After 60 games, the Pittsburgh Pirates are breathing rarefied air at 30 wins and 30 losses. Pirate fans are breathlessly giddy with anticipatory excitement at seeing their team not only winning for a change, but often doing so in comeback fashion.
This year's squad is definitely hungrier. They now take the field expecting to win night after night. Instead of rolling over as in years past, they are finding ways of making things happen on the field.
That is translating into reaping a bigger harvest at the turnstiles. A recent series with the Phillies saw a new attendance record set at PNC Park. However, almost half of the fans on hand were sporting Phillies shirts and caps. There was evidence of fan confusion during that series too, as more than a few fans were spotted being clad in Phillies jerseys and topped with Pirate lids.
No matter. This is the first summer in nearly two decades that the Pirates weren't hopelessly mired in last place by this point in the campaign. There are local families with an entire generation who are unfamiliar with the Pirates being anything but a punch line on late night TV.
Even former announcer Lanny Frattare, normally eupeptic, confided to me in February that he didn't envision the Pirates doing anything this season beyond showing up to get their brains beaten in. He guffawed loudly when I suggested that Clint Hurdle would change the team's self-perception. But here they are, still in the hunt in a weak division as June rolls on.
The Pirates' 30th victory may have come with a rather steep price tag. Already missing catcher Ryan Doumit's bat (broken ankle from a collision at the plate), the Bucs may have lost another catcher, as Chris Snyder pulled up lame trying to stretch a single in the third inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, June 8th.
Snyder was easily thrown out at second by former Pirate Xavier Nady after Nady grabbed a carom in left for the Snakes. The Pirate catcher immediately left the game clutching his lower back. The extent of his ailment is still unknown and may leave the Pirates with ex-Red Sox farmhand Dusty Brown as the lone receiver with major league experience on the squad.
Pittsburgh's catching depth in the farm system is suspect. Much-heralded prospect Tony Sanchez is hitting .268 with two homers and 20 RBI in 46 games for the Altoona Curve.
Kent Tekulve, the closer on the last Pirate World Series-winning team in 1979 and who is now a postgame analyst, doesn't see Sanchez making the jump to the big club at this point. Tekulve believes that GM Neal Huntington will either summon Jason Jaramillo from Triple-A Indianapolis or else make a deal. Jaramillo is presently hitting .260 with a single homer and 14 RBI in 25 games at Indy.
Wyatt Toregas, acquired from the Cleveland Indians over the winter, is hitting a very disappointing .034 with no homers and no runs driven in during 11 games so far.
It's no secret that the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are both seeking pitching. The BoSox are specifically seeking a quality setup man, and both teams may have their eyes fixed on Pirate setup man Evan Meek. The good thing is that the Pirates are finally in a position to deal from strength rather than engage in an annual ritualistic fire sale to lower the payroll.
Meek has endured some arm soreness this season and has dropped about eight to 10 mph off his explosive fastball, but he remains a very effective reliever nonetheless.
Before Pirate fans fling their computer monitors out the nearest window in a fit of pique, this is not to suggest the Pirates dealing Meek is a fait accompli or even a necessary thing. Meek is, however, a highly sought-after bargaining chip should a deal come along that strikes Huntington's fancy. If either the Yankees or the Red Sox actively pursue Meek, he's certainly not going to come cheaply.
The BoSox are the most likely candidate to deal for Meek since relievers Dan Bard and Bobby Jenks have disappointed the Beantown faithful. Jenks, the former closer for the Chicago White Sox, is also on the DL at the moment. The Ruby Hose covet Meek to set up for Jonathan Papelbon, who has been lights out but is facing a potential suspension for recently bumping umpire Tony Randazzo.
Would the Red Sox be willing to cough up catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Very likely, since "Salty" is hitting .236, five HRs, 18 RBI and .722 OPS (On-base Plus Slugging). Don't even think the Bucs will acquiesce to an even-up swap. Who else can the 'Sox sweeten that deal with? Marco Scutaro? The Pirates need middle infield bench strength, but Scutaro is hitting a mere .236, one HR, four RBI and .625 OPS. They'd still need a little more.
What about Drew Sutton? Before he was called up, the former Baylor third-sacker was crushing the ball at Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting .307, five HRs, 26 RBI and .908 OPS. The Pirates could move Pedro Alvarez across the diamond to first. The Red Sox have third base blocked with Kevin Youkilis at the moment. Sutton won't be able to chase "Youk" back across to first, since Adrian Gonzalez occupies that spot and is ripping the American League to shreds this summer.
Meek for Sutton? That would work. The Pirates would be able to move Daniel McCutchen to the setup role, and Daniel's former role would likely go to Jeff Karstens. Brad Lincoln would almost assuredly be summoned from Indy to take Karstens' spot in the rotation. Throw in either "Salty" or Scutaro, and Huntington is likely to take the deal like a hungry shark going after a bloody tuna.
The New York Yankees are also in need of pitching, but starters more so than relievers. Still, it's unlikely they'd allow their hated rivals to score a coup like Meek without a fight. Whom can the Bronx Bombers use to entice Pittsburgh to part with Meek? Francisco Cervelli is their best-hitting catcher at the moment, outhitting more expensives like ex-Dodger Russell Martin and veteran receiver Jorge Posada. In 12 games, Cervelli is hitting .242 with a lone homer, 10 runs driven in and a .710 OPS.
However, the Pirates won't part with their All-Star reliever even-steven for Cervelli. Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's catcher is Jesus Montero, and he's currently enjoying a banner season, hitting .294, four HRs, 22 RBI and .753 OPS. The Bucs could also use third-sacker Brandon Laird, hitting .271, three HRs, 20 RBI and .688 OPS at Scranton.
The Yankees might be willing to also part with Ramiro Pena, a switch-hitting utility man who can play second, short, third or in the outfield. Although he was just called up from Triple-A on Friday (to replace injured third baseman Eric Chavez), Pena's career big league numbers are .253, one HR, 28 RBI and .588 OPS in 154 games.
The Red Sox and Yankees are likely to have company, waiting in line to pry Evan Meek loose from the Pirates' grasp. However, the wait may be long, and the end result is likely to be expensive, if any deal is ever consummated.