MILWAUKEE -- When Bob Nutting met with the media early in spring training, he said the Pirates had the money to sign Manny Machado in free agency. However, Nutting also said Neal Huntington felt there were drawbacks to adding a big-money free-agent player. One reason was it could create tension in the clubhouse because one player would be making much more money than his teammates.
Machado wound up signing with the small-market Padres for 10 years and $300 million.
When the Padres visited the Pirates this past weekend at PNC Park, I asked some of their players if the signing of Machado had created any envy in the clubhouse.
“As players, we don’t look at it in terms of how much the guy is making,” said second baseman Ian Kinsler, who is in his 14th major-league season. “All you think about is if a guy can help you win, and there’s no doubt Manny Machado has helped us. He could help any team in baseball. He’s one of the best players in the game.”
“It was nothing but positive when Manny came here,” closer Kirby Yates said. “It sent a clear message that ownership is serious about winning and the goal here now is to win the World Series. That’s what you want, ownership that's committed to winning. Manny is making a lot of money because he’s a great player. He earned that contract. No one is jealous of him. We’re thrilled to have him.”
I ran the whole Huntington/Nutting theory past some veteran Pirates players. All dismissed it and one player, who asked not to be named, said, “There isn’t one person in this clubhouse who wouldn’t have been happy to see Manny Machado walk through the door.”
Machado has heated up after a slow start, hitting .280/.358/.500 with 17 home runs in 78 games.
• Conversely, the Pirates’ biggest free agent signing of the offseason – if you call $2.75 million big in baseball terms -- Lonnie Chisenhall, has yet to play a major-league game this season because of a right finger fracture and right calf strain. Chisenhall is basically out of sight and out of mind, as he is home in North Carolina rehabbing rather than being with the Pirates or at their training facility in Bradenton, Fla. Whenever anyone from the Pirates is asked about Chisenhall, they answer in vague terms. It all seems very curious until you realize he did the same thing last year with the Indians. – Perrotto
• Josh Bell has won the admiration of his teammates by the way he has handled the attention that has come with his breakout season. Bell has done numerous media interviews, both locally and nationally, especially when the Pirates were pushing his candidacy in the All-Star balloting. “It’s easy for a young guy to get caught up in all that stuff,” Corey Dickerson told me. “Josh handles everything like a real pro. He’s very mature beyond his years.” – Perrotto
• Former Pirates utility player Don Kelly is in his first season as the Astros’ first base coach after serving in a scouting role for the Tigers since his playing career ended after the 2016 season. Kelly would like to eventually manage in the major leagues and Houston manager A.J. Hinch believes that’s a possibility. “He’s got the right temperament, he relates well to people and he knows and loves the game,” Hinch said. Ironically, former major-league infielder and Pirates farmhand Josh Wilson replaced Kelly with the Tigers this season. Both are Mount Lebanon High School graduates. -- Perrotto
• Sam Lafferty was an intriguing choice when the Penguins claimed his rights during the fourth round of the 2014 draft, if only because he is a native of Hollidaysburg, which doesn't make a habit of turning out major-college hockey players, let alone professional ones. But after a nice career at Brown, Lafferty had a strong rookie season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and just might be the Wilkes-Barre player most likely to contend for a job in the NHL next season. Lafferty is a center by trade, but has the potential to work on the right side and has impressed the front office with his conditioning, toughness and skating. Other Wilkes-Barre forwards who could make a serious bid for steady work with the parent club during training camp include Ryan Haggerty, Sam Miletic and Anthony Angello. -- Dave Molinari in Cranberry, Pa.
• Jim Rutherford figures to tackle the challenge of working out a new contract for Matt Murray at some point this summer, and the negotiations might get a little more complicated than some anticipate. For while Murray will be a restricted free agent when his current deal ends, which means he has no real leverage in the negotiations, Rutherford is expected to try to work out a contract that covers some of the seasons during which Murray would be qualified for unrestricted free agency, which is certain to drive up his asking price. A player isn't going to give up that freedom of movement without receiving something in return. -- Molinari
• There hasn't been an official announcement yet, and perhaps there never will be one. Regardless, all indications are that Hall of Fame play-by-play man Mike Lange plans to be back in the radio booth for the 2019-20 season. Lange, who is 71 and has broadcast Penguins games for 44 seasons, worked a reduced schedule last season and missed some games because of health problems, most notably a bout with pneumonia and issues related to it. -- Molinari
• Pro Football Focus recently released its overall starting lineup rankings based on that analytic site's infamous grading system. Why infamous? A couple of years ago, when the PFF crew came to Steelers' training camp, Ramon Foster took umbrage. Seeing the guys in their PFF shirts and hats, Foster, who had been one of the lowest-rated guards in the league the previous season, yelled, "Pro Football Focus? Y'all's grades suck!"
Foster probably isn't any happier with them now. Though he went on to be one of the league's highest-rated guards the following season, Foster didn't get high grades from PFF in 2018. Neither did any of the other linemen. Center Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers' lone representative on the All-Pro team last season, was the team's lowest-rated offensive lineman with a grade of 69.0. Foster was next at 69.1, with Matt Feiler at 71.0 and perennial Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro at 71.7. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who made his second Pro Bowl last season, drew a 78.1 grade. That sound about right to anyone? It probably won't sit real well with the Steelers offensive linemen, either, considering they were one of the best pass blocking units in the league in 2018. -- Dale Lolley at Rooney Complex
• As a whole, PFF had the Steelers' starting lineup ranked as the eighth-best in the NFL. The Ravens were 17th, Browns 18th and Bengals 25th. Currently, the Steelers are plus-200 to win the AFC North, according to OddsShark.com. The Browns are the favorites at plus-137. The Ravens are just behind the Steelers at plus-225, while the Bengals are last at plus-1,800. It seems the people at PFF disagree with the ones in Las Vegas who set the odds. -- Lolley
• Rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson looks up to JuJu Smith-Schuster, even if Johnson is four months older than Smith-Schuster, who is heading into his third NFL season. "JuJu has a lot of people that come up to him. People love him because of what he does off the field. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do what he does off the field. Right now, I’m just trying to get into this playbook." How beloved is Smith-Schuster? Next week, he'll be in London at Southgate College serving as an NFL ambassador for the NFL Academy, which begins operations in September. The academy will work with young athletes from 16 to 18 years old, teaching them how to play football. Steelers tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of the UK, also will be on hand for what will be the final tryouts for the academy's inaugural class. -- Lolley
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