SweetSpot: Starling Marte

Five things we learned Monday

September, 9, 2014
9/09/14
10:34
AM ET
1. The A's can't get Sean Doolittle back soon enough.

For the second day in a row, the A's blew a ninth-inning lead, as Tyler Flowers of the White Sox homered off Eric O'Flaherty with two outs to tie the game and then homered again in the 12th off Jesse Chavez to win it. Doolittle threw a bullpen session on Monday and will face hitters on Wednesday, hoping for a return at the end of the week. The A's have now lost six games they've led heading into the ninth inning (the major league average is three) and their wild-card lead is down to one game over Seattle and 1.5 games over Detroit. Brandon Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 113 at-bats during which he's hitting .159. Maybe it's not exactly desperate times in Oakland, but it's starting to feel like desperate times.

2. Even when he's mediocre, King Felix is pretty good.

Felix Hernandez scuffled through six innings against the Astros, walking four for the second time this season and giving up five hits. But he kept the Astros off the board in getting a no-decision. The Mariners broke open a 1-1 tie in the eighth on Brad Miller's two-run triple to win for the sixth time in seven games. Still, Felix hasn't been quite as dominant over his past five starts, as he's allowed seven home runs and has a 23/9 strikeout/walk ratio in 31.2 innings. He'll face the A's this weekend and the Mariners will hope to see the Felix who had that memorable 17-start stretch where he went seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer each outing.

3. Big night for the Pirates.

With a 6-4 win over the Phillies, combined with losses by the Brewers and Braves, the Pirates increased their lead for the second wild card to 1.5 games over those two clubs. While Jeff Locke pitched seven solid innings -- three hits, one run, nine K's -- it's the Pittsburgh offense that remains underrated. They're third in the NL in runs (just two behind the Nationals for second-most) and second in wOBA. Last year's Pirates were all about pitching, defense and Andrew McCutchen, but this year's lineup runs much deeper. Starling Marte has been huge of late. Since returning from a concussion on Aug. 5, he's hit .342/.402/.575 in 32 games, with 15 extra-base hits, getting on base and adding power from the leadoff spot.

4. Javier Baez is going to have to some interesting projections for 2015.

Baez went 0-for-4 as the Cubs lost 8-0 to the Blue Jays ... although he did strike out just once after whiffing 10 times in his previous three games. His batting average in 34 games is down to .165 and he has 62 strikeouts in 140 at-bats. Yes, he's just 21. Yes, the raw power is off the charts. But 62 strikeouts -- with just eight walks -- in 140 at-bats? That's crazy terrible. That's not even Mark Reynolds territory. Not surprisingly, among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Baez has the highest swing-and-miss percentage at 42.9 percent. Astros rookie George Springer has the second-highest at 41.1 percent. Springer, however, has hit .231/.336/.468 compared to Baez's .165/.209/.350. The big difference? Baez has a chase rate on pitches outside the zone of 40.6 percent compared to Springer's 23.3 percent. Again, Baez is three years younger than Springer, so he has time to learn the strike zone; but if he doesn't, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his aggressiveness.

5. Victor Martinez is the best hitter in the game right now.

After going 3-for-5 as the Tigers pounded the Royals 9-4 in the first game of their big series, Martinez leads the majors in wOBA, just head of Jose Abreu, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton. In the park-adjusted wRC+, he's also first. He's hitting .337. He has power (already with a career-high 30 home runs). He rarely strikes out (just 39 K's in 570 plate appearances). Obviously, he doesn't have much defensive value as he's started just 30 games in the field, 28 of those at first base, but shouldn't he be a factor in the MVP voting? Not saying he should win, but he's a good top-five candidate. Oh ... doesn't Tuesday feel like a big game for the Royals? Jason Vargas versus Max Scherzer. Should be a fun one.


After two months of speculation, yearning from fans and guarded responses from the front office, the Pirates finally recalled 23-year-old outfielder Gregory Polanco. As Alex Speier wrote on ESPN Insider, Polanco's story is a fun one, as he rose from a gangly and raw unknown prospect just two years ago to become one of the most hyped players in the minor leagues.

He made his debut in front of a hungry group of Pirates fans, hungry for their team to find the same winning formula as last year's Cinderella squad. Polanco, they hope and believe, will provide that first necessary spark. Over 31,000 came out to PNC Park -- much higher than the club's first three Tuesday games that averaged 17,865 fans.

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Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesGregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen will be getting used to meeting at home plate after scoring.
Polanco certainly showed some energy: He lined a base hit to left field for his first hit and later scored on Andrew McCutchen's home run to center, racing around the bases with his greyhound speed, not realizing the ball had cleared the fence. He greeted McCutchen with a huge smile, the innocent joy of a rookie. I guess he has plenty of years to become a grizzled veteran who learns how to play the game the right way.

That was his only hit as he went 1-for-5 as the Pirates lost 7-3 to the Cubs. He misplayed a fly ball in the seventh, tracking down Anthony Rizzo's deep liner but seeing the ball clank off the heel of his glove. It was ruled a double but the play should have been made. The Pirates have mentioned how he's still learning to play right field after playing primarily center before this season, but this looked like a rookie mistake, perhaps wary that he was too close to the wall and unfamiliar with the park.

I liked his approach against tough lefty Travis Wood, not the easiest guy to make your debut against considering Wood's five-pitch arsenal. He took the first pitch in all five of his plate appearances, falling behind in four of those trips. He did pop out twice and in the eighth inning even appeared a little miffed when a 2-0 Wood fastball at the knees was called a strike. He pulled the next pitch to second base, a routine grounder that showcased that great speed.

Time will tell about the hype. He hit .347 with seven home runs at Triple-A Indianapolis, but that was after hitting .400 in April. I'm not sure he's a polished player just yet, so I would advise Pirates fans to restrain their expectations. After the game, Cubs manager Rick Renteria compared his to swing path to Ken Griffey Jr.'s. That's high praise, of course, and certainly hints at Polanco's potential, even minus some of Junior's power.

He joins McCutchen and Starling Marte in what should develop into an outstanding defensive outfield -- all three are natural center fielders and once Polanco gets settled in right that trio is going to run down a lot of balls in the gaps.

What's the upside here? McCutchen, 27, is the reigning MVP, one of the best all-around players in the game. Marte, 25, was worth 5.5 WAR last year thanks to a good year at the plate, outstanding defensive metrics and 41 steals. But he's hitting just .244/.315/.378 this year. Polanco doesn't turn 23 until September.

That's a young outfield and an exciting one and probably an excellent one in time. Considering McCutchen is signed through 2018, it's a group that should be together a while. There is another young outfield worth mentioning, however: Christian Yelich (22), Marcell Ozuna (23) and Giancarlo Stanton (24) of the Marlins are even younger and Ozuna and Stanton are currently outproducing Marte and McCutchen at the plate. All three also rate as plus defenders.

Which trio do you like better? I think it's a coin flip right now, depending on whether Yelich (.259/.341/.421 so far) or Polanco develops into a star hitter.

Polanco's call-up also generated some discussion on Twitter on how the potential of the Pirates' trio rates historically among outfields. That's a pretty tough area to crack. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I searched for some of the best young outfields of the past 50 years, using the following criteria: All three outfielders compiled at least 3.0 WAR; all three were 27 or younger with at least two 25 or younger.

The last such group was the 2011 Diamondbacks with Gerardo Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton. That team did win 94 games and Upton was fourth in the MVP voting, while Parra and Young were outstanding defenders. Three years later, however, only Parra is on the team.

Here are some of the other best young outfields of the past 50 years, a reminder that good things don't always last or develop into great things:

1999 Royals: Carlos Beltran (22 years old, 4.7 WAR); Johnny Damon (25, 5.4); Jermaine Dye (25, 4.7)
Hey, they all played in the World Series ... but with different teams, none of them in Kansas City. Damon was traded after the 2000 season, Dye in 2001 and Beltran in 2004. If only they could have remained together. Combined career WAR: 143.9.

1995 Angels: Garret Anderson (23, 3.0); Jim Edmonds (25, 5.6); Tim Salmon (26, 6.6)
Those three combined for 83 home runs in the shortened 1995 season and Anderson hit .321 and Salmon .330. They lost a tiebreaker game that year and didn't make the playoffs until 2002 -- after Edmonds had been traded to the Cardinals. Career WAR: 126.4.

1985 Blue Jays: George Bell (25, 4.1); Lloyd Moseby (25, 3.1); Jesse Barfield (25, 6.8)
Fans my age will remember Barfield's arm but all three could play. Led by these three guys, the Jays won the AL East and were up 3-1 over the Royals in the ALCS. But they lost that series and then blew the AL East on the final weekend of 1987. But Moseby faded after that year, Barfield was traded in 1989 and Bell left as a free agent after 1990. Combined WAR: 86.6.

1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (21, 8.8); Dwayne Murphy (25, 6.9); Tony Armas (26, 5.9)
Note the WAR totals: They ranked second, fifth and 11th among AL position players that year. All three were capable of playing center field but with completely disparate games. Henderson, of course, was the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, already one of the best players in the game at 21. Murphy was a tremendous center fielder (he won six Gold Gloves) who drew a lot of walks. Armas slugged 35 home runs and had a cannon for arm but never walked. They made the playoffs in 1981 and that was it. Murphy and Armas both and had their best seasons in 1980 and Armas was traded to the Red Sox for Carney Lansford after 1982. Combined WAR: 159.7.

1978 Expos: Warren Cromartie (24, 4.4); Andre Dawson (23, 4.8); Ellis Valentine (23, 5.6)
At the time, it was Valentine who most would have bet on as the future Hall of Famer, a lean, powerful, right fielder with a legendary arm. But '78 would be his best season and he would battle cocaine problems. It would also be Cromartie's best season. None of the three walked much and while Dawson became one of the best all-around players in the game, the other two never improved as hitters. Combined WAR: 97.8.

1975 Red Sox: Jim Rice (22, 3.0), Fred Lynn (23, 7.4), Dwight Evans (23, 5.1)
How good was this group? Lynn and Rice finished first and third in the MVP voting as rookies. The Red Sox lost the World Series (which Rice missed with an injury), but the future looked bright. Instead, this group never reached the postseason together again (although Rice and Evans were still around in 1986). Evans didn't really become a great player until 1981, by which time Lynn had signed with the Angels. Interestingly, the guy with the lowest career WAR is the one in the Hall of Fame. Combined WAR: 164.2.

1973 Giants: Gary Matthews (22, 3.4), Garry Maddox (23, 4.7), Bobby Bonds (27, 7.8)
The Giants were churning out good-to-outstanding outfielders like clockwork around this time -- Jack Clark came along a couple years later. Maybe they took them for granted. Bonds -- the Giants blamed him for their struggles (he did have off-the-field issues) -- was traded for Bobby Murcer after 1974, Maddox was sent to the Phillies in 1975 in an ill-advised deal for Willie Montanez and Matthews left as a free agent after 1976. Combined WAR: 124.5.

1967 Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski (27, 12.4); Reggie Smith (22, 3.4); Tony Conigliaro (22, 3.7)
The core of the Impossible Dream Red Sox. Yaz had one of the greatest seasons of all time in winning the MVP and Triple Crown while the rookie Smith was on his way to a borderline Hall of Fame career. Tony C was the heartbreaking story: He was hit in the eye that August and missed the rest of the season and all of 1968. Vision problems eventually prematurely ended his career. Combined WAR: 172.9.

As you can see, some pretty dynamic trios there. But maybe these Pirates will do something none of those groups did together: Win a World Series.
A glance through Sunday's results and some quick thoughts ... at least one for every team!
  • A's 11, Orioles 1: I wrote about Manny Machado's embarrassing episode here. How much of this is frustration by Machado? While he has had four two-hit games since May 31, his season line is a mediocre .235/.291/.346. Last June 30, he was hitting .321/.350/.489 with 35 doubles (remember when he was on a record pace for doubles in a season?). Since then he's hit .238/.278/.360 with 16 doubles in 107 games. Pitchers have been able to tie him up inside (.204 on inside pitches) and get him with primarily offspeed stuff outside (.236). For the first time, Machado is learning that baseball is hard. He needs to make those adjustments at the plate. ... The fielding metrics love Josh Donaldson's fielding and he passes the eye test with great plays like this one. If I'm voting today, he's my AL MVP.
  • Mariners 5, Rays 0: Felix Hernandez had one of the best games of his career on Sunday, with a career-high 15 K's in just seven innings. Remember when we were all worried about that no-strikeout game a few weeks ago? Since then he's 5-0 in six starts (he didn't get the win on Sunday since Seattle didn't score until a two-out, five-run rally in the ninth) with a 1.99 ERA. Jeff Sullivan suggests one reason for his success is Mike Zunino's ability to frame those pitches low in the strike zone. ... I love when managers do this: Ten days ago Endy Chavez wasn't good enough to be on the team and now Lloyd McClendon is batting him first or second. ... David Price, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer are all underperforming their FIP. I don't think that gives any solace to Rays fans.
  • Angels 4, White Sox 2: Interesting move by Mike Scioscia to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Adam Dunn in the ninth to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But the batter was backup catcher Adrian Nieto, who had entered earlier for Tyler Flowers, so the White Sox had to let him hit. ... Any doubt that the AL West is the best division in baseball right now? ... Robin Ventura had used Nieto to run for Flowers in the eighth after a leadoff walk. That didn't really make sense since the score was 4-0 at the time. ... Tough sweep for the White Sox since Sunday's loss came on the heels of leading 5-0 in the eighth on Saturday with Chris Sale pitching.
  • Astros 14, Twins 5: With George Springer, Jose Altuve and now Jon Singleton, the Astros have been interesting to watch for the first time in years. They're 16-9 since May 13 and have averaged 4.7 runs per game. ... How about Springer for the All-Star Game? Hitting .251/.346/.497 with 12 home runs and that's come after a slow start. With just one steal, hasn't flashed the stolen base part of that 30/30 potential, however. ... Don't exactly understand the Kendrys Morales signing for the Twins. The Twins are 29-32 and while that puts them in the wild-card race, it also means they're not that good. Morales isn't really a difference-maker. Wonder if he becomes trade bait in July if the Twins fall out if it.
  • Red Sox 5, Tigers 3: If anyone can stop a Red Sox losing streak, it's Joba Chamberlain. ... Big Papi doesn't miss 83-mph hanging sliders. ... I have mixed opinions on the Tigers right now. They're 33-26, but have outscored opponents by just nine runs. I wonder what Justin Verlander is right now and the late-inning relief has been shaky, although to be fair Joba had done a decent job before Sunday's ninth-inning blow-up. The offense looks mediocre beyond the awesome 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. It still seems like they should run away with the AL Central, but maybe we'll get a race like the past two seasons.
  • Indians 3, Rangers 2: The Indians are fifth in the AL in runs and while Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall have been great, I think there's still more upside from this group, especially from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana. ... This is one team that could really use David Price. He'd look pretty nice alongside Corey Kluber and Justin Masterson, but not sure the Indians have the prospects to get a deal done (they're not trading Francisco Lindor). ... Just not going to be the Rangers' year. Now Mitch Moreland, not that he was hitting great, is out for maybe the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery, and second baseman Rougned Odor had to leave Sunday's game with a sprained shoulder.
  • Royals 2, Yankees 1: The other day, I heard Yankees announcer John Sterling say the Yankees can only play better the rest of the season. Is that really true, however? This looks like a classic .500 team to me. ... Gotta love Ned Yost. He's hitting the players with the two highest OBPs on the team (Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain) fifth and seventh for the most part.
  • Cardinals 5, Blue Jays 0: Impressive back-to-back shutouts for the Cards in Toronto. ... Amazingly, the Cards have now homered in back-to-back games for the first time since May 7-9, snapping a 26-game stretch without homering in consecutive games. ... That lack of power remains one of the most important issues in the National League moving forward. ... You do wonder how the Blue Jays' rotation will hold up. Mark Buehrle is due to slide (he lost Saturday) and Sunday starter Drew Hutchison has been inconsistent and is coming off Tommy John surgery so you wonder about fatigue later in the season with him.
  • Giants 6, Mets 4: Hard to find a flaw right now with the Giants. Tim Lincecum wasn't great on Sunday -- allowing three runs in six innings -- but when he's the weakest link on the club that's how you can have the best record in baseball. ... Brandon Crawford remains an unsung member of the team, very good at shortstop and contributes with the bat. ... As bad as the Mets lineup looked on Sunday, the Mets are averaging 4.0 runs per game, right at the NL average. I hear the lineup being criticized a lot as being awful, but it's not, it's actually mediocre.
  • Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: On Sunday, the most expensive payroll in the majors rolled out a lineup that had Chone Figgins leading off, Scott Van Slyke batting fifth and playing center field, somebody named Jamie Romak batting sixth and playing right field, somebody named Miguel Rojas batting seventh and weak-hitting Drew Butera hitting eighth. And they won! ... Charlie Blackmon since May 1: .246/.289/.405. ... The Rockies are 2-11 their past 13 and their next 27 games are all against teams currently with a winning record. They may be 10 games under .500 by the end of that stretch. It was fun for awhile.
  • Diamondbacks 6, Braves 5: I think it's too late, but the D-backs are 20-15 since April 30. ... Chase Anderson is 5-0 in five starts. Is he this good? Probably not. His FIP is 4.54 but his ERA is 3.14. He had a 5.73 ERA last year at Triple-A Reno. He doesn't throw hard (average fastball is 90 mph) but has thrown strikes so far and hasn't hurt himself. ... Not sure how much longer the Braves can ride the Aaron Harang bandwagon (six walks on Monday). ... Tommy La Stella has hit .400 in nine games although with no extra-base hits. That's what he is, a guy who can hit for average and put the ball in play. He won't be a huge offensive contributor since it will be an empty average, but he should still be an upgrade over what they got from Dan Uggla the past year-plus (including defensively).
  • Brewers 1, Pirates 0: Yovani Gallardo had his best start of the season. I think he's a huge key to the Brewers winning the NL Central. ... If I'm filling out my All-Star ballot today, Jonathan Lucroy gets my vote as starting catcher. ... Is this what Starling Marte is, a .230 hitter? With 68 strikeouts and just 16 walks, he clearly has holes in his swing and areas he can be pitched to.
  • Nationals 6, Padres 0: You rarely see a pitcher dominate with just his fastball, but that's essentially what Jordan Zimmermann did, with nine of his 12 K's coming on his fastball. ... Zimmermann has lowered his ERA from 4.07 to 3.17 with two scoreless starts. Is he back to the guy who dominated in the first half of last year? We'll see, but those two starts came against the Phillies and Padres. ... The Nationals have the best ERA in the majors since May 1 at 2.87. ... This upcoming road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco will be an interesting test for the Nationals to make a statement that they're more than just a .500-ish team. ... Chase Headley will always have that second half of 2012. Will he go down as the least likely season RBI leader ever?
  • Marlins 4, Cubs 3: The Marlins continue to hang in there, although let's see if Henderson Alvarez's injury is serious (he left in the sixth with a hip strain after his scoreless streak ended at 26 innings). ... Next 16 games are against teams with losing records, so an important stretch to play well. ... Lineup is still more than just Giancarlo Stanton -- seven of the eight regulars have an OPS+ better than league average. ... In general, I still like this club and expect them to hang around in the NL East. ... Have the Cubs found a starter in Jake Arrieta? In 16 starts with them, he has a 3.18 ERA. Maybe leaving Camden Yards helped his confidence or maybe at 28 he's finally figuring a few things out. He's also being limited to 5-6 innings per outing. There are some gray areas in the numbers but he does have a 2.58 FIP this year to go with his 2.50 ERA, primarily because he's allowed just one home run. I'm still a little skeptical, as home runs have always been a big problem for him.
  • Reds 4, Phillies 1: Speaking of bad lineups, maybe it's time Bryan Price demotes Brandon Phillips and his .305 OBP out of the third spot? Not that Price has a lot of good options. He's hit Todd Frazier, the team's best hitter this season, in the second spot quite a bit recently, but he was hitting sixth on Sunday. So Price hit his hottest hitter sixth in order to lead off his lineup with three guys with OBPs of .288, .267 and .305. ... As for the Phillies, don't even get me going on Ben Revere, who drew a walk leading off a game for the first time in his career. He's hitting .282 ... with a robust .298 OBP. It's National League baseball, 2014 style!


Here’s what I’m thinking after the end of the Giants-Pirates game that ended with Starling Marte called out at home plate and then called safe, giving the Pirates the not-so-dramatic walk-off reversal: Isn’t this exactly how we don’t want games to end? With a committee meeting?

God knows we have enough of those in the NFL and Congress.

After all, if baseball is entertainment, where does a meeting fit in? Does anybody, in the late stages of life, ever say, "I wish I had attended more meetings. Well, the ones that had the pink frosted doughnuts with sprinkles at least."

We all want the umpires to get better and we want the calls to be correct as often as possible. But more instant replay wasn’t just a demand for a higher rate of precision, but also an appeal to be more like the NFL. The NFL has instant replay and the NFL is more popular than piano-playing cats, so baseball needed it as well. We can see all the wrong calls right there on our flat screens!

But baseball is not the NFL. A baseball season lasts 162 games compared to the NFL’s 16. One wrong call in an NFL game may be exponentially more vital to the game’s outcome -- and possibly the season’s -- than one call in a baseball game. As they like to say, the calls even out over an entire season. Just don’t tell that to the 1985 Cardinals.

In the past, I’ve written that baseball needed more instant replay, primarily because it hurts the sport’s integrity when fans are watching games and seeing blown calls. But the more I think about it, is that really the case? Has anyone stopped watching on TV or stopped going to games because their favorite team got hosed in a game back on May 6? Do bad calls make you a less interested baseball fan?

So there was Starling Marte, hammering a Tim Hudson fastball high off the scoreboard in right field in Pittsburgh, blazing around the bases like he’s racing Usain Bolt, sliding into the third and then scampering home when the relay throw gets away.

"Out!"

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Camera pans to disappointed fans.

Here comes Clint Hurdle.

Review.

Review.

Fans waiting.

Review.

There’s Marte sitting in front of the dugout railing.

Review.

"Safe."

Pirates win. A little anticlimactic, to say the least.

OK, in the end the committee got the call right. Buster Posey should have applied the tag when he appeared to get the ball in ample time, but he took a step backward as he reached down to tag Marte and Marte managed to slide his hand underneath Posey's glove.

There is certainly an argument that this is exactly why baseball needs replay. Marte was safe and the Pirates deserved to win. But remember that this play was one of 245 on the night; many of them had an impact on the outcome. This just happened to be the final one.

Of course, this play was arguably complicated by the new rules on home-plate collisions. By the letter of the rule, Posey had the ball before Marte had reached home and thus had the right to block the plate. He may have stepped back on the play believing he had to give Marte a running lane.

The other argument is that we want the players deciding the games, not the umpires -- that this makes the outcome as fair as possible.

I get that. Of course, when leaving the games entirely up to the players we get corked bats and pitchers scuffing the ball and using illegal foreign substances. We get steroids and greenies and spray-on sunscreen.

Is all that stuff fair?

I thought I'd like instant replay more than I have. It's not going away, so it doesn't really do any good to complain about it. But I'm already yearning for that time when we could groan and moan about the umpires costing our team another win.

Oh, and good win for the Pirates. They needed it.

Also, don’t even ask me about robot umps for balls and strikes.
There were 15 games played Wednesday. One-third of those games featured a shutout. Teams hit a collective .220 and averaged 2.8 runs per game. The Cubs played a doubleheader and didn't score a run, the first time that has happened since 1962 (the Cubs lost 103 games that year). Felix Hernandez allowed one run and didn't win, the 17th time since 2010 he's pitched at least seven innings, allowed one run or fewer and didn't get the W. Cliff Lee allowed one run and fanned 13 and didn't win. The highest-scoring games featured just 10 runs and both went extra innings, and one was decided when a utility infielder had to pitch.

So, yes, just another day of baseball. Quick thoughts ...
  • The Red Sox beat the White Sox 6-4, scoring twice in the 14th inning off infielder Leury Garcia. I'd say the 14th inning is a little early to run out of relievers, especially when your starter goes six innings. The White Sox were nursing a 4-2 lead in the eighth, but manager Robin Ventura burned through four relievers in getting just three outs as Boston scored once in the eighth and once in the ninth. Ventura was trying to match up and brought in lefties Scott Downs and Donnie Veal to face one batter, which led to a thin bullpen in extra innings. Rather than try to get a fourth inning out of Daniel Webb (who had thrown 59 pitches) or use a starter in relief, Ventura used Garcia. The White Sox bullpen has an MLB-worst 6.38 ERA and the bullpen walked 11 batters in this game. It was a concern heading into the season, and Doug Padilla writes that changes could be in order.
  • Julio Teheran continues to impress despite low strikeout totals. He beat Lee 1-0 with a three-hit shutout with just four strikeouts. Teheran threw 23 changeups (22 to left-handers), after having thrown only 15 in his first three starts. It worked as the Phillies went 0-for-6 against it. Teheran has only 13 strikeouts in 28 innings, but has allowed only four extra-base hits and walked six. The impressive thing about Wednesday's effort was going back out there in the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With Craig Kimbrel still day to day with a sore shoulder, Fredi Gonzalez even left Teheran in to face Chase Utley after Jimmy Rollins had singled (and stole second with two outs). Utley grounded a 3-1 sinker to second, Teheran's 115th pitch. Compare that to Lloyd McClendon, who pulled Hernandez in the eighth inning after 96 pitches and saw his bullpen and defense lose it in the ninth.
  • It's only three starts, but Masahiro Tanaka looks like a No. 1 to me. OK, it was the Cubs. And the Cubs can't hit (Michael Pineda & Co. shut them out in the nightcap). Still, that splitter is a wipeout pitch. Maybe hitters will learn to lay off it, but as Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara showed last season, hitters can't lay off it, even when they know it's coming. Tanaka has 28 strikeouts through three starts. Since 1900, only Stephen Strasburg and J.R. Richard had more strikeouts in their first three career starts.
  • Johnny Cueto had a brilliant three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout for the Reds over the Pirates, giving Cincinnati its first series win of 2014. Keep an eye on Pirates left fielder Starling Marte, however. Clint Hurdle didn't start him as he had struck out three times in each of the previous two games and now has 24 in 68 plate appearances (35 percent strikeout rate). He's hitting .250/.338/.383, but all the K's are becoming a concern. The Pirates need him to be more than just a great defensive left fielder; they need him to hit or this offense is really going to struggle to score runs.
  • Jose Fernandez, after getting roughed up and struggling with his command in his last start, was cruising along into the sixth inning against the Nationals with a 3-0 lead, having allowed only one hit with six punchouts. Jose Lobaton led off with a double and then Jarrod Saltalamacchia made a terrible play with pitcher Tanner Roark bunting. The bunt was short and in front of the plate and while Salty had a possible play at third, with a 3-0 lead you just take the out at first. He threw wildly and everyone was safe. After a strikeout and infield pop out, Fernandez should have been out of the inning. Instead, Jayson Werth did this, lining an 0-1 fastball down the middle just over the fence in right-center (the review confirmed it was a home run). Fernandez ended up with 10 K's in seven innings, but the Nationals won it with three in the eighth.
  • Big win for the Angels to avoid a sweep to the A's. A night after tying it in the ninth but losing in extra innings, the Angels again tied it in the bottom of the ninth and this time won in extra innings, on Chris Iannetta's 12th-inning walk-off homer against Drew Pomeranz. Mike Trout, who homered Tuesday to tie it, got the tying rally started with a base hit. Losing leads in the ninth is always wrenching, but especially so against a division rival. The Mariners lost to the Rangers in similar fashion (Jeff Sullivan writes it as only a Mariners fan can: Baseball's back).
  • Buster Olney wrote on George Springer's major league debut for the Astros. Springer went 1-for-5 with a dribbler for a base hit, a walk and two strikeouts in the Astros' 6-4 loss to the Royals in 11 innings. He also got picked off (one of two Astros to get picked off). The Royals won despite making four errors. Some game there. The Astros, by the way, are hitting .189.
  • Injury watch: Cardinals starter Joe Kelly is likely headed to the DL after pulling his hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit; Hanley Ramirez left the game after getting hit on his hand, but X-rays were negative and he's day-to-day; Kole Calhoun is out 4-6 weeks for the Angels after spraining a ligament in his ankle (J.B. Shuck hit leadoff in his place last night).
We're getting closer ...
  • Watched the Baltimore-Tampa Bay game on Wednesday night since it featured Opening Day starters Chris Tillman and David Price. Considering the teams are division rivals, both starters may have held back just a bit and neither pitcher went five innings. I think Price has a huge season coming, one reason I'm picking the Rays to win the AL East. Yu Darvish was going to be my Cy Young pick until his current stiff neck issue means he's going to miss the first week of the season and raises at least a little doubt over his season. I may shift now to Price -- or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander -- as he became a strike-throwing machine when he returned from his DL stint last season, walking just 13 batters over his final 18 starts. When you can command your stuff like that and throw 95+ mph, a lot of good things are going to happen.
  • The Angels cut Joe Blanton even though he's owed $8.5 million on his contract. Teams still have a hard time admitting mistakes so give Angels GM Jerry DiPoto credit here for cutting bait. It was a bad deal at the time -- Blanton predictably got hammered in the AL after straddling the line of mediocrity in the NL -- and his poor performance (2-14, 6.04 ERA) was a major reason the Angels finished under .500. Blanton was worth -2.0 WAR last year, so even replacement-level pitching from the fifth spot will be an improvement.
  • Strong final start from Rockies Opening Day starter Jorge De La Rosa, with six shutout innings against the Giants with one walk and seven strikeouts. The Rockies will need Jhoulys Chacin to come back strong in May but I'm starting to think the Rockies could be that sleeper team to watch -- a team that finished below .500 in 2013 that could make the playoffs. A lot of that depends on the health of some injury-prone players -- Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Brett Anderson -- but if the back of the rotation holds up the Rockies could crack .500 and surprise.
  • The Mets still haven't decided between defensive whiz Juan Lagares and stolen-base dude Eric Young Jr. for a starting outfield slot. The Mets know Lagares can play center -- his great range and 15 assists allowed him to post 26 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013, the sixth-highest total of any fielder -- but also know the .281 OBP he posted may not get any better. OK, I get that he can't hit. But EYJR, who led the NL with 46 steals, had a .310 OBP with the Mets last year. Young has been worth 0.3 WAR in his major league career, Lagares valued at 3.5 WAR a year ago. Lagares doesn't have to improve with the bat to be a more valuable player than Young. Even if his defense slips a little (he may not get as many assists, for example), he's still the better player.
  • The Pirates locked up Starling Marte to a six-year, $31 million extension, buying out at least one year of free agency and owning options on two more. Looks like a great deal for the Pirates, exactly the kind of below-market rate they need to sign their young players to, and once Gregory Polanco reaches the majors at some point this year, you're going to see what could be one of the best defensive outfields in recent memory with Marte in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Polanco in right.
  • Tanner Scheppers was named Opening Day starter for the Rangers, in what will be his first career start. I wonder how many pitchers have made their first career start on Opening Day? If I did the search right on Baseball-Reference, it looks like just three (at least since 1914): Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the Phillies in 1943. So who were those three guys? Grove had been a star for years for Baltimore in the International League when the A's purchased him. Bagby, son of a former major leaguer, had gone 21-8 in the Class A New York-Penn League in 1937, enough for the Red Sox to start him against the Yankees as a 21-year-old rookie. Boston had been 80-72 in 1937, so starting a rookie seems a little odd. Gerheauser was a 26-year-old minor league vet who had pitched for Yankees' Triple-A club in Newark in 1942. The Phillies had lost 109 games in 1942, so probably were hoping some Yankee magic would rub off on them. (Actually ... that list looks like pitchers who made their major league debut as an Opening Day starter. Fernando Valenzuela's first career start -- after 10 relief appearances in 1980 -- came on Opening Day of 1981. He pitched a shutout and then reeled off seven more starts in a row of nine innings (one wasn't a complete game). He allowed four runs in those eight starts and we had Fernandomania.
  • So Randy Wolf was told he had made the Mariners' Opening Day rotation. And then got released. So ... what? Apparently, the Mariners asked Wolf to sign a 45-day advanced-consent relief form, which would mean the Mariners could release Wolf within 45 days and not have to pay his full season's salary. I didn't know such a possible contract existed, and I don't know how common such requests are, but Wolf refused to sign it and became a free agent. (Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has the story here.) It's understandable why the Mariners would make the request -- Wolf didn't pitch in the majors last year and was last effective in 2011 and it's possible he would simply be holding a spot for a few starts until Taijuan Walker is ready, but considering Wolf was set to make just $1 million, it makes the Mariners look petty and cheap. It's already hard enough to get players to come to Seattle; this isn't going to help.



Eric Karabell and myself break down the BBTN 100's top left fielders. Left field was once the domain of sluggers like Greg Luzinski and Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez and it didn't matter if you played any defense as long as you hit 30 home runs and knocked in 100. The only regular left fielder to achieve those numbers in 2013 was ... Alfonso Soriano (who hit 32 homers and drove in 93 while playing left, with an additional two and eight coming as a DH). Maybe Carlos Gonzalez and Bryce Harper stay healthy enough to reach those figures this year. Maybe Yoenis Cespedes has a big season for the A's. Maybe Justin Upton improves in his second season in Atlanta. Maybe Josh Hamilton plays better for the Angels.

Will Pirates' performance in key spots last?

July, 23, 2013
7/23/13
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The success of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 has been more than just a feel-good story for baseball. Not only are they well on the way from ending a 20-year string of losing seasons, they are very much in contention to win their division for the first time since 1992. The Pirates’ push to the postseason has largely been fueled by effective starting pitching combined with stellar work from their bullpen. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Pirates pitching had baseball’s best ERA at 3.09, the lowest opponents’ batting average at .226, and the lowest OPS at .646.

A part of the success the Pirates are having this year comes from the play of their infield defense. Last week, Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out that Pittsburgh’s infield defense converted more ground balls into outs than any other team in baseball. One reason for that high conversion rate, according to James Santelli of PiratesProspects.com, is that the Pirates have dramatically increased their utilization of defensive shifts.
[+] EnlargeMark Melancon
AP Photo/Nick WassBeyond Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon has been one the Pirates' key pen performers.

Pittsburgh has had to do what they can to emphasize their pitching strengths in order to overcome the shortcomings of the offense. The Pirates have the fifth-worst team batting average at .243 and their .701 team OPS is in the bottom third of the league. Those numbers get even worse when runners are in scoring position, as the Pirates are hitting a league-worst .222 in those situations while only the Miami Marlins have a lower team OPS than Pittsburgh’s .638 in them. The Pirates compensate for their inability to get men into scoring position with an active running game that has generated 69 stolen bases.

At different points this season, Pittsburgh has relied on one or two players to carry its offense. In April, Starling Marte and Garret Jones led the charge while May saw Jose Tabata and Neil Walker do most of the work. June belonged to Pedro Alvarez, who hit .309 with a 1.080 OPS in the month, but July has belonged to the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen.

After a slow start in April, McCutchen has hit .330/.405/.534 with 15 stolen bases, 31 extra-base hits and 39 runs driven in. McCutchen’s overall 2013 numbers are not that far off his MVP-caliber numbers of last season. While his OPS is down 70 points from 2012, he has reduced his strikeout rate from 20 percent to 15 percent; on the bases, he has already exceeded last season’s stolen base total of 20 withs 21 in 94 games played this year.

McCutchen’s hot bat is vital to any postseason aspirations the Pirates may have. When a team is built around pitching and defense, as Pittsburgh is this season, it is critical to have one consistent threat that can change a game in key moments. We have seen that the past few seasons in Tampa Bay, where Evan Longoria had to shoulder a lot of the clutch moments for a team that scratched and clawed for multiple runs in games while relying heavily on its pitching and defense to carry the day. McCutchen continues to prove himself worthy of that role.

Monday night’s injury to Jason Grilli is a paramount concern for the team. Grilli has been amazing in the final innings for Pittsburgh, saving 30 contests and striking out 39 percent of the batters he has faced while limiting them to a .186 batting average. Grilli and Mark Melancon have been arguably the most lethal late-inning duo in baseball. One area those two and the rest of the bullpen have excelled at in 2013 is shutting down the opposition when they have runners in scoring position.

The Pittsburgh bullpen has held opposing batters to a .194 batting average and a .586 OPS with runners in scoring position; both efforts are in the top three spots on the league leaderboards. As a staff, the Pirates are tops in both categories with a .218 team batting average and a .623 OPS which is well above the .256 league-wide average and .728 league-wide OPS for pitching staffs.

The ability to maintain that level of production will be important the rest of this season for one reason. Actually, make that 13 reasons, because the Pirates have 13 games against the St. Louis Cardinals between now and Sept. 8. The Cardinals have the best record in all of baseball and are truly in a league of their own when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position. Their .338 team batting average with runners in scoring position is 49 points better than any other team in baseball and 82 points above the league average. Their .876 team OPS in that split is 47 points better than any other team and 148 points above the league average.

That amazing effort is led by Allen Craig who is hitting .489/.500/.681 with runners in scoring position, but he is but one of five regulars in the Cardinals offense on the RISP lead leaderboard, as he is joined by Carlos Beltran (.418/.447/.627), Matt Carpenter (.403/.488/.582), Yadier Molina (.395/.471/.523) and Matt Holliday (.368/.458/.515).

In what prove to be a classic unstoppable-force vs. immovable-object argument, we’ll find out if Pittsburgh’s numbers against runners in scoring position are awesome because they have only played St. Louis five times so far, or if the Cardinals’ numbers are so incredible because they have faced the Pirates only five times and have been outscored 26 to 22. In what might decide the NL Central, the next six weeks will tell us which group of statistics is the real deal.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

June, 27, 2013
6/27/13
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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.
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The Franchise Player Draft has been completed, so it's time for Eric Karabell and myself to continue our tradition of doing the second round. All picks were made by Eric and myself, not the franchise "owners," so yell at us, not them. Eric made all the odd-numbered picks and I made the even-numbered picks.

And, no, I did not draft Eric Hosmer.

31. Keith Law (David Price): Oscar Taveras. KLaw knows a few things about prospects, and Taveras was his No. 2 guy entering the season, after the already chosen Jurickson Profar.

32. Manny Acta (Jose Bautista): Matt Moore. Bautista is a win-now type of building block, but so is Moore, a 24-year-old with terrific stuff, hasn't been overworked and has as good a chance as anybody to be the best pitcher in baseball over the next five years.

33. Eric Karabell (Andrelton Simmons). Carlos Gonzalez. Defense in Round 1, offense in Round 2. And even if this mythical team doesn't play its home games at Coors Field, note that CarGo is hitting better on the road this season.

34. Jonah Keri (Joe Mauer): Madison Bumgarner. Hard to believe that he doesn't turn 24 until August, but he already has two World Series rings and two 200-inning seasons. He's so efficient that he should be a 200-inning guy for years to come.

35. Scott Spratt (Felix Hernandez): Jean Segura. I'll admit I considered Segura late in Round 1, but instead opted for the elite defense of Simmons. Segura won't hit .350 all year, but he's not a bad pick at this spot.

36. Jim Bowden (Stephen Strasburg): Jordan Zimmermann. Hey, don't blame Strasburg and Zimmermann for the Nationals' problems this year! Jim was the Nationals' GM when the club selected him in the second round of the 2007, so he's happy to snag him again.

37. Paul Swydan (Jurickson Profar): Matt Wieters. Build teams up the middle! Wieters remains a building-block player, despite a slow start to 2013.

SportsNation

Who should be the first pick of the second round?

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    28%
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    17%
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Discuss (Total votes: 1,661)

38. Curt Schilling (Shelby Miller): Paul Goldschmidt. Too early for a first baseman? Maybe, but Goldschmidt is more than just a slugger. He's an elite defender at first, swipes some bases, and at 25 is entering his prime years.

39. Mark Simon (David Wright): Zack Wheeler. Well, Mark is, after all, a Mets fan. And pretty soon Wheeler will have many fans.

40. Justin Havens (Ryan Braun): Prince Fielder. A relatively safe pick considering Fielder's durability and on-base skills. Plus, Justin can now watch that 2011 Brewers highlight DVD that has been collecting dust.

41. Orel Hershiser (Justin Upton): Adam Wainwright. OK, so maybe the Cardinals right-hander has never tossed 59 consecutive scoreless innings, but he's pretty good.

42. David Schoenfield (Troy Tulowitzki): Miguel Sano. Prospects are overrated! Plus, Sano is only in Class A ball, you say? Sure, but he'll be in Double-A soon, putting him on track for a midseason promotion to the Twins in 2014. And then my future third baseman will start winning home run titles.

43. Mike Greenberg (Matt Kemp): Chris Davis. Well, at least one of these sluggers is healthy and producing. And Davis does look legit.

44. Mike Golic (Dustin Pedroia): Elvis Andrus. With that double-play duo behind them, the pitchers on Golic's team will be very happy pitchers. Well, assuming the outfield doesn't consist of Raul Ibanez, Lucas Duda and Mike Morse.

45. Richard Durrett (Justin Verlander): Adam Jones. This elite center fielder looks even better than his breakout 2012.

46. Christina Kahrl (Jason Heyward): Xander Bogaerts. He probably doesn't stick at shortstop, but he's going to hit at whatever position he plays. Plus, his name starts with an X, and he'll be better than Xavier Nady.

47. Buster Olney (Robinson Cano): Clay Buchholz. Olney got a close-up look at Buchholz on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, and had to be impressed. Perhaps he can build an entire fake team with all Yankees and Red Sox.

48. Dan Szymborski (Yu Darvish): Carlos Santana. We're not privy to the super secret ZiPS projection system that Dan keeps stored in a bank vault somewhere in Maryland, but we have to think it likes a catcher with power and on-base skills.

49. Jon Sciambi (Giancarlo Stanton): Yasiel Puig. Could be 80 home runs from this duo in 2014. Or, we suppose, fewer.

50. Mike Petriello (Andrew McCutchen): Yadier Molina. Talk about building up the middle. Molina turns 31 in July and caught a lot of games before turning 30, so there's risk that he won't hold up. But he's the kind of guy you take a risk on.

51. C.J. Nitkowski (Joey Votto): Austin Jackson. Terrific center fielder and leadoff hitter could have gone in the first round. It's tougher to find an all-around center fielder than a first baseman.

52. Alex Cora (Miguel Cabrera): Chris Sale. Some believe he's an arm injury waiting to happen, but there's no denying he's one of the best starters in the game.

53. Tim Kurkjian (Matt Harvey): Wil Myers. One future Cy Young winner is set, and here comes the prototypical slugging right fielder to join him. If the Rays would just cooperate and promote him.

54. Jim Caple (Yoenis Cespedes): Matt Cain. We know Caple loves those West Coast guys, so let's give him Cain, who is still just 28. Don't overreact to his current 5+ ERA. He'll be fine.

55. Dave Cameron (Evan Longoria): Mike Zunino. Mariners fan gets the next great Mariner. Thought about giving him Dustin Ackley or Jesus Montero, picks from last season, but that seemed a bit unfair.

56. Molly Knight (Clayton Kershaw): Cole Hamels. What's wrong with Hamels? As with Cain, let's not overreact to two subpar months. A rotation with these two lefties would look pretty sweet.

57. Jayson Stark (Buster Posey): Jose Fernandez. Future ace has certainly impressed as a rushed rookie this season.

58. Aaron Boone (Manny Machado): Starling Marte. He's playing left field for the Pirates, but could easily move to center, giving Aaron two elite young defenders who have some ability at the plate as well.

59. Doug Glanville (Bryce Harper): Starlin Castro. What a fall from grace! A year ago the Chicago Cubs shortstop was the ninth overall selection in Round 1. Now he barely gets chosen at all. I have to admit, he doesn't seem to be growing at the plate or in the field, but Glanville probably has more patience.

60. Jerry Crasnick (Mike Trout): Mark Appel. Jerry loves Dylan Bundy, but he was just recently cleared to start throwing for the first time since late March. So let's go off the board and give him a guy who hasn't even started his professional career yet. Thanks us later, Jerry.

    "I don't think I ever got proper credit about being smart about the game." -- Rickey Henderson

When was the golden age for leadoff hitters?

Well, 1965 was pretty good. Joe Morgan was a rookie that year and hit his way into the leadoff spot, where he posted a .943 OPS. Felipe Alou started 108 games in the leadoff position and hit .303 with 20 home runs. Zoilo Versalles was the American League MVP, started 155 games there for the Twins and led the league in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. Pete Rose and Lou Brock started large chunks of games there. Maury Wills stole 92 bases.

How about 1975? Rose, Ken Singleton and Bobby Bonds each had more than 400 plate appearances from the top spot and on-base percentages over .400. Davey Lopes stole 72 bases, and Brock swiped 56. Guys such as Bernie Carbo, Roy White, Don Money and Al Bumbry were productive when hitting there.

There was 1987, with Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, a second-year kid named Barry Bonds, Brett Butler, Brian Downing and Lou Whitaker. Remember Kal Daniels? He started 74 games for the Reds as the leadoff hitter that year and hit .337 with 22 home runs.

And 2004 seems like a good season. Ichiro Suzuki hit .377 with 251 hits as a leadoff guy. Johnny Damon scored 123 runs and drove in 94. Other leadoff success stories were Ray Durham, Jimmy Rollins, some Derek Jeter, .336-hitting Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal. Craig Biggio hit .281 with 23 home runs and 46 doubles leading off. Pretty stellar group.

Good years all. Maybe you grew up in the '80s, when it seems half the teams had leadoff hitters who could swipe 50-plus bases -- Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno. Maybe that feels like the best era for leadoff hitters.

It isn't. The golden age is now.

I checked every season since 1950 and compared the production of leadoff hitters to the overall major league batting totals. Granted, it's only early May, but at their current rate, leadoff hitters have never hit better when compared to their peers. Here's a table listing the top 10 seasons by leadoff hitters (since 1950), using OPS compared to league OPS. Also included are the league-average runs per game and the number of stolen bases and runs scored per 650 PAs.


Using OPS is an imperfect method, because it doesn't factor in speed and stealing bases. That's why I included the totals for steals and runs per 650 PAs. Stolen bases don't really have a large effect on run scoring. Compare 2013 to 1990; the run-scoring environments were essentially the same (4.3 runs per game), and while the 1990 guys swiped 10 more bases per 650 PAs, they scored fewer runs. Stolen bases are down a bit in 2013, and certainly injuries to big stolen-base guys such as Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn have dragged down those steal totals a bit.

If there was a golden era before 2013, it looks like that 1990-1992 period, which featured leadoff hitters such as Henderson, Molitor, Lenny Dykstra, Wade Boggs, Tony Phillips, Bip Roberts, Butler, Delino DeShields, Raines, Biggio, Brady Anderson and Devon White.

But never before have we seen the depth in quality leadoff hitters that we're seeing this year. Yes, some of this is a result of the readjustment of offensive levels in recent years. From 1993 to 2006, leadoff hitters never posted OPS totals above the MLB average; as offensive totals boomed, leadoff hitters looked worse compared to their peers. The decline in offensive numbers has brought the rest of the pack back closer to leadoff hitters, but even the raw OPS total for 2013 of .759 is tied for the fourth highest behind 1987 (.764), 2006 (.762) and 2007 (.760).

Look at the best leadoff hitters in the game right now -- a group that doesn't even include Mike Trout, who has started only eight games in the leadoff spot, or the injured Reyes: Shin-Soo Choo (leading the majors in OBP), Austin Jackson (31 runs in 31 games), the underrated Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler off to big start, Carl Crawford looking healthy and good again, Jacoby Ellsbury, the emerging Dexter Fowler, unsung Norichika Aoki and Starling Marte, perhaps a star in the making in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's Nate McLouth is a platoon player but has a .423 OBP hitting leadoff.

But what really makes 2013 a golden age is the quality behind those players. Others who have hit regularly there include Coco Crisp, Jose Altuve, Denard Span, Angel Pagan, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, David DeJesus and Brett Gardner, all of whom have provided solid production.

One thing managers have wised up on -- for the most part -- is that batting a speedy guy leadoff isn't worth it if his OBP is under .300. Coleman had 670 PAs and stole 107 bases with the Cardinals in 1986 but still scored only 94 runs. The days of guys like Brian Hunter (.282 OBP in 1999 while starting 102 games with the Mariners in the leadoff position) burning up 500 PAs are gone. Managers won't stick with a guy that long anymore. (Well, Dusty Baker might, but Walt Jocketty acquired Choo for him this year.)

So, no, maybe there isn't one player the equal of a Henderson (of course not, that's like saying there's nobody who can hit like Babe Ruth) or Raines, or a 1993 Dykstra or in-his-prime Ichiro, but appreciate the guys out there: There's a lot of quality.

Defensive player of month: Manny Machado

May, 2, 2013
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Manny Machado and Starling MarteGetty ImagesThe glovework of Manny Machado and Starling Marte helped the O's and Pirates to winning Aprils.
We've brought back the Defensive Player of the Month Award for the 2013 season, and our choice for April, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, was in the ESPN spotlight with a pair of stories on Tuesday.

The Stats & Info Blog ran through Machado's defensive credentials since his recall. Breaking those down into those accumulated in the season's first month, they are:

--5 defensive runs saved, tied with Evan Longoria and Matt Dominguez for the most in the majors at third base.

--13 "Out of Zone" plays (in other words, plays made outside the zones in which third basemen most often turn batted balls into outs), tied for the most with Dominguez.

--6 Web Gems, the most of any player in baseball, and twice as many as any of the eight other nominees we considered combined.

The voting was handled by ESPN.com writers, baseball analysts and researchers from ESPN and Baseball Info Solutions (BIS), and includes Doug Glanville, Jayson Stark, Jonah Keri and Eric Karabell. Each voted for a first-, second- and third-place finisher, with points awarded on a 5-3-1 basis

Machado was a well-deserved winner, earning seven of the 10 first-place votes, but also getting defensive props for the month were:

Starling Marte, Pirates LF
Marte was the runner-up to Machado in our voting. He led major league left fielders with seven defensive runs saved, three more than any other player at that position.

One of the reasons that Marte rates so highly statistically is because he had two home run-robbing catches during the month -- in other words, plays that directly saved runs. They weren’t your classic Mike Trout, scale-the-wall leaping grabs. In each instance, Marte raced back to a low left-field fence and made a reaching grab to snag a would-be home run.

For more on Marte's impact this month, check out the ESPN Insider piece from Scott Spratt on the significant improvements to the Pirates' defense.

Evan Longoria, Rays/Matt Dominguez, Astros
This was a good month for third basemen. We mentioned that Longoria and Dominguez finished tied with Machado in runs saved at the position.

Longoria had three Web Gems, second most among our nominees, and was slightly better than Dominguez in terms of good play/misplay & error ratio (documented by Baseball Info Solutions' video tracking).

Norichika Aoki/Carlos Gomez, Brewers
Aoki and Gomez both had great months from a statistical perspective. Aoki led right fielders with nine defensive runs saved. Gomez had the most among center fielders with seven.

It seemed odd to us that both had such high ratings, and in surveying Brewers fans on Twitter, we got a partial explanation why. The Brewers' coaching staff has been playing their outfielders, particularly Aoki, very deep. That's allowed them to take away a few potential extra-base hits, with a limited cost thus far.

That's reflected in both their numbers. BIS' range rating (a "plus-minus system") has Aoki taking away 17 bases above what the average fielder would take away on balls hit to the deepest parts of the park (in other words, a bunch of extra-base hits) and being five bases below average on balls hit to the shallowest parts of the outfield. Gomez has taken away 10 bases on deep balls, and one on the shallow balls.

It's an interesting strategic decision, and one that bears watching throughout the regular season to see if the numbers hold up.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves
This isn't the first time we've talked about Simmons' defense and it certainly won't be the last. Simmons led shortstops with six defensive runs saved for the month. He converted 92 percent of the balls hit into shortstop "zones" (the areas in which a shortstop gets outs more than half the time) into outs, second best in the majors to Cliff Pennington.

Simmons had an outstanding month. Machado just happened to be a little bit better.
Brewers fans aren't accustomed to seeing the Pirates actually win a game at Miller Park -- the Brewers are a remarkable 46-8 at home against the Pirates since 2007.

They are, however, too accustomed to seeing John Axford struggle. After Axford blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning on Wednesday afternoon -- Starling Marte hit a two-run homer, Brandon Inge hit the go-ahead bloop -- he walked off the mound to a chorus of boos. (The Pirates won 6-4.) One of the heroes of the 2011 playoff team, Axford is now 0-3 with a 10.32 ERA and you wonder how long Ron Roenicke will keep using him in important situations. Yes, he'd been pitching better since losing his closer role, allowing just one run over in his previous eight appearances, but he's still not a guy you want to trust; 7.1 innings is a not enough evidence that he was back to the Axford of 2011.

The Brewers have an interesting team. They can score runs and they can really score runs at Miller Park, where the ball flies. They're getting huge performances from Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt, who each homered again on Wednesday. Jim Henderson has pitched well in the ninth inning since replacing Axford. The rotation is acceptable. But they can't afford to let the bullpen take down the team like it did a year ago. In the NL Central, which could be shaping up as a four-team race, the Brewers are a playoff contender.

GM Doug Melvin shouldn't wait until July to fortify the bullpen. Do it now. The Brewers don't have a highly rated farm system, but relievers don't cost a lot. Ask the Marlins about Steve Cishek or the Padres about Luke Gregerson. Or find that unheralded guy who looks like a sleeper, like when the Angels acquired Ernesto Frieri last year from the Padres.

As for the Pirates, it was a terrific win and Marte continues to impress from the leadoff spot, hitting .321/.387/.491. They're 16-12 even though Andrew McCutchen hasn't hit much yet. One reason they are: Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have locked down the eighth and ninth innings. Two innings that continue to plague the Brewers.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
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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

SportsNation

How many games will the Pirates win?

  •  
    20%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    24%
  •  
    11%

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.

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