Friday, May 30, 2014

Time ticking on Penguins' GM

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014, 9:55 p.m.
Kris Letang Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers controls the puck against Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second period during Game Six of the Second Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 2014 in New York City.
Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers controls the puck against Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second period during Game Six of the Second Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 2014 in New York City.
(May 10, 2014 - Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Friday marks two full weeks since Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle fired Ray Shero, and if you'll recall, Lemieux told me at the time the Penguins' front office probably would take “a couple weeks” to have a new GM in place.
Well, that clock's ticking, to put it kindly. Because this poor soul, whoever it might be, will have basically a month to set the franchise's course for, oh, the next half-decade or so.
Consider this a checklist for Mr. Mythical New GM:
It's crazier now than then, but Dan Bylsma still holds the title. This, as well as the fate of the rest of Bylsma's staff, will have to come first. As in the very first morning on the job.
The pool of retreads isn't deep, but maybe that's for the better. These Penguins need a tough coach. Not a cement-head but someone with a personality to handle this locker room, whether it's the unique needs of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or the intimidating presences like Craig Adams. Bylsma couldn't. The new guy must.
Rick Tocchet, anyone?
I know he's interested, and we all know he's tough.
I'm not kidding. Letang's limited no-trade clause kicks in July 1. After that, the Penguins will be hard-pressed to move his eight-year, $58 million contract, at least for fair value. I'll take Lemieux's word that the team “signed Kris to keep him,” but I'll also take his word that the new GM will make that call rather than the owners.
It's not just the trade return that would make a difference. The freed-up money would go a long way toward other concerns.
I think a lot of Neal. Always have. And there's a good chance that, if traded, he'll run up another 40-goal season somewhere. But you have to give to get. And this is where you can give. The playoffs have laid bare that the Penguins have too many perimeter scorers rather than — repeat after me — grit-and-character types driving to the net. That's why their power play looks so pretty in the regular season but is reduced to a passing pentagon each spring.
Neal's 26, he's talented, and his remaining contract is attractive at four years, $20 million. He could bring back real quality.
This must get done. And after that, discuss with the coach sewing a letter on his sweater.
Orpik was one of the Penguins' most decorated defensemen, the all-time leader in games at the position. Jokinen was their only real playoff scoring threat. But they're unrestricted free agents like Niskanen, and they shouldn't be brought back. Orpik's place is best taken by a youngster, and Jokinen will be paid more than he's worth.
Wait, what's that?
The NHL Entry Draft is June 27-28?
OK, hold that. Work diligently with all the scouts who have mangled these past eight drafts, have everyone put forth their best effort at the table in Philadelphia … then fire everyone except those who recommended Olli Maatta.
Yeah, good luck with that. Those scouts will be super-motivated to earn that severance pay.
And by that I mean an office as far as possible from that of CEO David Morehouse. No disrespect to Morehouse, a superb businessman, but I don't like business overseeing sports decisions. I don't like it with Art Rooney II and the Steelers, nor with Frank Coonelly and the Pirates. The CEO should have input into major transactions such as multiyear extensions that can shake up the bottom line, but that's it.
Between the GM and coach, there will be so much day-to-day work at hand it might happen without a broader scope in mind. That's dangerous.
What is the next generation of Pittsburgh Penguins?
How do they play?
What's the model?
The most successful versions of the Penguins have been supremely skilled. The franchise has been blessed with 15 of the past 26 NHL scoring champs. But there's also been a strong supporting cast of — repeat after me again — grit-and-character types. They were tough in protecting the stars but also in forging their own paths. They didn't just forecheck. They had Bob Errey, Troy Loney or Max Talbot skating through the far wall. They didn't just pokecheck. They had Ulf Samuelsson, Kevin Stevens and Orpik's legendary shift sending opponents into the next century.
So, Mr. Mythical New GM, paint a picture like that. Preferably with a single stroke.

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Heath Miller expects to be better in 2014

By Scott Brown
May 30, 2014

PITTSBURGH – As understated as he is perhaps underrated, Heath Miller is as likely to make a bold prediction as he is to dance in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. 

The Steelers tight end did say something interesting on why he expects to play better in 2014 than he did last season -- when Miller was less than a year removed from tearing his ACL. 

[+] EnlargeHeath Miller
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAfter recovering from a knee injury during 2013, Heath Miller is working hard this offseason to help power Pittsburgh's offense.
“I should be able to put more preparation in, should be able to work like I’m used to working,” Miller said Thursday following the Steelers’ final OTA of the week. “Last year was about trying to find a new normal for myself and I’m a creature of habit, so that wasn’t easy for me. I’m fully confident by the time the season rolls around I’m going to be feeling much better than the start of last year just from a confidence perspective.” 

Such talk, while hardly bravado, should add to the optimism about an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season. The Steelers averaged more than 28 points in their final nine games, and they did so with Miller contributing in all phases of the offense but not playing as big a role in the passing attack as he had in previous seasons. 

That is anything but a knock on the ninth-year veteran. 

Miller, after all, missed just two games in 2013 and returned to the playing field roughly nine months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. 

He caught 58 passes for 593 yards and a touchdown, but Miller wasn’t the same player who established career highs in receiving yards (816) and touchdown catches (eight) the previous season. 

Miller attributed that to the recovery from the knee injury limiting his preparation leading up to games. 

“I was constantly trying to find the right balance of how much to work, how much to take off, what type of rehab is good, what type of rehab is too much,” said Miller, whose teammates voted him Steelers MVP in 2012. 

Such trial and error is largely behind Miller, who practiced all three days this week after watching OTAs last year because he had just started to run again. 

Miller may have a new normal but the Steelers would love nothing more than if one of the most consistent players and personalities on their team can return to his old self. 

Miller had arguably been the best all-around tight end in the NFL before getting hurt. 

The 6-foot-5, 256-pounder should approach that level again since he is able to take part in offseason practices and in training camp in preparation for the 2014 season. 

“I expect to be better than last year,” Miller said. 

The Steelers would gladly take that.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shazier's path to starting for Steelers isn't too rough

PITTSBURGH — Officially, by order of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, there is no hitting or tackling involved during the organized team activity period of the off-season.
Even if it’s just in shorts and helmets, some limited contact is allowed, however, if not inevitable.
When Ryan Shazier is involved there just tends to be a little more contact than usual.
Maybe it’s because Shazier was the 15th pick in the recent draft, or maybe it’s because he’s been basically anointed a starter without playing a snap. Whatever it is, rookie hazing or a rite of passage, the Steelers’ first-rounder just can’t seem to avoid the rough stuff that some of his veteran teammates have been doling out.
Not that the former Ohio State star minds the extra attention.
“Offensive linemen try and be big and bad and everything, so I go out there and rough it up with them sometimes,” Shazier said Wednesday after the second day of OTAs on the South Side. “I’m just learning what I have to do, learning the type of game that they play so I can play with them.”
Shazier started a minor commotion Tuesday when he threw Maurkice Pouncey hard to the ground. Generally speaking, that’s not a good way to impress new teammates, particularly one who’s a three-time Pro Bowl center or one who’s coming off a serious knee injury.
“He’s going to what he’s got to do, and I have to do what I have to do,” Shazier said of Pouncey. “I respect him a lot and hope he can continue what he does.”
What 6-foot-1, 237-pound Shazier hopes to do is to provide some speed and toughness at inside linebacker as a perceived upgrade over Vince Williams. At Ohio State, Shazier recorded 315 tackles in 39 games to earn his lofty draft status. But Shazier is still learning the pro game and earning the trust of his new coaches and teammates.
“Everybody’s fast at this level,” Shazier said. “One little mistake can make a big difference.”
Rarely do rookies start in coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complicated defensive schemes, but Shazier seemingly has been charged with that task. Shazier says he’s up for the challenge, reading the playbook religiously and seeking any advantage he can get.
“I understand it doesn’t happen too often, but I feel like the coaches have kind of put trust in me,” Shazier said.
While it might seemed preordained that Shazier will start this season, he says that’s not the case.
“I don’t feel like nothing’s guaranteed,” said Shazier, who’s been working closely with Lawrence Timmons. “I’m just trying to do what I can do, learning the defense and do what I can to help this team develop and be the best we can be and trying to get another Super Bowl.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maurkice Pouncey gets back to work

May 27, 2014

Ben Roethlisberger takes a snap from Maurkice Pouncey in Tuesday's OTA session. (Steelers)

PITTSBURGH -- If there were any doubts about the health of Maurkice Pouncey, the linchpin of the Steelers' offensive line, the Pro Bowl center erased them in one play Tuesday during the team's first offseason practice.
Pouncey, in his first football action since last September, reached the second level of the defense, locked onto rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and drove the first-round draft pick back a couple of yards. For good measure, Pouncey bounced right up after Shazier shook off the block and sent the fourth-year veteran sprawling on grass.
If the humidity that blanketed Western Pennsylvania gave the Steelers' first organized team activity the feel of August, so did the sight of Pouncey directing the offensive line -- and looking like anything but a player who tore several knee ligaments, including his ACL, early last September.
Pouncey, who missed all but eight snaps last season, practiced without any restrictions Tuesday and looks like he could start training camp tomorrow.
"No problems at all," Pouncey said of his reconstructed right knee. "I was able to block guys and finish on some plays. It was pretty awesome."
Pouncey, the only center in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl after his first three seasons, suffered a season-ending injury in the Steelers' opener last year when right guard David DeCastro crashed into his right leg while trying to block a Titans defensive linemen.
The center left the field in a cart and his injury cast a pall over Heinz Field as well as the Steelers, who lost 16-9 to Tennessee.
"It wiped me out," Pouncey said of the missed DeCastro block, "but it was all an accident. That's in the past."
It sure seemed that way, with as well as Pouncey moved during the workout.
Maurkice Pouncey
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSteelers center Maurkice Pouncey's 2013 season ended after he had taken part in only eight plays.
"It's just good to see him out there because he's a football player and he loves the game," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's fun to see him back in the pads."
Not that Roethlisberger was surprised to see Pouncey on the field a little less than nine months after the latter injured his knee.
"I thought he could have played at the end of last year," Roethlisberger said. "That's how hard he worked and the dedication and the time he put into it. That's the type of competitor and athlete that he is."
The Steelers could not have played Pouncey at the end of last season because they'd put him on injured reserve shortly after he was injured.
Pouncey, who was voted a captain by his teammates last season, said he turned a corner in his recovery a couple of months ago.
"I started feeling really great, especially in the weight room," he said. "To come out here on the football field and do it is awesome. It was big for my coaches to see it, my teammates to see it, and for me, it was pretty cool."
Strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor were the notable players not at the team's first OTA.
Polamalu has typically skipped most OTA practices, which are voluntary, so he can train in California. Coach Mike Tomlin had shrugged off a question about whether it was important for Polamalu to be at OTAs because the Steelers will have a new starting strong safety inMike Mitchell.
"They're voluntary," Tomlin said recently. "It's not 100 percent attendance across the league. I'm not getting into that with any particular player. We'll work with the ones that show up and get them better."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ike’s happy return: ‘I didn’t get booed as much as I thought’

May 26, 2014
Ike’s happy return: ‘I didn’t get booed as much as I thought’
Ike Davis tosses his bat and glove after he's walked in the first inning Monday.Photo: Paul J. Bereswill
Absence can make the heart grow fonder, or in the case of Ike Davis and Mets fans, forgetful.
Davis, the former Mets first baseman traded to the Pirates on April 18 for minor league pitcher Zack Thornton and a player to be named, was greeted with cheers Monday in his return trip to Citi Field as if he were a conquering hero, not a massive disappointment.
“I didn’t get booed as much as I thought [I would],” he said after going 0-for-2 with a walk in the Pirates’ 5-3 win over the Mets. “There was a lot of cheering. So it was really nice of [the fans].”
A former Mets first-round pick, Davis had a solid rookie season and swatted 32 homers in 2012, but he badly slumped the last two seasons and spent nearly a month in the minors last year.
Davis had nothing but positive things to say about the Mets before his return, but he said he’s happy to have moved on to Pittsburgh, where he has been playing every day, hitting .303 since the trade, and has less on his mind.
The biggest change? Fans aren’t on his case as much.
“Going to get coffee and I don’t get hitting tips,” Davis joked when asked the best thing about playing in Pittsburgh. “I don’t have to think about my stance at nine in the morning.”
“I actually had some good times here. I actually played well, except I just couldn’t find my swing early in the seasons.”
When reminded the Mets chose to go with Lucas Duda over him, Davis smiled. He doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove.
“That’s life,” Davis said. “But the Pirates like me.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

It's Nutting's money, not yours

By keeping Gregory Polanco past his Super 2 arbitration deadline, the Pirates might save about $15 million in future salaries.
Why do you care about that? You shouldn’t. It’s Bob Nutting’s money, not yours. Although a lot of his money used to be yours.
“It’s the right thing to do.” We hear that over and over about Polanco staying in the minors despite an amazing stat line. “It’s the right thing to do.” Nutting shills bleat that nonsense over and over like it’s written on a stone tablet.
Here’s another popular faux truism: “Polanco won’t help the pitching. The pitching is what’s wrong.” The Pirates’ pitching is, indeed, a problem. But, since Polanco can’t fix that problem, does that mean the Pirates shouldn’t fix any problems?
Polanco is the best right fielder in the Pirates system. Josh Harrison temporarily morphing into Roberto Clemente duly noted, Polanco might fix right field.
“You don’t spend just to spend.” Nutting doesn’t spend at all. The Pirates have profited greatly over the last 12 months. The Pirates’ payroll at the start of last season was $66.2 million. Their payroll at the end of the season was $74.6 million. Their payroll at the start of this season was $78.1 million. That’s fourth from bottom in MLB.
Nutting once that said that payroll would keep pace with revenue. It has not.
The Pirates increased season-ticket sales this year more than any other club in MLB. Last season saw the second-highest attendance in PNC Park history. The Pirates raised season-ticket prices by 6.4 percent, single-game ticket prices by more. They got playoff revenue. The Pirates jacked up advertising prices at PNC Park. They sell tons of merchandise.
The Pirates got an additional $25 million in national TV revenue this year, and will receive the same amount through 2021.
Payroll went up less than $4 million since the end of last year.
So, you tell me: Is payroll keeping pace with revenue? Doesn’t seem like it.
“You can’t buy a championship.” That’s absolute stupidity. The final four in last season’s playoffs ranked second, fourth, fifth and 11th among MLB payrolls. Spending offers no guarantees. But it’s definitely the way to bet.
“The Pirates have better management than the Penguins.” The Penguins have made the playoffs for eight straight seasons, the Pirates one. When the Penguins have a chance to win, they spend. The Pirates don’t. The Penguins went exactly as far this year as the Pirates did last year. The latter was seen as baseball nirvana, the former as grave disappointment. What’s that tell you?
Back to Polanco: “The Los Angeles Angels kept Mike Trout in the minors. St. Louis is keeping Oscar Tavares in the minors.”
The Angels’ payroll this season is $155.6 million, sixth in MLB. St. Louis’ payroll is $111 million, 13th in MLB. Teams that spend like that don’t need to rush anybody. Teams like the Pirates need all hands on deck. If the Pirates sign Polanco long-term, like they did Starling Marte, they never have to deal with Super 2.
During the off-season, the Pirates let A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau go. They kept Clint Barmes and signed Travis Ishikawa, Chris Stewart and Edinson Volquez. Ike Davis eventually replaced Ishikawa.
Consider the stats of all involved. That is not the off-season of a team that prioritizes winning over money. There is absolutely no way to see it as such.
I have said it before, and say it again: Nutting’s greatest feat is getting you to treat his money like it’s your money, even as he makes your money his.
Before the season, I predicted the Pirates would win 84 games. So did Las Vegas. I forget who predicted first. I’m sticking with my prediction.
Eighty-four wins might get the Pirates close. But it won’t get them another playoff berth. Would Polanco, all year, have made a difference?
You’ll ask that question then. I’m asking it now.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cole vs. Strasburg provides Pirates hope

By Diane Firstman
May 25, 2014

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, top, delivers a pitch to Washington Nationals' Ian Desmond (20) in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, May 24, 2014. Desmond deposited the pitch in the left field stands for a solo home run. Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP / AP
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, top, delivers a pitch to Washington Nationals' Ian Desmond (20) in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, May 24, 2014. Desmond deposited the pitch in the left field stands for a solo home run. Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP

Sixteen pitchers have been taken No. 1 overall since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965. Prior to Saturday’s first-ever matchup of Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, there had been only 10 duels between former No. 1 overall picks. The last such game took place August 21, 2012, when Luke Hochevar went up against David Price. In that game, both pitchers tossed eight scoreless innings as the Royals prevailed 1-0 in 10 innings.

Given the rate at which young pitchers have been struck down this season (while certainly not forgetting Strasburg’s own Tommy John experience), it’s a treat when we can anticipate a meeting such as this. One could only hope Cole and Strasburg could deliver something close to that Price/Hochevar.

Beyond being a showcase of two of the top young pitchers in the National League, Saturday’s Nationals/Pirates contest pitted two teams with playoff aspirations coming into 2014, but also two clubs that have struggled through the first quarter of the season. The Nationals sat at .500, having suffered significant injuries to Adam LaRocheBryce Harper,Ryan ZimmermanDoug Fister and Gio Gonzalez. But Strasburg, despite a 3-3 record, had been superb, with a 2.42 FIP while striking out 28.2 percent of all batters -- each statistic good for third-best in the league. His 3.38 ERA could be attributed to a lousy .358 BABIP -- the third-highest rate in the National League.

For the Pirates, winning their prior three games still left them at 21-26, seven games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers. Failing to retain A.J. Burnett after 2013 placed a lot of initial pressure on the likes of veteran journeymen Edinson Volquez and Wandy Rodriguez; the latter was designated for assignment earlier this week. Pirates starters other than Cole this season had a combined record of 3-17.

Cole himself had been a bit “hit-unlucky,” as an increase in his ground-ball rate to 53 percent had been undermined by a .317 BABIP. He’d also seen his homer-to-fly ball rate nearly double, from 8.1 percent as a rookie to 14.9 percent this year. But with Francisco Liriano (0-4, 4.86 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) tumbling back to earth after a 16-win season, Cole has become the de facto ace of the staff.
[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarStephen Strasburg came out firing strikes, but wound up the eventual loser in a mound showdown between first overall picks.

In the game, Strasburg sailed through his first six innings, throwing 61 of 91 pitches for strikes while yielding only four hits and striking out six. The only tally against him through those frames was a fourth-inning solo homer by Neil Walker.

In contrast, Cole was in trouble as early as the third inning, needing 27 pitches in that inning alone (including a battle with Anthony Rendon that featured five 3-2 fouls before a walk on the 11th pitch of the at-bat). With one out in the fourth, Cole tried to double up on changeups to Ian Desmond, and Desmond launched the second of those into the left-field seats to open the scoring.

Cole also seemed to be having trouble with the strike zone of rookie umpire Gabe Morales, who was in only his 10th major league game behind the plate. With two outs in that same inning, Cole threw two back-to-back two-strike pitches to Nate McLouth that appeared to claim the plate, only to be called balls. The following pitch saw Cole finally retire McLouth on a grounder to second, but Cole landed awkwardly finishing his delivery, and limped off the mound as the inning ended.

Cole nevertheless came back out for the fifth, but labored some more in hitting a batter, walking another and allowing two singles. The 32 pitches in that frame left him at 98 pitches going into the sixth. He regained some normalcy in the sixth, pitching around a walk to McLouth to end his night having thrown a career-high 112 pitches, and getting a no-decision for his trouble.

However, he had kept the game within reach of the Pirates’ offense. They retook the lead in the seventh off of Strasburg, with pinch hitter Jose Tabata’s sacrifice fly driving in Russell Martin and Josh Harrison’s single plating Starling Marte, who had doubled two batters after Martin. After that, the Pirates bullpen set the Nats down with no ball leaving the infield over the last three innings, and Pittsburgh had its 14th one-run victory of the year, 3-2. For the Pirates, a start like this from Cole had to be encouraging. He clearly labored at times but still gave the team six innings and a game Pittsburgh could win -- and did.

Looking forward, the Bucs bullpen, which was a crucial component of their 2013 playoff team, is going to have to match or exceed their performance this season. They threw the second-most innings in the National League last season (545⅔) and compiled the second-best ERA (2.89). With their three perfect innings tonight, their collective ERA is 2.82 (fifth-best) and they've pitched 156.2 innings, fourth-most in the league. For the Pirates to contend, they'll need Cole to continue to excel, even when he doesn't have his best stuff. But they’ll also need to find him some starting pitching help. Brandon Cumpton is rejoining the rotation as Rodriguez's replacement, but Liriano must start to show even a semblance of his 2013 performance.

As for Strasburg versus Cole after one good game, what about a rematch between these two top guns? Mark your calendars for August 15-17, as that is the next time these two clubs might offer us this particular pitching matchup.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate. You can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Lumber Company reflects on Pirates' 1979 World Series

Fewer than 100 people in the recorded history of recorded history can say they threw the final pitch of the World Series, and two of them are typically at or near PNC Park for any given game.
"[Steve] Blass and I talk about that all the time," Kent Tekulve was saying Wednesday night at PNC Park. "How many kids in America grow up throwing the tennis ball off the garage door imagining either, A) they hit the home run to win the World Series like Maz or B) they get the last out of the World Series?
"How many kids dream that dream, and we both actually had the ability or had the luck to be able to do it."
Not sure what turned the conversation to the World Series on a late May evening an hour before the Pirates would attempt to pull within seven games of .500, but I suspect it was the roomful of 1979 Pirates assembled right there in the news conference area.
Yes, it has been 35 years, which deserves to be said slowly and deliberately, don't you think?
Thir-ty-fiiive yeeeaars.
"Teke" got Baltimore's Pat Kelly to fly out to Omar Moreno to vacuum-seal the Pirates' last World Series title, and clearly "last" may be interpreted either way, in the sense of being the most recent, or in the sense of cold finality. It was just as accurately a pitch Teke threw to Eddie Murray an inning before that won it.
"Runners on second and third, two out, and we walked Kenny Singleton to load the bases and get to Eddie Murray," Teke said. "The good news is, at that point in time, I didn't know Murray was gonna be a Hall of Famer. He was just pretty good then. I was just makin' pitches. We made the right pitch. He hit the ball to warning track in right field, but he had to kind of reach out and extend for it, so he didn't get it all."
He got enough of it that it initially crossed-up Dave Parker, who thankfully, Wednesday night, was sitting not 30 feet from Tekulve.
"He hit a line drive to me, a carrying line drive," said Parker, at 62 a still regal presence as he fights off the early onset of Parkinson's. "I broke to my glove side, slipped, and almost fell. I recovered and managed to catch it. If I don't catch that ball, I'd have kept running right through the fence and on out into Baltimore somewhere.

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Former Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Omar Moreno shows off the World Series ring he won with the 1979 Pirates against the Baltimore Orioles before the baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates pre-game  festivities honored the last Pirates team to win a World Series. Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP / AP

Former Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Omar Moreno shows off the World Series ring he won with the 1979 Pirates against the Baltimore Orioles before the baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates pre-game festivities honored the last Pirates team to win a World Series. Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP

Phil Garner

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bucs wave to Wandy: Trade marked a new era, even if Rodriguez didn't help

Wandy Rodriguez #51 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a solo home run in the second inning against the Chicago Cubs during the game at PNC Park April 3, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

PITTSBURGH — The last on-field memory of Wandy Rodriguez in a Pirates’ uniform is not a good one, the left-hander sprinting from the mound to the dugout as if he were trying to outrun the boos from the home fans at PNC Park.
That came Wednesday night when Rodriguez gave up six runs in 1 1/3 innings to the Orioles in a game the Pirates eventually won 9-8.
Rodriguez was designated for assignment Thursday before the Pirates played the Nationals at PNC Park. The Bucs have 10 days to trade Rodriguez, outright his contract to the minor leagues or release him.
The 35-year-old will almost certainly be released, because it is hard to imagine any team giving up something in trade for a pitcher who was 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in eight starts while giving up a whopping 10 home runs in just 26 1/3 innings.
The final off-field memory of Rodriguez with the Pirates came as he met the media following Wednesday night’s game. For the first time, the normally happy-go-lucky Rodriguez was somber and admitted his time with the Pirates had been difficult.
“Very frustrating,” he said. “Very frustrating.”
Rodriguez hid those frustrations for a long time, constantly smiling and joking as the beat-downs piled up. That led to the perception by both the media and some of his teammates that Rodriguez was just happy to be drawing his $13-million salary, $5.5 million of which was paid by the Astros as part of the trade that sent him to the Pirates.
You never know for sure what is in a man’s heart, but what was in the Pirates’ minds when they traded for Rodriguez in July 2012 was that he would help them make a push for a playoff spot both that season and the following two.
The trade signaled an end to the Pirates’ never-ending era of rebuilding as it was the first time general manager Neal Huntington made a prospects-for-veteran trade since being hired in 2007.
The Pirates got to the postseason last year, but Rodriguez had little to do with it. His last start was on June 5 before suffering a mysterious forearm strain that never seem to heal.
In all, Rodriguez was 11-10 with a 4.16 ERA in 31 games with the Pirates, though it didn’t seem like he contributed even that much.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pirates' burden falls on all 25

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

There's nothing at all wrong with these Pirates that Gregory Polanco couldn't fix. Provided, of course, the kid could scale the 21-foot Clemente Wall, consume six or seven spots on Clint Hurdle's lineup card, climb the mound every fifth day and, if he wanted to show off, part the Allegheny on his daily walk to work.
Did I mention hitting the occasional nine-run homer?
“We know what everyone in Pittsburgh is talking about right now. We know it's Polanco,” Starling Marte, Polanco's Dominican countryman and friend, was telling me on a wild Wednesday at PNC Park, where the Pirates needed every stroke of their offensive output to put down Baltimore, 9-8. “He's a good hitter. We all know that. But he's one player. It takes 25 to win.”
Or, it takes 25 to turn a season into something even uglier than this three-hour, 28-minute slush.
Not to be the downer here. The Pirates battled back in this one. Overcame what might have been Wandy Rodriguez's Matt Morris-esque farewell start. Big knock from Tony Sanchez. Big save for Mark Melancon. Huzzah to all.
But 19-26 doesn't lie, and neither did much of what was witnessed on this night. This team's a mess still waiting to be sorted.
Really, I'd thought nothing but positive stuff back in spring training. This was mostly the same group that galvanized a franchise and its fan base only a year back, that moved grown men and women to tears of joy. They themselves sounded galvanized, too, speaking boldly of taking the next step.
I didn't think the starters could match a masterful 2013, but they've gone into absolute free fall with a 4.60 ERA that's fifth worst in the majors. Pitching wins make a terrible stat, but it's still telling that Gerrit Cole is 4-3 and the rest of the rotation 1-17. The rest of the staff, essentially, is Jimmy Anderson.
I didn't think the relievers could match 2013, as bullpen brilliance seldom knows a sequel, but they've had their own free fall, especially at the back end where Jason Grilli and Melancon have turned four leads into losses, one more than all last season. On Wednesday, Bryan Morris tossed out a two-run lead.
I actually thought they'd hit better. Their .321 on-base percentage is middle of the pack, but a lack of punch and timeliness has their run production — still the only stat that counts — at fifth lowest in the majors.
Who's to blame for it all?
Candidly, I'd start with the 25 it takes to win, and I'd pretty much end there, too.
“We've got to hit better,” Marte said on a day he'd go 3 for 4 with a two-run triple.
“We've got to pitch better,” Melancon said on a day he'd zip 1-2-3 through the ninth.
“We need to play better. That's it,” Hurdle said. “We especially need to pitch better, but we've got to do everything better.”
Heady stuff, I know. But it's a message that probably needs to resonate beyond the clubhouse walls. Because all I hear anymore is about Bob Nutting the bad owner (a dated narrative that went conspicuously silent last year), about payroll not going up (it's on pace to wind up about $12 million higher), about $25 million in new national TV money not being used (the figure is half that in the first year), about A.J. Burnett not being brought back (he blew off $12 million that would have given him the highest salary in team history), about Justin Morneau going on a power tear in Colorado (after he could barely hit a ball out of the infield in two months here) and, way above all, about Polanco.
Look, I wish Polanco were here, too. But to repeat my stance back when this arbitration issue applied to Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Cole, the money involved — at least $15 million if Polanco proves to be a star — is utterly insane for two months of anyone. He'll be here in a couple of weeks.
I also wish management would ship out Rodriguez, who coughed up seven runs and showed disturbing body language in the process. That'll cost $5.4 million, but that's a reasonable price in this setting. It's past time to give a real chance to Brandon Cumpton, who's been curiously cast by this front office as Jeff Karstens II when all the guy's done is pile up outs.
Overall, though, any turnaround has to happen with what you see before you.
Next chance is Edinson Volquez's first pitch Thursday against Washington. And, as Volquez put it when I raised the hot topic, “I love Polanco. But when he gets here, he isn't making my pitches for me.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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