September 27, 2010

Alvarez's Hot Streak

Pedro Alvarez had a perfect night tonight going 3-for-3 with a home run, a double, a walk, and two runs and RBI.

He was the NL Player of the Week last week for six games in which he hit .417 with four doubles, two homers and 13 RBI. Those RBI are no small achievement when hitting in the league's worst lineup.

After today's performance, in the last seven games Alvarez is 13-for-27 with five doubles, three homers and 15 RBI.

An Ichiro-type top of the order hitter thrives on consistency, getting a hit or two most days. Power hitters are nearly the direct opposite. A 40 home run guy may get 25 of those in eight hot weeks of the 26 week season. It says something not only that Alvarez is able to do this, but that he's able to do this at a point in the season when - if not excusable - it's at least not beyond the realm of possibility that players would stop giving their full effort.

Overall, Pedro is up to .249/.324/.449 which is great for a guy in his second pro season. Considering power is usually the last skill to manifest itself, he's definitely cemented himself as someone to be excited about for 2011 and beyond.

September 24, 2010

Losing 100

Apologies for not posting a Preview yesterday. Truthfully, this season of blogging has been tough. I had the intention of writing a humorous blog which also contributed positive thoughts on the team. But given the way this season has unfolded - with the 2010 Pirates fielding not only the worst team in baseball this year, but one of the worst in modern history - it is tough not to be negative.

Topics like advocating moving McCutchen from third in the order to leadoff, that I can do. But to give one counterexample, I see reports that Ronny Cedeno has won the shortstop job in 2011 and I just can't even respond. Check the list of 28 pitchers the Pirates have used this year, and tell me how many there really is something to say about. What do you blog about Andy LaRoche's career, a one-time top prospect who is nothing but an ineffective pinch hitter by his 27th birthday?

All this and more. But it's time to defend Pirates fandom, and if you're not, it's time to become a fan.

Talented young players
The Pirates brought up a 21-year-old left fielder, Jose Tabata, in May with remarkable results. At an age where it's totally legitimate to still be in the Florida State League, Tabata is a consistent line drive hitting, .300 hitting outfielder with superb defense and plus plus speed.

Andrew McCutchen cemented himself as a star in this, his age 23 season, by basically repeating his superb 2009 over a full season. He isn't the top defensive center fielder in baseball, but he does make plays that no other center fielder would make. And on offense, he's a dynamic catalyst at the top of the order, a true power/speed threat the likes of which are rarer than you think.

Neil Walker blossomed into a legitimate #3 hitter at age 24 - and from a middle infield position. I know the new fielding stats don't reflect this, but it's clear to me that Walker's defense has been great - especially for a guy playing second base for the first time in his career.

Pedro Alvarez, in his rookie age 23 year, adjusted to major league pitching and has shown flashes of the power that will make him a consistent 30 home run guy. I'm fine with 11 home runs over half of an MLB season considering this was his second pro season overall.

James McDonald, in his first year as an MLB starter, brings top of the rotation stuff to the mound and commands it like a seasoned veteran. He has quietly been one of the best strikeout guys on any MLB staff in this second half.

All of those guys will be Pirates for four to six more years. Add in Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan, our two lights out closers, and this is a lot of talent to build around.

Ballpark Experience
It literally cost me fifty dollars to get a standing room seat at Fenway for an Orioles game. Let's say you are a Red Sox fan living somewhere in New England. Unless you're rich you're going down to a game two times a year, struggling to get there and park, and largely following the team on TV. It's a similar scenario for the Cubs, Phillies, any of the big market teams.

We are baseball fans, and we want to spend our summer going to baseball games. I think I made it to 22 games this year and with free games, I could not have spent over 200 dollars on all those tickets combined. Sports should be experienced as close to the playing field as possible, not watched at a bar because there's no way to get in. The Pirates, with their ticket deals and low prices, are one of the few major league pro teams that let people of average means attend games on a regular basis. And you know PNC is the best park in baseball.

The Pittsburgh weather is also great for baseball. Any night game from May through the end of the season is likely to have perfect weather. And the fans are true fans. Nobody is wearing green St. Patrick's Day McCutchen jerseys with McCutchen written in Russian.

Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski, Kiner, Wagner, 1960, 1979, yes, Van Slyke... The Pirates have some of the richest history of any team in sports. I've tried to highlight a lot of this through the blog and will continue to do so in the off-season. The 1960 World Series Game 7 footage was just found and we'll get to watch the greatest game in baseball history in December. This is a proud franchise and anyone should be proud to wear the colors.

2011 Championship
Also, we're going to win the World Series next year.

September 21, 2010

Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

Fresh off a three game sweep of Arizona, Pittsburgh entertains the Cardinals starting tonight in the penultimate series of the season.

An interesting fact about the word 'penultimate': I am in law school, and I had to instruct a classmate - who incidentally is about to be a quite highly paid lawyer - that 'penultimate' cannot be used for the second-last of a list of four or fewer items. Lunch is not your penultimate meal of the day. Moving forward...

St. Louis (77-72) has ceded control of the NL Central to the Reds and is basically just waiting to be eliminated, trailing now by seven games with only 13 to play. It's a disappointing record considering that the triumverate of Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright won 47 of those games.The Cardinal offense, of course, features Albert Pujols (.306/.403/.586) and Matt Holliday (.314/.387/.541), both superstars performing at top level. Colby Rasmus (.280/.365/.519) has turned in a great sophomore season, but that trio has been backed by precious little else - downgrading the Cardinals lineup to just an average attack. They are backed by the league's fourth best pitching staff, though, and should be 83-66 based on runs scored and allowed. At a minimum, this is a team that should sweep the 2010 Pirates.

St. Louis Cardinals - Tuesday 7:05, Wednesday 7:05, Thursday 12:35
Jake Westbrook (8-10, 4.22) gets the ball tonight for Tony La Russa's club against Paul Maholm (7-15, 5.36). Westbrook is from Athens, Georgia, just like my favorite band R.E.M. Not only is R.E.M. punctuated the same whether it ends a sentence or not, but they just finished recording their 15th studio album which is sure to be great. It's bittersweet to me though, because they won't be touring to support it. Anyway, I think Westbrook may throw one or two balls that find the river off the Pirates' bats. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow it's Kyle Lohse (4-7, 6.75) for the Cardinals against Charlie Morton (1-11, 8.61). I really hate typing Morton's stats every time out - not only is this a bad year, but he has a career 6.13 ERA and has no business getting a 48th start in the majors. Lohse is in the worst season of what hasn't been that great of a career - although his ERAs would be a lot better every year if his managers realized that he's a six inning pitcher, nothing more. My pick is the Pirates.

Thursday, Jeff Suppan (1-7, 5.61) faces Brian Burres (3-3, 4.93). What great luck for the Pirates to face zero of the Cardinals strong starting pitchers. If I were assessing why the Cardinals are out of contention, I would look squarely at whoever decidied Suppan should be in the rotation after he was released by the Brewers of all teams. Burres is coming off three quality starts in a row, posting a 1.80 ERA in that span, and unfortunately is making a strong bid for the 2011 rotation. My pick is the Pirates.

Ryan Doumit's 2011 Status

I recently wrote about the likelihood that Zach Duke would not be tendered a contract this offseason. There are also many question marks surrounding whether the only other Pirate who dates back to 2005, Ryan Doumit, will return in 2011.

He has been something of a lightning rod for criticism, with some arguing that his on deck song (Danzig's "Mother") should have been changed like four years ago, while others argue that Doumit is ahead of his time, a portent of a future generation in which every player comes to bat to the tune of a different Danzig song. Doumit is signed through 2011 and is owed another $5.6 million in guaranteed money after this year. He has $15.5 million in club options for 2012 and 2013 which are as likely to be exercised as Ryan Doumit is to button his shirt.

That contract, of course, is the product of signing at the right time. Doumit inked the deal after a 2008 which saw him hit .318/.357/.501 while throwing out a respectable 27% of baserunners. Since then, Doumit has been alternately injured and slumping. He has struggled on balls in the dirt and with throwing out runners.

The Pirates brought in Chris Snyder at the trade deadline to be the everyday catcher and announced that Doumit would play some right field and back up Snyder at catcher.

Today's story in the Post-Gazette indicates that Doumit has done better in that role since the trade. That's partially true, but he's still only hit .248/.352/.438 in that time. Those numbers are fine for a backup catcher, but not at over $5 million for one year. And they're inadequate for a right fielder who is both slow and a poor defender.

I think the best move is to trade Doumit and eat some of his contract if necessary. If no trade is available, Fangraphs projects Doumit as a .267/.353/.433 hitter going forward which is fine for any bench player. And as a final positive, the Pirates will have Tony Sanchez starting at the major league level in 2012.

September 17, 2010

Series Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

Adam LaRoche triumphantly returns to PNC Park for this long awaited matchup between the National League's two worst teams. Truthfully there's not much drama left in this season. With 14 games to play the Pirates have the top draft pick all but wrapped up - our 48-98 record is seven games worse than Seattle.

Arizona (59-88) has allowed 15 fewer runs than the Pirates, meaning Pittsburgh is now last in both runs scored and runs allowed. The D-Backs' bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster, yet they throw a triumverate of good young pitchers this weekend - all of whom are 25 or younger and have sub-4.00 ERAs.

The Diamondbacks offense has been around league average. LaRoche (.261/.323/.464) is hitting slightly worse than the .265/.340/.469 line he put up in Pittsburgh, yet already has a career high 91 RBI and counting out of the cleanup spot. Kelly Johnson (.275/.362/.479) keeps up the ex-Braves theme and has had a really solid year hitting second in the order. Mark Reynolds (.205/.323/.452) already has 197 strikeouts to go with his 32 home runs. He needs another 26 K's to break his own all time single season strikeout record, set last year. And of course, off the bench Arizona has former Pirate great Ryan Church (.197/.261/.337).

Arizona Diamondbacks - Friday 7:05, Saturday 7:05, Sunday 1:35
Tonight, Ian Kennedy (9-9, 3.87) takes the hill for Arizona against Brian Burres (3-3, 5.22). Burres is coming off of two very good starts in which he allowed only one run a game while pitching six and seven innings. Kennedy for his part has been one of the league's better rookie pitchers, managing to strike out 157 in 179 innings despite a below average fastball. Speaking of 179 innings, is there really any reason for Kennedy to make this start? He's already thrown 30 innings more than his career high and missed four months of last season with an arm injury, yet he's going to make three more starts for a .400 club. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow night it's a pretty good pitching matchup of Barry Enright (6-4, 3.39) and John McDonald (3-5, 4.13). I covered McDonald yesterday. Enright, a 24-year-old rookie, somehow has a great ERA even though he gives up a lot of home runs (1.6 per nine innings) and doesn't strike anyone out. You can't pick against McDonald at this point...My pick is the Pirates.

Sunday afternoon, Daniel Hudson (7-2, 2.58) faces Zach Duke (7-14, 5.78). Duke apparently is staying in the rotation because he threw a good side session, which is apparently more important than throwing an awful game every time out. Hudson, 23, came over in the Edwin Jackson trade to the White Sox - a move that's already looking dumb for Chicago. Hudson is clearly a better pitcher than Jackson now, and he pretty clearly was at the time of the trade too. He has a 93 mph fastball and 85 mph slider, which set up a great chamgeup that is his out pitch. I recently argued that the Pirates should get rid of Duke but I'd like to see him get one last home win. My pick is the Pirates.

September 16, 2010

James McDonald: Our New Ace

I'll be the first to admit that when James McDonald arrived in the Octavio Dotel deal, he was just one of a bunch of unknown names coming to the Pirates organization on trade deadline day. Six weeks later this deal already looks like a steal for Pittsburgh.

In eight starts McDonald has a 3.49 ERA. In three of those starts he allowed zero runs while pitching siz, seven and eight innings. He also has struck out 44 in 49 innings while batters have hit only .251/.318/.352 against him. Needless to say those are excellent results for an age 25 season.

Looking at McDonald's pitches (via Fangraphs), he's throwing his fastball at an average of 92.3 miles per hour - a drop off of only 0.5 mph since last year when he pitched primarily in relief. That's excellent as most pitchers lose a full 2 mph in the switch to starting. His curveball - more impressive than his fastball to the naked eye - shows a strong positive value as well. A below average changeup rounds out McDonald's arsenal as he's been one of the rare starters to succeed while throwing only three pitches.

McDonald has shown solid command, walking 3.3 batters per nine innings. He has also excelled at holding runners, allowing only two runners to steal while three have been caught.

Clearly this has been a great age 25 season for our new starting pitcher. I expect continued improvement in 2011. Nothing in McDonald's minor league numbers suggests that this season is a fluke. He consistently struck out over a batter per inning in the minor leagues while also exhibiting strong command. Moreover, he's doing this while only throwing three pitches. Subject to the Pirate's choice of permanent pitching coach, I'd expect him to round out his arsenal by adding a fourth pitch for next year - likely a cut fastball.

Octavio Dotel has been solid for Los Angeles, but it still looks like the Pirates really won out on the trade - even without considering outfield prospect Andrew Lambo, who also came over in the same deal. As we well know, high upside, high strikeout, young starting pitchers rarely come along. Add two more and we're good to go for 2011.

September 15, 2010

Duke Should Be Non-Tendered

Most fans have realistically stopped paying attention to the 2011 Pirates, but the starting pitching for 2011 is one important issue that is working itself out right now.

Zach Duke is one of the team's elder statesmen, having been a Pirate since 2005, and was this year's Opening Day starter. Yet with 156 starts under his belt there's a real chance last night's eight earned run performance was Duke's last as a Pirate. Manager John Russell indicated that Duke's status in the rotation for the rest of 2010 would be re-evaluated. But what about 2011?

Duke was an All-Star last year after a first half that saw him post a 3.29 ERA and 1.21 WHIP while averaging a cool seven innings a start. Since then he has been rather terrible. In 2009's second half he went 3-8 with a 5.17 ERA as batters hit .318/.346/.499 against him. That was bad but Duke has been worse throughout this year: 7-14 with a 5.78 ERA as opposing batters hit .327/.378/.516.

For some perspective, Roberto Clemente hit .317/.359/.475 for his entire career. For a year and a half Zach Duke has made the set of all NL batters into a slightly better version of Clemente.

This year Duke is earning $4.2 million. He is entering his third year of arbitration meaning the club has two choices. They can either tender him a contract - retaining him next year for either an arbitrator's award or an agreed upon sum - or they can non-tender him, which would cut ties with Duke and make him a free agent.

Despite Duke's awful season, players rarely if ever get a pay cut in arbitration. I see no reason for the Pirates to tender Duke a contract. Why bring Duke back at say, $4.4 million? If Duke was a free agent from another team, in 2011 he's a guy who would likely be a non-roster invitee at this point with a split major league/minor league contract for something like $800,000/$200,000.

There's also the possibility of the team agreeing with Duke before the tender deadline on some amount between the minimum salary and the likely arbitration award. But I don't see anything in Duke's performance that should merit bending over backwards to bring him back. Never a stuff guy, he's lost velocity on all his pitches this year and now features an 87 mph fastball with an array of mediocre or worse offspeed stuff. That's not a formula for success in this league. His only positive aspect is his durability, and the ability to make 30+ starts and get pounded is an ability this team doesn't need.

September 14, 2010

Pirates 2011 Schedule Highlights

The schedule has been released for the 2011 Pirates World Championship regular season. The full schedule is available at the Pirates site.
Keep in mind that many of the Saturday and Sunday game times will no doubt be moved to be national TV games, assuming we face Stephen Strasburg every Saturday and Sunday. Check out this bitchin' clip art! Here are the highlights:

First Half
The Pirates open on the road at Wrigley Field starting April 1. That's the first Friday Opening Day in decades, and the Chicago weather no doubt will be beautiful.

The home opener is at 1:35 p.m. Thursday, April 7, against the Colorado Rockies. For many readers, that's significant as the last chance for the J.D. Class of 2011 to skip class for an Opening Day.

The first interleague series is against the Tigers the weekend of May 20-22. We get the Orioles at home June 20-22 in a rematch of the great #1 Draft Pick Battle of 2010, and rounding out interleague play are the Red Sox, June 24-26. The Tribe series is on the road this year, June 17-19, and Jacobs Field is a great park for those of you who've never been.

The Phillies come to town the weekend of June 3-5. Its good to have the cross-state rivals on a weekend as these games will all be near sellouts.

Second Half
With the championship push on, really all these games will be big. The Reds and Cardinals both make their first trips of the year to PNC Park during the July 18-24 homestand. From July 22-August 10 the Pirates have 20 consecutive games including a trip from Pittsburgh to San Francisco without a travel day. St. Louis and Cincinnati both return in August and again in September.

The season wraps up with the Reds at home the weekend of September 23-25, then the Brewers away September 26-28 with the final game at 8:10 p.m. The traditional Sunday final game is now a Wednesday meaning the Division Series will start that Friday, with the Pirates certainly contesting games in that round.

As we well know here at the WFC Blog, the really important schedule is the yet-to-be-released 2011 Promotional Schedule. We'll be all over that when it comes out, of course.

Great Pirates In History: Fred Clarke

Most casual Pirates fans know about Honus Wagner, but I suspect not many have heard of his contemporary Fred Clarke. While Wagner was the league's brightest star during his career, Clarke was not far behind. Clarke hit for power and average, stole bases and walked often throughout his career. In addition to playing the outfield, he also managed four of the nine Pirates pennant winners including three in a row from 1901-1903.

By the turn of the century, Clarke was an established a superstar. He had been one of the league's finest hitters for years with the Louisville Colonels, who he also managed since the age of 24. Clarke had career numbers of .334/.398/.448 with Lousville, scoring 607 runs in five and a half seasons.

Coming to Pittsburgh
After the 1899 season, the National League contracted from 12 to 8 teams. Colonels owner Barney Dreyfuss purchased the Pirates and consolidated those teams into one. A talented group of 14 Colonels including Wagner, Rube Waddell and Clarke joined the Pirates, instantly transforming a mediocre team into a contender. Clarke also was installed as manager of the new squad for 1900.

Clarke struggled with illness in 1900 and hit only .276/.368/.386, by far his worst season to date. He got into a fistfight after a game in May and had bottles thrown at him from the Pittsburgh stands in June. He got on base enough to score 84 runs in 110 games, but the 33 games he missed were costly as the Pirates finished second, 4.5 games behind Brooklyn.

After the bottle incident, Clarke calmly cleaned up the glass shards. But another time Clarke fought back, firing the ball at a fan after catching the third out. The problem was it was the second out and there was a man on base. The ball bounced out of the stands and Clarke was able to get it in before the runner scored.

Championship Years
Clarke returned to his customary hitting level with a .324/.395/.461 campaign in 1901, scoring 118 runs. His pitching staff once again led the league in ERA. Backed this time by the league's second highest scoring offense, Pittsburgh easily took the pennant with a 90-49 record.

It was more of the same for Clarke in '02 as he hit .316/.401/.449, scoring 103 runs. That year's Pirates went 103-36 and finished first by 27.5 games.

Clarke had his finest Pirates season in 1903, hitting .351/.414/.532. He led the league in slugging percentage and doubles but still batted out of his customary #2 hole. The Pirates finished first again and played in the first ever World Series after the season, which they lost 5-3 to the Boston Americans.

Overall, for the three pennant years of 1901-03, Clarke hit .330/.403/.478 and scored 309 runs while driving in 183. Wagner hit .346/.408/.491 and scored 303 runs while driving in 318. Apart from Wagner's RBI totals due to hitting cleanup, it's hard to say either was the superior hitter during those seasons. At worst Wagner was a top ten player in baseball history; it's saying a lot that Clarke was his equal when Wagner was in prime career, championship form. Wagner was the team's superstar but Clarke's lefthanded bat was crucial.

Unlike today's left fielders, Clarke possessed the strongest arm in his team's outfields. Taking the extra base was even more important in those low scoring days, and opponents feared Clarke's arm more than almost anyone in the league.

Later Career
Now in his thirties, Clarke started to decline somewhat as a player starting in 1904. He always got on base and collected extra base hits - leading the league in triples in 1906 - but by this time he was more Will Clark than Albert Pujols. The Pirates finished with a winning record every year from 1904-08 but were unable to take another pennant.

Clarke's bunch got together in 1909 for one last hurrah, playing for the first time at Forbes Field - the first ever modern concrete and steel stadium. The fiery player-manager, now batting third in the lineup, hit .287/.384/.373 and walked a league-leading 80 times while scoring 97 runs. If those numbers don't jump out at you, consider that the 36-year-old Clarke was the second-oldest regular in the league, which as a whole hit a Ronny Cedenoesque .244/.310/.314. Wagner, for his part, hit .339/.420/.489 and drove in 100, while Tommy Leach scored a league leading 126 times. With a pitching staff that had a 2.07 ERA, that was another pennant winning formula.

This time the Pirates would not be denied in the World Series. Clarke hit the Pirates' only two home runs of the Series and walked four times in the deciding Game 7, helping the Pirates to their first ever World Series title. It was the crowning achievement on a Hall of Fame career.

Clarke slumped in 1910 but hit .324/.407/.492 in 1911, his last season as a regular player. He stayed on as manager until 1915, piloting his last great team in 1912 when the Pirates went 93-58.

A Pirate Great
Overall Fred Clarke hit .312/.386/.429 for his career. Those would be great numbers for a #2 hitter now but were outstanding in the dead ball era. There was no MVP award at the time but Clarke would have won it in 1897 and had a strong case in 1903. He stole 509 bases and hit 220 triples, still seventh in baseball history. He also went an astounding 1602-1181 as a manager. Clarke was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

He died in August 1960 prompting the Pittsburgh Press to opine: "The death of former Pirate Manager Fred Clarke recalls that wonderful era in the early 1900's when our Pittsburgh ball club was winning consistently...Old time baseball fans recall him as a fiery manager and born leader of a crew of stars headed by the incomparable Honus Wagner."

Fred Clarke was a great hitter and a great leader of men. He was instrumental in four pennants and Pittsburgh's first World Series title, and for that he is truly a great Pirate in history.

September 13, 2010

Pirates Claim Pitcher Chris Leroux

Today the Pirates claimed righthanded relief pitcher Chris Leroux on waivers from the Marlins. He will immediately join the team and replace Brian Bass, who has been designated for assignment. Six minutes after the move was announced his Wikipedia page reflected that information. I'm not going to speculate on who made that change but the username was chris_leroux69.

Leroux has had an awful age 26 season this year - 1-3, 6.28 in 28 minor league games and 0-0, 7.00 in 17 games with the Marlins. He also apparently has a great lefty bat with a double in six career minor league at bats. What makes these relievers decide to bat with the opposite hand when they're averaging one plate appearance a year?

Also Chris Leroux looks great in the bright yellow Gulf Coast League Marlins uniform.

Seriously, while his numbers are bad for 2010 this isn't a bad pickup. Last year he had a 2.70 ERA in 46 AA innings while striking out 55 in 60 innings. He averages 94 mph on his fastball and has good strike zone command which makes me think that fastball has poor movement. Leroux seems like a decent guy to stash at Indianapolis, but not someone who should be on the 2011 roster.

Series Preview: New York Mets

Breaking news, but 'Mets' is a bullshit name for a baseball team. It's short for 'Metropolitans' - really? I'd rather see Miss USA in an Orioles Winter Classic jersey.

Anyway, Pittsburgh travels to New York to take on the Mets after a Reds series that apparently featured surprisingly competitive games. I was busy with the Pitt game (call me Virginia Tech but I can barely handle a I-AA team at home) and a magnum opus on the Clean Water Act. Good times.

David Wright (.289/.361/.498) leads a Mets offense that's 14th in the league in scoring. Jason Bay (.259/.347/.402) is still injured, while Angel Pagan (.289/.342/.432) is what passes for a breakout star on this team. Ike Davis (.263/.349/.449) has been pretty good too and that is it - a Pirates-like lineup.

Fair warning about these road trips to New York: New York will take all your money. This is true whether you brought four dollars for a week stay, or $1,600 for an afternoon.

New York Mets - Monday 7:10, Tuesday 7:10, Wednesday 7:10, Thursday 7:10
Tonight, James McDonald (3-5, 4.81) faces Dillon Gee (1-0, 1.29). Dillon Gee sounds like a fictional character from a genre of book I don't read and that genre is "not about basbeall." He throws a 90 mph fastball, 83 mph changeup, 80 mph slider and a slow curve. McDonald is coming off his best outing of the year where he threw seven shutout innings. He is already the ace of this staff which is saying nothing. 40 strikeouts in 41 innings as a starter is solid though. My pick is the Pirates.

Tuesday, Zach Duke (7-13, 5.47) faces knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (10-6, 2.91). Remember when Zach Duke was outdueling Roy Halladay in Philadelphia? Yeah, I don't either. My pick is the Pirates.

Wednesday, Paul Maholm (7-14, 5.37) faces Jenrry Mejia (0-4, 5.47). The Mets opened the season with 20-year-old Mejia, their top prospect who had barely pitched above Class A, in the major league bullpen. Then they sent him down to make him back into a starter - a move which was apparently successful because boom, now he's a starter. Mejia averages a 95 mph fastball but hasn't been able to strike anyone else this season. I could see that changing in this game, but my pick is the Pirates.

And then Thursday, unbelievably, yet impressively, this series continues with Charlie Morton (1-11, 9.05) facing Mike Pelfrey (14-9, 3.89). Morton actually had a good start last time out. To me the worst possible thing would be if he has a few more good ones and gets the fifth starter job next year. Mike Pelfrey has stopped pitching like an All-Star and resumed pitching like Mike Pelfrey. My pick is the Pirates.

September 10, 2010

Marauders Season Ends

Life is great, something to be discovered and enjoyed and loved one day at a time. It is a lot like the 2010 Bradenton Marauders baseball season. The sad thing about both of these things is, the last event in them is a crushing defeat. Bradenton had theirs last night as the Charlotte Stone Crabs shut down their might offense, taking the best-of-three series with a 2-1 victory.

The Marauders were valiant to the end, fighting through a two hour, 16 minute rain delay which cost them starter Nathan Adcock (11-7, 3.38) after just one inning. They took the lead in the top of the second after the delay on Adam Davis's double, scoring Eric Fryer for the 1-0 advantage. But the bats were silent the rest of the way, and the two runs the Crabs pushed across in the bottom of the second held up.

Charlotte moves on to face the Tampa Yankees in the five-game championship round, while this talented Marauders squad hopes to reunite in Altoona, healthy, for another shot at a title in 2011. One wonders if the result might have been different this year if not for the Tony Sanchez injury and the ridiculous headhunting ways of opposing FSL pitchers.

There was good news yesterday too as the Altoona Curve evened their first round series with a 6-4 home win over Harrisburg. Jeff Locke had an uncharacteristically bad start, failing to make it out of the fifth inning, but the patient Curve offense worked six walks and got timely hits. Andrew Lambo did the most damage with two doubles en route to a three-RBI night while Derek Hankins (5-5, 2.83) went 3.1 strong innings in relief for the win.

Tonight the best-of-five series moves to Harrisburg with the teams tied with one game apiece. Altoona lefthander Justin Wilson (11-8, 3.09) faces Harrisburg's righty Ryan Tatusko (3-1, 1.72) in this pivotal Game 3.

Series Preview: Cincinnati Reds

Back when there were six weeks left in the baseball season, I had a nightmare which consisted of waking up and finding out there were three weeks left in the baseball season. Now three weeks later, that nightmare is reality. Every remaining game is pure gold, none less so than this three game series with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds are trying their best to blow the NL Central division, having lost five in a row. But at 79-61 they still lead by five games with 22 to play. For Cincinnati, having the chance to add to that lead against the Pirates, 14-53 on the road this year, is like having the chance to go across the river and drink in Kentucky for an extra 90 minutes - and that is something Cincinnati likes.

Cincinnati Reds - Friday 7:10, Saturday 7:10, Sunday 1:10
At this point in the season and after so many meetings there's not much point in telling you about the Reds, except to say that Joey Votto (.323/.423/.590) has a nice figure and wonder why he feels the need to crop his face out of the picture? Jay Bruce (.274/.343/.464) is still out with pain in his right side which is good for the Buccos since Bruce had been red hot before his injury. He could be ready by Sunday.

Tonight, Paul Maholm (7-14, 5.43) faces Homer Bailey (3-3, 5.00). You know it is bad when the Pirates can't hit someone whose actually named Homer. Paul Maholm's season has been pretty good in every aspect other than pitching. My pick is the Pirates.

Saturday, Charlie Morton (1-11, 9.55) gets another start against Aaron Harang (6-7, 5.15). I read a game story which spun Morton's last start - an eight hit, six run affair in which he struck out one and didn't get out of the fourth inning - as a step in the right direction. That is like some Mapquest directions that actually direct you to drive off a cliff. My pick is the Pirates.

And in Sunday's finale it's Brian Burres (3-3, 5.75) facing Johnny Cueto (12-5, 3.45). You know the drill...We can't hit Cueto. Does it sometimes seem like the Pirates just have one pitcher who is starting every game? Would anyone know if Brian Burres and Jeff Karstens melded into Breff Burrens? My pick is the Pirates.

September 9, 2010

Marauders Loss Sets Up Showdown

As quickly as they built a 1-0 lead, the Marauders allowed the archrival Charlotte Stone Crabs to tie their series at one game each. This is only a three game series so it all comes down to tomorrow's rubber match.

It could be just me, but is it not total bullshit that a team name can get rid of the 'Port' in their city name? It's not the Angeles Dodgers or the York City Mets. Unconscionable.

Anyway, the Marauders lost 10-2, the less on that the better, and play the deciding game Thursday night in Port Charlotte.

Altoona, meanwhile, blew their home field advantage with a 10-5 loss to Harrisburg. Starter Rudy Owens couldn't get out of the second inning and gave up the first five runs.

The Curve rallied to make it a game including a Josh Harrison two run homer, but it was all for nothing. Michael Dubee, 6-2 with a 2.24 ERA during the season, gave up the final five runs in less than an inning of work. It wasn't pretty. Tomorrow is a new day.

September 8, 2010

Curve, Marauders in playoffs tonight

The Altoona Curve host the Harrisburg Senators at tonight in the first game of a best-of-five semifinal series. Both teams go with their lefthanded aces: Rudy Owens (12-6, 2.46) for the good and Tom Milone (12-6, 2.85) for the bad. The start time at Blair County Ballpark is 6:30 p.m.

This is the first time the two clubs have met in a playoff series. I would say they are geographic rivals but I suspect my readers would not be unbelievably happy to find out Western PA is close to Eastern PA.

Jeff Locke (3-2, 3.59) has been announced as the Game 2 starter for Altoona for tomorrow, while the poorly prepapred Senators have no further plans after tonight.

The Bradenton Marauders lead the Charlotte Stone Crabs 1-0 and need to win one of the next two to move on to the Florida State League championship series. Bradenton goes with the righthander Brian Leach (9-9, 3.85) against Stone Crabs ace Joseph Cruz (13-6, 2.85).

September 7, 2010

Marauders Annihilate Stone Crabs

In a complete embarassment for the people and city of Port Charlotte, their beloved Stone Crabs were completely and utterly (it's always both) destroyed by the Bradenton Marauders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Florida State League playoff series. The 681 most die hard baseball fans in Manatee County - all of them EXTREME and into SPORTS - were on hand to witness the event.

In the pivotal Game 1, Charlotte went with Matthew Moore (6-11, 3.36). Moore was wild but virtually unhittable, allowing only Robbie Grossman's third inning infield single as he worked around six walks. Bradenton starter Aaron Pribanic (7-6, 3.33) was just as good, matching zeros through the seventh inning stretch.

The pivotal rally began in the bottom of the seventh. "The Creature" Calvin Anderson worked a leadoff walk and was immediately replaced by pinch runner Adenson Chourio. Chourio took second on Moore's second wild pitch of the night. Adam Davis struck out. What ensued is history: Crabs manager Jim Morrison sensed "The End" of Moore's effectiveness and ordered him to intentionally walk the next batter. Righthanded relief ace Marquis Fleming - who struck out 96 in 72 innings this year - came on in relief with the score still 0-0. It may has well have been Calvin Schiraldi, Mitch Williams or Donnie Moore.

Light-hitting shortstop Greg Picart promptly singled to right, plating Chourio for the 1-0 lead. Closer Kyle McPherson, called up just a week ago, began warming in the Marauders bullpen. Even at 1-0 the game felt as good as over considering the lifeless Crabs offense, but Shelby Ford made it official when he doubled home Newton and Picart, making it 3-0. Robbie Grossman grounded out but Starling Marte doubled home Ford for a 4-0 lead. Shellshocked Crabs fans turned off their Internet radios and went back to anime porn.

The game couldn't have been more over. The Marauders added insult to injury with an insurance run in the eighth for a five run lead, while the reeling Crabs nine could manage only a weak single the rest of the way. Five-nothing Bradenton, one-nothing in games, and four more wins to a title.

Pirates Call Up Eight Players

The Pirates called up virtually a whole new team today with eight men joining the active roster. The most interesting is Alex Presley, a lefthanded hitting outfielder who hit .320/.373/.494 between Altoona and Indianapolis. This was a breakout season as Presley really hadn't shown much at all prior to this year. Every team needs a lefthanded bench bat, so Presley is a candidate for a major league job in 2011.

Old friend Brandon Moss returns as well after a good year at Indianapolis which saw him hit .266/.330/.470 with 22 home runs and 96 RBI. His RBI numbers prompted many to call for an earlier recall, but as I've written before nothing in his profile suggests an ability to hit at the MLB level. His recent AAA numbers simply don't translate into anything positive in the major leagues.

Pedro Ciriaco is a 24-year-old righthanded hitting infielder who just came over from Arizona in the Chris Snyder trade. He's a speed and defense guy with virtually no ability to get on base - he hit .265/.281/.38 between two AAA teams this year. He's also stolen 97 bases over the past three seasons and been caught only 23 times in that span.

Jason Jaramillo has already played 91 games with the Pirates so we know what we're getting here. After hitting only .148/.222/.210 in Pittsburgh this year he was sent down to Indianapolis where he hit .239/.281/.307. Those numbers virtually guarantee he won't have an MLB job next season, but his presence on the roster allows Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit to pinch hit early in games when they aren't catching.

Rounding out the pitching staff are Brian Bass, Stephen Jackson, Brad Lincoln and Justin Thomas. Unfortunately all of these guys proved earlier in 2011 that they are just too hittable to be very good. These guys are basically warm bodies who can eat innings in blowouts - which there will certainly be more of.

Designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster were Akinori Iwamura and Erik Kratz. Iwamura showed the ability to walk and do little else as he hit .182/.292/.267 at Pittsburgh. At Indianapolis he hit .264/.404/.393 but a call-up was never really considered as management was justifiably disappointed with Aki showing up to training camp out of shape. He'll be lucky to get a nonroster invitation to some team's spring training next year.

Kratz had a career year as he hit .274/.380/.496 at Indianapolis and got into nine games at the major league level before he was sent down to make room for Chris Snyder. Catchers can play forever in the high minors so his major league debut at age 30 made for a nice story. He threw out four of seven baserunners in Pittsburgh.

With the earlier call-ups of outfielder John Bowker and pitcher Joe Martinez the Pirates now have 35 men on the roster - an astounding total for a noncontending team's stretch run. It's a sign that the rest of 2010 is more of an early version of 2011 spring training.

September 6, 2010

Series Preview: Atlanta Braves

It's Labor Day and we could not have a finer day here in Pittsburgh for holiday baseball. The Braves come to town with a 79-58 record, clinging to a one game lead in the NL East. With the Pirates record now at 45-91, Atlanta has to be looking at this series as an opportunity to build some office space 35 miles from the city center and that is something Atlanta likes.

We quite literally cried in our beer after his trade last year, but Nate McLouth is hitting .168/.278/.262 this year after apparently just flat out losing his stroke. McLouth is back on the Braves roster for September as a bench bat.Not much else has gone wrong with the Braves lineup. Catcher Brian McCann (.289/.389/.487) has put together his finest season. Right fielder Jason Heyward (.281/.389/.473) has lived up to the hype. Omar Infante (.342/.376/.446) has filled in admirably for various injured players, including currently Chipper Jones with Jones out for the year. This is a strong and deep crew that's second in the league in run scoring.That being said, the shutdown bullpen is the real strength of this team and will make the Braves a formidbable postseason club if they can make it that far. Billy Wagner (1.56 ERA), Johnny Venters (1.77), Peter Moylan (3.23), Takashi Saito (2.70) and Eric O'Flaherty (2.27) are the featured players.

Atlanta Braves - Monday 1:35, Tuesday 7:05, Wednesday 7:05
Tommy Hanson (9-10, 3.60) gets the ball today for Bobby Cox's team against, joy of joys, Brian Burres (2-3, 6.31). Hanson relies on a 93 mph fastball and hard breaking slider which have made him one of the top strikeout guys in baseball despite having just turned 24. On our side, you might have noticed that championship teams never have Brian Burres on the roster. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow night it'll be Tim Hudson (15-6, 2.30) against James McDonald (2-3, 5.62). Hudson is a legitimate Cy Young contender, somehow putting together the best season of his career at age 35. No one expected him to even be healthy at this point in the season; instead he's near unbeatable. McDonald for his part has the best stuff on the Pittsburgh staff already. I think his statistics have suffered by staying in a couple of games for too long, but I am excited about him going forward. My pick is the PIrates.

Wednesday night, Zach Duke (7-12, 5.24) will try to end the losing streak get the sweep against Derek Lowe (11-12, 4.53). Lowe might be close to the end of the line as an effective starter but he keeps his team in games. And that team is not the Pirates so they actually win some of them. Duke at this point hasn't in my mind even earned the right to be tendered a contract in the offseason. My pick is the Pirates.

September 3, 2010

Series Preview: Washington Nationals

It's September and after five long months the Washington Nationals coming to town for the first time this season. Nobody ever said life would be easy.

As I do one or two times a season, a couple months ago I decided to ironically wear an Expos shirt to a Pirates game at PNC Park. It's my only ironic shirt. Four seats away is a guy in an Expos hat. Another example of life not being easy. This was against the White Sox so don't even think about wearing an Expos hat this weekend.Anyway, the Expos have moved to Washington and now feature Ryan Zimmerman (.298/.384/.523). Still just 25 years old, he'd be a legitimate choice as the one player you would build a team around. If he would change his last name to Dylan he would be the clear choice. But in any event, the Nationals never bothered to build that team around him. This team is 57-77 and actually our old friend Nyjer Morgan (.257/.317/.318) is a big reason. He had a good year in '09 but despite the struggles of Lastings Millege I count that trade as a win due to Joel Hanrahan. Adam Dunn (.268/.362/.558) and Josh Willingham (.268/.389/.459) are the other heavy hitters. You know I love slow guys who walk a lot and hit home runs.

Washington Nationals - Friday 7:05, Saturday 7:05, Sunday 1:35
Zach Duke (6-12, 5.17) faces Livan Hernandez (9-9, 3.49) tonight in an epic battle of pitching to contact. Jesus blows up balloons all day. My pick is the Pirates.

Tomorrow, John Lannan (6-6, 4.95) faces Paul Maholm (7-13, 5.18). It's important to compartmentalize the roles of Paul Maholm in your life. You have Paul Maholm the pitcher and Paul Maholm the Twitter personality. One is actually having a pretty horrible year and the other one could not be more awesome. And I have Paul Maholm the bobblehead which is pretty good too. My pick is the Pirates.

Sunday, Jason Marquis (1-7, 8.13) against Charlie Morton (1-10, 10.03). Wow, just wow. You know one of these guys is going to randomly throw a great game, and you kind of suspect it's not Charlie Morton. Nevertheless, my pick is the Pirates.

September 1, 2010

A Glimpse of the Future?

The thought occurred to me that a comatose Pirates fan - upon waking up today to read the first third of last night's box score - would see the first third of the lineup for a 90+ win team.In fact considering this year's leaguewide offensive downturn, those season numbers are much better than they look.

There's really no way to discount these numbers. Walker is 24, McCutchen is 23, and Tabata is 22. Obviously the top third of the lineup isn't going to score and drive in eight runs every day, but is there any reason to think that days like this won't happen in 2012? 2014?

This may be, as many sources have argued, the worst Pirates team ever. Don't let that discount the fact that three of the four most significant players on the roster have put up star-level performances - at ages when many valuable MLB players throughout history were still in the minor leagues. Many teams have won championships with a 1-2-3 that did not perform this well.

As a fan, would you rather have the 2007 Pirates Neil Huntington inherited, or the 2010 Pirates? In '07 the team was nominally better on the field but was primarily composed of middling veterans with no chance of being above average players over the next few years. Now the Pirates have the core of a championship level team. The Pirates' record this year is primarily due to unbelievably awful seasons by guys who (hopefully) won't be here next year.

Pedro Alvarez is another player who is almost certain to improve. It's also difficult for any team to do worse at the remaining positions than the 2010 Pirates have done. It would not surprise me if next year's club is stronger at every position.

With four young, improving and above average hitters, the Pirates can field a legitimately good lineup for 2011 with a few moderately priced free agent acquisitions. I hope that happens.