18 and Counting: Will the Pirates Ever Have a Winning Season?

Top draft pick Jameson Taillon brings hope to a moribund and hapless franchise.

And I thought I had it bad as a Mariners’ fan… 

With their loss to the New York Mets on August 20th the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a record 18th consecutive losing season and furthered their reputation as the worst franchise in professional sports (apologies to the L.A. Clippers, Oakland Raiders and some NHL team that I don’t care enough about to research. The Florida Panthers?) To make matters worse, reports were leaked early this week that the Pirates’ ownership had been pocketing nearly $30 million a year while slashing payroll and trading away fan favorites like Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez. 

Uh-oh. 

That news isn’t likely to settle well with a fan base that hasn’t tasted success since before Miley Cyrus was born, and with a team that ranks at or near the bottom of most statistical pitching and hitting categories, things aren’t likely to get much better anytime soon. 

But the Pirates can’t be terrible forever, can they? Well… 

There are certainly signs of life from Pittsburgh, and besides borrowing with no intent to return $30  dollars every year from revenue sharing, the Pirates new front office seems to have a game plan for contending in the NL Central. One of the most important steps that the organization has taken is drafting based on talent (Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, etc.) rather than signability (no offense to you personally Danny Moskos). For a team with a limited budget, building a strong farm system through trades and the draft are essential for building a winning franchise (just look at the model put in place by Tampa Bay) and the Pirates have a bevy of talent in the minors and in the big leagues that should allow them to reverse their bad fortune in the coming years. 

Pedro Alvarez soared through the minors and is finding quick success at the big league level.

While it’s been a lost season for Pittsburgh at the big league level, several players have shown enough promise to give Pirates’ fans optimism heading into 2011 and beyond. Second-year centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.278-12 HR’s-37 RBI’s-26 SB’s) continues to look like a five-tool star in the making and he’s been complemented nicely by rookie leftfielder Jose Tabata (.309-3 HR’s-19 RBI’s-14 SB’s) who arrived in Pittsburgh through last season’s Xavier Nady trade (which now looks very lopsided) with the Yankees. Former top prospect Neil Walker (.296-5 HR’s-41 RBI’s) is excelling at the plate and in the field and, after a slow start, rookie third baseman Pedro Alvarez has flashed a blend of power and patience that could make him an all-star for years to come at the hot corner. The pitching hasn’t fared quite as well, though newly acquired James McDonald (24 K’s in 22 innings) has the makings of a future staff ace and Ross Ohlendorf (4.07 ERA in 108 innings)  looks like a solid, work-horse type starter. 

There’s more good news down on the farm too, where the Pirates improved decision-making and baseball academy in the Dominican Republic have started to yield some promising results. Eighteen-year-old flamethrower Jameson Taillon was the gem of last year’s draft for Pittsburgh, and the organization envisions him as a front-line starter with a Cy Young-caliber ceiling. Though his season was ended early by a broken jaw,  catcher Tony Sanchez (.314-4 HR’s-35 RBI’s-.416 OBP) proved worthy of his number four spot in the 2009 draft, and will hope fill a long void at backstop for the Pirates when he reaches the big league level. Andrew Lambo, who came to the Pirates along with James McDonald in a trade with the Dodgers, has a well-rounded approach at the plate (.287-6 HR’s-35 RBI’s), and should be ready to compete for a starting job within the next few years. 

So, while another 100 loss season is on the horizon, there is reason to believe that the Pirates might win again. 

Just not before their losing season streak reaches its drinking age…

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Outrageous, Egregious, Preposterous: Citing Lack of Run Support, Felix Hernandez Hires Jackie Chiles, Sues Seattle Mariners.

After the latest in a string of painful defeats in which his teammates failed in every imaginable way to support yet another fine pitching effort, Felix Hernandez finally decided that he couldn’t stay quiet any longer, and got on the phone with his lawyer Jackie Chiles.

Losing is one thing, but the way Felix Hernandez has accumulated his 10 losses this season is something else altogether. In those 10 soul-crushing defeats, Hernandez’s teammates have managed to push across a measly seven runs with the King on the hill,  leading to the second worst run support in the league behind only Dallas Braden (but nobody likes him, so he doesn’t count). Does Felix have every right to be furious with his teammates? You’re damn right he does, and bringing aboard a winner like Jackie Chiles is the only chance Hernandez has to receive the credit, and cash, that he deserves.

Although best known for his work on Kramer v. Marlboro and The People v. Seinfeld, Chiles is an accomplished sports attorney and agent who has represented the likes of Keith Hernandez and Bernie Williams. Chiles called Hernandez’s suit an open and shut case, telling reporters at his office that:

Despite a sterling 2.62 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 172 strikeouts, my client only has eight wins to his name, in large part due to poor decisions from the Seattle front office and poor performance from nearly every offensive player on the team. When Felix signed a long-term contract to stay with the Mariners he was under the impression that the organization was building a team that would compete for a World Series, not the worst record in baseball. With certain escalator clauses in his contract that are triggered by All-Star appearances, Cy Young awards and trips to the playoffs, it has become obvious that the Mariners organization is trying to avoid paying my client these bonuses by putting an inferior product on the field behind him (.236 team batting average). Felix leads the league in quality starts and he has eight wins to show for it. Outrageous! Egregious! Preposterous!”

The Mariners front office refused to comment on the lawsuit, but several unnamed players agreed that, yeah, Felix was going to get paid. One player even went as far as to say that he would be willing to give up part of his wholly undeserved salary (cough Chone Figgins cough) in order to keep Hernandez happy and the case out of court.

Judging from Chiles track record though, Hernandez isn’t likely to settle with the M’s, and who can blame him?

He’s finally got a chance at a win…

Wak Blocked: Mariners Fire Second-Year Manager Don Wakamatsu; Admit That Season Isn’t Exactly Going As Planned.

Though Wakamatsu took the fall, no one in the organization is without blame.

Though the writing had been on the wall for months, yesterday’s firing of manager Don Wakamatsu still came as a surprise from an organization that had come to reward mediocrity over the last decade.  

With the team in a free fall and showing no signs of improvement, GM Jack Zduriencik decided that Wakamatsu was no longer the right man for the job, and showed his hand-picked manager the door.  

The Mariners entered Monday night with a record of 42-70, the third worst in baseball, after a busy offseason that brought hope of a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. With virtually every player on the team underperforming Wakamatsu never really had a chance to succeed (it is a Seattle sports team after all). Wakamastu wasn’t without blame though;  his questionable handling of the bullpen and inability to get maximum effort out of the team made the lame duck manager a perfect scapegoat for the M’s numerous shortcomings.  

Triple-A manager Darren “Aw Shucks” Brown will replace Wakamatsu for the remainder of the season, though with the current squad, he’s probably not expected to do anything more than shake out the roster and try to figure out which pieces hold value moving into 2011 (so long Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, Rob Johnson, etc). It would behoove Brown to manage with a bit more evident passion than Wakamatsu, whose Zen-like persona made him appear like an apathetic captain at the helm of a sinking ship.  

It’s unfortunate that a classy manager like Wakamatsu had to be fired after just two seasons because of poor front office decisions, but it was apparent from his run-ins with Ken Griffey Jr., Milton Bradley, Michael Lohan and Chone Figgins that he no longer had the respect of his players. 

He’s not the only one whose lost respect this season–Seattle’s front office and ownership are also on thin ice with M’s fans after putting one of the sorriest teams on the field in the organization’s storied history. 

If more changes aren’t made soon, Wakamatsu won’t be the only one looking for work this offseason…

Salt in the Wound: Blue Jays’ Brandon Morrow Loses No Hitter, But Raises Doubts About Mariners’ Front Office Decision Making.

Did the Mariners give up on Brandon Morrow too early? It looked that way on Sunday.

This time last season Seattle fans were wearing “In Jack We Trust” t-shirts, petitioning the organization to construct a statue of new GM Jack Zduriencik in front of Safeco Field and writing in his name for governor of Washington.

What a difference a year makes.

Though Brandon Morrow fell just short of a no-hitter on Sunday afternoon against the Rays, his sterling 17 strikeout, one-hit performance still took some of the sheen off Zduriencik’s head and Seattle’s shiny new Bill Bavasi-less front office. Morrow was shipped to Toronto during the offseason in return for power reliever Brandon League who was supposed to bridge the gap between Seattle’s starting pitchers and closer David Aardsma. League hasn’t been bad (8-6, 3.16 ERA) but has consistently faltered in high-leverage situations, and despite a reputation as a flamethrower, has only struck out 40 batters in 57 innings.

The number five overall pick in the 2006 draft, Morrow was flipped from the starting rotation to the bullpen to Triple-A and back again so many times, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have multiple personalities. While the current regime can’t be blamed for the mismanagement of Morrow early in his career, they certainly can be accused of giving up on the young ace too early.

The 26-year-old Morrow is 9-6 on the season, with a 4.45 ERA (a number which would almost certainly be lower if he was pitching at Safeco Field) and 151 strikeouts in 127 innings (a league leading 10.67 K’s/9 innings). A full season in the starting rotation has done wonders for Morrow’s confidence and he’s started to hit the strike zone with more consistency. If he can continue to cut down on the walks and pitch deep into games, Morrow has the potential to become a staff ace in the mold of Bert Blyleven.

With their pitching staff in shambles (Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas are Seattle’s only reliable starters) the Mariners can use all the arms that they can get. Who do you suppose they would rather have right now: an average middle reliever with a propensity for big innings, or an up-and-coming starter with the makings of a future star?

I’m not giving up on Zduriencik and Co., but a 42-70 record and scores of Mariners (Beltre, Silva, Thorton, etc.) finding success elsewhere don’t make it easy to believe things are going to chance anytime soon.

Is it football season yet?

Mariners Monthly Roundup: July “From Bad to Worse” Edition.

Michael Saunders is one of the few sources of hope in a dismal season.

Record: 6-22 (Overall 39-66)     

A.L. West Standings: Texas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle     

Top Hitter: With virtually the whole team slumping in the month it wasn’t difficult for second-year outfielder Michael Saunders to walk away as the best hitter in July. The 23-year-old began to show the potential that made him one of the Mariners most highly regarded prospects, hitting .279 with one HR and 6 RBI’s in the month. More importantly, Saunders flashed improved plate discipline with a 16/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading to a .380 OBP. He’s shown himself to be an above-average defensive player and if he can continue to develop as a hitter, Saunders should be a major part of Seattle’s rebuilding effort moving forward.     

Top Pitcher: Felix Hernandez picked up right where Cliff Lee left off in June, although thanks to an anemic Mariners’ offense, the King only won a single game in July despite a 2.54 ERA and 33 strikeouts against only 9 walks. Besides Erik Bedard Luke French Ryan Rowland-Smith Justin Vargas, Felix is the only sure thing on the Mariners’ staff right now, and the team will have plenty of holes to fill heading into 2010. This team would be completely unwatchable if not for the presence of King Felix.  

Biggest Surprise: Left for dead with the acquisitions of Justin Smoak and Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman finally decided it was time to play like a big leaguer, hitting .318 with 4 HR’s and 10 RBI’s in the month. With Smoak currently in Triple-A and Branyan manning DH duties, Kotchman should see some significant playing time moving forward. He’s not part of the team’s future, but it would be nice to see him get a chance to play for another team–preferably in the division.    

Biggest Disappointment: Every player on the team not named Felix Hernandez. Also, I wish that Don Wakamatsu and Chone Figgins’ fight had escalated in a full-blown dugout brawl with Rob Johnson’s leg getting broken in the scrum. It’s little things like that which help keep interest up in a long season. And it’s been a loooooooooong season…   

Injuries: Erik Bedard (out for season–hypochondria); Milton Bradley (15-day DL–patellar tendonitis); Shawn Kelley (15-day DL–elbow inflammation); Ryan-Rowland Smith (15-day DL–overall awfulness–set to meet with Men at Work on Monday).   

Lingering Questions: Will the Mariners finish with the worst record in baseball? Will Ichiro be the only Mariner to finish the season hitting over .250? How long before the pitchers and hitters engage in a bloody civil war? Why do I keep watching if they bring me nothing but pain? Can Adam Moore possibly be worse than Rob Johnson? Should fans start showing up at the games with bags on their heads? 

August Schedule: 1 @ Minnesota; 3 vs. Texas; 3 vs. Kansas City; 3 vs. Oakland; 3 @ Cleveland; 3 @ Baltimore; 3 @ New York; 3 @ Boston; 3 vs. Minnesota; 2 vs. Los Angeles.     

Overall Grade: (F) I’m out of words to describe the abomination that is the Mariners, so this picture will have to do.