Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Marc-Andre Fleury has a lot of critics to answer heading into the 2012-2013 season and rightfully so; his performance this past spring in a six game series against the Philadelphia Flyers was disappointing to say the least. As a result, the Penguins traded for Tomas Vokoun hoping to solidify their backup goalie position in the event that Fleury melts down again.
Fleury, undoubtably, has his eyes set on more positive results in 2012 with several of the franchise's goaltending records in sight. While the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, here are some records Fleury could own by the end of the 2012-2013 season:
Most career games as a Penguin goalie
Marc-Andre Fleury- 24757
Tom Barrasso/Marc Andre Fleury-226
Tom Barrasso/Marc-Andre Fleury- 5
As you can see, those records are all owned or shared by Tom Barrasso. Playing on the same team as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, and Larry Murphy, Barrasso was often overlooked as a cornerstone piece to championship teams. With the team aggressively pushing their offense, the American-born goaltender was often left on an island with minimal defensive help. Nevertheless, he left Pittsburgh claiming most of the franchise's records.
Barrasso was a trade acquisition from Buffalo in 1988. Marc-Andre Fleury was home grown. The records Barrasso set were meant to be broken by a player who was drafted and developed within the organization and with the pace Fleury is on, they'll be shattered within the next three years. The most important, most difficult, record is, of course, the Stanley Cup titles. Marc-Andre Fleury will obviously need help to win at least two more, but he may be the most important piece to achieving that goal.
Sunday, August 26, 2012
What a difference a month makes.
In the second half of the season, the Pirates have a team ERA of 4.42. Every starter has had at least one horrible start and every pitcher in the bullpen, save Joel Hanrahan (pun intended), has had a meltdown.
Meanwhile, in the minors, the Pirates' best pitching prospects continue to churn out start after start in an effort to force the front office's hand. In AAA, Jeff Locke is 10-5 with a 2.56 ERA and Justin Wilson is 9-6 with a 3.82 ERA. Gerrit Cole is enjoying a 3.56 ERA in AA Altoona while striking out 56 batters in 52 innings. Jameson Taillon is just coming off a dominant performance, striking out seven while only allowing one hit over six shutout innings. Taillon has yet to allow a run in his first two starts with the Altoona Curve.
Then there's Luis Heredia, who at the age of 17, is dominating college draft picks 4-5 years older than him. Heredia is 3-2 with a 2.86 ERA in 12 starts with the State College Spikes.
It was certainly a good decision by the front office to not trade any of these players for a rental. Unfortunately, that's where the good decisions end.
The Pirates elected to trade Rudy Owens -an above average prospect- and Robbie Grossman -one of their better outfield prospects- for Wandy Rodriguez in hopes of getting a pitcher with a veteran presence who has experience in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Rodriguez has been terrible. His 5.47 ERA after the All-Star break has contributed mightily to the Pirates' second half slump.
To be fair, at the time of the deal this was seen as an upgrade to the rotation and the Pirates had limited options. Of course, management put themselves in that position thanks to questionable moves earlier in the season.
Let's go back to June: the Pirates were a few games over .500 but, finding themselves one short of a five man rotation after injuries to Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton. At the time, Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens were carving up AAA hitters and the Pirates were gearing up for 20 straight days of games before the break.
Did the Pirates use Owens or Locke has spot starters? Nope. They chose to go with Brad Lincoln who was untouchable as a reliever but ineffective as a starter. Management elected to have Lincoln work his way back into starting form and they were patient with his results to say the least. In five starts, Lincoln have up 4+ runs three times, often failing to get out of the fifth inning. In his last start, he threw a gem, striking out seven while allowing only one run and two hits over six innings. Lincoln was then relegated back to the bullpen.
By making this decision, the Pirates never got a chance to evaluate Locke or Owens at the Major League level. Instead, they elected to fix the problem with a temporary solution which only damaged the club even for just a few games. Because of this, there is no way the Pirates can seriously look to Jeff Locke as a starter for the remainder of this season. You just don't call up rookies this late in the year and ask them to pitch you into a wild card spot; not even when they've thrown 4.1 scoreless innings in two relief appearances.
Obviously, it is not a given that Locke or Owens could have started back in June and pitched well. He could have been crushed in a few starts and the Pirates would have found themselves in a similar situation. However, either pitcher deserved a chance and judging by Lincoln's struggles, it probably couldn't have been worse.
This is a lesson the Pirates will learn the hard way. They've prided themselves on building from within to draw success for the next several years. At the same time, they've elected to trudge out guys like Chad Qualls while relievers in AAA (Bryan Morris, anybody?) continue to prove they deserve a chance. This is not just a front office issue, it is an organizational issue. The pitching situation is a mess and the Pirates will need to rely on the current group to turn things around. There are enough games remaining to get back to mid-season form; however, the alternatives, should the pitching continue to decline, are much too risky this late in the year.
Memo to the Pirates: use your youth.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Here we go again? Not yet.
Despite a multitude of issues -Andrew McCutchen in a slump, the starting pitching struggling, the bullpen melting down- the season is far from over. While these are certainly causes for concern, there may be hope on the horizon.
Consider this: the San Diego Padres are 22-4 in their last 26 games against the Pirates and the Dodgers have had similar success against Pittsburgh since 2009. Stuck in the middle of those dreadful games were the St. Louis Cardinals, from whom the Pirates took two out of three on the road last weekend.
There's the hope. Despite winning just one of seven games against a team from southern California, the Pirates were still able to win a critical series on the road. Is it possible that their losses stem from playing against two teams that have owned them over the last three seasons?
If that's the case, there should be optimism that the Pirates can right the ship before the season ends in October. The remainder of their season is against beatable teams. The Brewers have been up and down (mostly down) all year. The Cubs are 4-17 in August, the Mets are 11-27 since the All-Star break, and the Astros are 7-43 in their last 50 games.
The Pirates will play 26 of their final 38 games against those teams.
Conversely, the St. Louis Cardinals will face the Washington Nationals seven times and the Dodgers in a three game set. The Cardinals and Pirates will both face the Cincinnati Reds; the Pirates for six games, the Cardinals for three.
To turn things around, Andrew McCutchen and AJ Burnett need to turn things around. Just like it was unrealistic to believe McCutchen could keep up his July pace of .446 with seven home runs, it is unrealistic to believe McCutchen will continue to hit .253 in August, September and October.
Pirates fans should be worried over the performance of their team in August; it hasn't been good. But this team is not last year's team. Their pitching staff is deeper, they've gotten over playing at Miller Park and they've survived a 19 inning marathon. They are better than last year's team and they have time to turn things around and clinch a playoff spot.
Monday, August 20, 2012
For the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates, their 1-2 punch includes AJ Burnett and James McDonald. Lately, the Pirates have lacked that second quality start in the rotation after Burnett, and the win-loss record has certainly been affected. Of all the issues the pitching staff has faced since the All-Star break, James McDonald has easily been the biggest disappointment. While Burnett is the Ace of the staff, McDonald is just as crucial to the Pirates' success down the final stretch.
Before the All-Star break, James McDonald was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 31 walks in 110 innings. Usually following Burnett in the rotation, McDonald helped the Pirates get out to a 48-37 record before the midsummer classic.
After the break, however, McDonald fell apart.
In his last seven starts, McDonald is 2-2 with a 7.30 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 24 walks in 34 innings. Despite pitching 76 fewer innings in the second half of the season, McDonald has given up one more run (30) than the 110 innings he pitched in the first half. His control has been abysmal (as indicated by the high walk count), his velocity has been down, and his batting average against is nearly 100 points higher.
These poor outings have contributed to the Pirates going 19-18 since the break including a 4-7 stint during their last home stand. While AJ Burnett continues to prevent any notorious 10 game losing streaks, James McDonald and the rest of the staff have done nothing to turn a slide into a winning streak.
Make no mistake, the second spot in the rotation is reserved for McDonald. There were a few reports last week speculating on moving McDonald to the bullpen and allowing Kevin Correia to take his place. Do you really think that's the pedigree of a winning baseball team? The Pirates cannot be a contender with Jeff Karstens, Wandy Rodriguez, Erik Bedard or Kevin Correia as their second starter.
The Pirates need James McDonald.
The good news is, the Pirates may be getting the old McDonald back. Facing the best lineup in the National League, McDonald pitched six innings of two-hit ball while striking out seven. Even more encouraging was his fastball, touching 93-94 with regularity while his curveball continued to strikeout batters at a high rate. McDonald's start gave the Pirates a 2-1 win on Friday and, coupled with the 19 inning bonanza on Sunday, contributed to a crucial series win on the road.
If this is a resurgence from "J-Mac", it's coming at the perfect time. With Burnett and McDonald starting Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, the Pirates have an opportunity to win back to back road series before coming home to the struggling Milwaukee Brewers. As it stands, Burnett and McDonald would be the first two starters to face St. Louis the following week in what is sure to be another pivotal showdown for a Wild-Card spot.
If the Pirates are hoping to claim their first playoff berth since 1992, they will need James McDonald to be the second and possible, knockout punch down the stretch.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
With just a month remaining until a lockout becomes official, the NHLPA and owners are still duking it out to create a new CBA. At this time, both parties appear to be nowhere close to nailing down a deal and a work stoppage seems imminent.
Here we go again.
For those counting at home, this would be the third lockout in NHL history, spanning the last 18 years. The 1994-1995 season saw a cancellation of 468 total games -including the All-Star Game- and the eventual departure of the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets. The biggest issue was over the salary cap which Gary Bettman and the owners wanted, while the players did not. Some of the large market teams eventually caved understanding that a lockout would be more damaging to revenue than a cap-free league.
The lockout in 2005 was obviously the big one. A complete season without hockey turned off a large sports fan base and the league also lost their TV deal with ESPN. To dig out of a hole this deep, the league decided to become stricter on hooking, holding, and interference, placing skill in the spotlight. The Sidney Crosby-Alexander Ovechkin rivalry, Winter Classic, and exciting playoff finishes led to a rejuvenation of the sport. Since 2006, the salary cap has risen from $39 million to $70 million per team.
Now, that may all be for not. The NHLPA submitted a proposal to the league earlier this week and it was quickly rejected. According to Michael Grange at Sportsnet, the disparity could be as high as $1.74 billion. When you factor in how that money is supposed to be distributed as well as other concerns in the CBA (player safety, participation in the Olympics in Sochi 2014) and we may just be getting started.
Both sides need a reality check because here is the biggest problem they face: losing fans.
What is the point in arguing how to spread billions of dollars in revenue when the people who supply that revenue refuse to show up? There should be extreme desperation from both sides to get a deal in place. We're talking Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals desperation.
At the same time, that could be the problem. Both sides face immense pressure to get a deal in place and they both want to make sure they aren't left in the dust by the other side. If Gary Bettman locks out the players, it will be the third time he has done so as commissioner. He already owns the prize for being the only commissioner to lock out and NHL season, let alone three. But the smaller market teams need a reform in revenue sharing before they collapse. Teams like the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers face serious financial problems due to a lack of revenue. At the same time, NHLPA representative, Donald Fehr, is very effective at getting what he wants. He had no issues forcing a work stoppage, and eventual cancellation of the 1994 World Series, in baseball. The players feel they're the ones who brought this league back to popularity and they want a fair shake.
The league definitely has more pressure, especially when fans tend to side with players on these matters. However, both sides need to come up with an agreement and fast. If there's another lockout, the NHL could face extinction. European players will not hesitate to head to the KHL to play and you would have to assume some North American players would follow them. Who would blame them? They just want to play hockey.
Both sides need to reach an agreement and fast because if they don't, the fans may leave. And this time, they may not be coming back.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
They were losing -getting crushed- by a team that was out of the playoff hunt for three months now. The Padres, winners of ten straight at PNC Park, took a quick 1-0 lead on the second pitch of the game thanks to a Chris Denorfia solo homer. The Padres plated three more runs in the first, capped off by a two run throwing error by Clint Barmes.
The Pirates looked nervous, they played rattled, and they looked well on their way to getting swept at home and possibly starting a long losing streak. They already blew a 7-1 lead on Friday and were brushed aside on Saturday. Their lack of focus and wide-eyed appearance was on grand display in the second inning after Headley's dribbler rolled fair along the first base line. The Pirates recorded the out, but nobody covered home to prevent the fifth run from scoring. A few batters later, Pedro Alvarez and Clint Barmes collided on a routine ground ball. The 35,000-plus crowd groaned in pain over a play that had defined their demise since 1992.
Same old Pirates.
But then, something happened; a moment, if you will, that could hold the weight of a season 162 games long. The moment you think of when Scott Hatterberg hits the walk off home run against the Kansas City Royals in "Moneyball".
Clint Barmes, on a 2-2 count with the bases loaded, down 5-2, drove a ball down the left field line. The ball was obviously crushed as it rapidly approached the left field corner. The crowd stood, collectively holding its breath, almost like a sub-conscious fear of blowing the ball foul. Did he really do it?
From there, the Pirates took control scoring nine runs in the fourth inning before cruising to an 11-5 win. It was a much needed win, snapping a three game losing streak (their first since mid-June) while also gaining a game on St. Louis for the Wild Card.
Barmes's home run led the charge for Sunday's outcome, and it could be the defining moment of the season, the same way Jerry Meals's safe call turned the tide in a negative tone last year. In a 2012 season highlighted by AJ Burnett pitching at a Cy Young level, Andrew McCutchen emerging as the clear-cut favorite for NL MVP, and Starling Marte contributing mightily as a rookie, it could be Clint Barmes who goes down as the season hero. Yes, Bedard's double opened the scoring; yes, Michael Mckenry's bases loaded walk put more pressure on Ross Ohlendorf to throw strikes. But, Barmes, the 8th hitter in the lineup, batting .215 heading into the game, abusing the left field pole was the defining moment.
At least it could be.
The Pirates will face the Dodgers and Cardinals in their next seven games and both teams will be looking to climb over them in the standings. They needed a spark to breakout of the recent streak of futile hitting and poor pitching performances that had shown for the better part of two weeks. After Barmes's grand slam, Bedard and the bullpen allowed three total base runners in the final five innings of work. If it carries over, the Pirates could gain a firm grip on the Wild Card position, the same way John Milner's grand slam on August 5th, 1979 propelled the Pirates to a NL East title and World Series.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
In Pittsburgh, a "down" year for the Steelers means a year without another Super Bowl ring, parade, or championship banner.
This season, it may mean something worse; missing the playoffs, an 8-8 record.
Is it blasphemous to say the Steelers will be a mediocre team? In Pittsburgh, absolutely. However, I still stand by my prediction and if I was going to lie and say this team had another long playoff run in them, this blog would be pointless.
The Steelers are implementing a brand new offense, with two rookie offensive linemen, and without their biggest deep threat. Willie Colon is already dinged up while rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams continue to learn after missing OTA's.
The offense will also miss Rashard Mendenhall which may be a bigger deal than most people believe. Mendenhall had a rough season before tearing his ACL in the final game against the Cleveland Browns. Isaac Redman is a fan favorite due to his tough running style and productivity as a starter in the playoffs against the Denver Broncos. But, is he ready to carry the load for a full season? That remains to be seen and if he does go down with an injury, the Steelers will be forced to turn to Jonathan Dwyer. Yikes.
Ben Roethlisberger is another question mark heading into this season. He certainly hasn't been shy about voicing his opinion of new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. Also, at the age of 30, can Ben's body hold up after taking a pounding over the last 8 seasons? Can he adapt to being more of a pocket passer than a gunslinger? Who will his weapons be? Mike Wallace still hasn't come close to signing a tender or negotiating a deal, leaving Antonio Brown to face the difficulties of being double teamed. Jericho Cotchery is a solid veteran but after than, the wide receiver corps falls off. Emmanuel Sanders is a terrific talent, but can't stay on the field. Derrick Williams, the fourth receiver on the depth chart, has been a bust since coming out of Penn State three seasons ago.
While the offense is still trying to learn, the defense is looking for the fountain of youth. The once-legendary rushing defense fell to 8th last season after being shredded by the likes of Ray Rice and Arian Foster. With Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke retiring and Casey Hampton likely starting the year on the PUP list, the defensive line could drop off this season. Ziggy Hood has been average while Cameron Heyward is an unknown, playing in just his second season. The Steelers have praised Steve McLendon but he won't be able to replace the likes of Casey Hampton.
The linebackers, however, will make or break this defense. Last year, Lamarr Woodley came into camp out of shape and virtually ended his season in late October with a hamstring injury just as he was starting to get back to old form. James Harrison may be a "young" 34 but he is still 34 years old. He will start the preseason on the PUP list and may have future issues down the road thanks to chronic back problems. Lawrence Timmons needs a bounce-back season after being downright invisible last year. At 32, Larry Foote is no spring chicken, but he should provide better services than James Farrior from last year. Three of the four linebackers have elite playmaking talent, it is all a matter of putting it together for a full season.
The secondary is a big question mark heading into this season as well. Troy Polamalu is still an elite safety and future hall of fame player, but, at 32, he may have a tough time getting through a full season. Ike Taylor should have another solid season; however, the other cornerback position is still up for grabs. The Steelers rave about Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, but they're still too inexperienced to hold a starting cornerback position. Keenan Lewis will get a shot but he has been dealing with an injured shoulder.
The schedule doesn't bode well for the Pittsburgh Steelers either. Not only do they have to play the Baltimore Ravens and much-improved Cincinnati Bengals twice, they also have to face the defending Super Bowl champion, New York Giants as well as the Dallas Cowboys and Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos; all on the road.
I hope I am wrong. I hope the offense improves in its first year under Haley while the defense enjoys maybe one last season with some of its cornerstones. But, for this team, this season, it appears there are too many questions that provide very little evidence of positive answers.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Now, with the team 15 games over .500 heading into the final two months of the season, it is time to bring back another tradition in Pittsburgh: loathing the Cincinnati Reds.
In the 1970s the Pirates made the playoffs six times, winning two World Series titles. In four of those seasons, the Pirates faced the Reds and went 1-3 in the playoffs. Led by Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose, The Big Red Machine was a thorn in the side of Pittsburgh. In fact, the only team more hated than the Reds, at this time, was the Phillies as they were constantly battling Pittsburgh for the NL East title while Cincinnati was in the NL West.
In 1990, the Reds defeated the Pirates in the playoffs again, taking the series in six games.
Since the two teams came into the NL Central in 1994, the rivalry has died down. The Pirates, as we all know, have been abysmal up until this year, and the Reds have only been slightly better. This season, it has been a completely different story as both teams are battling for the NL Central and if you didn't completely hate the Reds before, after last night's game, you probably will now.
With the Reds up 3-0 in the ninth inning with nobody on and two outs, Aroldis Chapman beaned Andrew McCutchen with a 101 mph fastball on the first pitch. McCutchen glared at Chapman as he jogged down to first and, after the game, looked to be extremely upset walking into the locker room. At the same time, Pirates bench coach, Jeff Banister, was seen giving a death stare into the Cincinnati dugout.
The decision to hit McCutchen likely came from Dusty Baker and it was done to make a point. The Reds are the favorite to win the division while the Pirates are still drawing a high amount of skepticism. With the game essentially in hand, Baker wanted to prove their team was better and he wanted Chapman to intimidate the Pirates by throwing at Andrew McCutchen.
How will the Pirates respond? We'll have to wait and see. The fans are obviously excited since PNC Park has already sold out their last three home games against the Reds in September. The Pirates have eight games left against the Reds this season and it may not be long before we see benches clear.
Welcome to the rivalry.