Tag:Pedro Alvarez
Posted on: February 9, 2012 4:51 pm
Edited on: February 27, 2012 10:47 am
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Spring position battles: National League Central



By C. Trent Rosecrans


The National League Central is often looked down upon, but it produced both teams in the National League Championship Series last year, as well as the World Series. Both the Cardinals and Brewers have large voids in their lineup due to free agency, but all the teams have some questions when pitchers and catchers report to camp. Here's the NL Central spring position battles:

Chicago Cubs
Old vs. Young: Bryan LaHair and Marlon Byrd vs. Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson

For so long the Cubs' motto has been "wait 'til next year" -- that may have been changed to "wait 'til a couple of years" as Theo Epstein has fully embraced the rebuilding effort. The question is whether the braintrust thinks it's better for some of their younger players to learn at the big-league level or continue in the minors. The two biggest choices will be Rizzo and Jackson. Rizzo, 22, struggled in his call-up last season, hitting .141/.281/.242 with a homer in 153 plate appearances, but that was as a 21-year-old in San Diego. LaHair may only have 65 games in the big leagues, but that doesn't make him young -- just inexperienced. LaHair turned 29 in November and spent eight years in the minors. He hit .288/.377/.508 in his 20 games with the Cubs last season, but he's hardly anyone's idea of a long-term solution. Epstein drafted Rizzo while with the Red Sox and then traded for him when he took over the Cubs. It's Rizzo's job to lose. Meanwhile, Byrd is in the last season of his three-year, $15 million contract, so he's more likely to get traded than to be unseated in spring. The 23-year-old Jackson put up a .297/.388/.551 line at Triple-A Iowa with 10 homers in just 48 games after being called up from Double-A. The team's first-round pick in the 2009 draft will have a chance to show he's big-league ready. If the team does go with Rizzo and Jackson, it could be a sign of the team's future and the patience that Chicago will show going forward.

Cincinnati Reds
Left field: Chris Heisey vs. Ryan Ludwick

The Reds signed Ludwick to a bargain deal, hoping he can find the stroke he left in St. Louis. The 33-year-old has always hit well at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, putting up a .276/.321/.600 stat line with nine homers in 30 games and 112 plate appearances in his new home park. Both Ludwick and Heisey are right-handed batters who fare better against right-handed pitchers. Ludwick is a career .272/.339/.464 hitter against righties and .237/.316/.435 against lefties. Heisey's split is more extreme -- .288/.346/.539 against right-handers and .180/.248/.300 against lefties. One thing that helps Ludwick's case may be Heisey's strength as a pinch-hitter. Last year the 27-year-old Heisey hit .324/.333/.529 with two homers as a pinch-hitter. There's another option here, as well. If Drew Stubbs struggles at the plate, Hesiey could be an option to play center alongside Ludwick in left. That's a remote possibility, though. The Reds are high on Stubbs' power/speed combination and he is an excellent defender in center.

Houston Astros
Third base: Brett Wallace vs. Chris Johnson vs. Jimmy Paredes

The fact that the Astros are looking to move Wallace to third base may tell you what they think of Johnson and Paredes. If Wallace shows he can play third, he's the likely favorite. Johnson struggled in 2011 after showing promise in 2010. Paredes hit .286/.320/.393 after taking over the position for the last two months of the season, but he's not seen as a long-term solution. Wallace could be.

Milwaukee Brewers
First base: Mat Gamel vs. himself

With Ryan Braun's status resolved, the Brewers don't really have many question marks. All five starters return, as do its closer and top set-up man. The lineup, with a platoon of Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan and newcomer Aramis Ramirez at third base seems pretty much set -- barring injury. The only hole is a big one -- the one left by first baseman Prince Fielder. The position is Mat Gamel's to lose. The 26-year-old played in just 10 games last season, getting 27 plate appearances. His only extensive big-league experience came in 2009 when he hit .242/.338/.422 with five homers, primarily playing third base. However, he's never been able to establish himself and after playing both third base and the outfield, he played primarily first base at Triple-A Nashville last season, while making six errors in 20 games at third base. He's a first baseman now and a first baseman only. He's hit  well at Triple-A, hitting .301/.374/.512 in parts of four seasons at the top level of the minors, hitting 28 home runs for Nashville last season. Gamel will probably start at first on opening day even if he struggles in spring, but right fielder Corey Hart could be used at first if Gamel struggles even more. The team did sign Japanese outfield Norichika Aoki, who could play right if Hart moves to first.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Third base: Pedro Alvarez vs. Casey McGehee

Acquiring the veteran McGehee from Milwaukee could be seen as a kick in the pants for the second-overall pick of the 2008 draft. Alvarez hit just .191/.272/.289 in 74 games last season and the team may be getting worried about whether he'll ever develop into the star as expected. McGehee is coming off a rough season of his own, hitting just .223/.280/.346 with 13 homers after hitting 23 homers and 104 RBI in 2010. McGehee was replaced by Jerry Hairston Jr. at third base during the playoffs and by former Pirate Aramis Ramirez after the season.

St. Louis Cardinals
Second base: Skip Schumaker vs. Daniel Descalso vs. Tyler Greene

General manager John Mozeliak has insinuated he'd like to see Greene win the job. The 28-year-old has yet to produce at the level expected of him, hitting just .218/.307/.313 in 150 games and 359 plate appearances. Descalso filled in for the injured David Freese last season and responded with a .264/.334/.353 line, while Schumaker is the incumbent having hit .283/.333/.351 while starting 89 games at second, but none in the World Series. All three have some positional versatility.

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Posted on: November 26, 2011 1:46 pm
 

Homegrown Team: Pittsburgh Pirates

Jose Bautista

By C. Trent Rosecrans


What if players were only permitted to stay with the team that originally made them a professional? No trades, no Rule-5 Draft, no waivers, no minor- or major-league free agency ... once you are a professional baseball player, you stay in that organization. This series shows how all 30 teams would look. We give you: Homegrown teams.

In 2011 the Pirates extended their streak of losing seasons to 19, finishing 72-90 after a promising start. However, there are signs of the team finally putting it together, with much of their talent coming from within the organization. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are among the future stars the team has drafted and kept. If Pittsburgh had been able to keep a couple more of its homegrown players, the Pirates could at the very least be looking at fielding a winning team.

Lineup

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Ryan Doumit, 1B
6. Jeff Keppinger, SS
7. Ronny Paulino, C
8. Nyjer Morgan, LF

Starting Rotation

1. Paul Maholm
2. Bronson Arroyo
3. Tom Gorzelanny
4. Brad Lincoln
5. Chris Young

Bullpen

Closer - Juan Oviedo (Leo Nunez)
Set up - Matt Capps, Mike Gonzlaez, John Grabow, Sean Burnett, Tony Watson
Long - Tim Wakefield, Zack Duke

Notable Bench Players

Pedro Alvarez, Rajai Davis, Brent Lillibridge, Nate McLouth, Alex Presley

What's Good?

The top of the lineup is the envy of just about any organization -- there's speed at the top and power throughout the first four batters. Jose Bautista will forever be the one that got away, but not just for the Pirates, who drafted him in 2000, but also for the Orioles, Rays, Royals and Mets, who all acquired -- a got rid of -- Bautista at some point. But still, the Pirates had him twice and are now watching him blossom as one of the game's best players while in a different uniform. In addition to the top of the lineup, the bottom of the lineup isn't too bad, while the bullpen is stout. 

What's Not?

The rotation isn't going to intimidate too many batters, but the team will put up some runs and leads have a good chance of being held with that bullpen. Keppinger is a solid bat and makes all the plays in front of him, but doesn't quite have the range most teams look for at shortstop. He can play there, but it isn't an ideal spot.

Comparison to real 2011

The Pirates rotation overachieved in the first half of 2011 and flopped in the second -- as Pittsburgh went 25-47 after finding themselves trailing by just a game in the NL Central at the All-Star break. While this lineup would put up more runs, its starters would allow more. That said, the improved lineup and bullpen would be good for several more wins and probably even give the team a winning record. 

Up next: Chicago Cubs

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Posted on: November 22, 2011 1:21 pm
 

Choosing the NL Least Valuable Player



By Matt Snyder


With the announcement of the National League MVP coming Tuesday, we'll once again do the opposite and choose a least valuable player. Unlike the AL version of this "award," the candidates were not nearly as identifiable. I did narrow it down to five worthy contenders, so let's size 'em up.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates. The 24-year-old third baseman was supposed to be a power bat in the middle of the Pirates lineup for years to come. And he still might prove to be one in the future, but he was awful in 2011. Alvarez hit .191/.272/.289 with just four homers in 262 plate appearances. He even earned a demotion to Triple-A. He struck out 80 times and grounded into 11 double plays in just 235 at-bats.

Tyler Colvin, Cubs. The 2006 first-round pick hit 20 home runs in 358 at-bats in 2010, but he was lost in 2011. Colvin hit .150/.204/.306 with six homers in 222 plate appearances. You can go after Mike Quade for not letting Colvin get regular playing time if you want, but how can you justify continuing to run a guy out there with a .204 on-base percentage?

Aubrey Huff, Giants. Believe it or not, Huff finished seventh in MVP voting in 2010. Man, that seems like ages ago. In 2011, the Giants had the worst offense in the National League, and Huff has to shoulder some of that blame. Huff's raw stats don't look near as bad as those of Alvarez, Colvin or a litany of others, but his .246/.306/.370 line damaged a legitimate playoff threat. If he had a similar season to 2010, the entire complexion of the lineup changes.

Derek Lowe, Braves. He made 34 starts and worked 187 innings, so that sounds like he had some value, at least in giving the Braves a healthy innings-eater. It's just that Lowe faltered when the Braves needed him the most. His overall season numbers -- 9-17, 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP -- were bad enough, but Lowe was horrifying in September. He made five starts, going 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA and 1.99 WHIP. This was during a historic collapse. And Lowe made $15 million in 2011.

Brandon Lyon, Astros. The closer set the tone for the Astros' abysmal 2011 season by blowing an opening-day save opportunity, allowing six hits and three runs to the Phillies. He would rack up as many blown saves as actual saves (four), which fit nicely with his 11.48 ERA and 2.40 WHIP. Still, Lyon only appeared in 15 games, due to injury, so he can't really win this one.

And the winner is ... Huff by a nose. Ultimately, I believe Huff's shortfall from his 2010 numbers was more responsible for costing the Giants the playoffs than Lowe's campaign. Since Lowe is a starting pitcher and only goes once every five days, I feel like the Braves still could have overcome his shortcomings. But the Giants' offense was pitiful all season, and if Huff hit the ball better, it would have been an immense boost. I'd definitely be on board with anyone wanting to pick Lowe, though. This was a two-horse race.

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Posted on: August 18, 2011 10:06 am
 

Pepper: Down to two races?



By C. Trent Rosecrans

With just more than a month to go, we're down to just two races in baseball -- the National League West and the American League Central.

The rest? Done. Decided.

The National League East? The Phillies lead the Braves by 8 1/2 games. Done.

The National League Central? The Brewers are up on the Cardinals by seven, winning 19 of their last 21 and watching as the Cardinals take another September siesta. Done.

The National League wild card? It's the Braves to not just lose, but to give away in spectacular Cubian fashion. That's not happening. Done.

The American League East? Boston trails by a half-game, so the division is up in the air, but with Boston leading the Wild Card by eight games, both teams are playing in October, all that's left is figuring out seeding, the important stuff? Done.

The American League West? Texas has won its last six, including the last three in Anaheim against the Angels. Done.

At least we have the NL West and the AL Central -- those will at least be interesting for a while.

Looking back at last year at the same time, the Braves led the Phillies in the NL East, but both ended up in the playoffs. In the AL East, The Yankees and Rays were deadlocked atop the division, but again, both went to the playoffs. Sound familiar?

Minnesota had a four-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central, a lead they'd hold, while the Rangers were running away from the Angels with an eight-game lead. Deja vu.

As for the NL Central? Cincinnati was leading the Cardinals by just two games, but St. Louis would fade down the stretch. And in the NL West, the Giants trailed the surprising Padres by five games.

Basically, it looks like we've seen this all before. But you know what? It was pretty fun to watch last year and it will be again this year.

Brewers confident: After Tuesday's win, Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan said the team has to "try to catch Philly," according to the Associated Press. "That's our goal, since we have nobody to really chase in our division, let's go chase Philly." After Wednesday's win, Zack Greinke said, "It's definitely not locked up now, but it's on us mainly," according to the Journal Sentinel. And he added, "it is ours to lose." It is indeed.

Giants' road to repeat: The Giants have the easiest remaining schedule among contenders, Yahoo's Jeff Passan writes as he breaks down the remaining schedules for the contenders (and the Cardinals, Rays and Angels). Passan also gives the Brewers more reason to be confident -- the third-easiest remaining schedule, plus the most off days and more home games than road games remaining. As for the AL Central, the Tigers have the best remaining schedule among the contenders. And not only are the Rays well behind both the Red Sox and Yankees in both the division and the wild card, they also have the toughest remaining schedule -- 10 against Boston, six against New York, six against Texas and four against Detroit.

Some people are just jerks: And online, they all have a voice. Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has proof -- sharing the emails he's gotten from people against the proposed statue of Shannon Stone and his son.

Logic may prevail: Although there were reports this weekend that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry's job was safe, but Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman says that's not so certain. What you can blow $251.5 million on Carlos Zambrano, Milton Bradley, Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome and have to worry about your job? Say it ain't so.

Five tool players: Every year I look forward to Baseball America's Tools issue -- and I got it in the mail yesterday. It's fascinating reading and also allows you to geek out about minor league players and what they could become. Over at FanGraphs, they feel the same way, but Carson Cistulli decided to find out which big leaguers have displayed five tools through the "nerdiest possible" numbers. It's great stuff. And if you didn't know, Chase Utley, Troy Tulowitzki and David Wright are good.

Speaking of tools: Former Reds and Nationals GM Jim Bowden never saw a tools-y player he didn't like. He has five players you should give up on -- starting with the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez. [ESPN.com]

CC's history lesson: Yankees starter CC Sabathia spent Tuesday morning at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, saying he drew inspiration from the visit for his start on Thursday in Minnesota. If you're ever in Kansas City, make sure you make it to the museum either before or after you go to Arthur Bryant's. [New York Times]

Tony Plush's kitty kat: Good for Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan, who adopted a new cat from the Wisconsin Humane Society. [Twitter]

Dim your jacket: Tuesday night the umpires working the A's-O's game had to ask two men with LED equipped clothing behind the plate to dim their wares. [Yahoo!'s Big League Stew]

Extending Ichiro?: Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times makes the argument against the Mariners extending Ichiro's contract.

Passport problems: Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur will use his off day on Monday to get a new passport -- his old one expired after 10 years and he forgot about it. The Royals are scheduled to go to Toronto later that day. [Kansas City Star]

Hat flap: The National wanted to wear military hats in Tuesday's game, but Major League Baseball denied their request. Instead, the Nationals wore the hats during batting practice. The main reason? Well, ignore the jibber-jabber from MLB, it's that there was no money to be made, so they didn't want to do it. MLB told the Washington Post that it prefers to for teams to use patches or batting practice for such displays. [Washington Post's DC Sports Bog]

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Posted on: July 25, 2011 2:04 pm
Edited on: July 25, 2011 2:07 pm
 

Alvarez back up with Pirates

By Matt Snyder

After a brief stint in the minors, Pedro Alvarez has been recalled to the Pirates as a corresponding move to the ballclub placing Alex Presley on the 15-day disabled list with a thumb injury.

Alvarez was promoted to the big leagues last season as one of the top prospects in baseball. He was expected to man the hot corner for the Pirates for the foreseeable future, yet when he returned from injury a few weeks ago, the Pirates optioned him to Triple-A. He was struggling mightily in the majors, hitting just .208 with a .587 OPS. Worse yet, he's supposed to be a power hitter, yet had only two home runs.

The brief demotion may have helped Alvarez get things together. He was hitting .365 with three home runs, 13 RBI and a 1.048 OPS in 18 Triple-A games. Small sample size, yes, but a stretch like that can help the hitter regain confidence and carry it over to the majors. Alvarez is only 24, so there's plenty of time for him to right the ship.

Losing Presley does hurt the Pirates' lineup, though. He had solidified the top of the order in the absence of Jose Tabata. Presley is hitting .333 with a .402 on-base percentage.

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Posted on: July 24, 2011 1:52 pm
Edited on: July 24, 2011 2:19 pm
 

Pirates in no hurry to recall Alvarez

AlvarezBy Evan Brunell

When Pedro Alvarez went on the disabled list with a right quad strain in late May, many believed he would return to his third base gig before long, despite an anemic .203/.283/.304 line.

But after a rehab stint, Alvarez was demoted to Triple-A, much to his displeasure. It's hard to blame Pittsburgh for the demotion -- even with Alvarez's power potential, he just wasn't delivering.

The problem is that Brandon Wood and Chase D'Arnaud haven't delivered either. With Alvarez hitting .350/.444/.550 in 72 plate appearances down on the farm with three home runs, manager Clint Hurdle isn't sold that Alvarez is needed right now, even as the club chases a winning season for the first time since 1992.

"It's a two-edged sword," Hurdle said. "You want to take both of those factors [production vs. development] into play. I think we're probably getting as good as information as you can get."

Hurdle added that by competing in Triple-A, Alvarez may be able to take a step forward. That sounds counter to logic, as Alvarez seems to have nothing left to prove, and any future development is likely to come in the bigs. But Hurdle disagrees.

"I think one of the biggest challenges for young hitters is, they put in tireless preparation," Hurdle said. "They spend countless hours in practice on honing a skill. The biggest challenge is taking that work and trusting that work in a game.

"What we're encouraging Pedro to do is just stay, hold fast, to that process that he's working through and trust it and actually give all that hard work an opportunity to play out in a game, and what better environment to do it in where the consequences and the final result isn't as magnified as it is here?"

Regardless, as Pittsburgh searches for bats and a way to keep its pitching rotation afloat, Alvarez represents one of the best ways for the Pirates to improve its club without having to give up anything. It would be a surprise if Alvarez wasn't back with the club by the beginning of August.

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Posted on: May 16, 2011 10:26 am
Edited on: May 16, 2011 10:08 pm
 

Pepper: Red Sox sweep Yanks; Varitek on Posada



By Evan Brunell


WALK A MILE IN THESE SHOES: Jason Varitek has been the Red Sox's answer to Jorge Posada for over a decade and has already undergone his own transition from starting catcher to backup. While Posada remains in the lineup as DH, Varitek wonders if his transition was easier to undertake.

“Jorge’s really had to go from focusing and doing the things that you have to do behind the plate -- the constant reminders, this and that, the maintenance, what’s going on -- and now you’re almost like, ‘Well what do I do with my time?’ ” Varitek said.

'Tek says the fact that he still starts games or has to stay mentally engaged in case he is needed in the middle of the game has allowed his transition to be easier and forces him not to worry about his slow bat. While Varitek's bat is waking up, he's still at a poor .164/.258/.218 in 63 plate appearances. Posada doesn't have that luxury, as his lousy line is as starting DH. But the Red Sox captian isn't ready to anoint Posada's career dead in the water.

"[Saturday] he had one of the few hits against Buchholz, and Buchholz had his top notch stuff,” he said. “You go through the Xs and Os and you don’t look at the batting average.” (New York Times)

RETURN OF THE TEHERAN:
Looks like Julio Teheran will get another spot start Wednesday. The Braves only need a fifth starter Wednesday and May 31, so can go with a four-man rotation for the time being. Obviously, Atlanta would have preferred Brandon Beachy not get hurt, but he kind of had decent timing. Beachy will take about a month to return, so Minor could still grab a few starts in June. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via Twitter)

PRICE MOTIVATED AGAINST YANKS:
The first-place Rays have yet to do battle against the Yankees, but that changes Monday as both teams begin a two-game set in Tampa. David Price will draw the ball to start and admits he is always just a bit more motivated against the Bronx Bombers. "That just happens," Price said. "Whenever you're pitching against the pinstripes, you have a little more. That's how it is, that's just from their success forever in baseball." (St. Petersburg Times)

ACTA PART OF Indians SUCCESS:
Manny Acta, by all appearances, has been everything the Indians want in a manager. He's driven closer community-player relations, encouraging players to take part in Twitter. (Dusty Baker, take note.) But he's also made an impact on the field by setting expecations in spring training of contending and using all his tools at his disposal to make decisions. That's put him in the early bid for manager of the year. (New York Times)

LA RUSSA STILL WAYS AWAY:
Tony La Russa remains away from the Cardinals with a bout of shingles, missing six games to date. La Russa is unclear when he can return to the team and will hold a meeting with GM John Mozeliak Monday to try to answer that very question. (FoxSportsMidwest.com)

INCHING CLOSER:
Chase Utley played in his first full minor-league game on Sunday and is getting ever-closer to returning to the majors. GM Ruben Amaro indicated that Utley needs to get more at-bats, but would not rule out a return during the upcoming week-long homestand starting Wednesday. Sounds a bit optimistic, but it looks like Utley will give fantasy owners a jolt by returning before the calendar flips to June. (Philadelphia News)

WALKING ON 3-1:
A few eyes widened Sunday when Daniel Murphy of the Mets walked on what was thought to be a 3-1 count -- except umpire Angel Hernandez had called Houston's Aneury Rodriguez for a balk prior to what ended up being the fourth ball.  "I don't know. I wasn't paying attention," Murphy said. "I heard, 'Balk.' And then, '3-1.' I guess that's what Angel said -- ['ball']. It went from 2-1 to 3-1. It was a four-ball walk." (ESPN New York)

STAY WITH US:
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen wants fans to know that the team will turn things around. “Hopefully, we go home and play better for our fans,’’ Guillen said. “They deserve that. We owe them one after that last homestand. Hopefully, we continue to play the way we’re playing now.’’ The White Sox are 6-3 in their last nine games, but are still a discouraging nine games out of first place. (Chicago Tribune)

ALVAREZ STAYING:
There are no plans to demote third baseman Pedro Alvarez to the minors, Pirates GM Neal Huntington revealed on the radio. "He's a slow starter," Huntington said. "We're seeing signs he's getting to where he needs to be. He's squaring up some balls. He's not getting himself out or getting into pitcher's counts." Alvarez is hitting .210/.277/.286 in 130 plate appearances. Even rebuilding teams give up on prospects with that stat line at this point. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

AYBAR RAKING: Erick Aybar is less patient at the plate, which is allowing him to go after good pitches more and has a .351 batting average to show for it. Sure, he's playing a bit over his head, but he seems to turned a corner offensively at age 27 and is looking like 2009 is the norm, not exception. Aybar struggled to a .255 batting average last season, which he says was in part due to being too patient at the plate. (Los Angeles Times)

GREAT ESCAPE: Those who play SplinterCell for X-Box will notice a move taken right out of the game. An Astros fan ran on the field and evaded security guards by leaping over the center field wall and scaling a berm in a way that would make Sam Fisher proud, then vaulting yet another wall and escaping... until Houston's forces caught up with him outside the park. (Youtube)

PEACOCK ON FIRE: No, not the animal. Nationals' right-handed prospect Brad Peacock has taken his game to another level and currently has a 2.13 ERA in six starts for Double-A. Credited for his success is his curveball, which is being thrown near fastball velocity which is causing hitters to miss the adjustment needed to hit a breaking ball. (MLB.com)

ATTENDANCE ISSUES: Yeah, the weather hasn't been great and it's hard to get excited about a perennial loser no matter the state of the rich farm, but the Royals have noticed their poor attendance this year. The play on the field is surprisingly strong so far, plus the constant influx of young players over the next couple of years should fix the issue. For now, though, K.C. has to worry a little bit about lack of fan turnout. (Kansas City Star)

HEYWARD RETURNING: Jason Heyward is hoping his return to the lineup will happen Tuesday. Sidelined with a sore shoulder, Heyward has reported progress and will be available to pinch-hit in Monday's game. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

SCOUT PASSES: Dick Wiencek, one of baseball's most successful scouts, passed away due to complications from a heart attack. Wiencek signed a record 72 players, including Bert Blyleven, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Jim Kaat and Graig Nettles. Thoughts and condolences to friends and family. (MLB.com)

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Posted on: May 9, 2011 8:43 pm
Edited on: May 9, 2011 9:03 pm
 

Pirates reach .500, eye bright future

Pirates

By Evan Brunell

The Pittsburgh Pirates finishing .500? There's a whole generation of baseball fans that don't understand that concept, but that's exactly where the Bucs find themselves at just over one month into the season.

Now 17-17, Pittsburgh will look to go one game over .500 as they face the Dodgers Monday night. If it can pull that off, it will be the first time since May 29, 2004 that the club was over .500 this late in a season. Unfortunately, 2004's squad finished with 89 losses and the ensuing years saw an even worse decline, so that statistic doesn't mean that the club has made any type of progress.

But when you look at 2004's club against 2011's, it's clear that progress has been made.

Back then, the Pirates weren't as young a club, although many were still under 30 years of age. Some ended up with good seasons, with a 26-year-old Jack Wilson slashing .308/.335/.459 with 41 doubles, which remains his best year to date. Craig Wilson at age 27 cranked 29 homers but never again approached these levels and was out of baseball after 2007. Most of the other hitters with one notable exception in Jason Bay have gone on to vanish or barely cling to relevancy (Jason Kendall and Ty Wigginton).

The pitching side of the ledger had a fantastic year by Oliver Perez and Kris Benson's solid 20-start stint prior to being traded to the Mets hide what was a poor staff that was shored up by a strong bullpen. All told, while the team was relatively young, it was only as good as it was thanks to the performances of five players, four of which never approached 2004 levels again.

It's a different story in 2011, with a much younger club. That's not reflected in the average age of the squads as 2011's 27.9 average age is higher than 2004's 27.45, but the Pirates boast a yonger core with the potential to be among the game's best. The bullpen has been effective to start the year  and the rotation is deeper than 2004's counterparts. That may come as an oddity when Kevin Correia is the ace of the club, but it's no less true. Offensively, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker form a quartet that 2004's club can't hold a candle to.

For the Pirates to sustain their newfound dominance, however, they have to step up their prospect procurement. This is a team that is thin on pitching and saw that partly addressed in last season's draft with the selections of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, but still has an overall farm that Baseball America ranked 19th last season, largely due to the graduations of the offensive core. Compare that to 2004's ranking of 11, topped by Zach Duke and a host of other pitchers that failed to ascend.

It's no wonder that the 2004 club dipped to 89 losses, and as promising as 2011's club is, Pittsburgh will have to look ahead toward next year as a more realistic chance of breaking the streak of futility. It is difficult to envision Correia continuing to pitch to a 2.91 ERA, and as interesting as Charlie Morton's progress is, a regression has to be expected until (and if) he fixes his control problems, which he took a step forward in doing so in his last start by allowing only one free pass. And while James McDonald can be counted on to improve, it'll be balanced out by Jeff Karstens's probable regression.

For Pittsburgh to have any hope at finishing at .500, it will come from an offense ranked 22nd in runs scored so far. The entire infield plus Tabata and McCutchen are off to quite a slow start. Their expected improvement could offset pitching regression, but the other issue at play is Pittsburgh's division counterparts. Now that Milwaukee has its top three starting pitchers healthy and contributing, so their 14-20 record will turn around in a hurry and that's bad news for the Pirates given the imbalanced schedule that pits Pittsburgh against its NL compatriots for the majority of the games. Thus, even if the offensive regrouping does offset the pitching, it's difficult to envision a .500 record being sustained, especially once injuries hit the pitching staff; the club has virtually no pitching to speak of in Triple-A which is a flaw that will get exposed at some point.

Still, the improvement in the Steel City has to lend a certain amount of optimism to its long-suffering fans, who would glady take any type of improvement even if it it's not an 81-81 record. While even 1997 and 1998's 83 loss-seasons look out of reach, the Pirates appear poised to post the franchise's best record since 2004, and could even go beyond. That will set up quite the storyline for next year, when the Pirates look to avoid 20 straight seasons of finishing under .500.

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PHOTO: Steve Pearce, No. 51 of the Pittsburgh Pirates, celebrates with teammate Neil Walker, No. 18, after Ryan Doumit, No. 41, hit a three-run home run against the Houston Astros during the game on May 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
 
 
 
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