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Can Andrew McCutchen Bring the Pittsburgh Pirates Out of the Basement?

A once proud franchise, the Pittsburgh Pirates have five World Series crowns. Players such as Honus Wagner, Goose Gossage, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Matty Alou, Bob Friend, Jason Bay, and Barry Bonds have all called Pittsburgh home over the years.

In recent memory, the wins have been hard to come by for the Pirates. Pittsburgh hasn’t posted a winning record since 1992—that’s 17 seasons! It was also Berry Bonds’ last season with the club.

What do all of these players have in common? Javy Lopez (ATL), Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Matt Stairs, and Tim Wakefield. They all made their rookie debuts the 1992 season. Now that’s a drought.

After years of toiling in sub-mediocrity, things may be turning around for the Pirates.

(Enter, Andrew McCutchen.)

The Pirates’ 23-year-old center fielder has given Pittsburgh fans something to be optimistic about—sort of.

Defensively, he can run down just about everything and he has a good arm from center field. The ground that he can cover in the outfield reminds me of Torii Hunter during his days with the Twins.

Offensively, he can hit for average with a little bit of power. In 149 career games (108 in 2009, 41 in 2010), he’s hitting .296 with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, and 9 triples.

McCutchen won’t have to undertake this reclamation project on his own. The Pirates have a young, talented supporting cast of Ryan Church, Andy LaRoche, Garrett Jones, and Bobby Crosby.

It’s a long road back to prominence (or just getting above .500) for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They might not get there this season, or the next, or the next.

I believe that Andrew McCutchen, with some help, can change the direction of the Pirates…eventually.

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Kerry Wood and Mark Prior: From Chicago Heat to Flame-Outs

It was eight years ago today that Mark Prior became only the 14th player in Chicago Cubs history to win his Major League debut dating back to 1920. Prior and the Cubs beat the Pirates 7-4.

Prior was drafted second overall by the Cubs in 2001. The Twins, who had the first pick in the draft, were interested in Prior, but were told that he did not want to play for them. Instead, Minnesota took Joe Mauer number one. That’s worked out pretty well for them.

Meanwhile, Kerry Wood had undergone Tommy John surgery in 1999, but posted a 12-6 record in 2001 to record back-to-back winning seasons.

In 2002, Prior’s first season with the Cubs, he went 6-6 in 19 starts with a 3.32 ERA. That same year, Wood notched his third straight winning season going 12-11 with a 3.67 ERA. Wood didn’t miss a start that entire season and set a career high with 213.6 innings pitched.

The stage was set for 2003. The tandem was dubbed “Chicago Heat” by Sports Illustrated , and the two of them were featured on the cover of the 2003 Baseball Midseason Report edition of SI .

That season, Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. He racked up 245 strikeouts and only walked 50 batters in 211.1 innings. He finished third for the NL Cy Young Award in his first full Major League season.

Wood recorded a career-high 266 strikeouts in 211 innings on the way to a 14-11 record.

It was all downhill from there.

From 2004 to 2006, Wood and Prior amassed a record of 30-32 with a combined ERA over 4.00.

2006 was Prior’s last season with the Cubs, and he has not played in the Majors since. On December 26, 2007, he signed a one-year contract with the San Diego Padres, but missed the entire season due to injury. On January 13, 2009, the Padres agreed to one-year minor league contract with Prior, but he was released in August of last year after failing to be called up the entire season.

Wood has not started a game since the 2006 season. Since 2007, he has appeared in 150 games in relief and has gone 9-10 with 54 saves in 67 chances.

This season, now with the Cleveland Indians, Wood has pitched 3.1 innings striking out three and walking five. He’s 0-2 with an ERA of 18.9 and a blown save, but at least he’s still in the Majorsat least for the time being.

It’s yet another story of what might have been for the Cubs.

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Break-Up the Royals: Ned Yost Leads Kansas City to Third Straight Win

The Kansas City Royals said, “Goodbye,” to Trey Hillman on May 13th after two-plus seasons and a 12-23 record to start 2010. Hillman was 152-207 (.423 percent) in his tenure with the club.

Hillman’s replacement, former Brewers manager Ned Yost, has provided stability and leadership since taking over the team a little more than a week ago. Yost has guided the Royals to six wins in their last eight games including three in a row.

It’s not that Yost has a much better career winning percentage than Tillman. In almost seven seasons with the Brewers, he posted a record of 457-502 (.477 percent).

Okay, why are things so drastically different in Kansas City?

The bottom line is that it was time for a change. Hillman had done all he could with the team (which wasn’t much), and he had lost the faith of the team.

Naming Yost as the new skipper has energized the entire organization. He believes in his team, and they are giving him every reason to keep believing.

Maybe the Royals should change their slogan back to what it was in 2003—”Believe!”

Will Kansas City make a serious push to win the division or even a wild-card berth? Keep believing (or dreaming).

Hey, for the Royals, the only place to go from here is up.

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Not So Chipper: Tough Times For Braves’ Jones

At the end of last season, Atlanta Braves 3B Chipper Jones said he would retire from baseball if his play did not improve this season.

“If I back up this year with the same kind of year next year, I don’t want to play the game. The game is not fun to me when I’m not playing up to my standards.”

Jones has definitely seen better days…

He has played in 35 of the Braves’ 42 games this season, and his numbers are nowhere close to what he’s used to.

Jones is batting a career worst .225 (.081 below his career average). He’s on pace to hit fewer than 10 home runs, score fewer than 60 runs, and drive in fewer than 40 base runners.

Even if Jones manages to turn things around, it is going to be hard for him to hit his customary .300, hit 20 or more home runs, score 100 plus runs, and drive in at least 100 runs.

That being the case, I have a feeling this is his last Major League season.

The good news is that the Braves are 8-2 in their last ten games and have won four straight. They are also tied for second in the NL East despite Jones’ early struggles at the plate.

If they can get him going, they have a solid chance of catching the Phillies for the division lead. In the meantime, Troy Glaus has found his swing and rookie outfielder Jason Heyward is putting up monster numbers.

With Jones’ struggles over the past two seasons, it is easy to forget just how good he was.

In his prime, he was as tough an out as there was in the Majors. He recorded eight straight seasons from 1996 to 2003 of at least 100 RBI. In seven of those seasons he also scored at least 100 runs (90 in 2002). He had at least 20 homeruns in each of those seasons as well.

For his career, Jones has 428 homeruns, 2,431 hits, 1,473 runs, 1,372 walks, and a .306 batting average.

By the end of this season, He has a chance to reach 450 homeruns, notch at least 2,500 hits, score 1,500 runs, and draw 1,400 walks.

He’s a two-time Silver Slugger Award Winner, six-time All-Star, and was the 1999 NL MVP. On top of that, he won a World Series Championship with the Braves in 1995.

Chipper Jones’ career has been about more than the numbers. He has done it the right way. He played through the middle of the Steroid Era and name has never been mentioned in connection to steroid use. For 15 seasons, he’s been the face of the Braves franchise, a team player, and the ultimate professional.

If this is Chipper Jones’ final season of his career, it’s one he can be proud of—even if he doesn’t put up Chipper-like numbers this season.

He’s still one of the best third-basemen to ever play the game and is well on his way to Canton.

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