Monday, February 11, 2013

Spring Training Begins

Other than a post on the changing of the team's Jolly Roger logo in 2014, I have come to realize that I have not issued a Grandstander post on the Pirates since the calendar turned to 2013.  Unbelievable.  However, today is the day that the Bucco pitchers and catchers reported to Pirate City in Bradenton, so I am compelled to write one today.  I will attempt to do so without once using the phrase "hope springs eternal."

So, what do you write about after 20 losing seasons, and after two seasons that started so promisingly only to see the team collapse, and to collapse in an historical fashion, in the final months of each of those seasons?  Part of my current anger with the Pirates as led by Neal Huntington has been their ability to suck all of the optimism right out of me, even at the dawn of Spring Training when hope spri....oops, sorry about that.

The Pirates off season was highlighted by major publicity gaffes when the minor league brain trust of the NHR (Neal Huntington Regime) issued deranged internal memos and led the minor leaguers in a series of Navy SEAL-type drills that may or may not have led to injury to some of these key young prospects.  This, along with that aforementioned collapse led to a comprehensive top-to-bottom one man review of all team operations by top man Bob Nutting, aka, Capt. Nuts, after which nothing much happened to change things other than than the hiring of some 70-something year old scout from that Yankees as a special advisor to GM Neal.  Oh, and the SEAL-type drills have been discontinued.  Maybe.

On the personnel side, the team traded All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan because he was headed for arbitration where he would have been awarded a $7 million salary.  They signed a catcher, Russell Martin, who hit .211 for the Yankees last year, and in what is to me a perfect symbolic metaphor for the entire history of the NHR player development and acquisition strategy, they signed Francisco Liriano, a free agent pitcher with a broken arm.

On the face of it, I have no real problem with the Hanrahan trade.  A "closer" will emerge, be it Jason Grilli or someone else, who will get the job done.  Four players came to Pittsburgh from Boston in the deal and none of them overwhelms you.  If nothing else, "organizational depth", a battle cry of the NHR, will be enhanced. (Nice to know that the Indianapolis Indians will be strong this year.)  Martin, whatever he might have left in his tank, will be an improvement over Rod Barajas.  As for Liriano, who knows (a) when he'll be able to pitch, and (b) how effective he will be when he does?  According to Jim Sproule (Official American League Scout for The Grandstander), he's pretty much garbage.

But enough of that.  What can we look forward to and be excited about?  Let's break it down by position.

Outfield.  As with everything with the Pirates, you start with Andrew McCutchen.  He's the best player on the team.  He was an MVP candidate last year until he leveled off a bit in August and September.  No reason to think that he will be anything less than the All-Star caliber player he has been the last two season.  Starling Marte should get the job in left field from the get-go, and I think that he could be a quality major league player.  Right field becomes a guessing game....Jerry Sands, Travis Snyder, Jose Tabata, even Garrett Jones.  Snyder was a key acquisition at the deadline last year, but he was injured and didn't show a whole lot.  I think he gets first crack at keeping the job.

Infield.  Pedro Alvarez was the key question coming into last season.  He is not a question this year.  He hit 30 home runs last year and he will not be a "bust", and that was a strong possibility as recently as April of last season.  He needs to be more consistent and avoid those 2-for-40 stretches that seemed to always follow amazingly torrid stretches when he'd hit six homers in eight games.  It would be nice if he cut down on the strike outs, but if he hits 30-35 HR's and gets a bit more consistent, I'll live with the K's.  At first base, Garrett Jones had a coming out year last year when he was used as a platoon player (only 74 of 475 AB's were against lefties), and he produced big time.  The team needs to find the complimentary RH hitting first baseman to platoon with him.  That could be Gaby Sanchaz, Sands, or one of the several dozen or so "outfielder/first baseman" they seem to have on the roster.  One cautionary note:  Jones is up for arbitration and could be headed for a $7 million or so salary, which means he could be sent packing by GM Neal at the orders of Capt. Nuts.  Neil Walker had a terrific year last year until a back injury put him pretty much on the shelf for the last six weeks or so of the season.  Not so coincidentally, this is when the team started going in the tank, too.  I know a little bit about bad backs, so I worry about Walker and his health situation, and I hope that this is not the beginning of a downward spiral for him.  At short stop, Clint Barmes returns.  Whoopee.

Catcher.  In his blog today, Bob Smizik points out that the Pirates have not drafted a catcher who has played in a single major league game, since the Cam Bonifay Regime drafted Ryan Doumit in 2000.  THIRTEEN YEARS AGO!!!!  Sorry, but that is just pathetic.  Anyway, Russell Martin now becomes the overpaid, multi-million dollar stop gap. Maybe he'll succeed where the likes of Barajas, Chris Snyder, Benito Santiago and other forgettable backstops failed. 

Pitching.  Here we go, here's the basket where the NHR has placed all the eggs.  Some bullet point thoughts:

  • I'd love to believe that A.J. Burnett, at 36, will duplicate the season he had last year, but will/can he?
  • I'd love to believe that First Half J-Mac and not Second Half J-Mac is the real J-Mac, but is he?
  • Nice that the team was able to re-sign Jeff Karstens after he was DFA'd, but why weren't 29 other teams anxious to sign him as a relatively cheap free agent when they had the opportunity? 
  • I am excited about having Wandy Rodriguez for a full season.  Really.
  • Charlie Morton, who showed signs of being a really nice pitcher in 2011, comes back from Tommy John surgery, probably in June.  What kind of pitcher will he be?
  • Liriano, from what I've read, may not be ready to pitch until June.  Maybe he'll be the young phee-nom he was with the Twins all those years ago, but I'm thinking if he's as good as Kevin Correia was last year, the Pirates will be lucky.
  • Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke, two of the young gun prospects, may fight it out for the fifth starting spot.  These are the kinds of guys who come up through the system and HAVE to make good for the "Plan" of the Pirates to work.  In brief major league tries so far, they haven't shown the goods yet.
  • Bullpen.  Something will emerge here.  This is one thing that Huntington appears to be able to do each year.  If Grilli can't do the job that Hanrahan has done, someone will emerge to get those last three outs when needed.
  • You notice that I have yet to mention Gerritt Cole, the Overall #1 of two years ago.  No matter what happens in Spring Training, I fully expect Cole to start the season in Indy, but if he shows anything, anything at all in Indy, I expect that Cole will be the first guy called up to start when someone falters or is injured.  Even then, there is always the chance that the Pirates, in an effort to delay Cole's arbitration eligibility, will NOT bring Cole up, even if it is obvious he should be called up.  If THAT happens, my frustration will reach the breaking point, and I may burn tickets on Federal Street at the foot of the Stargell statue!
So, in the end, am I excited that Spring Training has started and we'll soon be hearing some Grapefruit games on the radio?  Of course I am!  Will this be the year the losing streak stops (and say it with me now, "the longest losing season streak in North American professional sports history")?  I will wait until the conclusion of Spring Training to attempt to give an answer to that question.  As I have said before, the fact that I can no longer generate unbridled optimism at the start of Spring Training is perhaps the biggest wrong that has been perpetrated upon me by the NHR.

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