Pittsburgh Pirates: Losing isn’t eternal (or is it?)


Gene Alley

Gene Alley played 11 seasons, all for the Pirates from 1963-1973, and retired with 999 hits. Twice an All-Star, twice a Gold Glove winner, twice finished in the MVP voting (11th and 26th), hit .299 in 1966 and .287 in 1967. Not nearly as good in the postseason, where Alley was 1-for-27, including 0-for-16 in the 1972 NLCS.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: It’ll be a couple of years before the best of the next generation of potential stars — Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell — arrive. In the meantime, pitcher Kyle McPherson and outfielder Starling Marte will have to suffice. McPherson is taking the scenic route to the majors — it took five seasons to reach AA and he made multiple appearances at three stops. But he throws strikes (93 walks in 530.2 minor league innings) and gets enough outs (2.96 ERA last year) to be serviceable. Marte has so little plate discipline, he might sprain a wrist on a pitchout. But he can hit (.309 career minor league average), run (20 steals in four straight seasons), and has enough power (.500 slugging in AA last year) to be useful despite his anxiousness. Like Pirates fans, he just needs a little more patience.

What is this man doing here? Three major-league teams have called on Jo-Jo Reyes, and three teams’ fans have called him No-No Reyes. In five years for the Braves, Jays and Orioles, Reyes has compiled the following numbers: 12 wins and 26 losses, a 6.05 ERA, a .300 batting average against, a .502 slugging percentage against. That Reyes is 27 is no longer an advantage: it just means he can perform poorly longer than, say, Jamie Moyer. There comes a time to admit that no matter Reyes’ minor-league stats (41-23, 3.51 ERA, 526 hits in 585 innings), he’s not a major-league pitcher. Not even for the Pirates.

What he said: Casey McGehee on hitting .223 in 2011 while the Brewers won the NL Central: “I don’t know if frustrating even begins to describe what was going on last year,” said McGehee to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. What he meant: “If I can handle that, 90 losses is a piece of cake.”

Outlook: The poet Alexander Pope wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always To be blest.” Obviously Pope wasn’t a Pirate fan; he died in 1744, or shortly before the Pirates stopped winning.

That was actually in 1992, when Sid Bream slid under Mike LaValliare to complete the Pirates’ best imitation of the Buffalo Bills (but only after Jose Lind erred and home plate ump John McSherry squeezed Pirates closer Stan Belinda). Since then, Pirates fans have endured 19 straight losing seasons, the last seven of which the team has lost 90 games or more.

2012 isn’t off to a good start with the news Friday that starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, the team’s most important acquisition of the offseason, could miss the first two months of the season. Ironically Burnett was injured while practicing bunting; batting behind Clint Barmes, there won’t be much need for it.

The Pirates are likely to have a 20th straight losing season in 2012, but they cut their losses by 15 from 2010 to 2011 and they’re just as likely to cut a few more this year. But temper the optimism — .500 might be achieveable, contention won’t be until Cole, Taillon and Bell justify their draft status.

The Pirates have too many starting pitchers to whom the sixth inning is the end of the journey, and too many batters who strike out far more than they walk. Andrew McCutchen, the best so far of the 2009 rookie center field class (sorry Colby Rasmus and Dexter Fowler), and Jose Tabata are the exceptions; other than those two, the projected Pirate starters walked 244 times last year and fanned 599 times.

With the Pirates’ pitchers, that’s not going to generate enough offense to win more than half their games.

Team song: Jimmy Buffett: A Pirate (Fan) Looks At 40 (Years of Losing)

Suggested lyrics:

Yes I am a Pirate fan
About 40 years too late
Stargell don’t thunder
and Clemente don’t plunder
Poor McCutchen’s just a victim of fate

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