Superscout Leuzinger quits Pirates

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Mike Leuzinger, the superscout who brought outfielder prospect Josh Bell into the Pirates’ system, has turned down a contract renewal offer and has left the organization. Leuzinger was the area supervisor for North Texas and Oklahoma. “It was really just time to move on,” Leuzinger told me by phone from his home in Canton, Texas. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a year or so.”

Leuzinger, 45, joined the Pirates in 2004 after working 12 years for the Dodgers. Among the players he’s scouted and signed are Matt Kemp, Tony Watson, Duke Welker and Andy LaRoche. In 2011, the Pirates lured Bell away from a college scholarship with a $5 million bonus, adding a premier slugger to their minor league system.

The Yankees asked for permission to interview Leuzinger at the end of the season, but the Pirates refused. A few days later, Pirates director of amateur scouting Joe DelliCarri told Leuzinger about management’s decision. “That kind of stung,” Leuzinger said. “I wish I could’ve known what the job was. I asked Joe if he would reconsider. I just wanted to have that opportunity. I’ve been an area scout for 20 years and I think I can do more. When I looked into the crystal ball a couple years down the line with the Pirates, I think I’d be in the same spot.” Leuzinger said the Yankees situation wasn’t the only reason he left; the Pirates’ long stretch of losing took a toll. “I was there for eight of those (20 losing seasons),” he said. “It does wear you down. I’m not the only one. I’m sure Neal (Huntington), Greg (Smith) and Joe feel it, too. But, they all work so hard. I wish people knew how hard they’re working to change things. I have nothing against the Pirates. Greg and Joe truly are class people. It was just time to move on.”

Leuzinger says he holds no grudge, and I take him at his word. Yet, it seems odd the Pirates would value him enough to block the Yanks from stealing him away but also not offer Leuzinger a promotion nor give him any indication one is possible in the near future. Leuzinger walked away from his post with the Bucs despite not having another job lined up. When I talked to him this morning, he said he hopes to get another gig soon — he’s talented and well respected in the industry, so I’m sure he’ll be employed again before too long — but hadn’t ruled out going to the winter meetings Dec. 3-6 to circulate his resume. Overall, this is a big loss for the Pirates, coming just a week after owner Bob Nutting reiterated the importance of bringing more talented scouts into the organization.

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Bowa’s take on McCutchen’s MVP odds

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bowaI chatted yesterday with Larry Bowa about Andrew McCutchen’s chances of winning the NL MVP award. Bowa played 16 years in the majors as an All-Star shortstop, managed the Padres and Phillies for a total of six seasons and now is an analyst for The MLB Network. The Gnat still preaches the importance of playing with tenacity — a trait he spotted right away in McCutchen. “I can’t even count on one hand the times I haven’t seen him run out a play,” Bowa said. “I look at guys when things aren’t going well (to see if) they giving the same effort. To me, just by watching his mannerisms on the field, you couldn’t tell if he was hitting .330 or .230. He approaches is all the same. That’s important because it tells a lot about the character of a player. Let’s face it, it’s hard to go out there and play at a high level when for the last 20 years (the Pirates) haven’t played .500 ball. That shows me a lot of mental toughness. He has the ability to concentrate in tough times, like in September when the team is out of it. I’m not saying it’s easy to fold up shop, but your concentration level wanes a little bit. But this kid seems to concentrate, doesn’t give away at-bats. If they could surround him with a couple more players, I think it would be an exciting team to watch.”

Bowa wasn’t surprised by McCutchen’s breakout season this year or by the fact that McCutchen is a frontrunner for the MVP. Already this offseason, McCutchen has won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and a Players Choice Award as NL most outstanding player. What did catch Bowa a bit off-guard, though, was McCutchen’s power surge — he hit 31 homers and had a .553 slugging percentage this year. “When I played and managed, most center fielders possessed the athleticism and ability to go catch the ball, but not the home run power,” Bowa said. “Usually, you would get the home runs from the flanks, left and right. PNC Park is really not a home-run park, especially for right-handed hitters, but I’ve seen him take balls to straightaway center field, right-center. McCutchen’s a good guy to build your team around. He’s got power, good defense, can steal bases … those are good assets.”

Will that be enough for McCutchen to take home the MVP award next week? Bowa doesn’t think so, and instead gives the edge to Giants catcher Buster Posey. “The reason I lean toward Posey is I look at the position he plays and the fact that they won their division when the Dodgers literally went out and tried to buy a pennant. It’s not a knock on McCutchen or (Ryan) Braun,” Bowa said. “When you look at a most valuable player … Would the Angels have come in third place without Mike Trout in the lineup? Yeah. Would Detroit Tigers have won the division without Miguel Cabrera? No, I don’t think they would’ve even gotten to the playoffs. I don’t think it’s fair, but as a baseball purist, that’s how I look at MVP. I think there should be two awards: best player in the league and most valuable. I do fall into that category, am I’m not saying it’s right, where I look at a team’s success and say, ‘Let’s take him out of the lineup and see where the team would’ve been.’ You could do that with McCutchen, too. Without him, the Pirates probably would’ve been 30 or 40 games under .500. I know it’s not his fault that he’s not playing on the Giants or whatever. I understand that.” The MVP winner announcement will be televised at 6 p.m. Thursday on MLB Network.

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Livesey joins front office

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liveseyDuring his confab with beat writers Tuesday, owner Bob Nutting stressed that the Pirates needed to do a better job with their scouting and player development. “We need to have more scouts with a strong sense of the gut and the feel of, ‘This guy is a gamer. He can play. He can contribute,’ ” Nutting said. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that today the club announced it has hired Bill Livesey as senior advisor to GM Neal Huntington. Livesey, 72, was a pro scout for the New York Yankees from 2008-11 and before that spent three seasons as a special assistant to the GM with the New York Mets. From 1978-95, he worked in all phases of player development and scouting for the Yankees. Livesey also has held front office jobs with the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays.

Last season, Pirates had five special assistants to the GM, including Dave Jauss, who recently was moved onto manager Clint Hurdle’s coaching staff. When I asked how a senior advisor differs from a special assistant, I was told by a Pirates exec, “A senior advisor is exactly that, an experienced voice in a position to offer insight and advice on all things baseball operations. Bill will also have some special assignment scouting responsibilities and will be one of the key opinions as we evaluate our systems and personnel.”

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Run, Garrett! Run!

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Garrett Jones
Garrett Jones

According to stats guru Bill James, whose latest Baseball Handbook was released this week, Garrett Jones and … would you believe? … Pedro Alvarez were the Pirates’ top two base-stealers last season. Jones and Alvarez were the team’s only everyday players (minimum 250 at-bats) to notch a stolen base gain in positive numbers — Jones was plus-2 and Alvarez plus-1. Andrew McCutchen was minus-4 as a base-stealer, which was no surprise considering the Pirates ranked last by wide margins in stolen bases and stolen-base percentage.

Still, James ranks the Pirates as the 10th-best baserunning team in the majors last season, with plus-43 net bases gained (the A’s led with plus-144). The Pirates ran into only 23 baserunning outs, fewest in the majors. McCutchen had a plus-31 baserunning gain, which tied the Braves’ Michael Bourn for tops in the NL. Overall, the Pirates were plus-74 in baserunning gains but minus-31 in stolen bases gained — a 105-point spread that was the largest in baseball.

»»» The Silver Slugger Award winners will be announced at 6 p.m. tonight on MLB Network. The awards, which honor offensive prowess at each position, are voted upon by big league managers and coaches. Eight Pirates have won the award, the most recent being Jack Wilson in 2004. The others are Jay Bell (1993), Barry Bonds (1990, ’91 and 92), Andy Van Slyke (1988 and ’92), Bobby Bonilla (as a 3B in 1988 and an OF in 1990 and ’91), Rick Rhoden (1984, ’85 and ’86), Johnny Ray (1983) and Don Robinson (1982). The awards were first handed out in 1980.

»»» The A’s Billy Beane was named Sporting News executive of the year Wednesday at the GM meetings in California. Beane got 31 of 57 votes from a panel of major league execs. The Nats’ Mike Rizzo (13 votes) was second, followed by the Rangers’ Jon Daniels (six), the Reds’ Walt Jocketty (three), the Cardinals’ John Mozeliak (two), the Giants Brian Sabean (one) and the White Sox’s Ken Williams (one). Voting was conducted before the playoffs began. Since the award was founded in 1936, it has been won by only two Pirates GMs: Joe L. Brown in 1958 and Cam Bonifay in the “Freak Show” season of 1997.

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Spring training schedule trickles out

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BucsFlagThe Pirates have not yet released their 2013 spring training schedule, but a little investigative work on the Internet will provide a lot of clues about what it’ll look like. Here are the games I’ve been able to confirm so far:

Feb. 23 @ Rays, Feb. 24 v. Braves, Feb. 25 @ Twins, March 2 @ Tigers, March 3 v. Astros, March 4 v. Phillies, March 9 v. Twins, March 10 @ Orioles (ss) and @ Twins (ss), March 14 @ Phillies, March 16 @ Twins, March 17 v. Yankees, March 20 @ Braves, March 22 v. Rays, March 24 v. Orioles. Also, the Pirates will play an exhibition in Altoona against the Double-A Curve on March 30, then open the regular season April 1 at PNC Park against the Cubs.

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McCutchen in running for MVP

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Five finalists for each of the major awards — MVP, Cy Young, manager of the year and rookie of the year — will be announced at 6 p.m. Wednesday on MLB Network. The awards are voted upon by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Winners will be announced during a series of hour-long programs on MLB Network on Nov. 12 (rookie of the year), Nov. 13 (managers of the year), Nov. 14 (Cy Young) and Nov. 15 (MVP). Each of four shows will air at 6 p.m.

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen almost certainly will be one of the finalists for National League MVP. Monday, McCutchen was named NL most outstanding player by the Players Choice Awards. I was among the beat writers who submitted a ballot for NL MVP, and I’ll post my choices after the winner is announced next week.

»»» The Pirates signed OF Darren Ford to a minor league contract. At Triple-A Tacoma this year, Ford batted .273 with 26 stolen bases. Currently, he’s playing for Leones del Caracas in the Dominican Winter League (19 games, .244 BA, 4 SB). Ford, 27, played in a total of 33 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2010-11. He figures to provide depth at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2013.

»»» Some winter ball numbers: Starling Marte is batting .314 with one HR and 6 RBI in nine games in the Dominican. Marte has struck out seven times in 35 at-bats. … Gregory Polanco is batting .211 with a .474 OPS in seven games in the DWL. Hoka hey! … Ali Solis is batting .204 in 14 games in Mexico. … Kyle McPherson pitched in one game for Licey in the DWL and is 0-1 with a 15.00 ERA (6 hits, 5 earned runs in 3 innings).

»»» Two guys who played for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys — INF Deacon White (1889) and P/OF Hank O’Day (1884-90) — are among 10 candidates who will be considered by the Pre-Intergration Era Committee for induction into the Hall of Fame. The 16-man committee, which includes Bert Blyleven, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, will review and vote upon the candidates Dec. 2-3 before the start of the winter meetings in Nashville.

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Bell more than a bunting guru

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Since the Pirates hired Jay Bell as hitting coach, my email inbox and Twitter account have been lit up with wisecracks about bunting. That’s no surprise, as one of Bell’s fortes during his eight seasons with the Pirates was dropping down an excellent sacrifice bunt. His 39 sac bunts in 1990 remains a franchise record. “(Manager) Jimmy Leyland knew what he was doing when he told me to do all that bunting,” Bell told me yesterday by phone. “Look who was coming up behind me in the lineup: Andy Van Slyke, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla. If I got the runner over to second base, one of those guys would drive him in.”

The lineup looks a LOT different these days, but manager Clint Hurdle still appreciates the value of a sac bunt. So, yes, Bell’s presence will be a plus. But he can help in other ways, too. The Pirates ranked fourth in the National League with 170 home runs, but were deficient in most other offensive categories. Their .243 batting average ranked 14th and was 11 points below the league average. They also ranked 14th in hits and on-base percentage, 10th in runs scored per game (4.02) and ninth in slugging percentage. “We know what our weaknesses were,” Hurdle said.

When the search for a new hitting coach began, Hurdle stressed he was not looking for a swing doctor. GM Neal Huntington was impressed by the “approach to the mentality of hitting” Bell talked about during their three-hour interview last week at PNC Park. “Hitting is more of a mental game,” Bell said. “It’s having an attitude and an approach of, ‘I’m going to get the job done.’ It’s being prepared for every situation. Sometimes, you’re going to fail, but you can’t be fearful of that. And you have to trust that, if you don’t do the job, the guy behind you will. A positive attitude will usually help you be successful. Sometimes, it won’t. But a negative attitude will always hurt you.”

»»» RHP Vic Black was named to the East Division roster for the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars game. The game is set for 8 p.m. Saturday and will be televised by MLB Network. Black is 1-0 with a 7.50 ERA and a 2.83 WHIP in seven relief outings for Scottsdale.

»»» Rather than accept a demotion, former Double-A Altoona manager P.J. Forbes has left the Pirates organization. After going 136-147 in two seasons with the Curve, Pirates management offered Forbes a role next year with one of the lower-level minor league affiliates and he declined.

»»» The Pirates are selling seats from McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., which have been removed as part of the stadium’s $10 million renovation. Cost is $25 per seat. If you’re interested, drop a line to Justin.Kristich@pirates.com.

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