runs. Batters hit .204 against him and slugged .265. Those numbers were lost in his season stats since he could only bring his ERA down to 4.78.

Last year, Hanrahan dialed up his fastball velocity from an average of 94 to an average of 96 mph. He hit 99 with regularity. He had a 15.75 ERA on April 22 but the rest of the way it was 2.88. He also struck out a Marmolesque 100 batters in 69.2 innings. Batters managed a line of only .221/.299/.350 off the ace for the season. This performance prompted the Pirates and manager Clint Hurdle to anoint Hanrahan the closer before spring training.

This year, Hanrahan has managed an average fastball of 97.3 mph and has been perfect in five save chances. Also, under new management, Hanrahan has adopted an entirely new pitch selection. Last year he threw 69% fastballs and 31% sliders. This year he has thrown his fastball a full 90% of the time.

A side benefit of throwing mostly fastballs is the ability to go more than one inning. When Hanrahan retired four straight batters to close the April 4 game in St. Louis, incredibly he earned the Pirates' first save of more than one inning since 2007. He did it again with a five out save Sunday, rescuing Evan Meek - who incidentally looks injured from this view - and hitting 101 mph on the FSN radar gun while pitching to his seventh batter.

While more famous veterans have lost their closing jobs or are in danger of doing so, Joel Hanrahan has quietly become one of baseball's best closers. The nation will no doubt see this in the World Series.

April 15, 2011

Series Preview: Cincinnati Reds

The Pirates (5-7) will try to make up ground on the division leading Reds (8-4) in four game series in Cincinnati. It's my favorite type of series - the four game wraparound.

I've been wanting to go see the new Reds stadium because it's sort of stupid that I've been to 20 stadiums including Oakland, Tampa Bay, etc., but not this nearby division rival. Unfortunately I only have one friend in Cincinnati who likes me enough that I could spend the weekend at their house, and I took her up on that offer in 2005 resulting in the number of friends of that description decreasing to zero and me watching this series on TV.

Like many of us the Pirates are in a poor situation with no justifiable reason to have a tremendous amount of hope, yet like many of us they have 150 more games scheduled and will try their best to right the ship. I've been to all six home games and I see a team that is reinvigorated, talented, and just hasn't gotten everything together yet. Crosby and Malkin aren't playing, but it's still worth watching this bunch.

On the other side, the Reds have really done a beautiful job of constructing a team. All their regulars are in the prime of their careers except the veteran leader Scott Rolen and the up-and-coming star Jay Bruce. Their bench is a mix of useful and versatile veterans and young players who would be able to step in if anything went wrong. Their rotation, the reliable veteran Bronson Arroyo along with some young, high-strikeout guys. A lights out bullpen. The Pirates have zero starting shortstops; the Reds have two.

Except for the high likelihood of violent crime in most of their city neighborhoods, it really is a charmed life in Cincinnati. Also, everyone knows all the babes in Ohio root for the Indians so I am forced to use a picture of Buckeyes babes.Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds
Friday 7:10, Saturday 1:10, Sunday 1:10, Monday 7:10

Pittsburgh goes with Charlie Morton (1-0, 2.08) against Arroyo (2-0, 2.08). I was the first person to criticize keeping Morton in the rotation. I'm not sold yet but it looks like the right decision so far. In particular, his recent home start really impressed me - it looked like a classic Charlie Morton implosion in the first inning but he didn't let it get to him and let his stuff power him to what ended up as a strong seven inning start. I have a lot of experience in admitting when I'm wrong and I'm quite good at it. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow it's a day game and James McDonald (0-0, 5.56) faces Edinson Volquez (2-0, 5.82). Volquez has upped his average fastball velocity to 94 this season and it's still only his third-best pitch. In a battle of strikeout hitters against strikeout pitchers, I'm officially scared. My pick is still the Pirates.

The Reds are going with Mike Leake (1-0, 6.75) Sunday and the Pirates haven't yet announced a starter. I'm going to announce it for them - it's Jeff Karstens (1-0, 0.00). He had a brilliant outing in relief of the injured Ross Ohlendorf and absolutely deserves the open rotation spot at this point. I also hate Mike Leake. You know those people who got out of college, immediately got a great job and never will realize life is hard? That happened to Mike Leake. My pick is the Pirates.

Kevin Correia (2-1, 2.70) starts Monday night and the Reds haven't yet named a starter. Clearly they are intimidated. My pick is the Pirates.

April 13, 2011

Series Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

The Pirates play only six home games against the Brewers this year - a huge decrease from the 45 last year. For a team that made a lot of offseason improvements, Weeks-Gomez-Braun-Fielder-McGehee-Kotsay-Betancourt-Lucroy sure looks like a bullshit lineup to me. That looks to me like a lineup of four guys who would start on any team and four who should be platoon or bench players. Pittsburgh knows nothing about that.Pirates vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Wednesday 7:05, Thursday 7:05

Tonight, Pirates ace Kevin Correia (2-0, 1.29) faces the Brewers' Shaun Marcum (1-1, 4.22). Marcum pitched his whole career for the Blue Jays so this is the first time the Pirates will face him even though he's been around since 2006. Despite being righthanded he's a classic junkballer. He throws two different fastballs which combine for only 33% of pitches this season. Marcum also mixes in a slider, cutter, curveball, and changeup, and has had sucess with a 3.73 ERA and 7.3 K/9 since 2007. Those numbers are compiled in the AL East. For the Bucs, Correia looked like a true ace in his first two starts, then was shortsightedly used in relief. I hope there are no negative effects. My pick is the Pirates.

The quick two-game series closes tomorrow with Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm (0-1, 2.19) against Randy Wolf (0-2, 7.20). Age catches up to all men and this could be Randy Wolf's year. The Brewers got a new manager, Ron Roenicke, so don't expect him to go with Wolf too long if he gets hit hard. My pick is the Pirates.

April 11, 2011

Home Game 4: Nothing To Say

Sunday, April 10
Rockies 6, Pirates 5
Kids' Day
Record: 5-5

Day games after night games are always hard and it doesn't make things easier when it's a day game after a night game followed by a friend's birthday party. But the sun blessed the city of Pittsburgh with its rare presence and the teams were scheduled to play at 1:35.

My associate Matt had a hard time procuring a six pack of Budweiser but for the low price of 12.84 I was able to do same. Three beers each later, we were in PNC Park to see a couple of hard throwing young pitchers face off, James McDonald and Jhoulys Chacin. I can't overemphasize how nice this day was. I make fun of Pittsburgh a lot but this was a beautiful day in the best baseball stadium in the world in one of the more photogenic towns in America.

Maggie and Lucas were there of course and we were ready to watch this pitchers' duel. Only it didn't materialize. Colorado picked up four runs in a first inning disaster which was capped by a three-run home run courtesy of Jose Lopez. I would have picked a different day for Jose Lopez to get his career together.

The home team got one back on a Ronny Cedeno sacrifice fly. They got the rest back in the third inning. Jose Tabata was hit by a pitch, Neil Walker singled, McCutchen singled scoring Tabata, and then Lyle Overbay rocketed a double to deep center field to clear the bases. It was 4-4 and we settled in.

My associates Brittany, Chelsea, and Amanda were also attending and were hoping to sit in 318 with us. They bought tickets one section over and the usher actually checked their tickets despite the park being less than half full... Being resourceful girls they were able to hang out for an inning before being forced into slightly better seats. You have to hate the unofficial Major League Baseball "No Fun" policy. Matt and I could blow it with girls without the help of a major corporation.

No more scoring took place until the seventh when McDonald came out of the game with two outs and a runner (Dexter Fowler) on first. With Evan Meek apparently still injured, the choice out of the bullpen was Mike Crotta. And it was a disaster. Fowler stole second, Jonathan Herrera walked, then Jason Giambi singled scoring Fowler to tie the game. We were looking for the hook but Crotta remained. Troy Tulowitzki walked. Some asshole pinch ran for Giambi at second. And then Crotta walked in the winning run. Life in Pittsburgh is not always perfect.

Loss or no loss, we were 5-5 and there was no reason to get mad. It was one of America's great days in one of America's great cities and we ended up drinking in the Hall of Fame Club with some of America's great babes. For a loss, it was a good win.