Baseball

It sounds funny now when you say the Cubs along with the Astros are something of the “model” teams are using to justify total tear-downs and rebuilds of their teams. But that’s still the case, though for how much longer one wonders. And the Cubs might not be the model anymore. The other thing is that it’s not going to work out as well even as it did for the Cubs. Look at the Phillies, who tried it and seem stuck in the middle forever. Not everyone gets the parade. And of course, the whole process can be used to cover up what is actually a simple “Producers” like tank to just cash checks.

The Pirates might be the prime example. This is an embarrassing end to the season for a team that just was never good enough because its management never tried to make it anything else. The cover story for them is that they’re still rebuilding from the ’14-’17 run, such as it was.

But did that really have to be? The Pirates watched the Cubs zoom past them, pinpointed by the wildcard game that Jake Arrieta and Kyle Schwarber essentially took from them. But over 162 games, those teams were exactly the same. Did they have to just watch instead of run with? They let Charlie Morton and AJ Burnett go their way, but they still had Jameson Taillon waiting and Tyler Glasnow not too far behind. But they added nothing to the lineup, and were caught standing still when everyone else was ready to move forward. It wasn’t attendance’s fault, as they drew three million fans the previous season.

No, what happened was ownership saw that it would take more money to keep up with the Cubs (and eventually Brewers and now Cardinals), and decided that it wasn’t worth it to them. Thanks to BAMTECH and other factors, they still get their money. So the Pirates of the middle of the decade were allowed to yellow, and that became a justification for trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen for essentially role players but no future stars.

The Pirates will claim that they’re remaking for a run in the next year or two, but what they’re really doing is just treading water and raking in the cash every MLB team gets before they even have to worry about gates and local television and the like. It’s a cover of a rebuild, but it’s hardly that.

There isn’t a team in MLB now that can’t afford to build a winner. The only team that might have that claim is Tampa, and they seem to come up with a contender every year anyway. But thanks to some teams that have found success going to the bottom to rise again, any team can use that as a life preserver when all they’re really doing is cutting costs. You’ve seen it in free agency the past two winters.

Until there’s a reason not to, this is the cycle the Bucs will stay in. Sure, maybe their system can produce a couple more players and Taillon comes back healthy one day and Musgrove really pops. And maybe they spasm a 92-win season or two. But as soon as that needs to be built upon and the foundations need to be paid, they’ll sink back into this, claiming a rebuild was necessary. It won’t be, but it’ll be profitable. Every team now can reach for “Springtime for Hitler.” The Pirates are just the best example.

Baseball

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RECORDS: Pirates 65-82   Cubs 78-68

GAMETIMES: Friday 3:05, Saturday/Sunday 1:20

TV: Friday/Saturday NBCSN, WGN Sunday

MOURNING THE DEAD: Bucs Dugout

SERIES PREVIEW POSTS

Depth Charts & Pitching Staffs

Pirates Spotlight: Bryan Reynolds

The optimistic out there, and let’s face it, they still make up a large portion of Cubdom because they had to for so long, will tell you that returning home for 10 games is where the Cubs finally charge. They’ve been great at home all season, they’re playing two doormats before welcoming The Red Menace for a true NL Central Main Event, and if it’s ever going to turn around, it’s now.

Those of you like me can’t help but feel the winds of 2004. The Cubs returned home for four with the lowly Reds, still the wild card in their grip even after the disaster at Shea. They promptly lost three of four in the most pathetic way possible, and the season was over and basically the whole thing was broken for two more years. You feel a similar pivot point here, where if the Cubs don’t use these 10 games to springboard into at least a stranglehold on the wildcard spot, and really launching themselves up to and past the Cardinals, the effects could be felt for years.

So it starts with a team already frayed and dead, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’re fighting with each other, they’re fighting with their coaches, they hate everything, they throw at people, but mostly they just want to go home. This season has been utterly miserable for them since like May 1st, the organization seems directionless, and any hope for the future is curbed by the knowledge that Bob Nutting won’t let that future happen.

Somehow, the Bucs have managed a 6-5 record in September, though it’s buffeted by getting four games with the similarly dead Giants. They lost two of three to the Cardinals last weekend, and that’s the absolute minimum requirement here. They’ll start with Steven Brault, who handcuffed the Cubs a couple weeks ago for seven innings, so get your bomb shelters ready for the hot takes that will be spilling should he do it again. James Marvel will only be making his second career start, and we saw how well that went with Bolanos in San Diego earlier this week. The Cubs have cuffed around Trevor Williams a couple times this year, so there’s your hope.

But mostly what the Cubs have to watch out for is their rotation disintegrating beneath Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. Jose Quintana fell apart when Ben Zobrist couldn’t locate Nico Hoerner for the second straight night. Jon Lester has been more bad than good for months now and melted down against the Brewers on Sunday. The Cubs just can’t have any of that this weekend. They’ll have to duck around Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman, who are the hottest Pirates at the moment. Josh Bell clearly just wants the season to end, as he’s been average for a while now. But you don’t have to go far to picture him with a big homer somewhere over these three days.

The Cubs need their starters because we’ve seen the pen is still a mess without Craig Kimbrel, and it wasn’t all that orderly when he was around anyway. Once again, Steve Cishek has been turned into paste, and Wick has been adventure-prone of late (and is probably down for today after yesterday’s theatrics). Get runs off this team that doesn’t want to be there, and only ask your pen for six-to-eight outs or something. It’s not hard, but the Cubs have made it look exceedingly so for four months now.

These 10 games are about way more than the 10 games. The entire direction of the organization is in the balance. Maybe the Cubs will finally play like it, or we’ll know something has been truly rotten in Denmark for a while.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Cubs 64-57   Pirates 50-70

GAMETIMES: Friday 6:05, Saturday 12:35, Sunday (In Williamsport) 6:10

TV: WGN Friday, ABC 7 Saturday, ESPN Sunday (oh boy)

THE ALREADY DEAD: Bucs Dugout

I can’t decide if it’s better that the Cubs get right back at it tonight at whatever the fuck that was in Philly or if they should have to stew on it for a day, like a child sent to his room. The fear is that whatever hangover/malaise/soul-death is emanating from those three games carries over and the Cubs continue to play like the undead. Which still might be enough against this outfit, as the Pirates have called it a season but keep showing up because it’s mandated. Fuck, both of these teams feel like they’re here this weekend merely because they have to be.

This series takes place in two locations, as Sunday night they’ll decamp for Williamsport to add to The Little League World Series, which in no way has gotten creepy and weird tanks to television and sponsor money. It also could be considered child abuse to make kids watch the Pirates right now.

Because this team is a bloated carcass being poked with a stick some kids found. They’ve gone 11-27 over the past six weeks, put up a 4-18 stretch after the break and clearly just want things to be over. They’re fighting with each other and their coaches. When they’re not doing that they’re fighting with other teams. Or they’re throwing at people, leading to the aforementioned bullshit. In the middle, they suck at actual baseball. Or at least they suck at pitching it.

The offense has been somewhat ok over the last month. Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte have hit over .330 in that span. Josh Bell has cooled off but can still pop here and there. The rest of the infield is a major issue, as Colin Moran, Kevin Newman, and Adam Frazier are basically taking cardboard up to bat right now. Get through the outfielders and Bell, and this team can’t really hurt you.

The pitching staff is where the fun starts. With Jameson Taillon now down for good and for next year as well, there’s just no frontline starter here. They are “guys” at best, with Chris Archer decomposing in front of everyone’s eyes. The Cubs will see Musgrove, Brault, and Keller, the latter of which has some eye-popping numbers at AAA but is far from the finished product. Brault is just back from the IL and has been getting turned into pudding since. There are no monsters here.

It’s even better in the pen, where everyone hates Felipe Vasquez because he’s actually good and the rest are Kingston coal bags. Michael Feliz has been all right over the past month, but the rest of the crew have hitters sprinting to the plate. And apparently Kyle Crick and Keone Kela are raging assholes that have the rest of the team unable to wait to get to their offseason homes. A very healthy outfit here.

Which should make it the perfect tonic for the Cubs, who haven’t won a road series since there was snow on the ground. If they can’t get it together, no matter the morale, against this collection of fuckwits and dipshits for at least two wins, you can give up hope. The Pirates are begging for it to be over and would just like you to help them along to the back of the barn where they can be put out of their misery.

The Cubs should get Brandon Kintzler back this weekend, and Craig Kimbrel shouldn’t be far behind. It won’t feel good, but take all three from this roadkill and it’s a .500 road trip and you can at least argue it’s a starting point. Otherwise, what the fuck are we even doing here?

Baseball

Everyone knew that when the Pirates were flirting with the top of the division at the beginning portion of the season it was something of an illusion. Even with a healthy Jameson Taillon, and health elsewhere, this was based on Josh Bell’s freak-onomics at the plate and some other blind, dumb, idiot luck. What no one could have expected is that the market correction would be so harsh, so violent, and so complete.

The Pirates have gone 11-27 since July 1. They’ve lost 18 of 22 at one point. They have losing streaks of eight and nine games just in the past three weeks. They have the second-worst record in the National League, with only the we-don’t-even-try Marlins propping them up.

And what’s it’s done is expose rifts, stupidity, and simply indifference at the playing, managerial, front office, and ownership levels. This is a fine mess, and maybe something a real commissioner might feel tempted to do something about. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Just today, The Athletic in Pittsburgh broke a story about how the Bucs have had to suspend two pitchers and one coach for insubordination. This follows their actual brawl with the Reds, caused by the Pirates either encouragement of pitchers throwing at hitters’s heads or their inability to get them to stop, or an unwillingness or lack of motivation to even try. Pitchers and players have openly balked at the Pirates still cutter-heavy teachings and shift-heavy ways, even though they’re one of the worst ground-ball producing pitching staffs in the majors.

Secondly, you can’t lose that many games in that big of a bunch without some players quitting. And yet there’s been little mention of Clint Hurdle being fired, even though he’s got open insubordination and a team that doesn’t seem to care. This runs through the Pirates organization as a whole, as when owner Bob Nutting is reminded he actually owns a baseball team he’s shown loyalty over anything else, though that could just be indifference or laziness to not even wanting to bother.

The Pirates have been unlucky with injuries, as Taillon is headed for a second Tommy John surgery, and the pen can’t seem to keep anyone upright for very long either. But that doesn’t explain it all.

The dysfunction flows upward. Neal Huntington, the GM, doesn’t seem to have worry about his job status much either, and in the interest of fairness he does have his hands tied by strict payroll limits from his owner. Still, this was a team that tried to force Gerrit Cole into their very limited view of how pitchers should work, and then sold low on him to Houston and watched him become perhaps the most dominant starter in the American League. And all that was a result of the Astros just letting him be what he wants. Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove either are or could be nice pieces, but none are defining a team.

But Huntington has always struggled to know what he has. Only Bell has come through the system to be a star under his watch, and that was only this year. Gregory Polanco has flattered to deceive, Taillon is hurt, and he gave up on Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows way early to bring in the husk of Chris Archer. Sure, Glasnow has the same injury problems as Taillon, but Meadows has been a borderline star, and in the outfield where the Pirates are currently sporting Melky Cabrera. And if you’re sporting Melky Cabrera in 2019, you suck. This list could go on.

But the rot starts at the head, and that’s Nutting. There’s no better example of a MLB owner just pocketing his BAMTECH and revenue sharing money and leaving the team he owns to flounder and turn weird colors, but still produce a profit. The Pirates drew over two million fans for five years running, covering both ends of their three wildcard berths stretch. But do you remember the Bucs ever adding to those teams in an ambitious way with a free agent pitcher or hitter they desperately needed to stick with the Cubs and now Brewers? Hey, the Brewers have swung trades for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain and Yasmani Grandal, and they’re the same sized market as Pittsburgh or thereabouts (at least in baseball terms, Milwaukee has nearly twice the population).

Nutting rarely talks to the press, and is heavily guarded when he does. So we have no idea what he thinks. Yet being in Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to hold the Penguins or Steelers back much, even if they exist in leagues with salary caps.

The Pirates have been caught and passed on the field with their once-forward-looking methods, and don’t do much about it. Their front office seems helpless to add anything with the budget they have or to rightly evaluate what’s around. Their owner doesn’t seem to care. It’s rotten in The Iron City.

 

Baseball

As Josh Bell turns the National League into ash and dust, it’s important to remember that he was always projected for this. Of all the prospects the Bucs have debuted over the years–Marte, Polanco, Meadows, one or two others–Bell was the one with the most hype when he arrived. He never really showed this kind of power, but this kind of average was the thought.

A year before his call-up, Bell tore AAA apart in 35 games at just 22-years-old. He hit .347 and slugged .501 in that brief stint, and then backed that up when he started the ’16 season in AAA with .295/.382/.468 in 114 games. That earned him a call-up for the end of the season in Pittsburgh, as they tried to salvage whatever they could from the wreckage that Jake Arrieta and Kyle Schwarber had wrought the previous October.

Bell’s first full season in the majors wasn’t bad. He popped 26 homers, while maintaining plus-walk and strikeout rates. But other than walking a bunch and those homers, he didn’t do much else, hitting only .255 which kept his on-base down. And that was basically the story last season, though Bell only managed 12 homers.

Clearly, things have changed this year. And it probably has to do with Bell’s new “GRIP IT AND RIP IT” attitude at the plate.

Bell is swinging at 5% more pitches outside the zone, a whopping 13% more pitches inside the zone, and overall has increased his swing-rate 7% more to nearly 50%. It’s led to more swinging strikes than at any point in his four seasons at The Confluence, but no one seems to care as long as it comes with the very loud noises he produces. You can accept strikeouts when you’re providing souvenirs a good portion of the time.

To go along with that, Bell is pulling the ball more than ever. Last year he only pulled about a third of his contact. This year’s it’s 43%, more than his rookie year when he had those 26 homers, and now he’s got 27 with 73 games to go. That’s also seen his hard-contact rate at nearly 50%, and that’s from either side of the plate.

The selling out to yank anything into the river at PNC has made a difference in where pitchers can go. You used to be able to go inside and high in the zone to Bell. No more:

You would think being this swing-happy and pull-happy (so happy!) would leave Bell vulnerable to breaking pitches. But the big improvement in his game is his work on curves and sliders. For his career he hits .233 and .216 on them respectively. This year it’s .400 and .308. It used to be that you could get Bell on breaking pitches in the zone, but that’s not the case anymore. He’s not missing them, and you see the destruction he has wrought so far.

Physically, Bell has calmed down some ticks and triggers in his swing, which he always seems to be changing his first couple dances in the majors. Ben Clemens in May at Fangraphs had a pretty good breakdown of it, but the nutshell is that Bell is keeping his feet straight instead of an open stance and just being calm before the pitch.

All of it has made Bell one of the more feared sluggers in the NL, and he certainly looks the part looming over the plate with his 6-4 frame. So basically Bell can look forward to being the next Pirates star to be shipped out for peanuts before Bob Nutting has to actually spend any money. Good times.