Archive for February, 2012
On February 19, 2012, the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees in exchange for Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones. The Yankees also agreed to pay all but $5 million of the remaining money on Burnett’s contract this year and all but $8 million in 2013.
Initial Fan Reaction: Largely positive, especially considering the Pirates did not give up much in terms of high level prospects, and with the Yankees agreeing to pay such a large portion of Burnett’s contract, it really didn’t seem like much of a risk to take.
Burnett has so far been an outstanding performer and a strong veteran leader for a Pirates team that is currently in first place in June.
Moreno is injured and rehabbing for the Yankees, while Cayones is at extended spring training, so neither of them have played even a minor league game for the Yankees at this point.
Current Grade: A+
We had a chance to chat with Pirates catcher Michael McKenry last week, in advance of spring training, to talk about last season, this offseason and the upcoming 2012 Pirates season. McKenry is looking to break camp with the Pirates this year and likely backup newly acquired Rod Barajas.
The first thing I asked him about was his offseason, considering last year he started in the Colorado Rockies organization, then was traded to Boston and then in June, to the Pirates.
“I was very fortunate to be able to go down to instructs and spend a little time with the younger guys in the organization, get to know some of the coordinators, short A, low A, high A coaches, and that was really neat. So I feel even moreso part of the Pirate family, and to know more of what their mission and mindset is for the future. I’m just very excited to be a a part of it, going into my first spring training in Florida, in Bradenton… I love Bradenton, I got to go there for the mini-camp recently and I enjoyed that. And I think it’s going to be a good year for all of us. We’re going to be young, we’re going to have a lot of fun every single day, and we’re going to go out and play this game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
I’m sure it is nice to have a full offseason with the big league team that he is expected to be a contributor to, after arriving in Pittsburgh last year do to the injury situation at the catcher position in Pittsburgh last year.
“Last year, it was a whirlwind type year, being on three different teams, in three different organizations, in a short amount of time. It was a lot to go through, but it was a blessing at the end of the day. Even when I got traded to Boston, that was a blessing, to get the opportunity to go over there. It is a great organization, with a lot of tradition and then to be fortunate enough to come over here, and catch Paul Maholm in my first game in Pittsburgh, who’s a veteran and one of the guys that’d been there the longest. It was just kind of surreal, at that moment. I remember walking in, and it felt like I never sat down, like I floated around the clubhouse, and then all of a sudden after the game, we’re on our way to Houston and was like ‘wow, that just happened’. I didn’t even know it happened, it went by so fast. So you know, it was a whirlwind, but it was a blast. I really enjoyed the time when we were pushing for first place, and I hated that we fell off towards the end. But that’s part of the growing process, and I think this being a young team, I think we’re going to come a long way just with that year of experience. “
Before moving on from last year, I wanted to ask him about the 3 run home run, his first major league home run, that he hit against the Cubs on July 8, 2011 to put the Pirates up in the 8th inning and ultimately to win the game. I played the radio clip from that moment for him…
“First and foremost, I have goosebumps just hearing that. Every time I hear it, the way the fans were behind us, that was remarkable. And getting a curtain call that day, it was so surreal. And the fact that it was my first ‘shot’ in the big leagues, here I am, I hit my first homer and I’m getting a curtain call? It was amazing. And leading up to that, the whole game, we had younger guys stepping up and the veteran guys leading us along the way. Something that I remember before that, (Josh) Harrison getting that base hit to tie the game, and then I hit the home run and I come in, and Lyle Overbay gives me a hug, (Andrew) McCutchen’s at the bottom of the stairs and just bear hugs me, and if you see the video clip, Neil Walker is swinging a towel up and down. It’s just the excitement and enthusiasm on that team, it’s a special group of guys. And like I said, going down to mini-camp, we had some free agent guys there who hadn’t been a part of this clubhouse, and the way we got along, and the fellowship and the comaraderie, it is really special. So I’m really excited to see where this year takes us. “
I then brought up a little Pirates history, specifically similarities to Mike Lavalliere, and how McKenry seems to fit in as a tough, lunchpail to work, Pittsburgh kind of guy.
“Well, that’s the best compliment you can give a player, and let alone my personality, that’s the compliment I want to have. And you know, I feel part of the Pittsburgh family… hard nosed, hard working, I just want to be that guy that goes out and gives it his all every day. Don’t take a day for granted, because you don’t know if you’re going to have a tomorrow, so I just go out and play hard, and give my team a chance and be the team guy, and root on my team throughout the ups and downs of 162 games, it gets tough. It’s fun riding that roller coaster, but remembering what’s most important is that we’re out here playing a kids’ game, and that’s the way we need to play. We need to have fun, we need to smile, we need to give 110%. I believe that’s what the fans deserve too.”
I asked him about the doubleheader against Milwaukee last year, when Josh Harrison got dinged up and he went out and played third base.
“I think that’s our mindset as a team in general. If we have to pick up a teammate, we’re going to do it in a heartbeat. When Clint Hurdle asked me that question, ‘Hey, can you play third base?’ I just said ‘I’ll do my best’ and I think that’s the mentality from top to bottom. Even when we brought in Derrek Lee and (Ryan) Ludwick last year and they brought in that veteran leadership, they were willing to do that. And here they are, older players who’ve been around the game a lot, and they were like ‘hey, whatever I can do to help, I’m going to help’ - hang out with the younger guys, doing what they can to be a good presence in the clubhouse. I think that’s what Pittsburgh is all about, and I think that’s going to really help us set off this year.”
Regarding his defense and the handling of the pitching staff…
“Number one thing is putting yourself second to every one of those guys. Whether they are a bullpen guy, a guy coming up from AAA, it doesn’t really matter. It’s putting yourself second and being their right hand man. Asking them, ‘what do you need?’, ‘how do you feel?’, ‘what key words do you need me to remind you?’… just some of the little things to push them over the edge. That’s all I try to do. I want the best for those guys and I try to make that known from the get go. I do my homework, I like studying video, I like studying hitters. I really like spending time with my pitching coach, Ray Searage, and my bench coach, Jeff Bannister. They pump me full of information, and I just try to relay it, being the middle man as much as possible. But the biggest thing I would have to say when I first got there, was to keep my mouth shut and my ears open, and when the opportunity came about, that’s when I spoke. I wasn’t a pushover, but at the same time, when I needed to get stern or get confident and convicted with what I say, then that’s what I’d do. I think a lot of guys built some trust, and every guy is a little bit different and you have to work with their personality. It’s a relationship, you have to fine tune some things here and you have to know the guys you can bark at a little bit and the guys you have to be a little more sensitive with. And you have to roll with the punches with them. If they are having a bad day, you have to help them out, be their helping hand or their listening ear, whatever you can be. It’s being a good friend as well as a comrade. “
On free agent acquisition, fellow catcher Rod Barajas…
“I’m ecstatic. I had an opportunity to meet Rod Barajas, he’s been in the league a long time and he’s full of information. He’s a guy I can hopefully attach myself to during spring training and grow from him. I really like the opportunity to hang out with veteran guys and let them talk to me and if they have something to say, treat it like ‘ok, cool’. Not try to be a pest, but be a fly on the wall and let them fill you full of information. That’s how you learn, you grow. I feel like every day, you have to adapt and grow a little bit more. That’s how you get better.”
On the newest member of the starting rotation,Erik Bedard:
“I’ve never caught him, but I’ve heard a lot of good things. I’ve heard he’s a competitor. I’ve heard he can pitch, and I’m excited about catching him. I’m going to spend as much time as I can during spring, getting to know him – what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and all that jazz that will build a relationship. “
On how much time he gets during the offseason to see the other guys, specifically pitchers with whom he will be catching this season…
“The Pirates do a good job with the mini-camp, we were able to see a bunch of guys. And PirateFest and Caravan, once again got to see a bunch of guys. And this team in general, a lot of guys got married this offseason. I got the opportunity to go to Charlie Morton’s wedding, and we try to keep in contact. We joke around on Twitter a lot. And I feel like our friendship and relationship continues to grow during the offseason. But if we don’t get to talk for 100 days, we’d walk into the clubhouse, give each other a hug, and it would be like we were talking every single day of the offseason. You build up a really strong relationship through 162 games, and I don’t think you could ever describe how that is.”
And finally, in light of Pujols and Fielder leaving the division, what’s it going to take for the Pirates to make a run at the Central this year?
“We just have to show up and play every single day. Take it one day at a time, do the little things, and it doesn’t really matter who is on the field. Whether Pujols is up, or if we’re facing nine Pujols’, we need to find a way to compete that day. I’m not going to say that I’m not pretty ecstatic that him and Fielder are going to be out of the division, but with that being said, it’s huge to win in our division but we also need to win outside of our division. So the biggest thing is just going out every day and competing. And if we can go out and compete, and if we lose 10 games in a row, to not let it affect us, keep going forward, keep pressing and then wait for that 10 game winning streak that we’re going to have. I think too often we panic in this game, and I think if we do a good job of just going out every single day and focusing on the day, then after it’s over, shower it off, move on, and focus on the next day. I think that will pay dividends in this year’s success.”
As I spent a little time earlier today thinking about the Pirates upcoming season, I couldn’t help but stop on virtuall every single player and think “wow, he’s got something to prove this year”. That kind of thing often is present when teams put it all together for a surprising run at success. Or it can be present when a team has a massive disappointment. Only time will tell what is in store for the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates, but we decided to take a look at each member of the Pirates and break down exactly what they have to prove in 2012, and how that will impact the team’s success this coming season.
3. Neil Walker Walker has the city in the palm of his hand. Being the local kid, loving his hometown and saying and doing everything right, he is hands down the leader of this team and a forever fan favorite. He’s also the guy most likely to be in a Pirates uniform for a very long time as there is no way the front office could ever afford to trade him or let him go. So if you play on buying a Pirates jersey anytime soon, you can’t go wrong with Walker (or Tabata, thanks to him long term deal).
But on the field, we still don’t really know if he is the guy who hit .360 during the awesome July in Pittsburgh last year, or the guy who hit .227 and .213 in May and June, respectively. Walker probably gets a bit of a free pass when it comes to performance, as he plays hard and wants to win, and the fans love him. But what they would really love is a career year for the switch hitting 2B. His .297 average in .2010 was great, but his home run totals stayed at 12 for a second consecutive season this year while his batting average and OPS dipped from .811 to .742.
For the Pirates to take a next step, it would be great to see Walker get to that 15-20 HR area with an average closer to 2010 than 2011, and his clutch hitting / RBI totals to stay at where they were last year when he drove in 83 runs. Walker has a chance to be a big time second baseball and All Star, but he really needs to show this year if he is going to be a good baseball player or a very good / great baseball player.
2. Pedro Alvarez To say that expectations and pressure are through the roof on Pedro this year would be an understatement. He has been considered the future of the franchise ever since he was drafted and signed a rookie contract, and then changed and re-signed his rookie contract. Pedro has plenty of room to improve, as his decent 2010 rookie season was followed up by an absolutely horrendous 2011. A .256 average and 16 home runs in 2010 set expectations of 30 HR season after season and being the #4 hitter in a Pirates lineup for years to come. But the disappointment of an embarassing .191 average and 4 HR’s has fans and management wondering if he even has a future in big league baseball.
The Pirates absolutely need Pedro to be the player that they hoped for if they are going to have any chance at contending in the future. But when you digress like Pedro did in 2011, you have to wonder what the issue is. No player needs to start off with a good spring training more than Pedro Alvarez, and then keep it going into April. If Alvarez can figure things out and put together a season equal or better than his rookie year, then the Pirates will challenge the .500 mark and perhaps contend in a down NL Central this year. But if he gets off to a slow start, he’ll likely be getting his at bats in Indianapolis while the Pirates bide time to determine if he has a future at all in this organization. Bill James projects Pedro to bounce back with a .252 average and 19 home runs, which would be a welcome season, although not nearly what was expected of him even last season. If he can surpass those projections, then this Pirates team is not very far from contending. No pressure, Pedro.
1. And the number one player with something to prove in 2012… Andrew McCutchen Cutch is hands down the Pirates player most likely to become a big time star in Major League Baseball. McCutchen will be 25 years old this entire season, turning 26 in October, and is in his last season before becoming eligible for arbitration. That means that he is just starting to enter the prime of his career at a time that could be financially lucrative to him. But he’s never hit .290 and is coming off a .259 season with an OPS of .820. He had good numbers in 2011, with 23 HR and 23 SB, but he didn’t have superstar numbers. He was 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) so he definitely had a great year. And to put that in perspective, NL MVP Ryan Braun was a 7.7 WAR in 2011. So McCutchen had a terrific year. But what is his ceiling? And more importantly, what is reasonable for 2012?
It is no secret that how Cutch goes, so go the Pirates in 2012. His defense is going to be there. He gets to everything and defensively, he saves the pitching staff runs just by patrolling centerfield. He led the National League in a stat called Range Factor / game, so his defensive value is proven and established. Assuming he stays healthy, is there any reason to doubt that Cutch could get his average up around the .286 he was at in 2009 or 2010? I personally think he could get that average up to .290 and be a 30/30 guy as a reasonable, yet very successful season. Bill James projects Cutch to hit .277 with 19 HRs, 27 SB’s and 74 RBI. Not a bad season, but none of which would be career highs.
If he’s going to be the highest paid player on the team in 2013 (and he likely will be after signing either an extension or getting a deal through arbitation), then he needs to take that next step toward becoming a big time outfielder. Not that there is anything wrong with consistently being the type of player he was last year, but I don’t think that is good enough for him. And for that reason, Andrew McCutchen is the #1 player on the 2012 Pirates with something to prove.