Fun with Photoshop: “Let’s Get Bedarded in Here!”

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Redemption Song: Long Forgotten Prospects Find Niche in MLB.

Jose Bautista has hit more home runs by himself than the entire Seattle Mariners team.

One of the reasons I’m such a big baseball fan today is that I collected cards growing up  (and yes, I still do). There was nothing more exciting than pulling a rookie card of the next hot-shot prospect, sticking it in a hard case, and knowing that it would help put you through college. Well, the following players certainly didn’t help me through school while they struggled to live up to their top prospect status, but after years of anonymity, they might at least keep my knees safe from college loan sharks. Here are five long-awaited players finally marking their mark in Major League Baseball: 

Jose Bautista: While 29-year-old Jose Bautista is no spring chicken (and his defense at the hot corner makes Russ Davis look like a Gold Glover) the Pirates still have egg on their face for trading away this year’s most surprising slugger. After struggling to hold down in full-time gig in Pittsburgh, Bautista was traded to the Blue Jays in 2009 for prospect Robinson Diaz in the hopes that a change of scenery would allow the third baseman to tap into his batting potential. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened. Bautista was as ordinary as Drew Barrymore in his first year with the Jays, but he’s been a revelation this season, leading the American League with 43 HR’s and ranking second in walks and RBI’s (105) and third in OPS (.992) and slugging. It’s a testament to Bautista’s work ethic and skill set that he’s been able to achieve this level of success at such an advanced age, and also another sign that the Pirates just don’t get it. Like we needed another of those.    

Bryan Bullington: So Bryan Bullington hasn’t exactly been killing it since joining the Kansas City Royals (1-4, 6.11 ERA), but it’s still inspiring to see the number one overall pick from the 2002 draft (picked by, you guessed it, the Pirates) get his first Major League win at age 29. Bullington struggled for years with inconsistency and injuries after being drafted out of Ball State, but he put it all together in a start against the hated Yankees on August 15th, throwing eight innings of two-hit baseball in a 1-0 Royals victory. It’s not quite as inspiring as The Rookie, but it’s close.   

Neil Walker: It’s hard to believe that Neil Walker is just 24 because it seems like he’s been in the Pirates’ system forever. Drafted out of high school as a catcher, Walker was shifted to second base to accelerate his ascent to the bigs, and while it took longer than expected, he’s making the most of his opportunity this season. Since being called up in May, Walker has hit .310 with 10 HR’s and 51 RBI’s while posting an .842 OPS and playing adequate defense at second. If the Pirates plan on contending in the next decade or so, they’ll need Walker to keep showing that he was worthy of the number 11 overall pick in 2004. They’ll also need a first baseman, shortstop, right fielder and about twenty more pitchers…but that’s a story for another day.   

Aren't you glad you held on to that Colby Lewis rookie card for over a decade?

Colby Lewis: This time last year, Colby Lewis was playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League. Now, the burly right-hander is one of the major reasons why the Texas Rangers are on the verge of capturing the AL West title. First drafted by the Rangers way back in 1999, Lewis bounced around in the majors and minors before finally discovering the secret to pitching while playing in Japan (its Red Bull if you’re wondering). Lewis has been a mainstay of the revived Rangers pitching staff, posting a 10-12 record (a lack of run support is the main culprit of his 12 losses) with a 3.86 ERA and 173 K’s in 177 innings. Not too bad for a pitcher who came into the season with a career ERA on the wrong side of seven.

Andres Torres: Just like Nelly, I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes (this portion of Viva La Vidro is brought to you by Nelly’s new hit single “Just a Dream”) and while Andres Torres has neither, I still can’t help but think over and over again how amazing it is that it took Torres until age 32 (he was drafted by the Tigers in 1998) to get his first chance at a starting role. Torres had just over 400 career at-bats before 2010 but he’s looked like a seasoned vet this season, posting a line of .273-14 HR’s-60 RBI’s-23 SB’s as the leadoff hitter for the San Francisco Giants. In addition to setting the table for Los Gigantes’ offense, Torres has also played stellar defense in centerfield, leading to a WAR (wins above replacement player) rating of 4.0 (nearly twice as good as any Mariners’ offensive player). Torres’ value to the Giants can’t be overstated–without him, the Padres would be running away with the division. Who ever said old people can’t contribute positively to society…and pennant races?

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…

Stephen Strasburg Nothing Short of Scintillating in Major League Debut.

Strasburg dazzled America in his MLB debut.

Finally there’s something worth watching in Washington besides the Baltimore Orioles C-Span.   

In one of the most anticipated debuts in major league history, Nationals’ rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg dominated the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates in route to a 5-2 Washington win.   

The 21-year-old flamethrower struck out 14 Pirates in seven innings (the second most ever in a major league debut) including the last seven batters he faced. Strasburg allowed two runs on four hits, and perhaps most impressive, didn’t walk a single batter.   

Strasburg kept the Pirates guessing all night with a combination of high 90’s fastballs and knee buckling curveballs, showing that he could shutdown major league lineups (albeit, a bad one) as easily as the minor league lineups he subdued during his short Double and Triple-A stints.   

Even with their new pitching stud in tow the Nationals won’t likely be able to contend in a competitive NL East. Still, Strasburg brings a spark to a franchise that has been a punching bag since moving to Washington from Montreal in 2005. With young players like Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond entrenched in the major league lineup, and the recent selection of super prospect Bryce Harper, the Nationals are building a core of players that will allow them to contend for a division title in the next 3-4 years.  

It might just be one start, but Strasburg’s debut could indicate a changing of the guard in the NL East, and his electrifying presence brings hope to a franchise and city that are badly in need.  

And to think, the Mariners could have drafted Strasburg if they had just lost one more game in 2007 (they finished with 101 losses, the Nationals had 102). Of course, when you’ve got Ian Snell and Ryan Rowland-Smith, would the team even have room for him in the starting rotation?  

Slaps forehead…

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?

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.

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.