On Saturday’s workout bill: Middle infielders working on digging throws out of the dirt.
Here’s the cool part: Doing the throwing, burying ball after ball in the dirt in front of the second base bag, was first baseman Gaby Sanchez.
That must have felt like a welcomed bit of revenge for the guy who is usually doing the digging, of infielders’ throws into the dirt.
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The Pirates spent part of Saturday’s workouts on baserunning drills. They did all possible variations: Home to first, first to third, second to home, and so on.
But, no, they did not practice home run trots. Guess that comes naturally.
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As Edinson Volquez pitched batting practice to Starling Marte and Neil Walker, watching glued behind the batting cage was Frank Coonelly.
The club president must’ve wanted an up-close-and-personal look at the Pirates’ chief free agent signing of the winter.
Asked for a review of Volquez’s work, Coonelly said, “Ball was coming out of his hand nice,” with a nod toward Ray Searage, since that is one of the pitching coach’s pet compliments.
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Buccos players and staff have reached the Camp Fever stage of Spring Training, the point at which they begin to feel the fences of Pirate City closing in on them.
Two more days of workouts, then it’s on to McKechnie Field and, following Tuesday’s Black & Gold game, the start of Grapefruit League play.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter [@Tom_Singer] may recall that a couple of starts into Gerrit Cole’s big-league career, I ran a quickie poll on what his nickname should be. Some of you may have even participated. Cole 45, Cole Slaw, Cole Hand Luke and others got votes.
But the winner was Cole Train, so I went ahead and started calling him that when appropriate. Well, lo and behold, that has taken hold as the youngster’s official nickname.
It has also begun to pop up in posters, license plates and the obligatory tee-shirt.
Hope this one sticks as well as the last nickname for which I was responsible: K-Rod, for Francisco Rodriguez. Although, we hope Cole himself feels better about this one. For whatever reason, Rodriguez was never crazy about that one.
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The Pirates spent a big chunk of Thursday’s workouts on pickoffs and rundowns. Imported to enact the baserunning part where several of their Minor Leaguers. Good experience for them, but also a good way to ensure that, say, Starling Marte doesn’t pull a hammy yo-yoing between first and second.
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Thursday’s temperature at the 1:30 conclusion of the workout: 90 degrees.
Officially warmer than any day during the Bucs’ 2013 Spring Training, remembered for the unusual chill.
We keep hearing that the Bucs have to get off to a hot start, but I don’t think this is what they meant.
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I’m not sure who had the widest smile in Pirate City before and during the workout: Josh Harrison, still beaming over the recent birth of daughter Mia, or Tony Sanchez, in the glow of his Boston College’s basketball upset of No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse the night before.
But I know who had the biggest smile after the workout. Sanchez had a haircut that wiped the smile right off his face.
[T. Sanchez selfie]
Charles Dickens had his “Great Expectations.” So do the Pirates. They will soon fill up their outfield with GAS (Gregory, Andrew, Starling).
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen three burners in one outfield,” said manager Clint Hurdle, anticipating that down-the-road union as much as are fans and media.
Fans and media can’t wait. That threesome was the obvious main attraction Tuesday during the Bucs’ first full-squad workout of Spring Training. Inasmuch as this is Polanco’s first big league camp, the three were on the same field for the first time ever, making it a potentially memorable occasion.
Whether loosening up in the outfield, taking their cuts in the cage or shagging, McCutchen, Marte and Polanco got both amateur and professional photographers snapping.
Polanco is known for getting down the first base line in no time, but his home runs take even less to clear the fence. He pulled several balls out of Pirate City’s No. 1 field, all line drives that disappeared in a hurry.
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McCutchen’s big Spring Training project a year ago was improving his baserunning. He has not revealed Project 2014 but, after one batting practice session, let me hazard a guess: Power?
Cutch drilled ball after ball onto the roof of the indoor workout facility beyond the left-field fence of Field No. 1.
Hitting with more power would be a sensible goal, since McCutchen did drill 31 homers in 2012 but that total declined to 21 in his MVP season of 2013.
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An elderly fan stood silently behind one of the ropes separating Pirate City’s public quad from the workout fields, holding a sign that simply said in large colorful letters: “THANK YOU.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the gent asked rhetorically. “It’s for the championship season of last year.”
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Travis Snider will do little more than shag during batting practice for a few days, limited by a three-stitch cut on a left finger suffered while chopping a sweet potato.
That’s right. Baseball’s eminent cook and food lover was knocked out by a potato. Contract clauses mandating that players stay off motorcycles are quite common. Snider’s next contract may require him to stay out of the kitchen.
You fans who routinely mock Major League pitchers for their inability to bunt would be amazed to see how much Spring Training time is spent on that art, particularly in the first week before position players report.
Must be a lot tougher to lay down a heater out of, say, Jeff Samardzija’s hand than out of a well-aimed pitching machine.
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The early days of the Bucs’ Spring Training have been a big draw for national media, most of them venturing to Pirate City for the first time. In past years, they’d stumble across the Pirates at McKechnie Field, once Grapefruit League play starts.
Winning — and the intrigue it fuels — is a magnet. So the big media guns are discovering Pirate City — eventually, after numerous wrong turns trying to locate the camp site secluded in the midst of a quiet residential neighborhood of Bradenton.
Manager Clint Hurdle has noticed.
“It’s another tangible sign of us making progress as an organization,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had [media] guys in who normally aren’t here this early. You’re one of 10 teams to get in the playoffs, people want to see what you’re going to throw out there, and what you’re looking like coming in the door.”
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Wonder if ole Dallas [the 209] Braden knows there is a Braden in the 941? I’m not talking Bradenton — a neighboring town simply goes by “Braden.”
Buccos GM Neal Huntington maintained all along that the A.J. Burnett indecision hanging for months over his head did not have an impact on other things he might have been working on.
That might’ve been just posturing. If you are discussing potential deals with another team or a free agent, you certainly do not want to make them feel they would be a Plan B to Plan A.J.
At least one veteran Pirates player is convinced shoes are about to drop.
“Now that the A.J. thing has been cleared up, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see some moves to help us on the offensive side,” he said.
* * *
Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister has a perfect characterization of these early, repetitive days of Spring Training, before the bulk of position players report:
“These are the true Groundhog Days,” Banister says, with a nod to the Bill Murray movie, not Punxsutawney Phil.
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Second baseman Neil Walker, in Florida since early January, frequently hangs out with Jeff Karstens, a Tampa resident. Karstens has had a very quiet free agency after missing all of 2013 with shoulder problems and is still recovering from the June 8 surgery to clean out his rotator cuff and labrum.
“He won’t work out for teams until he feels completely healthy,” Walker said of his popular ex-teammate. “Jeff and [Joel] Hanrahan are in the same place. When they’re ready, I hope some teams pick them up; they can definitely help.”
Hanrahan, of course, had his own surgery, the Tommy John elbow reconstruction job, nine games into his season with Boston, where the Bucs had sent their former closer in the five-player trade that included Mark Melancon.
The 2014 Pirates might have the most succinct — yet most meaningful — slogan of all time: “Now.”
It hasn’t yet been officially adopted. But that could be on the way.
A photo on the clubhouse bulletin board is of a watch with “Now” where you would normally find the dial, and the caption, “Most accurate watch ever.”
And Buccos manager Clint Hurdle said prior to Friday’s second workout for pitchers and catchers, “The experience of last year, even losing the Division Series, is one of the levels you need to reach to go farther. That’s going to add value to everything we do. It’s about getting things done ‘Now.’”
Put that on a tee-shirt, I’ll wear it.
* * *
Hurdle forever urges his players to “do more.” As in, “If you want to accomplish more, you have to do more.”
But now there is less of him.
The skipper has dropped a load of pounds and pants sizes over the winter. He won’t put a number on it, but the evidence is dramatic.
With Expanded Replay, maybe the guy who tied for the Majors’ lead with six ejections last season figured he had to control his weight by means other than trotting out to argue plays.
* * *
An Apr. 26, 2013 article by MLB.com’s Adam Berry, titled “Fastball first: Pitching success by keeping it simple,” has a prominent place on the Pirates’ clubhouse bulletin board, with key passages highlighted in bright yellow.
Francisco Liriano sprinted off one of Pirate City’s fields, frantically looking around.
A security guard who correctly interpreted the left-hander’s panic pointed him toward the bathroom. The only bathroom among the four fields and bullpen of the Bucs’ Spring Training Complex.
And welcome to the nightmare of the Pirates’ support staff, something keeping them up at nights. It is one of the unpleasant aspects of the Bucs’ emergency as a playoff team.
Once camp is in full swing — position players report on Monday for Tuesday’s first full-squad workout — fans are expected to flock to Pirate City in record numbers.
“On a typical day in the past, we’d have maybe 500,” said a staffer. “I think we’re going to see up to 1,500 daily now.”
And there is still only that one bathroom, for the use of both players and the spectators who freely mingle in the quad among the four fields.
Winning, they say, can create problems, but they are nice problems to have. This one does not sound like a nice problem.
Yes, the 911 has gone out for Port-a-Potties.
I think A.J. Burnett has a new conflict.
At the beginning, it was between continuing mound time and more family time. But now it’s between getting paid his open-market value, or accepting a [significant] discount to help finish the job in Pittsburgh, a city he has truly come to embrace.
And this is where Neal Huntington’s already-established creativity can make a reunion happen. The Pirates GM showed his ability to think outside the box with his dogged renegotiation of Francisco Liriano’s original deal after the left-hander had fractured his right arm last winter.
Now Huntington has to huddle with Darek Braunecker, Burnett’s agent, and make it happen.
This is how it could be done:
Establish Burnett’s true value. At his performance level yet his age , say it’s $15 million, a reasonable starting point.
Huntington then offers him $17 million — a $500,000 raise over his 2013 salary, just for good-faith.
But — and this is where the creativity enters — make $10 million of that deferred. Contract deferments are quite common — particularly when team elders volunteer for them for the specific purpose of easing their team’s financial burden in the pursuit of titles.
For someone obviously on the brink of retirement, what could be more appealing than guaranteed post-career income for a number of years? And with the increasing revenue stream from their share of MLB’s national TV contract, the Pirates could comfortable carry such an IOU for Burnett.
That’s it. Do it.
I’m not too crazy about the new ways of assessing performance in a game whose very charm is having remained unchanged since the Civil War (ours). Still prefer to watch and read about baseball with a Red Book, not a slide rule, by my side.
But just because I don’t sing the Acronym Hymn doesn’t mean I don’t dig innovative statistics when appropriate. In fact, few people know (Bill Ladson, an old friend who now covers the Washington Nationals for us, is one) that 30 years ago I created what has become known as pitchers’ WHIP.
While covering the California Angels for the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, I called it ORA (Opponent Runners Average). Calculated it weekly Majors-wide and listed league leaders in our Sunday papers.
I feel the stat muse tapping me on the shoulder again: Readers have increasingly implored me to stop citing and comparing starting pitchers based on their won-loss records, arguing their irrelevance given the way the modern game is run (pitch counts, bullpen relays, etc.).
I agree. I also think the ERA — a nine-inning index — has become meaningless for starters who rarely go nine [in 2 percent of all games last season] and even more ridiculous for relievers, who might take a month to get there.
So … here is what I’m going to do in ’14 coverage of the Bucs:
Starters’ “records” will reflect the times they pitch into the seventh inning or don’t get out of the fifth [in-between, there's your new no-decision]. That’s deserving of a win or a loss; everything else — like run support or whether the bullpen has a bad day — is out of their control. Cited ERAs will simply be based on six innings (for example, allowing 3 earned runs in 6 innings would equate to a standard 4.50 ERA but for us it becomes 3.00).
Relievers will have no ERAs. For a relief pitcher, nothing matters beyond runners who score while he is on the mound, inherited or his own. So relievers will be judged solely on RAVE [runs average; runners scoring divided by runners on base while in the game].
Retracing 2013 for RAVEs is way too time consuming, so I’ll track those going forward.
As for the ’13 Buccos rotation as seen through this new prism [actual W-L in parenthesis):
- A.J. Burnett 17-5, 2.20 [10-11]
- Francisco Liriano 12-6, 2.01 [16-8]
- Charlie Morton 9-6, 2.15 [7-4]
- Gerrit Cole 8-2, 2.14 [10-7]
- Jeff Locke 8-10, 2.34 [10-7]
The Pirates continue to sit on A.J. Burnett’s fence, regarding his possible return to them as a luxury, taking the approach that he could put over the top a rotation that is already deep and solid.
Just the other day, GM Neal Huntington reiterated on 93.7-The Fan that if Burnett decided to return to the Pirates, he would “of all things, have to figure out the best way to deal with a surplus of pitching.”
However, is Burnett more indispensable than most — even fans who want him back primarily for his aura and clubhouse leadership — give him credit for?
In his two seasons with the Bucs, Burnett was one of five contributing starting pitchers. While he was the model of consistency, the other four have all been half-season wonders. The stellar 2013 Pittsburgh debuts of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano obviously tweak the numbers, but regard these cumulative records for the 2012-13 quintet:
- Burnett 26-21 [with 33 team wins in his starts]
- Jeff Locke 11-10 [16 team wins]
- James McDonald 14-12 
- Wandy Rodriguez 11-8 
- Charlie Morton 9-10 .