The Pirates are in first place. Granted, it is only June. Granted, it’s a tie for first place. Granted, they were in first place in July last year before doing a complete face-plant the rest of the year. And granted, they are the Pirates.
None of that changes the fact that the Pirates are in first place this morning. Suck it, Sid Bream. Suck it, twenty-year losing streak. Suck it, Barry Bonds — no reason, just for being you. Suck it! The Pirates are in first place on June 11, and nothing will change that! Not until possibly Tuesday, when they play again.
As with any baseball season, there is reason to celebrate, reason to worry, and reason to moan and complain. Let’s just call it…
Pitching. As in we have the third best pitching staff in all of baseball! If there’s one thing Pirates’ GM Neil Huntington has been able to do, it’s find pitching. And he doesn’t get enough credit for it. Huntington made three banner trades in his tenure here that brought Joel Hanrahan, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald to town. He’s been good at grabbing free agents off the scrap heap, like Juan Cruz, Chris Resop, and Jason Grilli. He’s had mixed results on free agents. Kevin Correia has been inconsistent, but Erik Bedard and A. J. Burnett have provided a much-needed veteran presence in the clubhouse, as well as strikeouts on the mound. The Buccos have a wealth of arms coming up in the system, which means that we have trade bait to get some bats come the mid-season deadline.
The reason for the good pitching is strikeouts and defense. This year, we’ve gone from 6.4 Ks per game to 7.4. Our fielding has gone from 25th in defensive efficiency to 10th. Moan all you want about the hitting of Alvarez and Barmes, but they have saved runs in the field. Ditto for having a speedy outfield in Tabata, McCutchen, and Presley. Gone are the days of watching Lastings Milledge, Garrett Jones, and Ryan Church lumbering around out there. These guys can run and field their positions.
The Pirates are 5 games over .500 and tied for first, all while having THE worst batting average in the National League. Not just batting average. We are last in doubles, 12th of 15 teams in home runs, last in taking walks, 5th most strikeouts, and last in On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and Total Bases. That’s bad. I really had a debate with myself on whether this qualified as bad or ugly. I went with bad because things are improving. Although we hit .228 in April and .210 in May, so far in June, we are hitting .257. That’s a regular hitting explosion for us. We’re hitting 15 points better on the road. And we no longer have three guys in the lineup hitting below .200.
Now, if you are a “glass is half empty”-kind of person, as many baseball fans tend to be, you look at this and say that it’s only a matter of time before the pitching wears out and the team plummets back to the cellar. And to this I say, there’s a good chance you are right. History is on your side. I just refuse to go there in June.
The “glass is half full”-side of me says that hitting tends to warm up with the weather. While bad pitching stays bad pitching, hitting is streaky and contagious. Just imagine how good this team could be if we could just get a few of the bats going. If we are still around .500, we could trade Hanrahan (Grilli has closer ability) or one of our minor league arms for a hitter on a team that is out of it in July. There are teams that will trade a hitter (and even eat some of the contract) for a future prospect. Hell, it’s what the Pirates did with Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, and a ton of other hitters in the past twenty years. Now’s our turn to buy instead of sell.
The Pirates were in an ugly spot at this year’s amateur draft. Nothing much they could do about it. They were drafting 8th. Many of the guys they were looking at were taken and the projected number one player, Stanford’s Mark Appel, slipped right to them. He’s a college pitcher, which means he is only a year or two away from the majors. But he has a major league ass for an agent in Scott Boros, who makes it a mission to squeeze ever dime for his clients. Sure, that’s his job, but he is always going for the record-breaking contract. He will advise his clients to sit out rather than take a lesser amount. He will advise against giving a team the “home town discount” and tell them to become free agents instead. Fans hate him. GMs dread dealing with him. Some players have even dropped him for making them look like money grabbing superstars. This is the guy who represents Appel. Ginny Montanez at That’s Church wrote a brilliant letter to Mark, urging him to get over the disappointment of being picked by the Pirates and not going first and signing that $7 million contract. Boros is going to insist on top-of-the-draft money because of Appel’s potential. The Pirates are offering him around $2.5 mil. Appel can turn it all down and go back to Stanford for his senior year.
But what were the Pirates going to do? Take a lesser player just because he might be more “signable”? We did that before. We passed up on Orioles’ current catcher Mark Wieters and took Danny Moskos, who is still in the minor leagues and will be middle inning relief pitcher at best. No, you take the best player. If it gets ugly and Appel goes back to college next year, so be it. He loses a year of major league pay that he will never get back. He risks injury and may be taken even later next year. And the Pirates will get two first round picks in 2013. That’s okay. We’re not that desperate. Like I said, Huntington was in a “no win” situation with this one.
But who cares about all that. Today, we are tied for first place. No matter what happened in April and May, the whole season is an opportunity before us.
We are on the ride. For many other teams, the ride is already over for this year. I know… history says it’s all downhill from here. So, if we need a pep talk, there is none better than that given by Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, who reminds us that through the good, the bad, and the ugly, baseball is our “one constant”:
And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces….The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
It could be again. So drink with me from the magic waters. We’re in first place. Enjoy the ride, Pittsburgh.