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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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.