Saturday, July 28, 2012

Starling Marte Lands in Pittsburgh

by Marc Hulet
July 27, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte hits a home run in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on July 26, 2012. (Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE)

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Starling Marte came out swinging.

The rookie deposited the first MLB pitch he saw into the stands for a home run. It’s a fitting introduction for the young outfielder who possesses immense talent but his approach at the plate suggests he won’t fully tap into his potential unless he makes some adjustments.

A notoriously-aggressive hitter, Marte did not post a walk rate of more than 4.9% in his career until 2012 and bottomed out at 3.8% in 2011 at the double-A level. He has very good speed (although he’s raw as a base stealer) which has helped him maintain exceptionally high BABIPs in the minors making him appear to be a better hitter than he really is at this point. With that said, it’s not easy to hit .300 over the course of a full season and Marte has done it each season (in North America) up until 2012; he was hitting “just” .286 at the time of his recall.

Marte is a multi-tooled talent with the ability to hit for average if he waits for his pitch, rather than using his above-average hand-eye coordination and quick bat speed to make contact with pitchers’ pitches; it worked for Vladimir Guerrero but very few others have succeeded with that approach. Unlike Vlad, Marte strikes out too much with K-rates above 20% despite modest power that could produce 10-15 home runs annually. He also has good speed, but he has yet to grasp the nuances of base stealing (21-for-33 in ’12, 24-for-36 in ’11). Defensively, Marte is a strong fielder with gold glove potential with a little more polish. He possesses a strong arm, which should suit him well if he has to play right field thanks to the presence of Andrew McCutchen in center field.

Marte was originally signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 18 and was two years older than the typical hot-shot international signee. He was not one of the “big names” on the market at the time and had to work hard to get recognized – especially after posting a .595 OPS and .220 batting average in his pro debut. His impressive physical attributes earned him another shot and he posted an .822 OPS, which earned him a ticket to North America in 2009. Prior to 2012, I ranked Marte as the sixth best prospect in the system, knocking him down for his plate approach. He was ranked right behind recently-traded outfield prospect Robbie Grossman and I kept him off the FanGraphs 100 top prospects list.

Marte is the type of talented young player that often bursts onto the scene and wows audiences for a few weeks or a month and then the league adjusts to him, forcing adjustments that are either made with the assistance of big league coaches after a short period of struggle or results in a demotion back to the minors. Marte is an exciting prospect but his early success should definitely come with a huge caution flag to not overrate his impact. If everything clicks, though, he could develop a similar offensive profile to New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Man Powering the Pirates

The New York Times
July 26, 2012

Andrew McCutchen watches his home run against the Astros Tuesday July 3, 2012 at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

PITTSBURGH — Andrew McCutchen was 6 years old the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs, in 1992. He does not remember watching the series, but if he did, he would have rooted for the Atlanta Braves. They were his favorite team, close enough to his home in Fort Meade, Fla., and they won all the time.
For most of McCutchen’s youth, the Pirates lost. This season marks the 20th anniversary of their last winning team. Their next could come this season, with McCutchen playing the role of Barry Bonds — a do-it-all outfielder and the most valuable player of the National League. The Pirates are 56-42, and McCutchen is the major leagues’ leading hitter, at .368.
“In my opinion he’s the best player in the league, and the fact that he plays here in Pittsburgh, he’s probably lost some of that exposure, because we don’t play on national television that much,” Neil Walker, the Pirates’ second baseman, said. “You stick him in a place like New York or Boston, he may be the face of this entire league.”
McCutchen will be here for a while, having agreed in spring training to a six-year, $51.5 million contract with a club option for 2018. That already separates him from Bonds, who left Pittsburgh as quickly as he could to sign a free-agent deal with the San Francisco Giants. For a decade, the Pirates whiffed badly in trying to draft his replacement.
By 2005, when McCutchen was a senior in high school, the Pirates were on their way to their fifth of nine last-place finishes since Bonds threw wide of the plate as the winning run scored in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. Yet McCutchen felt an odd sort of kinship with the Pirates. He wanted them to draft him, and they did, 11th over all.
“It was just the perfect storm,” McCutchen said Tuesday by his locker at PNC Park. “Their spring training field was an hour from where I was from. My high school had the same colors as the Pirates’ colors, black and gold. I felt like it was just the perfect place for me. Back then, in ’05, it was definitely a lot different than it is now.”
The Pirates are contenders for the second summer in a row, but they have a better record and a deeper roster than last July, when they briefly held first place before tumbling to 90 losses. On Tuesday, they traded prospects to Houston for a veteran starter, Wandy Rodriguez, and on Thursday, they welcomed their top prospect, outfielder Starling Marte, to the lineup. Marte responded by hitting a home run on the first pitch he saw.
As a lineup centerpiece, though, McCutchen may be the best there is. He has 22 homers and 66 runs batted in while leading the Pirates in steals, with 14, and the league in total bases.
“I’ve seen guys have great years, but what he’s done thus far, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Pirates first baseman Casey McGehee, who played in Milwaukee last season when Ryan Braun was the league’s M.V.P. “He’s getting infield hits, he’s driving the ball out of the ballpark, he’s getting clutch hits, he’s walking when he’s supposed to walk. It seems like he’s got a new trick every night, and it’s been incredible to watch.”
This is what Rob Sidwell envisioned when he scouted McCutchen in high school. The 2005 draft was loaded with talent — Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury — but after watching McCutchen at a national prospect camp, Sidwell ranked him even with Justin Upton, who would go first over all, to Arizona.
The only difference, Sidwell told McCutchen, was size; Upton is 6 foot 2, and McCutchen is four inches shorter. He shared that opinion with McCutchen, who agreed with it, showing a quiet confidence that Sidwell believed would help bring out his skills.
“He had lightning-fast hands, and he could really generate bat speed,” said Sidwell, who has scouted for 17 years and now works for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “He had the quickest hands I’ve ever scouted, and he could hit it a long way. He was a five-tool guy, even as a young, skinny, small-town kid.”
Sidwell and Ed Creech, then the Pirates’ scouting director, persuaded the team to draft McCutchen. Previous poor drafts and the steady losing in the majors might have made a college player more appealing, but McCutchen instantly became the Pirates’ top prospect.
In time, he has applied a more sophisticated approach to hitting to maximize his extraordinary bat speed. At first, said Gregg Ritchie, the Pirates coach and former minor league hitting coordinator, McCutchen held his hands much higher, with extra movement before impact.
Now he takes a more direct path to the ball, and he worked last winter to open his stance, allowing him to see the ball better and let it travel deeper. McCutchen said his legs were in a better position to let his hands go to work, and now he punishes pitches to all fields.
“His biggest adjustment is the mind-set of staying within his swing and not trying to destroy every pitch,” Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager, said. “His mentality is to make the pitcher come to him and essentially hit the ball where it’s pitched.”
As McCutchen has improved, pitchers have noticed. He said he gets no more than one good pitch per at-bat, and if he misses it he probably does not see another. Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ manager, said McCutchen had focused on hitting the ball just to the right of center field and had an uncanny knack for dismissing bad swings.
“His mental approach right now is as good as I’ve ever seen any player have, and his mental toughness,” said Hurdle, who played for Kansas City in 1980, when George Brett hit .390. “I’ve seen some good ones, but right now, him committing to one thing every swing, one thing every at-bat, has really been unique.”
On Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs, McCutchen came up with a runner on first and two outs in the sixth inning of a tie game. He tried to check his swing on a 1-1 pitch, but the umpire ruled it a strike.
Flustered, McCutchen glared at the umpire, then stepped out of the box and quickly gathered himself. Down in the count, he blistered the next pitch to center for a single. Garrett Jones doubled home the go-ahead run, and the Pirates’ bullpen held down a 3-2 victory.
The team left town for a season-long 10-game trip, at the same point in the year that the 2011 version started sinking. The Pirates’ first stop this time is Houston, where they will meet up with Rodriguez, the new starting pitcher.
Rodriguez is not the splashiest addition, but he is an upgrade, and a symbol that the Pirates are aggressively trying to stop the most persistent losing streak in baseball. Hurdle likes to talk about making history, not enduring it, and the Pirates, at last, seem to be on the verge. McCutchen, the star who came to stay, is leading the charge.
“The fans are already here and they’re already happy to see what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re exceeding their expectations, we’re doing a good job and they’re happy. You can see it. You can tell by being around the city and interacting with different fans, they’re appreciative. But we’re not just going to be O.K. with what we’re doing now. We want more.”

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No Dempster dive for Pirates

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
July 26, 2012

Hal Sparks and the Pirate Parrot

Something felt significant going into this one.

The Pirates had dropped back-to-back games to the lowly Chicago Cubs. They hadn’t hit a lick. Their clubhouse had been rocked a night earlier with news of the acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez, and they were facing one of the better pitchers in the league in Ryan Dempster.

Some feared this was the beginning of another mid-summer collapse — a Dempster dive, if you will.
So how did the Pirates respond?

With yet another magically symbolic victory, that’s how.

All the elements were there. Michael McKenry, the little catcher that could, smacked a home run off the left-field foul pole. Alex Presley scored the winning run on his 27th birthday. Neil Walker made a fabulous backhanded play on Tony Campana to end the seventh, and little-used Gorkys Hernandez turned a sure double into a spectacular out in the ninth to preserve a 3-2 win.

When the Pirates awoke Thursday in Houston — on the one-year anniversary of the infamous Jerry Meals “safe” call — they were 13 games over .500, and, as Garrett Jones put it, “back on a winning track.”

Things are so different these days that Kevin Correia is a candidate to be pulled from the rotation even though he improved to 6-0 in his past seven starts.

A crowd of 33,935 — largest for a 12:35 p.m. start in PNC Park history — provided a big-game feel. It also raised total attendance for the three-game set to 94,018, unfathomable for a weekday series.
“Every day leaves me speechless,” McKenry said. “Whether they know it or not, (the fans) can change things. We feed off their energy.”

By noon, the North Shore was bustling with baseball fans both hardcore and casual. It was the kind of afternoon party PNC Park was born to host but so rarely has.

Zoltan was here, too, invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. And if you don’t believe that’s important, then you don’t believe manager Clint Hurdle when he talks about staying “focused on the uncommon.”

Hurdle is referring to the positive energy surrounding his team and the fact that you never know where the next bit of it might come from.

“We’re here to make history,” he said. “So you’ve got to think different. You’ve got to believe different.”

Who would have thought somebody named Hal Sparks would light a fire under this club? He was Zoltan in the unspeakably horrific 2000 movie “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and he invented the “Z” hand gesture that has become the celebratory sign of choice among the Pirates and their followers.

Players flash it after a big hit. Fans have it emblazoned on T-shirts. Children learn about it in school.

As described on Sparks’ Wikipedia page, Zoltan was “the bubble-wrapped leader of a clan of nerds obsessed with outer space.” Talk about uncommon.

How fitting that all of this came about when bored players gathered to watch “Dude” in Atlanta, of all places, site of the Meals call, and, of course, the most torturous night in Pirates history 20 years ago.
Hurdle missed his chance to meet Zoltan. I went out of my way to make sure I did — though our pregame introduction was a bit awkward.

Me: “Hi Hal, Joe Starkey.”

Sparks: “How are you, James?”

That was cool, because the dude’s a Pirates fan. His girlfriend has family in Pittsburgh. He was born in Cincinnati, but he’s actually from Kentucky.

“The only reason I was born in Cincinnati,” Sparks said, “was because it had the nearest hospital without chickens in it.”

Sparks explained that the movie’s original call sheet stipulated that whoever came up with the best Zoltan sign would win $29.66.

“I thought, ‘I am Zoltan, I have to win,’” he said. “It wasn’t even about the money.”

The same can be said of the Pirates, right? It’s not about the money anymore. The last time I’d spoken to a celebrity first-pitch thrower, it was Michael Keaton at the 2006 opener, when he took the opportunity to rip ownership, saying, “At some point, you have to write the check.”

I’m guessing Keaton loved the Rodriguez deal. The club took on millions in salary and landed a reliable pitcher for the stretch run.

Somebody asked Sparks what he thought of his “Z” being reborn 12 years later. His answer could double as a description for the Pirates’ zany season: “It’s absurd and funny and stupid and amazing and great and silly and terrific ... in that order.”

Yes. Yes it is.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

How Andrew McCutchen Became A Star And Redeemed Two Decades Of Pittsburgh Jagoffery

By Dom Cosentino
July 24, 2012

Andrew McCutchen emerged as a heavy-hitting all-star for the Pirates last season.
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

This is how Andrew McCutchen watched at least one of the MLB playoff games at home on television last fall: He stood up, assumed his batting stance, and timed his swing to the pitches as he saw them on the screen. McCutchen later shared this story with his agent, Steve Hammond, who could only laugh.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Hammond told me over the phone last week. "He couldn't get back quick enough. And I think the next-best thing, closest to being out there, was to sort of stand up and watch and work on things."

This was what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Pirate less than a year ago: a real-life major leaguer, stuck dreaming about the playoffs like a kid with a Wiffle bat in the basement. McCutchen had made his first All-Star Game appearance last season, but he had a rotten second half, hitting .216/.330/.392 after going .291/.390/.505 in the first half. His production pretty much mirrored that of the Pirates, who were 53-47 and in first place on July 19, only to go 19-43 the rest of the way.

In March, though, the Pirates put their trust in that first half, inking McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension. It was a sharp move, making a commitment to a promising young centerfielder while he was securely under franchise control, so he could be the fulcrum of the team for the foreseeable future. It was the kind of move the Pirates haven't often made in the 20 years since their last winning season.

But now, McCutchen isn't just a good player for the Pirates to have. He's the best hitter in the National League—a skinny guy with power; a power guy with speed. He leads the league in offensive WAR (5.8), batting average (.373), slugging percentage (.642), on-base-plus slugging (1.071), total bases (222), and several other advanced categories.

Even those numbers don't really do his season justice. On May 5, just after he had missed a couple of games because of a stomach flu, McCutchen was hitting a perfectly fine .298/.356/.383, with no homers. By June 17, those numbers were .325/.382/.541, with 11 homers. And in the 24 games after that, right up through last Tuesday, McCutchen's stats were an insane .490/.533/.929, with another 11 home runs. Entering this season, according to Baseball Prospectus, McCutchen had eight career home runs to the opposite field. This season, he had already hit that many the other way by July 15.

And here we are on July 24, and the Pirates are again flirting with contention; they're 13 games over .500, and just one-and-a-half games behind the Reds for first place.

"I would lie if I said it didn't help a little bit, getting the contract," McCutchen said in a phone interview last Tuesday. He was in Denver, and the conversation took place just hours before he launched a 442-foot homer (see the video below) that was reminiscent of the shots that used to fly out of Coors Field during the turn-of-the-century home run binge, before the humidor.

"It did help me a lot to know that I'm going to be here for the next six years or more. It definitely helped me to relax and just play the game of ball and not have to worry about anything. There's no pressure. It's just going out and performing."

You have to go back an entire generation to find a homegrown Pirate who did anything close to what McCutchen is doing now. It's still easy to forget that Barry Bonds ever played in Pittsburgh. You think of him as that hulking, sulking Giant hitting bombs deep into San Francisco's golden hour. In 1986, though, when the Pirates called him up a year after drafting him sixth overall out of Arizona State, Bonds—a skinny guy with power; a power guy with speed—arrived in Pittsburgh promising the same kind of deliverance that McCutchen offers now.

It was a hopeless time for the franchise. After the swinging successes of the '70s—six division titles, two World Series championships—the Pirates by the mid-'80s had been hollowed out completely. In '85, the Pittsburgh drug trials were in full swing, and there were rumors the team might move to Denver. I remember George Hendrick hobbling around aimlessly in right field. I remember John Candelaria, a mainstay in the rotation for 10 years, getting traded to the Angels. The Pirates lost 104 games. Chuck Tanner got fired. Everything sucked.

Bonds's arrival in Pittsburgh in '86 coincided with Jim Leyland's first season as the manager. That team lost 98 games. Bonds hit .223/.330/.416, with 16 homers. He also stole 36 bases and started 77 games as the team's leadoff hitter, which should tell you how long ago this was. Bonds's time was coming, and his trajectory would briefly align with the franchise's.

By 1990, Bonds was the NL MVP, and the Pirates were in the playoffs, the first of what would be three consecutive division titles. But the window was closing. The Pirates held Bonds's arbitration rights in 1990 and '91, and in '92 they signed him to a one-year deal for $4.7 million, the highest single-year contract in history at the time, which should also tell you how long ago this was. But it was widely assumed that Bonds would blow town once that contract was up, which is exactly what happened. He won his second MVP in '92, but that season ended with the ninth-inning nightmare of Game 7 of the NLCS, with Sid Bream sliding into home. As you probably know, the Pirates haven't managed a .500 season since, and Bonds's shadow has hung over all the grim proceedings. His throw to the plate, coupled with the fact that he hit just .191/.338/.262 with only one home run in his three playoff series with the Pirates, guaranteed that he'd be scapegoated for all eternity by the team's fans. But what his departure exposed was an organizational failure that continued into the new century. The Pirates couldn't identify talent, and they couldn't develop what talent they had. Pittsburgh was the place you left to make your career.

That's what McCutchen means to Pittsburgh. He's a living rebuke to all the incompetence of the past two decades—talent identified, talent developed, talent retained. His handling has been a smart exercise in Bonds-proofing, from the moment he was drafted, through the gaming of his arbitration clock, to the signing of his extension. The Pirates' timing was impeccable. His pace through Sunday—.372 average, 38 home runs, 114 RBIs—has been accomplished over a full season by just six other players in history, according to ESPN. Imagine what might have happened had the Pirates and McCutchen not reached an agreement on a long-term deal during the offseason. Hammond, for one, suggested the Bucs might have been in a difficult spot if McCutchen were to continue hitting at anything close to his current pace.

"There's a good chance that there's no way Pittsburgh could have signed him," Hammond said. "He would have gone into another stratosphere with this kind of performance. But there's no need to speculate on that because that's not even going to be an option."

Actually, the Pirates would have signed McCutchen no matter what, since he was eligible for arbitration after this season. But with what he's doing, McCutchen might have been able to command Matt Kemp-type money. Maybe the Pirates would have been forced eventually to trade him. Maybe not. As Hammond said, it doesn't matter at this point. The Pirates have themselves a burgeoning star at a price that's a relative bargain. And the deal is backloaded, with McCutchen due $13 million in 2016 and $14 million in 2017, plus a team option of $14.75 million in 2018, by which time annual salaries for the game's top players might be double that amount.

Look at McCutchen's numbers again. Now consider: He bats in the No. 3 hole. Directly behind him, the Pirates' cleanup hitters are batting a combined .240/.289/.390, with just 12 home runs. It's a wonder McCutchen sees any pitches at all.
* * *
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen belts a three run home run against the Tigers in the fourth inning at PNC Park June 23, 2012. (Chaz Palla / Pittsburgh Tribune Review)

The Pirates drafted McCutchen out of Fort Meade (Fla.) High School with the 11th overall pick in 2005. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki were among those drafted ahead of him. Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Matt Garza were among those chosen in the first round behind him.

McCutchen was coming off a senior season in which he'd batted better than .700. But there were concerns about his size; his listed weight is a generous 185 pounds. "They were going to draft me for a reason, and the reason was because they see potential in me, and it didn't have anything to do with my size," he said. "I had heard a little bit about it, but I didn't care that much to where it bothered me because there was nothing that I could really do about that."

Most players drafted out of high school are accustomed to being dominant at every level they've played. As a professional, McCutchen had to accept the transition from knowing he could hit .700 to aspiring to hit .300. He made a natural progression through the Pirates' system, but not without having to learn that the game requires an approach that's as much mental as it is physical.

"I was just so stuck on results in the minors," he said. "That's something I had to kind of get over."

So how did McCutchen get to this level, to where he's suddenly playing like an MVP? How does someone so small and so thin pack such power at the plate? Pat Lackey, who mans the terrific Pirates blog Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?, recently wrote about the first time he saw him play in person. It was 2008, and McCutchen was still in Triple-A:
I saw him before the game and was incredulous; he's listed as 5'10", but there's no chance he's that tall. I couldn't believe that this prospect that'd I'd invested so much time and hope in was this short, skinny little guy. In the first inning, he stepped into the box against David Price and his hands flashed through the zone and he crushed a flyout to deep left center field and immediately the light bulb went on in my head. I'm not a scout and I'm not good at identifying the difference between minor league talent and Major League talent, but in one swing it was immediately apparent to me that McCutchen had something special. I never wondered about him again.
McCutchen is indeed gifted with tremendous bat speed. Jeff Branson, who managed him at Single-A Hickory (N.C.) in 2006, told me McCutchen's hands are "as quick as anybody I've ever seen." But Branson also noticed something else at the time: When he swung, McCutchen relied almost exclusively on that bat speed.

"He was kind of an upright guy, and he just didn't use his lower hand to be able to have that extra drive," said Branson, who is now the hitting coach for the Pirates' Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis. "He's always had raw power, but in order to consistently drive the ball out of the ballpark in all parts of the field, we just made an adjustment of kind of lowering him, getting him into his legs a little bit. It gave him that extra strength."

McCutchen hit just two home runs in 58 rookie-league and low-A games in 2005. But he began the following season with Hickory, where Branson got to work with him. McCutchen wound up being promoted to Double-A before the season was over. And he finished the season with 17 homers. He was on his way.

McCutchen described Branson's instruction as something of a breakthrough.

"We always say to look at it as if you're trying to punch something," McCutchen said. "When you want to punch something with a lot of authority, you don't just jab. When you really rear back to hit something, the first thing you're using is your legs; you're using your legs to generate that power.

"The first swing I took was a ball that, coming up until that time, I've never hit a ball that far in my life. [Branson] said, 'See? That's where you generate your power. Now you don't even have to swing as hard.' That was definitely the first step of very many others from there."

Obviously, no one could predict McCutchen was going to be this good as he progressed through the minors. What McCutchen had, according to Branson, was an ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball with consistency, along with extraordinary athleticism. But there was something else: McCutchen was not only willing to listen to instruction, but able to apply what he had learned the instant he stepped back into a game.

"He's just one of them natural-born, gifted guys, that if he feels it once, he's got it," Branson said.
He made it to Pittsburgh in June 2009. The year before, the Pirates had drafted Pedro Alvarez, a Scott Boras client, and paid him above slot to get him signed. After years of paying lip service to the concept, the franchise finally seemed to be doing what was necessary for a small-market club to build a winner. But to make room for McCutchen, the Bucs traded Nate McLouth, an All-Star in 2008 who had signed a three-year contract extension just before the '09 season began. To a lot of fans, the McLouth trade reinforced a belief that the Pirates were still serving as a de facto farm team for bigger-market clubs.

But, as noted by Lackey, McCutchen's presence changed everything almost immediately:
He didn't miss a beat; in his first 108 games with the Pirates he had a three-homer game and hit a dramatic walkoff off of Brad Lidge that resulted in an iconic celebration that no one that watched will ever forget. Through 2011 and 2012, various aspects of his game improved bit by bit. His power grew, his patience grew, he learned how to use his speed to his advantage in the field. Before 2012 started, you could point out all of the disparate parts of his game that have improved since his debut in 2009, even if his numbers every year seemed to be static.
Those swings McCutchen took while watching the playoffs on TV were just an indication of how eager he was to shake off what had happened in the second half last season. Before spring training, McCutchen spent several weeks at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., primarily doing strength and speed work. Ken Bolek, a former minor-league manager with the Cubs, Indians, and Astros, serves as IMG's director of baseball. The academy has worked with numerous major leaguers in its 18-year existence, but Bolek put McCutchen in a category with Nomar Garciaparra and Joey Votto—remarkably talented guys Bolek said had approached their time at the academy with an enthusiasm that set them apart.

"You can feel the seriousness of how certain guys go about their work habits," Bolek said. "You can sense that in casual conversation, but when he was involved in a drill, you could see a light switch go on."

McCutchen knows a lot of people expect the bottom to fall out again, but that's also exactly what he's been working to prevent. He returned from the All-Star break and homered in four of his first five games, quelling any initial speculation about what's in store for his second half. The Pirates, for their part, won three of six on their road trip upon coming back before sweeping the Marlins over the weekend. Even with last night's loss to the Cubs, their 32-15 record at home is the best in the majors. There's still a long way to go, but it's a start.

"Everybody's waiting for the dreadful second half of the Pirates," McCutchen said. "We've just got continue to just doing what we've been doing the first half. If we have a couple bad games, it's all right—we've just got to get ready for the next one, like we've been doing all year."

Astros' house cleaning complete with Wandy deal

by Zachary Levine
Houston Chronicle
July 25, 2012

Wandy Rodriguez is 7-9 with a 3.79 ERA in 21 starts this year.

What Wandy Rodriguez represented as the last remaining link to the Astros’ 2005 World Series team is undeniable.

But it’s another last linkage that really hits hard given the events of this month, which have culminated in Rodriguez being the latest Astros veteran to be traded, going to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Rodriguez represents the last major effort for the Astros to be competitive before they blew the whole thing up and left the roster in the shambles that it is today.

Yes, they had already dumped Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman when Rodriguez signed his deal before the 2011 season – a deal that the Astros had to eat a significant portion of in order to acquire good prospects for the lefty. But Oswalt and Berkman were respectively asking to be traded and two months from free agency – hardly the fire sale that this club began to see last year with Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence leaving with more than a year left until free agency.

And certainly Rodriguez’s three-year extension (that essentially becomes four now) was a move that hardly meshes with this 21-day run of trades, which has purged Carlos Lee, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon Brett Myers and now Rodriguez.

In the latest deal, the Astros acquired Class AAA lefthander Rudy Owens, Class AA outfieder and Cy-Fair alum Robbie Grossman and high Class A lefthander Colton Cain. Rodriguez has not been officially replaced in the Astros’ rotation, though Armando Galarraga is a favorite after he was pulled from his Class AAA start after three innings and would be starting on three days of rest against the Pirates Saturday. (Maybe even against Rodriguez himself.)

General manager Jeff Luhnow said he felt comfortable dealing Rodriguez within the division because the Astros were exiting next year, but these teams were headed in separate directions. The Pirates’ surge to the cusp of the division lead and good wild card position led to an aggressive offer.

“Pittsburgh put their best foot forward and it really feels like Wandy’s an important part of their playoff picture this year,” Luhnow said. “They made us essentially an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Rodriguez is owed $4 million for the rest of this season and $13 million next season. The obstacle to trading him, which they tried to do as early as his first trade deadline under the extension last year, had been in part the $13 million club option for 2014 that becomes a player option if traded. The option essentially guarantees Rodriguez $30 million over the rest of the deal, and the Astros will pay roughly $12 million of that assuming Rodriguez exercises the option, according to reports out of Pittsburgh.

In exchange for eating the salary, the Astros got some strong prospects from the Pirates.

Grossman, 22, is the most highly regarded of the prospects , landing in the No. 8 spot in Baseball America’s Pirates prospect rankings. He was hitting .262 with a .374 on-base percentage and a .403 slugging percentage for Class AA Altoona.

Owens, 24, has the best track record of the three and currently owns a 3.14 ERA for Class AAA Indianapolis. The big lefty has walked 25 and struck out 85 in 117 1/3 innings. And Cain, 21, had a 4.20 ERA and 25 walks and 51 strikeouts in 75 innings.

They are the 11th, 12th and 13th prospects the Astros have acquired along with two big league veterans in what is really an almost unprecedented three-week upheaval.

So what’s next?

Well, on a roster with Wesley Wright – acquired before the 2008 season – as the longest serving Astro, there is no obvious move like Rodriguez, Myers, Lee and Lyon were.

“We’re going to continue to monitor any situations that are going on, but we feel pretty good about where we are,” Luhnow said. “We’re accumulating quite a lot of talent in our system and that’s everywhere from rookie ball to AAA.”

That took sacrifice, an obliteration of any existing veteran talent, not to mention the best pitcher on the staff this year with a 3.79 ERA through 21 starts.

It’s a direction the Astros have been reluctant to go in the past, and Rodriguez’s presence on the mound as recently as Monday is the last example of that. Now it’s a direction they have embraced fully and executed on swiftly.

There may be more moves, but they’ll be minor by comparison.

The house is cleaned.

Monday, July 23, 2012

There's plenty to like about the Pirates, so just enjoy the moment

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez put the Miami Marlins out of their misery Sunday with another monster home run, then attempted to school the many in the team's fan base who still are having a hard time believing their little ballclub is 54-40 and playing as well as anyone in baseball.

Enjoy the moment.

Please allow Alvarez to expand.

Don't keep asking when Starling Marte is coming up from Class AAA Indianapolis.

Don't keep wondering if general manager Neal Huntington is smart enough or has the guts to make a bold move before the July 31 trade deadline to bring in another bat or a starting pitcher or a leadoff man or a veteran bench player.

Don't keep thinking the team automatically will get rid of hammer Joel Hanrahan because he's going to make too much money next season and for many years to come.

Don't keep worrying that any trade involving Class A pitcher Jameson Taillon will blow up the 2015 season.

C'mon, people, something special is happening here. Savor it. Revel in it. Live as if you can't wait for the next game because you just know your team is going to win, not as if you're expecting a loss that will start another collapse like last season's.

OK, so Alvarez didn't actually say any of those things. That was just one man's interpretation of his observations after his two-run home run -- his 21st -- in the seventh inning completed the Pirates' 3-0 win. He made it clear he and his teammates aren't sitting around waiting for Marte to come riding in on a white horse. If anything, they are hoping Huntington doesn't make any roster moves.

Can you say unnecessary?

"I love every guy on this team," Alvarez said.

"I think we have all of the components to keep succeeding. I think we have great chemistry right now. We have pitching. We have defense. We're doing pretty well hitting the ball. I just love the dynamic we have on this team."

Read more:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates showing no signs of fading this season

By Paul Hoynes, The Plain Dealer
July 22, 2012

A.J. Burnett (11-3, 3.59) of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates with Casey McGehee after scoring a run against the Miami Marlins at PNC Park on July 21, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pirates won 5-1 to improve to 53-40. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Baseball gave the Pirates a polite pat on the back last season. In late July, they were tied for first place in the National League Central at 53-47.

In Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have lost for 19 straight seasons, playing winning baseball in July offered the population a nice diversion until the NFL Steelers started training camp. So much for diversions -- the Pirates finished 72-90.

Well, they're doing it again this year . . . only better.

The Pirates, through Friday, were 12 games above .500 at 52-40. They trailed the division-leading Reds by a half game. They're no longer accepting polite pats on the back. They're, in fact, the ones doing the patting, and it's not gentle or polite.

Oh, and regarding last year, forget about it.

"We don't even talk about last year," closer Joel Hanrahan said. "This is a different team. We're a much better team than last year. We have more experience. We have guys who have been in the playoffs before.

"We're not sitting in the clubhouse worrying about if we lose today we've got to face so-and-so tomorrow. We're not talking ourselves out of games. If we lose today, we're going to be ready tomorrow and come out and swing it."

And swing it they have.

The Pirates lead the big leagues with 89 runs in July. They did the same thing in June with 146 runs.
They have the top hitter in the big leagues in Andrew McCutchen. He's hitting .372 (125-for-336) with 65 runs, 17 doubles, five triples, 22 homers and 14 steals. He leads the big leagues in OPS, slugging percentage and total bases.

McCutchen didn't hit his first home run until May 8, meaning he's hit 22 in his past 63 games. That's as many as Toronto's Jose Bautista hit over the same span. The Angels' Mark Trumbo is the only player with more (23).

"He sets the tone for the whole team," Hanrahan said. "He runs everything down in center field. He's special if he gets one hit a game. I tell him, 'You only got two, three hits today? Is that all you got?' He's fun to watch."

McCutchen is hitting .500 (28-for-56) with seven homers and 15 RBI in July.

"We're just playing with confidence," McCutchen said. "We're going out there knowing we can do it regardless of the score, regardless of whether we're down five in the first inning. We know we have the offense and pitching to do it."

The Pirates have become a force at PNC Park and have the best home record in the big leagues at 30-14. After selling out 17 games last year, they're at 10 and counting this season.

They've won 10 of their past 12 games at home and the fans are loving it. They've embraced the Pirates' "Z" sign, a hand signal players flash after getting an extra-base hit. They lifted it from the movie "Dude, Where's My Car?" in reference to a character in the movie named Zoltan.

"It's hard to tell if there's a difference in the fans," Hanrahan said. "Last year, they were unbelievable as well. I mean every weekend we're sold out, that's for sure.

"The fans are even buying into the whole Zoltan thing. . . . I don't know who the inventor of it was. Every team has something . . . that's been working for us."

Last year, the Pirates went from first place in late July to 10 games out in 13 days. It was the fastest drop from first to a double-digit deficit in history.

This year's Pirates aren't so delicate.

The rotation is led by James McDonald (10-3, 2.93), A.J. Burnett (10-3, 3.78) and Kevin Correia (7-6, 4.31). McDonald looks like a legitimate No. 1 starter. Burnett won nine straight starts at one point and Correia has won his past four starts.

In the bullpen, Jason Grilli (1-3, 24 holds, 1.96) and Hanrahan (4-0, 2.17, 27 saves) have locked down the eighth and ninth innings. Pirates relievers have allowed just 17 percent of inherited runners to score. It's the best percentage in the big leagues.

Asked what it would be like if the Pirates made the postseason for the first time since 1992, Hanrahan said: "I can't even begin to explain what it would mean. These people have been waiting for 19 years on something like that."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-5158
On Twitter: @hoynsie


Saturday, July 21, 2012

McCutchen's season reminiscent of Bonds

By David Schoenfield
July 19, 2012

Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a single against the Colorado Rockies during the fifth inning at Coors Field on July 17, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. McCutchen went on to score in the inning. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images North America)

Back in 1990, Barry Bonds entered the season at the age of 25. He'd been viewed as enough of a disappointment -- and difficult personality -- through his first three full seasons that the Pittsburgh Pirates had offered him around that winter, in search of a frontline starting pitcher.

There were no takers. Bonds broke out that year, raising his average from .248 to .301, his home runs from 19 to 33, his stolen bases from 32 to 52. He led the National League in slugging percentage and OPS and collected 23 of 24 first-place votes in the MVP balloting. He'd become the best player in baseball.

Twenty-two years later, another Pirates outfielder entered the season at 25 years old. Andrew McCutchen had hit .216 in the second half of 2011, a disappointing figuring considering he'd hit .291 with 14 home runs in the first half. McCutchen wasn't offered around in trade; in fact, the Pirates instead signed him to a six-year, $51 million contract extension in spring training.

And like Bonds, McCutchen has taken The Leap. He's having a season for the ages, hitting .369/.423/.649 and leading the National League in batting average, slugging percentage, total bases and runs scored while ranking second in home runs and RBIs. He may be the best player in baseball.

Is that too much, comparing McCutchen to one of the greatest player of all time?

It's interesting to look back at Bonds. He actually was one of the NL's best players from 1987 to 1989, not that anybody recognized it at the time, with a Baseball-Reference WAR of 19.2, second among NL position players behind only Ozzie Smith. Despite that, Bonds had never been mentioned on an MVP ballot, his defensive skills not appreciated and his offensive skills underrated because of a .264 average and RBI totals held down because he mostly hit leadoff.

Bonds had already acquired the personality traits that eventually turned into his branded identity. But nobody questioned his talent. "Barry's the only individual I've met who can turn it on and turn it off. I didn't think that could be done," Pirates teammate R.J. Reynolds said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated article. "I think one day he will put up numbers no one can believe." (R.J. -- you were right.)

That SI story helps illuminate why Bonds improved so much at the plate in 1990, however. "Everyone knows I want to be good, very good," Bonds said. "I had it figured out -- I was going to get a hit in every single game. And when I didn't get a hit the second game of the season, I was mad the whole week. The whole week. I was mad because I blew my streak. Can you believe that?"

Sounds like a player who finally matured and learned to channel his emotions and deal with failure. Pirates manager Jim Leyland said Bonds had tried too hard to hit his 20th home run in '89. Bonds said he learned to deal with high expectations his way: "To me, when people say I have an attitude problem, it gives me an edge. It makes me mad, so I play better."

McCutchen's changes have been well documented, how he changed his stance in the offseason Insider, opening it up by moving his front leg back from home plate. He stuck with the change even though through the Pirates' first 25 games he went homerless while hitting .298. But he homered off Edwin Jackson on May 8 and hasn't slowed down; since then he's hitting .397/.449/.753 over 62 games. Kiss it goodbye, as the old Pirates announcer Bob Prince would have said.

Back to Bonds. McCutchen's OPS+ is 194; Bonds' OPS+ was 170 in 1990. If there's one big difference between the seasons, it's that Bonds had 93 walks and 83 strikeouts while McCutchen has 66 strikeouts and 32 walks. Interestingly, McCutchen's walk rate has declined from 13.1 percent in 2011 to 8.6 percent. Moving forward, it certainly wouldn't be surprising to see his average drop but his OBP stay over .400 as his walk rate increases.

But if he does keep that average up, we could be talking about a historic offensive season. Only two Pirates have hit at least .369 -- Paul Waner three times and Arky Vaughn once (a franchise-record .385 in 1935). Here's another way to view McCutchen's season. Leaving out the 1994 to 2008 "steroid era," since 1950 only eight times has a player hit at least .350 with 30-plus home runs -- Stan Musial (1951), Mickey Mantle (1956 and 1957), Ted Williams (1957), Hank Aaron (1959), Norm Cash (1961), Don Mattingly (1986) and Josh Hamilton (2010). (It happened 16 times between 1994 and 2008, including twice by Bonds.)

OK, we still have a long ways to go -- the Pirates still have 71 games remaining this season. Andrew McCutchen doesn't have to put up Bondsian numbers to be a great player. But I do wonder: Is this the right time to point out the 1990 Pirates improved from 74 wins to 95 and won the division title?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Former Steeler Joey Porter's loyalty, teamwork memorable

Two immediate thoughts on the news Thursday that Joey Porter is coming back to retire as a Steeler:

One, what's the hurry? Kordell Stewart waited seven years after he played his final NFL game to retire at the Steelers' South Side headquarters.

And two, Porter had some career here. I know for a fact he wasn't the most outrageous character in Steelers history. Ernie Holmes has the edge on him there in my mind. But I'm not sure the franchise has had a player with a kinder heart or who was a better teammate.

Ask Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Late in the 2005 season, Porter came up with a unique way to honor LeBeau, maybe the most revered coach in sports. He and 26 defensive teammates paid $300 each for a retro No. 44 LeBeau jersey from LeBeau's playing days with the Detroit Lions. They hung the jerseys in their lockers before the team played the Lions later that day.

LeBeau cried when he walked into the locker room, saw all those 44s and saw the players standing and cheering. "A major, major event in my life," he called it.

Ask former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis about Porter.

Before Super Bowl XL, Porter cleared it with coach Bill Cowher for Bettis to run on the field ahead of the other Steelers. The game was in Detroit, Bettis' hometown. "I wanted the cameras to shine on Jerome alone," Porter said. Look at the pregame tape. You can see Porter holding everybody back. The players were dying to get out there, but he wouldn't let them go.

Bettis would have cried if it weren't the biggest game of his life.

I don't think I've ever seen a greater tribute in sports.

I'll remember that more than the macho image Porter loved to cultivate, more than the way he would prowl at midfield before each game, helmet off, wearing a black beanie and eye black, his massive tattooed forearms and flat stomach exposed for all on the other team to see. No one worked an opponent harder, looking for a mental edge. "Joey will talk about your mother," Steelers teammate Larry Foote once said. It only worked for Porter because he backed up the big talk with a mean game. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover in 2006 and called him the NFL's "most feared player." He had 60 sacks in eight seasons with the Steelers.

Porter called out Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and said they were soft before a playoff game after the 2005 season, then had two late sacks against them in the Steelers' 21-18 win. He verbally jumped all over Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens before Super Bowl XL for disrespecting Bettis. Stevens was annoyed and dropped three passes in the Steelers' 21-10 win.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bucs should leave top arms alone


, and I’m going to assume (Huntington wouldn’t say) they include pitchers Gerrit Cole, Jameson

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
July 19, 2012

Pirates prospect Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, pitches in his Double-A debut with the Altoona Curve on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, at Peoples Natural Gas Field. (Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review)

There are no untouchables. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told me as much in a radio interview the other day. Any prospect could be included in a trade.

But the context was important. Huntington said it like this: “If someone wants to make a ridiculous offer, no one is untouchable.”

Since most GMs are not in the habit of making ridiculous offers, I’m going to assume the Pirates have a few all-but-untouchable prospects, and I’m going to assume (Huntington wouldn’t say) they include pitchers Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia.

I would hope so, anyway.

There’s no way I would move any of the three unless it’s a positively ludicrous offer — and I don’t consider, say, the risky proposition of acquiring underachieving Arizona outfielder Justin Upton ludicrous enough.

I’m not even sure offense is the Pirates’ biggest need anymore. Not after four more home runs Wednesday at Colorado. Not with the way the rotation has slipped of late.

I’d rather see another arm or two.

Pitching is the key to the rest of this season and to the seasons beyond. The team’s future offensive core is shaping up nicely in the form of Willie Mays — I mean, Andrew McCutchen — Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker.

So no matter how loudly fans and media clamor for Huntington to part with an elite pitching prospect in order to “win now,” he must do what is right for the long-term future: He must hang onto his million-dollar arms ($17.1 million, actually, if you add the money it took to sign all three).

Besides, the Pirates are winning now. They’re fixing to win a lot more, too. After a weekend series against mediocre Miami, they play teams named “Cubs” and “Astros” 10 straight times and 23 times in their final 68 games.

The offense, at the moment, is prodigious. Unbelievably so, considering the way the season started. Even when the Pirates lose, they are liable to have a galvanizing moment like the Alvarez post-rain-delay home run Monday night.

There is a certain magic in the air.

“Unfortunately, (Monday’s game) didn’t want turn out the way we wanted, but it got us maybe a little back on track, shook everybody up,” Casey McGehee told me in a phone conversation after Wednesday’s win. “I don’t know what you want to call it, but I think we’re a really good team. I think around the country, people don’t know.”

I keep hearing that acquiring Upton would be a “statement” to the fans. It’d be great, if the Pirates don’t touch one of their Big Three pitching prospects. But acquiring A.J. Burnett and signing McCutchen were pretty powerful statements, no?

Sitting 11 games over .500 isn’t a small one, either.

And it’s not like making three pitchers off-limits would preclude Huntington from supplementing his team. He still has the wherewithal to make a high-impact deal.

The Pirates could dangle an enticing position-player prospect from the likes of outfielders Starling Marte and Josh Bell and shortstop Alen Hanson. They could afford to take on salary, as they did at last year’s deadline (that was a statement). They own some fairly attractive Triple-A arms.

Huntington should not be reluctant to dip into his position-player pool. Potentially elite pitchers are another matter. Pitching, quite simply, is more important. You’re seeing that this season. It took the Pirates forever to find a lead horse. They finally found one in Burnett, and he is 35, so his time figures to be limited.

Cole, Taillon and Heredia possess top-of-the-rotation pedigree. Such a rare commodity.

“Moneyball” provided evidence of that. You might consider “Moneyball” to be the story of a franchise that outwitted the system. I consider it the story of a franchise smart enough — and lucky enough — to draft three pitchers (Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder) who became great and carried a team.

The idea is to build an organization that contends annually. That does not have to preclude “winning now.”

No doubt the Pirates have an incredible opportunity. The division has slipped. The Cincinnati Reds just lost Joey Votto for several weeks. There is an extra wild-card in play.

The Pirates can capitalize without nudging the golden eggs in their nest. It’s not easy attempting to contend and build simultaneously. But as caretaker of the franchise, Huntington’s mandate is precisely that.

It’s the responsible way to go.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Neil Walker actually living his dream

Pirates second baseman, a native of western Pennsylvania, grew up a Bucs fan

By Jerry Crasnick
July 16, 2012

Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates doubles to drive in a run in the fourth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on June 7, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)

Whether they grow up playing hardball, stickball or whiffle ball, big leaguers cling to the same childhood fantasy: They're standing in the backyard or the schoolyard, and they dream of hitting the climactic homer or throwing the final pitch in a World Series. That cliché has become as synonymous with the major league baseball "experience" as the bubble on an unsuspecting player's cap or a shaving cream pie in the face.

As a youngster in the Pittsburgh bedroom community of Gibsonia, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker dared to dream from both sides of the plate. But his imaginary brush with fame ended with a singular, provincial twist: It always came at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers.

Unlike Jerry Seinfeld in the famous "puffy shirt" episode, Walker wanted to be a Pirate. He made that declaration to his parents, Tom and Carolyn, each time the family car took Route 279 past Three Rivers Stadium on the way to another game.

"Neil got the itch," Tom Walker said by phone. "His older brothers were playing, and his sister was a tomboy and she played as well. When he was 6 or 7 he'd go by that ballpark and say, 'I'm going to play there someday.' I had learned that Neil had exceptional abilities, and I wasn't about to tell him he couldn't do anything."

Three Rivers Stadium has given way to PNC Park, Kevin McClatchy yielded control to Bob Nutting, and a former No. 1 draft pick named Andrew McCutchen made the transformation from prospect to most valuable player candidate. He is receiving lots of support this summer from hometown boy and sidekick Neil Walker, who is doing his part to try to bring the Pirates their first .500 or better season and playoff appearance since 1992.

After a nondescript three months, Walker has benefited from some recent changes to shorten his swing and has been crushing everything in sight. He's hitting .452 (19-for-42) with a 1.330 OPS in July, and he carries a 15-game hitting streak into Monday's game in Colorado. Among big league second basemen, Walker's 2.7 wins above replacement ties him with Cleveland's Jason Kipnis for third behind Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill.

Walker has come a long way from his Pine-Richland High School days, not to mention the 2009 season, when he arrived from Triple-A ball in September and bunked in his old bedroom. The following summer, the Wall Street Journal wrote a story detailing how Walker and Oakland A's pitcher Tyson Ross were the only big leaguers to live with their parents.

"That brought Neil a lot of grief right there," Tom Walker said, laughing. "Oh my. His teammates were saying things like, 'Hey Neil, do you mind if we send our wash home with you?' Or, 'What did your mom make you for breakfast this morning?' I think that's when Neil decided to get married -- just so he would have a reason to get out of the house."

A family thing

If there's such a thing as a jock factory, the Walkers of western Pennsylvania would certainly apply.
Tom posted an 18-23 record in the big leagues with the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and California Angels. His biggest claim to fame came in the minors in 1971, when he played for Cal Ripken Sr. in the Texas League and threw a 15-inning no-hitter for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs to beat Albuquerque 1-0. Each year on Aug. 4, a few stray baseball cards trickle in to be signed, the occasional radio station makes a call and the Walkers hold a little celebration to commemorate the night that Tom threw 193 pitches and lived to tell about it.

"That's probably why I can't brush my teeth anymore," he said.

Tom Walker's brother-in-law, Chip Lang, pitched briefly for the Expos in the mid-1970s. One of Neil's brothers, Matt, played outfield in the Detroit and Baltimore chains, and the other, Sean, pitched for George Mason University. Carrie, the sister, played professional basketball in Ireland and is married to Pittsburgh native and Tigers utility man Don Kelly. They have a son Brett, age 3, who can flat-out rake.

Neil Walker's formative years as a Pirates fan came in "peanut heaven" at Three Rivers, when he watched his favorite player, Andy Van Slyke, chase down balls in the gap and rank among the league leaders in triples each year. In 1994, the family scored tickets to the All-Star Game, when Neil snagged the signatures of Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas. To this day, the balls are among his most prized baseball possessions.

Walker, 26, agonized with Pittsburgh fans every step of the way during the city's descent from baseball hotbed to neverland. He watched Jim Leyland, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla move on and the Pirates suffer a 100-loss season in 2001. When former manager Lloyd McClendon wasn't tearing first base from its moorings and carrying it down the dugout steps in frustration, the Pirates were making the colossal mistake of investing the first pick in the draft on Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington.

When the Pirates chose Walker with the 11th overall pick in 2004, the family gained a rare distinction. Tom and Neil joined Jeff and Sean Burroughs, Ben and Tom Grieve and Steve and Nick Swisher as the only father-son combinations to go in the first round of the draft. In recent years, John Mayberry Jr. and Delino DeShields Jr. increased the father-son club from four to six.

As a superior athlete, Neil Walker had every reason to think he was on the fast track. He had talked to Pittsburgh and Penn State about doubling in baseball and football, but he was concerned the Nittany Lions wanted him to bulk up, add 60 pounds and become a tight end, so he passed on that option. The Pirates gave him a $1.95 million bonus to dissuade him from playing baseball at Clemson.

"I think my dad, my brother and brother-in-law knew what I was getting into when I was drafted, but I certainly didn't," Walker said. "People in Pittsburgh assumed it would be like two years and you'll be up with the Pirates. Me being an 18-year-old kid, I'm thinking, 'Oh yeah, it'll probably be three or four years.' Then you get into the professional system and you're like, 'Did I get into this for the right reasons?'"

Walker's trek through the minors was an odyssey of perseverance and self-doubt. The Pirates shifted him from catcher to third base, and he was forced to move again when the organization drafted third baseman Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt with the second overall pick in 2008. Pittsburgh's development people were concerned about Walker's free-swinging approach, and he felt pressure to temper his aggressiveness at the plate.

Walker's personal epiphany came during the 2009 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. Just as teammates and close friends McCutchen and Garrett Jones were being summoned to the parent club, Walker sprained his knee and left for Florida on a rehab assignment. The heat is oppressive and the workout room is lonely in Bradenton at that time of year, and Walker had lots of time for introspection between bench presses and biceps curls.

"Mentally, I kind of removed myself from the game and thought about where I was and what I needed to do as a player to get better," Walker said. "I decided to approach everything with a clear mind and, as clichéd as it sounds, with a day-to-day mentality. When I did that, I guess my career started to take off."

Walker continues to upgrade his game bit by painstaking bit. He has improved his walk rate each year, and he's stolen seven bases in nine attempts this season. He's gone from 29th to 22nd in the Fielding Bible plus-minus run prevention rankings since 2010, and he ranks third among NL second basemen with a .990 fielding percentage this season. The new defensive metrics may not love him, but he appears to pass the eye test: When Baseball America surveyed managers last season, Walker and the Marlins' Omar Infante tied for second behind Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips in the voting for best defensive second baseman in the NL.

Distraction central

As Barry Larkin, Joe Mauer and other local boys can attest, it can be a challenge playing for your hometown team. Between the ticket requests and birthday party invitations, it's easy to start feeling like Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show."

"When you talk to players who've done that, it's not as easy as everybody thinks," said former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, who was in charge when the team drafted Walker. "You've got friends from high school, and your mom's friends, and your aunt and uncle, and ticket issues and appearances. And then there's the pressure of working your way up. People say, 'He was a great player at Pine-Richland, so naturally he's going to be a great player for the Pirates.' Well, there's a lot of hard work in between there. That's all part of the path they take."

Neil Walker faces an additional challenge: As an inveterate nice guy, he has a natural aversion to saying "no." So when he's not pitching in for the latest Rotary Club initiative, he's visiting kids in the hospital, signing bats and balls for local causes and organizing Catholic mass at the park on Saturday afternoons. He's like a walking charity machine, chamber of commerce brochure and Zagat guide rolled into one.

"We call him 'the Mayor,'" Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan said. "Sean Casey might get upset with that, but Walker's the go-to guy if somebody wants to know where to go eat or get a new car. He'll always tell you, 'I've got a guy for that.'"

When Walker needs to decompress, his dad is always a phone call away. They'll grab lunch at Jersey Mike's sub shop or sneak away for a couple of hours to fish for striped bass at their favorite catch-and-release pond in the suburbs.

"When we talk, it's more along the lines of the daily grind of baseball -- battling it out and leadership qualities and things like that," Neil said. "We talk quite a bit about how mentally exhausting baseball is, and how you have to keep your head up and not get too high or too low. My dad has been an incredible part of my baseball career from that standpoint."

Both Walkers owe a debt of gratitude to the most revered player in Pirates history. Tom Walker played winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1972 and helped Roberto Clemente load a plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua after Christmas. He offered to accompany Clemente on the trip, but the plane was full and Clemente told him to stay behind and enjoy New Year's Eve.

A few hours later, Tom Walker returned to his condo and saw the news reports that Clemente's plane had crashed off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Four decades later he's still awed by the notion that he would have perished without Clemente's selfless gesture, and his four children never would have been born.

"The man saved my life," Tom Walker said. "It's ingrained in my memory to this day. I don't know what Neil's regimen is every day at the park, but I'm sure when he looks out to that Roberto Clemente wall in right field, he probably thinks about that too."

A father, a son, a family and a city continue to cling to the same tradition. During an eventful baseball summer in Pittsburgh, Neil Walker is happy to welcome Pirates fans to share in his dream.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Appel turns down Pirates, staying at Stanford
July 13, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) -- Highly touted pitcher Mark Appel spurned the Pittsburgh Pirates and decided to remain at Stanford for his senior season, the first big casualty of baseball's new restrictions on amateur signing bonuses.

Appel was the only unsigned player among 31 first-round picks, turning down an offer of $3.8 million from the Pirates. Projected by some to be the No. 1 selection, some teams shied away from the right-hander because of the expected demands of his adviser, Scott Boras. Appel was selected eighth by the Pirates.

That slot was assigned $2.9 million from the drafting team's bonus pool in baseball's new labor contract, which imposes penalties on clubs that exceed the threshold - the totals of the slots for a team's selections in the first 10 rounds.

Pittsburgh was prepared to go as much as 5 percent above its threshold and incur the first level of penalty, a 75 percent tax on the overage. But the Pirates didn't want to fall into higher levels, which include the loss of future draft picks.

"After much thought, prayer and analysis of both opportunities, I came to the conclusion the best decision is to remain at Stanford continuing my studies, finishing my degree, and doing all I can to assist the Cardinal baseball team in our goal to win a national championship," Appel said in a statement. "I greatly valued the prospect of a professional opportunity and I will pursue a professional baseball career after getting my Stanford degree."

Appel, who turns 21 on Sunday, also failed to sign in 2009, when Detroit selected him in the 15th round with the 450th pick after his final season with Monte Vista High in San Ramon, Calif. Appel will go back into next year's draft.

Under the labor deal, agreed to in November, the deadline for draft picks to sign was 5 p.m. Friday, a month earlier than under the previous collective bargaining agreement.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Andrew McCutchen: Face of the first half

By David Schoenfield
July 8, 2012

I've written before how certain seasons become identifiable with one player, or maybe a couple of players.

Last season, for example, clearly belonged to Justin Verlander. You can debate the historic nature of his season, but it just felt like his year, with the 24 wins, the no-hitter, the 100-mph fastballs in the ninth inning of starts and, eventually, the Cy Young and MVP trophies.

I'm not sure if 2012 will end up being one of those seasons; it's too early to know, plus the postseason can come into play -- 1988 turned into Orel Hershiser's year instead of Jose Canseco's when the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Oakland A's in the World Series.

But if I had to pick a face of the first half it's Andrew McCutchen, the 25-year-old center fielder of the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, first-place Pirates. McCutchen had another huge game on Sunday in Pittsburgh's 13-2 victory over San Francisco, going 3-for-5 with two home runs, three runs and four RBIs. His two-run homer off Tim Lincecum in the first inning staked the Pirates to an early lead. He's now hitting .362/.414/.625, leads the major leagues in batting average and total bases, leads the NL in slugging percentage, ranks second to Joey Votto in OPS, and is among NL leaders with 18 home runs, 60 RBIs and 58 runs scored.

Jayson Stark gave his first-half NL MVP honors to McCutchen, and I'm inclined to agree. The Pirates keep winning, and McCutchen keeps delivering big hits.

Over his past nine games, McCutchen is scorching hot at 21-for-38 (.553) with 15 runs scored. But this stretch of dominance goes back to early June. McCutchen had helped keep the Pirates afloat the first two months, when the offense struggled to generate runs. The Pirates hit .228 in April and averaged just 2.6 runs per game. They weren't much better in May, hitting .210 and scoring 3.2 runs per game. Without McCutchen's .331/.389/.541 line through May, the Pirates wouldn't have been 25-25. On June 8 and 9, McCutchen went hitless in consecutive games for the only time this season. Since June 10, he's hitting .443 with 27 RBIs in the 26 games he's played. And since June 1, the Pirates are 23-12. If you want to go back a bit further, the Pirates are 34-19 since May 12, tied with the Angels and Yankees for the best record since that date.

McCutchen hasn't been a one-man show. Neil Walker had five hits on Sunday. A.J. Burnett won his ninth consecutive decision. Pedro Alvarez has been blasting some home runs and the bullpen has been terrific. The Pirates -- with 19 consecutive losing seasons -- are in first place at the All-Star break for the first time since 1997. It's the feel-good story of the first half.

"I am not going up to bat to hit home runs," McCutchen said after Sunday's game. "I am just trying to put good swings on balls and when I do that, depending on where the pitch is and how my swing is, some balls go out."

We've seen plenty of those good swings so far.

My other top-five faces of the first half:
2. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper
Youth, energy, excitement and, best of all, talent ooze from every pore of their body. Not since Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. broke in with the Mariners have we seen players of this ability at this age, where we can realistically say "There is no limit to their potential."

Let's start with Trout. Stark gave his first-half AL MVP to Trout -- and once again I agree. It's time to stop looking for holes in his game. He doesn't have any. The 20-year-old rookie outfielder, who spent the first 20 games of the season at Triple-A, hit his 12th home run in the Angels' 6-0 shutout over the Orioles on Sunday. Simply put, he's having one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time and one of the greatest seasons ever by a 20-year-old. He's hitting .341/.397/.562 and leads the AL in batting average and stolen bases while ranking fourth in OPS. Entering Sunday, his Baseball-Reference WAR (wins above replacement level) was an astonishing 4.6 in just 63 games.

We ran this list earlier in the season, but here are the players since 1901 who had a 5.0 WAR season since 1901:

Ty Cobb, Tigers, 1907: 6.6
Mel Ott, Giants, 1929: 7.3
Ted Williams, Red Sox, 1939: 6.6
Mickey Mantle, Yankees, 1952: 6.3
Al Kaline, Tigers, 1955: 8.0
Frank Robinson, Reds, 1956: 6.2
Vada Pinson, Reds, 1959: 6.3
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners, 1990: 5.0
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners, 1996: 9.2
Jason Heyward, Braves, 2010: 6.3

As for Harper, he's younger than Trout and is hitting .282/.354/.472. Like Trout, he's an impressive blend of power and speed. Most impressively for a 19-year-old, he's held his own against left-handers after struggling against them in his brief sojourn through the minors. Maybe nobody is surprised by this since Harper's future stardom was projected ever since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old with anecdotes of his Ruthian feats at the plate.

Still, he's 19. Most kids his age are in Class A or rookie ball. Harper currently owns an .826 OPS. The only two 19-year-olds to post an .800 OPS were Ott and Tony Conigliaro. Maybe pitchers will find holes in their swings in the second half. Maybe the long grind of 162 games will wear them out. Or, scary thought, maybe they'll get better.

3. R.A. Dickey
The Mets are a surprising 46-40, and their 37-year-old knuckleballer is a huge reason why with his 12-1, 2.40 first half. He's allowed one run or no runs in 10 of his 17 starts and opponents are hitting .203 off him. No pitcher who employed the knuckleball as his primary pitch has ever won the Cy Young Award. I have a feeling Dickey will be in that discussion come season's end.

4. Josh Hamilton
In a season of perfect games, no-hitters and other pitching gems, Hamilton's four-homer game on May 8 in Baltimore stands out. So do his 27 home runs and 75 RBIs -- and that's despite a June slump that saw him hit .223 with four home runs. It will be interesting to see if Hamilton or Jose Bautista -- also with 27 home runs -- can chase down Roger Maris' 61 home runs. No, that's not the single-season record, but let's just say it will be interesting to see how everyone reacts if that number is approached.

5. Joey Votto
Votto's 14 home runs and 48 RBIs may not impress you, but hopefully his .348/.471/.617 line does. That on-base percentage is 90 points higher than Hamilton's and Votto actually raises his numbers with runners in scoring position (.377/.535/.836). With 35 doubles in the Reds' first 85 games, Votto is on pace for 67, which would tie Earl Webb's record set in 1931. It's an obscure record, but it will be a fun chase if Votto gets close.

It's been a wild ride in the first half. I can't wait for the second half.