2017 Pirates: Are the Pirates on the move, or just McCutchen?

Hal Smith

Hal Smith might have been the hero of the 1960 World Series that Bill Mazeroski is, but for a Yankee rally in the ninth inning of Game 7. Smith was a 30-year-old part-time catcher who was batting in the eighth inning only because the Pirates had pinch-run for Smokey Burgess. The Yankees had scored twice in the top of the inning to pad a 5-4 lead, but the Pirates had gotten those back and had two on with two outs when Smith batted. His three-run homer off Jim Coates, called “the most forgotten home run in baseball history,” by teammate Dick Groat, according to Jim O’Brien’s book, Maz and the ’60 Bucs: When Pittsburgh and Its Pirates Went All the Way, gave the Pirates a 9-7 lead they couldn’t hold. On the radio, according to O’Brien’s book, Chuck Thompson said, “We have seen and shared in one of baseball’s greatest moments.” If he only knew what was to come. (Click here to see Smith’s homer.) The Pirates had traded for Smith the previous winter, and he was an able complement to Burgess, batting .295 with 11 homers and a .508 slugging percentage in 258 at-bats. The Pirates were the third of Smith’s five teams, groomed in the Yankees’ farm system but never playing for the parent team. He was traded to the Orioles after the 1954 season in a deal that eventually included 17 players, eight of them players to be named later (it also included Don Larsen, who went on to some World Series fame of his own with the Yankees). With the Athletics in 1957 he hit 13 homers and batted .303, and taken by the Colts in the expansion draft, he hit 12 homers in Houston in 1962, their first season. According to Smith’s bio at sabr.org, he and Maz bonded in their retirements over their Game 7 homers. From sabr. org: “Every time ‘we see each other, Maz thanks me,’ Smith said.” Career totals: .267 average, 58 home runs, 323 RBIs, 715 hits, .317 on-base percentage, .394 slugging, .711 OPS, 94 OPS+, 37% caught stealing (league averages were 42%), 74 passed balls (twice led AL), 4.2 WAR (2.2 in 1960).

Up next:  The Pirates reconfigured their outfield in the offseason, making everybody move — Starling Marte from left to center, Gregory Polanco from right to left, Andrew McCutchen from center to right — because McCuctchen’s defense had so deteriorated in center. No word on what the next reassembling will entail, but knowing the Pirates, they won’t tell anyone till it’s done. It’ll happen either this year or next for Austin Meadows, who not yet 22, is  a career .300 minor-league hitting and .480-slugging centerfielder. Meadows was drafted ninth in the first round of the 2013 draft, a compensation pick for the Pirates failing to sign pitcher Mark Appel the year before. Nobody knew then how lucky — or smart — the Pirates were. Appel has a career minor-league ERA of 5.04, has been traded once and is still slogging around AAA. Meadows will likely start this season in AAA, but only a hot streak or injury away from promotion.

What he said: “Once I got over the fact that I had to move, the more I started to look at it, get some positivity out of it, that’s one way to look at it,” Andrew McCutchen on tweeting out a picture of Roberto Clemente after being informed of his position change. What he meant: “If they moved me to first base, I would have tweeted out a picture of Garrett Jones.”

Outlook: Andrew McCutchen says the Pirates never asked him about moving to right field but told him it was done, just the way your spouse tells you you’re going to your mother-in-law’s for dinner. With that kind of discussion, so much for building consensus.

The daughter of Bill McKechnie, for whom the Pirates’ spring training stadium has been named for more than 50 years, says she learned the team had changed the name by reading the exhibition schedule in the newspaper.

It’s safe to say tact is not the hallmark of the 2017 Pirates.

Any good subordinate knows the best way to get someone important to embrace change is to hint an idea and let them think they thought of it first. McCutchen isn’t in charge of the Pirates, but he’s their highest-paid player and he gave the team credibility long before its play warranted it.

The Pirates made the right move in the wrong manner, because McCutchen deserved better than being dictated to. “It was more, ‘This is something you have to do.’ It wasn’t an ask,” McCutchen said upon arriving at camp. “It was more of that I have to move there and it’s for the betterment of the team. That’s one of the first times where that’s something I wanted to go against.”

Fermenting team unity was apparently not a goal for this spring.

The Pirates were just as callous in the name change of their spring training home from McKechnie Field to LECOM Park, which has a nice, uh, ring to it. (LECOM stands for Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine; Lake Erie, like the Manatee River that runs through Bradenton, is a body of water, so they have that in common). Just as with McCutchen, their decision was correct — who doesn’t need the corporate dollars? — though their delivery was flawed.

The mayor of Bradenton, according to a story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, said McKechnie’s only surviving child couldn’t be reached. It was less of a problem for the newspaper, whose reporter said he called 85-year-old Carol Montgomery. “She picked up on the second ring,” wrote Chris Anderson.

Montgomery was at McKechnie Field three years ago to throw out the first pitch, and if they couldn’t find her contact info, you have to wonder who’s in charge of the Rolodex in the mayor’s office in Bradenton? Mike Flynn?

The stadium was named after McKechnie in 1962, when he went into the Hall of Fame for a managing career in which he won 1,896 games and two World Series — with the 1940 Reds and the 1925 Pirates. Those Pirates World Series champs had a payroll this Pirate ownership would like.

(The 1925 Pirates managed by McKechnie became the first team to overcome a 3-1 Series deficit, which the Pirates did again in 1979. The ’25 Pirates did it by beating Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in Game 7, Johnson somehow pitching a complete-game 15-hitter and losing 9-7 — the score by which the Pirates led Game 7 of the 1960 Seies after Hal Smith’s homer — in mud and fog and rain. No word on whether Bowie Kuhn took his coat off).

It’s not that change is bad, because the 2017 Pirates, long on talented but fragile young pitchers and multi-tool outfielders, and short on most everything else, certainly need it. After three straight playoff appearances, the Pirates fell back below .500, mostly because of McCutchen’s decline at age 29 and a pitching staff not even Ray Searage could salvage.

The Pirates were ninth in the NL in ERA (4.21), their worst showing since 2011, before they started making the playoffs. The Pirates’ potentially dominant young trio — Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow — was limited, mostly by injury, to 43 starts.

Cole is the only one of the three to have topped 200 innings, and he did that in 2015, when he pitched 70 more innings than the previous season, which might help explain his 2016 ailments. That’s the kind of handling you’d expect from the Mets.

It’s also the paradox of young pitchers, who can’t be relied on until they prove they can pitch 200 innings, but can’t be asked to do that until they build up to it.

All the injuries forced the Pirates to start mediocrities Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, Ryan Vogelsong and Jon Niese, none of whom had an ERA better than 4.50, 63 times. Francisco Liriano, for three years a Pirate stalwart, didn’t pitch like it and was traded with a 5.46 ERA.

Liriano had been one of Searage’s greatest triumphs, and even if he finally failed on Liriano, Searage still has that indescribable it.  Check Ivan Nova, who had a 4.90 ERA with the Yankees but 3.06 in 11 Pirates starts. Nova’s success was not so much Searage magic, but perhaps two words of sage advice: throw strikes. Nova walked three batters in 64.2 innings with the Pirates.

The bullpen is iffy, but the trade for Felipe Rivero, a 25-year-old lefty with a 95-mph fastball and multiple years of team control more secure than Rivero’s of said fastball, looks better with Mark Melancon a free-agent signee in San Francisco. It’s the kind of Pirate exchange, like allowing Russell Martin to leave and trading for Francisco Cervelli, that looks better with patience.

The lineup might have solved its problem at first base, where Josh Bell will finally take over a position that’s made manager of George Steinbrenner’s Yankees look like a post of stability. Since Adam LaRoche started in consecutive seasons (2007-09), the Pirates have gone from Jones to Lyle Overbay to Casey McGehee to Gaby Sanchez to Ike Davis to Pedro Alvarez to John Jaso. The Pirates keep hiring the worst candidates and wondering why they can’t do the job. Bell, who has a .373 minor-league on base percentage and developing power, will fix that.

The Pirates still have a problem at second base — Josh Harrison, so valuable as recently as 2014, had a .311 on-base percentage — and wherever they wanted Jung Ho Kang to play. Kang can play short and third, hit with power and get on base, but he’s negated all his talent with serious legal problems. A sexual assault complaint, still open, was made against him in Chicago, and he’s been charged with DUI three times in South Korea.

“You might want to see Kang in the Pirates lineup,” wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook, “but do you really want to see him driving on our streets?”

Cook isn’t wrong. And given the Pirates’ recent attempts at public relations, they might want to make sure to do due diligence before announcing any decision on Kang.

Team song: Norah Jones: Chasing Pirates

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