The Pirates are approaching the end of another dismal season. They are assured of finishing below .500 for an 18th consecutive year, extending their North American major professional sports record. They find themselves 33 games off the pace of the first-place Reds in the National League Central.
Yet while the defeats have piled up at alarming rate, the Pirates say things are not as dismal as they might seem. And it goes beyond being on a season-best four-game winning streak.
"We've taken our lumps, and it hasn't been a lot of fun," Pirates rookie second baseman Neil Walker said. "But if you look around this clubhouse, you can see there is a lot of talent. We've got a lot of good young players who are learning what it's like to play at this level. Things are going to get better once we learn how to win, and I don't think it's going to take as long as a lot of people think."
While .500 still looks a long way from here as the Pirates are a majors-worst 52-98, it is the presence of four young players in the starting lineup that provides hope—Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Walker, Alvarez, and Tabata are rookies and McCutchen is in his first full season after making his debut in June 2009.
McCutchen, 23, has made the biggest impact as he has a .295 True Average with 16 home runs and 31 stolen bases in 596 plate appearances this year, following a rookie season in which he compiled a .299 TAv in 493 PA.
"They have some interesting young pieces," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "McCutchen is the guy you really have to like. He can do everything. He can hit, run, go get the ball in the outfield. I think he will wind up developing into one of the best all-around players in the league."
Walker, 25, has been the biggest surprise, posting a .292 TAv in 411 trips to the plate. He had spent the previous two seasons as Triple-A Indianapolis' third baseman and was sent back to Indy again at the end of spring training this year to be converted into a super utility player.
Walker, though, got a chance to play every day in the majors when veteran second baseman Aki Iwamura (.221) was benched on Memorial Day. Despite having never played second base until this year in spring training, the switch-hitting Walker has become a key figure for the Pirates.
"The thing about Neil is he's such a great athlete," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who watched Walker as an all-state wide receiver during his high school football days in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. "Nothing he does should really surprise anyone. He's a great athlete and a great kid."
Tabata has posted a .286 TAv in 379 plate appearances. The 22-year-old was the key player for the Pirates in general manager Neal Huntington's first major trade, a 2008 six-player deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees.
"What has really struck me about Jose is that he is very consistent," Pirates manager John Russell said. "When guys come up to the big leagues, they have their ups and down but Jose has been really steady. That's a good sign for a young player."
Alvarez came into the organization with the most fanfare as he was the second overall pick in the 2008 draft from Vanderbilt and became the first Pirates' draftee to sign a major-league contract, a deal worth $6,335,000. However, Alvarez has struggled the most of the Pirates' youngsters as the 23-year-old has struck out 107 times in 335 PA while hitting 11 home runs and posting a .261 TAv.
"I wouldn't worry about Pedro," Walker said. "He's got a lot of power, and it's real. It's big-time power. He's been a little inconsistent, but once he settles in, he's going to hit a lot of home runs in the big leagues."
The Pirates' problem, though, is that they have little star-type talent ready to fill in around their big four. And they need plenty of help as they rank 29th among the 30 major-league teams in run scored with an average of 3.48 a game and last in runs allowed (5.48 a game) and Defensive Efficiency (.675).
"We feel like we've got some pieces that we can begin to build with," Huntington said. "I don't want to say build around because that makes it seem like they're more than they are. We've got some young players who are growing and getting better. They're showing abilities. They're also showing that we need to get better, to expedite their development, to help them play better baseball. As we sit here, we're starting to get a lot more answers than questions."
There were will be no early passing of the torch from Dodgers manager Joe Torre to Don Mattingly in the final days of the season. Mattingly will remain in his role as hitting coach then make his managerial debut for the Dodgers next year on Opening Day.
Torre, who is retiring at the end of the season, will allow catcher Brad Ausmus and another player to be determined a chance to manage during the final series of the season against the Diamondbacks, pending Arizona and the umpiring crew agreeing to the idea. Torre will then manage the last game.
"I want to get more guys involved," Torre said. "It's like, 'you think this stuff is easy, huh?'"
Torre has been allowing players to manage games that do impact the pennant races since he handed the lineup card over to catcher John Stearns during the late 1970s while with the Mets. Torre said that first baseman James Loney and shortstop Rafael Furcal are candidates to manage this time.
"I'm not dismissing that it has to be a veteran," Torre said. "Sometimes, it's nice to give young players a feel for what the game is all about, besides just playing the game yourself. I think it's important young players have a feel for the game."
Ausmus also got the chance to manage last season and picked utility infielder Mark Loretta to be his bench coach and bullpen catcher Mike Borzello to serve as pitching coach. In 2008, Torre's first season with the Dodgers, infielder Nomar Garciaparra was the acting manager with first baseman/outfielder Mike Sweeney as bench coach and right-hander Tanyon Sturtze as pitching coach.
Torre watches the game from the back of the dugout and is available to the player/manager for any rule interpretation questions. However, Torre insists that he not be consulted on in-game strategy.
Meanwhile, there is heavy speculation that Torre will put his retirement on hold and return to his native New York to manage the Mets. While visiting Yankee Stadium on Monday night, an off day for the Dodgers, for the unveiling of the George Steinbrenner monument, Torre told reporters he would be glad to talk with Mets owner Fred Wilpson about the job.
Torre began his managerial career with the Mets in 1977 and spent five seasons with them through 1981. He then guided the Yankees for 12 years from 1996-2007, winning four World Series. Manuel has heard the rumors, too, and realizes his days on the job are likely numbered.
"That's part of life in New York," Manuel said. "You expect to hear that or be around that. Jerry Manuel compared to Joe Torre? Let's be real. But that's all part of it."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona is interested in what Torre might do next. The two waged epic battles in the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry since Francona took over in 2004. Furthermore, Francona has known Torre since he was a kid and Francona's father, Tito, and Torre were teammates with the Braves.
"Whatever he's doing, I hope he does on his own terms," Francona said. "He deserves that. He's been doing it for a long time. And there's a lot of respect from a lot of people on how he conducts himself. So, I hope he's happy with the decision he's made. That's what I care about."
Francona has won two World Series in his seven seasons with the Red Sox, including the 2004 championship that ended the franchise's storied 86-year title drought. However, in many regards Francona has done his best work this season as the Red Sox have gone 83-68 despite major injuries to first baseman Kevin Youkilis, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, left fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and center fielder Mike Cameron among others.
Francona, though, had no plans of managing when his injury-wracked playing career as a first baseman/outfielder ended in 1990. He had undergone surgery on his knee, shoulder and wrist after being released by the Cardinals from their Triple-A team that season and was hanging out at home in Tucson, Ariz., watching Gilligan's Island reruns and pestering his wife Jacque.
That is when Buddy Bell, a former teammate of Francona and then the director of minor-league instruction for the White Sox, called and asked him to help out with the Florida Instructional League program in Sarasota, Florida.
"Until that point," Francona said, "I had never thought about (being a manager). I thought I was going to be like everyone else. Win a batting title, be semi-rich and quit on my own terms. I was perfectly content. So, I went and took a real estate course just to get my wife off my back, knowing I didn't want to do that. I was stupid. Would you buy a house from me?"
Francona enjoyed the teaching aspect of instructional league so much that he accepted Bell's offer to begin managing in the White Sox's farm system in 1991. Francona became the Tigers' third-base coach under Bell in 1996 and then had a four-year stint as the Phillies' manager from 1997-2000.
Now, Francona is one of the most successful managers in the game and has a $3.75 million salary this season. So will the 51-year-old Francona still be managing at 70 like his friend Torre?
"I can't see myself being alive at 70," Francona cracked. "If I can't do the job, whether it's physically or I'm not all in, I would never stick around. I have too much respect, hopefully, for the game and the people I work for."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy said earlier in the month that he would consider using ace Ubaldo Jimenez on short rest in the tight NL West race. However, Tracy has reconsidered and will not have Jimenez come back on three days of rest Sunday to face the Giants after starting against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday. The Rockies are in third place, 2 ½ games behind the Giants while the Padres are ½ game off the pace.
"The significance of the situation is completely understood," Tracy said. "But with the workload that we've given this guy up to this point, I really think that's pushing the envelope way too hard, as far as I'm concerned."
Jimenez has made 30 starts and pitched 202
"He's a huge part of our future," Tracy said. "You don't want to put that at risk."
Jimenez has never started on short rest. However, he says he would willing to do so in an attempt to get the Rockies into the postseason for the second straight season and third time in the last four years.
"I know I have never done it," Jimenez said. "But you never know how you will do until you try it, you know? I would be fine with going on short rest. Whatever they want me to do, I will be ready."
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Industry guesstimates are that Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth will wind up getting a contract in the range of five years and $95 million in free agency this upcoming winter, and the Red Sox appear to be at the front of the line to sign him. … The Blue Jays are contemplating the idea of re-signing catcher John Buck and first baseman Lyle Overbay as free agents because of the defensive concerns about J.P. Arencibia and Adam Lind. … Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran is willing to waive his no-trade clause if the right deal comes along. Meanwhile, it appears that Mets GM Omar Minaya's chances of being fired at the end of the season are 50-50. … The Mariners are leaning toward trading arbitration-eligible closer David Aardsma and handing his job to set-up reliever Brandon League. … The Twins are lining up their rotation so Francisco Liriano would start Game One of the ALDS and be followed by Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn. … There are indications the White Sox might fire hitting coach Greg Walker, making him the scapegoat for their September collapse. … The Rockies are being quietly accused by some NL West rivals of using baseballs that have not been stored in the famed Coors Field humidor when they are at bat. Non-humidor balls travel farther in the low humidity of Denver.
Scouts' views on various major leaguers:
Athletics left-hander Brett Anderson: "He seems over the elbow problems that bothered him earlier in the season, but I worry about him. He puts a lot of torque on his elbow when he throws his slider. Still, you can't ask him to stop throwing it because it's just a great pitch for him."
Astros outfielder Brian Bogusevic: "It's been only two years since they converted him from a pitcher so he's still rough around the edges. He's showing some good signs, though. He handles breaking balls pretty well for someone with such little experience against professional pitching."
Tigers closer Phil Coke: "I can see why (manager) Jim Leyland is curious to look at him as a starter next season. He's a lefty who not only throws 93 but has a tough slider and a pretty decent change-up. It's worth giving it a shot."
Rangers closer Neftali Feliz: "The kid is so good and so confident. His fastball sits at 96 mph and his curveball is unhittable most of the time. On top of that, when he gets to two strikes, he smells blood and becomes untouchable."
Nationals center fielder Justin Maxwell: "He looks the part of a five-tool player, but the bottom line is the guy just can't play at the big-league level. When he's gotten chances to play, he really hasn't done anything, and he's not exactly a kid anymore."
Red Sox center fielder Darnell McDonald: "He's banged around Triple-A forever, and he certainly has taken advantage of the circumstances in Boston to show he can play. I'm not saying he's an everyday player, but he's proven he can be a useful guy off the bench."
Rays middle reliever Chad Qualls: "He's had a tough year, but he's looked better since got traded out of Arizona. He's sharpened up his slider since he got to Tampa Bay, and he's getting some big outs for them."
Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs: "He's a really good fourth outfielder, one of the best in the business, and a valuable player for that club. I'd still like to see him get 500 at-bats one year and see what he could do with them. I'm not convinced that he's only a bench player."
Marlins corner infielder Chad Tracy: "He's never been the same since he started having knee problems a few years back. He lost his power, and now he's just trying to hang on in the big leagues."
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):