Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pirates trade closer Melancon but not waving white flag


David SchoenfieldESPN Senior Writerhttp://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/July 31, 2016

Mark Melancon
I don't know how Pittsburgh Pirates fans are going to react to the club's trading closer Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals with the Pirates just three games out of the second wild card, but I suspect not very well.
That's especially true when you consider that since 2013, Melancon has a 1.80 ERA, and Aroldis Chapman has a 2.03 ERA, and the Yankees got a high-upside shortstop prospect for Chapman, while the Pirates got reliever Felipe Rivero and his 4.53 ERA, plus minor league lefty Taylor Hearn.
The trade might smell of the Pirates' waving a white flag, but that's definitely not the case. The Pirates give up a great closer, but they picked up a good reliever in Rivero, who has better peripheral numbers than his ERA indicates. More importantly, the Pirates trade an impending free agent who was unlikely to get a qualifying offer; as a small-market team, they wouldn't want Melancon to accept what is projected to be a $16.7 million salary, too high a percentage of the team's payroll for one relief pitcher. Instead, they got a major league reliever who can step in and contribute and an interesting minor-league arm. With the odds of winning the wild card fairly small, the Pirates didn't want to keep Melancon and then lose him for nothing in the offseason.
The key for the Pirates will be how the current relievers transition into their new roles -- and whether they continue to pitch the way they have in July, when the Pirates bullpen has a 2.03 ERA. Tony Watson presumably takes over the closer role, with Neftali Feliz handling the primary setup role. Hard-throwing Arquimedes Caminero, Rivero and Jared Hughes handle the middle innings. Even without Melancon, it projects to be an above average bullpen the rest of the way. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle will continue to rely heavily on that bullpen because other than Gerrit Cole, Pirates starters have had trouble going deep into games.
Felipe Rivero
If Watson does the job as closer and the setup guys keep spinning zeroes, this trade could have no impact on the final number of wins for the Pirates. If Watson blows three saves, this trade could sting. It's also important to note that the Pirates are 9.5 games behind the Cubs and playing for a wild card -- not a division title. Going all-in for 2016 doesn't make sense when you're playing for what might be a one-game matchup against the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, Mets' Noah Syndergaard, Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw or Giants'Madison Bumgarner.
As for the comparison to the Chapman trade, that has to be considered an outlier -- not a deal that suddenly set a new market for relievers. The Pirates weren't going to get a top-25 prospect for Melancon, even if the difference between his value and Chapman's is minimal.
The Nationals lead the majors in bullpen ERA, but Jonathan Papelbon's recent struggles led to the desire for a reliable closer. Among the 24 relievers with at least 15 saves, Papelbon ranks 23rd in ERA, 23rd in batting average allowed and 18th in strikeout percentage. (Melancon ranks 17th -- one reason Chapman is perceived to have so much more value.) Papelbon simply doesn't have elite closer stuff. In fact, he should be shuffled deeper into the Nationals' bullpen -- not back to the eighth inning. Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley have both pitched better and should get the higher-leverage roles.
For the Nationals, this deal is more about the postseason than needing Melancon to win the division. Their odds of winning the National League East were already greater than 90 percent. Considering there are rumors out there of Lucas Giolito for Andrew Miller, this deal for Melancon makes much more sense, as the Nationals got a reliever of similar quality without giving up a high-upside prospect.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Low-key Stanley Cup party Kessel’s way of saying thanks

The Globe and Mail
July 28, 2016


Phil Kessel (L) and Carl Hagelin at Penguins parade in Pittsburgh after winning the Stanley Cup (NHL.com)
It was a Stanley Cup party that had surprisingly little to do with hockey.
Held at the posh Forest Hill mansion of entrepreneur Michael Kimel, Phil Kessel’s night with Lord Stanley’s silverware last week was a well-organized to-do, with valet parking and a heavy security presence at the front door.
What the Pittsburgh Penguins star’s celebration didn’t have was many fellow players. No current members of the Toronto Maple Leafs were present, and former captain Dion Phaneuf – who flew in for the celebration from his off-season home in Prince Edward Island – was the only former teammate.
A rowdy P.K. Subban, meanwhile, showed up hooting and hollering at around midnight, still wearing a cowboy hat from his introductory press conference in Nashville that afternoon.
But that was it, in terms of NHL star power.
According to those who attended, Kessel wanted his Stanley Cup party to be a thank you to the other friends he made in Toronto, many of them from the hospitality industry. He was a regular at some of the higher-end restaurants in the downtown, and it was there that he first met many close friends during his six years playing for the Leafs.
“A lot of people were there really just to hang out with him and catch up, and have that excitement again,” said Steven Salm, president of Chase Hospitality Group, which hosted Kessel’s Stanley Cup lunch at The Chase restaurant on the afternoon of July 18 and then catered the party at Kimel’s home that night. “It was something that was so missed in Toronto. We always served as a great kind of creative outlet for him: A place to hang out and enjoy great atmosphere and good food. We got to know his dining habits and favourite likes and dislikes.”
Kessel, 28, had a difficult exit from Toronto in the summer of 2015. The team won only 11 of their final 51 games in his last season as a Leaf, and management made it clear they viewed him as part of the problem. A hastily arranged trade for picks and prospects sent him to Pittsburgh last July.
There, behind superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel became less of a focal point but still a key contributor to the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup victory, scoring 22 points in 24 playoff games.
All along the way, Kessel kept his ties to Toronto. His girlfriend, Sandra, is a local, and friends such as Kimel and Salm were frequent guests in Pittsburgh for Penguins games.
So when it came time to decide where he would celebrate winning his first championship, Kessel’s top choice was always Toronto – especially after friends flooded his phone with text messages urging him to come.
It was a decision that drew headlines in the city for days, with some interpreting it as Kessel flaunting the Stanley Cup in front of win-starved Leafs fans. How many players, after all, bring the Cup back to where they used to play?
But friends argue that wasn’t the motivation.
“Phil’s not the type of person to bring the Cup to Toronto out of spite,” said Wojtek Wolski, a former NHLer who became close with Kessel during summer workouts in Toronto and who was at the Cup party. “He brought it because his friends live here. His family came to Toronto to celebrate. It made a lot of sense.”
“He did this for the people who were good to him while he was here,” said another friend, who asked not to be named. “He likes how regular Joes treated him around here. He’s a people guy.”
Salm has had the opportunity to cater to plenty of pro athletes in Toronto after starting his career with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s upscale E11even restaurant in 2010. He said Kessel stood out for being down to earth and willing to mingle with everyone, calling him “humble and kind.”
That was on display during Kessel’s day with the Cup at another location, too, as he spent some of the time at Sick Kids hospital taking pictures with the patients and the trophy.
“He cares so much about how other people feel,” Salm said. “It was really cool.”
Those who attended Kessel’s Cup party don’t expect it will be the last they see of him in Toronto. While he grew up in Wisconsin and typically summers in Florida, he has talked a lot about buying a home and settling in the city, when the time comes.
His tenure with the Leafs may have ended poorly, but Kessel’s connection with Toronto has not. And if the Penguins keep winning, last week may not be the last time he brings the Stanley Cup to town as a thank you to the people he met here.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Steelers camp opens? Yawn and double yawn


By Mark Madden
http://www.timesonline.com/sports
July 29, 2016




Steelers training camp is underway at Latrobe. I won’t be going.
I like Sharky’s. A lot.
Sweltering under the hot sun at St. Vincent College, not so much.
I understand the ceremonial aspect: A new Steelers season is here, and it’s time to get excited despite the two marijuana suspensions. (Le'Veon Bell lied, BTW.)
But some oddball stuff takes place at Steelers camp, mostly courtesy of Yinzer Nation. To quote Judge Smails, “Don’t you people have homes?”
Some fans go to Steelers training camp all day, every day. GET JOBS.
They got cheap coolers, often made of Styrofoam.
They got lawn chairs, or chaise lounges.
They watch what happens as if they might see something the paid experts don’t: “Hey, that undrafted free agent from Thiel College just made a nice block. Ain’t he from Crafton?”
Fifteen minutes later, that player gets cut. And keeps getting cut, so many times it’s a wonder he doesn’t bleed to death.
Yeah, Markus Wheaton just made a nice catch. In a drill. At half-speed. Against a cornerback who will soon be bagging groceries. Why did you need to see it?
You see adult autograph seekers at Latrobe. Talk about flushing dignity.
You see parents drag small children around in 100-degree weather.
You see men wearing tight tank tops who shouldn’t.
You see women expose their midriffs who shouldn’t.
You see every variety of Steelers merchandise, the older the better: Jack Lambert jerseys. Terry Bradshaw jerseys. Mean Joe Greene jerseys.
The ‘70s ended 36 years ago, and the Steelers long since have one for the thumb. But yoi, Steeler-mania!
The nuttiness primarily exists away from the field, but not totally.
Each camp has X amount of undrafted free agents who have zero chance to make the team but try way too hard, like Rudy in the movie of the same name.
The veteran players would never admit it, but they hate those guys. Who wants some no-hope jamoke ringing your bell six weeks before the season starts?
Training camp lasts far too long. It should be cut in half. NFL teams should play half as many preseason games. Two, not four.
But that’s half as much money from ticket sales generated by games the players don’t get paid for. The season-ticket holders always purchase exhibition ducats. They don't have a choice.
Football players take care of their bodies year-round. They don’t forget how to play during a single off-season. They need minimal preseason work.
Ben Roethlisberger is 34. He’s been in the NFL since 2004 and started 169 games. He will barely play in the exhibitions, and he’ll still play far too much.
Camp is yet another example of too much football. Coaches imagine the game to be far more precise than it is. Coaches also overrate their own importance.
The learning curve in football is extremely overrated. I could learn the entire Steelers playbook in two days. No sweat, and no doubt.
The Steelers are a veteran team with plenty of experience. The less reps, the better. The less wear and tear, the better. The less injuries, the better.
Hey, is Maurkice Pouncey out for the season yet?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rutherford's Penguins could kick off season as currently constructed


By Brian Metzer
July 28, 2016
Matt Cullen had 16 goals and 16 assists last year.
It may seem like yesterday, but the Penguins are already more than six weeks removed from winning the Stanley Cup. That means the business of defending their hardware isn’t far removed from becoming part of their day-to-day routine.
While today might be filled with taking the trophy down water slides, as former goalie Jeff Zatkoff did during his celebration last week, or posing for photos with the cup and a 1936 Rolls-Royce that belonged to Edward Stanley (son of Frederick Stanley, a former Governor General of Canada who the Cup is named for) like once and possibly future forward Matt Cullen will be doing on Saturday, they and all players will turn their focus to getting back on ice.
General manager Jim Rutherford already is hard at work, as he and his staff have had to find ways to put the finishing touches on their roster. Here’s hoping that the Midas touch he displayed in turning even the most under the radar moves to gold during the 15-16 campaign carries over.
His work is a bit easier than it was when he took over for Ray Shero a little over two years ago, but he’s looking for ways to make the team better. Much of his championship roster is returning, but there still is a hole on the fourth line and some questions in the top six.
“I got a head start. I have a good group of players,” Rutherford said after winning the league’s executive of the year award in June. “I don’t have cap issues. I’ll be able to bring back mostly the same players. One of the things that got us to win the Cup is that we have a lot of character players.”
Some would disagree with his assessment about the salary cap.
His team is currently sitting approximately $3 million above the $73-million ceiling that the league and player’s association agreed upon in June and they still have a $1.4 million dollar contract offer sitting on the table for Cullen, according to generalfanager.com.
If the 39-year-old puts pen to paper the Penguins’ total overage will leap to approximately $4.5 million which will require some manipulation to get cap compliant. Rutherford is hoping to get an answer from Cullen in the near future. He already has made known his desire to play another season, but the delay stems from the fact that he is drawn toward the Minnesota Wild and a chance to finish his career in his hometown.
Any manipulation or maneuvering to get cap compliant will take place a bit closer to the season and with possible player movement between now and then, we’ll focus on the work that Rutherford already has done and what his lineup might look like if the season began today.
Rutherford’s most impressive move of the summer might have been getting defenseman Justin Schultz to come back on the cheap, while at the same time allowing defenseman Ben Lovejoy to walk away.
Schultz was offered more money elsewhere, but inked a deal that will pay him $1.4 million dollars for the upcoming season, which is a significant drop from the $3.9 million dollars he made last season.
“I think it’s a good fit for me,” he said. “I felt like I played well when I came to Pittsburgh and the organization’s been great for me. I love the coaches, my teammates, everything. I love the city. It’s just been a great experience and I couldn’t be more excited to go back there.”
The pre-Rutherford Penguins might have overpaid Lovejoy, a valuable locker room presence coming off of the playoff run of his life, and allowed Schultz to walk. They did it right and now have a blue line that pretty much mirrors the one that helped them win their fourth cup.
Some critics might say that Lovejoy was as valuable as anyone in helping them win, but when you consider his career output, his age and the fact that his roster spot will go to the versatile Trevor Daley, the argument is moot.
He’ll have a returning defensive corps that features Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Schultz and Daley, with Derrick Pouliot being the extra.
There has got to be at least some concern that Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary are going to be able to perform at the level they reached during the playoffs. Each player shouldered a heavy load while skating with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby respectively, but as of today they’ll maintain those roles come September.
That means that the top two lines will remain static and feature Sheary, Crosby and Patric Hornqvist along with Chris Kunitz, Malkin, and Rust. The third line again is going to be the HBK unit featuring Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, while the fourth line could see Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl skating with Oskar Sundqvist.
Sundqvist is the main reason it might be best to give Cullen a deadline and pull his offer. He’s a luxury they might not need. Sundqvist has grown each and every year that he’s been in the organization and is likely ready to shoulder the load as the team’s fourth line center.
Based on Rutherford’s past faith in organizational depth, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him go that direction. It’s worth noting that Sundqvist can play both center and wing, which would allow him to be as mobile in the lineup as Cullen was last season.
They also will have Scott Wilson coming back, who showed off his skill by scoring four goals during one five-game stretch in February. He could be an option in the top six if one of the other kids falters.
Rutherford is in great shape at the NHL level, which allowed him to focus on depth signings during free agency. He brought back defensemen Steve Oleksey and David Warsofsky, who the team lost via waivers mid-season. He also added defensemen Stuart Percy, Cameron Gaunce, Chad Ruhwedel and re-signed forward Tom Sestito.
His work is far from done, but with a banner raising ceremony and an opening night clash with the Washington Capitals sitting just 77 days away, Rutherford has his Penguins ready to march.

Cole pitches 3-hitter, Pirates rout Mariners 10-1


By John Perrotto, The Associated Press
http://espn.go.com/mlb/
July 28, 2016


Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, July 27, 2016.

Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/sports/article92273242.html#storylink=cpy
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


PITTSBURGH -- Gerrit Cole never obsessed about pitching a complete game, but was happy to get his first one.
Cole pitched a three-hitter and slumping Andrew McCutchen had a three-run home run among his three hits as the Pittsburgh Pirates rolled to a 10-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday night.
"It was good, a really good feeling," Cole said. "You try to do it every time out but it's not something I had been dwelling on. There are lot of variables that can leak into any start and throw you astray, so you just focus on the things you can control like your delivery and making quality pitches."


Making the 88th start of his four-year career, Cole (6-6) struck six and walked one while winning for the first time since May 20. He had gone six starts without a victory while also spending nearly five weeks on the disabled list with strained right triceps from June 11-July 16.
Cole threw 94 pitches, 70 for strikes, against a Mariners' lineup stacked with seven left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter while becoming the first Pirates pitcher to complete a game with fewer than 100 pitches since Francisco Liriano, who also needed just 94 at St. Louis on Aug. 14, 2013.
"He put his foot down and pitched," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's as efficient as I've seen him since he's been here. Twenty pitches the first inning, 74 for the other eight. Really good outing."
McCutchen's three-run blast off David Rollins came in the eighth inning and capped the scoring. His 15th home run of the season pushed the nine-year veteran's career total to 166, tying Dave Parker for fifth on the Pirates' all-time list.
McCutchen, who also doubled, had gone 4 for 29 with eight strikeouts in his previous seven games, dropping the 2013 NL MVP's batting average to .241.
"I felt something (good), that's for sure," McCutchen said. "I'm just going to stick with this and keep going. It was a good day for me as far as the feel goes, and had the results with it. Hopefully, it can propel me into these last couple of months of the season."
McCutchen and Jung Ho Kang, who hit a three-run double to finish a four-run seventh inning, each had four RBI to help the Pirates win for the sixth time in nine games. Jordy Mercer also had three of the Pirates' 14 hits and David Freese and Starling Marte added two each as the top four in the order went a combined 10 for 17.
Kang greeted reliever Nathan Karns with his double that pushed the Pirates' lead to 7-1.
Kang also earlier hit a sacrifice fly off James Paxton (3-5) to finish a three-run third inning that broke a scoreless tie.
Paxton gave up three runs and six hits in five innings, striking out six and walking one.
Drew Storen made his Mariners debut and was charged with four runs in a 1 1/3 innings a night after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in a trade for fellow reliever Joaquin Benoit.
Norichika Aoki hit a pair of doubles and scored the Mariners' lone run in the sixth inning on Robinson Cano's sacrifice fly. Seattle had won five of its previous seven games.
"Cole threw the ball really well," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "Tip your hat to him."
TRAINER'S ROOM
Mariners: DH/OF Nelson Cruz was not in the lineup after fouling a ball off his left foot Tuesday night, though manager Scott Servais said he held the slugger out primarily because the designated hitter rule was not in effect in an NL park. ... RHP Taijuan Walker (right foot tendinitis) pitched a three-inning simulated game Wednesday, the first time he had faced hitters since going on the disabled list July 6, and will likely make a minor league rehab start this weekend. ... RHP Nick Vincent (mid-back strain), on the DL since June 27, will throw off a mound for the first time Friday since being injured and is likely to go on a rehab assignment next week.
Pirates: RHP Tyler Glasnow (shoulder inflammation), who was placed on the disabled list Sunday, is expected to begin playing catch this weekend. ... C Chris Stewart (left knee discomfort) ran the bases Wednesday for the first since going on the DL on July 2 and could go on a rehab assignment by the middle of next week. ... RHP Ryan Vogelsong (facial fractures) made what was scheduled to be the last of two rehab starts for Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday night and allowed two runs on five hits in seven innings against Gwinett with one walk and two strikeouts in the International League. He also started twice for Double-A Altoona.
UP NEXT
Mariners: Open a three-game series against the Cubs at Chicago on Friday with RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (11-6, 3.96 ERA) looking to win his sixth straight start as he faces LHP Jon Lester (10-4, 3.09).
Pirates: Begin a three-game series Friday night at Milwaukee with LHP Steven Brault (0-1, 2.25) expected to be recalled from Indianapolis and make his second major league start, opposing Brewers RHP Junior Guerra (6-2, 2.85).

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Quiet confidence drives Pirates rookie Frazier


July 25, 2016

Jun 24, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Adam Frazier (26) hits an RBI single against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the second inning at PNC Park. (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen held a team meeting toward the end of a 2013 season in which his Bulldogs reached the finals of the College World Series. The subject, as it often was for the purpose of teaching baseball lessons, was Adam Frazier, his junior shortstop, who led the nation with 107 hits.
“I said, ‘He had 107 hits. Did he get lucky 107 times? Or does this guy have such a good plan that even when he doesn't hit balls good he's got a chance to get a hit?' ” Cohen said. “He just keeps putting himself in that great position to be successful. All the time.”
A little more than a month into his major league career, Frazier again is in a position of success, having posted a .359 batting average in his first 39 at-bats with the Pirates.
Sunday's game served as yet another example. Frazier was in the game for one pinch-hit at-bat lasting a little more than a minute. It was long enough for him to drive a 2-1 fastball from Phillies reliever Edubray Ramos to the fence behind the last row of seats in right field.
Ask those who have coached Frazier, and they mention a quiet confidence about the 24-year-old that has propelled him throughout his career.
Former Oconee County (Ga.) High School baseball coach Stan Fricks remembered Frazier having a small gathering during his senior year to celebrate his commitment to Mississippi State then leaving early in the get-together to take batting practice at the school's indoor hitting facility.
“He's always been confident in his abilities, but he's always backed it up,” Fricks said. “Sometimes you have players who think they're better than they actually are, but to him, he's always had this confidence and he could back it up.”
There were times in Frazier's young career, as recently as 2015, when that confidence was tested. Frazier primarily played shortstop throughout his high school and college careers but began logging innings in the infield and outfield upon his promotion to Double-A Altoona.
The rookie said he prides himself on never getting too high or too low emotionally but admitted the transition was difficult.
“The questions are there. You start questioning yourself,” Frazier said. “Are you as good as you think you might be at the positions? Is someone better than you? All that.”
It didn't take long before uncertainty turned to optimism as the Pirates' sixth round pick in the 2013 draft realized an ability to play multiple positions could be his ticket to the major leagues.
“If I wouldn't have known how to play the outfield at all this year, then I probably wouldn't have even been playing a whole lot in Triple-A,” Frazier said. “All the guys, all the infielders there are on the 40-man, so they've definitely got the priority time at those positions. I think (the transition) helped a ton.”
Serving as Indianapolis' primary left fielder, Frazier led the International League with a .333 batting average in his first 68 games before being called up to the Pirates, who immediately thrust him into late-game pinch-hitting and pinch-running situations.
The sample size remains small at 21 games, but eight of Frazier's 14 hits have come after the sixth inning. All three of his stolen bases — in four attempts — have come in the ninth.
“I just look at Adam, and I have the confidence that he's been around. Not just in our minor league system, but he's played global baseball. He's played outside that arena,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The other part of it that we share with the guys is, ‘Here's your role that we envision for you coming up. When that doorbell gets rung, you're going to be the guy.' ”
Frazier is soft-spoken and humble by nature, but there are other indicators of a young player with confidence and an ability to laugh at himself. One example might be Frazier's walkup song, Ginuwine's “Pony,” an idea he attributed earlier this month to one of his roommates at Mississippi State.
“I've had one or two (walkup songs) before and then they started getting old, so I decided to change it,” Frazier said. “But everybody seems to like it, so I decided to roll with it.”
Have his new teammates been making fun of the rookie with the unusual R&B walkup song?
“Nah, not really,” he said, laughing. “If it's working, if it's getting hits.”
It has delivered a few.
Frazier was in the major leagues for just two days when he logged two hits in two at-bats against Clayton Kershaw. He was up for about three weeks when he doubled three times in an 18-inning game against the Nationals.
Frazier said he still is working to improve his footwork in the outfield. He also wasn't too pleased with his stolen-base percentage — just over 53 — while in Triple-A.
But a month into a bigger venue, Frazier said he felt not much had changed. To Cohen, that demeanor long has been Frazier's quiet advantage.
“If you just have stopwatches and (radar) guns and batting practice, there are probably hundreds of guys in the minor leagues who would've gotten to the big leagues before Adam,” Cohen said. “To me, the reason he's in the big leagues is because of what's between his ears. Adam Frazier can handle anything.”

Andrew Erickson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @AErickson_Trib.