Pirates happy but not done with offseason moves

Pirates happy but not done with offseason moves

PITTSBURGH (AP) Neil Walker is hardly bothered the Pittsburgh Pirates haven't been exactly been lighting up the rumor mill over the last few months. If anything, the second baseman sees it as a sign of just how far the club has come.

``The good thing about this offseason is that we weren't looking to upgrade at six, seven different spots as we have,'' Walker said Friday. ``We knew we were going to get a couple arms from a starter standpoint, knew we were looking for a catcher to go with (Mike McKenry). I think we upgraded very well. You've got to like what you're looking at on paper.''

The Pirates landed three-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin and re-signed veteran setup man Jason Grilli. Other than that, the moves have been minor. Walker doesn't view that as an issue.

``We're going to roll with what we've got and we're excited about the additions we've made,'' Walker said.

Besides, it's unlikely Pittsburgh is done. Though general manager Neal Huntington is happy with the moves the team has made he's expects to stay busy before the first full squad workout in Bradenton, Fla., on Feb. 15.

``We still have some irons in the fire, and at the same time we feel good about what we are,'' Huntington said.

The biggest item at the top of Huntington's offseason list was finding a catcher. Veteran Rod Barajas did wonders with the pitching staff but struggled at the plate and behind it, throwing out just 6 percent (6 of 101) base runners attempting to steal and hitting just .206 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 106 games.

The 29-year-old Martin is still in his prime, though his batting average dipped to a career-low .211 last season with the New York Yankees. The two-year deal also gives Martin a little time to settle in and Huntington is confident the hitting woes that plagued Martin are a thing of the past.

``He's a better hitter than that,'' Huntington said. ``He's going to grind out at bats, which is going to help us get into opponent's bullpens. He's an athlete on the bases. We feel like he's a significant upgrade offensively and defensively.''

Grilli's return also gives the back end of the bullpen some stability and flexibility. The 36-year-old has been one of the better late-inning relievers in the league since signing with Pittsburgh in July, 2011. While he's never been a closer, Grilli could find himself thrust into the role if Pittsburgh move two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan, who is likely due a hefty raise in arbitration.

Hanrahan is also the team's most valuable - and tradable - asset, perhaps the biggest chip they have in trying to find some help in the starting rotation. Pittsburgh is set on a top three of A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald but at the moment has youngsters Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson penciled in for the fourth and fifth spots. The Pirates would like to throw an established starter in the mix and hope Charlie Morton recovers from elbow ligament-replacement surgery. Morton is expected to be out until at least June.

The plans, at the moment, do not include rushing 2011 No. 1 draft pick Gerrit Cole to the majors. The right-hander was spectacular at times last season and will get a chance to impress in spring training, but Huntington refuses to put any sort of timetable on when Cole will make it to Pittsburgh.

While finding a new home for Hanrahan could help the Pirates in the long-term, it could also affect clubhouse chemistry. The burly Hanrahan is popular with his teammates, and Pittsburgh's swoons in 2011 and 2012 came after the team made a handful of moves to try to stay in playoff contention. The moves, however, didn't pan out and Huntington allows it may disrupted the positive vibes.

``Did we disrupt chemistry?'' Huntington said. ``Any time you make a move, that's certainly something you take into consideration.''

The Pirates went 79-83 in 2012, tied for the club's best record in 20 years. The season, however, wasn't a steady assault on .500 but a roller coaster ride. Pittsburgh was 16 games over .500 in August before going into freefall. Take the long view and the Pirates were 22 games better in 2012 than they were in 2010, when they had the worst record in baseball.

The short view, however, requires acknowledgment the Pirates stumbled badly when things got tight. Walker - who missed large portions of the final two months with back problems - takes responsibility for the collapse but also insists it is part of the process.

``We all need to be better, we all need to be more prepared but experience is such a huge factor in that,'' Walker said. ``You have to go through these growing pains. You have to.''


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Astros scandal leaves union, MLB trying to figure out future of technology in baseball

Astros scandal leaves union, MLB trying to figure out future of technology in baseball

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Replay rooms have become ground zero for what’s next for technology in Major League Baseball.

The ongoing Houston Astros scandal has brought the use of television monitors anywhere from the dugout on back into question. Monitors are now in place, a delay on the feed is also demanded and general access to the rooms is in question. That’s the current status. The players’ union and MLB are trying to figure out what’s next. Full removal of access to the replay room seems unlikely. More stringent rules about what occurs in there are being considered by the union. Both sides know public relations management is at stake as much as functionality.

Max Scherzer, who is among the players on the MLBPA executive board, is one of the leading voices in deciding what’s next.

“This is where the situation’s fluid,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “That, as players, this is how we see it: there’s a benefit to us in the game to be able to watch our at-bats, watch our pitches, where the pitch locations are and see what just happened, make adjustments on the fly. And, if we’re able to do that, it makes the game better. We can compete at a higher level. Everybody. So, I don’t necessarily believe we need to take replay away given where we were last year with it. There are rules and things we’re very cognizant of [when] trying to eliminate catcher’s signs on those replays so we can’t steal that.”

Replay rooms have replaced real-time discussion on the bench. In the past, players had no choice but to turn to hitting or pitching coaches, or teammates, for information when returning to the bench. Questions about hips leaking or swing path or tipping pitches were covered in conversation. Those still take place. But, the replay room has become an in-game magnet for both hitters and pitchers.

“For a hitter, if you’re looking at your swing, it’s more like positioning that you know is good or bad with your swing,” Ryan Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s not like you’re going in there and looking at the sequence of the signs. It’s more mechanics and things like that. Same thing a pitcher would look at with their windup.”

Another thing being checked by hitters? Decisions against them from a prior inning. Irritation from a blown strike call can end up back in the batter’s box.

Scherzer also uses the replay room immediately after his start ends and his shoulder care is under way. He ices, does his maintenance routine, then pops into the room to review specific pitches from big moments. He’s trying to understand if the process or execution were correct. And, he wants to do so when everything remains in the fore of his mind.

“You’re so emotionally connected to these pitches, you want to be able to see what happened,” Scherzer said. “What just happened? What do these replays look like while everything’s still fresh? I don’t look at every pitch, but I go look at some of the big pitches, so what happened in this situation? For me, I’m self-correcting my instincts, was this a good pitch or was this a bad pitch and kind of getting that instantaneous feedback, so when you go home and sleep at night, you know what you’re sleeping on. You know what you’re thinking about as you kind of process what just happened.

“I get it, obviously those replays could be available after the game. If I’m not using replay to undermine the game, I’m using replay to benefit myself, I don’t think we have a problem. We need to be careful about how much regulation we put into the game. At the end of the day, replay for individual players is not a problem.”

What is?

“Using it to be able to convey signs in real time.”

The Nationals’ replay room requires a player to leave the dugout, head up the steps then take a left into the clubhouse and a right into the hallway adjacent to the clubhouse. It’s a few feet from Davey Martinez’s office. Inside, Jonathan Tosches, manager, advance scouting, watches the lone live feed and fields calls to determine if the team should challenge. The rest of the monitors are on an eight-second delay. A human monitor, installed by MLB and called a “chaperone” by the players, is also in the room. Another is wandering to denote if a player was on their cell phone during the game. Even more monitors were present during the 2019 playoffs.

So, the line becomes about coexistence. The players are considering a longer delay on feeds in the room -- perhaps up to 20 seconds. They hope, at a baseline, one (well, two) bad apples have not spoiled the situation for the bunch. They are also operating from a fundamental understanding of human nature: the issue with temptation is it exists no matter what.

“I wonder if all of the camera angles and the cameras that we have around, I wonder is it tempting for teams to try to do what the Astros did and bend the rules to cheat and try to gain an unfair advantage? I honestly don’t know,” Doolittle said. “Was that the natural progression all along, when you have this many cameras in the stadium looking at so many different things? I don’t know.”

“You want to reduce temptation by altering what’s available during the game,” Scherzer said.

“No matter what you do, there’s always going to be somebody who tries to cheat,” Zimmerman said.

Which leads to one more, non-technical element. Players want the league to take complaints more seriously. The conundrum for the commissioner’s office is wading through what’s sour grapes and what may be an actual grievance.

“One thing we keep coming back to, the players, that stuff with technology seems almost secondary,” Doolittle said. “One of the big changes that we would like to implement, that we would like to see, is some sort of system where a club or a player can file a complaint or tip. If a club could say to MLB we think something is going on here knowing that it would be taken seriously and investigated.

“Because after this scandal with the Astros, we now know MLB had had several reports from teams asking for investigations or asking them to check it out and they didn’t do anything and nothing changed, nothing came to light until there was a whistleblower. A guy put his career on the line to talk about this publicly on the record. It shouldn’t have to come to that. They had some knowledge of this and it didn’t look like it was taken seriously. If we had a system where we knew some reports would be taken seriously, and acted upon in a timely manner, I think that would help a lot, too.”

The one unified thought is the current system is not working. The 2017 World Series champion was shown to cheat. The 2018 champions are under investigation. The 2019 World Series champions are a secondary story in their own complex. Something needs to change.

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Five Orioles spring training games to pay attention to

Five Orioles spring training games to pay attention to

The Orioles are just a few days away from hitting the field, in a game, for the first time in 2020. 

They’ll play 33 games, including split-squad games, before they head to Baltimore for the season opener against the Yankees on March 26. Before that day, though, there will be a few games with some interesting storylines across the board. While starting lineups fluctuate a ton, there are still a few things to note moving forward.

Here are a few games to pay attention to as the spring moves along:

Sat. Feb. 22 @ Braves

It makes sense to start at the first one, right? 

The Orioles will kick off their spring training against the Braves in North Port, Florida on Saturday at 1:05 p.m. Chandler Shepherd, a 27-year-old who appeared in five games in Baltimore last season, will get the start. He threw 19 innings and allowed 23 hits and 14 earned runs last year, while opponents racked up a 1.526 WHIP and 10.9 hits-per-nine innings against him.

While the Orioles aren’t likely to see former standout Nick Markakis so early in the spring, it’s always exciting to get a glimpse of the club for the first time — especially if Adley Rutschman hits the field.

Tue. March 3 @ Nationals

The Battle of the Beltway gets some Florida love, as the Orioles will get a look at the defending champions in West Palm Beach. 

All-time, the Orioles own a 41-33 advantage over the Nationals in 74 regular-season games played. Over the last five seasons, though, the Orioles and Nationals have evenly split a total of 24 games. 

The game won’t be broadcasted on television, but anytime Baltimore and Washington get together is sure to be a fun afternoon.

Fri. March 6 @ Yankees

The Orioles will get their first look at the AL East favorites on March 6, when they head north to Tampa for a 6:35 first pitch against the Yankees. 

Baltimore opens the season at home against New York a few weeks later, where it will look to improve on a horrendous 2-17 mark against the Bronx Bombers last season. 

The Orioles had the worst pitching staff in baseball last season and allowed an ERA of 5.59, a number not helped by the Yankees, who scored 151 runs in 19 games against the Orioles.

After the first series of the season, the Orioles went 0-16 against the Yankees and allowed 136 runs in 16 games — an average of 8.5 runs per game. 

Thu. March 12 vs. Twins

While this game holds no real significance in the grand scheme of things, it’s an important landmark for two reasons: First, watching the Orioles against a legitimate playoff team is always an interesting task, if only to see how some younger players handle one of baseball’s best teams.

Second, this marks the date two weeks before the Orioles start their season against the Yankees at Camden Yards. 

While there might not be any grand significance to the game itself, per se, this is an important date in that we’ll begin to see, if we haven’t already, what the potential big league team could look like.

Mon. March 23 vs. Mets

Lastly, the Orioles will end their spring training at home in a day game against the Mets. This is right around the time the roster will be finalized and there will be a pretty good idea of what the rotation and starting lineup will look like. 

Three days from this point, the Orioles will head back home to face another New York team — this one much better than the Mets. 

But while March 23 might seem far off, it’ll be here sooner than it seems.

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