Passing It On: The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

If I randomly polled Pittsburgh Pirates fans in my general age group as to the pinnacle of their fandom, the vast majority of them would more than likely recall the magical night of the Pirates Wild Card/“Blackout” Game versus the Reds on October 1, 2013. Believe me that is definitely up there and I can’t really disagree with anyone that would give this as their because fandom is a very personal journey, but for me there were a few moments during the previous year that hold a more special place in heart and are forever etched in my memory.

During the 2011 season the Pirates gave fans more hope than they had experienced in years. Up until back to back heartbreaking losses in Atlanta in late July, they were in middle of playoff hunt and in a dead heat with the Brewers and the Cardinals for the Division Title. After an epic second half collapse they finished 18 games under .500 and 24 games out of 1st Place. However, they brought life back into the city and had many of us looking forward to what would come next. I for one couldn’t wait and neither could my soon to be 5 year old daughter Grace, who had become the constant by my side as we watched game after game together.

As the 2012 season began the Pirates got off to a slow start, which just extended the disappointment felt by many at the end of the preceding year. As the season progressed they fought and clawed their way to a 25-25 record through the first 50 games. During the weekend prior to this my Mom and Dad gave me an early Birthday/Father’s Day present of 4 tickets to the Pirates game on Sunday June 10th, which would be the first one I would attend that season.

It was an extremely hot afternoon (88 Degrees) when the game began; luckily we had seats in 316 section with the Press Box blocking out the sun the majority of the time. Gracie had the number 22 for McCutchen on the back of her shirt, a last minute purchase at the local Kmart; immediately cementing him as her favorite player for life. Much to her delight, and mine, McCutchen put the Pirates on the board with a double in the bottom of the 1st; bringing in Alex Presley. He then blasted a home run to left field, with Neil Walker standing on 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd. Gracie kept on telling me that she hit a home run because she matched McCutchen. We spent the rest of the game talking about the rules of baseball, why the fielders shifted on certain at bats and why Neil Walker was my favorite player, not Andrew McCutchen. As the game ended the Pirates held on for a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals and moved into a tie for 1st place in the process.

My daughter, Gracie, at the Pirates game in her Andrew McCutchen Shersey.

The next game that we would attend that season was a fairly monumental one for my family as four generations, from my 84 year old Grandma Caramellino to my 13 month old son Carter, went to the game together for the first time ever. As the Pirates hosted the Miami Marlins, my family and I packed into PNC Park to see our team win its third game in a row and to 12 games over .500. As the game went on Carter began to get fussy and my Grandma was starting to get tired, so slowly we began to trickle out to our cars. Gracie and I held on to the final out because she wanted to see the celebration fireworks and wanted to make sure the Pirates held on for the win. This time it was my favorite player, Walker, that played the role of hero with the go ahead home run in the bottom of the 5th.

(Top): My Sister, Dana with my Son, Carter.
(Bottom): Gracie with my Dad, Bill. Bill is sporting the Homestead Grays hat, which was discussed during a previous article.

As summer went on Pirates fever reached its peak. Walking through the streets in Koppel, PA, I could hear the sounds of the game coming out of radios from people’s porches and through open windows as the volume was turned up a little too loud. Sitting down at the bar inside Buster’s Place or McDowell’s Inn, patrons were actually paying attention as the Pirates played, rather than treating it as background noise. On July 31st we were all locked to the television screen as A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th against the Cubs, which is the closest I have come to watching a no-no from start to finish in my life, either on tv or in person. Me and my friend who were were watching the game together did speak a word from at least the 5th inning on. After the game I called my Grandma Caramellino and the first thing she said to me was how much she couldn’t stand Pedro Alvarez for not being patient at the plate. She was a big fan of Billy Beane as you can imagine.

The rest of the season is somewhat of a blur of win streaks and longer losing streaks (7 games at the beginning of September). That year the Pirates had three players with over 25 homer runs (McCutchen 31, Alvarez 30 and Garrett “G.I.” Jones), three pitchers with over 10 Wins (Burnett 16, James McDonald 12 and Kevin Correia 12) and a team ERA of 3.86. Unfortunately they dropped below .500 for the 20th Season in a row after being as many as 16 games over on August 6th, finishing 4 games under and 18 games out of 1st Place. It was disheartening to say the least.

Of the many letdowns that occurred during the 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were also so many bright spots; especially considering my own personal fandom journey as a life long supporter of the Pirates, who was now passing along my passion to my daughter, Gracie. Over the previous year and even more so during the 2012 season as she became my side-kick in watching every pitch and discussing the intricacies that exist in each and every game. That summer she fell love with baseball just as I had when I was right around her age. 2012 was also one of last years I was able to have meaningful conversations with my Grandma Caramellino about the game she had introduced me to and that had been a part of building the unbreakable bond between us.

My Mom and my Grandma Caramellino at the last game we attended together on July 3, 2013, a 6-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Playing the Odds – Why the Pirates and Other Small Market Teams Usually learn the House Always Wins

Over the last couple days, I’ve been writing about ways the shortened and/or cancelled season may affect the Pirates and effect some decisions they will have to make moving forward.

Today I’d like to talk about the elephant that is always in the room for Pittsburgh, yup, today we’re going to talk about the feasibility of actually building through the draft and creating a window where winning is not only possible but expected.

It’s daunting to say the least. In order for any of this to work there is a series of things that must be done well. Additionally, they have to be done in the right order.

To illustrate this properly, let’s start with what was to be this season’s club, You’re 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates. We are going to break this team apart by doing all the things that a small market club must do to compete in this league. Ben Cherrington has already stated his intention is to build on this team’s core. I can make a case for this being wrong a whole lot more easily than defend it as plausible. For the sake of this examination, let’s go forward with what has been publicly put forward as the intention.

  1. Identify Your Strengths – OK, 2021 is the target, right Ben? Jameson Taillon should be back, immediately you should be filled with questions about how he returns, will he stay healthy, is he ultimately a number one? Assuming you believe he is Jamo has two more years of arbitration, hitting free agency in 2023. If the plan is truly for the Bucs to compete in 2021 and beyond, locking in your ‘ace’ is probably a smart idea.
    It’s a gamble to be sure, but the level of talent he brings to the table is not readily available. He also has had two reconstructive elbow surgeries. All of this adds up to a potential bargain of an extension. Well, we locked that down. Bryan Reynolds is obviously a good one, although we have not seen him do it as a sophomore which can get scary. What about Kevin Newman? Great rookie campaign but the numbers don’t make it seem sustainable. Is he your short stop moving forward or is it Tucker or even Cruz? Someone needs chosen, maybe Newman is your Second baseman that’s fair I suppose. Either way, if you aren’t going to sign Frazier, probably need to move him.
    I personally feel Josh Bell is a must for an extension, especially with the DH most likely coming to the NL. I also see this as wholly unlikely, so trade him, but do realize you are creating a hole, one that the Pittsburgh Pirates have struggled to fill for quite some time.
    I guess you’d have to say Hayes is the future at Third Base. We’ll see, but part of this process is betting on youngsters, Mitch Keller is very much in that class.
  2. Identify Your Weaknesses – Here we go, I’m sure I could write 20 pages and not cover everything people want mentioned but I’ll try it anyhow by going vague. Pitching I mentioned just above is about two deep. I don’t expect Trevor Williams to be here as part of the solution and Joe Musgrove is a swing player. I like him personally as a 3-5 starter but he won’t come free. If the Pirates think he is indeed part of the core, at this point it will take more money to ensure he is here.  There is an overwhelming lack of power on the MLB club and less in the minors than people care to believe. That has to come from somewhere.

Before I continue, let’s just take a little side trip. Money is always going to be an obstacle and it’s not just because Bob is a greedy owner. See in those first two points I already identified roughly 20-25 million additional that would need to be added to ensure we KEEP some players around. Note, we haven’t added a damn thing yet. All we’ve done at this point is try to identify our core, and if Ben is to be believed, we certainly have one here already. So as of right now we look something like this for a core, right or wrong.

SP – Jameson Taillon, Mitch Keller, Joe Musgrove, Maybe Chad Kuhl
RP – Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana, Maybe Blake Cederlind
1B – ?? (Again, I’d keep Bell or at least try but Craig might be the answer)
2B – Kevin Newman
SS – Cruz or Tucker
3B – Hayes, I guess although I question his power output
LF – Bryan Reynolds
CF – ??
RF – Polanco can’t be part of the core unless you extend him beyond 2023, otherwise he is a seat warmer for the heir apparent
C – Jacob Stallings, first, he’s better than many think, and second, who the hell else could it be?

  • Identify Who is the Next Wave – This one is where the gambling really starts, I’ve already taken a flyer on Hayes and Cruz so those two are pretty obvious. I guess Craig is next up for first base. Pitchers we are looking at Brubaker and a plethora of others of which you can expect a roster worth to at least contribute.
    See, this is where this all starts unravelling, the Pirates have a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the Starters who are here to the starters who can reasonably be expected to be part of the next core as they are in Single A at the moment. Relievers, I actually believe they will be ok there. Middle infield will be pushed for some time and there are some speedy talented outfielders that could shock us all and accelerate their progression.

Again, we have to break out here, see the Pirates have a decent farm system, problem is, most of the really high-end talent is at least two and more likely three years away. That might help the next core but not reinforce this one. Quinn Priester isn’t going to come up in 2022 and be ready to make Joe Musgrove expendable in other words.

  • Draft Well – Easier said than done. Teams not named the Pirates swing and miss on this regularly. Certainly, they can improve over what Neal Huntington did in his time but how much? After all, as easy a target as he makes the man did build a gaping wide-open window from 2013 through 2015.
  • Develop Well – Same exact paragraph as the last. Points four and five are like saying a sniper needs to be able to fire a weapon, of course these things need handled and well.

I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know in some form or another. I put it all together because even this simplistic representation is nothing compared to the actual luck and timing that has to play out in order to build a winning club. It get’s even harder when you building in preconceived ideas of where you are currently. Get that wrong and you could go off on a detour for years to come.

Say you believe in that rotation up there and invest in it as such, well you better be right because if Jamo has another surgery no amount of comeback videos and no matter how great of an attitude he has will make him what the Pirates need him to be. Same with Keller, to assume he will develop into the front-end pitcher the Pirates need to develop to compete is not easy to accomplish. I mean some guys with stuff like that get shipped off to Tampa for a veteran sometimes.

The bottom line is that building a team like this takes planning, luck, execution and money. People often point out that the Dodgers are mostly built with homegrown talent, and they’re of course correct, but they can afford to make sure Cody Bellinger will be in Blue for as long as they need him to be. Josh Bell is not the player that Cody is to be kind but keeping him is all but a pipe dream for Pittsburgh. Its one thing to say your club is homegrown, its another entirely to try to win with a club that is almost 100% homegrown AND have them all come up together, peak together, stay healthy and have the depth to backfill for those you can’t keep.

The economics of baseball have made that scenario a reality for so many clubs, some more than others. Look at a team like San Diego, here they are spending money to get Hosmer and Machado, they’ve got an exciting young group of players, but what are they missing? Pitching, top end pitching and while they certainly outspend the Pirates by a country mile, they still can’t afford to go get that one thing they need most. They are one of the “have nots” in sheeps clothing if you will.

Colorado has had offensive talent for decades, some of the best in the league, no pitching. While the Dodgers have honestly drafted and developed their fair share of pitching, they have also been capable of bringing in Greinke, or Price, or Hill, or well, anyone they want or think they need.

That’s where the money really does make the playing field more uneven than a basement floor in Western PA. Everyone makes mistakes, some can buy their way out of it to finish painting the picture they want to see. The Pirates are not in that class, and unless things change, that rough road map up there is the future.

Blame Bob, its easy and at least partially true. Bob’s a rich guy, if he wanted to, he could certainly do what San Diego has, but it would not make winning a championship more realistic.

Winning is possible in every market in the league, just know it also takes a good five year stretch of almost no mistakes and a little luck.

In the end, the house usually wins, but the big boys want you to look at the Kansas City Royals holding up that big check, so you keep playing the game.

When the CBA is negotiated this time, maybe its time to even the odds a bit.

Why Do Teams Hold on to Under-performing Talent?

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the unprecedented questions most teams in MLB will face, some with more importance than others.

In that column one of the points was exercising the options on Chris Archer and Gregory Polanco. I received quite a few comments essentially saying there was no way the Pirates would spend that much to keep those two “bums”. Sure, there comes a point where even a team like Pittsburgh is inclined to cut their losses and move on. This is not one of those times.

Both of these players will be back. Period. Now, why do I say that with such authority? Because the Pirates simply can not afford to let either of these gentlemen walk for nothing.

Let’s go back a few seasons, in the off season following 2014, the Boston Red Sox jumped on Pablo Sandoval and gave the Panda 95 million over five years. It didn’t work out to say the least and in 2017 Boston designated Sandoval for assignment. Cutting ties cost the Sox roughly 49 million in guaranteed money still owed, all the while allowing him to go play should he be able to drum up interest from another club. This is one huge example; Josh Hamilton is another with the Angels. For the Sox the roster spot was worth more than the downside of paying him for less than satisfactory results.

They can afford it. They don’t like it, but they can afford it. They tried trading him, but nobody bit, nobody was going to pay upwards of 14 million a year for a player hitting under .250 and showing signs of being out of shape and lacking power that made him so attractive in the first place.

If this situation played out with the Pirates, first of all we’d run out of smelling salts waking the swaths of fans who passed out from shock that the Bucs went out and signed a player for 95 million. After that no matter how bad the signing looked, no matter how badly he performed, there is no way the Pirates could or would eat that much dead contract. They’d sooner eat half of it in exchange for International Pool money.

Polanco is this example in miniature. This season he was scheduled to make 8.6 million, next season 11.6. Then the Pirates hit the option years with El Coffee, 12.5 and 13.5 respectively, taking him through 2023.

So obvious, cut him or trade him next season, right? No way the cheap Pirates will pay him that 12.5 for 2022, well, hold up, here is a team that has very little power, likely won’t have Josh Bell anymore, and you think they’ll just let a player with a track record of two 20+ homerun seasons walk rather than pay him 12.5 million?

It’s bad business all the way around. He’ll stay for one of two reasons; 1. They want him to be part of the team and need his power or 2. They won’t let him walk for nothing and surely someone will find his reasonable contract worth a risk.

Step one of good business, recognize a bargain when you see one. Step two, don’t screw it up.

Archer isn’t much different; 9 million a season is next to nothing for a starting pitcher. Not a number one starter mind you, but a decent number 4 or 5. If you really think about it, that’s what Archer has performed like. People want to think he is a total bust of an acquisition and stacked up next to who he was traded for, of course he is. None of that is his fault, he’s here now and he has an extremely reasonable contract for his production level, with a hint of ability to peek above that level.

He is a valuable piece, even if he doesn’t produce here, he makes so little he is eminently moveable. That’s his ticket to having his options picked up.

There is more to the business of baseball than numbers and comparisons. At times you need to weigh the pros and cons of inaction as well. If the prospect hungry Pirates allow two assets who could net that very commodity in return to walk for nothing, quite honestly, Mr. Cherrington should not retain his position. It would be an absolute short sighted and penny-pinching move that would actually set the club back further than they already have position themselves.

I didn’t even mention how Polanco has performed when healthy because that very detail is exactly what this year was going to prove if everything went as expected. Teams like Pittsburgh can not pay for two things above all else, power and pitching. Expecting them to give both of those away is simply choosing not to see what’s right in front of your face.

Follow the money when trying to figure out what the Pirates will do in situations like this, rest assured, they will.

Every Team Faces Questions, But the Answers Might Matter More to the Pirates

Nobody really knows anything right now. We sit here trying our best to be good citizens, waiting this virus out. Watching the news hoping for someone to focus on answers and being disappointed that only more politics come.

Every team in MLB will face many questions about what all this means for them. Will Mookie Betts ever take a swing in a Dodgers uniform or did they just give away a good young player and eat a bunch of salary for a few years of David Price on the back end of a great career? This is probably the most in your face example, but in the end, the Dodger can afford for this entire thing to blow up in their lap.

The Pirates have a laundry list developing, not all bad but answers to some of these questions will determine the path forward, let’s dig in and think through some of them.

Rule 5 players like Nick Burdi, picked up in 2019 should have long since been through the process. Of course, we all know he was injured last year and never was able to reach the threshold for eliminating the status. He should have been able to do that by the early part of this season; I can find no reference to any answers on how this will be handled. As is stands right now, I’d have to assume if there was no season this year, he would return in 2021 under the same status he started in 2019. If it changes, will he become a free agent, or will he automatically become arbitration eligible for the Pirates? This is a talented young fireballer, I’d hate to see the Bucs lose him through some event out of their control.

Players with options left such as Chris Archer or Gregory Polanco present another puzzle. Heading into this season the Pirates chose to exercise the option on Archer. As I wrote way back when, it was the only choice to be made. He is incredibly affordable, and that fact almost more than his track record made him an attractive trade chip the Rays used almost every season to dangle in front of the league. I’d imagine the Bucs would have to do the same if only, so they didn’t let him go for nothing. If you thought they had a hard time trading him this season, or talked yourself into believing he was here because the Pirates felt he was ready to look like Drabek, I’m afraid it isn’t going to get easier after even more time away from the game. He’d need to be a trade deadline move and with Jameson Taillon potentially back, what if he is essential to the rotation?

Polanco was set to prove himself this season, ready to show he was healthy and able to anchor a weakened lineup that just lost arguably their best offensive weapon in Starling Marte. The Pirates might need to take a flyer on him as well for many of the same reasons as Archer.

I’d love to tell you someone like Jared Oliva will be ready to patrol Center next season for the Bucs but if there is no development this season, 2020 will become akin to suspended animation. Some things will move forward of course, but its hard to say Oliva wasn’t ready to contribute this season but after a year of no baseball he’s ready in 2021.

Josh Bell will enter another year of arbitration. Others of course will as well, but none will make the money Bell will. Question is, will he get more than he accepted this season? If so, based on what? Could the Pirates perhaps take some kind of advantage of this situation and offer a contract when transactions are opened back up?

As I said at the beginning, every team in baseball will face questions just like these, but the Pirates can afford less mistakes than many teams and how they answer these questions and prepare for uncertainty will be key moving forward.

A shortened draft will surely put a kink in Ben Cherrington’s plan to continue to infuse talent into the system, it also will provide a thesaurus full of excuses as to why his plan hasn’t worked a couple years from now. While I’m excited about quite a few prospects in the system, I can’t believe he or anyone else believes there is enough to create a contender with. If so, why fire Neal Huntington? It’s possible this ‘lost’ season creates an environment that forces a change in the plan. Say the plan was to keep Bell until his last season under team control. Now you have this very real situation where you are only bringing 5-10 new players into the system via the traditional draft, well, prospects have to come from somewhere, maybe this gets accelerated.

As things shake out and plans get firmed the entire puzzle will start to take shape. Right now we’re building with the box top turned upside down.

Bringing Out the Worst In People

We as baseball bloggers, podcasters, writers, insiders, personalities, etc. are all in the same boat; attempting to do our jobs without the sport we cover actually being played. This was fine for the few months in between the Washington Nationals World Series Championship and the beginning of Spring Training because we all knew it would be back, plus there were transactions, the Rule 5 Draft and of course the Houston Astros banging scheme to occupy our time and our columns. Now that has all stopped. Sure there are some headlines trickling out of Major and Minor League Baseball for all of us to discuss, but those have been few and far between. It has been days since the release of the Arizona Plan and still we have to come up with ideas. If we let even a day go by without putting out some sort of article or broadcast, we fear that we will lose some sort of relevance and be lost in the shuffle. This fear must be even stronger for those that do this for a living.

The Media/Press box at Yankee Stadium on September 2, 1962.

Those that follow me, read my “articles” and listen to me know that I am just a lowly blogger and podcaster; writing stories with my partner in crime, Gary Morgan, on this site and having conversations with my friend, Chris Lanuti, on the weekly episode of Bucs In the Basement. I know my place in life or more accurately where I stand in the pecking order of baseball journalists; and believe me if I thought I might be a little higher, those above me have been quick to remind that I am not. Obviously this was all before the playing field was turned on his head and leveled to some degree. There are still the Jeff Passans and Ken Rosenthals of the baseball world, but everyone below them has moved a little bit closer together. People who have had access to players and coaches on a regular basis are now stuck inside their houses like the rest of us; forced to come up with their own ideas for articles, making their own assessments of players and just being more creative in general. As my co-host Chris talked about this past Monday on our Live show, writers have been relegated to bloggers and they’re not that good at it. They haven’t been asked to come up with original thoughts in a while, so they are combing bloggers and podcasters sites looking for their next inspiration.

This past week has been surreal to me in more ways than one as I was caught in a heated battle with another site for doing exactly what I discussed above. I lost my cool, I lost my composure and became something that I am ashamed of. I didn’t exactly see red, but I felt it. I had only one goal; bringing them down. I was too busy channeling my inner Amir Garrett taking on the entire Pirates dugout, instead of focusing on all the positives that myself, Gary and Chris have accomplished over the past months; my focus was solely on pointing out the faults of others. Through a barrage of vicious tweets and spouting drunken accusations, I became my worst self. I started to look for the worst in my peers at every turn, while becoming paranoid that it would happen again. Clearly what the other site did to me wasn’t acceptable by any means, but neither was the way I reacted. My emotions got the best of me and I lashed out.

Amir Garrett takes on the Pirates by himself during a dugout clearing brawl on Tuesday July 30, 2019.

Moving forward I pledge to be a better version of myself and I hope that all other newly transformed bloggers and podcasters would do the same. We are truly on more even ground than we have ever been before, so why not take advantage of it by doing collaborations, giving each other credit for ideas, picking one another’s brains, doing crossover podcasts and shows and just being better human beings toward other human beings that are struggling through the same set of circumstances. I also have a hope that once every goes back to normal, those that will be elevated back to their normal places of real or imagined stature remember what it was like to be in the position of us lowly bloggers and podcasters.

Fruits of My Passion: The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates

Think back to a time in your life when you were just young enough to still not have a care in the world, but had enough money burning a hole in your pocket that you could spend it on some unnecessary things. For me the year was 2005 and for my friends and I that gratuitous expense was the package of Pittsburgh Pirates tickets that would allow you to get every bobblehead that season, along with a couple other games. We as a group had been going to games here and there over the past couple of years, sometimes there were more than just the usual 4 and other times we couldn’t all make it. However, it became our nice little getaway for the afternoon and/or evening and we were going to enjoy ourselves. All life-long/diehard Pirates fans, with our Cleveland Indians buddy thrown in from time to time, we weren’t in it just for the give-away or getaway; we were also in it for the pre-game tailgates, as well as some baseball talk along the way.

It began as just a couple hours before the game hanging out and turned into half days at work, getting into the lot as soon as possible and having as much time to drink and eat as we wanted to type of affairs. Of course there was always baseball at the end of these parties and that was definitely not lost on us as we walked into PNC Park ready to cheer on our Buccos. The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates were like many of their recent predecessors and the teams that would follow in that they were often a very eclectic mix; mostly made up of very young/unproven players, veteran castoffs and a couple of potential budding superstars. The previous year the Pirates finished with a record of 72-89, better than only the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, so expectations were not very high. However a young man, acquired in the trade of Brian Giles to the San Diego Padres a couple of years earlier had burst into the scene with 26 Home Runs. That young man was the Canadian Outfielder and 2004 Rookie of the Year winner, Jason Bay. Add in future batting champ Freddy Sanchez, 2004 All-Star Jack Wilson and top prospect, Zack Duke on the horizon, we at least had something to root for coming into 2005.

In his rookie year Jason Bay batted .282 and hit 26 Home Runs on the way to becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates only Rookie of the Year in team history.

The season did not get off to a good start as the Pirates were swept in a short two game opening series by the Brewers and then lost an quick west coast heartbreaker to the Padres in 12 innings. It wasn’t until April 15th that my friends and I attended our first game of the year on Jason Bay Bobblehead Night. It had been a warm day and we were all young and tough guys, so we all left our sweatshirts in the car. The day soon turned to night and we were all ordering coffees and hot chocolates to stay warm. One of friend even signed up for a credit card to get the free Pirates blanket. On the field the an unlikely hero, Bobby Hill, who was having a hot start to the season, doubled in two to give the Pirates the lead for good over the Cubbies late in the game. I heard this play over the radio of my car as I drove home because it was way too cold to stay for the entire game.

It would be over a little of a month before I would attend another Pirates with my friends, this time on Oliver Perez Bobblehead Night. Yes the same Oliver Perez that took the mound for the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS versus the St. Louis Cardinals. Since it was a Saturday Night game, that left plenty of time for tailgating, mainly drinking, which is probably why I don’t remember as much from this 8 to 3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. As I try to recall that night the main events that stick out in my mind were that Perez actually pitched pretty well in the game, earning a win on his night and that Jason Bay went 0-4, striking out twice. This was extremely disappointing as he had been on a tear leading up to this game and went on another one immediately after, so we basically got to see one of his only bad games during that time.

Pittsburgh Pirates fan giveaway on June 8, 2005.

On June 8th of that season the Pirates did something a little different and had their first ever “dual” bobbleheads, which ended up becoming one of my favorite Pirates Collectibles for a very long time; the Steve Blass/Manny Sanguillen Bobblehead may be the best idea the marketing department has ever come up with, prior to the Steve Blass Bobblehead this past season. This particular game was on a Wednesday, but I had the next two days off so it was like a Friday for me. Only one of my friends joined me that day for the “normal” pregame. By the time the other two guys arrived we were kind of out of control. This was fairly routine for us at the time, so it was extremely lucky that we always stopped drinking once we got into the game; mostly because we didn’t want to pay the ballpark prices. This day resulted in another win for the Pirates, 6-1 over the Baltimore Orioles and almost ended with a Rob Mackowiak cycle.

The next two games that I went to kind of run together in my mind. This should not and does not make any sense as I went to the one on Tuesday June 21st with my Mom, my Dad and my Grandma for my Birthday and the other was a game with my friends on Saturday July 9th. Also there was a giveaway on the July 9th, a Pittsburgh Crawford’s hat, which I originally remember as a Homestead Grays hat. The Homestead Gray’s hat is the one that my Dad and my one buddy both wore for what seemed like the next 10 years. This is probably why I remember that one more clearly, even though neither one of there are the best versions of either ball cap and could possibly be why these games run together. Nothing about these games was the same, other than the score. The Pirates beat the Nationals 11-4 on the 22nd and won a game over the Mets on the 9th by the same score.

The Pittsburgh Crawford’s and the Homestead Grays Pirates Fan Giveaway ball caps. Two different games, two different years.

I only remember going to one more game that year, but based on my ticket stubs (I have kept all of them since at least 1997) I went to two more games. In between July 9th and Tuesday August 23rd I went to see the Pirates win two games on Sunday July 24th (3-0 versus the Rockies) and Saturday August 6th (9-4 versus the LA Dodgers). On the 23rd of August the Pirates shut out the Cardinals 10-0 as Nate McLouth homered and Zack Duke only went 2 innings, which was the main reason I went to the game. At that point in his rookie year Duke was 6-0 and as always I have been a big fan of prospects, so this was a little disappointing, but it was nice to see another Pirates win.

As the season came to an end Lloyd McClendon lost Managerial Position, the team ended the year 67-95 good for last in the NL Central and my friends and I already made plans to sign up for the same package the following year. Some positives came out of this season, including 32 Home Runs for Jason Bay, an 8-2 record with an 1.82 ERA for Zack Duke and a break out season for Freddy Sanchez. Add in a 9-0 record for me in the games I attended that year; it was a running joke that I should have gone to all the home games that season and it was a great summer for Pirates baseball.

When Did Hope Become Outrageous?

Outrage. There’s a word that has truly become overused to the point of diminishing the meaning. Pretty much what my generation did to Awesome. Today everything is an outrage, there is no other earthly way to see things. Talk about someone hurting from having their business shut down and the rug pulled out from everything they’ve built in their lifetimes without also mentioning “it was for the greater good” is impossible.

Surely, we can let some things go as given. Must we always preface everything with “if it saves one life it’s worth it”? We all get this right? Can’t this just be an underlying current we all have there, underneath what we discuss?

Let’s look at MLB’s most recent effort to start addressing the return of baseball, I wrote about it here in-case you aren’t familiar. To be kind, the idea is a stretch. I think you’d struggle to find any rational thinking person that believes, as constructed, it could work. That said, it has some bones you might be able to build on.

Rather than see this as exactly what it was, an idea, many have chosen to decide for themselves all the people the MLB doesn’t care about. They’ve decided that MLB feels their game is more important than human lives, hell they might even cost them.

Maybe their right. Maybe later today when I have to go get batteries for my mouse and score some butter and eggs, I too will value my selfish need to have my mouse and be able to bake a cake above human life. See, everyday whether we see it as such or not, we are all planning for the future. I plan to patronize my favorite local pub on Friday night when I order my wife a fish sandwich, this isn’t nearly equal to restarting a major American operation, but it is a plan for the future.

Every business in the world right now is planning for the future, it just doesn’t always get headlines, nor do many of them need to understand what the public will think of their choices. How much coverage have you seen about the Striking Amazon workers who feel they are in unsafe situations as they continue to ship all the crap you and everyone else keep ordering all day every day? Not much, and I’d bet dimes to dollars the reason is utterly selfish, we want all that crap we ordered, plus we’re all good people staying home, right? In fact, maybe I should order those batteries….

We need those services so desperately, because nobody can remember 15 years ago before they received daily drop shipments to their door, right? Restaurant workers are, if they’re one of the “lucky” ones to get to keep their job, every day going out and trying their best to keep the business going. Some upending their entire business model virtually overnight. Think any of them planned before they started putting it into place?

Hell, take it to my level. I planned to be writing pieces about Josh Bell’s hot start or why it’s time to think of Joe Musgrove as a solid acquisition, but we’ve all had to change what we do. I’ll tell you what I didn’t stop doing though, plan.

Is Baseball an essential service, surely not. Is it essential to Baseball that they find a way to stop the bleeding and get back to work, you betcha! We all have no issue describing Major professional sports as businesses when it suits our needs. Well, our star player had to go, it’s a business. Is that player being franchise tagged fair? Well, it’s a business. So why is it suddenly not a business when something like this comes along? Clearly, it is. Just like the NBA, the NFL and the NHL, each and every one of them is planning for how this will play out. The NFL is planning to start the season like normal, but also behind the scenes, planning for things to change. Business is like a shark in many ways, if you stop moving you die.

Another reason to continue to plan and put out ways you might want to approach getting back to work, you have thousands of people you employ who want answers. I’ve heard that the plan was unfair to the players, some like Zach Wheeler have even expressed it. Their opinion is valid surely, but don’t think for one second he wants the two sides to stop trying to get back. Because there are no guarantees the players will receive full compensation or service time for this season. I dare say none of the folks on the 40-man will be receiving that $1,200 so they might care.

When we beat this virus, not if but when, businesses will need to be agile and capable of planning for multiple contingencies. Some will push too hard too fast, and others will tread lightly. Some companies will come out of this stronger than ever, ripe for taking market share from others that didn’t plan as well or weren’t able to navigate the near constant changes in how exactly their business could operate.

If you want to make sure everyone knows we’re all in this together as I hear nearly every 10 seconds from one source or another, perhaps it would be nice if it really was ALL of us.

Bottom line, there is nothing wrong with any of these leagues or any business in the world planning and talking about what the future looks like, in fact if they aren’t, they are dialect of duty and most likely won’t come back, at least not without being crippled severely.

In a perfect world this Virus would only kill one thing, virtue signaling. The very core of wanting everyone to know how much better you are than everyone else cuts directly across the grain of everything we’re talking to here. Sure, is easy to tell everyone to stay home and we’re in this together when you have a job that allows it and aren’t hurting financially from this event. Falls pretty flat when you work in a restaurant, have seen 70% of your family (cause that’s what a restaurant becomes) laid off while you try to keep a skeleton crew employed and paid. Do they feel like they’re in this together? Maybe some do, surely some don’t, but you know who’s job it isn’t to tell them how they should feel? Us.

Hope is a funny thing, it often feels like  a fool’s errand, until you realize it’s also what got you through the tough times.

Ten Pirate Killers

Throughout the years there have always been opposition players that feasted against the Pirates. Albert Pujols loved that rotunda at PNC Park, but this list will be all the guys who just ate the Buccos alive despite being less than stellar against others.

10. Kolten Wong – How many times did the Pirates give up a huge homerun to this guy? He’s a nice player and I’m sure he’s put his mark on other teams, but man, nothing made me chew my nails more than Wong coming to the plate in a big situation, unless maybe it’s the next guy on my list.

9. Matt Halliday – There is almost nothing that drove me as nuts as the Pirates shifting the infield defense to the left side, while this dude just slapped single after single the other way. It was the definition of insanity personified.

8. Travis Shaw – Sure, Travis had himself a year in 2018 and it was against just about everyone. He looked like Lou Gehrig against the Bucs. Constantly roping line drives off the Clemente wall.

7. Billy Hamilton – Super fast in the field and on the base paths, Billy terrorized the PNC Park faithful. Outside of Pittsburgh he was a relative lightweight, against the Pirates he covered 80% of the outfield from center and started rally after rally with his speed.

6. Ricky Weeks – Here’s a guy who hid in the weeds of a brutal lineup with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. Corey Hart (before his stint in black and gold) but every time you got through those boppers, along came Ricky to spoil the day.

5. Zach Davies – His numbers were never overwhelming, his stuff was never overwhelming. Couple that with the fact he looks like he could pass for a pony league player and he shouldn’t be a threat right? Yeah, suddenly it’s the 8th inning and he has a shutout going against the Bucs. It just crept up on you watching it unfold, you’d think, oh they’ll get to him next inning, but next inning never came.

4. Adam Wainwright – Yeah, he has stymied the Pirates and most other teams with his high 80’s fastball and pinpoint off speed stuff for quite some time. He has even evolved as he’s aged to get outs in a new way, but what he did with the bat against the Pirates is what always got my goat. The worst was a few years back, the Bucs had dug themselves out of a huge hole to tie the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cardinals had run out of bench players in the 13th inning and called on Adam Wainwright to pinch hit with two on and two out. Aww, tough luck Cards I thought to myself, on to the 14th. Nope, ringing double to left.

3. Sean Rodriguez – Small sample size but it somehow hurt more, last year for Philly he crushed the Bucs a couple times, all while keeping the Mendoza line in sight. He always had a flair for the dramatic and unfortunately for the Bucs, he kept it.

2. Todd Hundley – He started his Pirates killing career during the 1991 pennant race as a member of the Mets. Fast forward to 2002 and he crops up with the Cubs primed to do it again. Timely hits off the bench, epic games as a spot starter, throwing out runners at a higher percentage than he ever showed pedigree to reach. Yeah, this guy.

1. Sid Bream – Could there possibly be a bigger one? The guy was a good player ok. That’s it though, he platooned with Gary Friggin’ Redus for God’s sake. The Bucs let him go and Atlanta got him and, well, I simply don’t care to continue.

Who’d I miss? Let us know, we’d love to hear your thoughts and memories.

Friday Focus – Second Guessing the Pirates’ Draft History is More Than Just Swapping Picks

As I’ve written about the Pirates, I’ve learned some things. First, I’ve learned that a ton of people comment and don’t read what you write. This is one of those things you have to teach yourself to get past. Unless they’re drastically altering the content, even making up quotes you just learn to live with it.

Another that’s fairly high on the list, Pirates fans love second guessing this club. They question everything from how players are instructed, the contracts they’re given, trades that were made and even draft picks.

Recently all those things I learned were pulled together as one of the folks that legitimately do read and almost always bring something tangible to the discussion @eYARKulation brought forward a proposal that the Pirates could have won it all in the Early 90’s if they just made one choice differently.

Well, I’ll let him speak for himself “For all the tooth gnashing over Archer trades Danny Moskos draft picks and Jeremy Burnitz signings the most egregious may have been in the 1987 draft. The pick directly after Griffey Jr could have catapulted the pirates past the Braves or Reds and prevented 20 years of losing.”

My gut reaction channeled Mike Tomlin, I very much don’t like the what if game. That said, Yark has a real point there. Let’s review what happened in that draft and some options the Bucs had on the table.

First, 1987 was of course the draft year for sure fire number one overall Ken Griffey Jr., I remember Upper Deck baseball cards came to prominence some time around there and his was the most coveted card for just about anyone my age. The Pirates were not beneficiaries of a ping pong ball delivering another generational talent like the Penguins with Sidney Crosby, instead they sat in that draft room holding the number 2 pick overall.

The Buccos chose Mark Merchant, a Florida High School outfielder who hit over .400 in his senior season and was a consensus number two behind Griffey. The Pirates were thrilled with the selection, so much so that he signed his contract the day before the draft and a month later would be playing in the Gulf League for the Bucs.

The rest of his story is another column altogether but suffice to say, 12 years later he was out of professional baseball having never set foot on an MLB field. Injury played a huge role as it robbed him of the speed that made him so attractive. Not many players can survive losing one of the tools that they were drafted to use.

Now, back to my man Yark. Here was his proposal, “McDowell filling in behind Drabeck or Deshields anchoring 2B for a decade creates a cascade of positivity that would still be felt today.

Now, I could argue the positivity thing, you need look no further than the Steelers or Penguins to see that every year without a Lombardi or Stanley Cup lead to a barrage of trade proposals or shouts that the stars have underachieved.

He has a point with the difference that could have been made. Deshields over Chico Lind, yeah, not a contest. Jack McDowell could certainly have helped out in a Rotation that rarely had a sure fire top two.
There are quite a few on the list that could have been chosen, it wouldn’t be hard to find a better pick than a man who never made it to the show after all. Craig Biggio was number 22, Cris Carpenter went number 14, Kevin Apier was picked number 9 and Yark’s Jack McDowell went number 5.

When you miss on a number 2 overall selection, its impossible not to have a laundry list of how you could have gone with the choice. This happens even when your pick does pan out.

He got me thinking, take your pick there, and remember this is 1987. The team had just traded Rick Rhoden to the Yankees for Doug Drabek. It was a crap shoot; it was betting that Drabek would help the club in the future with limited evidence he was an “ace”. Of course, we all know it worked and he became a Cy Young winner and the anchor of the early 1990s Pirates playoff squads.

Not just thinking about the prospect of having one of those other guys added to the mix, had me thinking about other moves that potentially don’t get made. There would be no need to acquire Zane Smith, so the Pirates could have potentially retained Moises Alou. Moises played until 1996 before his arbitration years were over so its likely he would have filled the void admirably when Bonds departed.

Does this then lead to asking why in 1988 the Pirates selected Austin Manahan with the 13th overall pick and passed on Tino Martinez who went next? Where do you stop?

At the end of the day I suppose I side with Mariano Rivera “You can’t second-guess baseball. You can’t second-guess yourself.”

Through The Prospect Port Hole: Sergio Campana

Last week I took a trip to the Dominican Summer League and found a freak of nature, Shendrik Apostel. This young man sets himself apart from others by his size and power. While I was down there another athletic freak caught my eye, but this time it was due to his speed and defense prowess. Not too many players are given an 80 grade for any of their tools; especially not at the age of 17 years old. This is exactly what Pittsburgh Pirates Outfield Prospect Sergio Campana was given by Fangraphs for both his current and future value. It is no joke, this kid is lightning quick!

Signed by the Pirates as an international free agent on July 2, 2018 out of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for $500,000, Campana was the 12th ranked Outfielder and 35th ranked player Overall by Baseball America. He immediately reported to Pittsburgh’s Dominican Republic Academy to begin his training. He would remain their until the renovations began in early 2019, at which time he was officially assigned to the DSL Pirates1 to start his professional career.

Check out Campana’s workout video prior to the 2018 International Draft Signings. https://youtu.be/mU9DcY2VR3U

In his first year with the DSL Pirates1 Campana was a little aggressive at the plate, resulting in a 22.3% Strike Out to 7.6% Walk Rate. However he did maintain an above average .362 OBP and proved dangerous on the base paths with 24 Stolen Bases in only 45 games. His batting average also consistently rose as each month passed, going from .250 in June the whole way up to .302 in August. During the short season he accumulated 6 Triples, but unfortunately did not get a single Homerun; not yet realizing the full potential of his power as he grows into his 6’1” 175 lb frame. I am not saying he is going to a 30/30 man in the major leagues. However, there is a 50 future value grade on his Raw Power, so I am not ruling out around 15 to 20.

As the 2020 season is waiting in wings, the young speedster celebrated his 18th Birthday. This lines him up to spend another year down in the DSL playing for the Pirates1, which would still fit into the ETA at PNC Park in 2023, if he spends only one year at each additional level in the Pirates Farm System. Projected as a Centerfielder due to his speed (80), defense (60) and average arm (50), he would be competing with many of the players above him, including Jared Oliva and Travis Swaggerty. He can easily slide to one of the other outfield positions, but I don’t see him doing it without putting up a fight.