In Liz, Pirates find a classic reclamation project

The Pirates hope this doesn’t turn out to be Daniel Cabrera 2.0.

Their eternal search for — and admirable success with — reclamation pitching projects has led them to the ultimate challenge: Right-hander Radhames Liz, with whom on Friday they reportedly agreed to a two-year Major League contract for $3 million.

Liz is a former Top 100 prospect credited with being a hard thrower with an arresting breaking pitch. But here’s the rub: That was nearly a decade ago, and he last appeared in the Majors in 2009.

Now 31, the Dominican right-hander hadn’t since fallen off the baseball map. In fact, his 2011-13 performance for Seoul in the Korean Baseball Organization featured enough progress to invite the Pirates’ interest in making him their latest makeover subject.

As of Noon, the Bucs hadn’t yet announced the deal. They were scrambling to make room for Liz on their 40-man roster, filled up by Thursday’s moves to protect Minor League prospects in the Rule 5 Draft.

Liz was 6-8 with a 7.50 ERA in limited showings with the 2007-09 Orioles, then went 26-38 in Korea. However, in a league with the reputation of being very offense-oriented, he stood out with an ERA of 3.51 in 85 starts.

He first attracted the interest of the Blue Jays, who brought him back to organized baseball last season. Liz went 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA in 12 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, then became a free agent.

He now will have an opportunity to take his place in the Pirates’ apocryphal Hall of Reclaimed Fame. Charter members are A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez, even Mark Melancon — all of whom had come to Pittsburgh at career low points and been “fixed” by pitching coach Ray Searage and pitching guru Jim Benedict, the special assistant to GM Neal Huntington.

The second coming of Cabrera?

Cabrera was another Baltimore pitching prospect from the Dominican who had considerably more success with the Orioles, breaking through with a 12-8 record in 2004. Then he developed issues, mostly due to control problems, and hit the baseball treadmill. The Pirates took a shot at him in 2012, but he was dealt to Arizona after going 6-6 in a half-season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Royals’ postseason return? Perfect

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Royals’ return to the postseason stage after a 29-year absence is that they have done it flawlessly.

No, it doesn’t always happen that way. In fact, it never happens that way. Teams resurface in the playoffs taking baby steps: A tumble here, a fall there. There’s a reason they’re called “baby steps.”

Here is a list you’ve probably never seen before: The postseason records of all teams since their last World Series appearance (of at least 10 years ago, to make the numbers meaningful), ranked by winning percentage:

Team    Last World Series     W-L    Since Pct.

Royals      1985                     8-0      1.000

Mets         2000                    6-4         .600

Orioles      1983                   14-17      .452

Indians      1997                    13-17    .433

Pirates      1979                    11-16    .407

Brewers    1982                    6-9        .400

A’s            1990                    17-27    .386

Dodgers    1988                   15-28     .349

Braves      1999                    13-26     .333

D-backs     2001                   5-10      .333

Reds          1990                   5-11      .312

Angels        2002                  10-22     .312

Cubs           1945                   9-22     .290

Twins           1991                  6-21     .222

Padres        1998                   1-6       .143

The Rangers pulled a “Maddon” with Banister

As a Major Leaguer, Jeff Banister batted 1.000 [you can look this up, pinch-hit single in his only at-bat, July 23, 1991].

As a general manager tasked with hiring his first manager in nine years, Jon Daniels is also batting 1.000. He is going with Banister.

To me, this has “Joe Maddon” written all over it.

Maddon spent 31 years filling a garden variety of roles as an overlooked, enthusiastic member of the Angels organization, the last six as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach. In 2005, he was finally drawn out of the shadows by Tampa Bay, which gave him a shot to manage. The Rays hadn’t had a winning season in their history. We’ve seen how their gamble worked out.

Now you can place your bets on Banister, who for 29 years has filled a garden variety of roles as an overlooked, enthusiastic member of the Pirates organization, the last four as Clint Hurdle’s bench coach.

Don’t you just love symmetry?

Banister was deflated to lose out on the first job for which he was up this offseason, when the Astros instead went with A.J. Hinch. A Houston native and resident, Jeff thought it would have been pretty cool for him and his family to work 20 minutes from his home.

This will be cool enough: Pulling into Minute Maid Park, and into his driveway, three times a season to manage against the Astros. The 2015 dates are May 4-6, July 17-19 and Sept. 25-27.

In many ways, Banister symbolized the Pirates’ buried lost generation. He was the only guy in uniform for all of the 20 down years. When he celebrated the end of the gloom, champagne and tears both flowed.

So it is entirely apt for him to be the first to reflect the upside of the team’s breakthrough, deserving people getting a chance to fly on their own.

Banister never went around applying for other jobs.

“If you’ve done well and people recognize it, they will find you,” he said.

The Rangers found Banister. They found a good man.

Back to Black: ’14 World Series is a sure thing

Andrew McCutchen had many reasons to want the Pirates’ postseason run to take them all the way to the World Series, but the most personal one was this:

He hoped to take his desire to positively influence Black American athletes to the most visible of stages.

Cutch won’t be there — but the Black-American presence will be back in the Fall Classic.

Lest you have a so-what’s-new-about-that? reaction to this, remember that the 2013 World Series between the Cardinals and the Red Sox was the first to not have a Black American player swing a bat or throw a pitch since 1950. Think about that — since three years following Jackie Robinson’s erasure of the color line.

The Cards still don’t have a Black player. Neither do the Giants.

But both teams clashing in the ALCS do.

The Royals include outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore. [And, at the risk of stating the obvious, how wonderfully apt is this on a team that plays its games a few Giancarlo Stanton homers away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum?]

The Orioles include center fielder Adam Jones and deluxe pinch-hitter Delmon Young.

We are repeatedly reminded that MLB demographics reflect the steady decline of Black representation in the game. But nothing drove that point home better a year ago than the first World Series in 63 years without a Black player.

That will be a very good page to turn.

In a word: Unforgettable

Let’s play a little word association game, as a means of signing off on another fabulous, rewarding, memorable eight months in Buccos Nation.

You throw out the name of a member of the Pirates, and I’ll tell you the first word that comes to mind. Ready?

  • Hurdle … Tough
  • Harrison … Confident
  • Mercer … Resilient
  • McCutchen … Genuine
  • Melancon … Collected
  • Watson … Unshakeable
  • Walker … Responsible
  • Alvarez … Enigmatic
  • Martin … Fiery
  • Liriano … Quiet
  • Volquez … Amusing
  • Morton … Introspective
  • Locke … Toughened
  • G. Sanchez … Garrulous
  • Davis … Cosmopolitan
  • Barmes … Selfless
  • Hughes … Emotional
  • Holdzkom … Refreshing
  • Stewart … Prepared
  • Marte … Laid-back
  • Polanco … Patient
  • Snider … Witty
  • Wilson … Erratic
  • Cole … Combative
  • Worley … Anchored
  • Lambo … Ready
And a bonus, which requires more than just one word … 

    Pittsburgh: Gritty, special, welcoming, passionate, loud and proud.

    There is always “next year” to look forward to. But there will also always be “this year” to remember.

    Peace … out.

    Yes, it’s a whole new ballgame

    To recap …

    • The Angels, with best home record in the Majors, open up 0-2 in Angel Stadium.
    • The Royals, a poor last in the Majors in home runs, win consecutive extra-inning games on home runs.
    • A Clayton Kershaw-Adam Wainwright “duel” winds up 10-9.
    • Jon Lester can’t hold a 7-3 eighth-inning lead.
    • Clayton Kershaw can’t hold a 6-2 seventh-inning lead.
    • Mike Trout, after the hype machine stops whirring, is 0-for-8.
    • Oh, and the Pirates get an early dismissal with an 8-0 loss in the NL Wild Card, their most lopsided shutout defeat since Aug. 1 … of 2013.
    So … next time someone mentions that October is a whole different animal — don’t argue.

    Why no Pirates player will be NL MVP …

    They have too many candidates. It’s a chain gang.

    All season, Clint Hurdle and his players have espoused the one-for-all, all-for-one character of the team. The statistics back up that appraisal. So do the daily results.
     Asking “Who is the Bucs’ MVP?” is like asking “What will the weather in Pittsburgh be like today?” It depends on what day you ask.
    They connect the dots … and pass the lunch pail.
    This morning, it obviously is Russell Martin. On Sunday, without question it was Josh Harrison. That time he hit a tying home run in the ninth and a game-winner in the 11th, it had to be Andrew McCutchen. Pick any day he delivers a clutch hit, and it’s unquestionably Neil Walker.
    Nine Pirates have hit 10 or more homers.
    Eight Pirates have 40 or more RBIs, and 11 have 30 or more.
    The reigning MVP, McCutchen, won’t reach the 84 RBIs that last season were the fewest for a full-season MVP in a quarter-century.
    Cutch’s repeat chances are hurt by the fact he’ll have to split the votes with the Bucs’ breakout sensation. Harrison is the MVP choice of McCutchen himself — as well as of PNC Park fans who have begun to greet his at-bats with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
    Then, there is Martin — whom we thought was invaluable last season, then he showed up for this one.
    In 2013, Martin batted .192 in 120 at-bats with men in scoring position, with 30 RBIs.
    In 2014, Martin is batting .380 with men in scoring position, and in fewer at-bats (92) has nearly double the RBIs (56).
    Hey, if MVP is out of the question, maybe Martin can bag Comeback (Clutch) Player of the Year.

    Eye for an eye? Baseball has an eye for retaliaton

    As I watched Josh Harrison and Starling Marte lead off Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies with a different sort of back-to-back — they both got hit by Jerome Williams pitches — it occurred to me target practice has to be over: The Bucs are already too good at getting hit.

    The Pirates have been hit by pitches 72 times — maybe a result of their hurlers’ commitment to pitching inside having resulted in an MLB-leading 80 hit batters.

    Maybe? And maybe the moon isn’t made of cheese.

    Next time you hear a pitcher shrug off a beanball with, “The pitch just got away from me,” just roll your eyes and hit the mute button.

    If retaliation is not part of the code, how come baseball’s six divisions rank in the exact same order in batters being hit and pitchers hitting batters?

    Here’s your scorecard, entering Thursday’s games:

    BATTERS HIT (Totals by division):

    • NL Central: 312
    • AL East: 263
    • AL West: 259
    • AL Central: 224
    • NL East: 212
    • NL West: 205

    HIT BATTERS:

    • NL Central: 287
    • AL East: 260
    • AL West: 255
    • AL Central: 245
    • NL East: 216
    • NL West: 212
    Not only are the rankings identical, but note the similarities in the two sets of numbers division by division. 
    I’m aware of one factor in this distribution: In a division game, say if Lance Lynn hits Andrew McCutchen, the incidence shows up in both sets (hit batter for Bucs, batter hit for Cards). But even with that mathematical sidebar, the numbers are interesting.
    Decoded.

    Hang with ‘em? Yeah, Liriano one of best at that

    There is a growing movement to eliminate — or, more realistically, at least de-emphasize — wins for starting pitchers.

    Francisco Liriano probably does not have a problem with that suggestion. He doesn’t get wins, anyway.

    In his effort Sunday against the Reds, Liriano protected his place in a wretched lineup: Pitchers with more than 20 starts in a season, an ERA lower than 4.00 — and no more than three victories.

    Mind you, Liriano is one of only 11 such misbegotten hurlers in the history of the game. In a way, however, he could be the biggest victim of them all: He is the only one to have met his fate on a winning, contending team. Sometimes, it’s just an everyday-lousy team and nothing goes right — as opposed to the fates picking on you.

    Check out this chronological list (Name – # of wins/starts; team and record):

    • Joe Harris – 2/24; 1906 Red Sox 49-105
    • Hal Brown – 3/21; 1964 Colt 45s 61-88
    • Mike Kekich – 2/20; 1968 Dodgers 76-86
    • Jerry Koosman – 3/32; 1978 Mets 66-96
    • John Montefusco – 3/22; 1979 Giants 61-79
    • Ross Baumgarten – 2/23; 1980 White So 70-90
    • John Dopson – 3/26; 1988 Expos 81-81
    • Eric Hillman – 2/22; 1993 Mets 59-103
    • Dustin Moseley – 3/20; 2011 Padres 71-91
    • Jacob Turner – 3/20; 2013 Marlins 62-100
    • FRANCISCO LIRIANO – 3/24; 2014 PIRATES 71-65
    And, lest you think that most of Frankie’s misses came on his off days, consider that he has either gone seven innings on a yield of no more than three runs or six while allowing no more than two a total of 10 times — and picked up wins in two of them.
    Actually, bad luck may have less to do with it than manager Clint Hurdle’s characteristic way of handling his starters and relievers. It works on a team basis, but starters often leave games they could win with a little longer mound tenure.
    Why do I say that? In today’s Majors, of the 109 pitchers who have made 20-plus starts and have an ERA below 4.00, there are only two who have fewer than six wins, and they’re both in the Bucs’ clubhouse: Liriano, and Charlie Morton.

     

    Crowded outfield: Josh Bell moving to first base

    In response to what is already being called their Dream Outfield, the Pirates are moving top position prospect Josh Bell to first base.

    Bell, freshly-named the Florida State League’s Player of the Year as an outfielder, has been working out at first base since his mid-July promotion to Double-A Altoona.

    Bell has yet to play at the new position, but will do so in the offseason Arizona Fall League for the Scottsdale Scorpions — who will be managed by Jeff Banister, the Major League club’s bench coach.

    “It’s a good situation,” said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. “Jeff will be able to keep an eye on how this goes and keep us updated.”

    Rated No. 3 among Pittsburgh prospects, Bell has a high ceiling, but perhaps little chance of reaching it at his original position with the Bucs. Despite Gregory Polanco’s recent return to Triple-A Indianapolis, the Pirates figure to be set for years with an outfield of Starling Marte,  Andrew McCutchen and Polanco.

    “He’ll first go to Instructional League after the season and continue working there,” Huntington said of Bell, “then he’ll get his first game-action at the position in the AFL.

    “It’s an opportunity for him to get at-bats in a very competitive environment, and to give first base a go. We just want to see how he takes to it and whether than can become an option for him.”

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 60 other followers