It’s a good thing that Neal Huntingdon is the Pirates general manager and not me. In an earlier column, I heavily questioned the Bucs’ offseason moves, but it turns out that, like with countless other things, I was wrong. Who would’ve thought that John Jaso, Jonathon Niese and Ryan Voglesong would be good moves? Neal Huntingdon did.
John Jaso Jingleheimer Schmidt (as I call him) is the most successful white guy in dreadlocks since the singer of the Counting Crows. It’s still early, but the career .266 hitter with 15 lifetime stolen bases has flourished as the team’s leadoff hitter. Jaso is also a defensive upgrade from Pedro Alvarez. (I’m hoping that some fan will emerge as “Fake Jaso” because we all miss “Fake Pedro.”) The guy hitting behind Jaso is the only guy not hitting so far, and that’s Andrew McCutchen. Cutch has achieved the status of being angry-fan-bulletproof, a feat matched only by Sidney Crosby. We have booed greats like Barry Bonds, Evgeni Malkin and Jaromir Jagr when they’ve struggled, but not McCutchen. But deservedly so, because there’s nothing to worry about here. One night last week, against the Rockies, Cutch blasted three homers. He might just be secretly jealous of Jaso’s dreads, since he shaved off his braids a couple seasons ago.
Johnathon Niese was almost set up to fail. He’s the guy we received in the Neil Walker trade. Walker was beloved, and nobody was happy to see Niese don the black and gold. As of writing this, though, Niese leads the entire staff in wins. Sure Neil is having an almost steroid-era surge of power in New York, but pitching is always more important. Last year, Niese was relegated to bullpen duty with the defending National League champion Metropolitans, but then he caught a dose of some Ray Searage magic.
Searage — the Pitch Doctor (awesome nickname) — managed to have a journeyman’s career in the bigs, compiling a less-than-stellar 11-13 record. Perhaps if Searage would have had himself for a pitching coach, he could have fixed himself. Thank God we have him now. Searage came to the Pirates before the start of the 2010 season. Back then you were either desperate to be in the big leagues or a masochist if you signed on to be part of the Pirates organization. The West Liberty University grad was just glad to be in a major-league park after spending time in Indianapolis with the team’s AAA affiliate. He has resurrected the careers of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ and now Niese. Searage is so good I’m afraid someone is going to take him away from us.
Management threw a lot of work his way. His other projects include Ryan Voglesong, Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz. None of those pitchers have underperformed in the early going. Now if he could just solve the mystery that is Jeff Locke. If not, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are waiting to take Locke’s spot in the rotation.
The offensive additions of Matt Joyce and David Freese have proven to be upgrades over Travis Snyder and the recently departed utility man Michael Morse. At one point late in the first month of the season, 10 of the 12 position players were hitting more than .300. The only two exceptions were Chris Stewart and McCutchen. Good problem to have, because Cutch always slumps in the first month, then comes storming back the next five. Once Jung Ho Kang returns, this is a deep and talented offensive unit.
In fact, the only thing standing in the way of a division title is the stupid Chicago Cubs. The Bucs have made three straight postseason appearances but have yet to hang a division-title banner. I’m glad the Pirates don’t put up wild-card banners in their stadium like some teams do. Those teams are losers. Speaking of losers, the Cubs are extremely overconfident for a team that hasn’t had a pennant since early in the Harry S. Truman administration. They’re off to a hot start, but not all their phenoms can work out; it’s just impossible. Somewhere along the road the ghost of Steve Bartman or the Billy Goat will get them. I think 2016 could very well be the year the Pirates finally put up that banner.