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October 22, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Copy a KC recipe?

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CLARK BUILDING – The Royals are an interesting team. They’re not a great team but they’ve of course played great baseball at the right time.

They do a couple things very well. They play a great outfield defense and they have a great back-end of the bullpen. And for those reasons, I think they are an interesting case study for the Pirates.

Why?

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October 20, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Another Wild (Card) World Series

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SOUTH HILLS – We knew before and are reminded again this October that entry to baseball’s postseason as a wild card team is not a death sentence. Ideal? No, but it’s not an impossible obstacle.

Wild cards have been in existence in baseball since 1995. And for the sixth time in 20 years since the advent of the wild card, we’re guaranteed a wild card team will win the World Series. The Royals or the Giants will join the Marlins (1997 and 2003), Angels (2002), Red Sox (2004), and Cardinals (2011) as wild-card World Series winners.

(By comparison, since 1970 when the playoffs expanded to include wild cards in the NFL, only six wild card teams have won Super Bowls – and there’s been a lot more wild cards in the NFL, a sport that prides itself on touting parity.)

Moreover , five other wild card teams have advanced to the World Series and lost and the Royals or Giants will make it a sixth. So since 1995, 12 wild card teams have at least won a league pennant.

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October 17, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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A new kind of bench coach? And a 9 percent hike

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SOUTH HILLS – You have to be happy for Jeff Banister. After spending 29 years with the Pirates, after working his way up from a 25th round draft pick who recorded only one major league at bat, after he worked his way from long-time minor league coach to major league bench coach, he was named as the Rangers’ manager on Thursday.

Banister is a cancer survivor. He’s an inspirational figure. He gets to go home to Texas and take valuable lessons from his time with the Pirates, which integrated New School and Old School concepts as well as just about any club in recent years. (Richard Justice’s take on Banister is worth watching.)

Who will replace Banister with the Pirates? I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Clint Hurdle promoted one of his loyal lieutenants. I also wonder if this is also an opportunity to further build upon what the Pirates have already done so well in building respect and collaboration between their coaches and analytics staff.  Continue Reading →

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October 15, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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The Brain Drain … And how to fix the wild-card round

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SOUTH HILLS – Tuesday was a fascinating day in baseball and I’m not speaking of another wild ending to an NLCS game or the Royals now being one win from the World Series. Rather, how about Rays GM Andrew Friedman leaving the small-market Rays and to become the president of baseball ops for the Los Angeles Dodgers?

Friedman is regarded as one of the shrewdest GMs in the game.  The low-budget Rays have consistently been a winner in the rugged AL East under his watch. He has a Wall Street background and he’s employed many Wall St. strategies with the Rays (See: Jonah Keri’s Extra 2 %). Now it appears the Dodgers have brawn (dollars) and brains.

Friedman’s move is relevant to every well run small-market club. What if this marks the beginning of a trend, a race, a market correction, for the game’s top executives?

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October 13, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Is Stewart an adequate plan B?

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SOUTH HILLS  - I think we all understand Russell Martin is going to be a tough sign unless he gives a discount in years or dollars to the Pirates. And discounts are usually pipedreams in free agency. In an impending free agent class bereft of catchers, Martin stands alone as the only star-level or even starting-caliber talent. The Pirates have never given more than $17 million to a free agent (really) and that free agent was Martin. Martin reportedly turned down a midseason extension offer, according to John Heyman, from the Pirates.

I don’t want to get your Monday started off on a sour note but here is the list of potential 2015 free agent catchers: John Buck, Ryan Doumit, Nick Hundley, Gerald Laird, Martin, Jeff Mathis, Wil Nieves, Ronny Paulino, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross and Geovany Soto. All of these catchers are deeply flawed outside of Martin, and many are advancing deep into their 30s. Moreover, teams aren’t likely to give away talented catchers with reasonable contracts cheaply in trades.

The good is news is prospects Elias Diaz (ETA 2016) and perhaps Reese McGuire (ETA Mid 2017/Early 2018) are coming. Still, the Pirates need a bridge to that homegrown talent. So if Plan B doesn’t exist in the free agent market what is the Plan B internally?

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October 8, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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“Because those are our seventh-inning guys” … and ticking clocks

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SOUTH HILLS – What was perhaps more amazing than Clayton Kershaw unraveling twice in a week yesterday was that hours apart, in two one-run, elimination-game losses is neither losing manager called upon his best relief pitcher.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t use his closer – Kenley Jansen – and Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams kept his bullpen quiet in the seventh inning as a rattled rookie pitcher allowed the winning run to score with a wild pitch and the bases loaded.

Kershaw, on short rest, began to miss with location in the seventh, even the broadcasters thought he was tiring. He allowed a three-run homer on a mistake pitch. In the seventh inning in San Francisco, the Nationals’ bullpen remained quiet. Available to Williams, in the season’s pivotal moment were his best relievers Drew Store and Tyler Clippard and even his ace, Stephen Strasburg. None of those arms were summoned. None of those arms were even warming up. Washington Post beat writer Adam Kilgore eloquently described the vacant mounds as “monuments to convention.”

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October 6, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Lessons from 2014

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SOUTH HILLS –  A baseball season is a funny thing. It’s something you live with on a daily basis for six months (seven-plus consecutive months if you’re a player, coach, executive, or even a sports writer) … and then it’s gone in an abrupt manner. Because it’s a daily endeavor, it’s an opportunity to learn something new each day and build a deeper and richer understanding of the sport.

And I’m not sure I’ll ever cover, or if you’ll ever watch, another season like the Pirates’ 2014 campaign.

We don’t get everything right here in this e-space, that’s for sure. My pre-season prediction for the Pirates was this: an 84-78 final record and a third-place finish in the division. The prediction was in the ballpark … but how the Pirates arrived at 88 wins and another playoff berth was surprising to me and many others.  Continue Reading →

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October 2, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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The sound of silence … and what broke that silence

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SOUTH HILLS — As I wrote in my sidebar for today’s print edition, what struck me was the silence.

After Brandon Crawford‘s grand slam last night, Blackout II went silent and Madison Bumgarner kept it silent with a brilliant shutout effort. I wrote going into the game that it was a tale of two advantages: home field vs. a starting pitcher advantage. The problem is an excellent opposing starting pitcher can quiet a crowd — or excite it (see: Johnny Cueto).  It’s up to the home starting pitcher to sustain crowd momentum as Francisco Liriano did last season.

In a way, the Giants were at an advantage despite being on the road as the No. 2 wild card. Because they were eliminated from NL West contention and home-field wild-card contention last week, they were able to hold back Bumgarner, similar to how the Pirates held back Liriano last season. I’m not going to get into second-guessing the Pirates’ decision to pitch Edinson Volquez. We know the importance of having a club’s best arm available for an elimination game. The Giants threw their No. 1, and the Pirates threw their No. 3. But the way Bumgarner was pitching perhaps whoever started for the Pirates is irrelevant.

Bumgarner made it very quiet until the ninth inning.

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September 30, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Who ya got Wednesday? It’s a tale of two advantages

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PNC PARK — Here’s something that might comfort you: Edinson Volquez is probably a lot more relaxed than you are if you’re a Pirates fan. Volquez has had a loose, energetic, positive personality since the start of spring training, and the only time I saw him really upset is when he was pulled from a start in Philadelphia earlier in September when he still felt like he had something left in the tank.

Volquez was often laughing, joking and flashing a broad smile when he met with reporters Tuesday afternoon. I think it’s a good thing for the Pirates, though in his only postseason start he allowed four runs in 1 2/3 innings to the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS.

“(Francisco Liriano) said he’s a little nervous, and he’s not even pitching,” Volquez said. “(On Monday) I was sleeping the whole day and was chilling in my house.” Continue Reading →

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September 29, 2014
by Travis Sawchik


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Monday Mop-Up Duty: True North

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CINCINNATI – Clint Hurdle was right. There was no easy choice in making his pitching plan Sunday. But there were those that thought he should have played the probabilities and saved his best starting option, Gerrit Cole, for their next most likely game entering Sunday: the Wild Card game. That play-in game became a reality with the loss. Now it’s a date Wednesday with the San Francisco Giants and Madison Bumgarner at PNC Park.

Cole has always been good on the big stage: from the College World Series to his debut last season to out-dueling Yu Darvish for win No. 82, and his work in the NLDS. Cole has been very good again in September. And he made his best start of the year Sunday when he tied a career best with 12 Ks and allowed one run – no walks – in seven innings. Over his last 21 innings he’s allowed five runs, walked two and struck out 27. At this point, if you could have anyone pitch a game for the Pirates it would be Cole – not Francisco Liriano.

But was Cole’s effort in vain? And was it an effort that could have been saved and stored for Wednesday? Hurdle did not have any easy choice to make but if Edinson Volquez does not deliver Wednesday it will be a decision that is second guessed. The decision was even being first-guessed.

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