The Pirates are winners again

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The front cover of the sports section of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on 9/10/2013

I will never forget this day.

It is done. After 20 miserable, pathetic, impotent, embarrassing years, our Pittsburgh Pirates are guaranteed a winning season. Once a year, usually in September, I launch a Facebook tirade about the Buccos breaking my heart and how I continually let them because I’ll never stop being a Pirates fan. But finally, now I get to take a different tone. I get to convey a sentiment of pride and hopefulness, and well, joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. Every Pirates fan is feeling the same thing I’m sure and ladies and gentleman, it’s an extraordinary feeling.

So here’s to 82 and burying the curse of Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera. Here’s to forgetting that Barry Bonds couldn’t throw out one of the worst runners in the majors. Here’s to forgetting Operation Shutdown. Here’s too burying 57-105 in 2010. Here’s to forgetting John Russell, Jim Tracy, Pete Mackanin, Lloyd McClendon, and Gene Lamont. Here’s to wiping the memory away of Dave Littlefield and every other inadequate front office bozo that disgraced a rich baseball tradition in a city that could have never imagined such inadequacy after 1992.

Here’s to Clint Hurdle, love him or hate him, he was at the helm of the most historic (and positive) event for the Pirates in TWO DECADES. Here’s to the Pirates ownership and front office, who have finally addressed futility and found a winning combination. Here’s to the Texas Rangers, who, although are a good team in their own right, suffered a true defeat to put smiles on the faces of thousands (millions?) of Pirates fans around the globe. Here’s to the Pirates organization for overcoming the insanity of Kyle Stark and Hoka Hey. And finally, here’s to all of the fans who have kept the faith through all these years, despite overwhelming ineptitude and disappointment.

We don’t know if the Pirates will have a winning season again next year, or in the next 20 years, for that matter, but right now they are winners. Enjoy it Pittsburgh. You’ve earned it.

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How Clueless is Pirates Assistant GM Kyle Stark?

Disclaimer: I want to start this off with full transparency. Most of this blog entry is made up of some puzzle pieces I’ve put together over the last few days. Some of my conclusions are based on speculation and I by no means am selling this as complete fact. My only intention in the following is to make you think a little bit and consider some certain possibilities that seem to be in the tea leaves. That being said, I’ll get right after it.

I’m a big fan of the Pittsburgh sports coverage done by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I follow just about all of their beat writers pretty closely because I consider them to be the best at what they do and the most entertaining while they do it. But without a doubt, my favorite writer is columnist Dejan Kovacevic. He’s a sports columnist that writes about every professional Pittsburgh team, as well as the basketball and football teams of Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia.

Lately, Kovacevic has been writing a lot about the second epic Pirates collapse in as many years, and he’s been right to do so. At one point this season, the Pirates were 16 games over .500. Now, they are 74-74. They’ve lost 10 of their last 12 and it certainly seems like it’ll take a miracle to prevent their 20th straight losing season. Some of Kovacevic’s columns have focused on how bad the players have been, while others have faulted coach Clint Hurdle, as well as the Pirates front office. I’ve been most interested in the latter.

On September 13, he wrote a column entitled “Pirates clueless about winning.In this piece, he absolutely grills Pirates management for innumerable mistakes ranging from poor off-season free agent acquisitions to  improper signings at the trade deadline. But the core of the story focuses around the inability of the Pirates organization to teach good fundamentals to young players so they are adequately prepared once they get to the big leagues. He cites the example of Pirates assistant GM Kyle Stark bringing in United States Navy SEALS to the team’s Florida Instructional League sessions in Bradenton. Rather than have these young players focus on fundamentals they’re clearly lacking, Stark said the goal was “to give our guys a unique training experience to reinforce various lessons we stress all the time pertaining to leadership, team building and mental toughness.” Kovacevic scoffs at this statement (and rightly so) because that was valuable time the young players could use to practice the fundamentals of baseball, i.e. the most basic concepts ball players need to know to succeed at their sport.

Not long after he wrote the SEALS article, Kovacevic explored, among other things, the opinions outside the Pirates organization considering the team’s minor league fundamentals. On September 18, he wrote another article entitled “Nutting correct to seek answers.The one glaring graf he used as evidence of how poorly other teams view the Pirates minor league development was the following:  I could fill the sports section with examples, or I could simply share what a farm director for another National League team told me Tuesday: “What the Pirates are doing down there is deplorable.” Again, he squarely puts the blame for this on the shoulders of Stark, the Pirates farm director.

That brings me to tonight. Kovacevic wrote a blog entry entitled “Wakeup Call: Do NOT let players off hook.” Here, he writes a few short points on why the Pirates players are also to blame for the team’s epic collapse. But that isn’t what intrigued me, it was one of the comments left by a reader below the story. This is what it said:
BarryVanBonilla
September 20th, 2012 – 12:08 am
By all means, let’s not let the players off the hook. But going back to your recent work, let’s not forget who assembled this team, who teaches it, especially those who have been around long to be attributable to the present regime (by no means excusing the Littlefield and Bonifay reigns of error).There is a cultural problem here, that I have discerned spending time around some of the individuals in question. I want to share some of what I’ve seen and been told, though I wish some of those directly involved would go on the record (since some have nothing fo lose).Your piece of a few days back captured issues I have seen firsthand, and heard from former players.  What I heard was reflective of systemic problems with priorities (team-building with consultants, core strength training, lectures, etc.) that took time away from on-field drills. As for the drills, there were complaints about them being formulaic, with inconsistent quality of training and a lack of effort expended toward making sure players kept doing something until they did it right.The more ephemeral criticisms centered around “too many (development) guys tapping on f******* computers and iPhones and not enough time doing hands-on training.” Also, too much “hairy fairy consultant ****,” presumably at the expense of hands-on training. I heard variations on these same criticisms from multiple individuals, and what I saw of Kyle Stark and his people at Pirate City was pretty uninspiring, inasmuch as they didn’t interact with players as much as with each other and their devices. There was a hell of a lot of standing around by players listening to lectures I couldn’t hear. The other criticism feeds off of the SEALS stuff. The military mindset is very much apparent if you spend time around them, and more so in the telling of people who have spent more time than I have. It has been described as offputting by people, and a lot of players appear not be responding well to it, according to its critics.

The other universal criticism of Stark is that he is not nearly knowledgeable enough about the actual game (as opposed to the theoretical game) to do his job effectively. Two former players told me that they approached Frank Coonelly about jobs with the organization. Both were sent to Stark. One former player told me Stark was an “obnoxious, disrespectful little ****.” My bias having met him is that this captures it quite well and applies to some of his staff as well (one of his direct reports laughed condescendingly at the idea that Kris Medlen would amount to anything, because he is too small, something I find amusing as I write this an hour or so after he tied Whitey Ford’s record of 21 consecutive starts resulting in a win for the Braves).

The other player was more specific (and riotously funny). He met Stark, who asked the guy what his experience was in baseball. He rattled off his years playing and coaching at several levels. Stark looked at (and tapped) on his laptop, asking: “Who did you play for? I haven’t heard of you.” The gentleman pointed to the wall behind them and said, “That’s me right there.” It was a large reproduction of one of the three world series celebrations since 1960 (left vague to protect the irate). Stark appeared not to “give a **** ” as it was described to me. Neither player believes Coonelly bothered to tell Stark who he was interviewing, which is borne out by the descriptions of the incidents.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

In sum, Neal Huntington’s team may be getting better, they may suck, but nobody I know (myself included) thinks they have any ability to relate to human beings very well. In my view, absent that ability (or a willingness to subcontract that part of your job to others who do have it), you’ve already failed. No matter how good your “metrics” are, you’ll ultimately wear out your welcome. My own impressions, outside of a select few people, is that this is a soulless, corporate operation that just happens to be in the business of baseball. That starts at the top, and that is why I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

I thought it was just a rant from some unusually intelligent Pirates fan at first, but throughout it, he/she kept declaring themselves close to the organization in one way or another. He/she said they had spent considerable time around the Pirates management and players in question and drew some conclusions from what he/she was told by certain people. Not only that, but below the comment, Kovacevic commented further about the commentator by adding:

DK: All I’ll add is that I can vouch for this individual’s veracity as someone close enough to make the above comments. Oh, and I’ll add that Huntington promoted Stark and Greg Smith last winter to the titles of assistant GM.”

So, we should be able to conclude that Kovacevic basically backed up the commentator’s validity. These were words written by someone who knew what they were talking about.

(STAY WITH ME, I’M GETTING TO THE POINT SHORTLY)

In the comment, the person really attacked Stark and gave some examples. Primarily, I want you to consider what he/she said about two former players who approached Pirates president Frank Coonelly. Coonelly sent them both to Stark. One said that Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful (TO A FORMER PIRATES PLAYER WHOM THE TEAM PRESIDENT RESPECTED ENOUGH TO REFER). What’s worse, the Stark didn’t even know who the second former Pirate was. That’s when the former player pointed to a a picture of himself in a World Series celebration.

The commentator notes at this point that it was a picture of one of the World Series celebrations since 1960 (this is how he protects the player’s identity). So that player could have been on the Pirates team during the 1960,’71 or ’79 World Series win.

Now in the next graf of the comment, the author writes the following:

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. They talk about legacy, they bring these guys to spring training, put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job they’re shuffled off to Stark. Now, it may well be that the individuals are not good potential coaches. To me, however, the going on and on about legacy and history, juxtaposed with the way they treat people who were important to the franchise, is telling. Several people told me that Clint Hurdle has had more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.

This is where the commentator may have given away the identities of the two former players who approached Stark. “…put them in the dugout, but when they ask for a job, they’re shuffled off to Stark.” Earlier this season, I can remember only one instance when former players were brought back and put in the dugout for a game. Those two players were Bill Mazeroski and Bill Virdon. If you don’t remember, here’s the article documenting it. Also, in the commentator’s final sentence of that graf he points out that “several people told me that Clint Hurdle has more to do with stressing the legacy than the others.” I can back this up by a quote from Hurdle reported by MLB.com after Major League Baseball told Virdon and Mazeroski they weren’t allowed to be in the dugout because they exceeded the manager limit.

“I was told that’d be the end of it. It did not surprise me,” Hurdle admitted prior to Wednesday night’s second game of the interleague series with Minnesota at PNC Park. “It wasn’t really within the rules and regulations of the game, which I might have overlooked in my excitement to get them involved.”

It seems completely possible that the two players the commentator noted in his rant were Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski.

Both Virdon and Maz fit the criteria of being on one of the three World Series championship teams from 1960-1979. And I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to Stark when I assume that he knows who Bill Mazeroski is. Pretty much anyone who knows a lick about baseball recognizes the name “Mazeroski.” So that leaves me to believe that Kyle Stark didn’t know who Bill Virdon was.

I know that Bill Virdon wasn’t the most high-profile player in Pirates history. But he did play for the team for 11 years (1956–1965, 1968) and was the manager of the Pirates from 1972-1973. He is a notable player in the team’s history and it’d be a damn shame of Stark didn’t know who he was. If in fact it was Virdon who approached Stark, which then prompted Stark to Google his name, it would only speak more to the fact that Stark is completely clueless and has no business being in the position he’s in

And don’t forget that Kyle Stark was obnoxious and disrespectful to them and was completely clueless as to who one of them was. Can you imagine how terrible it would feel to be one of those old time Pirates greats and have an assistant GM treat you like that? Hell, even if it wasn’t either of those players who were the ones mentioned in the blog comments. If you were a Pirates player who had won a championship with the team during the glory days, when the foundation of the fan base was established for generations to come, and you were treated like that by a current Pirates employee, wouldn’t you just feel the urge to smack him upside the head and give him a lesson about how meaningless he was to the organization now?

I know it’s a very roundabout way to say that the Pirates organization clearly makes bad personnel decisions from top to bottom, but it’s an entertaining way to look at it.Again, I’m not declaring it as fact that Maz and Virdon were the two unnamed players in the comments of Kovacevic’s blog. I could be putting together coincidental puzzle pieces that aren’t actually there. But consider what I’ve provided you and draw your own conclusions and don’t forget that regardless of who the two players were, Kyle Stark treated them like garbage. Either of the unnamed players would have been prime targets for autograph seekers because regardless of their names, they were Pirates. And now, the Pirates are a joke of an organization and the fans deserve better than the last 19 (and soon to be 20) years of losing.

And if I am grasping at straws, then I have at least provided you with Kovacevic’s insight that is clearly undeniable. Either way, I’ve made my point.

Pirates’ Woes At Plate Continue, Raise Questions

As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, it’s pretty frustrating watching a team that day-in and day-out, has tremendous pitching with little to no run support. The Buccos have the second best team ERA in the majors (3.15) and have allowed only 103 earned runs so far. They have allowed only 119 runs this season, which is third in all of baseball. The Pirates pitching staff is also ranked ninth in all of baseball when it opponents’ batting average; the opposition has hit.240 against the Pirates. The pitching staff didn’t allow more than five runs until the 19th game of the season and has allowed more than five runs only five times this season (and three of those games were against the St. Louis Cardinals, who have scored more runs than any team in baseball this season). Even though pitching numbers have gone up and batting numbers have gone down in the post-steroid era, these are still the kind of pitching stats that should warrant a postseason appearance.

Unfortunately, the game of baseball is more than just what happens on the mound.

The Pirates are incredibility inept at scoring runs. They rank dead last in the majors in runs scored (97) and they aren’t even close to the 29th ranked Padres who have scored 12 more. Statistically, the Pirates would need four more games to make up those 12 runs since they average about three runs per game. That said, it generally takes hits to score runs and that’s the primary reason why the Buccos can’t get men from the batter’s box to home plate. Once again, the Pirates are ranked 30th in hits, accumulating only 243 this season. Collectively, Pittsburgh is batting .222 which is 28 points less than the league average of .250. The Pirates also have the worst on-base percentage in the majors and have hit only 24 home runs.

There are only three Pirates batting .250 or better and there are six Buccos that are hitting below the Mendoza line. The two most notable underachievers are Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. Both are hitting a measly .162 and have combined for eight RBIs and three home runs. Barmes and Barajas were the two biggest off-season acquisitions and are getting paid $5 million and $4 million, respectively. Barmes is the HIGHEST paid position player and Barmes is the SECOND HIGHEST paid position player on the Pirates roster. Although Barajas has been hitting better lately, neither his nor Barmes’ numbers are acceptable. Their numbers wouldn’t be worth any amount you paid them right now.

So if the Pirates are serious about achieving a winning season for the first time in 19 years, they’ll need to upgrade offensively. A postseason berth is probably out of the question right now, so the Buccos need to concentrate on one step at a time.

Here are the options they have to establish some better numbers at the plate. They can stay the course and make no changes, hoping that their team will improve at the plate. This is probably the worst option the Pirates could choose. I sincerely doubt there will be any substantial improvements from the guys they have. Although they are only about one-fifth of the way through the season, the chances aren’t good that the team will make a huge turn around at the plate any time soon.

The next option for the Pirates could be calling up talent from the minor leagues. This can be a crap shoot, especially within the Pirates organization. Starling Marte is the best option within the organization, but he has been nursing a hand injury and if the Buccos were to call him up, they would have to be sure that the injury is completely healed so Marte would be in the position to play at 100 percent. Right now, Marte is only seven days removed from suffering the injury and rushing him back would probably do more to hurt his future than help the current Major League team. And even before the injury, Marte hasn’t been unstoppable at the plate this year. His athleticism lends the most to the support of bringing him up from AAA Indianpolis but he is hitting .268 this season compared to .332 last year. It’s still a solid average and he still has great potential, but it seems like he’ll need some more time in the minors to prove he can be a starter for the Pirates any time soon. So right now, a call up is still probably out of the question.

One more option would be acquiring someone from another team. This is the biggest risk/reward the Pirates could go with. In order to get someone with a solid value at the plate, Pittsburgh would have to give up someone with significant value as well. And for the Pirates, that would mean someone from the pitching staff. I’m particularly conflicted about this option because the Pirates hurlers have been the one area that doesn’t need to improve whatsoever. But would losing one guy from the pitching staff have a huge effect on the rotation as a whole? Maybe, maybe not. The Pirates might actually be strong enough on the hill to lose a piece and still maintain their dominance, but that is a risk with some big implications. What if the hitting didn’t improve and their rotation starts to suffer as well? That could set Pittsburgh back substantially.

Recently, Mark Madden (a popular Pittsburgh radio talk show host) suggested the Pirates should trade closer Joel Hanrahan to acquire a big stick to improve the Pirates’ numbers at the plate. This might not be a bad idea by the numbers. As solid as Hanrahan his, he doesn’t get to play enough to be tremendously useful. The Pirates have had only 12 save opportunities this season, which ranks 23rd in the Majors. If the Pirates can’t score enough runs to get a lead heading into the ninth, what’s the point of needing such a solid closer? That question could end up being a catch-22. What if the Pirates trade Hanrahan, end up producing enough runs to hold a lead into the ninth, but can’t hold the opposition enough to get the win? Since Hanrahan has been on the bereavement list due to the death of his grandmother, his fill-in Juan Cruz has gone 3-for-3 in his save opportunities. But he only has six saves in his 12-year career. He’s done well recently as a closer, but we’ll need to see a bigger sample size before assuming he can take on any kind of permanent closer role.

I’m not saying that moving Hanrahan would be the answer. He hasn’t been overly impressive this year, so the return you could get for him might not be as big as the Pirates would want or need to drastically alter their run production. But one thing is clear: The Pirates can’t waste any more time. They need to pull the trigger on some kind of change, any kind of change really. Because even though the Pirates do have a handful of loyal fans, everyone has their breaking point. Nineteen years is too long to go without a winning season and if the Pirates ever want to start garnering respect again, something must be done.

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