Courtesy of Point Park University

Friday Insider: Vazquez draws interest, Heat on Hawkins, GM and Sullivan make it work

MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Pirates’ best chip as the July 31 trade deadline starts to appear on the horizon is undoubtedly Felipe Vazquez.

Front office executives and scouts I have talked to unanimously say the closer would get the Pirates more in return than any other player on the roster, including Josh Bell.

“He can be a difference maker in a pennant race and the postseason, and you’d have him for multiple seasons,” an executive from a National League team said. “There’s a lot to like there.”

Whether the Pirates want to trade Vazquez is another story. He is one of the best closers in baseball and has converted 17 of 18 save opportunities this season, a year after being selected to the All-Star Game.

Furthermore, Vazquez is seemingly in the prime of his career at 27. And he is also very affordable, even to the Pirates, as he has two years and $15 million left on his four-year, $22-million contract after this season.

I have learned of three teams who have at least some degree in Vazquez: the Braves, Red Sox and Twins. Whether those teams have engaged the Pirates in talks this far from the deadline is unknown. The Pirates still hold out hopes of contending despite their 33-40 record and aren’t quite ready to commit to a selloff.

The Rays are also in the market for a closer and tried to signed Craig Kimbrel as a free agent earlier this month. He ended up signing with the Cubs for three years and $43 million.

Though manager Gabe Kapler has professed his faith in Hector Neris, the Phillies are likely to look for an upgrade as the deadline gets nearer.

The only other closer certain to be on the trade market is the Tigers’ Shane Greene, who is 21 for 22 in save opportunities this season. However, every scout I’ve talked to prefers Vazquez to Greene.

With that many teams looking for closers, the Pirates could have multiple offers to chose from if they consider trading Vazquez. That will make the next five-plus weeks interesting.

MORE PIRATES

Jameson Taillon’s rehab from a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow has been slow enough that the Pirates now consider it a bonus if he comes back to pitch this season. In fact, some in the organization quietly fear that the right-hander could need Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career. If that’s the case, he would miss the entire 2020 season. Taillon is not expected to begin a throwing program for another two weeks. Having been on the injured list since May 2, Taillon will be starting his season over from scratch and not likely be ready to pitch in a major-league game until September. And that’s if everything goes perfectly, which hasn’t been the case so far. – Perrotto

Dovydas Neverauskas has a 6.44 career ERA in 56 games over three seasons with the Pirates. That isn’t the type of track record that would allow a player to get too comfortable in a major-league setting. Yet Neverauskas always looks quite cozy in the Pirates’ clubhouse as he often can be found sleeping at his locker or on a couch. That has caused more than a few teammates to bristle. Neverauskas is currently at Class AAA Indianapolis. No word on what the sleeping accommodations are like in that clubhouse. — Perrotto

• The multitude of injuries that have beset the Pirates at the major-league level has had a ripple effect on their minor-league-rosters, particularly at Indianapolis. Pirates pro scouts have been scouring the independent minor leagues to find veteran players who could provide help. That is why they recently signed utilityman Darnell Sweeney, who was playing for the Kansas City T-Bones in the American Association, and assigned him to Indy. He has played in 39 major-league games with the Phillies and Blue Jays. – Perrotto

STEELERS

• Throughout the OTAs and minicamp, Jerald Hawkins was consistently the last member of the Steelers on the practice field. The offensive tackle spent time working on his explosiveness and conditioning. Now going into his fourth season, Hawkins realizes it’s crunch time for him in his career. The former fourth-round draft pick missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, then suffered a quad tear during OTAs last season. He enters the final year of his rookie contract with little to show for it. “It’s something I used to do. I’m getting back to the old ways,” Hawkins told me of his specialized workouts. “I really thrived off that. It made me better. It’s even more important this year. I need to get better. I realize this is the last year of my contract. Time is really flying by. It’s something that helps me get better mentally and physically.” — Dale Lolley at Rooney Complex

• How intent are the Steelers about moving on from Antonio Brown? The team put together a video highlight package of Ben Roethlisberger‘s best plays from 2018. Not one of those included a throw to Brown. Considering Brown caught 104 passes and 15 touchdowns in 2018, there had to be at least one play, right? Of course, we know none of those highlights with Brown could have happened in Week 17. — Lolley

• Of Donte Moncrief’s 346 career targets, just 141 came from Andrew Luck. On those 141 targets, Moncrief had over 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches. That’s right around half of his production. Considering he had over 200 targets from quarterbacks not named Andrew Luck, that’s important now that he’s working with Roethlisberger. — Lolley

PENGUINS

Jim Rutherford readily admits that he and Mike Sullivan sometimes are not on the same page about things. But he is adamant that they invariably manage to work through their differences. “Do we have different viewpoints on some things?” Rutherford said. “Sure. I would hope so. But when a meeting is done, we don’t have a different viewpoint. We talk through it until we get to a point where we’re comfortable with what we’ve decided, whether that’s somewhat of a compromise or whether that’s one of the two of us deciding they’re OK with the other guy. I cannot remember, as long as we’ve been together, that we have ended (a meeting) with a difference of opinion.” — Dave Molinari in Vancouver

Speculation that the Penguins might trade Evgeni Malkin has been rampant in some quarters since the end of their season, but there’s no evidence to suggest that Jim Rutherford has actually explored doing anything of the sort. And based on a pretty key factor, he has absolutely no plans to do so, because the Penguins have not approached Malkin about waiving his no-trade clause and do not plan to put it on their to-do list. Malkin’s contract gives him the power to veto any trade, so the Penguins couldn’t deal him without getting Malkin to approve the destination. — Molinari

Nikita Pavlychev, a center at Penn State and one of the most intriguing young players in the Penguins’ prospect pipeline, will not participate in their development camp next week. The word from inside the organization is that abdominal surgery will preclude him from taking part. Pavlychev will be a senior with the Nittany Lions in 2019-20. — Molinari