SweetSpot: A.J. Burnett

PHILADELPHIA -- It’s been a while since the last Cliff Lee sighting on the Citizens Bank Park mound. He went on the disabled list with a strained left elbow on May 18, which means that he was rehabbing through Memorial Day, Flag Day, Father’s Day, the first day of summer solstice and Independence Day while any semblance of spring training optimism faded for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Lee finally made it back in time for National Baseball Trade Speculation week -- but just barely.

As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, Lee essentially has a two-start showcase to help drum up interest among trade partners looking for rotation help down the stretch. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say the first installment didn’t go so hot.

Lee returned to the Phillies’ rotation in a 7-4 loss to San Francisco on Monday. He did get off to an encouraging start with a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning. But the storyline regressed from there. Lee tied a career high with 12 hits allowed over 5⅔ innings and threw 90 pitches -- 59 of them strikes -- before giving way to reliever Justin De Fratus. Although he broke several bats and gave up an inordinate number of bleeders, it wasn’t the type of performance that’s going to make general manager Ruben Amaro’s cell phone vibrate with calls from motivated suitors.

“I thought he showed some rust,” an AL scout said of Lee. “His fastball command was off and he wasn’t nearly as precise as usual. He threw too many hittable pitches, and his overall stuff was flatter than normal. Give him another start before rushing to judgment. He threw strikes, but not with the level of precision he typically does.”

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Michael PerezAs rumors about Phillies trades swirled, all Cliff Lee could do was focus on execution.

Contending teams typically want to see more than a two-start cameo before putting their heart into a trade, but it’s not unprecedented for clubs to take the plunge off a limited sample size. In 2013, Jake Peavy of the Chicago White Sox missed six weeks with a fractured left rib and returned to make two starts in late July. That 13-inning audition was enough to convince Boston to trade shortstop Jose Iglesias and acquire Peavy in a three-team deal with Chicago and Detroit at the deadline.

In Lee’s case, money definitely complicates matters. He’s still owed about $10 million this season. Throw in a $25 million salary in 2015 and a $27.5 million mutual option for 2016 that automatically vests if he throws 200 innings next year (not to mention a $12.5 million buyout), and Lee is guaranteed somewhere between $47.5 million and $62.5 million through age 37 or 38. As good as he is, the Phillies are faced with the prospect of having to kick in millions to subsidize him pitching somewhere else.

Lee’s deal also includes a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 20 teams. According to a baseball source, Lee has listed Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, the New York Mets, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington as the nine teams he can be traded to without his consent.

Against that backdrop, the Tigers, Pirates, Orioles, Mariners, Angels, Royals, Blue Jays and Giants -- contenders all -- were among a dozen teams that had scouts at Monday’s game. No one can say for sure who was on hand to expressly scout Lee, in part because the Phillies have so many other tradable commodities on their roster.

Outfielder Marlon Byrd is a potential target for teams in search of a right-handed outfield bat. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is being scouted by the same talent evaluators who are checking in on Joakim Soria, Joaquin Benoit, Brad Ziegler, Steve Cishek, et al. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins could help contending teams in need of middle infield help, but their 10-and-5 service-time rights give them veto power over any deal. And while Cole Hamels’ name has been mentioned here and there, those rumors have never gained any traction.

Anyone up for some good A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo or Kyle Kendrick speculation?

With Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy already traded and Tampa Bay more conflicted than ever about moving David Price because of its recent surge in the standings, the list of available impact starters is slim. But is it slim enough for a team to make a run at Lee even though he looked like a guy who will need a few more outings to round into top form? At this point, it takes a pretty active imagination to envision Lee pitching anywhere other than Philadelphia this season.

Lee, for his part, said he’s oblivious to the Internet buzz. His fastball checked in at an average of 89.1 mph Monday night, slightly below what he was throwing earlier this season. And the Giants recorded three hits against his cutter, a pitch that’s been less effective for him this year compared with recent seasons. So he’ll make some adjustments and hope the results are better against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday.

“I didn’t know how many scouts were here and I don’t care about the rumors,” Lee said. “My goal is to get out there and try to give the team a chance to win. Obviously I didn’t do that as well as I would like. But that’s where my focus is. I could care less about the scouts in the stands or the trade rumors. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I never cared about that. I still don’t.”

Spoken like a man who has been through this routine about a half-dozen times already in his career. Lee was 23 years old in 2002 when he went from Montreal to Cleveland with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in the big Bartolo Colon trade. He has since been traded from the Indians to the Phillies, from the Phillies to Seattle and from Seattle to Texas, so he understands the importance of being an emotional flatliner in July.

“It’s not my job to make trades and acquire players and all that stuff,” Lee said. “Let them do their job upstairs, and our job as players is to go out there and compete and try to win. It’s really that simple to me. I’m not going to get caught up in trades and all the speculation. I’m a Phillie and I want this team to win and I’m going to do everything I can to help that happen. That’s really it.”

Except that it isn’t -- for the embattled Amaro and season-ticket holders who have grown tired of the product the Phillies are selling and want to see changes. Monday night the focus was on Lee. Tuesday it will shift to somebody else. There could be a lot of action in Philadelphia between now and July 31. Some of it might actually take place on the field.

From my Twitter feed on Tuesday:

This is pretty easy to check. Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, we can search for most career Wins Above Replacement for players who never played in an All-Star Game. By position, we get:

C -- Rick Dempsey (25.3)
1B -- Earl Torgeson (32.7)
2B -- Mark Ellis (33.3)
3B -- Eric Chavez (37.1)
SS -- John Valentin (32.5)
OF -- Tim Salmon (40.5)
OF -- Kirk Gibson (38.3)
OF -- Garry Maddox (36.6)
UT -- Tony Phillips (50.8)

Also in the top 10: Ken McMullen (34.1), Dwayne Murphy (33.2) and Richie Hebner (32.9).

Phillips tops the list with 50.8 career WAR, higher than many Hall of Famers. He was an underrated player who played all over, mostly at second base and the outfield, but he was a shortstop early in his career and started 336 games at third base. During his peak from 1990 to 1997 he averaged .277/.396/.409 and 104 runs per season, more or less playing as a regular for the Tigers, Angels and White Sox while moving around the field. I suspect his utility status hurt him at All-Star time, plus a lot of his value came from drawing walks more than hitting for a high average (he hit .300 once) or for power (hit more than 20 home runs just once).

Gibson told MLB.com in 2011 that he was twice invited as a reserve to the All-Star Game, in 1985 and 1988 (the year he won the NL MVP Award), but turned down the selections. Ellis, Maddox and Murphy were defense-first players, although I was surprised Maddox never made it considering he played for a lot of good Phillies teams. In 1976, he was hitting .321 with five home runs and 40 RBIs at the All-Star break and he'd finish fifth in the MVP vote that year. The National League All-Star outfielders were Greg Luzinski, George Foster and Dave Kingman (starters), plus Bake McBride (.345-3-18 at the break, but St. Louis' only rep), Cesar Cedeno (.297-14-48), Ken Griffey Sr. (.340-4-50) and Al Oliver (.360-12-49 and Pittsburgh's only rep). Pretty tough group to crack.

Salmon's best season came in 1995 when he hit .330 with 34 home runs and 105 RBIs, worth 6.6 WAR (fifth among AL position players that year). The American League All-Star outfielders were Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Kirby Puckett (starters), plus Ken Griffey Jr. (injured), Jim Edmonds, Manny Ramirez and Paul O'Neill. Another tough group and Salmon hit .364 in the second half.

You can have a lot of fun doing this. Chavez's best years came from 2000 to 2005 when he averaged .278-30-98 and 4.7 WAR. AL All-Star third basemen those years were Travis Fryman, Troy Glaus, Cal Ripken and Tony Batista (2000); Ripken and Glaus (2001); Shea Hillenbrand, Robin Ventura and Batista (2002); Glaus and Hank Blalock (2003); Alex Rodriguez and Blalock (2004); Rodriguez, Melvin Mora and Hillenbrand (2005). Yes, Shea Hillenbrand started an All-Star Game.

For the pitchers, the top five in career WAR since 1933 to never make an All-Star team:

Tom Candiotti (42.5)
Danny Darwin (40.5)
Charlie Leibrandt (34.4)
Fritz Ostermueller (34.4)
John Tudor (34.3)

The active leader is A.J. Burnett at 27.2.

Tudor didn't make it in 1985, the year he went 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA. He was 10-7 with a 2.27 ERA at the break before going 11-1, 1.59 in the second half (he threw 10 shutouts that year). Not as many pitchers were selected back then so it was more difficult to make it. There were nine NL pitchers and the weakest starter on the staff was the one who actually started, LaMarr Hoyt, who was 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA.

Most career saves to never make an All-Star team? Gene Garber, with 218. Kevin Gregg, with 177, is third on that list and is the active leader.

One more list. Here's the most single-season WAR for players who didn't make the All-Star team that year:

1. John Valentin, 1995: 8.3
2. Josh Donaldson, 2013: 8.0
3. Bernard Gilkey, 1996: 8.0
4. Nick Markakis, 2008: 7.4
5. Brett Gardner, 2010: 7.3
6. Randy Velarde, 1999: 7.0
7. Bill North, 1973: 7.0
8. Andrelton Simmons, 2013: 6.9
9. Dwayne Murphy, 1980: 6.9
10. Chris Hoiles, 1993: 6.8
11. Eddie Lake, 1945: 6.8
12. Solly Hemus, 1952: 6.7
13. Franklin Gutierrez, 2009: 6.6
14. Tim Salmon, 1995: 6.6
15. Rick Wilkins, 1993: 6.6

Valentin actually led AL position players in WAR in 1995, hitting .298/.399/.533 with 27 home runs and 102 RBIs while playing solid defense at shortstop. He finished ninth in the MVP voting (his teammate Mo Vaughn won). The AL All-Star shortstops were Ripken and Gary DiSarcina of the Angels.

For pitchers, the top five (or seven, with ties):

1. Bill Hands, 1969: 8.4
2. John Tudor, 1985: 8.1
3. Mike Caldwell, 1978: 8.1
4. Jim Abbott, 1991: 7.6
5. Mark Eichhorn, 1986: 7.4 (as a reliever!)
6. John Denny, 1983: 7.4
7. Dave Roberts, 1971: 7.4

Hands went 20-14 with a 2.49 ERA for the Cubs, pitching 300 innings. Don't blame him for the Cubs' fade that year: He had 2.27 ERA in August and 2.27 in September.

Burnett may miss those defensive shifts

February, 13, 2014
The Philadelphia Phillies and free-agent starter A.J. Burnett agreed on Wednesday to one-year contract worth $16 million. The agreement ends an odd offseason for Burnett that began with rumors that the right-hander would either pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he spent the last two seasons, or retire. It was assumed that because of this scenario the Pirates did not extend a qualifying offer to Burnett. Now that he has joined the cross-state Phillies, Pittsburgh will not receive draft-pick compensation.

Despite the way things ended, Burnett enjoyed a revival in Pittsburgh after three disappointing seasons as a member of the New York Yankees. As staff anchor of the Bucs, he posted a 3.41 ERA in just under 400 innings. He struck out nearly a quarter of the batters he faced, walked less than three hitters per nine innings, and did a fantastic job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard.

A low-to-mid 90s fastball and a knee-knocking, slow curveball were chiefly responsible for Burnett keeping his balls in play low to the ground, but a progressive approach in defensive philosophy helped convert those grounders into outs.

As noted often during their run to the playoffs, Pittsburgh was among the most aggressive teams in regards to infield shifts. Burnett is on record as being opposed to the shift; however, since 2012 the Pirates' staff batting average allowed on groundballs is .216 -- second lowest in the majors. Burnett's personal average since joining the club is .214. The league average for the same time frame is .231. Over the last two years, Burnett was the pitcher of record for 1,135 outs. Of those, 41 percent have come on the ground.

The biggest improvement in Burnett's low average has come against right-handed batters. Same-siders posted a .269 average on groundballs against Burnett from 2009-2011 (insert "past a diving Derek Jeter" joke here), but have hit just .201 over the past two seasons. Left-handers have seen their average drop from .251 down to .227.

Burnett's new employers, however, have been slow to embrace the shift. The Phillies shifted just 45 times last season according to Baseball Info Solutions -- the second fewest in the major leagues. This was the case even after new manager Ryne Sandberg took over in late August. Philadelphia finished with a groundball average of .248 -- the fourth-worst average in the league -- despite solid play up the middle from 30-somethings Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Considering Burnett's recent success against right-handed batters pulling groundballs for outs, Rollins and Cody Asche could be especially key pieces to the puzzle.

Earlier in the offseason, the Phillies hired Scott Freedman to manage an internal analytics department. In addition to Burnett, Philadelphia has also signed groundball specialist Roberto Hernandez to fill the back end of the rotation. Perhaps the hiring of Freedman, and the subsequent signings of groundball-heavy starters, represents a shift, for lack of a better word, in organizational philosophy regarding moving infielders around.

The shift alone is not responsible for Burnett's success in Pittsburgh, but it cannot be ignored either. If Philadephia does not embrace a similar strategy, he may be wishing he stayed with the shifty Pirates.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to GammonsDaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @TRancel.
The Phillies have agreed to a one-year deal with A.J. Burnett, which seems like an odd destination if he wants to play for a postseason contender.

I recently ranked the Phillies 29th in my pre-spring training power rankings. While this move may slide them up a few slots, I still don't see them finishing over .500. Of course, everything could break right and a top three of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Burnett is a strong foundation for a rotation.

But what does this mean for the Pirates, for whom Burnett was 26-21 over the past two seasons? The knee-jerk reaction could be:


At one year and $16 million, should the Pirates have re-signed A.J. Burnett?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,939)

1. By refusing to increase payroll, Pittsburgh is risking taking a step backward after last year's success.

2. Burnett led the team with 191 innings in 2013 (nobody else had more than 166), so now they have to replace those innings.

3. There's no such thing as a bad one-year deal, so why weren't the Pirates more interested?

The first one is pretty simple, I think. Pirates owner Bob Nutting has been accused in the past of being too cheap, and it's difficult to argue against that label after the team’s nondescript offseason. In September, Nutting spoke with the Pittsburgh Business Times about the 2014 payroll, saying, "It is too early to pick a specific number. But my expectation is, just as we have each of the last several years, that we’re going to be able to push that number upward. I would anticipate next year to be no different. Again, there will always be limitations. But continuing to move forward, I believe, gives us room inside of the payroll we have to put a very competitive club on the field. The goal has always been not to create a short-term spike but create a talent flow into the organization that makes possible a sustainable level of success."

The Pirates' payroll in 2013 was an estimated $79 million, according to the PBT (about $66 million on Opening Day). Baseball Reference projects a Pirates payroll of $70 million; Cot's Baseball Contracts estimates $66 million. So despite an increase in ticket prices, a likely jump in attendance and a $25 million increase in national TV money, the Pirates' payroll will apparently remain stagnant, even allowing for in-season trades.

I do believe the innings issue is the biggest obstacle in replacing Burnett. Pirates starters ranked 24th in the majors in innings in 2013 -- 78 fewer than the Reds, 65 fewer than the Braves and 60 fewer than the Cardinals. That may not seem like a lot, but that's basically the workload of one full-time reliever, so it's not insignificant either. The Pittsburgh bullpen was outstanding last season. Without Burnett, it might have to shoulder a similar or even heavier burden, even accounting for more innings from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole.

That said, Baseball Reference valued Burnett at only 1.7 WAR last year. Why so low? A few things. Burnett's park factor favored pitchers, not just PNC Park but the road parks he pitched in. The lineups he faced averaged 4.14 runs per nine innings; Burnett allowed 3.72 runs per nine innings, about what an average pitcher would be expected to allow against those lineups. Finally, Pittsburgh's defense was very good. So while Burnett's 3.30 ERA looks impressive, he was really about average. (To be fair, FanGraphs' method of evaluating pitchers liked Burnett a lot more at 4.0 WAR, valuing the fact that he struck out 209 batters in 191 innings.)

We don't know what the Pirates' internal evaluation of Burnett was, but I'm guessing they believe they can replace Burnett's production, in part because they believe their defense will be outstanding again. (With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in particular, it should be very good at least.) Still, there's some risk as they are counting on Liriano to repeat his strong year; Cole to ramp up his innings as a sophomore; Charlie Morton, who has pitched more than 116 innings only once in the major leagues, to be the No. 3 starter; Wandy Rodriguez to bounce back from his ailments; and Jeff Locke or Edinson Volquez to produce in the fifth spot. They also have rookie Jameson Taillon, who could be ready at some point.

So I can see why the Pirates ultimately punted on Burnett, believing in their depth and defense and maintaining payroll flexibility to make a move during the season. I still believe the Pirates are ripe for a decline, but I would have said that even if Burnett had re-signed with them.

A.J. Burnett's Pittsburgh renaissance

September, 27, 2013
The Pittsburgh Pirates' success this year has been analyzed from a variety of angles, and one of the more fascinating aspects of it -- at least for geeks like me -- is an enhanced use of infield shifts based on spray-chart data.

Of course, this kind of progressive thinking is often met with resistance from players, and not everyone loves this philosophy. In fact, A.J. Burnett was recently quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as saying, "I have a problem with (expletive) shifts."

There's a decent bit of irony here because no pitcher has benefited more from the Bucs' use of shifts than Burnett, who has been reborn in Pittsburgh over the past two seasons, and pitched one of the best games of his career on Friday night, shutting down the Reds over eight innings in a 4-1 victory. With the win, the Pirates are now one win away from hosting Tuesday's National League wild-card game.

Burnett needed just 99 pitches to get through eight innings, striking out six and walking just one. Perhaps more impressive were the 11 ground-ball outs he induced, as compared to just two fly outs. As discussed within this Travis Sawchik piece, the Pirates have put an extra emphasis on the two-seam fastball, which is designed to induce ground balls. In Burnett's two seasons in Pittsburgh, his ground-ball rate has been above 56 percent after never cracking 50 percent in his time with the Yankees.

All those ground balls play perfectly into the arms of the Pirates' shift, and this was evident with two outs in the sixth inning when Jay Bruce -- a dead-pull hitter -- ripped a ground ball toward right field. In a traditional alignment, that's a clean single. But with second baseman Neil Walker playing in short right field, with shortstop Clint Barmes just a few feet to his right, it was an easy out.

However Burnett might actually feel about shifts, there is no doubt that he has adjusted his pitching approach with the Pirates, and he has thrived as a result. Per FanGraphs, he's accumulated almost 7 wins above replacement in two years with the Pirates after barely cracking 2 WAR in his last two seasons with the Yankees.

Burnett has talked about retiring after this season, which means that this could be his last major league start. Part of me hopes that Burnett keeps pitching in Pittsburgh to see if he can continue this late-career renaissance. I get the sense that history won't be that kind to Burnett because his results have never seemed to match his stuff, particularly earlier in his career when he would alternate dominating starts with duds, while collecting big-money deals from the Blue Jays and Yankees. There was always a bit of a Nuke LaLoosh element at play with him, it seemed.

But here's the thing: He's had a pretty good career. I tend to think pitcher wins are fairly useless in single-season samples -- Burnett is 10-11 this year despite a 3.30 ERA -- but they are a decent quick-and-dirty method for measuring career value. Burnett now has 147 career wins with an ERA of 4.00, which is above average for the hitter-friendly era in which he spent most of his career. For context, his career ERA+ is 105, and that's identical to Jack Morris' ERA+, and he has eight more wins than Johan Santana.

Whatever Burnett's legacy ends up being, he'll certainly be remembered fondly in Pittsburgh, especially after tonight.

Bucs, Reds sort stuff out before showdown

September, 22, 2013

You might expect that the easy focus during baseball's penultimate regular-season weekend is on guessing who's going to make it into October. Not so much in the National League, though, where the playoff slate has been essentially settled for weeks. No, in the NL this last week or so is a matter of sorting, to see who winds up winning the NL Central and who winds up having to play in the senior circuit’s play-in game. But if you figure the Cardinals win the division the way everyone expected months ago while the Reds and Pirates beat on each other this weekend and next, what do these games between the Pirates and Reds really mean, beyond temporary bragging rights before winner-take-all in the wild card on October 1?

On Saturday night, beyond one win or one loss, you could argue that what both teams got was intel that’s going to inform both teams’ biggest decision: Who starts that game on October 1? Both teams have a week-plus to make some tough decisions about what they’re going to have to ask their players to do, starting with the starters.
[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
David Maxwell/Getty ImagesGreeting Jason Grilli back to the closer's role could be one of the Pirates' biggest takeaways from Saturday night's win.

Let’s begin with A.J. Burnett’s showing against the Reds as the Pirates’ biggest potential takeaway, because as the best Batman would be quick to remind us, it’s been a while since concepts like “Pirates” and “October action” have been in the same conversation. In his previous pair of spins against the Reds this season, Burnett was anything but dominant, notching a textbook six-inning, three-run quality start in April and a bashing in July where the Reds scored five and put 13 men on base in 5 2/3 innings.

So seeing Burnett throw seven strong innings against a Reds lineup that had Joey Votto in it was very nice. It’s also important to remember Shin-Soo Choo wasn’t playing. Choo hasn’t entirely owned Burnett, but he’s done some damage -- three extra-base hits and three walks in 28 plate appearances -- and he’s the best leadoff hitter in the league. Add in Ryan Ludwick having good at-bats against Burnett now that he’s back in action, and I wouldn’t be so sure to say Burnett is the guy the Pirates must start in sudden-death action. Even allowing for the small sample sizes that are implicit with postseason play, Burnett got clobbered in a pair of Game 5 starts for the Yankees in 2009 (in the ALCS against the Angels, and against the Phillies in the World Series) and took another beating in the 2010 ALCS against the Rangers, a track record which helps explain why he’d get hooked in the sixth against the Tigers in the 2011 LDS while up by three runs. How much faith do you want to put in his Steel City renaissance, in sudden death?

But if not Burnett, who? Rookie Gerrit Cole, perhaps? Maybe Francisco Liriano, because the veteran lefty owns Choo going back to their long association in the AL Central (.412 OPS, with 10 whiffs in 32 PAs), and has done well against Votto as well. Not that Votto gets completely spavined by tough southpaws with an .845 OPS against his .976 OPS versus right-handers, but this year alone he’s losing 70 points of average and OBP and 60 points of slugging against southpaws. Using a total-offense metric like FanGraphs’ weight On-Base Average (wOBA), you can see the Reds’ .317 wOBA rates a decidedly mediocre 14th in the majors to the Pirates’ .310. If you had a chance to mitigate the damage that Votto or Choo might do against your team, to negate even that seemingly slender advantage on offense, wouldn’t you?

The second big takeaway from Saturday night was Jason Grilli getting the save, his first since July 21 and his first since his trip to the DL. Read into it what you will, whether a full loss of faith that top setup man Mark Melancon can nail down ninth-inning leads after his blown save on Wednesday night against the Padres, renewed confidence that Grilli is back, or an exaggerated sense of importance for who gets to wear the one “closer” merit badge in the clubhouse.

We can rail about this sort of thing because of the outsized significance that gets attached to every team’s designated saves-generator. But if Grilli’s getting this save and one or two more before season’s end gives Bucs skipper Clint Hurdle the confidence to put his pen pieces back in the order he had them in until Grilli got hurt, this could be a happy development. It’s also interesting that it might come at the exact moment the Cardinals are coming to the realization that their journeyman-turned-closer, Edward Mujica, might not be the perfect answer. If Grilli can handle the ninth with Melancon, Bryan Morris and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson in front of him, that sort of pen depth is a big part of the reason why the Pirates are here in the first place.

As for the Reds, if I’m Dusty Baker, I don’t invest this outcome with any particular significance whatsoever. Maybe that suits a lot of preconceived notions people have about Baker’s management style, but after this one loss I wouldn’t rule out starting Homer Bailey in a sudden-death game against the Pirates in a week. Bailey had already notched two quality starts against Pittsburgh earlier in the year, not to mention last year’s no-hitter against them. Mat Latos hasn’t done better than that against the Pirates this season, and turning to Bronson Arroyo hasn’t turned out so well in the past where the postseason is concerned. Tabbing Mike Leake in his breakthrough season would be a gutsy call, probably one that Dusty doesn’t make.

No, exasperating as Bailey can be for his seeming inconsistency, he might perfectly reflect the Reds themselves: capable of dominating at any time against anybody. Maybe sudden-death baseball will bring out the best in him. Maybe it will be Burnett’s big chance to completely close the door on his past rap for bombing with the Bombers in the postseason. Call Saturday night a dress rehearsal for both men, and we’ll see where they’re at in 10 days.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The wild-card game is, of course, a bit mad. Or maybe completely mad. Telling teams they have to play 162 games to get into the playoffs and then one game to stay alive is akin to telling two NFL teams they've made the playoffs after 16 regular-season games and then get six minutes to determine who moves on to the next round.

That's my new name for the wild-card game: Six minutes of hell.

The one positive aspect of the wild-card game is one of its intended results: Winning your division is, of course, paramount. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon explained it succinctly the other day, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I want us to win the division, period … and avoid that madness."

Madness. That's kind of what we have going on in the NL Central right now, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are now separated by just 2½ games. The Cardinals and Reds won on Sunday behind dominant pitching performances from Adam Wainwright (11 strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Cubs) and Homer Bailey (three hits in eight innings against the Brewers), while the Pirates suffered a gut-wrenching 16-inning loss at home to Arizona when rookie Kris Johnson, making his major league debut, finally surrendered two runs in his sixth inning of relief work.

Right now, the Reds are hot, the Pirates are scuffling and the Cardinals are the team everyone bet on at the All-Star break. But it's anybody's race to win, and while all three will likely make the playoffs (the Reds are five games up on the Diamondbacks for the second wild-card slot), only one of the three can win the division. Let's ask some key questions and predict our winner.

Who has the toughest schedule remaining? Here are each team's remaining series against teams currently above .500:

Pirates: STL (3), at STL (3), at TEX (3), CIN (3), at CIN (3)
Cardinals: ATL (4), CIN (3), at PIT (3), at CIN (3), PIT (3)
Reds: ARI (4), at STL (3), STL (3), LAD (3), at PIT (3), PIT (3)

They all have home-and-home series with each other, so no advantage gained there. The Reds have one extra series against a quality opponent, but one big edge they have is 24 of their remaining 38 games are at home and they are 37-20 at home, 33-34 on the road. The Cardinals have a tough slate ahead, beginning Thursday when they have consecutive series against the Braves, Reds, Pirates, Reds and Pirates, but their final 19 games are against current losing teams.

Advantage: Reds and Cardinals. That season-ending stretch should play into the Cards' favor while the Pirates have to finish up at Cincinnati and also have more road games remaining.

Which rotation is hottest? There's no best way to evaluate this, of course, but over the past two weeks, the Reds rotation has the second-best ERA (2.16) in the majors behind the Dodgers. The Pirates are 30th -- worst -- at 6.11. It's only a span of 12 games and includes Francisco Liriano's 10-run blow-up in Colorado but also includes just five quality starts, none by A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke in five outings between them. Locke was an All-Star, but since the break, he has a 5.58 ERA while allowing more than two baserunners per inning. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has regressed -- as many predicted -- and he's walked 21 in 30⅔ innings.
[+] EnlargeTony Cingrani
AP Photo/Morry GashSlotting Tony Cingrani into the rotation has made the Reds stronger still for the stretch run.

Advantage: Reds. Even though Johnny Cueto isn't healed from his right lat strain, the Reds are clicking on all cylinders. Tony Cingrani, their rookie starter, has outpitched the more highly touted Gerrit Cole of the Pirates with 111 strikeouts and a .191 batting average allowed in 94 innings. When your No. 5 guy is arguably is good as your No. 1, that's a nice rotation.

Hitters who can carry a team: On the season, the Cardinals have scored 578 runs, the Reds 533 and the Pirates 478, although the Reds do gain some runs from their home park while the Pirates lose a few.

Since the All-Star break, however, the Pirates have actually performed as well as the Cards or Reds, with a .311 weighted on-base average (wOBA) versus .299 and .298, respectively. This time of season, you're looking for that guy who can carry a team down the stretch, like Miguel Cabrera last September or Vlad Guerrero in 2005 or Chipper Jones in 1999. If you had to pick one guy from these three teams to do that, I go with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who has been one of the best hitters in the majors since the All-Star break with a .355 average and 1.056 OPS.


Which team will win the NL Central?


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But the Pirates have another guy who can go on a hot streak in Pedro Alvarez, co-NL home run leader at 30 with Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez is hitting .175 in August but hit .309 with 10 home runs in June, which shows what he's capable of when he gets in a groove. A good sign for Alvarez: Cingrani is the only lefty starter the Reds or Cardinals are using right now and Alvarez has hit 27 of his 30 home runs against right-handers.

Advantage: Pirates. Their offense might not look as good on paper, but it's been as good in the second half.

Who has the bullpen advantage? Aroldis Chapman isn't the automatic save he was most of last season, not with five losses (including one on Friday night), seven home runs allowed in 49⅓ innings and a 3.10 ERA. The Pirates have been without Jason Grilli, their All-Star closer, but he hopes to re-join the team in September and Mark Melancon and the other relievers have stepped up in his abscence. The Cardinals' back two of Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica have been dominant all season, and, now, rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist -- eight hits and 33 strikeouts in 24⅓ innings -- is looking like a third weapon out there, averaging 94.5 mph on his fastball and touching 97.

Advantage: None that I see. All three pens are strong. The Pirates have pitched the most relief innings in the majors, so that's an issue; they need Grilli to return healthy and pitching like he was. I love the way Rosenthal and Siegrist are throwing right now, and Cincinnati's pen has settled down after some early struggles.

Enough … make a pick already: The Reds have been the third wheel in this party all season, but they're finally on a good roll, winning nine of 12. This is the time of season when rotation depth plays a huge factor, as legs get tired and arms get sore. I like the way Cincy's five guys are throwing right now, and I like all the home games the Reds have on their schedule.

I'm picking the Reds now to win the division … putting the Pirates and Cardinals into six minutes of hell.

Burnett, Martin key to Pirates' title hopes

August, 15, 2013
A.J. Burnett and Russell MartinMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesA.J. Burnett and Russell Martin are experiencing good times in Pittsburgh after leaving the Yankees.

ST. LOUIS -- It's the kind of baseball weather in which every kid in the neighborhood should be out playing baseball: 76 degrees, sunny and late summer. Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett are working together on the field like two old pals playing a game of backyard catch. Burnett, the Pittsburgh Pirates veteran starting pitcher looks more relaxed than he has in years, and Martin, the starting catcher, seems at ease.

Yet, here the two are in St. Louis, 963 miles away from New York, where they played together with the New York Yankees in 2011, making a playoff run with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Who would have thought when they each left New York, Burnett after 2011 and Martin after 2012, that they would be reunited again in Pittsburgh, helping to lead the underdog Pirates to first place in the NL Central.

"It's been awesome. This team is, it is a team," Martin said. "The guys, they pull for each other. It's not about individual numbers. Guys want to win. It's refreshing."

Many of the players on the Pirates came up through the minor leagues together, and this forms a brotherhood, a big difference between the Yankees and Pirates, as Martin pointed out.

"I remember my early days in L.A. That's kind of how it was," Martin said. "A lot of guys came up together, and you know you go through some battles in the minor leagues and stuff and you kind of bond together. You feel that tightness in this clubhouse. The Yankees -- everybody gets along, it's professional, but it's not quite the same as this is."

Martin knows Burnett well from their time together in New York, and he says he sees a difference in him this season.

"I feel like he's in a better spot," Martin said. "I think he enjoys being the No. 1 guy and being the leader. With the Yankees, he was kind of somewhere in the middle of the pack. He cares, and I think he understands that he's carrying the role of being a leader here.

"Every time he goes out there, he competes. He competes all the way through, and, obviously, he's got the fans behind him."

In New York, Martin said the fans would boo Burnett if he walked a couple of guys in the first inning.

"It's kind of unfair," he added. "But he was one those guys that the media feasted on for some reason. But over here, he's just been electric."

Burnett has a 3.18 ERA, but in Thursday's 6-5, 12-inning loss to the Cardinals that cut Pittsburgh's division lead to two games, Burnett didn't have a great outing, pitching 4⅓ innings while allowing eight hits and five earned runs.

"His fastball was elevated. Some of the two-seams [fastballs] he was trying to throw away ran back over the plate," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The curveball seemed to lose its bite, its tilt. Everything seemed to be working back towards the back and up."

Hurdle says the recent rough few days -- the Pirates have lost five of their past six -- is part of what this team needs to learn.

"The great thing about what we are going through is the challenges and opportunities we are all getting moving forward through the season," he said. "I mean, this is playoff-atmosphere baseball. You are playing against a very good ballclub, so the opportunities -- the challenges that come with it -- are just going to sharpen us for what's in front of us."

It might sound like a nice way to put a tough loss in perspective, but this is what is different about the 2013 Pirates.

"We had a young core, a young group," shortstop Clint Barmes said about last season, when the Pirates collapsed in the final two months. "Guys maybe not sure of their talent or their ability or playing at this level. This year, the difference, in my opinion, is I don't feel any of that in this clubhouse. The guys that maybe got their first taste of the big leagues last year -- and coming back this year -- kind of know what they are getting into and understanding that they belong at this level. The confidence, especially the pitching, it's been fun to watch."

Martin said the team chemistry in Pittsburgh makes the bad days not as bad and the good ones even better. As for Martin and Burnett, the two former Yankees are expecting great things down the stretch.

"We're both competitors, and that's the key to the game," Martin said. "You have to compete with every pitch, you know, not worry about anything else that's going on."

PITTSBURGH -- Baseball has too much on its plate these days to focus exclusively on the exploits of an inspirational team in Pittsburgh. The trade deadline is coming to a head Wednesday. Brian Wilson -- aka “The Beard” -- is about to pitch his way to Chavez Ravine. And there’s still the little matter of that Biogenesis situation left to resolve. According to reports, multiple PED offenders are lining up to accept their suspensions and take a baseball sabbatical for the foreseeable future. They’re the luncheon meat in the middle of a Ryan Braun/Alex Rodriguez contrition sandwich.

Thank goodness for feel-good stories. While Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta prepare to hoist the white flag, the Buccos remain insistent on waving the Jolly Roger.
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates fans are seeing something they've been waiting 21 years for.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates keep playing this well, they just might outgrow the adjective “pesky.” Early Tuesday evening, Alex Presley hit a ricochet job off reliever Kevin Siegrist’s glove in the 11th inning to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory in the opening game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals. After grabbing a sandwich and a beverage and changing their jerseys, the Pirates came out and beat St. Louis again, 6-0, to stretch their lead over the Cardinals to 1½ games in the National League Central.

The crowd had thinned considerably by the time Jeanmar Gomez retired David Freese on a routine grounder to shortstop for the final out of the second game. But “Let’s Go Bucs” chants still reverberated through the stands, as a reminder that Pittsburgh fans have overcome their reticence and embraced their team entering its dog day push for the playoffs.

Consider: In their past 17 dates at PNC Park, the Pirates have averaged 33,764 fans. The crowd of 32,084 for the opener of the St. Louis series set a record for a Monday night at PNC.

“We’ve had fans come in drove on the weekends,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “But it’s something else for them to come out for a doubleheader at 4 o’clock on a workday. We’ve always seen what it’s like in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. It can really be imposing when you go on the road and the place is packed. Now we have that here.”
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates players have already celebrated more wins than recent Pirates teams have notched in entire seasons.

The Pirates haven’t been in first place this late in the season since they won their most recent division title in 1992. They’re 34-18 at PNC and 29-17 versus the National League Central this year. They win when Pedro Alvarez hits home runs, and when Andrew McCutchen makes sliding catches, hits home runs and gracefully and breathtakingly covers the 270 feet from first base to home plate on doubles in the gap.

Most of all, the Pirates win when they pitch well -- which is most of the time. In the first three games of a five-game series against St. Louis, the Pirates have outscored the Cardinals 17-3. Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup is batting .155 (16-for-103) with two extra-base hits thus far in the series.

If it’s not Francisco Liriano dealing for the Pirates, it’s A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke or (feel free to take a break and consult Baseball-Reference.com) Brandon Cumpton.

When Tuesday’s makeup game created the need for an emergency starter, the Pirates recalled Cumpton, a former ninth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, from their Triple-A farm club in Indianapolis. He throttled the Cardinals on three hits over seven innings to earn his first major league victory.

Cumpton collaborated with catcher Tony Sanchez, whose main claim to fame to this point in his career was going No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft -- 21 spots ahead of a New Jersey high school outfielder named Mike Trout. Sanchez, a Miami native and Boston College product, has been a disappointment in the minor leagues and admittedly wondered when this day would ever come. He appeared for two games as Pittsburgh’s designated hitter in June, but made his first career start behind the plate against the Cardinals on Tuesday.

“I’m coming out of the bullpen and I have people fist-bumping me and saying, ‘We love you Tony,’” Sanchez said. “For the last few days, everybody back home in Miami kept telling me, ‘This is the biggest series the Pirates have played in the last 20 years.’ I’ve got my uncle telling me, ‘It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there.’ Like I need that.

“When I came out of the dugout, it was nerve-wracking, overwhelming, all of those things. You feel like all the eyes are on you, because I’m the guy who has struggled the most and this has been such a long road for me. It doesn’t help that you read Twitter and you know people are anticipating your first start.”

By the end of the night, when Sanchez was hugging manager Clint Hurdle and coach Jeff Banister in celebration of the shutout, he got borderline misty. “I didn’t even care that I went 0-for-3,” he said.

The Pirates will get back to the grind Wednesday night when Locke takes on Adam Wainwright. At some point in the day, they can expect GM Neal Huntington to emerge from his bunker with a trade to report or a “stand pat” proclamation. Will Huntington add a reliever to take some of the burden off a bullpen that has logged the sixth heaviest workload in the majors, or a bat to supplement an offense that’s 11th in the NL in runs scored? The Pirates have been linked off and on with the likes of Houston pitcher Bud Norris and Chicago outfielder Alex Rios. But you have to wonder how motivated Huntington is at this point to trifle with what his team has going.

Whatever moves he does or doesn’t make, the fans in Pittsburgh are finding it progressively harder to remain disengaged -- recent late-season fades notwithstanding.

“I just tell them to keep coming out,” said Hurdle, who celebrated his 56th birthday Tuesday. “We love the support. We love the colors. We love the flags. We love the chants.”

Most of all the Pirates love the winning. That feeling is becoming contagious in Pittsburgh.

Pirates first to 50, but they're no fluke

June, 30, 2013

First team to 50 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates? For reals? Legit? By getting there behind Francisco Liriano’s start, a deep pen’s collective hold and save, and the homers hit by Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, today’s Pirates might have done something no Pirates team has done since the franchise's 1960 championship squad.

Holy moly, we might be witnessing the end of professional sports’ longest, dimmest dark age, not least in terms of Steel City baseball history. Praise be that it might be done for; never have so many suffered for so long to so little reward. A generation of children born in Pittsburgh since the Pirates’ last winning season and postseason appearance have already been eligible to vote since the Buccos’ major-sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the past six with the Nutting family running the show -- got started. Give it much longer, and they’d have been graduating from college en masse. Say what you will about Cubs fans, but they’ve never had to endure something like this.

It might all seem improbable enough. But by notching his seventh win in Saturday's 2-1 victory over visiting Milwaukee, Liriano is making it clear that his initial strong start is not the flashy return from yet another injury, followed by a predictable fade. He’s notched five quality starts in his past six turns. His walk rate isn’t just down by 1.5 free passes per nine, it’s down below 3.5 BB/9, at which it was when he was helping pitch the Minnesota Twins into one-game playoffs and contention. As easy as it might be to write off Liriano as flaky, this is the guy who was once the sixth-best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America before 2006), and after a year lost to Tommy John surgery on his elbow plus five different 15-day disabled-list stints for shoulder woes and arm soreness, there comes a point at which you have to stop calling the guy flaky and recognize the talent he’s capable of showing when he’s healthy, as infrequent as that might be.

But there’s the rub: That fragility is part of what made him a Pirate, but that talent is part of why the Buccos were smart to get him. The fascinating thing about the Pirates making the leap from sub-mediocrity to best record in baseball isn’t that it’s a surprise. It’s that they have the talent to make it so.

These Pirates aren’t some ragamuffin band of misfit toys -- they are not the Oakland A’s of "Moneyball" legend or present-day fact. This is a team built around past top prospects, whether they belonged to the Pirates or others. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Alvarez and Gerrit Cole are men that they picked and any team might envy; faded former studs like A.J. Burnett and Liriano and even a well-traveled veteran like closer Jason Grilli -- if you go back to the ’90s and his pedigree as a Giants farmhand 15 years ago -- are past top prospects who they have picked up, recognizing who they’ve been and what they might still be capable of.

[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsA Jason Grilli save is worth just as much in the standings as any other save, so why pay more than you have to?
Never mind that they’re rattling off wins while either three- or four-fifths of their rotation is on the DL. (That depends on how you feel about Jeff Karstens’ place on the depth chart.) With Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez due back from the DL within a week’s time, that just means Pittsburgh has the kind of depth in its rotation to sustain big weeks, big months and big seasons, no matter how well or badly its lineup is doing. Add their in-season fixes like switching from the oh-so-glovely Clint Barmes to better everyday option Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and it’s clear the Pirates are willing to fix things on the fly to aim for targets that might once have seemed sky-high.

But that’s the thing. As much as things are going right by reaching 50 wins first, for all that, these really aren’t your daddy’s Pirates. And why is that? How is it that the franchise of Dave Parker, or Roberto Clemente, or Paul Waner, as proud a legacy of right-field greatness as any team this side of Babe Ruth’s employers, could be producing a collective .656 OPS before Saturday’s action?

That’s the lowest RF mark in the National League, the worst among NL corner outfielders (even the Juan Pierre-hobbled Marlins), and worse production than 10 teams in the NL are getting from their center fielders. This is even more epically awful when you consider that right field is supposed to be one of your best run-producing slots, with production that bounces around the standard set by first basemen. It is a huge part of the reason the Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored per game, and it’s the most obvious fix that, once addressed, would provide a platform for them to really romp in the second half, something that goes beyond just hoping that the rotation's depth and McCutchen's inevitable monster month carry them.

The Pirates’ right-field issue is the biggest problem slot in any outfield in the National League, whether you’re just talking contenders or not -- and the Pirates, despite their recent history for second-half fades, have earned the right to be called contenders. So this isn’t just something on general manager Neal Huntington’s eventual to-do list -- it’s important, and it’s important right now. This is not a problem you solve by getting Jose Tabata back from the DL next week; it certainly isn’t something you settle for patching up by grabbing Jeff Francoeur off waivers and hoping he forgets he’s Jeff Francoeur for a few months. This requires a bold stroke in the same way that breaking from two decades of below-.500 baseball demands something more than an 82-win season.

If you think this is a coming-of-age trade deadline coming up for the Pirates, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Huntington has actually been fairly aggressive at the deadline in recent seasons -- striking deals for Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season and Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011.

So as far as that goes, the Pirates have proven more than willing to play in the inexpensive end of the deadline market when it comes to the self-improvement sweepstakes. But what would it mean if the people signing the checks would pony up the cash to add a premium bat for right field? Everything. Or Nutting.

The Pirates will be defined not by their ambitions, but by their actions. As brilliant as those have been on the field, here’s hoping that they’re matched by off-field machinations in the month to come. The good folks in Pittsburgh deserve nothing less.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

June, 27, 2013
Pirates celebrateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Pirates began Thursday at 48-30, tied with St. Louis for baseball's best record.

The Pirates -- the Pittsburgh Pirates -- have the best record in baseball. In late June.

Want to jump aboard the bandwagon? Here's everything you need to know about baseball's best team (as of this writing).

A -- Andrew McCutchen: Pittsburgh's center fielder is the face of the franchise. He even made the cover of "MLB 13 The Show" this year thanks to fan voting. And it was legitimate voting, not like when the mean kids in high school vote an unpopular girl prom queen as a prank. Almost all of McCutchen's offensive numbers so far are well off the pace of his 2012 career highs, yet the Pirates are still winning, and winning a lot. This is the most balanced Pirates team in decades -- excluding the many Pirates teams that achieved perfect roster garbage equilibrium, of course.

B -- Base-stealing: The Pirates have caught 28 percent of attempted base-stealers this year, good for 13th in baseball. What's so great about that? It's a massive improvement over last year, when they were dead last at 11 percent and caught just 19 baserunners attempting to steal -- the lowest total in baseball in 50 years. The reason for the improvement is twofold. New catcher Russell Martin has a better arm than Rod Barajas, and the organization has decided that ignoring baserunners and focusing solely on the hitter, thereby letting every even mildly ambulatory opposing player who reached first to jog to second, was probably not the best approach. Good thinking!

C -- Cole: The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He made his major league debut two weeks ago and struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. He later broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single. With three starts under his belt, Cole is 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA. On Tuesday against the Angels, he became the first starter not named Justin Verlander to hit 101 on the gun since 2008. He probably should call Kate Upton.

D -- Division: The National League Central has long been considered one of baseball's weakest divisions, even though it has produced two of the past seven World Series champions and four of the past nine NL champs. But this season, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds mean the Central has three of the four best records in baseball. Just imagine if they still got to feast off the Astros 15 times a year.

E -- Errors: The Pirates have the seventh-most errors in baseball this season, so that's a definite area for improvement. Errors go both ways, however, as the Pirates know well.

F -- Francisco Liriano: The Pirates agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December, but that contract was renegotiated -- under more favorable terms for the Pirates -- after Liriano broke his arm playing with his kids. Liriano is now 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. A year ago the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, who promptly broke his face bunting in spring training and then had a very good season. The lesson is this: If the Pirates sign a veteran pitcher everyone has given up on and then he sustains a comical injury, watch out.

G -- Grilli: The fourth overall pick by the Giants in the 1997 draft, 36-year-old Jason Grilli was given the closer's job this season after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Grilli leads the National League in saves and has an absurd 15.1 K/9. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. It's a strange world when good fortune shines on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

H -- Hurdle: Manager Clint Hurdle has managed to keep the Pirates positive in the wake of last season's historic collapse. Even better, he no longer has the Pirates bunting every time a guy gets on first base.

I -- Inge: Do the Pirates have the best record in baseball because they are pitching well and getting timely hitting? Or is it because of the INGETANGIBLES provided by Brandon Inge? Inge has a .207/.232/.272 slash line, which only further highlights his intangibles.

J -- Jordy Mercer: One of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses was thought to be that Clint Barmes provides zero offense from the shortstop position. Barmes has continued to provide zero offense, but now he does it from the bench. Since the 26-year-old Mercer took over at shortstop full time two weeks ago, he has hit .326. While Barmes has a higher OBP than Inge, his name unfortunately doesn't work well with intangibles-related word play.

K -- Kansas City Royals: If the Pirates finally end their streak of losing seasons -- they need to play just .404 baseball from here on out to do so -- the Royals will take over as the baseball team with the most consecutive losing seasons. In football, the Raiders have the longest streak of .500 or worse seasons, because the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLefty Jeff Locke could go from maybe-fifth-starter material to the All-Star team.
L -- Locke: Twenty-five year-old Jeff Locke entered spring training as one of the options for the fifth spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. He's now 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP and kind of has to be put on the All-Star team. He seems to be holding the team's depth chart upside-down.

M -- "Million Dollar Arm": "Million Dollar Arm," a Disney film starring Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, the agent who signed Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, is set to be released in 2014. The movie could have an even happier Disney ending if the team that signed Singh and Patel turns out to not be the laughingstock of baseball.

N -- Nineteen Ninety-Two: It's the year burned into the psyche of every Pirates fan. 1992: The last year the Pirates made the playoffs. 1992: The last year the Pirates had a winning season. 1992: When the sadness began. How long ago is 1992? Jaromir Jagr played in the Stanley Cup finals then. OK, maybe not the best example. But it's a long time ago.

O -- Organizational strength: Not only do the Pirates have the best record in major league baseball, but their Triple-A team has the best record in its league. Baseball America rated their farm system seventh-best at the start of the season, which was before the Pirates brought in two more first-round talents in the June draft. They also have McCutchen signed through 2018. It's going to be really hard to screw this up.

P -- Pedro Alvarez: The former No. 2 overall pick may never hit for average or even get on base much, but when he does connect, the ball often lands in a faraway land. If you want to compare Alvarez to a great Pedro from baseball history, go with Cerrano.

Q -- Quacks: The Pirates made news in the offseason when their bizarre practice of putting prospects through a "hell week" of Navy SEALs-style training was revealed. Of course, if the Pirates end the season with the best record in baseball, expect every organization to start doing this. It's a copycat league. Disagree with me and you owe me 75 pushups.

R – Rotation: In Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Cole, Charlie Morton, Locke, Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez, the Pirates have seven solid starters at their disposal, with James McDonald and Jeff Karstens set to come off the disabled list later this season for a total of nine. When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington took the job, Pittsburgh's rotation featured Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny and John Van Benschoten. An improvement, wouldn't you agree?

S -- Starling Marte: In his first full season in the majors, 24-year-old leadoff hitter Starling Marte is making headlines with a .340 OBP, 22 steals and eight home runs. His name also has "Star" in it and Marte loosely rhymes with "party," so he is a pun-loving headline writer's dream.

T -- Trades: Last season, the Pirates made the biggest trade deadline acquisition in their history by getting Rodriguez from the Astros. It was a fine deal for Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez isn't the kind of player who shifts the balance of power in baseball. Making a play for Giancarlo Stanton, however, as ESPN.com's David Schoenfield suggested? Yeah, that would do it. The Pirates have plenty of prospects and pitching to make a major deal happen. The one downside: If the Pittsburgh Pirates become heavy World Series favorites, the world probably ends. So there's that.

U -- Underwater: On June 1, Garrett Jones became the first Pirates player -- and second player in PNC Park history -- to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly. Pirates ownership didn't even demand that he reimburse them for the lost ball, which is definitely a positive sign.

V -- Voting: No Pirates are currently on pace to start in the All-Star Game. Is there a better indicator that the team is relevant than getting ignored by All-Star voters? Also, is Cal Ripken still getting All-Star votes? I'm too afraid to look.

W -- Walker: Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s second baseman. He is also from Pittsburgh. His nickname is the Pittsburgh Kid. Disparage him in any way at your own risk.

X -- eXplode: Burnett's rosin bag exploded in Pittsburgh's season opener.

Normally that would be a bad omen for the Pirates. But they played the Cubs that day, so the Cubs probably sucked up all the negativity in the environment like the sponge of failure that they are.

Y -- Yankees: When Russell Martin signed with the Pirates in the offseason because the Yankees didn't make a comparable offer, he was clearly disappointed to leave the pinstripes. Now the Pirates look clearly superior to the Yankees. There is no one of sound mind who can't enjoy that.

Z -- Zoltan: The Pirates make the "Zoltan" sign -- it's a reference to "Dude, Where's My Car?" ... don't ask -- when they get a big hit. Zoltan also served as the Z in an article very much like this around this very time last season, in which someone wrote that the 2012 Pirates probably wouldn't collapse like the 2011 Pirates because "there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates." Ooof. So, yeah. We’ll see what happens. All aboard the bandwagon! For now. Know that the exits are clearly marked.

DJ Gallo founded SportsPickle.com and has been a staff writer for ESPN's Page 2 and Playbook.

As sports fans, most of us are usually simultaneously hopeful and cynical when it comes to our teams. We think every first-round pick or highly rated prospect will become a star, that this will be the season, that a two-week hot streak means more than just a two-week hot streak. At the same, we panic over every blown save and every three-game losing streak.

Pittsburgh Pirates fans know this feeling all too well. They know especially all too well that the team hasn't finished over .500 since 1992. There are Pirates fans in college who have never seen their team play a significant game in September. But the Pirates have toyed with their emotions the past two seasons. In 2011, they were 53-47 on July 25 and leading a weak National League Central; by the end of August they were 18.5 games out of first place. In 2012, they went 34-19 in June and July, were tied for first as late as July 18 and were just 2½ games out of first on Aug. 9; by the end of the month they were 10 games out and then went 7-21 in September.

But the 2013 Pirates … I think this might be a different club, a better club. On Thursday, I watched them beat the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in 11 innings. Here's the thing: Once the game got to the relief pitchers, I expected the Pirates to win. These are the games they're winning this season with that lockdown bullpen that has been so brilliant. On this night, the pen allowed just two hits in 5⅔ innings and Neil Walker, the walk-off hero Tuesday, started the winning rally with a leadoff single. The Pirates are 34-20, jumped past the Reds into second place in the NL Central and have won the second-most games in the majors.

I was on Pittsburgh radio on Wednesday, and host David Todd asked about the outsider's perspective on the Pirates. The two main reasons this club is better, I suggested, is that teams can ride a dominant bullpen a long way; in this day, with relievers pitching a third of every game, a decent rotation plus a great pen can equal a very good pitching staff. Here, a quick stat on why to believe in this staff more than the 2011 and 2012 versions:

2011 first-half totals: 47-43, 3.44 ERA, 16th in NL in strikeouts
2012 first-half totals: 48-37, 3.47 ERA, 14th in NL in strikeouts
2013 through May 30: 34-20, 3.12 ERA, 2nd in NL in strikeouts

The first-half success of the Pirates' pitching in 2011 and 2012 were mirages, fueled by low batting averages on balls in play -- as indicated by their low strikeouts. When their luck turned, so did the results.


Final prediction for the Pirates?


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But look at 2013: This staff is striking batters out. Yes, some of that is fueled by the great bullpen, and, while there are concerns that it's been overworked -- setup man Mark Melancon (0.93 ERA) is on pace to appear in 87 games and closer Jason Grilli (1.06 ERA, 22 for 22 in saves) in 83 -- Todd pointed out that relievers have been very efficient. Grilli, for example, has faced more than four batters in just three of his appearances and thrown 20-plus pitches just four times. Melancon has allowed just 21 hits and two walks in his 29 innings and is averaging 13.4 pitches per outing.

So far, manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage have down a masterful job handling the staff. On Thursday, they pulled starter Jeff Locke at the right moment -- two runners on in the sixth, one out, Locke at 96 pitches. With the bottom of the Detroit lineup up, it would have been easy to try to get a couple more outs from Locke. But they brought in righty Vin Mazzaro to face Matt Tuiasosopo, a right-handed platoon hitter, knowing it was probably too early for Tigers manager Jim Leyland to go to his bench (especially in an NL park). Mazzaro worked out of that jam and then escaped a first-and-third, one-out situation in the seventh by getting Andy Dirks to pop out and Miguel Cabrera to ground out.

Yes, Melancon and Grilli will probably blow a lead at some point, but it's the rotation that is much improved. A.J. Burnett has pitched like a legit No. 1, Wandy Rodriguez has walked nine batters in 10 starts and Francisco Liriano has looked very good in his four starts. The keys have been Locke and Jeanmar Gomez, who are succeeding despite low strikeout rates. Thursday's game was my first extended look at Locke, and he impressed. He throws his fastball a lot -- about 66 percent of the time -- but he keeps it down in the zone and gets good late movement on it. It might not be a strikeout pitch, but when he commands it, it's an effective pitch. He mixes in a curveball and changeup to right-handers that he pounds low and away. If he keeps doing that, he can keep winning games.

Are the Pirates for real? Sure, I'd like to see some offense, especially if we expect a little regression from the staff. They're certainly in a tough division, and they have 30 games remaining against the Cardinals and Reds. But maybe it's fair to say the Cardinals and Reds have a lot of games left against the Pirates.

Are the Pirates for real? Let's sign off with some Twitter responses from Pirates fans.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games ...
  • The Orioles continue to impress, beating the Royals 5-3, improving to 21-13. They only had five hits, but took advantage of three Kansas City errors, and the bullpen backed up Chris Tillman with three scoreless innings. The one area the Orioles aren't getting production from is second base, where Ryan Flaherty is hitting .114 and Brian Roberts is on the DL. This is a good team, but I'm not sure the Orioles can count on Roberts staying healthy when he returns. What about going after Chase Utley, an impending free agent? This article by Wendy Thurm at FanGraphs points out that Utley has a no-trade clause to 21 teams, and the Orioles and Phillies are rivals by geographic proximity, but Utley makes perfect sense. He'd look pretty sweet in the third spot in the lineup between Manny Machado and Adam Jones.
  • The Angels might have hit a low point -- and that's saying something -- in a 3-1 loss to Bud Norris and the Astros. As Jason Collette pointed out on Twitter, the Angels saw just 93 pitches, the third-lowest total of the season and lowest by an AL team. Even more remarkable -- they had 11 runners, with nine hits, a walk and a hit batter. Eight times the Angels put the first pitch in play (one of those was a Josh Hamilton home run) but the Astros turned four double plays. The Angels are 11-22, and last night's game had the appearance of a team playing out the string in a late September game. "It's still frustrating," Mark Trumbo told MLB.com. "You never want to stop feeling frustrated, because then you've pretty much given up hope. You come here each day with the mindset we're going to win the ballgame, so obviously it's a letdown when that doesn't happen."
  • The Twins pounded Red Sox rookie starter Allen Webster, who looked like the JV kid called up to the varsity in his second career start. Not only does he look 15 years old, but he pitched tentatively and then grooved his fastball when behind in the count, and the Twins pounced. The 15-8 win pushed the surprising Twins to .500. David Ortiz also had his 27-game hitting streak dating to last season stopped. With the Twins playing respectable baseball, the Indians on a roll and the Royals four games over .500, the AL Central might be better than it has been in years.
  • In a day game, Felix Hernandez outdueled A.J. Burnett for a 2-1 victory. The Pirates scored in the first when Starling Marte pulled a low fastball down the third-base line for a double and scored on Andrew McCutchen's hit. After walking Garrett Jones, the King got a double play and cruised after that. Burnett was just as tough, but Seattle scored one run without a hit thanks to two wild pitches, and then Jesus Montero homered in the seventh. What I didn't understand was Eric Wedge pulling Hernandez in the ninth. He'd only thrown 98 pitches and, yes, Tom Wilhelmsen has been solid, but I'd have let Felix finish it off.
  • Another terrific start by Jordan Zimmermann, who shut down the Tigers for seven innings in the Nationals' 3-1 win. He's now 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA, and in his past three starts -- against the Tigers, Braves and Reds -- has allowed just one run. Zimmermann's approach is different from guys like Matt Harvey and Yu Darvish, who have dominated while racking up the strikeouts. Zimmermann pitches more to contact and has just 34 K's in 51 innings, despite which he's allowed just a .181 average thanks to a .209 average on balls in play. I like Zimmermann a lot, but I'm not quite ready to put him in the Hernandez/Darvish/Verlander/Harvey class. One thing that seems clear, however: He, and not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez, is the ace of the Nationals.
  • Goldschmidt happens. Again.

I flipped over to the Cardinals-Pirates game in the fifth inning, with A.J. Burnett starting to get serious about a no-hit bid. He was locked up with Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller in a 1-0 duel and would retire the first 16 batters before hitting Daniel Descalso in the sixth. Miller allowed four hits in the first inning but then retired 15 in a row before Andrew McCutchen reached on an infield single in the sixth and later scored on Neil Walker's bouncer up the middle.

As I watched, it dawned on me: Shelby Miller is A.J. Burnett, circa 2000, when Burnett was a hard-throwing rookie with the Florida Marlins, with expectations to match his then-high 90s fastball and knee-bending curveball. Miller is a hard-throwing rookie with ability to develop into a staff ace.

So let me ask you this: If Miller ends up with Burnett's career, would you be disappointed?

That's a bit of a trick question, because while many do consider Burnett to be a pitcher who never reached his potential, he's still had a hell of a career, not that anyone ever suggests that. He has won 138 games and struck out his 2,000th career batter on Wednesday. He helped the Yankees win the World Series in 2009, which wasn't enough to erase the belief that he stunk up Yankee Stadium for three years.

But is it fair to evaluate a pitcher on what others believed he might have achieved? I don't know that it is. Sure, Burnett long had the reputation of the guy with the million-dollar arm and 10-cent head. But he never really had the command of his stuff to turn into a Cy Young-caliber pitcher. Besides, only 304 pitchers have ever won 138 games in the big leagues, and that includes guys who pitched underhanded in the 1880s while wearing collared uniforms and rosters consisted of 11 players. Only 68 pitchers have struck out 2,000 batters, although maybe you want to dismiss that since Burnett has pitched in the highest strikeout era in baseball history.

The point here: If Shelby Miller has A.J. Burnett's career, he will have done very well for himself, no matter what we think his potential is at age 22 and after just four major league starts.

Burnett took his no-hitter into the seventh inning of a game the Pirates won 5-0, but with two outs Carlos Beltran lined an 0-1 curveball into right-center for a double. Burnett's curve -- the rare knuckle-curve variety -- had been a good pitch for him, recording five strikeouts on the night, and Beltran's double was just the third hit off it this season (batters are 3-for-38 against it). Burnett was removed after that inning, finishing with a line of seven innings, one hit, no walks and eight strikeouts to earn his first win of 2013.

"My goal every time out is to throw a no-hitter. I know they are major league hitters that I'm facing and I respect them, but my job is not to give up hits. You should go to the mound with that mindset."

In 24 innings, Burnett had struck out 35, allowed just 17 hits and walked eight. At 36, maybe Burnett has finally learned the finer points of pitching. Which is kind of a shame, especially if Burnett follows through on his spring training suggestion that he may retire at season's end when his contract expires. Right when we learn to appreciate Burnett he may walk away.

Undoubtedly, some of his success with the Pirates -- he went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA last year -- is pitching in a comfort zone he never had with the Yankees. Last summer, Burnett said he had welcomed the trade to Pittsburgh because "it seemed like they really wanted me." Instead of being viewed as an underachiever, the Pirates viewed him as a good pitcher who could help the team.

As for Miller, he's off to a good start in his young career, with a 1.96 ERA through his first three starts. He doesn't throw consistently as hard as Burnett did when he was younger, but like Burnett, Miller uses a curveball as his primary offspeed weapon (hitters are 3-for-20 against it).

The promising start, while certainly a positive, will only serve to raise the already high expectations for Miller. But Burnett's career is a reminder that baseball isn't so easy, and no matter the talent a player possesses, let's not project stardom too quickly.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)

Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).

Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.

Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Pirates win?


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Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.