Speculation is that highly sought free agent pitcher Cliff Lee will make a decision early this week on which team to pitch for in 2011 and beyond to be said team’s ace for years to come. It’s basically down to two teams: Rangers or Yankees. But there have been reports that a third “mystery” team could be involved in talks, though it’s unlikely Lee would end up signing with this unknown team. Well, that kind of talk gets my mind thinking (never a good thing), and I thought what if my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates surprised everyone and signed Lee to a long-term deal? Hey, I can dream at least. Caught Looking enters my dreamland to see what the future would hold for a Cliff Lee-lead Pirates club…

Lee holds a press conference Tuesday afternoon to stun the baseball world with his announcement that he signed a six-year deal worth $146 with the Pittsburgh Pirates that includes a player option for a seventh year. The presser sends shock waves through the country as pundits wonder when the Pirates came into the Lee sweepstakes, and where did they suddenly get the money for the left-handed ace?

Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington is quick to tell media members that this is the move that will help put them over the top.

“We are serious about building a championship-caliber ballclub here in Pittsburgh. We actively pursued multiple starting pitchers this offseason with Correia and Olsen, and we felt that by adding Lee for the next six years gives us the move we have been looking for to make that next step and compete for a championship.”

Lee explains to a hoard of reporters that the Pirates came out of nowhere to sweep him off his feet.

“I honestly didn’t hear from Neal and the Pirates front office until about a week ago, but they brought me in and surprised me with the deal they laid on the table. I love what they are building here and the way they’ve gone about it. This team has a lot of young, talented players that are on the cusp of doing great things. Pittsburgh is a great town with a fantastic ballpark, and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my career here. The Yankees and Rangers made very enticing offers, and this was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but ultimately I felt that Pittsburgh is where I’m supposed to be.”

Columnists and experts around the country bash Lee in print and the internet throughout the rest of the offseason. Meanwhile, Lee mania officially hits the Steel Town as the Pirates see an immediate increase in season tickets, advertising, merchandise sells, etc. Lee’s number 37 jersey easily becomes the Pirates top-selling jersey.

The Pittsburgh Baseball Club opens its 2011 season at Wrigley Field on April 1 with an afternoon game against the Cubs. Lee is on the mound for the Pirates and looks in midseason form on his return to the NL, blanking the Cubs through 7.0 innings of work while striking out eight batters in a Pirates 4-1 victory. Six days later, Lee is on the hill in PNC Park for the home opener in front of a frenzied, sellout crowd the likes of which has not been seen in Pittsburgh for years. Lee mows down the Rockies with a four-hit shutout, and second-year slugger Pedro Alvarez hits two home runs, one into the Allegheny River, as the Bucs cruise to a 7-0 win.

The Pirates hover around .500 through April and May as Lee goes 7-2 with a 2.58 ERA in the first two months. They sit at 35-36 on June 17 when the Bucs travel to Cleveland for an interleague series with Lee’s former employer. Lee starts the first game of the series and has a no-hitter through five before finishing with 8.0 stellar innings and one run allowed to propel the Pirates to a 5-1 win. Lee’s brilliant performance against the Indians was the beginning of a three-game sweep to push the Pirates over .500 as Correia continued his surprising season by blanking the Tribe through seven innings of work the next night. The sweep turns the Bucs red-hot to finish the first half, going 12-6 through their next 18 games to take a 50-42 record (good for second place, 2 games behind the Cardinals) into the All-Star break, which is the first time the Pirates have taken a winning record into the break since 1992.

Lee’s return to the National League has proven to be a success as he owns a 12-4 record with 2.74 ERA in the first half, good enough to start the game for the NL. Lee tosses two scoreless innings in his brief work in the All-Star game. The NL goes on to win its second straight All-Star game with a 7-4 victory over the American League.

With the Pirates playoff aspirations the talk of Major League Baseball at the break, the Pirates fall into a rut to start the second half. The offense goes into a coma as the Bucs struggle to provide Lee any kind of run support. They scuffle back to .500 with a record of 56-56 in early August and fall eight games back in the NL Central. With the playoffs not looking like a realistic possibility, the fans now hold hope that this will at least be the year they can finally end their years of futility and pull out a winning season.

The Bucs enter the month of September one game above .500 with a 69-68 record. Thanks to two wins in the week by Lee, the Pirates bring their record to 74-70 as they desperately try to hold on to this winning season. The city of Pittsburgh gets behind the team hoping to see the end of the record losing seasons streak. Attendance is the highest it has been since PNC Park opened in 2001, and the near-sellout crowds in September show how far this team has come.

With the division out of reach thanks to a hot month of August by Albert Pujols and the Cardinals, the Pirates play .500 ball for the majority of the month and continue to countdown their own “magic number” to a winning season.

On September 23, 2011, with the Pirates hosting their last three-game series of the season against the Reds, they sit at 81-75 and need just one more victory to clinch a winning season. As fate would have it, Lee just happens to be starting for Pittsburgh that Friday night as a sellout crowd watches in anticipation. Lee pitches as if it was Game 3 of the ALCS, fanning 14 Reds on the night for a three-hit, one run complete game victory for his 20th win of the season. It’s the franchise’s first 20-game winner since John Smiley in 1991. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Alvarez all go deep for the Pirates as the celebration starts early in a Pirates 12-1 rout. The win halts the franchise’s losing streak at 18 straight seasons and the Pirates celebrate like they have just won the pennant. Lee is given the key to the city prior to Saturday night’s game, and the Pirates finish the season with two more wins to end with an 84-78 record.

Lee is awarded the NL Cy Young award, the second of his career, with a 20-8 record and 2.89 ERA while leading the Majors in complete games and strikeout-walk ratio. Alvarez comes into his own in his second ML season as the Pirates premier power bat with 37 home runs, 42 doubles and a slash line of .272/.352/.528. McCutchen excels in his third season becoming the newest member of the 20-30 club after belting 26 home runs and swiping 31 bases in his first All-Star year. The rotation seems to have fed off of Lee all year as well. Correia turns out to be another solid pickup in the offseason as he finishes his surprising year with 14 wins and a 3.80 ERA. James McDonald and Paul Maholm each picked up 10+ wins, which rounds out a rotation that exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations.

The Pirates use 2011 as a stepping stone in the right direction and are ready to take the next leap forward. 2010 No. 1 draft pick Jameson Taillon arrives in 2012 and teams with Lee to become one of the best 1-2 punches in the game. The Pirates roll through a weak NL Central to finish 92-70 for their first division title since ’92. After defeating the Braves in the NLDS for a very late dose of revenge, the Pirates meet the Phillies in a NLCS battle of the Keystone state. Lee faces the pitcher the Phillies got to replace Lee years ago and defeats Roy Halladay in a pitching duel that goes down as an instant classic. The Pirates advance to the World Series for the first time since 1979 and meet the New York Yankees. Lee shows the Yankees what could have been if he had signed in the Bronx. He wins all three games he starts in the Fall Classic to lead the Bucs to their sixth world championship by defeating the Yankees in seven games.

Not even two months later on December 21, 2012, Earth spins off its axis, skips out of orbit and flies into the sun promptly ending the world.

On Saturday night I followed the Pirates-Rockies gamecast online while official scoring a game for a local collegiate Prospect League team. The Pirates held a comfortable three-run lead as a I left our game…or so I thought. While driving home, I tuned to the game on the radio station and was disappointed, but not shocked, that the game was in extra innings and the Pirates were down two runs.

“Here we go again,” I thought. Pirates blew another one in front of a sellout crowd nonetheless. I actually turned the station for a couple of minutes too disgusted to listen. Well, something pulled at me to turn it back on for the bottom of the 10th. Andrew McCutchen had doubled, two outs were made and Garrett Jones drew a walk to bring Pedro Alvarez up as I pulled into my driveway. I hurried to turn the TV on as soon as I entered the door to my house. PNC Park appeared on my screen just moments prior to Alvarez depositing Huston Street‘s 0-1 pitch into the porch above the Clemente Wall for a walkoff 8-7 Pirates victory. I about lost it right there in my living room

I’m not going to sit here today and say that these Pirates rookies are different from the past ones—I can hope, but I don’t know if they are. But Alvarez is the best hitting prospect since Barry Bonds and he continues to prove himself on the field. They need to continue doing that if anything is ever going to really change, but I haven’t been this excited about the future status of the Pirates than right now. Somehow this kid makes it easier to believe. I will say that I think his three-run walkoff blast is easily the greatest moment in PNC Park history and probably the top moment in the last 18 years of the franchise. It was the “Pedro has arrived” moment. And it’s unbelievable to see.

And you thought I was excited? Check out the radio call below. I absolutely love how Steve Blass loses it and screams over Greg Brown’s call. “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD…”

The Pirates winning streak of three games was snapped as the Phillies pounded them 12-4 Saturday night, but that hardly means anything on the night when Pedro Alvarez goes deep for the first time of his major league career…an opposite field shot to left at that. When you’re a Pirates fan, you don’t get many moments to celebrate these days, but this is one reason to be excited.

Pedro’s first home run

Can’t we all just get along?
Two dugout blowups between teammates in one week? Maybe it’s the summer heat picking up, but it sure seems some personalities are clashing in some clubhouses. I guarantee this stuff happens more often behind close doors, but the worse for a team is when it erupts right out in the public’s eye during a game. The most recent one with the Rays on Sunday was reasonable, at least I could see where Evan Longoria was coming from when he confronted BJ Upton about jogging to a gap shot that ended up being a triple. Upton probably didn’t like to be told he wasn’t hustling by another teammate in front of everyone and he lost it.

The other incident with the Cubs happened because Carlos Zambrano is an idiot. He’s no stranger to dugout temper tantrums and he went off for no apparent reason last Friday on Derek Lee while rearranging a couple of things in the dugout as usual. The Longoria-Upton thing will blow over as both have talked to the media and stated they are cool with each other. Zambrano’s situation is more complicated as the Cubs finally decided to not put up with his childish tactics and have placed him on the restricted list until at least the All-Star break. He will also undergo a treatment program to basically find out what in the hell is wrong with him.

The Five-Run System
I stumbled upon a very intriguing post this weekend regarding the Braves ridiculous 31-0 stat when scoring five runs or more this year (actually now 32-0 after their defeat of Strasburg on Monday). The article compares what the Braves are doing this year to similar surprise teams over the years that many people didn’t think were that good, but they somehow managed to win about 90 percent of their five-run games and win the World Series. Are the Braves the next in line for that? Jason Heyward heading to the DL isn’t a very good sign for Atlanta though. Anyway, it’s worth the read.

Enjoying retirement
Former longtime reliever Scott Eyre retired this past offseason, and he seems to be enjoying every minute of his post career. I came across this during the Giants-Dodgers broadcast last night. Scott and his wife decided to buy a massive RV and pack the kids and the dogs up for a summer trip across the country, Canada and back. They’ve obviously never done a summer vacation considering Scott’s 13-year career. They also have a blog running to update everyone on their adventures. A lot of players struggle to find meaning once their playing days are over, but it seems Scott and his family are taking the time to enjoy what’s important in life. I love cross-country travel stories, so I find this story fascinating. Enjoy the open road, Eyre family.

D-Backs throw game away
There are times when teams throw games away late, and then there are times when teams literally throw games away. The Diamondbacks handed one to the Cardinals last night in which two errors in the ninth did them in. One of them included a horrendous throw from Aaron Heilman to third base, and then Adam LaRoche decided to bounce one over the catcher’s head on a throw home to end the game when two runs scored. Check out the highlights, it’s brutal.

Poor Joel Zumaya
Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya is no stranger to bizarre injuries (Guitar Hero, boxes), but Monday night’s horrific injury after throwing a 99MPH heater did not look good at all. Zumaya’s arm went pop in Target Field last night against the Twins in one of the most painful pitcher arm injuries I can remember seeing live. Catcher Gerald Laird said he heard a “pop” and even though no word has been given on what exactly happened, I think it’s safe to say Zumaya is done for the year. And just like that the Tigers are in need of a setup man once again.

Batted Ball Play
Leave it to the Pirates to find every way to lose a game. With Pedro Alvarez on first with two outs in a 3-2 deficit against Oakland Sunday, Jose Tabata ripped a pitch into right field…well he would have had the ball not hit Alvarez on the foot as he took off to second. In case you aren’t familiar with the batted ball play, the runner is out and the play is recorded as a hit. So game over on a hit. It’s one of the only ways a team can lose in which their final at-bat goes down as a hit.

As the A’s announcer said directly after the game: “If that doesn’t say it all for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I don’t know what does.”

There were plenty of intriguing story lines and notes around the league on Wednesday night that you wouldn’t necessarily find by reading the boxscore. I thought I’d dive into a couple of them with this post.

  • Reds superb rookie pitcher Mike Leake suffered his first loss of his pro career in a 6-2 loss to the Dodgers. His record now falls to 5-1, but a quick look into Baseball Reference’s Play Index shows that Leake had a truly great start to his career, going 12 games before receiving his first loss. As you can see from the link, he ranks eighth on the list of most games before being tagged with a loss to start a career tied with Jered Weaver and Mike Nagy. Not bad at all for a guy that bypassed the minors entirely for Cincinnati. Current Washington Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez is also on the list with 13 games, but first place belongs to Kirk Rueter who enjoyed a 22-game stretch over the course of two seasons before losing a ML game.
  • These days when fossil Jamie Moyer wins a game, he seems to break about two new records every time. Wednesday night he became the oldest pitcher to defeat the Yankees as he stifled them with three hits allowed in 8.0 innings of work. He beat the Yankees at the tender age of 47 years, 155 days, surpassing Phil Niekro as the oldest player to accomplish that task. The win only came one outing after his worst start of his career (1.oIP, 9ER). Oh, it was his 256th career victory. He’s the closest active pitcher to 300 wins, and despite his age I’m starting to think he may just pitch forever.
  • Leave it to the Pirates to play their worst on the night when the majority of their fans are tuned in to see uber-prospect Pedro Alvarez’s debut in the majors. His first start was very quiet for him as he went 0-for-2 with a walk and run scored, but the Pirates were a mess. They committed a season-high six errors to hand the White Sox a 7-2 victory for their 10th consecutive loss. Pedro must have thought he was still in the minors with the poor pitching and defense around him. Then again, he contributed as well with one of the six errors. It can only go up from here, right?
  • The Mets defeated the Indians again Wednesday night for their sixth straight victory. They sit a half game back of the Braves in the NL East and are a nice 11-2 in June, but I would be more willing to believe it if they didn’t get two of the worst opponents to start interleague play this month—the Orioles and Indians. Let’s see how they fare against their next three opponents, who should prove to be more of a match with the Yankees, Tigers and Twins.
  • Michael Young became the Rangers all-time hits leader with 1,748 hits, passing Ivan Rodriguez in 91 fewer games. I seriously didn’t think Young has been around that long and had to look it up that he’s actually in his 11th season…and he’s a six-time all-star and should be one again this year. The dude can hit too in those 11 years with a career.303 average. The Rangers are currently playing stellar baseball, which may lead me to write a post about them in the recent future.
  • I’ll end on a preview for Thursday afternoon if you enjoy pitching duels. The Rockies and Twins final game of a three-game series will feature Ubaldo Jimenez versus Francisco Liriano in what could be a showdown of eventual Cy Young winners later this season. As far as I can tell from my quick research, no future Cy Young winners have ever faced each other in the regular season that they ended up winning the award. Something to keep an eye on as Ubaldo and Francisco go at it later this afternoon.

Being a Pirates fan in the past seventeen long years means to constantly be looking toward the future…1997, 2001, 2003, 2006 and on and on. This year is no different. Despite the front office’s promotional outpouring of “The future is now,” it is really not. They are closer to some resemblance of a competitive team than they were when Dave Littlefield was signing over the age players to horrible deals six years ago, but there’s still work to be done.

I believe the current front office is doing the right thing in trading away Nady, Bay, Freddy, Jack Flash, Adam LaRoche, Nyjer Morgan, etc while acquiring a plethora of prospects because that is how the franchise has to go about putting together a winning team some day. Let’s be honest, the Pirates will not be a franchise that spends $100 million a year on a team. With baseball’s current structure and playing in a “small market,” they just will not spend anywhere near that figure anytime soon. Therefore, when you’re only spending about $40 million on the payroll, the room for an error is slim. The Bucs can not compete with the big boys in free agency, so they have to build their team through the draft and trades by acquiring players early in their careers when they have the rights to them for multiple years. See former GM already mentioned in Littlefield—he made some terrible deals for broken down free agents that continued to put the team in a massive hole. Fans want to lash out at the current management for the deals they made the over the last couple of years, but keep in mind Neal Huntington and company took over a system that was decimated from rookie ball to the Majors. There were decent Major League players in Pittsburgh, but not good enough to even sniff .500, there were hardly any sterling prospects to speak of and the lack of reach into Latin America and other international markets was embarrassing.


So away went the players that fans here in Pittsburgh only knew and while guys like Freddy Sanchez is just an average second baseman on any other team, guys like him and Jack Wilson became stars in the ‘Burgh because that’s all we had. But it doesn’t mean they were going to turn this franchise around and win. The trades had to be made and in return it brought in prospects like Jose Tabata, Bryan Morris, Charlie Morton, Tim Alderson, Jeff Clement, Gorkys Hernandez, Lastings Milledge along with the second overall pick in 2008—Pedro Alvarez. Easily the number one prospect in the organization, the projected middle-of-the-order power hitter is expected to arrive in Pittsburgh sometime this summer. Many see Alvarez as the savior upon his arrival, but while he could be something special along with Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates need more.

While it appears the Pirates are finally moving in the right direction, at times it still feels like they are miles and miles away. No more evidence is needed than the spring the team just finished as one of the worst in years. Not just with the record, but the struggles of the pitching staff as a whole. Such is the life of a Pirates fan. So when I think about my expectations for the 2010 season, it’s not how many wins will they reach or is .500 a possibility? I used to buy into the “Opening Day, everyone’s in first place and has a chance!” theory, but I’ve learned my lesson too many times thanks to the Pirates. Instead, I’ll be looking at other aspects of the game. Will McCutchen build on his stellar rookie season? When will Alvarez arrive and will he immediately produce showing signs of his unlimited potential? Can the young guys in the rotation, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm continue to improve? Will we see breakout seasons from either Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge or possibly both? The answers to these questions will be indicative of the Pirates future. The pitching rotation is a major key because besides Brad Lincoln, who will start the season in Triple-A, there’s not much pitching talent in the minors that is close to the big leagues. These are some of the pitchers the front office wants to go with when they hope to curb the consecutive losing streak. I pray to live to see that day.

Let me be clear on this—the losing streak won’t end this year. The Pirates just do not have enough ready talent to compete with the majority of the rosters in the National League. I think this team is still a couple of years away from completing a winning season and legitimately competing. Hell, they already have the infamous record in all of sports for consecutive losing seasons, so what’s another couple of years at this point?

Of course, reaching the magical 82 win total is not the ultimate goal, at least that’s what the front office repeatedly states. Their goal is to compete and bring a championship home to PNC Park. I know, it’s just as funny to write it as it is to read and imagine it. There lies the franchise’s problem right there. Baseball in Pittsburgh has become such a joke in the past decade plus that anything they do is not taken seriously by the media and general fans until they actually start to win. It’s incredibly disappointing, but the Pirates have managed to lose an entire generation of fans and are working on a second.

They need to change the entire culture of thinking and losing to get this franchise back to its once proud history. I see and understand both sides of it, and I curse and vent my anger all season at the team along with most fans, but in the grand scheme of things you have to see the big picture as a Pirates fan. The only reasonable plan of attack for a franchise that can’t spend much is to bring the young guys via the draft and trades and develop them quickly and maintain it. So while I watch the Buccos in 2010, I will once again watch for improvement from the young prospects and look to the future hoping that the time to prove themselves and produce starts this year and catapults into something special in the next couple of seasons.

UPDATE: It’s official according to the Post-Gazette—the Pirates will begin the season with the lowest payroll in the Majors at $35.3 million. This isn’t really a surprise, but it is remarkably less than last year’s payroll ($48.7). Management continues to publicly state they will increase the payroll once this core of players develops and produces at a level where they can add veteran pieces to the puzzle to compete. Time will tell if that is true.