Sometimes people say to me, “how can you be so optimistic?” I’m not sure where these people are coming from, given the marked improvement the Bucs have shown every year under the Best Management Team In Baseball And In Fact All Of Sports, as measured by the best standard there is in baseball, lower payroll. (everyone knows that the lower the payroll, the more financial flexibility, and therefore the more dollars you have available to allocate ‘tomorrow,” when the team is ready to compete for an NL championship. Granted, it’s a complex formula, but there you go).
I thought I’d address that issue head on, as I do get so many inquiries. Actually, I’ve never gotten any inquiries, but some may be THINKING of making an inquiry, and I’m saving you the trouble! So, here’s my preseason outlook for the NL Central. In short, one thing is clear: after their exceptionally successful off-season, the Bucs are the front-runner for the NL Central division championship.
First, let’s dismiss the winter ball maneuverings of the other NL Central teams (and if you’re not a fan of sophisticated analysis relying on the most nuanced of sabermetric and other advanced tools, skip ahead):
Astros: total losers. Did they do ANYTHING?
Cubs: That’s some payroll you’ve got! You must be ready to take the next step and compete for a championship! What’s that you say?? It’s all wrapped up in one over-the-hill ex superstar for like, FOREVER? Oh sorry, NO CHAMPIONSHIP FOR YOU! But hey, Kerry Wood is back!
Cards: Nice job protecting your ace pitcher. Nice job signing your superstar first baseman! Nice job getting some lame-o over the hill guy to play right field! NOT!
Brewers: Going backwards – big time. While the Bucs built UP the farm system at the EXPENSE of the major league team, the Brewers built UP the big league team at the expense of the farm system. I think Doug Melvin better pay a LITTLE MORE ATTENTION when Neal talks about building a long-term championship caliber team, and not just build for a year or so! And Grienke? Uh…kinda rhymes with Stinky?
Reds: well, they did a couple things, if you call “locking up” your “core” to long-term deals a sensible way to run a baseball team! Hello! Where’s the financial flexibility there dudes?? You are SO BEAT down the road!
Okay, so now let’s focus on the one team that got it right: our Pirates. Let’s start with first base, Lyle Overbay! What a ringing endorsement from fellow pundit Jayson Stark when he said that Overbay “should be better than last year’s hodgepodge!” RIGHT ON! And Neal, shrewd as always, KEPT part of that hodge podge – I guess the podge part – and is platooning him with young up and comer Matt Diaz! So clearly, RF and 1B reflect major upgrades. Pencil each position in for about 30-40 HR and about 100 RBI or so, and you can see why ANYONE would be optimistic.
But that’s not all! Expect improvement from all of last year’s rookies. Tabata will find that elusive “power stroke” we keep hearing about and is a lock for 75 RBI to go with his 60 steals, though yes, I am being conservative. But all these moves pale compared to Neal’s biggest coup –signing Ronny Cedeno to a two-year deal. We all know that contract uncertainties were the main reason Ronny seemed so distracted last year. BEHIND US! I was only going to give the Bucs an A for their offeseason, but locking up Cedeno when the skeptics insisted it couldn’t be done made it an easy A+.
Now the offseason hasn’t been entirely pain-free. Let’s be honest. We DO have to accept the reality that Corey Wimberly’s tremendous, historic spring surge may cost McCutheon a roster spot. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, even this would work out for us, given Neal’s EXEMPLARY capacity to pull off trades and bring in HUGE returns for our over-the-hill veterans! So let’s keep our fingers crossed on this one.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple other things. Now, as many of you know I have a certain “insider status” in the Pirates organization that’s given me incredible access. Of course, the PREMIUM INSIDER service is now a pay service for only $79.99 a month (a great bargain!) but what I want to tell you is that I happened to be at the last Winter meetings with all the GMs, making the rounds, getting the inside scoop, the works. As usual, the GMs were sitting around and comparing Underachieving Infielder Acquisitions. It happens every year, they’re obsessive about it, and to be honest, faithful readers, it gets a bit tiresome. “Oh, Kenny got two UIAs this year,” or “Oh, Brian only got one UIA this year.” It’s all they talk about and this year was no different – blah blah blah, UIA, UIA, UIA, blah blah blah…
But when Neal walked in the room: SILENCE. The silence of respect. Of adoration. Of sheer awe and humility. For no one in the HISTORY OF BASEBALL has acquired as many UIAs as our general manager, Neal Huntington.
Fields. Atkins. Marte. Rodriguez. Wimberly. The list is endless. ALL in a Pirate uniform, and all guaranteeing one thing: the greatest underachieving infielder depth in the history of the sport, with no – repeat no – exceptions. And we, lucky Pirates fans, get to enjoy it all summer long. Wow. Hand me a Kleenex, will ya, ya big lug?
We all know the great strides the Bucs made in upgrading the pitching staff so no point in belaboring it here. We all know how HUGE the demand was for Scott Olsen, for example, and we got him! What a great guy to have in the clubhouse!! And we all are a bit worried about the new manager, given his quiet and unassuming demeanor. But we’ll be ok. We all got a little spoiled with the wild demonstrativeness of the last guy, but let’s give Clint a chance, OK? With a little time, he’ll come out of his shell - I guarantee it!
So there you have it! While I AM concerned about the overspending, the bottom line is that the BEST GM in baseball did the BEST job of any of ‘em, so let’s buckle up, put that baby into overdrive, and get ready to raise that jolly roger almost every day!
FEARLESS FORECAST: 120 wins, 42 losses, and as Bob would put it, the WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP!