Friday, July 31, 2015

Analyzing the Pirates' trade for relievers Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton

Joakim Soria (Getty Images)

The Pirates made their second -- and bolder -- trade in less than 24 hours to bolster their bullpen Thursday night by acquiring Detroit closer Joakim Soria.
The Pirates sent touted Class AA Altoona shortstop JaCoby Jones to the Tigers after acquiring right-hander Joe Blanton from Kansas City in a cash transaction early Thursday morning.
The two moves should strengthen what had been a Pirates’ weakness beyond closer Mark Melancon and set-up men Jared Hughes and Tony Watson. It had become apparent in recent weeks that manager Clint Hurdle trusted just that trio among his seven-man bullpen.
Soria will move into the spot held by Hughes, who shifts to middle relief.
“We feel like we lengthened and deepened our bullpen with these acquisitions,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “Considering what was available to us and the acquisition costs, we thought strengthening the bullpen made the most sense.”
Both Soria and Blanton can become free agents at the end of the season.
The Pirates lead the National League wild card standings are trying to catch the Cardinals in the NL Central.
Soria will give the Pirates another strong late-inning right-handed option to go with Hughes. With 201 saves in his eight-year career, Soria also has plenty of closing experience closing and provides insurance in event something would happen to Melancon.
The 31-year-old Soria was having a fine year with the Tigers, stepping in as the closer when Joe Nathan injured his elbow during the first week of the season. He converted 23 saves in 26 opportunities while posting a 2.85 ERA in 43 games and allowing 32 hits in 36 innings with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Soria has been scored on only once in his last 14 appearances, though it was an ugly appearance as he gave up four runs without retiring a batter July 10 at Minnesota while taking the loss and a blown save.
He hasn’t been dominant in that span, though, giving up 11 hits, walking seven and hitting two batters in 13 1/3 innings, though he had 16 strikeouts.
Blanton joined the Pirates on Thursday night for their game against the Reds at Cincinnati and takes a middle/long relief spot held by right-hander Vance Worley, who was designated for assignment.
Worley was rarely used in high-leverage situations despite compiling a 2.08 ERA in 11 games after being dropped from the starting rotation in mid-May. He allowed less than a baserunner an inning -- 19 hits and four walks in 26 innings -- with 20 strikeouts.
One of two rookie right-handers, Arquimedes Caminero or Deolis Guerra, figure to be designated for assignment to open a roster spot when Soria reports. Caminero has a 4.37 ERA in 46 games and Guerra’s ERA is 3.52 through nine games.
Blanton, 34, had a 2.74 ERA and two saves in 11 relief appearances for the Royals after being moved from the starting rotation. He struck out 23 in 22 relief innings while issuing just three walks.
This is the first time Blanton has been a full-time reliever since making his debut in 2004 with Oakland.
Blanton was 2-4 with a 6.04 ERA in 28 games, including 20 starts, with the Angels in 2013. The Angels released him in spring training last year and he signed with the Athletics then retired after making just two starts for their Class AAA Sacramento farm club.
Blanton wound up making a comeback with the American League Central-leading Royals and now finds himself with the Pirates.
“Usually it doesn't happen this way,” Blanton said told reporters in Cincinnati. “You go from out (of contention) to in, and sometimes you go from in to out, but I think that it's very fortunate for me to go from in contention to in contention.”

Thursday, July 30, 2015

McCutchen, Liriano lead Pirates sweep of Twins with 10-4 win

By Dave Campbell
July 29, 2015
McCutchen, Liriano lead Pirates sweep of Twins with 10-4 win
Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) smiles after scoring and hitting a four run single against the Minnesota Twins in the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Minneapolis. Pirates left fielder Jaff Decker (14) and first baseman Travis Ishikawa (30) also scored on the play and accompany him back to the dugout. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in the majors since mid-May.
Maybe they'll get a little late July boost at the trade deadline.
Andrew McCutchen hit a home run and turned an RBI single into race around the bases while Minnesota made two errors in a five-run sixth inning, helping Francisco Liriano and the Pirates beat the Twins 10-4 Wednesday for a two-game sweep.
After losing five of their first six games out of the All-Star break, the Pirates have won five of their last six games to tighten their grip on the NL's first wild-card spot.
''You play well, these games continue to bring attention to areas that you might want to think about improving,'' manager Clint Hurdle said, adding: ''Playing well, though, lets you know you can get some things done with what you've got.''
Jung Ho Kang homered for the second straight day for the Pirates, after going deep for the go-ahead run in the ninth the night before. McCutchen's two-run, two-strike, two-out drive off Ervin Santana (2-1) in the fifth inning tied the game at 3, and the Twins unraveled in the sixth.

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One run scored on a wild pitch. Then Santana walked two straight batters. Starling Marte hit a sacrifice fly, and McCutchen hit a sharp single that bounced in front of right fielder Eddie Rosario. The ball skipped past him to the warning track, allowing another run to score and McCutchen to reach third.
The slow-rolling relay throw scooted underneath Eduardo Nunez's glove for another error that allowed McCutchen to score, but not before he collided with Nunez. The contact was hard enough to knock them both to the ground and cue the blooper-tape soundtrack.
''Definitely a foul, 15-yard penalty, roughing the passer, automatic first down,'' McCutchen said, alluding to his high school football days in Fort Meade, Florida.
Liriano (7-6) improved to 3-0 in his last six starts despite allowing 10 hits in 5 2-3 innings. He was charged with three runs, two earned, and struck out four in his fourth career appearance against the Twins, his team from 2005-12.
''Frankie was in a fistfight all day,'' Hurdle said.
Said Liriano: ''Just one of those days. It was tough. You have to go out there and battle and at least give a chance to win to your team. That's what I tried to do.''
The Twins, who started the day with a two-game lead for the second AL wild card, lost their fourth straight game and fell to 3-8 after the All-Star break.
''I don't think we've played a clean game for a while,'' manager Paul Molitor said.
Santana, who was charged with eight runs, six of them earned, committed an error, too. He struck out three with eight hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings.
''It's just that time of the year, I guess, where teams start to go into slumps and things just aren't going our way,'' Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks said.
Liriano and Santana, lifelong friends from the Dominican Republic, were set up for quite the matchup. Liriano was 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA and 84 strikeouts over 73 innings in his previous 11 turns. Santana pitched 15 2-3 scoreless innings in winning his last two starts. The duel never materialized, though, and Liriano naturally downplayed the significance of pitching against his pal.
''Whether it's my friend or not, when I cross the line, it's just getting outs,'' he said.
Pittsburgh: RF Gregory Polanco was removed in the fourth inning due to discomfort in his left knee, with Jaff Decker replacing him. Hurdle said he thought Polanco might have aggravated the injury the night before tracking a fly ball. ''Rather than push it, we got him out right away,'' Hurdle said.
Minnesota: CF Byron Buxton will take batting practice Thursday for the first time since he was placed on the DL with a sprained left thumb, but he is still several weeks away from returning.
Pittsburgh starts a four-game series Thursday in Cincinnati, with A.J. Burnett (8-4, 2.68 ERA) pitching for the Pirates. He's 6-1 in his last seven turns on the road. David Holmberg will make his major league debut on the mound for the Reds.
Minnesota stays home for a four-game series against Seattle, with Phil Hughes (9-6, 3.93 ERA) pitching Thursday for the Twins opposite J.A. Happ of the Mariners. The Twins have won five straight starts by Hughes at home, with the right-hander posting a 2.11 ERA in 34 innings with 32 hits and just one walk allowed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bonino, Fehr mark significant upgrades for Penguins

Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr

When the Penguins acquired Phil Kessel on July 1, it was more than a move designed to ease the burden on Sidney Crosby’s and Evgeni Malkin’s shoulders. It also carried the implication that general manager Jim Rutherford had every intention of reshaping a disappointing roster.
The second and third large dominoes in the Penguins’ offseason fell Tuesday, when Rutherford shipped center Brandon Sutter -- a free agent after this upcoming season -- and a third round pick to Vancouver for forward Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a second round pick.
Moments later, Rutherford officially signed former Capitals forward Eric Fehr to a three-year deal with an average cap hit of $2 million.
In a span of just a few minutes, the Penguins’ added two top nine forwards for just $600,000 more than they were paying Sutter. And while Sutter is highly praised around the league for his shot, his demeanor and his defensive abilities, the 26-year-old center was likely going to be priced out of the Penguins’ range in free agency.
“He was one year away from being an unrestricted free agent,” Rutherford said, “And I felt with this opportunity it was a chance to get something for him in Nick Bonino and Adam Clendending.”
But Rutherford didn’t just swap Sutter for cap relief. Bonino, 27, has 37 goals and 88 points in his last two seasons. The 29-year-old Fehr has 32 goals and 64 points in his last two years. Both Fehr and Bonino can play center and wing, and do so at a cheaper cost than Sutter.
“When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom six cap hits in better shape,” Rutherford said. “That’s what we were able to do with these two deals.”
Ultimately, Bonino and Fehr are both better, cheaper versions of Sutter, if slightly older. They can kill penalties. They can handle faceoffs -- Fehr, a recently converted winger, is already a better faceoff man than Sutter. They produce more often in 5-on-5 play and have better possession stats. And their flexibility will allow the Penguins to work a youngster or two into the lineup, especially early on as Fehr heals from offseason elbow surgery.
The Penguins got better up the middle, more versatile, more dynamic and more cost efficient. There are still issues, including the cap hits for Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi plus a youthful defense that now includes the 22-year-old Clendening as a depth option.
But those can be monitored throughout the season. For now, the Penguins look much more like a Cup contender than they did a month ago.

Penguins ship Sutter to Canucks, sign Fehr to three-year, $6 million contract

By: Jared Clinton on 
Eric Fehr

The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a pair of moves that should help address their perceived depth issues.
Tuesday morning, the Penguins announced they had dealt center Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Adam Clendening and a 2016 second-round pick. Within minutes of announcing the trade, the club also announced the signing of pivot Eric Fehr to a three-year, $6 million deal.
“The two deals went hand-in-hand so we could add more depth,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford in a conference call. “The conversations with Vancouver have actually gone on a long time. I can’t remember exactly when, but it was prior to the draft.”
Moving Sutter had long been rumored and with his $3.3 million cap hit on a Penguins team that needed to do something to boost their depth, the trade, and subsequent signing of Fehr, makes perfect sense for Pittsburgh.
“I appreciate what (Sutter) has done, but he was one year away from being a restricted free agent and I felt with this opportunity, it was a chance we were able to get somebody for him in Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “We really like Nick as a center…By doing this, it opened up cap space so we could add more depth to our forwards, like adding Eric Fehr, whose coming off of a very good year and is a player we’ve liked for quite some time.”
Even with the three acquisitions, the Penguins have $2.8 million available should they be interested in adding another depth forward and the cap space is important.
With the off-season acquisition of Phil Kessel, many thought the Penguins – who will now ice a top-six that looks more like a video game forward corps than a real, live NHL one – wouldn’t be able to add effective NHLers to their bottom-six in a league where utilizing a four-line attack is a necessity. However, the additions of Bonino, 27, and Fehr, 29, should take some of the pressure off the top-six to be solely responsible for winning games.
Nick Bonino
“Nick is a very smart player,” said Rutherford. “He really has good hockey sense…He’s a guy that almost got 40 points and had 15 goals. When you look at the structure of our salaries and our cap, it’s important to get those bottom-six cap hits in better shape and that’s what we were able to do with these two deals.”
Fehr is no slouch, either. This past season, Fehr scored 19 goals and 33 points for the Washington Capitals, which was the second-best offensive output of his career. On top of his offensive production, Fehr was a steady puck possession player even while taking the majority of his shifts in the defensive and neutral zones.
“Eric is comfortable as a two-position player,” Rutherford said. “He could possibly jump into the top-six if that situation presented itself, but he’s coming off a year where he played center. He was good on faceoffs, a very good shut-down guy and in that third center position with the Capitals.”
The acquistions of Bonino and Fehr, both of whom have favorable advanced stats, come shortly after the Penguins announced the hiring of Sam Ventua, who was the co-creator of War-On-Ice, one of the go-to advanced stats websites for hockey fans.
“The analytics are very strong on both Bonino and Fehr in all the different aspects of what we look for in analytics,” said Rutherford.
One of the only concerns regarding Fehr is he’s coming off of elbow surgery which could force him to miss 4-6 months, which could mean he’s out until November. However, Rutherford said the signings were important for the long-term, adding he could deal with Fehr being out for six months as long as he comes back into the lineup at 100 percent.
After a flameout in the first round of the 2014-15 post-season, the Penguins needed to make changes. Bringing in Kessel was one thing, but now it appears Rutherford has begun to round out his bottom-six. If the Penguins weren’t considered contenders before, Tuesday’s moves could put them in a position to take a serious shot at the Stanley Cup in 2015-16.

Kang's homer sends Pirates to 8-7 win over Twins

By Brian Hall
July 29, 2015

Kang's homer sends Pirates to 8-7 win over Twins

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang (27) celebrates with right fielder Gregory Polanco (25), center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22), and left fielder Jaff Decker, right, after the Pirates defeated the Minnesota Twins 8-7 in a baseball game in Minneapolis, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Jung Ho-Kang is enjoying the spotlight in the major leagues and showing the Pittsburgh Pirates just what they hoped when they brought him over from South Korea.

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Kang hit a tiebreaking home run off the facing of the second deck in left-center field in the ninth inning, lifting Pittsburgh over the Minnesota Twins 8-7 on Tuesday night.
Kang's sixth home run of the season, a drive off All-Star closer Glen Perkins (0-3), sent Pittsburgh to its fourth win in five games.
''Always enjoyed the situations like this ever since I play in Korea,'' Kang said through an interpreter.
Kang has hit two of his six home runs in the ninth inning in his first season after the Pirates signed the infielder to a four-year, $11 million contract in the offseason. He hit a game-tying home run off St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal on May 3.
''I think my focus goes up towards the end of the game because when it comes to a tighter game like this, you really get a whole other level of focus,'' Kang said.
Kang had two hits, scored two runs and was hit by a pitch. He is hitting .441 in his last nine games in helping Pittsburgh overcome injuries to third baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer.
''He continues to grow, he's doing things here he's probably done before in some sequence or context, just a different place now,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ''Sometimes it's closers he's facing, but that's a dynamic swing off one of the best closers in the game.''
Perkins has allowed runs in three of four post-All-Star break appearances, blowing two saves after converting his first 28 chances.
Perkins has allowed six runs in his last four outings and showed his frustration after the game.
''How many games did I throw in the first half, 40? And I think I threw well in like 38 or 39 of them,'' Perkins said. ''Bad games are going to happen. I've been saying that all year long.''
He said it's unfortunate the blown saves came in such a short period.
''But, can't do anything other than continue to go out and try to make pitches,'' he said.
Pittsburgh All-Star closer, Mark Melancon (2-1) hasn't allowed a run in his last 32 appearances. He retired five batters after the Twins tied the game with a four-run rally in the eighth.
''Melancon did have the walk, but we know this team,'' Hurdle said. ''They're aggressive early in the count and you get the ball in some spots, you can get some quick outs, you miss some spots, they can do some damage. Melancon was fantastic tonight, just fantastic.''
Francisco Cervelli added three hits for Pittsburgh and starter Charlie Morton allowed three runs, six hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings.
Mike Pelfrey gave up three runs - two earned - and five hits in 5 1-3 innings for Minnesota.
With the victory, Pittsburgh owns the most interleague wins of any team this season. The Pirates are 12-7 against the AL, which includes a 7-2 record on the road.
Pirates: LF Starling Marte was a late scratch from the starting lineup because he felt ill. ... Mercer (knee) was on the field before the game fielding grounders for the first time since he was placed on the DL on July 20 with a sprained knee.
Twins: GM Terry Ryan said OF Byron Buxton should return to on-field workouts by the end of the week. Buxton has been out since June 25 with a left thumb sprain and Ryan said he's progressed to swinging a bat. Buxton will see some work on the field before being sent to Florida for a rehab assignment.
Former Twins LHP Francisco Liriano (6-6) starts for Pittsburgh. Liriano has gone 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA and 84 strikeouts in his last 11 starts since allowing a season-high seven runs to Minnesota on May 19. Minnesota counters with RHP Ervin Santana (2-0), who hasn't allowed a run in his last two starts spanning 15 2-3 innings.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Big Ben in full command of offense, expects Steelers to average 30 points a game

July 28, 2015
LATROBE, Pa. – At one point Monday, Ben Roethlisberger barked at a wide receiver and gave him the "come HERE" eyes – a pair of wide, angry dish saucers. A route was cut off, or rounded, or wasn't exactly where the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback wanted it. He made some hand gestures and gave a half-tilted look that read something like "don't make me tell you again."
After three Super Bowls, two championship rings, multiple Pro Bowls and 251 touchdown passes, this has become a very comfortable space for Roethlisberger. He is 33 years old, commandeering what should be one of the best offenses in football in 2015, and entering the home stretch of a Hall of Fame career. All of this generates a certain vapor of seriousness, an attitude really, associated with guys like Tom BradyPeyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
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Ben Roethlisberger says he has enough offensive weapons around him. (AP)
Ben Roethlisberger says he has enough offensive weapons around him. (AP)
"I want the guys to know exactly what I want them to do," Roethlisberger said Monday. "The running backs, the tight ends, the wide receivers, it doesn't matter what the coach wants them to do. The coaches will tell them the same thing, 'It's what Ben wants.' That's what matters when we're out there."
The elite quarterbacks get like this. They cross a boundary and the scheme contours to their design. Imagine a chess grandmaster who stops studying strategic manuals and begins writing his own. That's Roethlisberger now. Just like Brady, Manning and Rodgers. We sometimes overlook the fact that Roethlisberger belongs in that group. This season, this offense and this Roethlisberger has a chance to erase lingering doubts.
To be fair, it's early. Monday was the second day of training camp, a time when the NFL is brimming with possibility and every team teases what might be. And the Steelers are no different. They look good. The offense? It looks great. Like, blow-for-blow with anybody great. And it's greedy, too.
When offensive coordinator Todd Haley looked over last season, he was displeased with the missed opportunities. Particularly the first half of the season, when the Steelers see-sawed with inconsistency and sat 3-3 in Week 6. In that span, the coach grew frustrated at mistakes in the "Haley red zone," defined as the area where the Steelers could expect to score a touchdown or field goal.
The NFL defines the red zone as a scoring area 20 yards and into the end zone; Haley extends that to 35. Why? Because kicker Shaun Suisham has enough leg to hit 53-yard field goals. And every time the Steelers got to an opponent's 35-yard line and failed to score, it counted as a failure on Haley's charts.
"In those first six or seven games last season, we turned the ball over too many times once we got inside that mark," Haley said. "We took ourselves out of field-goal range with a penalty, a sack, [negative] plays where we actually didn't end up getting the points. … We left 30-plus points out there on what would have been easy field goals."
Factoring in those points, Haley arrived to an offensive meeting with a digit: 30. Specifically, he told Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense that the Steelers should average 30 points a game by eliminating the previous year's mistakes in his red zone.
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Le'Veon Bell (R) has a laugh with fullback Will Johnson at practice. (AP)
Le'Veon Bell (R) has a laugh with fullback Will Johnson at practice. (AP)
"Once we get in there," Haley said, "We better end up with points one way or another. Touchdowns, ideally, but we better come away with at least three."
Roethlisberger ate that meeting up. And why not? The Steelers have depth and versatility at running back (Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer), experience at tight end (Heath Miller) and a wide receiving core that could end up being the league's best in 2015 (Antonio BrownMartavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton). Not to mention an offensive line that improved considerably in 2014.
"If you ask me, we've got the weapons to do that, to average 30 a game – across the board," Roethlisberger said. "… I think Martavis is really going to make a jump. Same with Markus Wheaton. I think these guys are going to make big jumps."
Bryant in particular was explosive Monday, looking every bit of his bulked up 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. And word is that Wheaton has vastly improved his footwork and route precision. As for Brown, he managed a one-hand catch of a Roethlisberger sideline dart on Monday (while falling out of bounds) that would have made Odell Beckham Jr. jump out of his seat.
As Roethlisberger put it, "This is all fun. I'm the old guy who gets to sit back and watch these young kids be awesome."
Some other camp observations …
Rookie playing a role
It's too early in the preseason to figure out which rookies are going to play the most prominent roles, but the two guys I had my eye on Monday were first-round linebacker Bud Dupree and third-round wide receiver Sammie Coates.
Coates looks like he's got work to do, which shouldn't be a surprise considering the time he has missed thus far with hamstring issues. But I just don't know how many balls are going to be available to him after seeing Brown, Bryant and Wheaton. It's going to take a lot of progress and maybe an injury for Coates to get some real opportunities this year.
Dupree, on the other hand, was explosive rushing off the edge. He looks like a two-trick guy at this stage – either a pure outside rush, where he beats his man with the first step, or a punch and spin reminiscent of future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney. He'll have to add at least a third dimension to that repertoire to keep tackles guessing, but he's off to a good start. In pass coverage? He's got work to do recognizing plays, but his closing speed will help in the interim.
Veteran fighting for a job
Wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey. Unless Coates falls flat on his face or there is an injury, he's (at best) No. 5 on the wide receiver depth chart. He's on a one-year deal that guarantees him little, and the Steelers also picked up former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who is athletic and versatile and could get a lot better. Unless he can really prove his worth on special teams, Heyward-Bey will be on the bubble in early September.
Key guy in a contract year
Cornerback William Gay. In a secondary that has seen some losses (Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor), Gay will be looked upon to be a steadying influence on a unit that could face some growing pains. He is coming off a season where he returned three interceptions for touchdown, by far his best performance as a playmaker. At 30 years old, Gay should have one more solid veteran contract ahead of him. Plenty of playoff caliber teams angle to add cornerback depth with Gay's postseason experience. He's got an opportunity to make some money.
One extra point (OK, two) …
1.) Running back DeAngelo Williams was particularly agitated when asked how much mileage he has left after 10 years in the NFL, turning and asking a reporter, "Are you from around here? You're local, right? Yeah. I can tell. … I've got a lot of the tread left on the tires. I don't have as many miles as you just spoke of."
Williams suggested that "national" reporters know he has spent the larger portion of his career splitting carries with Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart … and thus has plenty of mileage left in his legs.
With all due respect to Williams, it was a fair question. He played six games last season with hamstring, thigh and hand injuries. He is 32. Unless you believe running back shelf-life is determinedonly by carry totals and hit accumulation, you've got to wonder how he'll look as a starter in Bell's absence. To his credit, Williams looks leaner than past years and sounds hungry as ever. We'll see how that translates.
2.) Two quotes that made me smile Monday:
• Head coach Mike Tomlin on his secondary winning some battles in practice: "Day 2. They're working. I'm not trying to convince myself that they're good."
• William Gay on the loss of leaders like Polamalu and Taylor: "Players leave. It's nothing new. Joe Greene left."