Saturday, May 29, 2010

Steelers Off-season Leaves the Pirates

Not much in the way of Steelers-related news to discuss. OTA's resume next week. So, what. Pig Ben's been cleared to return to team activities. Big whoop. Who will get more snaps, Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon? Who cares: It's May.

That leaves us the Pirates for pointless, gum-flapping discussion.
Sigh ... as cartoon character Charlie Brown would say.

Perennial losers (for 18 years in a row), the Pirates nevertheless bear a proud tradition spanning more than 110 years and six World Series championships (1903, 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971, 1979).

Today, however, they are a laughingstock. They remain fascinating to watch and follow, if only because of their continuing ineptitude. It's sad, but entertaining and irresistable in a perverse way. Maddening, too, if you're a Pirates fan.

Shaky start by Zach Duke last night, again. He's had a weird season, and not all that good, either, as the Post-Gazette notes in today's game story ...

"Duke has lost five of his past eight starts. And it was the early damage that continued to trouble him. Of the 41 runs he has allowed this season, 17 have come in the first and second innings."

Speaking of pitchers, or alleged pitchers, there's something funny going on with this whole Charlie Morton business. During his latest, abysmal start vs. the Reds on Thursday night, Bob Walk (color commentator on the team's TV broadcast crew) insisted that Morton's stuff is as good as Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto's. And, after the game, Reds' shortstop Orlando Cabrera expressed disbelief that Morton was 1-9, according to the Post-Gazette:

Count Cincinnati shortstop Orlando Cabrera among those incredulous at Morton's record.

"I'm really surprised because, to me, he's the best pitcher on that staff," Cabrera said. "He's got the best stuff. What is he, 1-8?"

Cabrera was told it was 1-9. "That's unbelievable."

The question is this: If he has a sore shoulder or "shoulder fatigue," as John Russell described it, how is it that he still has "good stuff"? ... how is it that he's able to consistently hit the mid-nineties on the radar gun? Another thing to belie the notion that his shoulder is the problem -- and not something else like, say, his psyche -- is the fact he's been awful since he donned a Pirate uniform.

Charlie Morton reminds me of the long-forgotten, once-ballyhooed pitcher the Pirates obtained from the Giants in the Jason Schmidt trade in 2001 ... Ryan Vogelsong, who was last seen pitching in Japan, I believe.

Morton's pitching has been awful pretty much from the day he became a Pirate. Remember the game he pitched in Wrigley last season, when it was 10-0 Cubs before you could blink an eye? Was his shoulder sore then?

I doubt it.

And I doubt that he has a sore shoulder now. I am inclined to agree with local sports-talk radio host Mike Logan, a former Steelers defensive back, who said he believes Pirates management ("Nero" Huntington and John "Blind Jack" Russell) sat Morton down after his start vs. the Reds the other night and had a conversation that went something like this:

"Son, your shoulder's sore, isn't it?"

"No, it feels fine."

"Charlie. Your shoulder. It's sore."

"Really, sir, I feel fine."

"No, Charlie. You don't feel fine. Your shoulder. It's sore. You have -- what shall we call it? -- 'arm fatigue.' You're hurting. Get it? So ... we're putting you on the 15-day disabled list and then giving you some rehab starts in the minors after that. We'll see how it goes from there."

"Oh. I see. Okay."

Putting Morton on the disabled list buys team management some time to figure out what to do with him, but he is only one of many, many problems the Pirates have.

The offense is still putrid, although Neil Walker has hit with confidence and authority since being promoted, so at least he is showing some promise.

Still, the offense is awful, as noted in this bizarre stat cited in today's Post-Gazette:

"With Atlanta pitcher Derek Lowe rapping a double and scoring twice, opposing pitchers continued to rack up hits -- at a rate where their .250 average surpasses the Pirates' own averages at first base, second, third and left field. That's .006 or less from topping their totals at shortstop and right field, too. So that's six positions of eight where opposing pitchers have a higher average."

That's an indictment of the Pirates' woeful pitching and anemic hitting.

Very bizarre.

This road trip is turning out just as I thought it would:

"The Pirates lost their fourth of five games on this road trip and seventh of nine games in their recent slide.

"They are back to losing big, too: Outside of their pair of one-run victories in that span, they have dropped the other seven games by a combined 41-16."

On and on it goes.

June 1 is right around the corner, and the call-ups will begin, presumably, along with the correlating roster moves. Bye, Aki, and sayonara. It was nice knowing you.

The bigger question is, who gets called up? ... Brad Lincoln? Certainly, and probably early next week. Jose Tabata? Maybe soon, but who will he replace in the lineup? Lastings Milledge, presumably, although they might like to give hm more time. Plus, Tabata has shown no more power than Milledge, and they need power more than anything else.

Which brings us to ...

The big name, of course: Pedro Alvarez. The team might wait until later in the summer to call up Alvarez. It would be the Pirates' kind of thing to do. Granted, he still has aspects of his game (hitting for average, hitting against lefties, and fielding) to work on. Not that he can't work on them in the majors, but that would less than ideal.

In the meantime, they still want to see what they have in Jeff Clement, as well as well as Milledge and Andy LaRoche. They've all shown some signs of life, sporadically, but each still has much to prove.

Really, most fans will say they might as well bring Alvarez up on June 1, and they're right. Really, why wait? Bring him up, for crying out loud, and see what the kid can bring to the table.

This team, like so many Pirates teams of the past 18 years, is full of holes, question marks, bit pieces and mismatched, misplaced parts. The only truly legitimate major league player they have, who can start for most other major league teams, is Andrew McCutchen. Maybe Garrett Jones, too, oh yeah, probably Ryan Doumit, but they are likely to trade Doumit between now and July 31.

The Pirates have no bonafide players at any other position, certainly not at second base, shortstop, third base, first base and left field. That's a lot of holes to fill, and a lot of movable parts.

The Jeff Clement/Lastings Milledge equation is the linchpin here. They have to make a decision on one or the other of them pretty soon, if they are going to free up playing time for Tabata. If Clement is the odd man out, then maybe Jones moves to first base, and Tabata plays right field with Milledge continuing in left.

If they decide they want to see more of Clement, they'll keep him at first base for a while and keep playing Jones in right field, with Tabata in left. Too bad they traded Nyjer Morgan.

As for where Alvarez might fit in, he has played exclusively at third base and that they want to keep him there (as opposed to trying him out at first base). Andy LaRoche may be the odd man out, then, when Alvarez comes up. I don't think LaRoche can play shortstop -- his range is too limited (but, then again, Tim Foli never had much range, although he handled it just fine and made a very nice career at shortstop).

Anyway, if Walker continues to play second base (with Aki gone, obviously), there's no place for LaRoche -- unless they decide to cut Bobby Crosby and make LaRoche the utility infielder -- which, in the Pirates' case, might be better labeled, the "futility infielder."

Some moves will be made soon, in any case, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Oh, and remember Brandon Moss? We're not likely to see him again in a Pirates uniform, so if LaRoche doesn't pan out, that Jason Bay trade looks worse and worse.

It will be interesting to see who they will select in the upcoming amateur draft. Most reports project the Nationals will draft Bryce Harper, the power-hitting phenom, and the Pirates are projected to draft a high school shortstop by the name of Manny Machado. He'll be at least three years away from helping the major league club, however, so there's not too much to get excited about there.

Not much to get excited about here, either. On that note, we leave you with our word of the day: "Ryan Vogelsong".