Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

Monday, January 25, 2016

Bold Prediction: The Pirates win the NL Central

     The MLB wild-card game is exciting. I'm not going to deny that. It guarantees frantic intensity of a game seven in what could be an ultimately dull playoffs. It isn't, however fair. The Pittsburgh Pirates have averaged 93 wins a year since 2013 and have been rewarded with three crapshoots, two of them against Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta respectively. I could go off on a rant about how stupid this is, but I already did that last October. Instead, I'm predicting I won't be sympathizing with Pirates fans next year, because they will have won their division. Here's why.
     Any case for the Pirates begins at Andrew McCutchen and the rest of the outfield. McCutchen's been their best player, leader, and the key to anything going well in Pittsburgh. Despite this, he was arguably only the second best outfielder in Pittsburgh last year, behind Starling Marte. The 26-year-old hit .287/.337/.444 last year while saving 24 runs with his glove. Rounding out the outfield in Gregory Polanco. Polanco was the Bucs' leadoff hitter last year where he hit .256/.320/.381 and swiped 27 bases. He's only 24 years old, so he can only get better from here.
     The outfield's the best aspect of this team, but that's the same as last year, the biggest changes have come in the infield. Early in the offseason, the Pirates traded Neil Walker to the Mets for Jon Niese, while it was disappointing for fans to see the Pittsburgh-native Walker go, the move made sense. Utility player Josh Harrison missed a good chunk of last year with a UCL tear. While he typically plays third and left field, he's a capable of playing second, so he'll replace Walker there. Korean import Jung Ho Kang, who had a terrific rookie season hitting .287/.355/.461 will take over third base full time.
     The biggest issue for the Bucs' for a long time has been first base. Last year the five guys who played first base collectively hit .245 with 73 walks and 251 strikeouts. Enter Josh Bell. For all the attention all the prospects in the Cubs system have been receiving, Bell is right up there with all of them. While splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A last year, the former second rounder hit .317/.393/.446. Given the situation at first base and his production, it's almost a sure thing he'll be in the big leagues some time in 2016. If he can have a Miguel Sano-like impact, he'll make a very good team great.
     The rotation is led by a Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano but also features Jeff Locke looking for a bounce back season and a resurgent J.A. Happ, who really came around in the second half of 2015, posting an ERA of 1.85 in the second half, partially by getting his strikeout rate up to 9.8 per nine innings.
     Right now the Cubs are favored to win the Central for good reason, but there are reasons to expect some regression. The biggest is Jake Arrieta. Arrieta is a solid pitcher, but his second half stretch when he went 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA is unrepeatable. That's no knock against him as a pitcher, I'm sure he'll have a solid season, it's just impossible to be that good twice. Also, they're the Cubs. The Cubs were put on this earth to disappoint people. Right now there's just too much hype, too many expectations, something will go wrong. It always does.
     The Cubs have gotten so much attention it's easy to forget that they didn't win the division last year. The St. Louis Cardinals did that, going 100-62. But they lost one of their most consistent pitchers in John Lackey. On top of that, Wainwright's going to be 34, Holliday will be 36, Molina's slowing down. It doesn't feel like the Cards' year.
     The wild card system is unfair and the Pirates have been the biggest victims of that, but this year it won't matter, they'll be division champs.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Complainathon Vol. IV

     This started out as a standard column, but then I just got on roll, I figured I haven't done one of these in awhile I might as well go all the way. There are just too many stupid things going on for me to resist.
     One of the most ridiculous notions in sports is that players play better when they're in their contract year. Do players try harder when they're going to be free agents? Do people really think athletes are so unmotivated that they don't work as hard as possible unless there's money at stake? Whatever the perceived logic is for that, I'm starting to think there are GMs who buy into that. That's the only reason I can think of for why nobody's signed Yoenis Cespedes yet.
     Up until a few days ago, Cespedes, Justin Upton and Chris Davis were the only big free agents left of the market. Then Davis signed his Bobby Bonilla-esque deal, leaving just Cespedes and Upton. There's a very good reason why teams have been hesitant to give the infuriatingly inconsistent Upton a big contract, but in Cespedes's situation there isn't one.
     Several days ago, it was revealed that the Mets and White Sox were both interested in Cespedes, but only if he agreed to a shorter deal. I have two massive issues with that. 1) Message to both GMs: You guys are freaking New York and Chicago. When has being fiscally responsible ever been something you need to do? 2) The guys who have received multi-year deals this offseason include Jeff Samardzija, who imploded in Chicago last year, posting an ERA of 4.96 and leading the league in hits allowed, home runs allowed and earned runs, and Daniel Murphy, who had one terrific postseason in an otherwise completely pedestrian season where he hit .281/.322/449 with 14 homers and 73 RBI. Cespedes hit .291/.328/.542 with 35 round-trippers and 105 RBI.
     Another thing bothering me recently has been the reaction to the Hall of Fame voting. Griffey and Piazza were both deserving of their elections, but people have paid more attention to the players who didn't make it. If you believe every columnist you read, then the Hall of Fame is broken because Alan Trammell, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff and a litany of others aren't there. I don't know when this arrogant attitude started. I'm talking about the attitude of "There's a guy who I think should be in the Hall of Fame but he isn't so that means the Hall of Fame sucks". Most importantly, the Hall of Fame isn't meant to be taken too seriously. It's a freaking museum. In that museum, there is exactly one large room where all the plaques are that honor the players who are voted in. The other 95% in about the history of baseball. It's pretty much like how anyone would expect any museum to be. My point is, it's so much more than just a place where players are honored. It's about the history of the game, it's, I know some writers have never heard this word, fun.