Archive for February, 2011
So, spring training is under way. The first practice game is in the books, and if the Pirates showed anything today, it is that they would be serious contenders for the 2011 National Junior College championship, if only that were what they were competing for. They laid the lumber to the hated Manatees of the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota by a 21-1 count in a lopsided rout between these two bitter rivals. The game was the first of the day for the Manatees, who had a regular season showdown against Florida State College of Jacksonville later this evening. Despite some serious efforts, I could not find a score for that game anywhere in time to use for this article. Not that it matters much, as this was just a practice spring training game for the Pirates. Not even a real spring training / grapefruit league game. A practice one. A game in which few if any actual Pittsburgh Pirates played today. A game in which the Buccos scored 10 runs off of the poor Manatee starter, a freshman from local Manatee High School. But this game was huge.
Why would I say something like that? No, I’m not drinking this evening, and yes, I know that in the grand scheme of things, this game against a junior college team went exactly how it was SUPPOSED to go. But that hasn’t always happened in this annual series. Heck, the Pirates LOST this game a couple of years ago.
But this game was big. It was the first game under the new Clint Hurdle regime. And the tone was set right off the bat in this game that this team is different - when Corey Wimberly took off for second base on a steal attempt when the Manatee pitcher threw to first. Sure, it was a bad throw and Wimberly ended up on third from the error, but it said right there that the Pirates are coming after you this year. Not just you, you stinking Manatees. The message was that these Pittsburgh Pirates are coming after everyone in 2011. Maybe I’m reading too much into this one game, but I’m choosing to ignore those thoughts and just go with it.
I know, seems like a lot to take from one game against a bunch of overmatched kids. But I’m starting to feel that no matter how meaningless spring training results may be in the grand scheme of things, they absolutely set the tone for the season. For example, last year the Pirates were a baseball worst 7-21 in spring training games. And as you know, they went on to lose 105 games in the regular season. So, the team dropped 126 baseball games in 2010. It *might* be nice to see something positive come from this spring, like a little confidence built from winning a few games. And if the games are so meaningless, let’s go ahead and let those meaningless losses fall to the other teams this spring, ok?
Guess which team had the BEST spring training record last year? Give up? Coming in at 23-12 and best in the Cactus League were the San Francisco Giants. But what the heck did they accomplish last year? Besides winning the World Series, I mean.
Who had the best record in the Grapefruit League you ask? The Tampa Bay Rays went 20-8 to lead that pack, and then they went and won 96 games to win the AL East.
San Diego used an 18-10 spring, coming off of a dreadful 2009, on their way to a 90 win season and just missing the playoffs. In 2009, the Yankees topped the Florida circuit and won 103 games and the World Series. The Angels won the Arizona spring and won 97 games and the AL West.
Now, I know this doesn’t mean everything. After all, Texas had a terrible spring but still ended up in the World Series too. But this Pirates team needs something positive to build on, even if it is spring training. Nobody can tell you they felt good going north last year coming off of that 7-21 spring. Despite all of the quotes and comments stating they would be ok, losing never breeds confidence. But confidence breeds winning. So now is the time to start getting some of that confidence going. It all starts tomorrow, with the real practice games, facing off against the defending Grapefruit League and AL East champion Rays.
For these Pirates, the season starts tomorrow.
The bad news on the injury front for St. Louis Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright officially became worse news a little while ago, as Wainwright will be undergoing Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2011 season.
While you never want to see injury on anyone (unless you are Jonny Gomes), you would have to think that this will have a dramatic impact on the Cardinals’ season this year. They already have the Albert Pujols soap opera hanging over their heads as a distraction sure to get messy with the “will he stay or will he go” questions being asked literally every single day of this season. But now, losing a 20 game winner from last year who has gone 50-22 over the last three years will be tough to overcome.
Chris Carpenter will anchor the rotation, back to full speed from injury himself to go 16-9 for the Cards last year, followed by the very impressive Jaime Garcia, a rookie last year who went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA. After that though, it gets sketchy. Jake Westbrook would be their third best starter, with his 10-11 record and 4.22 ERA followed by Kyle Lohse, coming off of a 4-8, 6.55 ERA season.
And the battle for the 5th spot in the rotation now has a former Bucco as a strong contender. As most of you are aware, Ian Snell is now a Cardinal, coming over after struggling with Seattle last year (0-5, 6.41 ERA) and having the Mariners DFA him, turning down his 2011 and 2012 club options that Neal Huntington signed him to as a Pirate in the process. Somehow, this guy still managed to get two years and $8 million in his bank account thanks to Huntington. No truth to the rumor that Mr. Change-my-surname-from-Snell-to-Oquendo-to-Davila-Snell-back-to-just-plain-Snell named his first born child ‘Neal’ as a showing a gratitude.
Anyway, can the magic of Dave Duncan turn the once promising Ian Oquendo Snell into the pitcher that so many of us Pirate fans hoped he’d turn into? Like when he struck out 13 guys in a row (and 17 in 7 innings) after getting sent down to Indy by the Pirates? The Cardinals look to find out this spring, and there certainly is competition for the spot such as reliever turned starter Kyle McClellan and free agent options such as Kevin Milwood. But Snell has what very could be his last opportunity to break into a big league rotation. After all, if he can’t do it with Dave Duncan, who can he do it with?
Jack Wilson, for many reasons, was quite a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. He was never a great hitter, was always a pretty good fielder, and always busted his tail for the black and gold. As a fan, you felt like he wanted to be here, and despite having California roots, Jack always seemed to feel like a Pittsburgh guy. A lot of the Pirate fan base was upset when Jumpin Jack Flash was traded to the Seattle Mariners a couple of years ago, and since the Pirates didn’t get much in return, aside from a lesser shortstop replacement (sorry Ronny), some minor league players, and some magic beans, those fans had every right in the world to be resentful. After all, if this team isn’t going to be winning, at least let me sit and watch guys that I like, or that I can relate to.
I, for one, thought that it would take this team a long time to find another player who defined the face of the franchise the way that Jack Wilson did. The Pirates had many better players during Jack’s tenure as Bucco shortstop - Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Brian Giles, etc. - but none of them had the love of the fanbase quite like Jack had captured. It would take someone truly special to replace Jack as that ‘face of the franchise’. It would take someone who truly “gets it”. Someone who works their rear end off, and hustles on every play, who wants this team to win, and who truly wants to be a Pittsburgh Pirate. And if that someone could even be from Pittsburgh, that would be the icing on the cake. I know, what are the odds of that ever happening? Well, until Neil Walker was called up from the minor leagues last May, anyway.
I don’t think there is any better person, let alone player, to open this blog’s infant history with than Neil Walker. In less than a full season, Walker has become the single most popular player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like Jack’s situation, there are probably better players on the team – Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, probably Jose Tabata – but this Pirates team became Neil’s team almost the moment he arrived in ‘The Show’. To watch Walker, to hear him speak, to see him deal with the media and fans… he absolutely and unequivocally, ‘gets it’. He’s a hometown kid that always wanted to grow up to play for the Pirates, and there is no place else he’d rather be.
Unlike some of the other young players on the Pirates, no matter how good he becomes in the future, you just get the feeling that Neil Walker is going to be a Pirate forever. Kinda like you felt with Jack, maybe even moreso. How could they ever get rid of him? Heck, he came up and hit .296 in his first season with the Pirates, knocked 12 home runs and drove in 66 runs. He tied Albert Pujols for 3rd most RBI in the National League after the All Star break. He didn’t even arrive in Pittsburgh until just before Memorial Day, and is playing a position that was one of the few he had’t previously been a regular at. The expectations are that he will be much, much better in 2011. That may be hard to achieve, and may be unfair to him, but it feels like it is almost a given seeing how hard he works and how comfortable he is in his role as
a leader with, no, scratch that… as THE leader of this Pirates team.
Pedro Alvarez may hit 40 bombs this year. Cutch may steal 40 bases, hit .320 and be a National League All Star. Jose Tabata may break out onto the national stage with a huge year. But this is Neil Walker’s team. And there is no better person to have in that role, than someone who leads by example the way that he does. It’s been a long, long time for us Pirates fans since we’ve had a reason to be excited. And history has shown, because of ownership, front office flaws, managerial shortcomings and a lack of talent, that the fans need to SEE something before they truly fall in love with this franchise again.
But I just can’t help but feel like baseball is about to become relevant in Pittsburgh again. And guys like Neil Walker are going to be a part of the solution that helps make that happen. And if they don’t start winning, at least we’ll have a player that we can watch and enjoy, and somehow feel like we can relate to.
We’re going to be testing out the CoverItLive chat software on our new blog tonight. Join us at 10 tonight if you’d like to talk Pirates baseball.