Sunday, September 30, 2012
Two seasons ago, the Pirates wrapped up their 18th consecutive losing season by August 20th. They would finish with a record of 57-105. Last season, the Pirates finalized their epic collapse with an 82nd loss on September 14th. This season, the Pirates waited until September 30th before breaking their own North American record for consecutive losing seasons.
Rest assure there is improvement.
I am not talking about the team's ability to delay what has been the inevitable over the last two decades. A losing season is a losing season, in the end. However, the core players appeared to improve markedly; something that was missing with last year's team.
Last season, the Pirates won the majority of their games from great starting pitching. On top of that, most of their pitching staff was comprised of free agent signings and trades well after the players had developed in the minors. Guys like Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton were the backbone of a first-half winning season. As encouraging as it was to see the team perform well, a sense of sustainability was lacking.
While the staff pitched well above their talent level, players like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez struggled. Alvarez was eventually sent to AAA where he would remain for most of the season. Meanwhile, McCutchen fell off in the second half of the season, failing to maintain his modest .291 average.
This season was different. Sure, the pitching staff was extremely effective in the first half of the season, but they consisted of James McDonald, a possible future ace, and AJ Burnett, an actual veteran and mentor to the rest of the staff. Nevertheless, the hitting picked up considerably once the Pirates got past the first month and a half of the season. Andrew McCutchen was batting well over .350 while Pedro Alvarez clubbed 16 home runs before the All-Star break.
In the end, both players finished with 30+ home runs.
The Pirates also received a strong year from Neil Walker (before his injury) and got a first look at Starling Marte who appeared to handle his rookie season relatively well. They also added young talented players to fill holes such as Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider. While both players still need to improve to be considered starters on a competitive team, they are certainly proving to be better options than guys like Matt Hague and Alex Presley.
The farm system also saw improvement form the likes of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco. Of the five aforementioned names, Cole is most likely to see the majors in 2013 while Taillon could get a chance next September. A rotation featuring AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Gerrit Cole could build upon a solid foundation from the last two years.
The young players' ability to improve is the biggest positive we can take out of this season. The young core of players in the lineup are on the verge of breaking out if they haven't done so already (McCutchen).
Still, losing 82+ games this season sucks. There's no way around it. The Pirates have to win more than they lose in order to show the fans that they are improving. Make no mistake, though, they are getting better and the days of counting down another losing season will be over very soon.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Since returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the defensive coordinator in 2004, Dick Lebeau's defenses have dominated the NFL leading to three Super Bowl appearances and two championship rings. The father of the zone blitz, originally implemented in Cincinnati in the late 1980s, has been lauded by many in the NFL as one of the best defensive coaches in league history while simultaneously reaching legendary status with Pittsburghers.
However, despite his reputation of being a great coordinator, Lebeau's squad has been inconsistent the last 20 weeks of meaningful football; at least by Pittsburgh's standards.
A traditional Pittsburgh Steelers defense would never allow a washed up quarterback like Carson Palmer to put up 20 points in the second half, including the game tying and game winning field goals, three minutes apart.
A traditional Steelers defense would never have allowed a struggling running back, who came into the game with 64 yards combined in the first two weeks, to run for 113 yards on 18 carries.
What is the problem with the defense? Well, it stems from a multitude of issues from the top-down.
Is it safe to say the Dick Lebeau era is coming to an end? Not just because he is 75 years old, but also due to the fact that teams might have figured out how to stop his confusing zone blitz scheme. If you go back to the game against Oakland, the Steelers blitzed multiple times on the final drive yet barely touched Palmer. The 17 yard strike to a wide open Derek Hagan (setting the Raiders up for a game-winning field goal) came on a six-man rush that was perfectly picked up by the Raider offense.
The sack numbers tell the same story. The Steelers dropped Palmer once last Sunday bringing the season total up to five in three games. At this point, only six teams have fewer sacks than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, the season is still young and there is plenty of time to rack up sacks before January; however, this seems to be a trend dating back to last season when the Steelers were ranked 17th.
In the playoffs, the defense failed to register a sack against Tim Tebow who, in turn, torched them for 316 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 completions. Where was the pressure?
Where were the turnovers?
Last season, the Steelers were 17th in sacks and 24th in interceptions. It was the first time since 2007 the Steelers failed to rank in the top ten in either category. For a system that prides itself on confusing the quarterback and attacking the ball, that's not a good stat. With just five sacks and one interception through the first three games, the defense looks to be heading down that road again.
But it's not just the coordinator's fault. The players have to execute the system the way it's intended. Lawrence Timmons has been the biggest disappointment on the team over the last 20 weeks of meaningful football. Timmons signed a huge contract in the summer of 2011 and followed that up with a sub-par performance.
The $50 million linebacker is playing like a second year back up who is still trying to find his way. At times, Timmons has been out of position leading to quick scores by the opposition (see: McFadden touchdown). But even if he was making the typical plays, he would still be viewed as an overpaid player. A middle linebacker with a $50 million contract is paid to take the ball away from the other team and to dominate every time he steps on the field. That isn't happening.
Which brings me to my next point: since Mike Tomlin was hired, the Steelers have yet to draft an impact defensive player other than Lamarr Woodley. Ziggy Hood has been a bust, so far, and linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvestor are nothing more than backups. Chris Carter and Jason Heyward are only in their second season so it's hard to judge, but the overall youth on what has become an old defense is lacking playmakers.
The Steelers are missing James Harrison and Troy Polamalu which is a contributing factor to their struggles. That being said, they are not the same players from four years ago. Harrison is pushing 35 and has had knee and back issues for the last two seasons. He started to show his age late last season when he registered 1 sack in the final four months. Polamalu has had multiple muscle pulls to compliment five concussions and at the age of 31, that has to take a toll.
Before the season started, I predicted the Steelers would struggle on defense due to these very same reasons. Again, this may be an overreaction since there are still 13 games left in the season, but the defense has been turning in these types of performances more frequently in the last year and a half. This may be the season that starts the downswing on what was a borderline dynastic team just a few years ago.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
And yet, there is one major difference between last year's collapse and this year.
Andrew McCutchen is still playing at an All-star level. He hasn't put up the same numbers we saw in May and June but asking a player to hit 7-8 home runs while batting .370 is asking for the almost impossible.
Still, McCutchen has hit .304/.397/.488 since the break with 10 home runs and 33 RBI's. After a slump in August where he hit .252, McCutchen rebounded to hit .288 and six homers with his most recent bomb giving him 30 on the year.
Last year, McCutchen hit .291/.390/.505 in the first half of the season. That was followed by a tremendous second half slump where he hit .216/.330/.392. In an article published by ESPN earlier this season, Andrew McCutchen admitted he tried to do too much in 2011. The more the team struggled, the more he tried to overcompensate their deficiencies.
This season, McCutchen is hitting .336/.406/.564 with 30 home runs, 93 RBI's and 19 stolen bases. He leads the NL in OBP, runs and batting average while registering in the top ten in home runs, RBI's and OPS. At the end of July he was considered the runaway favorite to win the NL MVP Award.
Unfortunately, that is not the case and you know what? It's not entirely his fault.
The MVP award is usually handed to a player on a winning team and two months ago, that's exactly the team Andrew McCutchen was leading. Now, Ryan Braun seems to have taken over as the frontrunner. Braun's 40 home runs and 108 RBI's lead the NL as the Brewers continue to climb the standings for a Wild-Card spot.
With the Pirates heading in the opposite direction, McCutchen's spotlight is fading in the 2012 season. For the most part, he's done enough to win ballgames and he's certainly given the local fans an even bigger reason to be excited. But, he's not a starting pitcher, nor is he a reliever in a high pressure situation. His MVP resume is good enough on numbers, alone. But the Pirates have lacked the wins and as hard as McCutchen may try to will this team to victory, he cannot do it all by himself. He needed guys like James McDonald to stay consistent from start to start instead of folding like a cheap suit once the All-Star festivities ended. He needed the bullpen to stay sharp over the course of the year. He needed the $5 million dollar shortstop to make less than 16 errors.
That didn't happen and now the Pirates are a sinking ship with Andrew McCutchen and a select few stranded on an island of losing.
Maybe next season, the Pirates will finally be able to maintain winning from April-October. Maybe Andrew McCutchen will continue to get better and raise his game to the next stratosphere. Until then, McCutchen's MVP status will have to wait and unfortunately, some of the reasons are out of his control.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
When a team goes into a free-fall as the Pirates have done for the second straight season, it is wise to blame close to everyone in the organization from the ownership, to the water boy. In many cases, a total collapse usually leads to wholesale changes throughout the organization (hello, last year's Red Sox).
But, these are the Pirates and many of the Pittsburgh faithful are excited that, despite going just 4-11 in September, the team still has a chance to finish with a winning record.
At the same time, fans feel the frustration of seeing this team choke down the stretch for the second year in a row. Clearly, some changes need to be made; however, none of these changes should involve the general manager.
No, this is not redirecting blame in an effort to wave an apologist tapestry of Neal Huntington. He did make mistakes when it came to improving this team at the trade deadline. But, Huntington is not the sole reason why this team has had an epic meltdown and replacing him could create more problems.
Before the All-Star break, everyone was singing Huntington's praises; his shrewd trades to pick up frontline starters James McDonald and AJ Burnett as well as the draft that produced Pedro Alvarez. Even while Clint Hurdle continuously threw away outs with bunts which contributed to a historically bad offense, the team found ways to win which put a padlock on Huntington's job.
Now he should get the ax? Why?
If it's because Neal didn't trade for Chase Headley, that's not good enough. Sorry, Headley would've been a solid corner bat, but he wouldn't have been able to dig the Pirates out of a collapse like this. He can only play one position and he only hits once through the lineup. A team that has gone 15-28 in its last 43 games is not one player away from being a contender.
And, if the last 20 years have taught Pirates' fans anything, it's that players coming to Pittsburgh sometimes don't hit as well as they did before; or, they hit better once they leave. Don't believe me? Nate McLouth, Pedro Ciriaco, and Brandon Moss would like a word.
To further that point, the LA Dodgers acquired a slew of players including Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, and Shane Victorino. They've been just as inconsistent as the Pirates. Meanwhile, the Phillies and Brewers are surging despite trading away Zack Greinke, Joe Blanton, and Shane Victorino.
Huntington has been effective at doing what he set out to do four years ago: create an organization that can acquire and develop talent throughout the system. We've seen breakout years from teenage international signees as well as college draft picks. The first wave of Huntington-era talent is just starting to hit the North Shore with a few waves behind them. The Pirates will surely be ranked in the top ten in farm systems by Baseball America next year, a ranking that has eluded them since the annual list was released over ten years ago.
The Pirates have had several things go wrong through these last two months. The starting pitching, relief pitching, hitting, base running, and defense have all been atrocious. Those issues stem from the players Huntington used to field the team. The same players that created a 16 game cushion in the winning column. It's not a pass on Huntington's performance as a GM, it's a realization that larger issues start from the group in the clubhouse.
Neal Huntington's job should be safe...for now.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Despite multiple negotiations between the Player's Association and the league, the NHL is officially locked out until a new CBA is reached, effective Sunday at midnight. For the NHL, this will mark the fourth work stoppage in the last twenty years, a feat that could effectively make the league extinct.
There are several issues being debated between the two sides with the biggest being the wide difference in revenue sharing to the players. The owners proposed a plan to cut HRR (or Hockey Related Revenue) from 57% to 43% for players. Meanwhile, the players are suggesting a 50/50 split of revenue sharing to replicate the NFL and NBA.
The league quickly rejected the counter-offer.
Obviously Donald Fehr has a history of player strikes dating back to his term as the MLBPA rep in 1994. Thanks to his work, MLB did not have a World Series in '94 and Fehr gained a reputation as a tough negotiator. But, before you can point the finger at Donald Fehr as the culprit for the NHL lockout, please keep in mind what the owners are proposing:
43% revenue sharing granted to the players.
That's right, the same players fans line up with 200 dollars in tickets to watch are being denied significantly less than half the share of the profits. The sport of hockey appeals to people due to the high amount of skill required to play at the highest level. At the same time, players are generally lauded for their politeness off the ice as well as their ability to stay out of trouble. What better way to reward those same players than to have them play overseas?
The NHL released a statement to the fans suggesting that the league is in full pursuit of finding a "fair" deal for both sides.
"This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room. The League, the Clubs and the Players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans." (NHL.com)
At this time, all training camps and pre-season activities are on hold until a new CBA agreed upon. The regular season is slated to start on October 11th.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
For the second straight season, the Pirates are in the midst of an epic collapse in September, and with 20 games remaining, it seems unlikely they will finish the season with their first winning record in 20 years. Oddly enough, they are still in the wild-card race (2.5 games back) thanks to the Cardinals and Dodgers losing on a consistent basis as well.
While going 10-10 down the final stretch seems like a modest request, the truth is the Pirates are 13-26 in their last 39 games and in the middle of a six game losing streak. The pitching has been inconsistent, the offense has been atrocious, and the manager has made enough bad decisions in one week to have his job placed in question.
Assuming the Pirates cannot turn it around and recover a winning record, this will easily go down as the most painful season of the last 20 years. Through the middle of last season, the Pirates were in unfamiliar territory and they were excused for their inability to maintain a winning season. After all, they were a young team that was never used to winning at the major league level.
This year, however, there is no excuse.
The Pirates have veteran players to compliment a solid group of young talent. They have Andrew McCutchen, an MVP calibre player, as well as slugging corner players Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez. They have an excellent second baseman in Neil Walker and a strong defensive shortstop in Clint Barmes. They may not have the roster to win the World Series, but they should be able to finish with a winning record, at the very least.
If the Pirates finish with a losing record, they will kill any excitement from the fan base for the first five months of next season. How can fans possibly be excited if the Pirates are 20 games over .500 at the All-Star break in 2013? How can fans possibly talk playoffs or a winning record when, for two seasons now, the Pirates had an opportunity to do both only to fall excruciatingly short?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have managed to do something that only the Pittsburgh Pirates could do: they've won more games while, at the same time, agonizing the faith of the fan base more than before.
Monday, September 10, 2012
"Geno" proved his offseason training/rehab regimen last year was no joke, tallying 109 points and winning the Art Ross, Hart, and Ted Lindsay awards. Malkin was great nearly every night with downright breathtaking performances sprikled throughout the season. The big question: can "Geno" repeat his MVP calibre play? He certainly has the talent to be the best player in the world, but, at times, shows lapses in concentration. Malkin went back to Russia to train vigorously for the upcoming season. He seems to have found the perfect conditioning plan which will, hopefully, transition into another 100+ point performance.
When Ray Shero signed Martin to a 5 year, $25 million deal, he envisioned an excellent puck moving defenseman who could take care of business in his own end. Two years into the deal, Martin has turned from defensive anchor to salary cap killer. Despite Nashville having strong interest to Martin's rights, Shero, elected to hold on to the 31 year old from Minnesota. This could be Martin's last season to make an impact on the Pens. If he has a performance anything like last year, Shero may not be so patient to pull the trigger on a deal.
Fleury's 2011-2012 campaign was a giant roller coaster. After looking like a breakout goaltender halfway through the season, Fleury threw his name into consideration for the Vezina Trophy. The final month, however, became a free fall as Fleury's GAA rose by over one full point. Now, with the prime of his career starting age-wise, can Fleury pick up where he left off in March and finish the season in June with a Stanley Cup?
The most exciting player in the game finally made his return to hockey after battling over one full year of concussion symptoms. Unfortunately, Crosby's return spelled the end for Pittsburgh as they forgot how to be a successful team with their captain back at the helm. Crosby's nearly invisible performance in the playoffs against the Flyers didn't ease the pain but he may have been out of shape from not playing for so long. The question now is, can Sidney Crosby stay healthy for an entire season while also playing at a world-class level?
The biggest piece of the Jordan Staal trade (for now) will try to replicate #11's defensive role while providing excellent third-line offensive production. Sutter may not be the complete package like Staal, but he could become a more vital piece as he will likely be tasked to center the top penalty kill and defensive lines. Despite being just 23 year old, Sutter showed the leadership qualities for the Carolina Hurricanes who were reluctant to include him in the trade. With so many stars and leaders already on the Pens, Sutter will don the black and vegas gold as a second-tier player. However, his demeanor on and off the ice could make him a fan-favorite for Pittsburgh fans.
Assuming the league doesn't commit suicide with another lockout, the Penguins will have a lot of questions to answer. If they're going to be a Stanley Cup-contending team, they will need these five players to lead the charge toward what will hopefully be a fourth Stanley Cup championship.
Saturday, September 8, 2012
When people think of the elite quarterbacks in the league, they think of names like Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Stafford. They see 5000 yard seasons and 40+ touchdowns leading explosive offensives with impressive arm strength and pinpoint accuracy.
What often gets overlooked is how poor their own defenses are in the rankings. What do Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford all have in common? Their team defenses are ranked 32nd, 31st, 24th, and 23rd in total defense, respectively. Despite these deficiencies, these four quarterbacks combine to own five Super Bowl rings and three MVP awards. They are the epitome of team leaders.
That is the next step for Ben Roethlisberger.
For decades, the Pittsburgh Steelers have defined championship teams by the strength of their defense. When you ask someone what their first thoughts are when they think of the Steelers -aside from rivalry-fueled vulgarity- the first word is usually defense. The franchise became ignited with a dynastic run in the 1970's, led by the Steel Curtain, arguably the greatest front four linemen to this day. The tradition has carried over the last few decades with the 2008 Steelers winning a league-record sixth ring.
But those days are gone now; at least for this year. The Steelers defense showed signs of aging last year and they haven't looked much younger this year, either. With most of the unit approaching their mid-30's, it's time for the offense to lead the charge and that starts with Roethlisberger.
The Steelers offense has a lot in common with that of Detroit, Green Bay, and New England. Other than the offensive line (which Roethlisberger is responsible for as well) the Steelers have the same weapons as other elite passing teams. They have explosive wide receivers, they have a quarterback with elite-level talent; they just need to put it all together.
If everything clicks on offense for Pittsburgh, they still have a chance to take one more shot at a championship on what has been deemed a closed window. It is certainly a tall order to fill; asking a young offense under a new offensive coordinator to instantly go from 23rd in the league in scoring to top 5 may be asking for a miracle. Also, Roethlisberger has only eclipsed 30 touchdowns once in his career. Nevertheless, if this is Ben Roethlisberger's team, if he is ready to take his career to the next Hall of Fame level, then he needs to be the one to execute the turnaround for the Steelers.
Perhaps Sunday night's game could be the perfect test for Roethlisberger. With Ryan Clark and James Harrison likely to sit out, the defense will have to stop arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Chances are, that won't happen. So, it is on Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense to pick up the slack and to lead the team, even if it means winning in a shootout.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Since the Pittsburgh Penguins raised the cup at Joe Louis Arena three seasons ago, many have speculated that their talent has made them the elite class of the Eastern Conference. Even when Sidney Crosby was still dealing with concussion issues last summer, the majority of sports writers, fans, and critics picked them to be the Stanley Cup champions at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season.
But, for the third season in a row, the cup went to another team, with two of those playoff seasons ending abruptly; in Pittsburgh, in Game 7.
After a Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Mellon Arena's final game, the reaction by many was a simple shrug. It was nothing more than a Stanley Cup hangover, and an ineffective defensive unit that looked halfway out the door by the end of the first period.
GM Ray Shero, elected to reload in the summer of 2010, signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek on the blue line and adding Mike Rupp and Arron Asham to provide more toughness. The moves appeared to work, as the Penguins were fighting for the top spot in the NHL three months into the season while possessing a much-improved defense.
Then came the Winter Classic.
Sidney Crosby, who was leading the Penguins on their impressive string of dominance, went down with a concussion a week after the New Year. The league's best player -on pace to be the first to score 140+ points in a season since Mario Lemieux in 1995- would not return for the rest of the season.
Crosby's injury was the tip of the iceberg for the 2010-2011 Penguins. Jordan Staal missed half the season with a foot infection and broken hand, Evgeni Malkin tore his ACL and MCL in February of 2011, missing the rest of the season and the playoffs, while Chris Kunitz, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin all missed a significant amount of time.
With the top line featuring Jordan Staal, Alexei Kovalev and Mark Letestu, the Penguins were bounced in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning after blowing a 3-1 series lead. The loss in Game 7 was disheartening, but everyone knew the Penguins had virtually no chance of winning the Stanley Cup without their two best players.
Last season, the Penguins entered the season with their top two stars still banged up. Malkin returned and dominated the league after the soreness in his surgically repaired knee subsided, while Sidney Crosby took a little more time to get back on the ice. Nevertheless, the Penguins entered the playoffs with a healthy roster and high hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
That didn't happen. Instead, the Penguins were flattened by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games with Crosby and Malkin disappearing, along with the entire defensive unit and goaltender. If there were any excuses, it was that the Penguins had lost their defensive disciplined, relying too heavily on the league's top offense to carry the load.
The loss, coupled with inconclusive contract negotiations, prompted the Penguins to make more changes in the offseason. Shero traded away Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter and two defensive prospects, as well as Zbynek Michalek in what was essentially a salary dump. The moves freed up a ton of cap space which was originally intended for either Ryan Suter or Zach Parise. Unfortunately, both decided to go to Minnesota.
So where do the Penguins stand now? Are they still the favorites? According to Las Vegas, yes, but should they be favored? Despite losing Jordan Staal, they still possess a solid core of young elite talent and the East seems to have lost some of its luster. And yet, it is evident the New York Rangers have gotten significantly better with the addition of Rick Nash. The Philadelphia Flyers may not have improved, but they do have the Penguins' number.
If the Penguins cannot deliver a Stanley Cup this season, one has to wonder if their reputation significantly changes.
Monday, September 3, 2012
But did they? The Cardinals are still ahead of the Pirates by 1.5 games in the second Wild Card spot. The Pirates -playing a sub .500 team- had a golden opportunity to take the second Wild Card spot over the weekend. Instead of viewing this weekend as dodging a bullet, it should be seen as a lost opportunity. Obviously, the season isn't over, but the window to secure a playoff spot is fading and with six games remaining against the invincible Cincinnati Reds and Wild Card-leading Atlanta Braves.
Now, the Pirates have a brief home stand against the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. These are two teams the Pirates need to sweep in order to get back on track. After a disappointing August, the club has stumbled out of the gate in September. At the very least, the Pirates need to go 5-1 before heading to Cincinnati.
However, if the Pirates go 3-3 or worse, then it might be time to end the playoff dream and hope for a winning season, something that is no longer a guarantee given the team's recent struggles.
The good news is Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez appear to be heating up. McCutchen has hits in five straight games while Alvarez has three homers in the last five games. The offense may get a lift from some of their youth like Brock Holt, but they still lack a consistent leadoff hitter.
The breaking point will, once again, come down to pitching. AJ Burnett has rebounded as evidenced by his start on Saturday against Milwaukee, but the rest of the rotation is a huge questions mark. Jeff Karstens is injured, James McDonald has been atrocious, Wandy Rodriguez has been up and down, and Kevin Correia is...Kevin Correia. Can this rotation, now suited with a rookie, keep the Pirates above water?
It all starts with this home stand. The Pirates are chasing a Wild Card spot and a winning record, but, they need to take care of these next six games first. This week will either keep the Pirates in the hunt, or respectably drop them out of contention.