Fascinating, isn’t it? That a team could be so physically close to the NY-metropolitan area, and yet have little or no consequence in the minds of most Mets fans?
Pittsburgh is only about 300 miles from Flushing, but it may as well be a million. The average Mets fan (excluding the loyal diehards reading this blog, of course) might be able to name two Pirates players off the top of their head — most likely, the two former Mets Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. After that, it’s a lot of “umms” and “uhhhs” as they search their mind — or their fantasy team — for another Bucco ballplayer.
So, we’re counting on Cory Humes, Director of Baseball at the Most Valuable Network and columnist for the Pittsburgh Lumber Co. (c’mon, you remember Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and the rest of the hard-hitting gang of the 1970s, don’t you?) to give us the scoop on the Pirates.
1. At the beginning of the season, things in Pittsburgh were looking optimistic. You had good young arms in the rotation and at the end of the bullpen, strong defense, and power-hitting Adam LaRoche added to an already impressive, up and coming lineup. The Pirates’ talented youth looked on the verge of turning a corner. Today, however, the Pirates are fighting to stay out of the cellar. What happened?
The problem, I think, was that the Pirates were counting on too many unknowns. On Opening Day, I said that if all went well, the Pirates would be a .500 baseball team (and as such, capable of staying competitive in a weak NL Central). Of course, that was before Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny emerged as legitimate starting pitchers, before LaRoche hovered around the Mendoza line in April (as Bay did in June), and before a shuttle service started for relief pitchers going back and forth between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis.
Quite simply, the Pirates’ supporting players — Bautista, Duffy, Paulino, Wilson — haven’t done nearly as much as optimists had hoped, and our two big bats haven’t seen the ball all that well. Outside of three or four starting pitchers, the roster has disappointed. Long story short: Decent pitching, but no offense.
2. Your opinion on Jim Tracy — in game management and his handling of the ballplayers.
Tracy’s being run out of town by the hardcore fans, but I’ve always appreciated his skills as a manager. Like Lloyd McClendon before him, I think it’s unfair to evaluate Tracy based on what he’s done with this roster. The Pirates would have you believe they’re underperforming, but I think that the biggest contributor to our losing tradition is a sheer lack of talent.
That being said, Tracy’s insistence on using players with low on-base percentages — Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson, Matt Kata — near the top of his batting order is frustrating. He’ll find playing time for a hot stick, but he writes curious lineups cards (to say the least).
Given the Pirates’ weak bench and lack of relief pitching past Capps, Torres, Marte and Chacon, you can’t question his in-game decisions much. He doesn’t have the options other major-league managers do.
3. Zach Duke may be back before the end of August. Yet, he’s been the subject of trade rumors here and there. Do the Pirates have reason to send him away, or is it more wishful thinking on the part of pundits and fans outside of Pittsburgh? (Can we send you a good young outfielder for him?)
You’re a witness to the Pirates’ main reason to send him away — Oliver Perez. Duke is broken, and we probably can’t fix him. Other teams, though, see our ineptitude and are convinced that with the right coaching, they can coax our castoffs back to form. Bronson Arroyo comes to mind as another player whom Pittsburgh gave up on too early.
The Pirates need to trade pitching for hitting in the worst possible way, and I seriously doubt that Ian Snell’s headed anywhere for less than a king’s ransom. With four lefties in the rotation (and another, Sean Burnett, looming in the minors), it makes sense to deal a southpaw. Still, Dave Littlefield has publicly said he’s reluctant to send away such a valuable commodity. You can’t blame him for that — if everyone else wants our starters, shouldn’t we, too?
4. Why did it take so long to give Matt Kata a shot? Is he someone to find a place for, or simply on a hot streak?
Because he’s 29 years old, and the Pirates have a stable of other infield options — Freddy Sanchez, Jose Bautista, Jack Wilson, Jose Castillo, and now Cesar Izturis. Kata’s played well in a couple of starts, so you’ll likely see him in the lineup Tuesday. As I said earlier, Tracy will reward a hot player — even if that hot player’s a journeyman.
Still, the fact that Kata’s cutting into Castillo’s playing time is discouraging. You’d think the Pirates would rather showcase the younger guy with more upside. No matter what, though, when Bautista returns from injury third base is his. I wouldn’t worry about finding a permanent spot for Kata, but I suppose he’s useful as a utility option.
5. Are Jose Castillo and Jose Bautista the same person? Their Strat-O-Matic cards sure look the same, and I don’t think I’ve seen them both in the game at the same time.
One hustles — Bautista — and one doesn’t. Castillo’s a bit flashier with the glove, but Bautista’s been solid at third. Both have the occasional power surge, but Bautista has proven to be a more valuable hitter because of his ability to draw a walk. All things considered, though, they’re relatively interchangeable. Given a choice, I’d take Bautista.
6. Speaking of Castillo, should the Mets consider him for second base? We’ve heard he’s a head case. What’s the scoop?
He’s been labeled as lazy, and I don’t think that’s entirely undeserved. At the same time, it’s hard to stay motivated when your manager gives you a start or less per week. Especially when you’re a Pirate, and the guys in front of you are by all accounts average ballplayers.
If I were an opposing GM, I’d probably take a flyer on Jose. He plays highlight-reel defense at second (and is serviceable at third and short), and can crush balls like you wouldn’t believe. You have to remember he just turned 26 and already has three years of experience as a starter. With the right coaching (and perhaps Minaya’s Latin influence), I think he could turn into — at the very least — a decent backup.
Then again, I don’t understand why no one will make a move for Jorge Cantu, either.
7. What happened to the idea of Xavier Nady at third base? Do the Bucs lack OF depth, or was Nady a bit shady at the hot corner?
In the days immediately following the Perez-Nady swap, there was talk that Nady had a little experience as a third baseman. Some of us discussed the possibility of shifting Freddy Sanchez to second and inserting Nady at the hot corner, but I don’t know that the Pirates ever considered that to be a plausible alternative. Having him split time between first and right seemed to work well, and now you’ll see him playing a mediocre center field, too.
I think the decision was made primarily due to Nady’s lack of polish at third, but the Pirates do have more capable infielders than outfielders.
8. In Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm, the Pirates have three 25-year-old pitchers with exciting upsides. What do these three have to do, individually, to turn the corner? Tell us ignorant New Yorkers what to expect when we see them at Shea this week.
Snell needs to stop trying to win games by himself. At times, he prefers to beat batters one-on-one rather than rely on the defenders behind him. He honestly believes he can strike anyone out, but at times that approach can prove costly. He’ll try to paint the black and miss, resulting in either walks or homers.
Gorzelanny’s still learning the ropes of playing in the bigs. I wouldn’t necessarily say he needs to turn a corner. In his first 32 major-league starts (just under 200 innings), he’s 11-11 with a 3.65 ERA. If put together in one season, those numbers would merit R.O.Y. consideration. He’ll only get better.
Maholm finally figured that he needs to throw strikes — nothing more. His natural downward movement lends itself well to being an extreme ground ball pitcher. He’s improved dramatically over the past month or two. You can expect that he’ll last six innings, allow his fair share of baserunners but emerge relatively unscathed. Paul’s an unimpressive innings eater that occasionally can put together a special outing.
9. Tie game, last inning, two out, runner on third. What Bucco batter do you want at the plate?
Looks like we’re playing extras.
No, seriously, I’d probably take Nady. He won a game in our first series of the year against the Astros, and he hasn’t stopped contributing since. He’s worked out for the Pirates — about as well as Ollie has for you guys.
10. Same situation, Mets are up. What Met would you least like to see hitting?
As for the Mets: Who’s your best fastball hitter? I pick him. Matt Capps throws strike one every time. And if any other Pirate reliever is in, we probably lose.
Thanks again to Cory for sharing his thoughts on the Pittsburgh Pirates. Be sure to check out his Pirates blog, the Pittsburgh Lumber Co., and the Most Valuable Network (MVN) for commentary by other top-notch bloggers on all 30 Major League Teams.