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…

Bad News Bear: Cubs’ Manager Lou Piniella to Retire at Season’s End.

Apparently Sweet Lou has had just about enough of sour Chicago and the calamity-stricken Cubs’ losing ways.

According to a statement from the veteran skipper, 2010 will be his final year as manager of the Cubs, as he plans to retire at the end of the season and pursue a role in the front office.

Piniella was brought to Chicago to do what hadn’t been done in over 100 years–win a World Series with the Cubs.

But like many others before him Piniella wasn’t able to climb that seemingly insurmountable peak, and it became apparent this season that Chicago wasn’t likely to contend with him at the helm. While announcing his decision before the season ends might seem strange, it gives the Cubs time to find a suitable replacement from among the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Joe Torre and Fredi Gonzalez.

Piniella’s time in Chicago wasn’t all bad. He has a 308-272 record (.531) with the Cubs and won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2008 when the North Siders won a league high 97 games. But back-to-back postseason flops and run-ins with Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano obscured the regular season success, and helped make it easy for Piniella to say goodbye to baseball’s most cursed and critiqued franchise.

While Piniella’s time in Chicago has been forgettable, his career as a manager was anything but. When Lou wasn’t busy entertaining fans with his memorable tirades, the cagy skipper was guiding the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Chicago Cubs to a record of 1827-1692 (.519). He led the Reds to a World Series title in his first year as manager (1990) and also steered the 2001 Seattle Mariners to a Major League record 116 wins. Whether his accomplishments as a manager are enough to secure Piniella a place in Cooperstown remains to be seen, but one thing is clear:

Baseball will never forget Sweet Lou.

Plugging a Leak(e): Rookie Pitcher Keeps the Reds’ Season Afloat.

Leake has seamlessly made the transition from college to the pros--and the Reds are benefiting in a big way.

Coming into Spring Training it was Aroldis Chapman, not Mike Leake, who was receiving all the attention in the Cincinnati Reds camp. The Cuban flamethrowers triple digit fastballs easily overshadowed the quiet consistency of the rookie out of Arizona State University. Yet, a quarter of the way through the season, Chapman is still toiling in Triple-A while Leake is doing is best to keep Jason Heyward from running away with the rookie of the year award—not to mention helping the Reds soar to first place in the NL Central.  

The 22-year-old right hander is among a small group of hurlers who went straight to the majors without ever having thrown a pitch in the minor leagues (including such household names as Darren Dreifort, Tim Conroy and David Clyde) and Leake is making it look easy. In eight starts on the year, Leake is 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 42 strikeouts against 22 walks, and has flashed more control with each passing start. Leake’s makeup on the mound and pitching repertoire reminds many of Greg Maddux and the Reds can only hope that their young star has the same kind of career as the “Mad Dog”. Leake also shares another similarity with Greg Maddux—he handles himself at the plate with aplomb (.353 in his first 23 at-bats).

Though most pitchers not named Tim Lincecum struggle initially in the major leagues, Leake has been able to thrive in spite of his size (5’10”) and less than stellar stuff (topping out in the low 90’s). Leake explains his quick success in the major leagues:  

“It’s tough for me to get intimidated. I’m more of a self-competitor rather than competing against people. For example, people worry about or ask questions about who you’re facing. Say it’s Pujols — I’m not really worried about facing him. I’m worried about hitting the glove.”

Cincinnati is 26-20 after a loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but still sit atop their division despite a slow start and inconsistent pitching outside of Leake. The Reds have built a strong nucleus to contend with St. Louis and Chicago for the next half decade, but few expected Cincinnati to be in contention this soon.

Of course, few expected Leake to become the team’s de facto ace less than a year after graduating from college…but that’s exactly what happened.

Major League Baseball and Its Players Continue to Drop the Ball: Cincinnati’s Volquez Tests Positive for PED’s.

Edison Volquez's suspension won't cost him anything more than money.

Another mysterious fertility drug, another failed PED test and another black eye for baseball and its players. Yeah, it sure seems like the sport has this steroids issue under control.

Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday that Cincinnati Reds’ starting pitcher Edinson Volquez tested positive for a banned substance during Spring Training and would be suspended for 50 games, effective immediately.

The catch? Volquez was already on the disabled list and unlikely to return to game action until mid-season. His suspension runs out June 15th—a date sooner than the Reds had anticipated Volquez being ready to pitch for their big league club. As it stands, Volquez will be able to continue his rehabilitation from elbow surgery while serving his “suspension” and will forfeit around $130,000 of his salary for the season. Somehow, I think Volquez will find a way to squeak by with the other $300,000 he is due to make in 2010.

Even his own teammates were stunned by the loophole in baseball’s punishment system. Fellow pitcher Bronson Arroyo reacted to the situation in an interview on Tuesday saying,  “I’m actually surprised they’re letting him do that.” Yeah, so is everyone else Bronson.

I’m not even mad at Volquez for using a banned substance…I’m mad at baseball for a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime. Despite a supposedly tougher stance on steroids, Volquez will miss exactly zero game-time for failing a drug test. Who is that fair to?

In the words of TV’s greatest lawyer Jackie Chiles: “Outrageous! Egregious! Preposterous!”

Preposterous indeed.

From King of the Court to Lord of the Diamond: Lebron James Signs 5-Year Contract with Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh fans were initially stunned by the LeBron signing, but most agreed the move was a slam dunk.

Apparently LeBron James really does want to be “like Mike“.   

In a move that sent shock waves through two sports and broke the heart of every New York Knicks’ fan, the Pittsburgh Pirates reported Thursday that they had reached a contract agreement with basketball superstar Lebron James. Though exact terms of the agreement have not yet been made available, sources close to the situation speculate the contract to be in the neighborhood of 5 years/$200 million dollars. Additional terms of the deal allow LeBron to finish the season with the Cavaliers before reporting to the Pirates Double-A affiliate at the beginning of July, with additional work scheduled in the Arizona Fall League.   

Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington released the following statement regarding LeBron to the AP:   

“Obviously we’re thrilled to have a player of LeBron’s caliber here in Pittsburgh and we really feel that he is going to be a difference maker for the Pirates. He’s got nothing left to prove on the basketball court and athletes with his skill set don’t come along often; it was a no-brainer for us as an organization. The plan is to have LeBron patrolling centerfield for us fulltime in 2011 with Andrew McCutchen shifting to left. With his size, speed and vertical leap it’s hard to imagine any homeruns leaving the yard against our pitching staff. We’ve been working him out over the past few months and he has shown the ability to hit for power to all fields and with his length it won’t take more than a few steps and a slide to steal bases. The Pittsburgh Pirates are turning over a new leaf as a franchise and it starts today with the signing of Lebron James…I just can’t wait to see him on the field.”   

Huntington has raised quite a few eyebrows as GM of the Pirates by trading away popular players like Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, but nothing could have prepared the sports world for this stunning move. Message boards and radio shows were quick to criticize the move, calling it a publicity stunt or simply an April Fools joke. Huntington also responded to those comments:   

Michael Jordan never panned out in baseball. Does LeBron have what it takes to save the Pirates?

“LeBron is a world-class athlete and we have no doubt that he will be an All-Star outfielder as soon as next season. Obviously we realized that this move would be met with some skepticism, and that’s fine, because it won’t be long before other teams discover what they missed out on. We would not have made this move unless we were 100% convinced as an organization that LeBron would help the Pirates win a World Series. Sometimes in sports it’s necessary to think outside of the box, and with 17 straight losing seasons, it was evident that our franchise needed a radical change to reverse our fortunes. LeBron was already the next Michael Jordan and now it’s time for him to become the next Ken Griffey Jr. He’s got the chance to be a very special player for a long, long time.”  

LeBron James could not immediately be reached for comment but tweeted to his followers that: “Cavs gonna take da Finals this year n its time 4 me to rule another sport. I already own football now its on 2 baseball” and also “@BillSimmons I ain’t like Mike cause I chose to leave da league, I didn’t gamble my way out. LOL!” 

While that may be the case, Pirates’ fans had better hope that LeBron has better luck in baseball than Jordan (career .202 hitter in the minors). With $200 million dollars invested in just one player, Pittsburgh is betting the farm on LeBron leading them out of the cellar and back into the World Series. Of course it he doesn’t, what’s one more losing season for the longest suffering franchise in sports?

Baseball’s Top Five Breakout Stars for ’10

Gutierrez won't be able to hide out in the fog of Seattle much longer.

Besides “free Krispy Kremes” and “Ken Griffey Junior”, no three words in the English language are more exciting to me than “pitchers and catchers”. When I hear that magical combination of words I know that Spring Training has arrived and another season of baseball is on the horizon. With each new year a fresh crop of stars emerge and make their mark on the game, elevating themselves from good players to great players. Just like Jessica Simpson on the last stages of her “In This Skin” tour, the following players are poised for a major breakout.  

1) Franklin Gutierrez: In the eyes of most Mariners fans Gutierrez already had his breakout season—though no one outside of Seattle or the sabermetric community seemed to notice that in 2009. With a retooled roster that doesn’t include Carlos Silva (that’s one of my last shots at El Guapo, I promise) the M’s are a serious contender in the AL West and, if the team can stay in the playoff hunt late into the season, the best defensive centerfielder in baseball will finally receive the credit he deserves (or at least a Gold Glove). The affectionately named “Guti” made significant improvements at the plate last season, and if he continues to mature as a hitter, has the chance to become a legitimate 5-tool star. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez goes for a line similar to .300-25 HR-90 RBI’s-20 SB’s in 2010…it is the Mariners year after all.  

2) Madison Bumgarner: You can laugh at his last name all you want (and his first name while you’re at it), but it won’t change the fact that Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In two ridiculous minor league seasons, Bumgarner has posted a combined 27-5 record with a 1.65 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a nearly five-to-one strike-to-walk ratio. I don’t care if you’re playing in the Soda Pop Valley League…those numbers are hard to ignore. If Bumgarner can replicate his success in the minors for a Giants’ pitching staff that already includes Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, San Francisco would become a very dangerous team in the wide open NL West.  

Will McCutchen become the best pirate since Captain Cook in 2010?

3) Andrew McCutchen: Hidden in the baseball wasteland that is Pittsburgh, McCutchen enjoyed a terrific rookie season, proving once and for all that the Pirates can occasionally do something right (although let’s be honest, A-Mac will be traded in two years). The former first-round draft pick finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting and put together a solid season at the plate (.286-12-54) and on the basepaths (22/27 in stolen bases). The young right-hander exhibited good patience at the dish and has the potential to become a 30-30 player for the next decade in Pittsburgh (or New York). It might seem like baby steps, but players like McCutchen are a step in the right direction for the Pirates…give ’em another 10 years and they’ll be right back in the thick of it (the middle of the NL Central that is). 

4) Matt Weiters: Sure “Orange Jesus” didn’t quite save the Orioles as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (aka the AL East) last year, but that just means he’s in no danger of a sophomore slump in 2010. One of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, Weiters got off to a slow start in 2009 (.259 pre-All Star batting average) but finished the year with a flourish (.301) and he will be counted on to lead a group of young talented Baltimore hurlers that includes Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and David Hernandez (each of whom could have made this list themselves). Weiters should be one of the top three catchers in the AL in 2010, and it won’t be long before he’s challenging Joe Mauer for batting titles and MVP’s.  

Bailey and the Reds are looking to make some noise in the NL Central this season.

5) Homer Bailey: The number seven overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey has been anything but a homerun in his short major league career, though his finish to last season showed why the Reds thought so highly of him. The hard-throwing Bailey went 4-1 in September, with a 2.08 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 innings (numbers eerily similar to Zack Grienke’s last five starts of 2008–and we all know what he did the next year). Bailey will combine with Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and eventually Aroldis Chapman to form one of the best young rotations in baseball, and should turn quite a few heads in 2010. The Cincinnati Reds will be one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball next season due in no small part to the emergence of Bailey. Expect Homer to win 13-15 games with a sub-4.00 ERA and about 150 K’s.

Cardinals’ Fans First Public Reaction to Mark McGwire…A Standing Ovation?

Congratulations Cardinals fans! Your hypocrisy knows no ends.

Mark McGwire made his first public appearance in St. Louis since admitting the shocking truth that he used steroids for over 10 years in a news conference early Sunday morning. The conference was held in a narrow hallway (at least it was narrow in comparison to McGwire) and lasted just over six minutes, most of which McGwire spent dodging questions like Neo dodged bullets. Apparently since Big Mac talked about the past once he doesn’t ever have to do it again. There was no chance for reporters to ask McGwire about the myriad holes in his story, though he was kind enough to warn kids not to use steroids (unless they help with health problems of course). And how, you may ask, did Cardinals fans respond to their beleaguered slugger? With cheers and a standing ovation… 

Not to go all Steven A. Smith on you, but quite frankly that’s preposterous! I hate to go all Mike and Mike on you, but c’mon man! And finally, I really can’t stand to go all MSN Messenger on you, but WTF Cardinal fans? Mark McGwire lies to you for years and then goes on national television and lies again—and you give him a standing ovation? I might expect this kind of thing from Yankees fans, who have continually shown themselves to be completely delusional, but I thought St. Louis held it athletes to a higher standard. The level of hypocrisy among sports fans is downright shocking and they’ll catch up to politicians soon if they keep up this kind of behavior. Fans are willing to crucify Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and everyone else from the steroid era, yet when McGwire says he’s “really sorry” Cardinal followers treat him like nothing ever happened? I realize that McGwire admitted what he did (sort of) but that doesn’t mean he should get a free pass and be welcomed back with open arms. McGwire broke the law, cheated the game and lied about it until it was convenient for him to come out with the “truth”. Some people deserve second chances but Big Mac isn’t one of them, at least not until he is ready to come clean about what he really did all those years. 

Mark McGwire was arrogant enough to think that baseball fans would believe whatever he had to say about the past. Apparently he was right.