Friday, July 18, 2008

A big game of telephone

Trade season is equal parts fun and frustration for fans. All kinds of interesting possibilities float around the media soup, but without any kind of inside access, there's no reliable way to determine the provenance and relative truth of any particular piece of spin. The only real thing you can do is pay attention and keep yourself informed, so that if a particular possibility comes to fruitition, you'll already understand the ramifications by the time it goes down.

A bunch of different Pirate rumors have hit the internet over the last few days, and I'm going to take a quick look at them (in no particular order). First up is a Sports Illustrated piece by longtime Baseball Prospectus writer Joe Sheehan. Sheehan selected eight high-profile trade targets and then tried to extrapolate a fit
for all of them, with the third of his eight players being Jason Bay. He considers and rejects the Diamondbacks and Mets as potential suitors, before settling on Atlanta as the most likely destination. Unfortunately, he seems to be focused more on a move that would make sense for Atlanta than one that would help the Pirates, preemptively discarding Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer, and Tommy Hanson as potential pieces, and settling on a package of Brandon Jones and undefined "young arms" in a "package of second-tier prospects".

I would be worried if this were something that might actually happen, but the idea of trading Bay for slop is pretty obviously dumb on the face of things. That being the case, why did Sheehan write it? My guess is that you can lay the blame for this one on his editor. I think Sheehan was given a list of eight players and told to write about trade destinations for them, regardless of what he might've actually thought about the chances of those players being traded. If you look closely, the entire bit on Bay is about why none of the teams that might want him are actually going to trade for him. Sheehan tabs the Braves as the best fit (and they very well might be), but he's saying that they aren't convinced that they can really contend this year, and as such are reluctant to trade anyone they might concievably miss in 2011 for some extra wins right now. I can understand not wanting to trade Heyward, because he's awesome, but Schafer? He got suspended for PEDs, and he's really struggled at AA this year, striking out in almost a third of his ABs (anything over 25% is cause for concern) while hitting .221/.365/.390. If you aren't willing to move someone like that, then you're just looking for excuses to not make a deal. That's probably the take-home lesson from Sheehan's piece: the Braves may flip from buyers to sellers at any moment, so we can't count on having one of their offers in reserve during a different set of negotiations.

The second article is a John Heyman piece about the Yankees, where he looks at possible replacements for Matsui. He doesn't think the Yankees are willing to pay the price for Bay, but almost as a throwaway, he mentions that the Cardinals are willing to use Colby Rasmus in a deal. Rasmus had been mentioned as a player the Pirates like before, but this is the first real indication that St. Louis might actually move him. If this is true, it's good news. A package headlined by Rasmus (a 21-year-old power-hitting lefty CF) is competitive, and it's really the only way the Cards could get into the game here. Even if we decide not to take that deal, it'd only increase any other offers for Bay that we might receive from other teams.

In an article about potential deals for the Padres, John Maffe of San Diego's North County Times floated an idea that I hadn't heard before: Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to Pittsburgh in a deal for Bay or Nady. I still think the Padres are more likely to sell and go young than to buy a veteran OF, but I can sort of see what Maffe's thinking here. The Padres have been interested in ex-Padre Nady since the offseason, Kouzmanoff was a former Indians prospect who might interest Huntington, and a Kouz trade bringing back an OF would let the Padres shift Chase Headley back to his natural position of third base. I'm not sure exactly what role Kouzmanoff would play in Pittsburgh in this scenario. He's an upgrade on Bautista, but probably not a huge one, since his glove is pretty poor. He might be a candidate for a switch to first base or an outfield corner, but doing that would just re-block Pearce (who appears to be rounding back into his usual offensive form after getting over his disappointment at not making the team this spring). Still, you never say never, and the more suitors the merrier as far as Bay and Nady are concerned.

Last, but certainly not least, John Perrotto has a big rundown of potential trades in the Beaver County Times. There's too much to quote, so just read the whole thing - but do it quickly, since BCT articles go behind a pay wall in fairly short order. He has a lot of stuff that's been reported in other places before, plus a report of Boston being interested in Bay if Ortiz's injury doesn't look good at the deadline, and a really interesting Dodgers rumor that would send Wilson and Bay to LA in exchange for Matt Kemp, Chin-Lung Hu, James McDonald, and Lucas May. Hu and McDonald were mentioned in the earlier set of Wilson rumors, Kemp is a young five-tool CF who's being run out of town by the LA media, and May is an interesting third-baseman-turned-catcher. For me, the May thing is what gives this rumor the ring of authenticity. May would immediately become the best catching prospect in our system, probably a good idea since Doumit hasn't exactly been bulletproof in the past. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are set behind the plate for the forseeable future with Russ Martin, and a May trade would let them bump Carlos Santana (who has been terrorizing the pitchers at A+ Inland Empire) up to AA. The whole thing just seems to pass the smell test.

Perrotto also has a list of players in whom we've displayed recent interest. They are, as follows:
*STL: Anthony Reyes and Chris Duncan. Reyes is potentially a good buy-low candidate, in that he's performed a lot better in the minors than the majors, and isn't on good terms with the Cardinals' coaching staff. I don't like Duncan as much, since he's burned through almost all of his pre-arb time and he's got a real iron glove (and iron legs to match).
*DET: Jeff Larish and Matt Joyce. Larish was a top lefty college power hitter, and he's continued to hit very well in the minors thus far. Probably limited to first base, he's basically ready right now, but blocked by Carlos Guillen. He had a fairly tepid cup of coffee earlier this season, covering for Gary Sheffield's injury, but he should hit pretty well. Joyce is a lefty-hitting right fielder (almost good enough for center) who appears to be enjoying a breakout season. He was well regarded by scouts, but until this season, the performance hadn't been up to the level of the tools. He just got a shot with the Tigers and has been really mashing, with 9 HR in only 99 AB. Either one would be a good acquisition.
*NYY: Ross Ohlendorf. A former Arizona propsect, Ohlendorf is a groundball pitcher with decent but not exceptional stuff as a starter, and a bit more than that if used in relief. He won a spot in the Yankees' pen this spring, and then lost it after problems with both throwing strikes and the long ball (not a good sign). He also has some issues with lefties. I don't like him as much more than a bottom-of-the-rotation starter, and I don't like trading for "relief prospects" on principle.
*ATL: Brent Lillibridge and Brandon Jones. Lillibridge, whom we sent to the Braves in the Gonzo/LaRoche deal, is a leadoff-type hitter, a "baseball rat", and a good defensive shortstop. Runs well, good arm, just enough power to get himself into trouble. He was quite well-regarded before this year (BP's PECOTA in particular loved him), but he has really struggled at AAA and his stock is way down right now. Jones, mentioned earlier in this post, is a lefty corner outfielder. A football guy, he runs well, and has more of a line drive bat than a real power stroke.
*TB: Jeff Niemann. A first round pick out of Rice, Niemann is probably fourth-best among Tampa's SP prospects at the moment, behind Price, Davis, and Hellickson (with McGee being injured, and thus ineligible). He's a big righty (6'9"), fastball/curveball, with a history of arm problems (Rice doesn't have a great history there). At 25, and in his second season at AAA, he's pretty much ready right now.
*NYM: Jon Niese (mistakenly called "Matt"), Eddie Kunz, and Rob Parnell. Those three are, more or less, the best upper-minors arms remaining in the Mets' ravaged farm system. Niese is a good-looking lefty. Inconsistent stuff, but he's probably a mid-rotation starter if things go well. Parnell is more of a developmental guy. He has issues with his changeup, and on paper his stats aren't anything special, but scouts think he's got about the same ceiling as Niese if he can get it together. Kunz is a righty college reliever. As previously noted, I refuse to consider any minor league reliever as a serious prospect unless he's putting up absolute PlayStation numbers, and Kunz so far has been closer to OK than true dominance.

Assuming that these rumored players are largely accurate, the meta-trends are interesting. Everyone is at AA or higher, and as such fairly close to the majors. If we're rebuilding, we're trying to do it in a hurry (and maybe trading some ceiling for immediacy in the prospects we're targeting). All of the hitters except Lillibridge are lefties, which makes sense given the nature of our park, and most are power-hitting corner bats. I might've expected a little more focus on C/2B/SS, but honestly, we need everything right now. The pitchers don't fit any real template in terms of stuff, approach, or body type. We've got groundball guys and flyball guys, curveball guys and slider guys, big guys and not-so-big guys, lefties and righties, control guys and wild guys, even starters and relievers. If there's a trend, it's that three of them (Reyes, Ohlendorf, and Niemann) all struggled a bit in their initial look at the bigs.

Anyway, lots of food for thought there. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Army Strong

Some disconcerting news drifted out of Dallas last week, though most Pirate fans didn't take note. This is understandable, given that it was buried in an article about a late-round draft pick by Detroit in a completely different sport, but I still think that the implications are worth hashing out a bit in this space. You should read the whole link yourself (it's short), but the gist is that athletes from the service academies who choose to pursue a career in professional athletics remain on the hook for their military commitment for some time thereafter. The Army has long granted waivers for their athletes, placing them in stateside roles (as recruiters and such) where they are able to honor that commitment without disrupting their pursuit of their career goals. The Navy and Air Force, in contrast, have generally been significantly less willing to do so (Mitch Harris and Jonathan Johnston being two recent examples), and now the Department of Defense is asking that the Army review its policy to ensure that it is in compliance with the overall standards for these waivers.

This wrangling should be a concern to Pirate fans because we drafted two players from West Point in this year's draft: catcher Chris Simmons in the 41st round, and outfielder Cole White in the 42nd. The better prospect of the two, White is currently working on a 13-game hitting streak at State College, during which time his overall batting line has increased to .379/.431/.534 . White doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the NY-P league's leaderboards, but if he did, he'd rank fourth in raw OPS. He is, admittedly, a 23-year-old playing against much younger competion, but thus far he's done about as well as anyone could expect, given his circumstances. He's dominating against weak competition, just like he did in college, when he was 2007 player of the year for a weak conference. At a minimum, he's an interesting lottery ticket who merits further scrutiny as he advances, along with an opportunity to keep proving himself. Unfortunately, he (and his roommate Simmons) may not get the chance. If the Army changes its position and recalls both players, then their careers in baseball will essentially be at an end. Above and beyond my sympathy for the affected players, whose dreams are hanging by a thread, I'm not convinced that the military's approach here is the right one. It seems terribly penny-wise and pound-foolish.

It's no secret that the war in Iraq has impeded recruiting efforts. For the 2009 fiscal year, the Department of Defense requested an increase to $20.5 billion for their recruiting budget. That's more than five times the budget from the 2003 fiscal year. You may not have known the actual numbers, but I'm sure you've had at least an intuitive understanding of the forces at work here - it's basically impossible to watch any type of televised mens' sporting event nowadays without seeing at least one recruitment ad during each commercial break. Sports fans skew disproportionately toward the young male demographic that's most desirable to the armed forces, and the military's promotional carpet-bombing reflects their desperation to make inroads with the educated, clean-living recruits who have become more difficult to attract in recent years. Thus, if they are willing to buy good impressions at nearly any price, then why are they willing to take any kind of PR hit in order to retain the handful of recruits who have a legitimate chance at a career in professional athletics? An understanding of the importance of terrain has been one of the bedrocks of military strategy since time immemorial. Why, then, are the armed forces electing to fight a battle here on ground where they can't win? A massive, faceless bureaucracy is never going to succesfully take the sympathetic high ground away from a well-scrubbed and well-spoken aspiring athlete under that bureaucracy's control, and for every pro prospect who's impressed back into the service against his will, how many high school heroes with even faint dreams of stardom will decide that maybe State U doesn't look so bad after all?

This seems like a situation where the actions that would serve the Army's best interest are fairly clear. I just hope they see it the same way that I do.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Things that make me crazy

Jonah Keri, writer for (and before that, Baseball Prospectus), recently penned a column on what he termed "failure dynasties": Teams that have created and sustained a persistent culture of losing. One of the five teams he spotlighted in the article was, unsurprisingly, the Pirates. I took a look at the piece, and I spotted this gem:
Failing to rebuild the farm system, the Pirates tried to compensate by dishing out big contracts to mediocre players (Mike Benjamin! Pat Meares!! Kevin Young!!!) and gigantic contracts to players a step above mediocrity. The six-year, $60 million contract he gave Jason Kendall remains one of the worst deals of an entire generation.

The lack of perspective there is breathtaking. Allow me to provide some context.

Jason Kendall signed his extension in November of 2000. He had just turned 26 in June, and for his career he had put up a batting line of .314/.402/.456, good for a 121 career OPS+. Just entering his prime, the three-time All-Star had successfully completed his return from a gruesome compound dislocation of his ankle in 1999 with no ill effects.

This is the player Keri is describing as "a step above mediocrity"? The third-best catcher in baseball? Let's look at a little more context:

Mickey Cochrane is one of the all-time greats. A Hall of Fame catcher for the Philadelphia A's and Detroit Tigers, he won two MVP awards and led his teams to five World Series, winning three rings, before his career was ended in untimely fashion by a beanball. Through the age of 26, Cochrane put up the following batting line: .314/.398/.460 (117 OPS+).

Huh. How about that? Let's look at another one.

Bill Dickey is also considered one of the all-time greats. The catcher for the powerhouse Yankee teams of the '30s and '40s, the eleven-time All-Star won seven World Series in eight tries, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. Through the age of 26, Dickey hit .322/.368/.476 (122 OPS+).

Hmm. That's interesting, but those guys are from the olden days, when batters were hitting a dinosaur skull with a mastodon tusk. How about someone more recent?

Joe Mauer was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. Playing for his hometown Twins, the native Minnesotan won a batting title in his All-Star 2006 campaign, and is generally regarded as one of the game's brightest young stars. Mauer hasn't reached the age of 26 yet, having just turned 25 in April. Nevertheless, his current career batting line of .314/.394/.457 (125 OPS+) may be somewhat illustrative...

It's indisputable that the Kendall deal did not turn out as well as the Pirates might have hoped, but to try and retroactively confine Kendall to the same transaction ghetto as dreck like Mike Benjamin and Pat Meares is misguided, at best. When evaluating past decisons, and seeking to learn from them, it's important to separate considerations of outcome from considerations of strategy of process. I have a buddy who's a professional poker player, and one of the iron laws of his profession is that you can get beat even if you make exactly the right decision at the time, based on the knowledge that is available to you at that point. It will happen to you every day. In fact, it happened to him on Saturday: Playing a tourney, he was all in with the nuts, and he got beat when the other guy sucked out a flush draw. It happens, and when it does, you don't have any choice but to pick up your coat, push in your chair, and start thinking about tomorrow's game.

On the Kendall deal, the Pirates had the nuts: A long-term contract with a young catcher, who at 26 was just as productive as Yogi Berra (125 OPS+) or Gabby Hartnett (118 OPS+) or Gary Carter (117 OPS+). Then, the wrong card flopped on the river, and they got a bad beat, courtesy of the Baseball Gods. It happens. Kendall tore a ligament in his thumb during the home opener, secretly played through the pain all season at the behest of management (who didn't want to lose their top drawing card), and in all likelihood did permanent damage to the hand. He ultimately needed at least three operations, including a transplant of a wrist tendon to replace the damaged ligament, and he never hit for power again.

I shouldn't get so upset about this kind of stuff, but I still do, years after the fact. Whenever a national writer doesn't care enough about the Pirates to get the story right, it's a microcosm for every time the team has been ignored or slighted by the national media. Every undeserving outfielder who went to an All-Star game while Brian Giles watched it at home. Every time ESPN didn't bother to show highlights of the Pirates game during SportsCenter, so we could get another five minutes of Yankees-Red Sox fluffery. Every sub-literate message board trade proposal where we get three utility infielders and a broken bat for Ian Snell. The worst part about it is that Keri was, of all things, an Expos fan. If anyone should understand how irritating it is to be marginalized and ignored, it should be him.

I guess we can take solace in the fact that we saw the young Kendall playing when he was in all his plate-blocking, base-stealing, line-drive-to-the-gap glory. If some writer wants to retroactively try and cut that memory down to convince himself that he was right not to pay attention, then screw him. He'll never know what he missed.

Do the bullpen shuffle

Some reliever-related changes over the weekend, which are probably worth analyzing in depth. Evan Meek is out on the big club, and Sean Burnett is in to take his place.

According to Dejan, Meek was designated for assignment, but I'm not sure how that's possible from the standpoint of transaction mechanics. It's always been my impression that a team couldn't designate a player for assignment unless their 40-man roster was full, and at the time I write this, ours is at 37 players. Teams have been known to skirt the rule by adding non-prospects to the roster to fill it to capacity before DFAing a player; the Rangers pulled that trick last year with non-prospect Adam Fox when they wanted to buy some extra time to find a trade for Rick Bauer, for example. I'm going to ask Dejan about the situation, to see whether he can clarify things.

The team's decision to cut bait on Meek is easy to understand in some ways. He had the highest remaining ERA (6.92) on a staff that had been struggling, and the general weakness of the pitchers around Meek made it harder for the team to hide him in low-leverage relief. He showed serious issues with both command and control, throwing 48% of his pitches for balls, and walking 12 batters in 13 innings, along with three wild pitches and a hit batsman. Still, the timing on the decision to move him seems a bit strange, as he was working on a streak of six straight scoreless innings when the axe fell. If they viewed him as a work in progress (and they should have - he walked 34 batters in 67 AA innings last year), then his struggles shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. The front office must have believed that he was more of a finished product than he turned out to be, although I'm not sure why they'd draw that conclusion.

Huntington is apparently talking with the Devil Rays about a potential trade for Meek, to let him stay in our system. This could potentially be a good idea or a bad one, depending on what they'd look for in return. If, as Dejan suggests, they're amenable to a fairly nominal cash payment, then that'd probably be OK. If, on the other hand, they want an actual prospect in return, I'd probably walk away. Meek has decent stuff, but even if he's able to harness it (not a given), he probably won't be more than a setup guy, and players with comparable celings are available as waiver claims and minor league free agents every offseason. With our lack of depth in both position players and starting pitchers, we really can't afford to trade prospects in those areas for a commodity that could be replaced freely elsewhere.

It's worth noting that Tyler Yates's command/control issues this year have mirrored Meek's in many respects. Like Meek, only 52% of Yates's pitches have gone for strikes, and like Meek, Yates has approximately twice as many walks as strikeouts. Yates has succeeded where Meek has failed because he's done better at keeping the ball down (one HR allowed to Meek's three), he's gotten more hitters to chase his stuff (swings on 41% of his pitches, compared to 35% of Meek's), and his wildness has remained at least somewhat in control (no WP or HBP, compared to Meek's four). Yates has traditionally had some trouble throwing strikes, but not quite to this level, and he needs to return to at least his prior level in this area or he'll likely start running into the same kinds of trouble that put Meek on the transaction wire.

The other side of the coin, of course, is the decision to promote Burnett to the pen. Over the offseason, I basically wrote Burnett off as a potential future contributor, and while I'm happy for him, I don't think his chances are very good. The move to the pen this spring has goosed his K numbers at AAA, which is a good thing, but he's still having problems with both walks and right-handed batters.

The more serious of these, from the standpoint of his overall development, is the trouble with walks. Back when Burnett was a shiny young prospect, he had a very low walk rate: 1.80 BB/9 from 2001-2003. He was successful despite a low K rate because he never put anybody on base and he never let the ball leave the yard. Finesse pitchers typically experience some erosion in those two rates as they ascend the ladder, but even so, the pre-surgery Burnett had performed at a high enough level that he looked like he could withstand some damage to his BB and HR rates and still remain an effective pitcher. The current version of Burnett is a different animal. He had 4.99 BB/9 at AAA last year, and has 4.15 BB/9 so far at the same level this year. If his performance this year isn't just a sample-size fluke, then he's pitching around hitters to compensate for diminished "stuff", or his command is too poor to let him work consistently within the zone. Neither approach is likely to translate well to the majors.

The usage question is less serious for Burnett as a pitcher, but is a significant factor in his expected performances with the Pirates this season. Meek was being used in long relief as a mopup man, and if Burnett is used in a similar fashion, he could encounter serious trouble against right-handed batters. Last season, for example, AAA RHBs hit .318/.416/.446 against him (compared to .276/.337/.368 for LHBs). Much of that disparity came from a gap in the relevant walk rates: he had 5.68 K/9 and 2.84 BB/9 against lefties, but only 3.64 K/9 and 6.32 BB/9 against righties. His overall ERA this season is better, but the drastic control split between lefties and righties has persisted. The sample sizes are small, so take these numbers with a grain of salt, but he's posted 12.27 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 against LHB, and 4.50 K/9 and 5.4 BB/9 against RHB. For Burnett to succeed, he probably needs to be used as a situational lefty along the lines of Grabow, rather than a long reliever. With four lefties in the rotation, though, and two superior lefty relievers already in the pen, you have to wonder how many opportunies of that nature will be available to Burnett. With the role that's available, a righty like Salas, Chavez, or Beam might have made more sense.

The other interesting corollary to the situation is that we've apparently purchased Matt Miller's contract from the Red Sox, to take Burnett's spot at AAA. This is the Miller who spent parts of the last five seasons with the Indians (i.e. Matthew J. Miller), and while he's getting up there in years and has had persistent health issues for several years now, he's also been a very good reliever when he was healthy. Over parts of five ML seasons, he has a 2.72 ERA over 106 innings, with good component ratios (8.07 K/9, 3.74 BB/9, 0.34 HR/9). Indy's bullpen is a pretty competitive peer group right now, but you can never have too much quality depth, and if Miller is able to show that he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a few innnings with the big club down the stretch.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Today's secret word is "Surreal"

Sometimes, when I'm hauling my nets across the web in search of a fresh catch of links for my readers, the stories of the day will all seem to cluster around a theme. It is, of course, just an example of the human brain playing tricks on its owner/operartor, but if you'd still like to take today's false pattern recognition for a test drive, read on:

*This isn't really a new story, but it was new to me, and since I managed to miss it despite a pretty substantial interest in both baseball and politics, I figured I might as well repost it here anyway in case it slipped past any of you guys, too. In the early 1950s, Honus Wagner was living in Carnegie, winding down his career as hitting coach for the Pirates. At that time, he had his milk delivered by a teenager from Greentree, the fifth son of a German immigrant who opened a dairy farm. And that young milkman grew up to be... Texas congressman and fringe presidential candidate Ron Paul. Huh.

*It's been a while since we've seen a good trade rumor, and while this next item isn't a rumor (or, for that matter, good), it's still kind of entertaining. Belleville News-Democrat writer Scott Wuertz thinks that it'd make sense for the Pirates to trade Bay to the Cardinals for Chris Duncan or Skip Schumaker, Anthony Reyes, and either catching prospect Bryan Anderson or a "prospect pitcher", because such a move "would give the Pirates an infusion of young talent". For the record, Reyes is 26, Duncan is 27 (and in his final pre-arb year), and Schumaker is 28. Bay is 29. When you're trying to make a package of young talent, I've generally found that it makes sense to focus on players that are actually, y'know, young. And in the case of Schumaker, some talent wouldn't hurt, either.

*From the mouths of babes:
A few days ago, Gunnar came home from kindergarten and had this conversation with his mother:

Gunnar: "Mom, Josh said something mean today."

Mom: "What did he say?"

Gunnar: "He said the Pirates stink."

Mom: "Well, honey, they do."

Gunnar: "They do?

Mom: "Yep."

Gunnar: "Oh."

-John Steigerwald, The Observer-Reporter

*The previous three items were kind of funny. This one isn't funny at all. Remember what I said about MLB slamming Forbes's numbers without ever providing any of their own? Right on cue, here's Frank Coonelly providing the requisite lies-and-slander quote (via Rob Biertempfel at the Trib). He also spun out a pretty bizarre explanation for the team's planned use of their annual welfare check:
The Pirates expect to receive about $35 million this year through Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing system, Coonelly said, adding that it's incorrect to believe that money must be used only to increase player payroll.

"The revenue-sharing plan says you have to use those proceeds to improve your performance on the field," Coonelly said. "That's written extraordinarily broadly, and we did that on purpose. Paying down debt can help you improve on the field. You can't get any better while you're taking a (huge) interest hit on all the debt you have."

I'm sure that Coonelly's process interpretation is probably correct - if there's one guy you can trust on the rules of baseball, it's probably a lawyer who's the former VP of MLB. Still, any standard that includes debt service as an approved use for the money is so vague as to be completely meaningless.

Jayson Stark at ESPN wrote a column during the labor troubles a couple of years ago that does a really nice job of addressing some of the same issues addressed by Coonelly's quote. I'd like to crib a bit of Stark's work here:
[T]he only meaningful issue in this labor tug of war is competitive balance. And any attempt to harp on anything else is, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, an indication that the competitive-balance talk is nothing but a smokescreen.

"What you're seeing," says one longtime baseball man, "is inconsistent messages. On the one hand, Bud's saying, 'We need more revenue sharing so we can have competitive balance.' On the other hand, you're hearing him talk about all this debt.

"But if these clubs are going to spend that revenue-sharing money on their debt, how does it allow them to spend money on players? If it's about competitive balance, the money has to be spent on the players. And if it's not, what this really is all about is increasing franchise value."

If the industry as a whole is losing money, says another baseball person with no ties to the union, then more revenue sharing doesn't solve that problem. It only changes the problem -- because it doesn't bring any more money in. It just redistributes the money that has already come in.

Emphasis mine. So, like J. Wellington Wimpy, the Pirates will gladly give you a competitive club on Tuesday for another $5 today. It's just a con game. Don't be the mark.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I did not know that

This an' that:

*Mariners pitcher Miguel Batista is an unusual dude. Lots of players write columns or diaries for newspapers, but Batista has a sideline as an honest-to-God professional writer: he's penned two Spanish-language books, a collection of poems (Sentimientos en Blanco y Negro) and a crime novel (Ante Los Ojos De La Ley). We selected Batista in the 1992 Rule 5 draft, and returned him shortly thereafter when our attempt to hide him at the back of the pen Meek-style proved unsuccessful. Apparently, however, we were interested in him a long time before that:
Dominican native Batista says it's nothing new for players from his country to lie about their age, something the sport has cracked down on in recent years as U.S. immigration laws became tougher. He says today's younger players from his country face pressures to lie because scouts have unrealistic expectations of them.

"They expect a kid who's 16 or 17 years of age to have a 95 mph fastball," he said. "How many Americans can do that? They're forcing kids to lie."

Batista says it wasn't the same way when he was coming up in the early 1980s. Back then, at age 15, he had only a 79 mph fastball but couldn't sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates because he was too young. He waited another year and landed a professional contract. -Geoff Baker, Seattle Times

If his dates on B-R are correct, we were looking at him in late '86 or early '87. He signed with the Expos ten days after his 17th birthday. He bounced around a fair bet after we sent him back, but he did eventually turn into a pretty good pitcher.

*Congratulations to longtime Pirate minor leaguer (and Altoona fan favorite) Josh Bonifay, who's in line to graduate with honors next month from UNC-Wilmington. A 33rd-round pick in 1999 (and the son of then-Bucs GM Cam), Bonifay had a pretty good bat, but medical issues gave him trouble on defense, and eventually led to his retirement in the spring of 2007. After Bonifay graduates, he's going to join the coaching staff at Hickory.

Back when Bonifay was still playing, he used to keep a player diary on the web, which I enjoyed reading. This 2003 interview in the much-missed Pirate Report is pretty good, too.

*In an interview about pitcher Brian Bannister, former Pirate coach Rusty Kuntz had an interesting observation about Matt Capps's approach:
Royals coach Rusty Kuntz told McClure that when he was with Pittsburgh, Pirates closer Matt Capps had the ability to decipher an opposing hitter's swing pattern and be able to pitch above or below it. That's one of the traits that so far has set Bannister apart, too. -Scott Miller, CBS Sportsline

Not sure whether it's true or not, but Capps certainly does get plenty of swings-and-misses.

*Jonesin' for a Clemente fix? You're in luck. PBS is going to show a new one-hour documentary on Senor Roberto this Monday night at 9, as part of their "American Experience" series. If you miss the broadcast, there's a webcast available here. On the downside, the director interviews George Will, but on the upside, it's narrated by Jimmy Smits, so that probably cancels out. If your tastes run more toward children's theater, and you're willing to take a road trip, there's a new play in DC called "Looking for Roberto Clemente" that's getting pretty good reviews.

*This isn't strictly Pirate-related, but I wanted to link to it anyway, so I am. A lot of good info there about the pay scale for minor-league players. Seriously, take a minute and look it over.

*Congrats to Charlie at Bucs Dugout, whose site just got linked (in an article about someone else) by the Washington Post.

*Another month, another new Pirates blog. Our army grows! Certainly can't argue with the title of this one...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Morris question

The Trib published an article today about Matt Morris's struggles this year, along with Jeff Andrews's efforts to fix him. I've excerpted a bit for your consideration here:
Morris' latest outing Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers was an eerie repeat of the other two times he stepped on the hill. Morris pitched well the first time through the lineup, then Dodgers batters started hitting the ball like it was batting practice in the Pirates' 11-2 loss at Chavez Ravine.
"It's not puzzling. It doesn't matter what pitch you throw, it's just location and how sharp it is," Morris said. "The second time around and the third time around, my location has been off, so that's where the trouble has been."

Morris battled with the same problems throughout spring training, but shrugged off most of his performances as preparatory work. But those same problems that troubled him throughout seven weeks of workouts and Grapefruit League games -- he had an 0-3 record and 8.32 earned run average in the spring -- followed him north to become a major issue.
"You've just got to continue with what you're doing in the first," Morris said. "I don't know why I'm not as sharp later on, but obviously them seeing more pitches as the game goes on gives them an advantage, so the location's really important at that point." -Keith Barnes, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The cheap and easy answer would be to say that Morris is just washed up, and indeed that may turn out to be the case. His peripherals (particularly K/9) have been in slow-but-steady decline for more than five years now, and when I went to his second start of the year last week, his fastball was sitting in the mid-80s. If you go out and hunt rhinos with a popgun, it shouldn't be any surprise if you end up getting trampled.

That said, I was intrigued by the piece's implication that Morris's struggles don't start until the second or third time through a batting order. If that's true, then the simplest solution might be to take him out before he has a chance to face hitters for the second or third time, by moving him into Dumatrait's role as the team's long reliever. Three games isn't much of a sample, so I went back and looked at Morris's performace in the first two innings of all of his Pirate starts in 2007 and 2008, a grouping of 14 mostly-poor games. If this is a real, potentially-exploitable trend, I figured, it'd probably have started to show up in his games last year as well.

How big was the difference? Pretty huge, it turns out. In Morris's 14 starts in black and gold, he had a RA of 4.82 in the first and second innings. In all other innings combined, he had a RA of 8.17. (I used straight runs allowed rather than earned runs because it helped with a potential source of error - scorers' error/hit calls can vary widely from stadium to stadium, and Morris would've had substantially the same defense backing him in both samples from any given game anyway). I'm not sure what the normal split is for pitchers, but 3.5 runs per nine sure feels like a lot, doesn't it?

That doesn't necessarily mean that I want to see Morris shifted to the pen; there are a lot of potential caveats to my little look at things. The manager's decision tree is a big contaminating factor on inning-by-inning samples (for example, a starter usually won't get pulled until he's tired or pitching badly, which badly skews his aggregate performance in later innings). There are also questions about how well he'd handle an irregular workload or deal with runners inherited from other pitchers, and logistical issues like which of the varying unappetizing candidates would take his rotation spot, or whether the team would do better to give those innings to someone like Dumatrait or Taubenheim in the hope of mining some future value from those guys. There's even a question of whether a middle reliever with a 4.80-ish ERA is something worth having. Still, it might be worth keeping this idea in mind in case Morris is still getting smacked around at the end of May.