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Pirates are mixed on move from NL Central

| Friday, June 17, 2011

HOUSTON — Neil Walker was 8 years old in 1994, when his hometown Pirates left the National League East and moved into the Central Division. He's too young to have memories of the club's epic battles against the Phillies and Mets in the 1970s, '80's and early '90's.

The Pirates again could change divisions — or, perhaps, even leagues — if baseball realigns. The topic will be part of Collective Bargaining Agreement talks between major-league owners and the players' union.

Team president Frank Coonelly, eyeing the big crowds at PNC Park when the Phillies and Mets visit, is lobbying hard for a move back to the East. But Walker doesn't much care where, or even if, the Pirates are relocated.

"It doesn't make a difference to me, really," Walker said. "In my opinion, if they just moved Houston to the AL West, it would make everything work. But as far as us moving to the NL East ... I don't know."

Under MLB's current unbalanced schedule, the Pirates and Phillies play just six times a season. Walker said that adds spice to the games.

"If we had to play them 18 times a season, it's not going to be as exciting," Walker said.

Lyle Overbay would prefer baseball go back to a balanced schedule, even if that means keeping 14 teams in the American League and 16 in the National.

"Playing in Toronto for five years, having to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox for 18 games a year ... you can get in there for a series and beat them, but it's tough over a period of time," Overbay said. "We won 88 games last year in Toronto and we weren't even close to the playoffs."

Paul Maholm is the Pirates' player rep for the union. As such, he takes a cautious and practical approach to realignment.

"I guess it's something to look into to (improve) the game," Maholm said. "But it would have to work for both sides (players and owners) and it would have to work for the game overall. It might take a little while to figure everything out."


Four notable players who played for both the Pirates and Cleveland Indians:

Brian Giles

It cannot be said that Cleveland never did anything good for Pittsburgh. In November 1998, the Tribe dealt Giles to the Bucs for Ricardo Rincon, a lefty reliever. Rincon had four decent years with the Indians and faded into obscurity. Giles was an instant success, a two-time All-Star who earned MVP votes in four of his five seasons with the Pirates.

Bert Blyleven

Of his 22 seasons in the majors, this Hall of Famer spent three with the Pirates and four-plus with the Indians. He went 34-28 with a 3.47 ERA and won a World Series ring in Pittsburgh from 1978-80. He never went to the playoffs with the Indians but was 56-42 with a 3.20 ERA.

Gary Alexander

Alexander spent 1979 with the sixth-place Indians, and watched from afar as the Fam-a-lee won the World Series. In 1980, he was part of the trade for Blyleven and Manny Sanguillen but played in only 21 games with the Bucs before retiring.

Sam McDowell

McDowell signed with the Indians out of Central Catholic in 1960. He was a six-time All-Star and finished third in Cy Young voting in 1970. He signed with the Pirates as a free agent in 1975 but was released after pitching in 14 games.


HOUSTON -- The Pirates almost certainly are going to extend GM Neal Huntington's contract. The team already has talked with budding star Andrew McCutchen about a long-term deal. Barring a blockbuster trade offer, the club will at least make an effort to re-sign lefty Paul Maholm instead of picking up his $9.75 million option for 2012.

There's been much talk about each of those potential contract moves. Yet, there has been no buzz about whether the Pirates should lock up one of their most reliable players, closer Joel Hanrahan.

The right-hander has reeled off 21 straight saves going back to last season. He has a pair of multi-inning saves. He has a nasty slider and a fastball that makes radar guns yelp.

"Hanny's been absolutely amazing," right-hander Jeff Karstens said.

Hanrahan is making $1.4 million this season. He has two years of arbitration eligibility left, and that process could boost his salary to $8 million a year or more by 2013.

If management believes Hanrahan is for real, it wouldn't be crazy to sign him through his first year of free agency. However, the Pirates have not approached Hanrahan about a multi-year deal. That's not surprising, considering the front office's general approach toward relief pitchers.

These arms, especially late-inning guys, usually are the final piece a team needs to make the jump to title contender. And Huntington often notes that relievers can be maddeningly inconsistent from season to season, therefore bearing considerable risk when considering a long-term contract.

But a shutdown closer can be hard to find. The Pirates never really had one in the early 1990's, and it cost them in the playoffs: Francisco Cabrera would've gone down swinging against Hanny's 100-mph heat.

If the Pirates reach the postseason in the near future, who will take the mound for them in the ninth inning of their next Game 7?

MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT: Altoona Curve catcher Tony Sanchez

With the upheaval behind the Pirates' plate, one person who won't be plugged in to fill the void left by Chris Snyder (back surgery) and Ryan Doumit (sprained ankle) is Tony Sanchez.

"Tony needs to continue to refine all areas," general manager Neal Huntington said this past weekend. "Unfortunately, most catchers don't call their own games, so a big part of it is game-calling, so he can recognize swings, come here and help our pitchers get through not only games, but innings.

"Tony's made great progress but we just felt like wasn't time to bring him to majors and he still has some things to accomplish before he goes to Triple-A."

The Pirates' top pick (fourth overall) in 2009, the 23-year-old Sanchez jumped from High-A Bradenton last year, where his season was cut short by a broken jaw, to Double-A Altoona this year. He is batting .263 with a .368 on-base percentage and .337 slugging percentage, including 20 RBI, five doubles, one triple and two home runs in 51 games.

He also has nine errors, although Huntington warned against putting too much emphasis on that statistic.

"A couple are unearned, and some are Tony trying to do too much, rushing the throw," Huntington said. "Part of a young player getting better is we don't want him to be afraid to make mistakes, we want him to be aggressive. But sometimes, it's tough to teach a young catcher (that) you stay within your mechanics, and if he's safe and the throw's on the base, it's not your fault. They often times want to do too much."

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