Commentary

Pittsburgh actually showing progress

At 18-18, Pirates have a .500 record this late in a season for the first time since 2004

Originally Published: May 11, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Let history reflect that on a perfect Monday evening in the second week of May, the Pittsburgh Pirates did something that hadn't been witnessed in seven stinking years.

They reached the summit of Mount .500 -- and kept on climbing.

Spray the ticker tape.

And check the standings.

[+] EnlargeKevin Correia
Jake Roth/US PresswireKevin Correia is tied for the National League lead with five wins.

Because when they'd finished high-fiving, the Pirates' record looked like this:

18-17.

It wasn't exactly "late" in the season by normal standards. But we're not talking normal here, friends. We're talking Pirates standards. And on that scale, this was the "latest" the Pirates had found themselves with a winning record since (ready?) May 29, 2004.

Want to know how long ago that was? OK, here goes. It was sooooo long ago that:

• Ichiro has slapped 1,529 hits since then.

• Albert Pujols has pounded 289 home runs.

• Mariano Rivera has saved 272 games.

• Four different pitchers (CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt) have won more than 100 games.

• Adam Dunn has whiffed 1,240 times.

• The Yankees have won 664 games (plus 26 more in the postseason).

• The Steelers have played in three Super Bowls.

• And of the nine men who started for the Pirates the last time they ascended to the other side of Mount .500 this "late," seven of them are out of baseball right now.

That's how long.

So perhaps that explains why, on Twitter that night, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Dejan Kovacevic started a thread that gained remarkable traction as the evening wore on -- with the hash tag label #historywillbemade.

This isn't the sort of history the Pirates were founded to make, obviously. But when you're 19 seasons into the longest streak of futility by any North American professional sports franchise, it's the sort of history you're stuck with. For now.

Like it or not, The Streak continues to hang over the Pirates the way The Curse once hung over the Red Sox, the way 1908 hangs over Da Cubs, the way Ishtar hangs over Dustin Hoffman.

When you go 18 straight seasons without a winning record, people tend to bring it up now and then -- assuming your definition of "now and then" is "every day of every year."

So this spring, when the new manager in town, Clint Hurdle, burst through the door, he decided it was time to change the conversation.

"We're not going to print up T-shirts that say, 'Let's Win 82,'" he said, chuckling.

Instead, Hurdle's mantra was one that he said got hammered into his brain cells during the season he spent on Ron Washington's 2010 coaching staff in Texas:

"All we need to do is be better than the team we're playing tonight."

Well, here we are, six weeks and 36 games into Season No. 19 Since Sid Bream. And despite their messy 10-3 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday, the standings tell us the Pirates still have been better than the team they played "tonight" exactly 18 times.

We're guessing you don't need to click on your calculator icon to know that makes them a .500 baseball team, at 18-18, with a mere 126 games to play.

Which means there's no better time than this time to ask: Could this be The Year?

If this were any other team, it would be way too early to ask that question, of course. So the general manager who built this Pirates team understands it's actually way too early to ask it about his team, too.

"We want to fight that mentality of, 'We're .500, so we're really on our way,'" Neal Huntington said. "Hey, it's great being .500. It beats [the alternative]. But we're not where we want to be."

Neal Huntington We want to fight that mentality of, 'We're .500, so we're really on our way.' Hey, it's great being .500. It beats [the alternative]. But we're not where we want to be.

-- Pirates GM Neal Huntington

The goal isn't to wipe away The Streak. The goal is to build what the Rays have built, what the Twins have built. Something meaningful. Something lasting. Something substantial enough that winning isn't defined as "one game over .500 in May."

And "there's no magic formula," Huntington said. "There's no magic button we can push to become one of the best teams in baseball, to become one of the best farm systems in baseball. It takes time to build one of the best teams in baseball. It takes time to build one of the best farm systems in baseball."

The truth is, that's another way of saying it's going to take a lot more time. The Pirates are still only the 21st-best system in baseball in Keith Law's organizational rankings. And they had only two players (pitcher Jameson Taillon, at No. 30, and catcher Tony Sanchez, at 63) crack the top 100 prospects list.

But this team is NOT hopeless. Not anymore. For one thing, the Pirates can now pitch a little. They actually had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League at one point last week. At age 27, with a rebuilt delivery, Charlie Morton looks as though he might have finally figured it out. And believe it or not, no free-agent starter signed by any team last winter has won more games so far than Kevin Correia (5-3, 3.25 ERA).

There's also some upside in their lineup, where Pedro Alvarez is hitting just .202 (with just one homer and 35 strikeouts), Jose Tabata is batting only .226 (with a .328 OBP) and Andrew McCutchen was hitting a mere .227/.331/.391 before a two-homer night Tuesday spiffed up his numbers.

"So we've got guys who can play better," Huntington said. "And to me, that's the most encouraging thing. It's not our record. It's showing signs that we can be better, that we SHOULD be better."

But perhaps the biggest reason for hope these days is the energy and positivity the manager has breathed into a franchise that needs all the energy and positivity it can muster. And that's not all that Hurdle has brought.

"He's made these guys more accountable," one NL scout said. "And young players need that. I like [ex-manager] John Russell a lot, but he seemed like a guy who was too worried about what people thought of him. This guy doesn't worry about what people think of him. This is a guy you can't walk away from. When he speaks, you have to listen."

Baseball isn't the kind of game that allows you to talk your way to the other side of Mount .500, though. And the truth is, there probably isn't enough talent here yet for this to be The Year. But you've got to start somewhere. And 18-18 on May 11 is a whole lot better than 8-28. (Or 14-19, which was the Pirates' record on May 11, 2010.)

So if they're looking for a smaller-term goal, here's one: Just keep this going until June. Why? Well, want to know the last time the Pirates were even one game over .500 in June?

How 'bout (gulp) 1999? When Jameson Taillon was in the second grade. So keep that hash tag handy, because #historycanstillbemade -- one of these days.

Ready to Rumble

• People around the game are viewing the Royals' decision to call up Eric Hosmer as a sign they're mulling making a run at winning the AL Central THIS year. An official of one AL team tells Rumblings that the Royals believe that if they need to add pieces in July, owner David Glass would allow them to use their "Gil Meche money" to add payroll.

"David Glass is a smart-enough businessman to see that division is wide-open," the official said. "So if they're in it, all that will do is put more butts in the seats."

• The Royals also have two starting pitchers in Triple-A -- Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery -- plus the just-recalled Vin Mazzaro, whom they view as being about ready to pitch in the big leagues. So other clubs say they're getting indications that K.C. will talk about moving Kyle Davies and Jeff Francis in the next few weeks, if not sooner.

There wouldn't appear to be much of a market for Davies, whose 5.58 career ERA is nearly three-quarters of a run higher than that of any current big league starter who has made more than 100 starts.

Although Francis is winless in eight starts, he has made more quality starts (five) than Mark Buehrle or C.J. Wilson. So "there's always a chance to find somebody," one AL executive said, "who could look at a guy like that and think, 'Get him back in the National League, where he knows the hitters better, and you just might get something out of him.'"

• There's a lot of head-scratching in the baseball biz these days over Alex Rodriguez's mysterious decision to hire a new agent (Dan Lozano) at a time when he wouldn't seem to have any need for an agent for the rest of his career.

"Makes no sense whatsoever," said an executive of one team. "Why would he need an agent? He's never going to sign another baseball contract. And he's got his own marketing guy already. So there's got to be something going on behind the scenes that hasn't come out yet, or this one just doesn't add up."

Erik Bedard
Bedard

• While people in baseball debate what could be a moot point -- namely, whether the Mariners will talk about trading Felix Hernandez -- the Seattle starter who might be pitching himself into let's-make-a-deal viability is Erik Bedard.

After what amounts to two lost seasons, Bedard has a 1.89 ERA, a .464 opponent OPS and 15 strikeouts in 19 innings in his past three starts (against the Tigers, Rangers and White Sox). So if this keeps up for six more weeks, he could be a more attractive trading chip than anyone would have imagined two months ago. On the other hand, Bedard has made it past the fifth inning only twice in seven starts. So "he needs to prove he can log innings," one NL exec said. "That's a big piece of it with him."

• In a world where there's never enough left-handed pitching, here's one to watch: Randy Flores can opt out of his minor league deal Sunday if the Padres don't call him up from Tucson. Flores is 35, has spent eight seasons in the big leagues as a left-handed specialist, leads the Pacific Coast League in appearances (with 18) and has a 0.73 ERA in 12 games since April 16. The Padres currently have only one left-hander (Cory Luebke) in their bullpen. So they could create an opening. But if not, Flores wouldn't figure to have much trouble finding employment if he opts out. Possible suitors: Red Sox, Dodgers and a half-dozen other left-handed-challenged teams.

• In a draft with no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, UCLA ace Gerrit Cole was once a guy whom Keith Law described as a pitcher who "compares favorably with Stephen Strasburg." But Cole sure isn't dominating like Strasburg. His start this past weekend against Oregon (7 1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 5 K) was an improvement. But he had an 8.68 ERA in his previous three starts. Although he still figures to be a top pick, it's hard to find anyone who thinks Cole -- or any other player in this draft -- is The Next Strasburg anymore. "That monster isn't out there this year," said an executive of one club.

• If the Mets market Francisco Rodriguez as a setup man for some team that already has an established closer, it would eliminate worries that he would vest his games-finished option. But clubs we've surveyed are still skeptical despite K-Rod's 10 saves and 1.10 ERA.

"He's got good numbers," one scout said. "But he's not throwing great. He's on the edge. He's walking guys [10 in 16 1/3 innings]. He's battling through it. But he's throwing 88-89 [miles per hour], without the same breaking ball or change."

• So what do the advanced metrics tell us about K-Rod? According to FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity is down 4 miles per hour (to 90.6 mph) from his heyday in Anaheim, and his swinging-strike percentage (10.0 percent) is at a career low. When he first got to the big leagues in September 2002, that swinging-strike percentage was 22.8 percent. Hmm. Big difference.

• We're sure people will spend the next two months speculating about Jose Reyes heading to the Giants. But clubs that have done business with Giants GM Brian Sabean keep pointing out it's been a long time since Sabean was willing to trade a bunch of hot prospects in a July mega-deal. So we checked. And they couldn't be more right.

Jose Reyes
Reyes

Sabean dealt two prospects for Randy Winn in 2005, three for Sidney Ponson in 2003 and two for Kenny Lofton in 2002. But to find an equivalent to a true blockbuster deal for someone like Reyes, you'd need to go back a decade to 2001, when the Giants swapped three minor leaguers for Andres Galarraga and two for Jason Schmidt.

Again, that was a decade ago. Think that philosophy is going to change now for a two-month rental of Jose Reyes? We wouldn't be so sure of that. Remember, Sabean resisted massive calls to trade Madison Bumgarner or Jonathan Sanchez for a hitter or two last summer -- and found enough bats in the bargain bin to win a World Series.

• Finally, here's one sure sign it's been a weird season so far: In the past week, we've heard one scout say he'd "pitch to Hanley [Ramirez] in a heartbeat before I'd pitch to Gaby Sanchez." And we heard another say it might be time to pitch around Matt Holliday and take your chances with Albert Pujols, especially because you don't want to mess with Lance Berkman behind Pujols. And they weren't kidding. Cue the "Twilight Zone" music.

Five astounding facts

1. Reason No. 89,468 that baseball is the most unpredictable sport in existence: On the same day (Saturday), the pitcher who had allowed more hits than anyone in the National League -- Yovani Gallardo -- took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, while the pitcher who was leading the American League in strikeouts -- Jered Weaver -- faced 27 hitters and struck out none of them.

2. You don't see many pitchers' duels like that Cliff Lee-Derek Lowe classic on Friday. In fact, we know for a fact we haven't seen ANY games like that in the past 62 seasons. Eric Seidman, of FanGraphs and brotherlyglove.com fame, tells Rumblings there hasn't been another game since 1950 in which one starting pitcher (Lee) piled up 16 strikeouts before the other starter (Lowe) gave up a hit. In fact, of the 106 times since 1950 that a pitcher has struck out 16 or more, there have been only three previous games in that span in which a starter even reached double figures in whiffs before his team got a hit: Nolan Ryan (13) on June 8, 1977; Sam McDowell (11) on May 1, 1968; and Ryan again (10) on April 26, 1990.

3. How amazing is it that Jo-Jo Reyes has won NONE of his past 25 starts? First off, he's just the fourth pitcher to have a winless streak that long since 1922, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others: Matt Keough (28), Bob Miller (27) and Anthony Young (27). Second, during Reyes' winless streak, four different pitchers have won at least 15 of their past 25 starts: Roy Halladay (17), Trevor Cahill (16), Adam Wainwright (15) and Jon Lester (15).

4. Carl Pavano just became the first pitcher in two years to run off back-to-back starts of at least five innings and zero strikeouts. So he should know this: 1. Those 14 runs he has allowed between strikeouts are the most by any starting pitcher since Scott Elarton allowed 18 runs in three very short whiffless starts in 2007. And 2. Only one pitcher in the past 33 years has racked up three straight no-K starts of at least five innings -- Kirk Saarloos in 2005.

5. Finally, how 'bout those White Sox? On May 3, Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter against them. Four days later, Doug Fister threw a 14-hitter against them. The last team to have a no-hitter and a 14-hitter pitched against it in the same week? Sam Horn's 1991 Orioles -- who got no hits against Wilson Alvarez on Aug. 11, then got 14 hits against Oil Can Boyd four days later.

Tweets of the Week

• From the legendary 19th-century iron man, @OldHossRadbourn:

T. Wakefield used his knuckle-ball quite well today. He and I invented the pitch in 1889 in the back room of a Boston alehouse.

• And now the latest from Milwaukee, where Nyjer Morgan's trip to the disabled list with a broken finger is clearly weighing on his fictitious alter ego, @Tony_Plush:

There were too many unspeakable horrors, and Plush came home shaken. It was not unlike Charles Marlow's ill-fated pilgrimage to find Kurtz.

Sportspickle Ticker

Finally, this just in from the investigative humorists at theonion.com:

TEAM OWNERS OBJECT TO MLB'S
NEW RUN-SHARING AGREEMENT

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com