Monday Mop-Up Duty: Are the Pirates in line to face the Bumgarner of 2015 or do they have their own?

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CHICAGO – The Pirates probably must sweep the Cardinals to have a shot at the division title, and it doesn’t help the Cardinals finish at the lowly Braves (though Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran are in line to pitch and wouldn’t Miller love to beat his former team?).

If the Pirates cannot catch the Cardinals, they will face the sum of their fears in meeting perhaps this year’s Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, in a one-game playoff.

Arrieta was perfect for six innings last night against the Pirates as he offered a perhaps a sneak preview of their execution in a one wild-card game on Oct. 7. Arrieta has cross-fired his way to a 0.80 ERA in the second half. Crazy. And he’s been even better against the Pirates this season, posting a 0.75 ERA and allowing just 18 hits in 35 innings. Oh boy.

So that’s the glass half-empty, or nearly empty outlook.

There is a silverish lining, however: Unlike a year ago when the Pirates sent their No. 3 starter to face Bumgarner in the wild-card game, the Pirates will be saving their ace, Gerrit Cole,  for whomever they face in the first postseason game.

And what if the Pirates’ ace is about to take a leap? Continue reading Monday Mop-Up Duty: Are the Pirates in line to face the Bumgarner of 2015 or do they have their own?

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A different tone, a different team? (And our podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – As the Pirates clinched a third consecutive playoff berth on Wednesday night – only the third such streak in club history – there was a different sort of celebration, a more subdued tone.

On Sept. 23, 2013 at Wrigley Field, the celebration that ended a two-decade playoff drought was a wild, champagne-soaked affair. It was much the same way on Sept. 23, 2014 in the Tuner Field clubhouse in Atlanta, Tony Sanchez guzzling twin beers. This time it was different.

There was no media access. The Pirates did not need witnesses. There were no plastic sheets. Instead the team closed the clubhouse for 20 minutes after the win against the Rockies to “privately recognize” the achievement. On the first day of fall, the club had a toast and drank from champagne flutes. That was the extend of the party. They acted like they had been there before – because many of them had. Expectations are greater and they should be.

“We’ve been in this position now three years. This is just the start of things,” Gerrit Cole said. “We all know it starts now.”

And it starts, and perhaps ends, with Cole.

Continue reading A different tone, a different team? (And our podcast)

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: Pirates are a one-man, small-market wolfpack … Will it continue?

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LOS ANGELES – Look around the NL and the Pirates stand alone.

Look around the NL and the Pirates are only small-market contender — St. Louis is a small-market city but with a mid-market budget. It could be this way for awhile.

The Pirates faced not only current rivals in this week, but likely long-term threats, in the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not only are both large-market clubs that can sign nine-figure free agents, not only has each franchise imported some of the sharpest minds in the game to run their front office operations, but each club has been a draft-and-development machine in recent seasons. Moreover, the New York Mets are not only in the country’s largest market but have perhaps the sport’s best collection of young pitching talent. If Mets ownership ever begins spending again – Perhaps start by keeping Yoenis Cespedes around? – they could become a power.

How can the Pirates sustain success? Continue reading Monday Mop-Up Duty: Pirates are a one-man, small-market wolfpack … Will it continue?

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The rest/injury-prevention practice: Preventing injuries or a division title?

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LOS ANGELES – Always in search of creating value without adding much if any payroll – like any savvy club, and particularly a savvy small-market club – this spring the Pirates turned their attention to the greatest inefficiency in baseball, in all sports, really, and that’ is player injuries.

Reducing injuries, better keeping players on the field, is one of the greatest untapped opportunities in sport.

A staggering amount of dollars are spent on injured major league player each season, particularly major league pitchers. Sports injury expert Will Carroll calculated that from a five-year period, from 2010-14, MLB teams spent more than $1.3 billion on injured pitchers. Teams have a much lesser chance of reaching the postseason if they cannot keep their most expensive assets on the field. Continue reading The rest/injury-prevention practice: Preventing injuries or a division title?

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Monday Mop-Up Duty: The consolation prize matters, and who is the team MVP?

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SOUTH HILLS – Even if the Pirates cannot catch the St. Louis Cardinals — and the Pirates have put themselves in a position to catch the Cardinals which are suffering through a sort of market correction — there is still plenty to play for in four games against the Chicago Cubs this week and next week in a three-game series at Wrigley.

Even if neither team wins the division there is a consolation prize that could dramatically affect their respective ability to reach the NLDS: home-field advantage.

I wrote this about the importance of the Wild Card game back in 2013: Continue reading Monday Mop-Up Duty: The consolation prize matters, and who is the team MVP?

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Does resting Cole make sense? (And our podcast)

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SOUTH HILLS – Gerrit Cole reportedly had no issue with the decision to skip his next start. He acknowledged he’s entering ‘uncharted territory’ when it comes to work load. He’s thrown 180 innings and he was on pace to throw 210. The most innings he has thrown in a professional season is 185 1/3 innings between Triple-A and the majors in 2013.

Cole has become more interested, and consistent in adopting, injury-prevention practices from his shoulder strengthening regimen to wearing the Bioharness and studying the data it generates.  But he’s also a competitive player who noted he “feels great” and said of skipping a start “It’s an opportunity to save some bullets, I guess.”

But with the Pirates not only trying to chase down the St. Louis Cardinals but also keep the Chicago Cubs from taking the No. 1 wild card spot – is now the time to be resting pitchers or any player? Consider Jeff Locke will make three starts from Sept 7-18 versus one for Cole.  Continue reading Does resting Cole make sense? (And our podcast)

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Monday Mop-Up: Is Cole saving his best for last?

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Is Gerrit Cole once again saving his best for September?

Recall, it was two Septembers ago when Cole went 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA as a rookie in September, emerging as the club’s best pitcher down the stretch, a pitcher who got the call over A.J. Burnett in Game 5 of the NLDS.

Last year, Cole’s best start came in Game No. 162, tying a career high with 12 strikeouts against the Reds (See, he can beat the Reds). In September 2014, Cole put up season best strikeout-to-innings (45/39) and strikeout-to-walk (45/6) ratios.

I don’t suspect the Pirates will be throwing Cole again in a game 162. They will be saving him for a likely Wild Card game. But maybe Cole can pitch so well, as he did Sunday night, to again put the Pirates in contention for the division entering the last weekend of the season.

Continue reading Monday Mop-Up: Is Cole saving his best for last?

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Modest proposals to fix the postseason

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SOUTH HILLS – In today’s Trib I wrote about how the two Wild Cart format that continues to be a problem for the Pirates in the short term (the Pirates are a team on pace to win 98 games and have to compete in a play-in game), though the format could be in the Pirates’ long-term interest.

If the season finishes with three of the game’s best four records residing in the NL Central — what would be the best NL division of the division era dating back to 1969 — there will undoubtedly be even more calls of change. The MLBPA is already asking players what changes they would like to see made to the postseason.

Pirates relievers Tony Watson and Jared Hughes both expressed interest in expanding the Wild Card round to a best-of-three series. That’s a good place to start. I love the idea of a two-day expanded Wild Card round that would feature a double-header on the second day. It would have a NCAA Tournament-like feel, which I think is a good thing.  It’s a good place to start, but more reforms are needed.

Continue reading Modest proposals to fix the postseason

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