SweetSpot: Neal Huntington

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19

For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.

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.

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?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,043)

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.

Time to Buc up in left field

July, 7, 2012

The Pirates are in first place, even after losing to the Giants in front of a happily surprised near-capacity crowd in PNC Park. The question is whether they’re just getting started, or repeating last season’s multi-month run of relevance before going into a 19-43 tailspin that sealed the franchise’s 19th consecutive losing season.

Perhaps the killer in this particular ballgame was seeing the Giants put an early five-spot on the board, because if there’s one thing that has been a reliable cause for concern for this season’s Pirates, it’s their offense. However, things have improved considerably since June 1, as they’ve ratcheted things up to score 5.5 runs per game in their last 33 contests. Some of the solution has come from finally seeing Neil Walker hit, and part of it has come from busting up their Garrett Jones-Casey McGehee first-base platoon and using them to try and cover for the team’s biggest offensive problem: their galling lack of production from the outfield corners.

The problem has been especially galling in left field, where the Pirates’ production is just about league-worst, swapping the dubious honor in the sub-.600 OPS range with the Nationals on a night-to-night basis. If you’re looking for other empty slots on offense, the only position producing less in the Pirates’ lineup is shortstop, where Clint Barmes is doing his defensive wizardry thing. Meanwhile, the Nats are getting the benefit of a .500 slugger at short with Ian Desmond's breakout season. It’s easier to find an outfielder who can bop than a shortstop who can hit, which is why whenever the Nats fix their left-field problem, their offense might be in great shape. The Pirates don’t have the benefit of greatness anywhere but where Andrew McCutchen plays, so they can’t afford multiple zeroes in their lineup.

Scapegoating Jose Tabata and shipping the one-time Yankee blue-chipper to Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this week might be gratifying as far as sending him -- and the other young Bucs -- a message that attitude and effort matter. That’s swell, but beyond putting a scare into the non-McCutchens in the lineup it doesn’t do much to fill the Pirates’ vacuum in both outfield corners. Spreading Jones, McGehee and well-traveled utilityman Drew Sutton among right, left and first base to cover the three traditional power slots hardly provides reliable long-term answers at any of them.

From 30,000 feet up and looking at the Pirates’ record, you can look at reasons to doubt their ability to stick any better this season than they didn’t last time around. Looking at their runs scored and allowed, the Pirates are “supposed” to be three games worse than they are, which would put them back behind the Reds in the standings. Some of that is thanks to a 19-13 record in one-run games, and of course they owe plenty to their 28-12 record against teams below .500.

Look at that info, and you might say the Pirates are just lucky to be here. But that’s beside the point: They’re here. You don’t lose games already in the books, and as Lou Boudreau once put it, to contend you want to beat the tar out of the bad teams and break even against the best. A performance record is not a prediction of failure, but it does provide suggestions that it’s time to do something about a team’s outstanding issues to make that regular-season record stand up in the standings.

So if you’re GM Neal Huntington, you can’t think about the things that should have been. There’s no need to apologize. Instead, he’ll need to focus on what he can do to make things better still. The question is what Huntington will do to make something out of his team’s start, and that means addressing the team’s problems, with offensive production from a power slot like left field being smack-dab at the top of the list.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t foreign to Huntington, because it’s much the same as last year’s problem. Last year’s deadline deals to try and make good on last year’s promising start were meant to address this same issue, but bringing in first baseman Derrek Lee and left fielder Ryan Ludwick were cheap fixes that produced equally cheap results. Between them, the two former All-Stars provided a whopping 0.6 Wins Above Replacement combined over two months across two key offensive positions. Even as relative improvements over Lyle Overbay and the like, they represented baby steps in the right direction.

The Pirates can’t settle for that again, for improving incrementally on previous bad answers. Certainly, folks might be willing to settle for a streak-busting season of .500 or better. But the established favorites in the division like the Cardinals and Brewers have failed to live up to expectations, while the Reds keep finding ways to come back to the pack. There’s more at stake than a chance to break the Pirates’ record 19-season losing streak. Here’s hoping Huntington’s shopping list at the trade deadline reflects that.

Ryan HowardDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesThe Phillies' Ryan Howard doubled his first time up in 2012, mashing like he'd never missed a day.

Time to encourage Indians-Pirates rivalry

June, 15, 2012
I grew up in the small town of Hermitage, Pa., which is situated on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border about midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I watched people almost come to blows over the storied Steelers-Browns rivalry, yet saw people treat the Indians and Pirates with indifference. Obviously a big part of this is due to the fact that the baseball teams are not only in separate divisions, but separate leagues. Yet I still don’t think that fully explains the lack of any developed rivalry between the Tribe and the Bucs. There is still plenty of animosity between crosstown interleague rivalries in New York and Chicago, and even cross-state in Missouri and Texas. I’m not necessarily complaining; I’m mostly indifferent about football, and can therefore enjoy both the Indians and Pirates in peace without harassment. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Major League Basball is missing out on a great opportunity to encourage a rivalry between two teams just 133 miles apart.

The Indians' brass seems to prefer their cross-state rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds in the battle for the Ohio Cup, while the Pirates don’t have a true interleague rival. I think one of the big reasons that an interleague rivalry never developed between the Indians and Pirates was because neither team has really been good at the same time. Since interleague play began in 1997, the Pirates haven’t had a season when the team even played .500 baseball; you’d have to go back to 1992 to find the last time the Pirates finished a year above .500. The Indians have made the playoffs five times since interleague play began, but were still terrible in the early 1990s when the Pirates made their last trips to the playoffs.

For a portion of 2011 and thus far in 2012, the Indians and Pirates have both been in contention. Whether they can maintain their positions through the end of the season has yet to be determined. While both had high hopes in 2011 and were buyers at the trade deadline, the end result was anything but a close race for the Tribe or the Bucs. When the two teams square off at Progressive Field this weekend, both teams will hope to creep closer to first place in their respective divisions. Both teams have something on the line when they meet this year.

There are myriad connections between the Indians and Pirates on the field, in the front office, and even in their recent past. The Pirates are a team that has survived throughout the 2012 season based on the strength of their pitching. Even though their offense is much improved over the past couple of weeks, they still are last in baseball in runs scored. The Indians’ offense has struggled at times as well, and the team has often gotten help from their strong bullpen in order to close out victories.

Both teams have a mix of exciting young stars and prospects -- Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor in Cleveland; Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon for Pittsburgh. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington spent a number of years in Cleveland’s front office, eventually serving as assistant general manager and special assistant to the general manager at the time, Mark Shapiro. The Pirates and the Indians also suffered crushing Game 7 walk-off losses: the Pirates in 1992 against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, and the Indians in 1997 against the Florida Marlins in the World Series. Both teams saw their title hopes crushed by the Atlanta Braves in that decade (the Indians in the 1995 World Series).

When baseball decided to whittle the National League Central down to five teams, the most logical solution was to move Houston to the American League West. This also amplifies the already cross-state rivalry between the Rangers and the Astros. But think about what would have happened if MLB found a way to move the Pirates to the AL Central. Not only would you establish a true rivalry with the Indians, but with the Detroit Tigers as well. Why would a rivalry with the Tigers be significant, apart from their geographical proximity to the Pirates? Several members of the Tigers coaching staff have connections to the great Pirates teams of the early 1990s. Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon all managed the Pirates; Leyland from 1986 to 1996, Lamont from 1997 to 2000, McClendon from 2001-2005. Former Pirates player Rafael Belliard is also on the Tigers’ coaching staff.

There will undoubtedly be people who scoff at the Indians-Pirates series this weekend, who think there is nothing of interest between a team that hasn’t had a winning season in 19 years and a team that hasn’t won a World Series since Harry Truman was in the Oval Office. (Not to mention the fact that both crumbled in the second half of 2011.) Despite the fact that the Indians and Pirates both had bad weeks against the Reds and Orioles respectively, this still has a chance to be an exciting matchup. Optimistically, one hopes that the Indians and Pirates both have bright futures ahead of them. It would be the ultimate interleague battle for the pair to meet up in October a few years down the road.

Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.

Pirates' pitching fuels run; will it sustain?

June, 7, 2012
The Pirates have won eight of their past 11 overall and sit just three games out of first place in the National League Central. While it was just last year that we were talking about the "surprising" Pirates before a remarkable second-half collapse, 2012 might be different. Below is a look at what’s fueling the Pirates' run this season, how we got to this point and how much of it we can expect to last.

Pitching fueling the Pirates

The Pirates are posting one of their best pitching seasons in the last 30 years. In fact, it’s the best since 1984 and eerily similar to 1992 -- the last season they had a winning record.

Pirates' lowest team ERA since 1980:

1984: 3.11
2012: 3.30
1971: 3.31
1992: 3.35
1976: 3.36

The Pirates have seen their overall ERA drop each season since 2010, which is also true for the team’s starting pitching ERA. However, the relief pitching has experienced an improvement going all the way back to 2008. In fact, the Pirates' bullpen ERA is its lowest since 1975.

2012: 2.58 (third in the majors)
2011: 3.73
2010: 4.55
2009: 4.59
2008: 4.66

How did we get here?

What makes the Pirates' pitching success even more remarkable is how these pitchers were acquired -- largely, off the scrap heap. Here’s a look at how general manager Neal Huntington and his team procured the notable top-performing pitchers on his roster.

Brad Lincoln (2.40 ERA in 30 IP) -- Drafted by Pirates in first round of 2006 MLB draft.
Jason Grilli (1.71 ERA in 21 IP, 35 SO) -- Signed as free agent, July 21, 2011.
James McDonald (5-2, 2.14 ERA, 71 K in 71.1 IP) -- Acquired from Dodgers for Octavio Dotel, July 31, 2010.
Juan Cruz (2.18 ERA, 20 K in 20.2 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Feb. 1, 2012.
Joel Hanrahan (15 saves, 2.57 ERA -- Acquired from Nationals for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan, July 30, 2009.
Erik Bedard (3.72 ERA, 56 K in 55.2 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Dec. 7, 2011.
A.J. Burnett (5-2, 3.76 ERA) -- Acquired from Yankees for two minor leaguers, Feb. 19, 2012.
Kevin Correia (4.19 ERA in 58 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Dec. 17, 2010.

As you can see, most of the rotation members were acquired for very little cost; Burnett is making $5 million this season, Bedard $4.5 million, Correia $3 million and McDonald a crisp $502,500. This entire group is making less than $20 million. That’s for 80 percent of a rotation and three key bullpen arms.

Can this be sustained?

Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, looks at the things a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs allowed. FIP is an effective statistic at predicting future performance -- i.e., a pitcher’s FIP number is usually a better indication of his true skill, good or bad, than his present-day ERA. So while the Pirates starters can expect some regression (do we really think McDonald will keep his ERA barely above 2.00 all season?), FIP provides a great deal of optimism regarding the ability to sustain solid performance.

As you can see, 60 percent of the team’s starting rotation (though Charlie Morton is currently on the disabled list) can actually be expected to improve moving forward based on their FIP. The only pitcher "predicted" for a significant dropoff is Correia.

Improvements worth noting

What has been the key to Burnett’s turnaround this season? While some of it can anecdotally be attributed to the move to the National League, it’s much more about increased effectiveness with his fastball.

McDonald’s breaking stuff, meanwhile, has been outstanding, among the most effective in all of baseball. Here's a list of highest strikeout rates with curveballs and/or sliders among starting pitchers:

Edwin Jackson, Washington -- 53.6%
Chris Sale, White Sox -- 53.0%
Stephen Strasburg, Washington -- 51.7%
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh -- 50.8%
James McDonald, Pittsburgh -- 48.5%<< >>44.1% strikeout rate last season
(Minimum 200 curveballs/sliders thrown)

Specifically, McDonald has become much better at using his breaking pitches against left-handed batters:

Bedard’s out pitch has always been his curve, and that is no exception once again. However, he’s been markedly more effective with the pitch.

Justin Havens is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight." Follow him on Twitter @jayhaykid.