"The Fort" has raised his batting average by 50 points since June 25, driven in 11 runs over that span as well.

Pirates Smorgasbord July 5, 2012


It is July 5, do you know where your Pittsburgh Pirates are?

How about sitting at the top of the N.L. Central standings, a full game up on the rival Cincinnati Reds.  The Pirates are in first place, ladies and gentlemen.

On May 23, the Pirates were sitting at 20-24 after losing a home series to the New York Mets and sat 5.0 games out in the division.  Many fans were beginning to lose faith in the team, still stinging from the horrific downward spiral the Bucs went through during the second half of 2011.  Since that night, the Pirates have simply been one of the best teams in all of baseball, posting a 25-12 record.  They flirted with first place on June 10, only to go on a road trip to Baltimore where they would be swept in a three-game series by the Orioles.  During that series at Camden Yards, the Pirates pitching staff gave up 27 runs, with Brad Lincoln, Eric Bedard, and Kevin Correia all having bad outings that resulting in losses.  That series could have been a turning point for the Pirates, as they then had to go to Cleveland for another Interleague series.  Instead, the Bucs took two of three from the Tribe – kick-starting the offense in the process.  When the dust settles on the 2012 season, the series in Cleveland may be looked back on as the moment that this team truly came together as a “band of brothers”.

With the All-Star break coming up next week, this edition of Pirates Smorgasbord will take a look at the factors that have thrust the Pirates into the national spotlight once again, as well as the many rumors that have begun to spring up surrounding the Bucs as they head into a second consecutive trade deadline season as buyers.  It’s a smorgasbord of Pirates information – a virtual potpourri of facts and opinions on baseball’s Cinderella of the season.

Drew Sutton celebrates his walk-off homerun that made the Pirates 8-7 winners over Houston this past Tuesday night.

Role Players making their presence felt

When fans look back at the Pirates three-peat N.L. East Championship teams of 1990-1992, many names stand out.  Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke, Drabek, Smiley, Bell – all names that immediately make us all think back to those grand years at Three Rivers Stadium.  However, for those fans who lived and died with those Pirates teams – myself included – we remember a few different names that were key pieces as well.

Espy, Varsho, Slaught, Redus, McClendon, Wilkerson, Reynolds – these were the role players that provided many heroic moments for the teams that won 95, 98, and 96 games during that run.  It seemed that every night, we were being treated to a clutch hit or great defensive play by one of these unsung Buccos.  The Sunday games – the day of the week where Jim Leyland would notoriously rest most of his stars – were full of bench players in the lineup, so if you ventured to Three Rivers Stadium to see the Bucs on a Sunday afternoon, chances are you would see Gary Redus somewhere on the infield.  The strategy worked, as the Pirates would usually get an outstanding performance by a reserve every weekend.

Clint Hurdle doesn’t quite have the same game plan for the current Bucs.  The skipper likes to move guys around in the batting order based on who is hot or match-up stats, but rarely does he sit more than one starter in a game.  As we get deeper into this season, players like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker will need a day or two off to stay fresh.  Good thing for Hurdle that he has a bench full of players who can get the job done when duty calls.  As Drew Sutton proved this past week, there is something about putting on that black and gold jersey that just brings out the best ballplayer in everyone.

Baseball is truly a sport that embraces the team concept.  Over 162 games, every player on the 25-man roster will need to step up for his moment in the sun.  This season, it has been gritty bench players like Michael McKenry (#StarttheFORT) who have made us nostalgic for those early 90′s Pirates squads.  “The Fort” is clearly the backup to Rod Barajas, but with the veteran catcher dealing with some minor injuries lately, it has been McKenry who has firmly established his spot as the second backstop for the Bucs.  His current hot streak has keyed a few wins for the Pirates, and his team spirit is evident to anyone who watches this team on a daily basis.  Josh Harrison is another bench player who has been invaluable to the team, playing all over the infield and in both corner outfield spots.  He has played stellar defense, with only two errors in 51 games – even more notable when he check out his splits and realize that he has started games at five different positions in 2012.

Drew Sutton has technically been a Pirate twice this season, having been acquired in late May and then ending up in Tampa Bay, only to be reacquired on June 24.  While with the Rays, Sutton played first, second, and third base – then immediately became primarily an outfielder upon his return to the National League.  While his .387 BA in nine games for the Pirates has been superb, knowing Sutton can play every position on the diamond sans catcher is just as valuable to Hurdle.  Pirates fans were treated to the first walk off homer in the four year big league career of their newest player on Tuesday night, a 10th inning bomb to center field that sealed another win over the hapless Astros.

The acquisition of Casey McGehee has proven to be a nice move for the Pirates.  Despite a slow start with the bat, having McGehee around enabled Hurdle to give Pedro Alvarez the proper match-ups during his struggles.  Now that Alvarez has found his bat, McGehee has evolved into a super-sub player – and a nice luxury for Hurdle.  Garrett Jones has benefited greatly from the current roster alignment as well, and if he stays on his current pace, Jones could blast 25 homers in only 400 plate appearances.  The Jones/McGehee Frankenstein monster could end up with a .275/40/100 line if they stay the course, a stat line that some teams are paying up to $10 million per season to acquire.

If the 2012 Pirates end up playing in October, it will be in no small part to the contributions of McKenry, Sutton, Harrison, and McGehee.

SP Paul Maholm could be part of the Cubs firesale later this month.

Could Paul Maholm make a return to Pittsburgh this summer?

Paul Maholm spent seven respectable seasons in Pittsburgh, winning 53 games in his time as a Pirate.  This past offseason, the Bucs made a decision to not extend a team option for him that would have cost over $10 million.  He subsequently signed with the Chicago Cubs for $4.75 million with a 2013 option at $6.5 million, numbers that are not out of whack for an inning-eating veteran starter.  Maholm never played on a Pirates team that lost less than 90 games, and one could imagine that he is secretly cheering for the Bucs whenever the Cubs aren’t facing them.  The Pirates have always been blessed with players who understand the commitment to the community and impact they can have with their high profile careers, and Maholm was one of the best in Pittsburgh for his entire run here.  His donations of time and money to the Miracle League field program and many other various Pirates charities made him one of the most requested athletes in the city for these events.  Bottom line:  Paul Maholm was a complete professional who genuinely loved the city of Pittsburgh.

The 2012 season was going to be a rebuilding year for the Cubs and their new Theo Epstein-run front office.  They knew going in that they would be bad, but nobody on the North Side could have predicted the Cubbies to be THIS bad.  The team is in full-on firesale mode, and any player not named Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo is on the trading block.  This includes the veteran-laden starting rotation of Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Travis Wood, and Paul Maholm.  Garza will be a hot ticket at the trade deadline, and being that he is under contract for at least two more seasons at only 28-years old, he will command a significant return via highly-rated prospects.  The Pirates would be more apt to look at Dempster or Maholm, neither of whom would command a top-rated prospect return.

The idea of Paul Maholm coming back to Pittsburgh hasn’t been discussed too much in the local media, but the chances of it happening are real.  The Pirates starting rotation has been solid, with James McDonald, A.J. Burnett, and Jeff Karstens all with locked-down slots for the stretch run.  The wild cards are Eric Bedard, who has taken the loss in four of his last six starts and seems to have lost his command of the strike zone, and Kevin Correia.  Correia has pitched better of late, winning three of his last four starts and only giving up 2 earned runs in the other.  Correia has probably pitched his way back into the rotation for the rest of the season.  The Pirates will give Bedard a few more starts to sort out his issues, but there is always the chance of a looming injury with Bedard.  Having one more proven, back-of-the-rotation starter like Maholm could put the Pirates pitching staff over the hump.  Maholm has only thrown 89.2 IP in 2012, and if the Pirates were to bring him back in July, he could end up being a horse for them in a pennant race.  The Cubs will be looking for young, controllable talent.  The Pirates have a slew of young starting pitchers in Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson who all appear ready for the big leagues, but are sandwiched between the Pirates current starts and a crop of future stars behind them.  These pitchers could be used as trade bait to require Paul Maholm, who would undoubtedly be thrilled to return to Pittsburgh in a season that could be historic.  Maholm has seen the underbelly of Pittsburgh baseball, the chance to see it at its best would be incentive enough for him to have one of his traditional “bulldog” runs where he is as good as any left-handed pitcher in the National League.

If Neil Huntington can get a deal done for Maholm and perhaps a spark-plug fourth outfielder like Reed Johnson, I could see the Pirates giving up Jeff Locke and perhaps Indianapolis first baseman Jeff Clement, who has seen his career reborn in 2012.  This would be a deal that could be done, while still allowing the Pirates to seriously consider a few of the “big time” trades we will discuss next.  Would you like to see Paul Maholm back in Pittsburgh?  Sound off in the comments section below.

Is Andrew McCutchen a legit N.L. MVP candidate? Yes, he is.

MVP?

The chants of “MVP MVP MVP” at PNC Park each time Andrew McCutchen enters the batting box may not the product of a pipe dream after all.  The Pirates All-Star center fielder is having a season that could end up being one of the best overall campaigns in the history of the Pirates.  Currently leading the N.L. with a .360 BA to go along with his 16 HR and 54 RBI, “Cutch” is on pace to not only hit 35 HR and drive in over 100 runs, he also has a legitimate shot at a 30/30 season and an outside shot at the elusive 40/40 season.  McCutchen currently has 14 stolen bases, so he would have to amp up that number to reach 40 steals.  His power seems to grow by the game, so hitting 40 home runs is not out of reach.  His other stats include a .412 OBP and a 1.022 OPS.  He could end up with over 30 doubles and double-digit triples.  Toss in the fact that he is a possible Gold Glove candidate as well, and you have one of the greatest seasons by any player – EVER.

Could Andrew McCutchen be in the discussion for the National league MVP award?  He should, and he will.  Keep the chants going at the ballpark, just in case.

Quick Hits

- Hearing the rumors that the Pirates could potentially be in on the trade discussions for the Phillies Cole Hamels or the Brewers Zack Greinke is exciting, but fans should temper their expectations.  The Pirates front office is not going to mortgage their future (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia) for either Hamels or Greinke.  Both pitchers are three-month rentals and neither would be a high percentage play to resign long term in Pittsburgh.  As far as starting pitching goes, the Pirates should be looking at players such as Maholm or even Joe Blanton.  Both can be had fairly cheap, and both could possibly come in a package that would include either bullpen help or a significant upgrade to a bench slot.

-  Expect to hear the names Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Daniel McCutchen, Duke Welker, Jeff Clement, Matt Hague, Gorkys Hernandez, and Alex Presley in any potential trade rumors for the Bucs.

-  The Pirates had at least five legitimate All Star candidates, and will be represented by two players – McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan.  A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, and Jason Grilli all had the stats to make the game, but were not selected.  It makes you wonder if the “fan vote” has overstayed its welcome when a guy like McCutchen is not in the starting lineup, despite being the hottest player in all of baseball throughout the first half.

- The Pirates are 10 games over .500 as of tonight’s win and sweep of the four-game series against Houston.  Get used to the phrase “first time since 1992″ because everything the Bucs do from this point out will be described in that context.

- C Rod Barajas was once again scratched from the lineup tonight due to an injury.  With Eric Fryer up in the majors and Michael McKenry playing like a starter, now would be the time for the Bucs to give Barajas a vacation on the 15-day DL.  The 36-year old catcher has played in 100 games only four times in his 14-year career.  He will need to have time off to get to the finish line.

-  2B Neil Walker extended his hitting streak to 9 games tonight, and has raised his batting average from .263 to .275 during this stretch.  Walker hit .296 in 2010 before regressing back to .273 last season.  Ultimately, he should be right in the middle of those two numbers – .280.  If Walker can consistently hit .280 with 10-15 homeruns and 80 RBI, he will always be ranked in the top 10 second baseman in the game.

- The demotion of OF Jose Tabata to Indianapolis this week was a long time coming.  Tabata has looked simply awful in the field, taking bad routes to balls and seemingly pulling up on fly balls that look like they could have been caught.  At the plate, he seemed to be starting to find his stroke.  He will play both RF and LF at Indy and work on his conditioning, which has been an issue for him since last summer.  Tabata is only 23-years old and fans tend to forget that he only racked up 442 total plate appearances at the AAA level before being promoted to Pittsburgh.  He may need a full 2-3 months at Indianapolis to get back on track, hopefully in time to contribute to a Pirates pennant chase in September.

That’s it for this extended edition of Pirates Smorgasbord.  The Bucs end the first half of 2012 with a tough three-game series against the San Francisco Giants in a battle of division leaders, however they will miss Giants ace Matt Cain in the series – a definite plus.  Enjoy the All Star game and break, folks.  Next week we will be back to start what could be the most historic half-season of baseball in Pittsburgh Pirates history.

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Tags: A.J. Burnett Andrew McCutchen For MVP Casey McGehee Clint Hurdle Cole Hamels Drew Sutton Garrett Jones James McDonald Jeff Snedden Jose Tabata Demotion Josh Harrison Kevin Correia Michael McKenry Neil Huntington Paul Maholm Pirates Potential Trades Pittsburgh Pirates Rod Barajas Ryan Dempster Zack Greinke Zoltan Z