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January 10, 2013
by sitting-ringside


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What Mike Farrell told TribLIVE Radio

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Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell was a guest on my TribLIVE Radio show Wednesday.

We discussed how Clairton star Tyler Boyd, the Trib’s player of the year, performed at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio; Bethel Park junior tackle Mike Grimm fared at the U.S. Army All-American Combine; Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster, Belle Vernon offensive tackle Dorian Johnson and North Allegheny offensive lineman Patrick Kugler played in the Under Armour All-American Game last Friday;  and Western Pennsylvania’s top Class of 2014 skill players, Washington running back Shai McKenzie and Aliquippa defensive back Dravon Henry.

Here’s a few of Farrell’s takes:

  • On Boyd: “He’s a guy who’s a can’t-miss kid. Even though he’s very skinny and needs to fill out, he’s a guy who can play multiple positions. He can play safety, cornerback, wide receiver – they can run jet sweeps with him – so even if it doesn’t work out on offense, he’s the type of guy that can impact your football team. I thought he looked pretty good down there. He had to shake the rust off a little because he’s not really, truly a wide receiver yet.”
  • On Grimm: “He mentions Pitt a whole lot. That was a consistent theme when I did talk to him. … He’s a huge kid. He’s going to end up with double-digit numbers when we talk about scholarship offers. … He’s going to be a guy that will be one of the top offensive linemen in Pennsylvania.”
  • On Foster’s picking Alabama over Pitt: “He was a big surprise. When you look at it from the outside, if you don’t follow recruiting, you’d say, ‘Well, of course he’s going to go to Alabama. Why wouldn’t he go to Alabama?’ But the circumstances surrounding him are a lot different. His mom really wanted him to stay close to home, a lot of people in the area wanted him to stay close to home. I think home is safety, comfort and, really, he can control his destiny at Pitt. He can be an immediate impact guy, and can do it in front of friends and family; whereas, at Alabama, you don’t know. They’re a little light at wide receiver right now – we saw how good Amari Cooper is – but they need impact wide receivers. Next year, they could take three five-star wide receivers and, all of a sudden, he’s out of the shuffle. It’s a little bit of a risk to go down there. Obviously, it makes sense for a lot of different reasons. He’s one of the guys I’m saying to keep an eye on for the next month. Alabama worked very, very hard to get that commitment but they’re working even harder to keep it because they know that this thing could turn at any time.”
  • On Johnson and Kugler: ““Dorian’s a guy that we’ve undervalued a little bit. Everybody else jumped the gun a little bit and made him top 10 in the country, a five star. He’s really raw but he’s starting to come together. He’s become much more physical, much more aggressive. He’s willing to mix it up. He’s starting to learn balance, starting to get his footwork down and I think that really showed in the Under Armour, going against the best in the country. Kugler is just an animal. He’s just a mauler and a brawler and he plays to the whistle and he’ll knock you out. He could translate to the guard position. Dorian Johnson is for sure a tackle. He’s got that athleticism, got those feet. He just needs more refining. But I’ve seen a lot of improvement from him, junior to senior year and even from senior film to what I’ve seen at the Under Armour Game.”
  • On McKenzie: “McKenzie is a guy with the eye-popping numbers. He’s a big, physical running back. He’s starting to get some of those national offers. I think Tennessee is one of those. Even though hasn’t been as up as usual lately, when you get a Tennessee offer it opens up things down South. He had Pitt, UConn, Maryland and Rutgers, all the locals you’d expect, but I think he’s going to get a lot more of those big offers. I don’t know if Ohio State and Michigan are going to come in. I think he’s talented enough. I think he’s going to blow up once his junior film gets circulated a little bit and once college coaches start focusing on the junior class.”
  • On Henry: “He’s a little bit different level because he can play corner or safety, comes from a program that is producing some very impressive football players. He’s going to be one that is probably tempted a ltitle bit more to leave. … The advantage that Pitt has obviously with the sanctions at Penn State is it’s going to be a real tough sell for Penn State to get some of these kids. …The disadvantage is, I think everybody is going to come in on Dravon Henry.”

You can listen to a full podcast of the show here. It also includes my thoughts on the Pitt basketball victory at Georgetown and an interview with Bob Jacoby, who retired after 40 seasons as football coach at Bishop Canevin Catholic.

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January 8, 2013
by sitting-ringside


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Will Robinson be a Hoya destroyer?

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The Pitt-Georgetown game marks a homecoming for Panthers freshman point guard James Robinson, who joined with Hoyas sophomore Mikael Hopkins to lead DeMatha Catholic to three consecutive city championships at Verizon Center.

What I found interesting is that, despite its proximity, Georgetown wasn’t among Robinson’s finalists when he committed to Pitt in August 2011. He chose the Panthers over Miami, Notre Dame and Virginia.

“I was considering going to Georgetown,” Robinson said Saturday. “Coach (John) Thompson III and the rest of their staff, they do a great job with their players. But with (Pitt) coach (Jamie) Dixon and the rest of the staff, I just felt I fit better here and I’m happy with my decision.”

Georgetown pursued Kyle Anderson instead, and signed score-first point guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera out of Oak Hill Academy after Anderson chose UCLA.

But Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight, who knows something about feeling slighted by his hometown school, indicated that Robinson could have hard feelings about Georgetown considering the Hoyas signed Hopkins, his former DeMatha teammate. A 6-foot-9 forward who is averaging 8 points and 2.9 rebounds a game for the Hoyas, Hopkins was only the second DeMatha player to pick the Hoyas in a 40-year span.

Apparently, there was some tension between Hall of Fame coaches John Thompson and Morgan Wootten dating to their days as rival high school coaches at St. Anthony’s and DeMatha, respectively. When Georgetown selected Thompson over Wootten, the bad blood boiled. It only got worse when Thompson lobbied for Bob Wade to get the Maryland job.

Thompson didn’t take a DeMatha player from 1972-2002.

The DeMatha ban continued when top assistant Craig Esherick succeeded Thompson and until Wooten retired in 2002 with 1,192 career victories. Austin Freeman ended a 30-year DeMatha drought at Georgetown when he picked the Hoyas in 2007.

Knight, who wasn’t heavily recruited by Seton Hall despite starring at Seton Hall Prep, indicated that Robinson could have some extra incentive when Pitt (12-3, 0-2) plays the No. 19 Hoyas (10-2, 0-1) at 9 p.m. at Verizon Center.

“We’ve all internalized that,” Knight said. “I don’t know if you call it disrespect. When a local school doesn’t recruit you, especially if it’s a school you’re interested in or have some type of affiliation with, you take it as a slap in the face and go out and prove to them that they made a mistake.”

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December 28, 2012
by trib


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Pitt’s disappearing Class of 2011

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Now that Pitt has announced that Marcus Gilbert is transferring — word is that he could choose to join his brother, Marcus, at Fairfield University — the Panthers can look at his departure a number of ways:

In a disturbing trend, Gilbert is the fourth member of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class to leave the program, following Khem Birch (UNLV), Jaylen Bond (Texas) and John Johnson (Penn State). Only Durand Johnson remains.

Gilbert’s transfer leaves the Panthers perilously thin at center, though not necessarily this season because the 6-foot-11 sophomore was planning to redshirt. Pitt has freshman Steve Adams and senior Dante Taylor, and can move Talib Zanna to the post in a pinch. But Taylor’s eligibility expires after the season, and Adams could opt to leave for the NBA (though that’s not expected). Either way, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon will need to sign a center.

The good news is that the Panthers now have two scholarships available for the Class of 2013, which already includes 6-foot-8 power forward Michael Young and 6-1 guard Josh Newkirk. Dixon could opt to sign a junior-college transfer, though he would have to hope for another Ontario Lett instead of the next Cassin Diggs or Doyle Hudson.

On a related note, I will be covering the Panthers for the remainder of this season, starting with their Big East Conference opener against Cincinnati on New Year’s Eve. I will try to provide additional coverage here and on Twitter @KGorman_Trib. Also, feel free to email me at kgorman@tribweb.com.

– Kevin Gorman

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November 19, 2012
by trib


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A big recruit for Pitt (Part II)

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Unfortunately, my last blog entry posted to the web before I was finished, and I didn’t realize it.

To pick up where I left off…

Tyler Boyd apparently is much more interested in Pitt than ever before. Where West Virginia was once believed to be his leader, the Mountaineers’ defensive demise during their five-game losing streak has the Clairton receiver prospect worried that he could be moved to safety out of necessity. Where Boyd once was high on Penn State, the NCAA sanctions against the Nittany Lions have hurt their cause. (Even so, Boyd is supposed to visit Penn State this weekend). Boyd also is considering Arizona, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and was scheduled to take an official visit to Madison last weekend for the Ohio State game but ran into a stumbling block: He turned 18 last Thursday and doesn’t have government-issued identification, which is required to board an airplane.

After the Clairton-Neshannock WPIAL Class A semifinal game Friday night at Chartiers-Houston, I asked Boyd about his impending visit to Pitt. He seemed interested in playing with former Clairton great Kevin Weatherspoon and Bears teammate Titus Howard, a cornerback who committed to the Panthers in June, as well as possibly playing alongside fellow WPIAL stars Foster and Johnson, not to mention Panthers tailback Rushel Shell.

“In my eyes,” Boyd said, “they’ve got championship hopes if we were to go there.”

Pitt already has commitments from seven Western Pennsylvania prospects, including five from the WPIAL: South Fayette receiver Zach Challingsworth, Clairton’s Howard, Belle Vernon’s Johnson, Seton-La Salle tight end Scott Orndoff and Gateway fullback/H-back Jaymar Parrish. The Panthers also have commitments from McDowell defensive end James Conner and Milford Academy defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, an Allderdice alum.

Boyd not only grew up with Jarrett, who has Clairton roots, but they are stepbrothers.

Don’t be surprised if Pitt gets involved with two more WPIAL prospects, both of whom are committed to Mid-American Conference schools. The Panthers could go after Clairton receiver Terrish Webb, a Kent State recruit, if Foster falls through. And Brentwood coach Kevin Kissel said that the Panthers are showing interest in Mike Kish, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end who has committed to Akron, to play center. Kish hasn’t played the position since midget football but would likely switch schools if offered a scholarship.

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November 19, 2012
by trib


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A big recruit for Pitt

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In its most important recruiting weekend of the season, Pitt used a bye to say hello to three top WPIAL targets who were making official visits: receivers Tyler Boyd of Clairton and Robert Foster of Central Valley and offensive tackle Dorian Johnson of Belle Vernon.

The star of the Class of 2012, Panthers freshman tailback Rushel Shell promised to sell Pitt to WPIAL recruits, and saw a vision of being surrounded by Western Pennsylvania talent with that trio and classmates in tight end J.P. Holtz (Shaler) and tackle Adam Bisnowaty (Fox Chapel).  

Dorian Johnson’s commitment to Pitt Sunday night made it a success, especially since he already canceled a scheduled visit to Ohio State for the Michigan game. A four-star recruit rated the nation’s No. 2 tackle prospect by ESPN’s Scouts, Inc., Johnson is Pitt’s fifth WPIAL recruit from the Class of 2013 and the seventh from Western Pennsylvania.

Johnson joins a class that includes South Fayette receiver Zach Challingsworth, Clairton cornerback Titus Howard, Seton-La Salle tight end Scott Orndoff and Gateway fullback/H-back Jaymar Parrish, along with Milford Academy defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett and McDowell defensive end James Conner. 

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

I wrote a column about Johnson and Foster sharing the same field, sort of, when Belle Vernon played Central Valley in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs. Before that game, Johnson said he could have seen them as future teammates, “if it’s Pitt.”

If you’re reading between the lines, it sounds like Johnson didn’t believe Foster was seriously considering Ohio State even though the Buckeyes were one of Foster’s three finalists. If you follow Foster on Twitter and saw this tweet, it appears he is down to Pitt and Alabama. 

My mamma likes PITT n my daddy likes BAMA but the best thing about it they both said they will b there no matter wat ILOVEMYPARENTS

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September 19, 2011
by trib


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ACC/Big East and Beano

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Not to say that I predicted Pitt would leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference, especially not the manner in which Pitt and Syracuse bolted from the Big East this past weekend, but I did foreshadow how Pitt could fit into the ACC after the Big East’s expansion talks made it look small.

That the Big East’s solution to conference expansion was to add Texas Christian University, whose ranking ensured an automatic BCS berth, and maybe Villanova wasn’t acceptable to the league’s eight football-playing members. After all, Pitt, Connecticut, Syracuse and West Virginia also have been the top basketball programs the past few years in a league ripe for another raid now that the super-conference restructuring is under way.

Pitt can blame Big East commissioner John Marinatto all it wants but Pitt chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg co-chaired the six-man search committee charged with finding Mike Tranghese’s successor. Where I’ve gone on record saying that the idea of Pitt switching to the Big Ten would have been a bad move, the Panthers had no choice but to be proactive at a time when the college conference landscape is changing so dramatically.

Which brings me to Beano Cook.

I talked with the legendary college football analyst Sunday night to get his reaction. As usual, Beano was never short on hyperbole.

“If there are four conferences with 16 teams and Pitt was not included in one of these conferences, in five years they would have dropped big-time football,” Cook said. “They would have had no choice. Pitt would be playing Duquesne, Robert Morris and Carnegie Tech.”

Or, as it’s now known, Carnegie Mellon.

“I thought if Pitt went anywhere, it would be the ACC. They weren’t going to the Big Ten. I never thought they had a chance. If you told me the ACC was going to 16 teams, I would have said Pitt would be one of them.”

Cook went so far as to say that the move to the ACC “saved” Pitt and Syracuse football, to predict that Notre Dame will join the Big Ten and the formation of four superconferences (ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern) will pave the way for a four-team playoff to decide the national championship game.

That would be, as Cook likes to say, unbelievable.

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August 31, 2011
by trib


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‘Boy Scouts of Baseball’

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 An interesting post-script to my Little League, Big Business story in Sunday’s paper came via a phone call from Alex DelVecchio, a 39-year-old father of five whose passion for youth baseball compelled him to share a story of saving Little League Baseball in one community.

DelVecchio played on Ingomar’s Little League team that reached the state playoffs in 1984, falling short of the Little League World Series in Williamsport. Six years later, he was a pitcher when North Allegheny won the WPIAL baseball championship.

“It’s an issue near and dear to my heart,” said DelVecchio, who was a walk-on at Villanova. “I had great Little League, high school and college experiences but my best memories were in Little League.”

When Ingomar/Franklin Park gave up its Little League charter to switch to Bronco rules baseball – which offers different diamond dimensions and allows runners to take leads and steal bases – DelVecchio acted by helping to from North Allegheny Little League Baseball, for which he is president.

The association has no formal ties to the North Allegheny school district – its team colors are red, white and blue instead of black and gold – other than it allows everyone within district boundaries to play. What DelVecchio says the association emphasizes is the Little League experience, which he referred to as the “Boy Scouts of Baseball.”

“People look at baseball so technically now and forget Little League Baseball and its message,” DelVecchio said. “We really promoted sportsmanship. We say the Little League pledge before every game. There’s no focus on the elite athlete. We believe there’s more to baseball than fielding a ground ball.”

In its first year, North Allegheny’s Little League had “a great turnout,” DelVecchio said, with 52 players this summer. They played interleague games with District 4 members Collier and Quaker Valley, and he believes that because of its sheer size North Allegheny is in “prime position” to someday advance to the Little League World Series.

DelVecchio also feels that playing by Little League rules benefits 11- and 12-year-olds, especially the smaller ones who often reach base on bloop singles over the infield that would be outs on Bronco fields.

“We feel Little League prepares the kids better than Bronco rules,” DelVecchio said. “Kids don’t know how to hold runners at 11. They don’t know about the subtleties of it. It becomes a chaotic game. Bronco is kids trying to play by rules that aren’t appropriate for them. …

“Parents are desperate and competitive for their kids to make those (travel) teams. They think their kids need to play at those advanced dimensions. Baseball at 11 and 12 is about pitching, hitting and catching the ball.”

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June 29, 2011
by trib


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Let’s (not) make a deal

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With the Pirates still in contention in the National League Central Division in late June, talk is turning to their trading for a power presence to add some pop to the middle of the batting order.

Obviously, Jose Bautista — aka Joey Bats – could have filled that role had he gone from Baseball Vagabond to the Game’s Best Slugger with the Bucs instead of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bautista is following a 54-home run, 124-RBI breakthrough 2010 with another season of unprecedented power numbers, at least for him. By going 1-for-3 with three RBI, including a fourth-inning home run off Kevin Correia, Bautista is tied for the major-league lead with 24 homers to go with 52 RBI this season. He never hit more than 16 homers or 63 RBI in his three seasons with the Pirates, from 2006-08, before being dealt for Robinzon Diaz.

Which brings me to the worst trades in Pirates history.

At least, in my lifetime.

My colleague, Bob Cohn, tells me that you evaluate a trade the same way you do talent: You know it when you see it. In that case, Bautista-for-Diaz will go down as one of the most lopsided deals in club history.

While Bautista showed some flashes of power with the Pirates, they never could have predicted this. (Nor could they have afforded him the next four seasons at $14 million per, although his five-year deal with Toronto is looking like a bargain).  Here’s a look at Bautista’s numbers with the Bucs:

Year    Games HR      RBI     BA      OBP    SLG    OPS

2006    117      16        51        .235     .335     .420     .755

2007    142      15        63        .254     .339     .414     .753

2008    107      12        44        .238     .313     .405     .718

Perhaps the Pirates gave up on Bautista too soon, but the Blue Jays deserve credit for tweaking his plate approach and cultivating his power in 2009, when he batted .235/.349/.408/.757 with 13 homers and 40 RBI in 113 games. That’s why I’ll leave Bautista off my top five worst trades:

5. Chris Young and Jon Searles to Montreal for Matt Herges (2002): What makes this trade so bad is not that the Pirates had invested a million-dollar signing bonus on the 6-foot-10 right-hander, a 2000 third-round pick out of Princeton, or that he has a 49-34 record and 3.74 ERA over eight seasons but rather that they cut Herges in spring training.

4. Willie Randolph, Dock Ellis and Ken Brett to New York Yankees for Doc Medich (1976): A one-sided deal that ranks among the worst in baseball history, according to Traded author Doug Decatur, who ranks such things. I’m more forgiving, even though Randolph was a six-time All-Star, because Medich was involved in a nine-player trade with the Oakland A’s that brought second baseman Phil Garner to the Pirates, who won the 1979 World Series. Garner was twice an All-Star with the Bucs, in 1980 and ’81.

 (An aside: Garner also had one of the best nicknames on a team full of them, as those Pirates had Willie “Pops” Stargell at first, Scrap Iron at second, Bill “Mad Dog” Matlock at third and Dave “Cobra” Parker in right).

3. Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal to San Francisco for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong (2001): In an ominous sign for Dave Littlefield, this was his first trade, the Pirates dealt their 28-year-old ace before he hit free agency. Schmidt only went 78-37 with a 3.36 ERA with the Giants and twice was a top-five finalist for the Cy Young Award. Neither Rios nor Vogelsong made much of an impact here.

2. Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to the Chicago Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill and Matt Bruback (2003): This was a straight salary dump for the cash-strapped club, which was in violation of MLB’s debt-ratio rule. But to give away not only Lofton, one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, but also the franchise player Ramirez, who had five consecutive seasons of 25 homers or more, was a crime that became even more cruel once we got a look at Hernandez and Hill. The Pirates have been searching for a long-term replacement at third ever since.

1. Willie Greene, Scott Ruskin and a player to be named later to Montreal for Zane Smith (1990): This is where you can feel free to disagree — and I expect many of you will — because Smith delivered. He was 6-2 with a 1.30 ERA in 10 starts, including three complete games and two shutouts, to help the Pirates win a tight NL East division race. That earned Smith a four-year contract with the Pirates, and he went 47-41 with a 3.35 ERA in that span, including 30-20 between ’90 and ’92, when the Pirates won three consecutive division titles.

But what transpired between Aug. 8 and Aug. 16 of 1990 is what sours me on this deal. That the Pirates included the top prospect in their farm system only conspired to set them on an 18-year streak of losing seasons. That’s because the “player to be named later” was outfielder Moises Alou, a former first-round pick (No. 2 overall in 1986).

Giving up Greene, another a former first-rounder (18th in 1989), was worth it even though the third baseman/right fielder played nine seasons in the majors. He had a career .234 batting average, hit 86 home runs with 307 RBI. And Ruskin, who was 2-2 with a 3.02 ERA with two saves with the Pirates in ’90, was 11-9 with a 3.95 ERA in four major-league seasons.

But Alou became a six-time All-Star in 16 seasons, hit 332 homers and had career numbers of .303/.369/.516/.885. He could have been the star player the Pirates so desperately needed to replace Bobby Bonilla in right field and in the cleanup spot, the All-Star to fill the void when Barry Bonds left.

Instead, we watched a slow, steady decline.

What makes the Smith-for-Alou deal so bad in my eyes is that the Pirates mortgaged their future for a chance to win a World Series. While Smith helped them win three consecutive division titles, the Pirates never won the pennant, let alone played for the world championship in those years. The Pirates could have included any other player in their system and the deal would have been a smashing success — Bleacher Report still ranks it as one of the top 10 waiver-wire deals — but adding Alou was a major mistake.

That should serve as a warning to Pirates GM Neal Huntington when looking to make a deal so this club can contend for a championship. It’s one thing to add a valuable piece to your club, but be careful that you don’t give up a more valuable one in the process.

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June 22, 2011
by trib


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More on Moskos and Wieters

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Danny Moskos couldn’t help but laugh by the time I approached him in the Pirates’ clubhouse Monday afternoon, knowing that I was about to ask the lefty reliever another round of questions he had already endured.

With catcher Matt Wieters and the Baltimore Orioles in town for a three-game series, Moskos knew that it was inevitable their spots in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft would be a column topic.

That the Pirates picked Moskos fourth overall in favor of Wieters, who went fifth to the Orioles, drew plenty of criticism. Not just because Wieters was pegged the best prospect by Baseball America, but that the same publication ranked Moskos the fifth-best pitcher and eighth-best prospect.

That it came only six years after the Bucs took Bryan Bullington first overall only made matters worse. Where Bullington was immediately projected by Pirates GM Dave Littlefield as a No. 3 starter – instead of the ace that his draft position demanded – Moskos said he wanted to be a starter shortly after Littlefield and scouting director Ed Creech talked of him as a reliever.

“It’s something that it seems like Pirate fans aren’t going to forget,” Moskos said. “At the same time, you can’t get consumed by it because it is out of your control. But it is interesting that we’re playing each other in interleague play.”

Moskos and Wieters were rivals of sorts before the draft, as Clemson and Georgia Tech played against each other with some frequency in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Clemson and Georgia Tech, respectively. Where Wieters said he holds no grudge against the Pirates – three other teams also passed on him – he was complimentary toward Moskos.

“We played against each other at least three times a year, a couple years more often than that,” Wieters said. “He was an outstanding pitcher in college, and I thought he got of unfair criticism because he has outstanding stuff. He’s going to be a big-league pitcher for a long time.

“That wasn’t fair to the guy. He’s a left-handed pitcher with a good arm, and those kinds of guys are valuable at the big-league level. When he was in the bullpen at Clemson, he was as good as any reliever in the whole country.”

Moskos has struggled recently against left-handed hitters, which hasn’t helped his cause in the Bucs’ bullpen. On Sunday, manager Clint Hurdle opted for Tony Watson instead of Moskos against the Cleveland Indians. On Monday, Hurdle used Moskos and he got Wieters to fly out to end the sixth.

At least Moskos is playing in the big leagues, and won’t be remembered as a bust in the same sense as Bullington, who was 0-3, with a 5.89 ERA in six games for the Pirates and 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA over five seasons.

“I think so,” Moskos said. “It improves my side of the argument, I guess.”

* The 25-year-old Wieters has already drawn criticism for failing to live up to the hype with his bat. Then again, he was being compared to Joe Mauer, who might be a once-in-a-generation catcher.

In the offseason, Baseball Prospectus called Wieters one of the “most disappointing prospects of all time,” adding that “his glove and the dream of what might have been will keep him around for years, but stardom now seems spectacularly unlikely.”

Wieters isn’t worried about living up to the lofty billing.

“It’s something you can’t worry about, and I don’t worry about expectations that come from different books or newspapers,” Wieters said. “Once the first pitch is thrown, it’s just about playing the game. And this game is hard enough to worry about things that go on off the field that you can’t control. The big thing for me is, being up here, being part of this team and helping this team win.”

Wieters batted .288 with nine home runs and 43 RBI in 96 games as a rookie in 2009 but slipped to .249 with 11 homers and 55 RBI in 130 games last season. His career .265/.393/.718 in batting/slugging/OPS is disappointing, however, for someone projected as a switch hitter with power.

“I’ve always thought that, as a catcher, defense is the No. 1 priority,” Wieters said. “Of course, you want to be a guy who’s driving in runs, as well as stop them, but if you can get the pitching staff going as well as they can get going, then that’s going to be more valuable than any runs you can drive in.”

* One of the ironies not lost on John Russell is that he finally gets to work with Wieters, who could have solved some of the Pirates’ catching conundrums when Russell was their manager the past three seasons.

“JR has been huge in helping me,” Wieters said. “It’s always nice to have a catcher who’s caught in the big leagues and already can see things that you’re seeing behind the plate.”

Orioles coaches and teammates alike marvel at his mastery in calling games and protecting the plate as a third-year pro, which is where Wieters has made his mark.

“Not only does he know hitters, but he knows all the pitchers,” said Orioles closer Kevin Gregg, who spent last season with Toronto. “He knows what they’re successful with, where they want to go so the game is seamless.

“I’m not surprised at all. You could tell right away, since spring training, that this guy is something special. This is a guy that gets it, who understands and is blessed with great talent. He’s an up-and-coming superstar.”

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June 21, 2011
by trib


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The Graduate

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When I wandered up to Chris Jacobson last week at Pitt, I was hoping the fifth-year senior offensive lineman would share a scoop on a Panthers player who was having a strong off-season and could surprise us this fall.

“Give me a story,” I asked him.

After raving about several teammates, Jacobson let slip that he was one final exam away from earning his 120 credits necessary for his degree in administration of justice. He was proud of this accomplishment – and with good reason, considering how far he’d come in four years.

It didn’t take long for Jacobson to realize what had happened.

“Looks like I became your story,” he said with a smile.

He was right – and a good one at that.

* Like most Division I-A football players, Jacobson aspires to play in the NFL and knows that his switch to center this spring might improve his chances. If he can learn to long snap, they are even greater.

Most of all, the move shows that the new coaching staff comprehends the importance of a position that, under Dave Wannstedt, had a pair of walk-ons earn starting spots over scholarship players.

“This is a great change, but it was for the betterment of the team,” Jacobson said. “I’m excited about it. We’ll see what happens.”

* Jacobson is thrilled to have earned his degree, in case the NFL doesn’t work out. He hopes to have a post-playing career in either the FBI or U.S. Secret Service, or some other type of law enforcement. If those options fall through, he has a backup plan in mind.

“I’m going to be a bounty hunter,” Jacobson said, with a laugh. “That would be fun, with the vest.”

* I covered Jacobson in high school, where he was a U.S. Army All-American at Keystone Oaks, and understood why he was so “stoked” about graduating. He really had difficulty qualifying for freshman eligibility, and impressed Myles Caragein, a teammate at KO and Pitt, with his work ethic.

“I’m proud for him, seeing what he did, after the struggle he had to get into college and progressing and now he’s going to be a college graduate. It’s something else to see,” Caragein said. “The SATs got him a little bit, and he had to do good his senior year to get his GPA up. He spent extra time meeting with teachers, trying to do everything he could to get his GPA up.

“It just shows how hard he’s worked, the improvement he’s made and the will that he has to get better. It’s tremendous.”

* Caragein also is graduating this summer, with a math degree, and he and Jacobson have emerged as senior leaders in not only the classroom but the weight room and conditioning drills this summer.

“It’s definitely going to mean a lot to us, to get our degree together,” Caragein said.

With Jacobson at center and Caragein at nose tackle, they go head-to-head on almost every play every day in practice.

“Almost every play, it’s me against him,” Caragein said. “It’s tough. We battle every day. He’s quick off the ball. He gets off that snap quick and has his hands into you and has a good leg drive.”

Jacobson learned long ago how powerful Caragein is, as he tried to help the all-state heavyweight wrestler prepare for the PIAA championships when they were seniors. Although Jacobson had never wrestled before, he tried to use his muscle to give Caragein a good workout.

In a matter of seconds, Jacobson was on his back.

“I think he lasted two or three days,” Caragein said. “He came in more as a practice partner for me. I think he was doing it to help me out but also to help his conditioning. I was really amazed and impressed that he would do that for me. It shows the friendship we have for each other. It shows that he has great character and is willing to help somebody else succeed.”

* Keystone Oaks coach Nick Kamberis recalled how he put a 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jacobson at fullback, which lasted all of one varsity practice. A teary-eyed Jacobson requested a move back to the offensive line, and opened eyes almost immediately.

“Chris was engaged with a down lineman, came off at the last second and ‘de-cleated’ this senior linebacker who was blitzing,” Kamberis said. “It was an amazing play, a great football play.”

Kamberis saved an essay Jacobson wrote as a ninth-grader, when the 5-10, 180-pounder predicted that he would play for the Pitt Panthers one day. Jacobson returned to KO for its Future Stars camp last summer, and Kamberis read the essay to the campers for inspiration and then had Jacobson address the kids about setting goals.

“When you set your goals and stick to them,” Kamberis said, “nothing can stop you.”

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