Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and this year baseball has two
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who tries to watch every game on TV, says he first checks out the Indians every night, then the Pirates. Or is it the Pirates, then the Indians?
No matter, it's hard to separate baseball's two great, improbable success stories.
The Indians currently stand 51-46, just one half game behind the Tigers in the AL Central. The Pirates are 51-45, tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central. Cleveland was 69-93 last year, the Pirates an abysmal 57-105. Both teams have playoff aspirations now in very tight divisions that could be won by any of four teams in each.
"We thought we had a good group of young players, and we thought we were a much better team than we played in 2010,'' Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We did expect we'd be a significantly improved club.''
But this good? You'd have to have held a crystal ball to think that the Pirates and Indians would be contending this late in July.
The great thing is that both cities are catching baseball fever again. Chief Wahoo's tears have dried up and baseball is back in Cleveland, excellent timing since the area is still recovering from the very-public departure of basketball superstar and Akron native LeBron James. Pirates fans, who have endured more than anyone, are back, as well. They've had 10 sellouts at PNC with two or three more possible this weekend as the Albert Pujols-led Cardinals, who stand a game behind, come to town.
The attendance of both teams is up about 20 percent, despite playing in economically challenged areas. The Pirates' TV ratings are up 40 percent, the Indians' TV ratings are up a whopping 80 percent (so Selig is no different than anyone else).
Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Baseball has two of them.
Both teams were confidently predicted to finish near the basement again. Then both teams started playing, and we all found out that they are a lot better than anyone imagined. The Indians have much better pitching than anyone thought, and the Pirates have better pitching than just about anyone (they are a startling sixth-best in baseball in ERA).
The respective managers, the Indians' Manny Acta and the Pirates' Clint Hurdle, are the leading candidates for Manager of the Year awards. Acta is a smart, patient fellow who endured some dreadful years in Washington. Hurdle, an eternal optimist who fits the Pirates perfectly, established that he meant business early when he benched Pittsburgh's best everyday player, Andrew McCutchen, after he failed to run on a third strike that bounced away from catcher Rod Barajas at a game in Los Angeles.
Both the Indians and Pirates look like they have Hollywood scripts.
But at this point, neither team looks like a fluke. Indians shortstop Adrubal Cabrera received the much-deserved start for the AL All-Star team. The Pirates had three All-Stars -- closer Joel Hanrahan, starter Kevin Correia and multitalented outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh pitchers have a collective 3.34 ERA, a figure that suggests pitching coach Ray Searage, a former major-league middle reliever, might be a savant.
Here's another change: Both the Indians and Pirates are buyers at the trade deadline. The Indians need outfield help with Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore out with injuries, and perhaps a starting pitcher. The Pirates are looking for an outfielder, as well, and maybe a reliever.
Cleveland on Thursday called up top prospect Jason Kipnis, a second baseman with some outfield play on his resume, about whom one American League scout says, "The Indians just made a blockbuster deadline trade,'' and adds that Cleveland should get a "helluva in-season jolt.'' They still need to resolve their outfield issue, though, and have inquired on Ryan Ludwick, a former Indian now with the Padres, and are also eying Oakland's Coco Crisp. They've also called on pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, who has a no-trade clause, and Aaron Harang.
The Pirates and Indians both have checked in on star outfielder Carlos Beltran, who, like Kuroda, has a no-trade clause, and is sought by as many as 10 teams and is more likely to go to a more-established contender (such is the life of the upstart team). Pittsburgh will look at some other established but lesser-name outfielders in a clear seller's market (Josh Willingham, Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera are some other outfielders available). The Pirates have talked about relievers at least to the Padres, who have Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Chad Qualls.
The Pirates and Indians owe some of their surprising success to trades over the past few years. In the Indians' much-criticized trade of Victor Martinez, they received Justin Masterson, and they've had success transforming him from a reliever to a starter where others had skepticism about the move. The Pirates made hay with trades for Hanrahan (he came as an unnoticed benefit in the Lastings Milledge-Nyjer Morgan deal), improving starter Charlie Morgan (who came for fading outfielder Nate McLouth), Jeff Karstens (who came in the Xavier Nady deal and has a 1.78 ERA since entering the rotation on May 9) and James McDonald (who came in one of many Octavio Dotel deals).
Both teams are likely to make moves by the deadline, but neither team is likely to surrender a top prospect to get what it wants because both are playing to establish themselves as consistent winners. Both are well-stocked with top prospects. The Indians have pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White and infielder Lonnie Chisenhall to go with Kipnis, and the Pirates have pitchers Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, catcher Tony Sanchez and outfielder Starling Marte.
"The Pirates have to go for it,'' cried one competitor. "They may not have this chance for another five years.''
Technically, it's been 18 straight years of losing for the Pirates. But their goal, according to Huntington, the ex-Indians executive who's made several excellent, under-theas-radar trades, is not to have one happy year but to re-establish themselves as a perennial threat. The Indians have similar feelings.
But neither wants to pass up this chance, either. Both sit in divisions that appear winnable. None of the favorites have separated themselves.
"It's fair to say we're aggressively looking at ways to try to improve the club,'' Huntington said.
"Our plan is always to win as many games as we can and be in position try to win championships,'' first-year Indians GM Chris Antonetti said.
Both teams are willing to consider trading a prospect or two. But it's doubtful that any of the very top prospects will go anywhere. "We have to be very mindful of the future expense,'' is the way Antonetti put it.
What's also amazing about these surprise teams is that they've done it despite some major in-house disappointments. The Indians haven't gotten nearly what they'd expect from their biggest names, including Choo, switch-hitting catcher Carlos Santana or longtime star Sizemore, who is out now with a sports hernia and knee injury. The Pirates haven't gotten the expected production from former No. 2 overall draft choice Pedro Alvarez, who was left in the minors after his injury rehab assignment as a way to send a message that he needs to do better. The Pirates have suffered injuries to several players, including Jose Tabata, Ryan Doumit, Evan Meek, Ross Ohlendorf and Steve Pearce.
Both teams also have also received unexpected boosts. Indians shortstop Cabrera has shown unexpected power and an uncanny flair for the dramatic. Masterson has justified the Indians' confidence in him by becoming a reliable starting pitcher. The Pirates are receiving solid contributions from the oft-traded Mike McKenry, their seventh catcher, and outfielder Alex Presley.
There is reason to think there could be some in-house answers. The Indians need an outfielder so badly that they may try second baseman Kipnis next in left field after another infielder, Luis Valbuena, struggled there in a loss to the rival Twins on Wednesday night. Ultimately though, the best choices may lie outside the organization.
Who knows? These two Cinderella stories could be just one or two more good moves away from stealing winnable divisions.