The Hanging Curve – Baseball Opinion Blog with MLB Analysis that won’t Bend or Break

Pirates Club Manatees

Let me start by notifying any PETA representatives that stumbled across this that no actual animals were harmed, with the possible exception of whatever may have gone into the hot dogs they serve at the ballpark.

For the past several years, the Pirates tune up for their spring training schedule by playing Manatee Community College in an exhibition game.  While the school that sits just down the road from the Pirates spring facilities has changed their name to something along the lines of the “State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota”, the fierce rivalry has not been lost.  Last year they actually managed to beat a “Pirates” squad of minor leaguers, and it appears that this year they brought in the ringers to help assure victory:  Steve Pearce and Brandon Moss were two representatives with some major league experience.   John Van Every also came in off the bench (he has seen 31 plate appearances and 0.2 innings pitched for the Red Sox).

The Jason Bay trade contingent performed admirably, as Bryan Morris started off the game throwing a perfect inning with two strikeouts.  The aforementioned Moss (who has been offensively meek in Pittsburgh) went 2-2 with a double, 2 runs and an RBI.  Top prospect Pedro Alvarez went 3/4, also with a double, a run and an RBI.

For the Manatees, B.J. Zimmerman cranked a solo home run off Jeff Sues for their only run.  They did manage a respectable eight hits and four walks (it’s good to see Pittsburgh’s pitchers still know how to walk batters, even throughout the farm system).  Shortstop Nick Goody had a tough time in the field and committed three errors.

The game was only seven innings, I believe by design, and the final score was 6-1 for the Pirates.  Nothing quite like a local state college beatdown to get spring training started off right.

State of the Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates today beat Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ team of young guns in a victory fueled by the unlikely contributions of Luis Rivas (2-3, 2 RBI) and Doug Mientkiewicz (1-2, 2 BB, 2 R). Zach Duke pitched well, adding another game to the “good” column in an inconsistent but decent season thus far.

The win brings the Pirates record to 31-33, and they remain at an interesting juncture in the season. The last five series the Pirates have split four with the D’backs, won 2-1 vs. the Astros, split four with the Cardinals, lost 1-2 vs. the Reds, and beat the Cubs 2-1. The Reds are one of those “improved teams” that is starting to pick it up, so maybe I can handle that loss. Houston is a divisional foe, but should be beaten. The Cards and Cubs are divisional foes that are playing extremely well, so wins there are great. Arizona has been tapering off from being one of the best teams in baseball, but still a good team to split with.

So they’ve been playing pretty well as of late, with little help from one of their perceived strengths at the beginning of the season: their starting pitchers. Ian Snell: 2-6 with 5.65 ERA. Tom Gorzelanny: 4-5, 6.83. Paul Maholm: 4-5, 4.48. Zack Duke: 4-4, 4.10 (including today). These four are supposed to be the budding core of Pirate’s team, the supposed “untouchables” in trade talks. Now, Duke and Maholm have been OK, possibly settling into their real roles: they probably are both going to be middle or late rotation starters for their careers. Snell and Gorzelanny (I think to a lesser extent) both have what it takes to be aces. I’ve probably seen Snell pitch more than any of these guys so far this season, and his troubles have been the most puzzling. He has yet to have a scoreless outing, with only four quality starts. His K numbers started out pretty slow and have only recently picked up. Most strange is his control. Historically, he hasn’t had these problems but his walk rate this year has risen by almost 2 BB/9 IP over last year (4.5 vs. 2.9).

Gorzelanny’s struggles are not nearly so puzzling to me. He pitched way too much late last season with his young arm as Jim Tracy ruthlessly pimped him for his 15th win (he didn’t get it). I believe he is injured.

The only real bright spot of the rotation so far this year has come from Matt Morris’ historic sucking. As I reported earlier, Phil Dumatrait was moved into the rotation at the beginning of May and has been a pleasant surprise. As a starter he has gone 3-2 with a 3.22 ERA. The only trouble spot has been his walk rate, which has been a little high (any start where he has walked 3 or more batters has been a no decision or loss), but he’s kept batters off base in general (1.28 WHIP), so therein lies his success.

The Pirates success thus far has not lain in their strength, but in their hitting lineup. Led by McLouth, Bay and Nady, as well as Ryan Doumit (who has been injured for the last 3 weeks), the Pirates are putting runs up on the board. Nady is very likely playing above his skills, but I don’t think McLouth’s stats are too far off from where they should be, and Bay is simply showing us that his knees did indeed take the year off last year. As for Doumit, as long as he stays off the DL (a broken thumb that he actually recovered from in about half the time expected put him on there this season) he has proven that he can hit for power and average as well as play adequate enough defense to remain the starter. The outfield depth looks good, with youngsters Pearce and McCutchen waiting in the wings for possible trades of Nady, Bay and even LaRoche (if he has any trade value left).

With the recent draft, the Pirates picked Pedro Alvarez in the first round, a Boras client who will likely command somewhere between an assload and a fuckload of money, the team has taken a 180° flip from the previous regime’s draft strategy (draft an unskilled player who will sign for peanuts), as well as some other bigger dollar picks. With the new drafting and developmental rhetoric the new regime has laid down (and now started acting on), the team’s distant future looks good, but what about the present? The team’s record is 31-33, they are only 2.5 games out of third place in the division, and the team is playing fairly strong baseball, back at full health, and has hope for the starters to turn the corner. However, the NL Central is not as weak as many predicted. The Cubs and Cardinals are looking great at the top of the division, and even with the Cubs’ best record in baseball, the division is only ten games top to bottom. My guess is the team will entertain trade offers but play a holding pattern and wait until just before the deadline to either ream a desperate contender or try to add a piece to go for the playoffs. My best guess is the team has to be within five games of the division lead (or at least a wild-card berth) to be buyer’s. Mostly though, management appears to be readying the Pirates’ fan for the letdown of a lovable franchise figure (Bay) very likely becoming trade bait.