Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Now what, Neal? Streaky Pirates put pressure on GM

By Tim Benz
July 16, 2018

Pirates first baseman Josh Bell hits a game-winning
Pirates first baseman Josh Bell hits a game-winning RBI double against the Brewers during the tenth inning.  Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Last Sunday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said a week of 4-4 baseball wouldn’t be enough to convince him the 2018 club should be kept together at the trade deadline.
It was a warning through the media to the fans, his manager and the players.
Well, the Pirates didn’t go 4-4 in those eight games against the Brewers and Nationals. They went 7-1.
To be fair, when Huntington spoke to the assembled media again this Sunday, that string was still 6-1. The Bucs had yet to register their most emotional win in that group of games: a 7-6 walk-off, extra-inning, double-comeback against Milwaukee .
But the question was still certainly worthy of asking: “OK, Neal. So, now what?”
Now that the Pirates had immediately and sufficiently answered Huntington’s call for improved play, had the clubhouse bought itself some more time before being disassembled?
To say that Huntington was noncommittal would be an understatement.
“While we’ve closed ground in the division, while we’ve closed ground in the wild card, while we’ve had a really good week against really good teams, we need to do more,” Huntington said.
So in other words, the goalposts are moving.
No doubt, Huntington was as stunned as anyone that the Pirates played this well this past week. He never would’ve intimated that roster changes would be coming if he had any faith that his club would rattle off this much good baseball over that time.
Because now, he’s more or less boxed in. He made this week sound like a turning point in advance.
With the Pirates responding on the field in the manner that they did, fans will hold Huntington to his word. Those words suggest that this team deserves a little more time to show that it is a contender down the stretch and should at least be judged right at the deadline and not before.
Meanwhile, prior to Huntington’s decree, it was pretty clear that in the GM’s mind he was looking to stage the home before putting it on Zillow.
Huntington sounded far from celebratory over the Pirates great play of late. In fact, he sounded almost unsteady over how the players had climbed their way out of seller status and into wait-and-see mode.
“We’re built around young players. We’re built around young guys who have the ability to be here beyond this year.
Translation: ”I’m not trading the young, affordable guys. So let’s talk about them and make the older, more expensive veterans sound disposable.”
Huntington added: “We’ll continue to do what we believe to be the right thing to do for this organization. It makes it easier when we continue to play well. It makes it better, I should say. It makes it easier if we continue to go on 9-1 stretches, if we can continue that. That also makes it easier if we go on 1-9 stretches, just not nearly as much fun.”
For Huntington, “easier” and “fun” appear to be divergent results at this point.
Should the Pirates extend this torrid pace over the 11 games between now and the trade deadline, it would be fun. But that’s not easy for Huntington. In fact, it’s harder.
It’ll be more difficult to explain to the fans a sell-off of veterans such as Francisco Cervelli, Jordy Mercer, Corey Dickerson, Ivan Nova, David Freese and Josh Harrison if the club creeps above .500.
Should the team retain those players amid a continued rally for fear of further backlash from the fan base, it’ll be hard to explain to his owner Bob Nutting why the organization is going to continue paying those salaries the rest of the year and still be on the hook for them after this season.
Counting contract options, and before arbitrations, that number is in excess of $48 million as of now for those players in 2019 and beyond.
If Huntington’s initial goal last week was to rally the troops with fear of a fire sale, it worked. If by saying they needed to continue doing so after the break, then obviously, he’s trying to double down with similar motivational tactics.
If the goal was to prime the pump of acceptance for the fan base as the latest sale of Pirates talent was about to begin, the players themselves made that backfire.
On the off-chance the Pirates happen to continue playing elite ball over those remaining games between now and the start of August, don’t expect them to add much at all before the deadline.
The explanation will be, “We got back into the race with this crew, so we are sticking with this crew.”
My feeling is Huntington’s desire is still to trade as many veteran contracts as possible before the deadline at the end of July.
Now, he just has to wait a little bit longer for it to come off looking logical in the face of this most illogical of Pirates winning streaks.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers fail to reach long-term deal ahead of deadline

By Jeremy Fowler
July 16, 2018
Image result for leveon bell 2018
(USA Today Sports)
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension before Monday's 4 p.m. ET franchise tag deadline, and his agent said that means this likely will be the running back's final season with the team.
"His intention was to retire as a Steeler," Adisa Bakari told ESPN's Adam Schefter. "But now that there's no deal, the practical reality is this now likely will be Le'Veon's last season as a Steeler."
Bell will play on the franchise tag for the second consecutive year, barring an unforeseen development. He tweeted after Monday's deadline passed that "2018 will be my best season to date."
to all my Steeler fans, my desire always has been to retire a Steeler...both sides worked extremely hard today to make that happen, but the NFL is a hard business at times...to the fans that had hope, I’m sorry we let youu down but trust me, 2018 will be my best season to date...

The parties reopened negotiations last week and talked throughout Monday, hoping to spark something, but there hasn't been much momentum toward a contract over the past few months.
"It became clear the Steelers wanted to pay the position, not the player," Bakari said.
The Bell negotiation was one of the most complicated in recent Steelers history because of Bell's leverage under the franchise tag, a sagging running back market and Bell's conviction to be paid as one of the game's best playmakers regardless of position. It has been more than 500 days since the Steelers first tagged Bell at $12.1 million on Feb. 27, 2017.

"Even though we could not reach a long-term contract agreement with Le'Veon Bell, we are excited he will be with the team in 2018," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement. "We worked very hard to find common ground, but we were unable to accomplish that prior to today's deadline. Le'Veon will play this season under the exclusive franchise tag designation.
"After the 2018 season is completed, we again will attempt to work out a long-term contract with Le'Veon in the hope that he will continue his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers."
The Steelers made two sizable contract offers -- one last summer and one this winter -- beginning at around $13.3 million per year on average and working their way up slightly. Bell turned both of them down, telling ESPN in April that he wouldn't take a contract worth less than $14.5 million annually, based on the amount of his 2018 tag number. For months after that, negotiations lacked real momentum.
The Steelers felt their offers were good and didn't want to overinflate a position that hasn't landed a long-term deal worth more than $10 million per year since Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson in 2011.
With that in mind, Bell knew he could play out two franchise tags worth a combined $26.62 million and have a chance at true free agency as a 27-year-old in 2019, setting the stage for peers Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott in future years.
The Bell saga twisted unexpectedly in January, when the star back told ESPN that he would consider retirement if asked to play on the tag for the second straight year. He has since softened that stance, though he hinted at missing a second straight training camp in absence of a long-term deal.
"Just get the numbers straight, exactly where we want them," Bell said then. "I'm not going to settle for anything. I know what I do and what I bring to the table. I'm not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I'm not getting what I feel I'm valued at."
Bell didn't sign last season's tag until Sept. 4 and showed some rust with 3.46 yards per carry through the first three weeks. But he finished the year as an All-Pro, rushing 321 times for 1,291 yards along with 85 catches for 655 yards and 11 total touchdowns.
He has 7,996 total yards through 62 career regular-season games, the most of any NFL player in that span since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, outdistancing Eric Dickerson (7,842), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
After the season, Colbert told Bell that the team wanted him to retire a Steeler. Team president Art Rooney echoed the sentiment in an end-of-year interview with local media.
Despite both sides wanting to finish a contract, Steelers players got used to life without Bell. They want him to get paid but also want him on the field with them.
"I think last year a lot of guys were like, 'Oh, Le'Veon's not here,'" wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said during offseason workouts. "Nobody cares. We're out here, and we have to get work done. ... We'll see him when we see him. Next man up."  
Added safety Morgan Burnett: "You definitely understand because it's definitely a business. Within your career, it seems long, but it's only a short period of your life. So the stuff you accomplish, the money you make within this time, you want to find a way to make it expand the rest of your life."
The Steelers report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, for training camp on July 25. Bell has used boxing and a vegan diet this offseason to stay in shape, holding off from most football exercises to keep his knees fresh.
Asked about the likelihood of Bell missing camp, Steelers guard David DeCastro said, "We'll see him when he gets here. You can't worry about guys who aren't here. It is what it is.
"You wish he was here. What can you do? It's a business."
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was asked his reaction to Bell's failing to get a long-term deal signed.
"To each his own. He needs to take care of his business," Brown told ESPN's Josina Anderson. "We'll welcome him when he comes and decides to move forward for 2018.
"He'll play pissed off, extremely motivated, super hungry, crazy condition and ready to show why he deserves to be paid like the best.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Bell walks it off as Bucs sweep 5 from Crew

By Adam Berry
July 15, 2018
Image result for pirates brewers july 15 2018
Josh Bell #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates after hitting a walk off two RBI double in the tenth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park on July 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- A week ago, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington set the stage for a critical stretch heading into the All-Star break. After a brutal seven-week slump left them eight games under .500, they needed more than just an average week to maintain any hope of contending.
The Pirates responded by putting together their best week in two months, a series that was anything but average and an unforgettable first-half finale. With rain pouring down and lightning striking in the distance, Josh Bell laced a two-out double to center field in the 10th inning that sent the Pirates to a 7-6, walk-off win over the Brewers on Sunday at PNC Park.
"It was definitely a special moment," Bell said. "One that I won't forget."
The Pirates entered the All-Star break with a season-high six-game winning streak and eight victories in their final nine games. Pittsburgh got there by completing the club's first five-game sweep since September 1996 and the Majors' first five-game sweep since 2006. The Pirates are still not where they want to be, with a record of 48-49, but they have provided some reason for hope.
"It reminded us of what we did the first seven or eight weeks of the season, when we climbed to nine games over - that we can be an interesting team," Huntington said before Sunday's game. "While we've closed ground in the division, we've closed ground in the Wild Card, we've had a great week against really good teams, we need to do more and we need to continue to play this way."
It will be hard to match the way they finished the first half, though. Down by three runs, the Bucs scored once in the eighth and twice in the ninth to force extras.
Rookie Tanner Anderson gave up a run in the 10th, but the Pirates stormed back -- fittingly enough, given the inclement weather that had pitching coach Ray Searage recounting scenes from "The Natural" in the dugout.
"A really fun way to end it," manager Clint Hurdle said, "in the pouring rain."
Gregory Polanco began the rally with a one-out single to right field. The rain intensified as Colin Moransmacked a two-out single to left field off lefty reliever Dan Jennings, putting runners on the corners for Bell.
"Sometimes when the conditions get tough, it's easier to just simplify things," Moran said. "Once the rain started pouring down, you just go, 'All right, get a good pitch to hit and try to hit one.'"
After seeing Jennings miss badly with a first-pitch slider, Bell looked for a fastball. He got one on the next pitch and ripped it to the wall, over center fielder Lorenzo Cain's head. Polanco easily scored, and third-base coach Joey Cora sent Moran home. Tyler Saladino's relay throw easily beat Moran, but the ball slipped between catcher Erik Kratz's legs and Moran slid home safely.
That set off a rain-soaked celebration that carried from the field into Pittsburgh's clubhouse.
"It was crazy," Bell said. "We've got people dancing in here and music's blaring again. There's life back in here."
When the Pirates reconvene in Cincinnati on Friday, the industry's focus will shift even further toward the Trade Deadline. A week after Huntington said his "optimism has turned to realism," the Bucs still must balance the two. They remain 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, with a young core to build around and veterans who may be of use to contending clubs.
But if nothing else, this week proved that there is still room for optimism in Pittsburgh.
"We're playing back to the way we know how to play, the way we started the season," shortstop Jordy Mercersaid. "That's what good teams do: Everybody chips in and everybody helps. We were getting back to that, and now everybody's kind of building that momentum together. That cohesiveness is really tight right now. We're having a lot of fun."
Staying alive: With a worn-down bullpen full of unavailable arms, right-hander Joe Musgrove cruised into the eighth inning with the game tied, 2-2. Musgrove loaded the bases, then, on his 106th pitch, gave up a three-run triple to Brett Phillips.
The Pirates trimmed one run off their deficit in the eighth, when Corey Dickerson -- who homered in the third inning -- doubled and scored on a single by Starling Marte. Mercer's double-play grounder with the bases loaded in the ninth brought them within a run but also within an out of losing.
Up came pinch-hitter David Freese. The veteran infielder crushed Knebel's 1-2 fastball off the top of the right-field wall, driving in Bell to tie the game.
"What a big swing from David," Hurdle said. "He's ready. He stays in the game."
The Yankees finished the last five-game sweep in the Majors, taking five games from the Red Sox on Aug. 18-21, 2006. The Pirates last did it on Sept. 12-15, 1996, in San Francisco.
"I think we knew that going in. It was just a matter of when we were going to start playing well. Everybody goes through tough stretches throughout the course of the year. We've had ours, it seems like. Hopefully, it's behind us, and we can just continue to play well."--Mercer, on recent stretch of games
"I got thrown out the other day, so in my mind, I'm just like, 'Man, find a way to get a couple steps faster.' I don't know what happened. I couldn't see. Luckily, the throw got away, and I got in."--Moran, on scoring the winning run
The Pirates will begin the second half of the season against the Reds on Friday at Great American Ball Park. Right-hander Jameson Taillon (6-7, 3.91 ERA) will take the mound for Pittsburgh after going 4-3 with a 3.29 ERA over his last nine starts. Right-hander Tyler Mahle (7-7, 4.02) will start for the Reds at 7:10 p.m. ET.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

DeMarco Murray should serve as warning to Steelers not to sign Bell long term

By Mark Madden
July 14, 2018

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Bell is still looking for a long-term deal from the Steelers. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
In 2014, running back DeMarco Murray was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for a league-best 1,845 yards. He had 449 touches. In 2016, he led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards.
But Murray hit a wall last season, his seventh as a pro.
His explosiveness waned. Injuries added up. He rushed for a career-worst 659 yards. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry, another personal low. Murray failed to gain 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time since 2012.
This past Friday, Murray retired. He’s 30.
Tomorrow is the deadline for the Steelers to sign Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract. Failing that, Bell will play 2018 under the franchise tag, then leave via free agency. The coming season will be Bell’s sixth in the NFL. He’s 26.
The template set by Murray should be a cautionary tale for the Steelers: Don’t sign Bell long-term. He’s closer to the end of his prime than he is the middle.
Bell figures to be an old 26, his age exacerbated and body slowed by a heavy workload dating to his college days at Michigan State: 414 touches in 2012, his last NCAA season. That’s even more than his 406 touches in 2017 for the Steelers.
Bell will make $14.5 million under the franchise tag this fall. Depending on his mood, he wants a long-term deal worth $15 million per season (he rapped about it) or $17 million per season (same as wide receiver Antonio Brown).
Premium running backs often get low-balled on contracts. Bell says he wants to set the market for the NFL’s top backs. (That sounds noble. But really, Bell just wants paid.)
But the Steelers shouldn’t pay Bell for what he has done. They should pay him for what he’s going to do.
A five-year deal for, say, $60 million with $30 million guaranteed over the first two years would be risky but not unreasonable. (The Steelers reportedly made such an offer a year ago.) The guaranteed money would be a little over twice as much as Bell gets in ‘18 under the franchise tag. The contract’s average annual value would be $3.75 million more than Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman gets. After Bell, Freeman is the NFL’s highest-paid back.
But Bell wants more, and the Steelers would be foolish to pay more.
Bell’s yards per carry dipped mightily last season, from 4.9 in 2016 to 4.0. His yards per catch also dropped, from 8.2 to 7.7. Bell has two marijuana-related suspensions and had his right knee surgically repaired in 2015.
Perhaps Bell leaving the Steelers after one more season is what’s best.
Coach Mike Tomlin once talked about running Willie Parker “until the wheels fall off.” Parker’s wheels did just that, as he managed just two more years in the NFL after 2007, the last of his three consecutive 1,000-yard outputs.
Parker played just six NFL seasons total. It’s a position that can have a short shelf-life.
It’s also a position where replacements easily can be found. Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara made major contributions as rookies last season. Fournette and McCaffrey were first-round picks, Hunt and Kamara third-round choices. Second-rounder Dalvin Cook and seventh-rounder Chris Carson were on their way to similar impact before early-season injuries cut their campaigns short.
Make no mistake, Bell is elite. But how much longer will he be elite?
The NFL is a passing league. How much do backs matter given their disposable nature and the relative insignificance of the running game? (Though Bell is quality at catching the ball and in pass protection.)

Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

By James O'Brien
July 12, 2018
Image result for jamie oleksiak penguins
Jamie Oleksiak #6 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates during an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on February 3, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey.
(Paul Bereswill/Getty Images North America) 

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.
The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.
(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)
In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.
There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.
That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.
We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.
The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?
Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

Signed-through dates for Penguins defensemen:
Letang 2021-22
Dumoulin 2022-23
Schultz 2019-20
Maatta 2021-22
Oleksiak 2020-21
Johnson 2022-23
Ruhwedel 2018-19

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris LetangJack JohnsonBrian Dumoulin,Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.
For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.
There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.
Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.
(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins