2018 Pittsburgh Pirates: Taking a step back

Tom Butters

Tom Butters won only two games in a Pirates career that spanned 43 games and parts of four seasons, but he helped the Duke men’s basketball team win many more. Butters was the athletics director at Duke who hired Mike Krzyzewski, who’s won more than a thousand games and is still counting. Butters went to college in the mid-1950s at Ohio Wesleyan, the same school attended by famous baseball executive Branch Rickey, who scouted Butters. Butters, according to his bio at sabr.org: “. . . they set up a workout. Bobby Bragan (Pittsburgh’s manager) caught me. Mr. Rickey came out of the stands to watch me. He turned away after just a couple of pitches, and I started to go after him. But Bragan held me up and said, ‘Son, he’s seen what he needs to see!'” Rickey had seen enough to sign Butters, though it took six years for him to reach the majors. Butters pitched six innings for the Pirates in 1962 and 16.1 more in 1963. In 1964, he had his longest stint with the Pirates, pitching 64.1 innings with a 2.38 ERA and 58 strikeouts. On the way to spring training the next year, according to sabr.org, the car Butters was driving was hit from behind and he suffered whiplash. Butters pitched only nine innings in 1965, was released, and returned to spring training in 1966 to try again. From sabr.org: “Although Butters has no recollection of it, Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince interviewed him for a Pittsburgh TV special at Terry Park in Fort Myers, Florida in March 1966. ‘Every time he gets up in the morning he has a severe and intense headache. Every time he runs or pitches in a ballgame he vomits. Why, Tom, why do you try to do it?’ ‘I’ve given quite a bit of my life to baseball,’ Butters said. ‘It’s been good to me. I’d like very much to continue if at all possible. I don’t want to go home and feel that I’ve been shortchanged and that I’ve shortchanged somebody else by not trying.’ ” Butters did give up baseball, took a job in the admissions department at Duke and became the baseball coach when Jim Bly died and former Blue Devil and Pirates teammate Dick Groat, according to sabr.org, recommended Butters. He coached three seasons, was followed by Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter and worked in the athletics department, and became in AD in 1977. He hired Krzyzewski in 1980, and stuck with him as Duke went 10-17 and 11-17 in Krzyzewski’s second and third seasons. From sabr.org: “One story holds that ‘years later, when it became clear even to the stupid that Coach K was a tremendous coach, Mr. Butters used to periodically respond to a couple of letters asking the alumnus if he/she still wanted Coach K fired.’ ” Butters also later hired Steve Spurrier to coach the football team; Spurrier won an ACC title at Duke before winning a national title, like Krzyzewksi did multiple times at Duke, at Florida. Butters left his position as Duke AD in 1997; he died in 2016. Career numbers: 2-3, 3.10 ERA, 43 games, 95.2 innings, 81 hits, 56 walks, 85 strikeouts, .672 OPS against, 3.46 FIP, 115 ERA+, 1.5 WAR (1.4 in 1964).

Next man up: Outfielder Austin Meadows is like the four-year starter in college basketball — it seems he’s always been around. It’s hard to believe Meadows is still only 22, since he’s been touted for the last two seasons, like the four-year vet being cited for leadership as a junior. It’s easy when you consider his injury-marred performance last year at AAA. He batted .250, slugged .359 and was no candidate to get called up even when Starling Marte was suspended for a big chunk of 2017. It’s well to remember Meadows’ youth when considering his play — he’s batted just .239 in 410 at-bats over parts of the last two seasons at AAA. The Pirates aren’t giving up on Meadows’ potential, though now that they’ve traded Andrew McCutchen, they have no choice.

What he said:  Catcher Francisco Cervelli on his new diet: “I try to put the right gas in my car. I am a Ferrari, so I want to treat my car the right way.” What he meant: “Or I’m a Kia who thinks he’s a sports car.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. Pirates pitchers were 13th in ERA last year at 4.22, and that’s with every starter’s ERA greater than 4.00. Closer Felipe Rivero was that good. There’s plenty of reasons to think Pirates’ starting pitching will improve. Jameson Taillon is 26 and his ERA spiked more than a run last year; Chad Kuhl is 25 and throws mid-90s; Tyler Glasnow is 24 and his major-league performance — 85.1 innings, 103 hits, 6.75 ERA — doesn’t bear any resemblance to his minor-league’s — 593.1 innings, 354 hits, 2.02 ERA. 2. They’re not in such a perpetual search for a closer that they traded one of the best in MLB. Want to know why the Nationals can’t win a playoff series? Because they were so desperate for a closer in 2016 they dealt Rivero to get Mark Melancon from the Pirates, only to lose in the first round and see Melancon depart as a free agent. The Nationals might have needed a closer again in 2017, but the Pirates didn’t because they had Rivero, who was one of MLB’s best. Rivero had a 1.67 ERA, 88 strikeouts in 75.1 innings and a .473 OPS against. The Nationals needed a closer, and traded a second straight summer to get one. After the Nats lost another first-round series, the GM who traded Rivero fired the manager who didn’t get to use him. 3. The Pirates have a core group of young players approaching their peak years together. First baseman Josh Bell is 25 and hit 26 homers last year; third baseman Colin Moran is 25, batted .301 and slugged .532 in the minors last year; Gregory Polanco is 26 and better than the .251/305/391 he produced last year. Early in their careers, the Pirates can afford them financially, and afford to let them mature.

Three reasons it won’t: 1. The Pirates’ offense is bad. They were 28th in runs scored and team OPS last year, and that’s with Andrew McCutchen hitting 28 homers and walking 73 times. Trading their best offensive player won’t help them score more runs. The Pirates were 29th in home runs with 151, and only the Giants hit fewer. Polanco, upon whom much of the Pirates’ hopes rest, stole 35 bases but hit only 11 homers. 2. The Pirates aren’t trying to win in 2018, and they don’t much care who knows it. You don’t trade McCutchen, who led the Pirates in 2017 in home runs and OPS, and Gerit Cole, who led them in innings pitched and strikeouts, if you’re trying to be covert. Josh Harrison, their most versatile and valuable remaining player, started spring training with a request to be traded. And former Pirate Neil Walker, upon signing with the Yankees, said the Pirates teams he played for were “a few pieces from being a legitimate contender.” The 2018 Pirates start many pieces away. Self-awareness isn’t one of them. 3. Ivan Nova is the Pirates’ Opening Day starter. Nova has a career 4.27 ERA, allowed 203 hits in 187 innings last year and eight years into his career, opponents are batting .274 and slugging .443 against him. Ray Searage has improved a lot of floundering pitchers, but there’s about as much chance of the president bringing back steel as there is of Searage making Nova a No. 1 starter.  Calling Nova a No. 1 starter is like calling the Pirates a contender — it doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Team Song: The Clash: Should I Stay or Should I Go

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