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.

$292 million

That's how much R Buccos are worth, according to Forbes Magazine's annual writeup. If that sounds like a lot of money, it's actually not. We rank 28th out of the 30 teams in MLB, ranking ahead of only the two beleaguered Florida squads (and we're only $2M ahead of the Devil Rays), while the average team is worth $472M. Before you start feeling sorry for the team, the current "low" price tag is still a lot more than the $92M the Nutting-McClatchy group paid for the franchise in 1996.

This subpage breaks down Forbes's valuation estimate. They credit us with $146M in value for our share of communal money across MLB (merchandise and the national TV deals and such), $74M in value based on our position in the Pittsburgh market, $48M in value from our stadium deal, and only $23M from the value of the Pirates brand itself. It seems pretty clear that the last number is a reflection of the relentless losing and the general aura of hopelessness that engulfs the franchise. Advertisers aren't going to rush to associate themselves with a perennial punchline.

Forbes also guesstimates our operating income for this year at $18M on revenues of $139M. This is interesting not only because it's a good profit for a team that likes to cry poverty, but also because the operating income has increased dramatically since the Nuttings started to assume a more prominent role in the franchise's operation over the last few years. It's traditional for MLB clubs to condemn these estimates as hideous, inaccurate distortions, but you'll notice that they never actually open their books to provide evidence of this. Regardless, it's one more piece of evidence for fans to use when agitating for the team to pick and sign top-dollar talent in the draft this year.

There's a lot more interesting stuff in there, so make sure you set aside some time to play with it over the next day or two.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Things that make you go "Aaargh!"

There's a new book out about baseball scouting in Venezuala (Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom by Milton H. Jamail), focusing on the work of scout Andres Renier. Renier is currently a special assistant for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a position he's held since 2006. Before that, he worked for the Houston Astros, founding their Venezuelan baseball academy, a facility that produced Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and Johan Santana, among others. Why should you care?

From Kevin Baxter's LA Times review of the book:
During the 1970s and early '80s, oil-rich Venezuela was the wealthiest country in Latin America. More than 75% of the population was middle class and rising, thanks in part to a government that spent lavishly, sending thousands of students abroad to study.

As a result, baseball was considered a game, not a career, and parents weren't beyond hiding a son's glove should he ever get the two confused. The major leagues paid the country little notice.

Then came Black Friday, Feb. 18, 1983 -- the bust in the book's subtitle -- when a steep drop in oil prices led to a devaluation of the bolivar. Before long, more than half of all Venezuelans were considered poor and baseball suddenly was seen as a way to escape poverty, just as it is in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America.

Timing was on Reiner's side then when, less than a year later, the longtime Venezuelan resident approached the Astros, San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates with his idea of a Dominican-style training academy, where Venezuelan prospects could be scouted, signed and developed.

All three turned him down.

Reiner was undeterred, telling everyone that Venezuela could produce as many major leaguers in the next five years as it had in the last 40.

He was wrong, of course. It took eight years.

During that period, Reiner had persuaded new Houston General Manager Bill Wood to spend $60,000 to fund his proposed academy, and in August 1989 the Astros' Venezuelan facility opened in Valencia. And Reiner wasted little time proving his seemingly preposterous projections right: Eight of the first 14 players he signed went on to play in the majors, a ridiculously high success rate.

It's easy to play the "what if" game, but wow, that was a pretty big mistake by Galbreath and Co. How much would we be willing to pay for that kind of exclusive access to a prime talent market now? I guess the take-home lesson is that we need to be open to the long view about similar opportunities in the future.

If you're interested in reading more, this 2005 article from the SF Chronicle is pretty good.

Friday night fights

I have a birthday coming up in a few weeks, and I hope that when I go out for mine, I have a better time than ex-Buc Al Reyes did on his.
According to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, Reyes "fell against a ceramic pot inside the bar," and apparently thought he had been pushed. The 38-year-old then began exchanging words with bar patron Eduardo Mora, who punched Reyes in the face. The paper reported that Reyes then "began to spit blood on the people in the area and began to swing his arms about."

Tampa Police Lieutenant William Ferguson wrote in the official release that Reyes "continued spitting blood and thrashing about," despite frequent attempts by the police to contain the 230-pound right-hander.

Reyes was Tasered twice after refusing command from police authorities to stay down. -Bill Chastain,

Reyes is an interesting case, in that he's been consistently productive throughout an eighteen-year pro career, but hasn't ever had any real job security. You'd think that a guy with a career ERA of 3.79 across 12 seasons would've had at least a few big contracts, but for whatever reason he's never nailed that one big payday (and at this point, he probably never will). He was a pretty good reliever during his time here (2.65 ERA and a 3/1 K/BB in 17 IP), and was equally good during spring training in 2003, but we cut him anyway, in a decision that seemed questionable at the time. It seemed even more questionable after Mike Williams and Brian Boehringer graduated from fighting fires to lighting them (check out the the carnage here). You may also recall that as the spring where we traded Chris Young for Matt Herges, then cut Herges to clear roster space for the impressively portly Dennys Reyes.

I think it's clear who's ultimately to blame for Reyes's troubles: current Devil Rays backup catcher Mike DiFelice, who set a bad example by starting a notable nightclub brawl in the Strip during a road trip with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. A blow-by-blow rundown of the jackassery:
In his report on yesterday's incident, Officer Robert Thomas, who was working an off-duty detail outside Area 51, 2106 Penn Ave., said he was called inside the club about 1:25 a.m. to help remove a "very disorderly person."

Inside, Thomas said, he saw security personnel trying to remove a "wild and unruly" man, later identified as DiFelice. He said he helped security by grabbing DiFelice's legs and pulling him outside.

Once outside, DiFelice got to his feet and punched parking valet James Tramonte, 24, in the face "for no apparent reason," Thomas reported.
According to Thomas, the trouble began when DiFelice began rubbing the arms of a stranger, a 28-year-old Tarentum woman who is a body-builder. Her name is being withheld because the Post-Gazette does not identify accusers or victims in sex-related cases.

DiFelice told the woman he liked her arms but the woman told him to stop. DiFelice then reached down and grabbed the woman's buttocks, police were told. A 35-year-old woman, also from Tarentum, told DiFelice to stop bothering her friend but he responded by putting a lighter to her buttocks, police reported.

The first woman then pushed DiFelice away and he punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground. Security personnel grabbed DiFelice but he broke loose and ran back to the woman, who was still on the floor, and started beating her again. That's when Thomas was summoned. -Michael A. Fuoco, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By that standard, maybe Reyes doesn't look so bad.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Coming clean

Another Pirate from the '90s went on the record about PED use this week. Ed Sprague, a third baseman who was the Pirates' All-Star representative in 1999, admitted in an interview with the Stockton Record on Thursday that he used amphetamines (against the law then and now) and androstenedione (legal at the time, but since banned) during his playing career, and that he also used a corked bat during a game. I don't want to excerpt it, because the whole thing is worth reading.

I'm pretty impressed by Sprague's frankness here. Nothing is going to help people come to terms with the PED issue in baseball more than honest dialog, and Sprague is one of only a few guys to talk about using PEDs who wasn't either confessing after being caught or throwing someone else under a bus to avoid some type of sanction. It doesn't seem like he had any ulterior motive for speaking out right now; he just gave honest answers to whatever questions a local reporter felt like asking him. Similarly, he didn't try to abrogate the moral authority for his decision by blaming someone else. He's currently a coach at the University of the Pacific, and I hope he doesn't get in trouble for doing the right thing here. His players can learn a lot more from someone willing to be up-front about the pros and cons of PEDs than from someone who'd rather pretend that the issue doesn't exist.

This is also another blow against the errant notion that only huge stars use PEDs. Before the Mitchell Report came out, I lost track of the number of Pittsburgh fans who jumped to the conclusion that our players were axiomatically clean because the teams they played on were too bad to have been chemically enhanced. In reality, mid-level players and scrubs have just as much incentive to use PEDs as stars, if not more.

On the lighter side of PED use, I thought that this article from the Huntsville Times about Braves prospect Jordan Schafer, recently suspended for using HGH, was pretty funny when viewed selectively in the light of recent events:
Jordan Schafer was muddling in mediocrity in 2005, struggling to reach base as a first-year minor leaguer.

That's when the Atlanta Braves prospect made an $80,000 investment he called "the best thing I've ever spent my money on."
"I wouldn't be where I am today without it," he said. "At first, I just went up there and swung."

He went from a moderate prospect to leading all of minor-league baseball with 176 hits last season. Already a talented defensive center fielder, he torched Single-A pitching, rising from the 27th-rated prospect in Atlanta's system to No. 1, according to Baseball America.

Now 21, he was among the top players in the Arizona Fall League this offseason and hit over .300 this spring with the big-league Braves before being joining Double-A Mississippi.

"He's electric," said Mississippi manager Phillip Wellman. "He's got all the tools."
After an adaptation period, Schafer believes he has found the formula to reach the majors."

He's actually talking about a ProBatter pitching simulator (like the one the Pirates bought this spring), but I still thought it was pretty funny.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Welcome back, Craig

I would've posted about this earlier, but the news apparently overloaded some vital structure of my brain, and I collapsed into a twitching heap on the ground, rendered insensate by pure, unadulterated joy. The fan part of me doesn't care that he struggled last year, or that he failed a physical only a few months ago. Watching Craig succeed despite the best efforts of the Littlefield regime was inspirational, and seeing him return to the organization is like having a favorite cousin return from the war. Who cares if he's missing a few toes? He's back where he belongs.

It doesn't hurt that the move makes sense for the organization, either. We've been using the immortal Matt Kata to man first base at AAA Indianaopolis, and you'd have to think that even a diminished Craig would be able to beat that standard. If he's able to prove that he's healthy, he'd presumably put himself into consideration for a spot on the ML roster, which is good because doing so would help remedy one of the biggest flaws on the current team: A complete and utter lack of bench power.

The Pirates' current roster was constructed through a series of small decisions that all made sense in isolation, but when viewed in aggregate didn't exactly come together like Voltron. We weren't able to find a Nady trade over the offseason, and then elected to keep him as the RF starter rather than a primary 1B/LF/RF backup, which in turn shunted Pearce back to AAA. We entered camp with two positions up for grabs (catcher and CF), and in both cases the power-hitting player won the job, taking Nate and Doumit out of the running for the role of bench thumper. We non-tendred Phelps, since we were unwilling to risk paying him $1M+ in arbitration, and then we didn't attract any of the top NRI power threats (like John Rodriguez or Dallas McPherson). We signed Doug Mientkiewicz to be the backup 1B; while a decent player, he's no power threat. We signed Chris Gomez to be a UT IF, and then apparently concluded that he can't handle shortstop at this point in his career; this gave us a backup 2B/3B with no power and required us to set aside another roster spot for a backup SS, who would also have little power. We stayed committed to Morris in the rotation, necessitating a seven-man pen to help pick up the slack from his frequent early departures, eating up another roster spot. And here we are. We've got five bench bats, and none of 'em have ever hit even 20 homers in any professional season, majors or minors.

If Craig is healthy and productive, he should be an effective remedy for our ills. If not, we could spend a large slice of this year waiting in vain for a rally that'll never come.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Slaughter of the innocents

Baseball America just posted their latest minor league transaction log today. It includes some names on the cut list that should be familiar to anyone who's followed our minor league system over the last few years:

*Jason Sharber, a good-looking righty who hasn't been able to pitch since early 2004 due to a series of arm problems. He was trying a comeback this spring, but things apparently didn't work out, and this is likely the end of his pro career. A look back at Lynchburg's 2002 roster is a good reminder of the inherent instability of young pitching. Every starter on that team looked like one variety or another of prospect, but Burnett and Sharber got hurt, and Jacobsen, Connolly, and Borner were finesse guys who apparently didn't have the stuff to handle the transition to the upper minors. Bennett looks like he's finally establishing himself with the Braves, but even he didn't exactly have a smooth ride to the bigs: He got picked in the Rule 5 draft, had Tommy John surgery, got released, missed the entire 2006 season, and gained more than 50 pounds.

*Cameron Blair, a sixth-round pick from 2005. Blair had the misfortune of being an offensively-minded second baseman whose bat didn't translate to the bigs. He looked pretty lost from day one, and also spent part of 2006 on the restricted list for reasons that have never really become clear. I don't think he'll be missed, but it's a pretty strong indictment of your scouts when they miss this badly on a fairly high pick, and our success rate on middle infielders in particular has been low in recent years. Which brings us to our next guy...

*Taber Lee, the brother of former ML 1B Travis Lee. Taber was our third-round pick in 2002. The selection was pretty roundly criticized in the fan community at the time, as a microcosm for the Creech/Littlefield/McClatchy drafting preferences for gloves over bats, ML proximity over ceiling, and signability over everything else. Regarded as a future utility infielder, Lee was unable to reach even that modest ceiling, as his glove was not as strong as had been previously assumed.

*Mauricio Mendez, one of the three guys we took in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft this year. His stat line was interesting, and I wonder why they didn't take a longer look at him. He's actually the second of our Rule 5 picks this year to depart before suiting up in a game; we also sent Rafael Cruz Chavez to a Mexican team a few months ago.

*Vic Buttler, one of the longest-tenured players in the organization. Part of Mickey White's insanely productive 2000 draft, Buttler joined the franchise in the 14th round as a 19-year-old outfielder from El Camino College. Over eight years, he played at every level of the farm system, making league All-Star teams in 2002 and 2006. If you've seriously followed any of our affiliates for a few years, you've probably seen him play at least once or twice.

Those may be the big names (for varying values of "big"), but there were a lot of other cuts as well. Fairly anonymous guys, drafted in the 30th round, or the 40th, or not at all, who pitched a dozen innings in the GCL, or sat on the bench at State College. They all knew that the odds were long, but they've played baseball all their lives, and they wanted to believe that they'd be the next Mike Piazza (62nd round, '88) or Rob Mackowiak (53rd round, '96). Now, they'll try to catch on with an indy league team, or settle into that sales job. Maybe give coaching a try.

From an institutional standpoint, it's a good thing that the Pirates won't need to fill their short season team with late-round college players anymore, but there's still a certain pathos in watching the guys who didn't have The Right Stuff pack up their gear and go. That's baseball, red in tooth and claw. Every shiny new draft pick is taking someone else's job, and even if you are one of the lucky chosen few with an arm or a bat touched by God, you aren't going to be able to make it to MLB without stepping over the bodies of a dozen other guys who had the same hopes and dreams.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A dying breed

While Positive Week continues here at The Black (and Gold) Spot, I thought I might as well highlight this charming story. It's got all kinds of good ingredients: Golden memories of boyhood, father knows best, Roberto Clemente, and an O. Henry twist ending (and I don't mean Rodriguez).

It's also a real slice of history. The tradition of playing hooky to catch a game, if not completely dead, is certainly having a bit of a lie-down right now. The development of the modern game has conspired to put the squeeze on the aspiring truants of today in a number of different ways. A few examples:

1) Ticket prices/availability. Fortunately for us, one of the perks of a record-setting losing streak is a general surplus of good seats; the degree of difficulty is much greater for fans of more successful teams, who can't count on having good seats available at the window on the day of the game. We enjoy similar good fortune in ticket prices, for the same reasons. Still, one general admission seat at PNC Park is $9 on the day-of-game, not a trivial investment for a kid, and there's always a chance that you could get stuck without a chair if it's Sammy Khalifa Bobblehead Night (now with extra fireworks! (special guest: Foghat!)).
2) Scheduling. By my count, the Pirates have scheduled a grand total of eight weekday afternoon games this year. That's good for working professionals and networks airing the game on TV, but bad for a kid who's trapped in Social Studies.
3) Suburbanization. When you're three miles from the nearest PAT bus stop, and then a 45 minute ride from the stadium, it kind of takes some of the fun and spontaneity out of a potential jailbreak.
4) The seven-man bullpen. Every time Tony LaRussa changes relievers, God kills a kitten, and then adds 15 minutes to the length of the game. Longer games cut down your margin for error when implementing an exit strategy.

It's not a huge loss in the grand scheme of things - more than canceled out by improvements like non-white players, instant access to stats and box scores, and the ability to watch games on the internet from anywhere in the world. I just think we should take a moment to note the twilight days of this piece of Norman Rockwell Americana, before it's gone for good.

Time capsule

I was trolling the Google news wires today, and I stumbled across this gem of an article about ex-Pirate Alex Ramirez. It's understandable if you have trouble mentally distinguishing him from Alex Hernandez and other part-timers of similar vintage, but he's actually kind of an interesting case.

Step back with me, for a moment, to the year 2000. It's July. The Republican Party is getting ready to nominate George W. Bush as their candidate for President, the Democrats will follow with Al Gore less than a month later, and the Pirates are playing .430 ball, 100 games into their final season at Three Rivers Stadium. Cam Bonifay is the GM, and J.R. House is edging past Chad Hermansen as the franchise's top prospect. I'm getting ready for my senior year of college, which will start in about a month. I'm not sure what you're doing; I wasn't there. Fill it in for yourself. Are you with me? Good.

On July 28, Bonifay traded starting left fielder Wil Cordero to the Indians, receiving Ramirez and shortstop prospect Enrique Wilson back in return. Cordero was a pretty loathsome character, notorious for a regular series of incidents involving domestic violence against two wives (and various other women). Bonifay had signed him to an inexplicable three-year deal for $9M before the 2000 season, and Cordero had even more inexplicably played up to the contract, posting a .282/.336/.506 line with the Pirates. Cleveland GM John Hart was involved in a desperate push for the playoffs, and Cordero's acquisition was just one part of a lamentable shopping spree that'd also see him deal away emerging star Richie Sexson for three veteran arms (Bob Wickman, Steve Woodard, and Jason Bere).

On the whole, it looked like a good deal for the Pirates. They "sold high" on an overpaid, troublesome veteran, and got back two interesting young players in return. Ramirez was 25, a two-time minor league All-Star who had played well as a reserve for the Indians over the past two seasons. He didn't walk much, but hit for a good average and showed significant power potential. Wilson was even better: a 24-year-old shortstop who had made four minor league All-Star teams, and was generally regarded as one of the best middle infield prospects in baseball. Baseball Prospectus, itself only three years old at the time, was impressed by the deal. Christina Kahrl (still identifying as "Chris" back then), analyzed it thus:
Cam Bonifay is sort of the Anti-Herk in that while he screws up so many things in his pursuit of mediocrity, every few months or so he shakes down John Hart for something he desperately needs. Heck, maybe he's got a running bet with Jim Bowden on who can get the most talent from Hart while giving up the most thoroughly average guys in return.

While Bonifay was being touted for his genius for bringing in Pat Meares because somehow the Twins were obviously cheap beyond words to not overpay for one of the game's worst all-around shorstops, it wasn't long (roughly ten minutes or so) before the Pirates needed another shortstop. Now, almost two years later, they've got a potential All-Star in Enrique Wilson. He's got an outstanding throwing arm, which he'll finally get to show off on a regular basis, and he's a better hitter than most shortstops, especially in the league where the Big Three ain't.

In a world where you can always excuse multi-year deals for mediocre corner outfielders because you can claim that you might be able to peddle them for talent, Bonifay actually pulled it off. He even capped it by rewarding a better hitter than Wil Cordero, John VanderWal, with a multi-year deal. If ever the Bucs finally find a center fielder, they're set in the corners. Alex Ramirez will end up making a great platoon partner for VanderWal, assuming the Pirates can finally sort through their half-dozen good fourth outfielders and make some decisions on who to keep around.

Kahrl's take made sense. Offensively, longtime reserve Vander Wal had been a revelation in right field, hitting .314/.424/.599 against RHP, and Ramirez would've seemed to fit well as his platoon partner. Wilson, along with Jack Wilson and AAA's Abraham Nunez, seemed to give the team a wealth of middle infield options. Kendall and Giles were at the top of their respective games, Aramis Ramirez and Warren Morris were getting established in the infield, and the oldest man in the rotation was 28. If you squinted and fudged a little, it wasn't too hard to be optimistic.

Unfortunately, reality got in the way. Ramirez totally tanked during his audition with the Pirates, batting .209 and making 3 errors in the outfield. He was unceremoniously sold to Japan's Yakult Swallows that offseason, disappearing from MLB without a ripple. Wilson looked better in his audition, but played horribly in 2001, and was ultimately revealed to be two years older than his listed age, casting his past success in a less flattering light. Bonifay learned the wrong lesson from the Cordero signing, picking up another mediocre veteran outfielder with behavioral issues on yet another above-market deal, setting the wheels in motion for Operation Shutdown. In so doing, he alienated Vander Wal, who after much complaining was sent to the Giants later the next year as part of the disastrous Jason Schmidt trade. Bonifay himself preceded Vander Wal out of town by a few weeks, paying the price for a catastrophic failure in PNC Park's inaugural season, as the team notched triple-digit losses for the first time since 1985. Even the Indians weren't immune. They missed the playoffs by one game, Sexson emerged as a star in Milwaukee, and after another season of fighting against the tide, Hart took a job with the Texas Rangers, jumping before Cleveland had a chance to push him.

In all the noise and confusion of things breaking, collapsing, and just generally falling apart here in Pittsburgh, I lost track of Alex Ramirez, but it turns out that he's right where I left him. He's still playing left field for the Yakult Swallows, getting ready to enter his eighth season with the team (among active Western gaijin, only Tuffy Rhodes has had a longer term in Japan, and even he's changed teams three times). He still doesn't walk much (season high of 34, season low of 19), still hits for a pretty good average (career .301 in NPB), and still shows pretty good power (averaging a little over 30 homers a season). Best of all, he's happy being a fan favorite in Japan, and wants to spend the rest of his career there.

I've seen comments on some other sites that Pirate blogs in general are too negative, and there's some truth to both sides of that argument. There's no denying that we've had an awful lot to be negative about over the past few years, and even with good management (not a given), that's probably not going to change for at least a few more years. Still, if you want a reason for optimism, I think Ramirez is as good a reason as any. Even though he was damaged by his association with that cursed team, he still managed to carve out a little space for himself, where he could enjoy playing baseball. It's pretty much a given that the Pirates are going to suck this year, and probably also next year and the one after that as well. That's just the way that it is, and lying to yourself won't change it. Still, there are going to be things to enjoy along the way: surprising individual achievements, memorable games, a beer in the the sun with your dad on a Saturday afternoon. Enjoy the good parts, and don't let the things you can't control weigh you down. There's always another game tomorrow.

UPDATE, 11:00, 3/23/08: As patthatt noted in the comments, Ramirez just changed teams this offseason, signing a big deal to become the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants (basically the Yankees of Japan). Here's hoping that the offseason's changes work out well - for both him and us.]

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Not what I wanted to hear

In the words of the immortal Hank Hill: "Don't play lawyer ball, son."

Ever since our beloved overlords first took over, they've taken great pains to make it very clear that they would not repeat Littlefield's draft errors of the past. No more settling for the Moskoses of the world: The vault doors would be open to acquire the best possible talent in the draft. A few quotes:

Coonelly at PirateFest, via the P-G:
Stressing each syllable when asked if the Pirates "honestly" will draft the best available player at No. 2 overall in June: "I'll say it again: We are going to select the best player. This organization has been criticized in the past for not doing that. We are going to do it."

Huntington at
The budget for Latin American signing bonuses has been doubled, and the money available for signing bonuses in the amateur Draft has also significantly increased. As a result, management has said that financial limitations will no longer dictate Draft selections.

A Dejan Q&A in October of 2007:
As for whether the Pirates will take the best player, Neal Huntington told me in the stongest language possible that, if his baseball people tell him there is an exceptional player and the Pirates are in position to draft him, they will do so. If that means moving money from one pocket to the other -- reallocating, if you will -- that will happen.

Believe me: He is well aware of the Matt Wieters incident here., in the story announcing Smith as the new scouting director:
There have also been questions regarding how much Creech was bound financially in being able to draft the best players and not just the most affordable. When Smith was asked if he was assured the financial ability to draft the player he and his staff target with the overall No. 2 pick next season, he didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," Smith said. "After meeting with [Pirates president] Frank [Coonelly] ... I think there is no doubt which direction which way our club needs to go."

There are many more examples, but I think you get the idea.

The Littlefield regime's decision to select Moskos in the draft, followed by their decision to trade for Matt Morris at the deadline, was quite possibly the single biggest public relations blunder of that whole sorry chapter of Pirate history. Which, given the presence of the Aramis Ramirez fiasco on the same administration's ledger sheet, is saying something.

Huntington, Coonelly, Smith, et al. have been given a free pass by many fans up until this point. Most realistic fans recognize that the 2008 Pirates aren't likely to contend for anything more significant than fourth place in a weak division, and they're OK with that, in large part because the men in charge have indicated that building for the future is going to be handled in a serious and sensible manner. When the team didn't pursue any free agents of significance this offseason (with no disrespect intended to Chris Gomez), and didn't consummate any trades, that was OK because management was conserving financial resources for the draft. There would be no quicker way for them to squander their borrowed credibility, and in so doing lose the support of the team's loyal followers, than to waffle on the draft-related promises they disseminated so lovingly this offseason.

For this reason, it was extremely discouraging to watch Coonelly hedge on Sunday:
It will be interesting to monitor the Pirates' economic approach to the draft under Coonelly. They have the second overall pick in June. Would they bust slot?

"We'll pay attention to the slot, but we'll take the best available player that we believe we have a chance to sign," Coonelly said. "If we think a player's value is over the slot, we'd certainly consider it." -The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Charlie

Did he just let the mask slip because he was tired? Did he think that it was safe to speak his mind in a Philadelphia paper that most people here won't be able to read?

Mr. Coonelly, let me be blunt. The 2008 draft is going to make or break you. You need to make a significant demonstration of financial outlay this July, including not only a top first round talent, but also some "tough signs" from later rounds. If you do any less, you are forfeiting your public credibility in baseball-related matters henceforth and forever. Fans are going to turn from you, go back into hibernation, and wait for your inevitable dismissal four or five years down the road, when they might hope to see some improvement under the next guy. Your empire will be over before it even began.

UPDATE: 3:45, 3/5/08
I e-mailed Dejan at the P-G to find out his reaction, and he graciously allowed me to summarize his response here. He feels that Coonelly's statement from last Sunday isn't a departure from his past statements on the matter. Dejan also believes that the language on Sunday is not inconsistent with their past statements on the matter, and that signability has been a part of the conversation all along. In Dejan's opinion, Coonelly was talking about signability in part to prevent agents from holding the team over a barrel during negotiations by preemptively issuing outrageous demands. He thinks that management knows that they will be under the microscope during this year's draft, and that they will act accordingly.

I hope that he's right. I trust Dejan in his response about the team's past statements when communicating with the press, but it certainly seems to me like they've gone out of their way when speaking to the public to imply that money will be no obstacle when acquiring prospects. I follow the team more closely than many fans, and this is the first time I've seen anyone currently connected with the team quoted as using the "S"-word. A quick Google News search turns up one hit for [Pirates baseball signable]: This February 11 ESPN column by Jerry Crasnick, which includes the line: "Under chairman Bob Nutting, the Pirates promise not to make trades simply to dump salaries (can you say Aramis Ramirez?) or choose less-talented draft picks simply because they're 'signable.'" Either they appear to have been somewhat disingenuous when dealing with the public, or the exact nature of their true position has not filtered down through the media. Nuance doesn't always transmit well to the masses, but I remain somewhat skeptical that their intent is pure.

In part, I am skeptical because the changes to the draft deadline eliminate much of the players' leverage when holding out for an unreasonable payday. The elimination of the draft-and-follow has made it much harder for agents to hold out the threat of re-entry into the draft, since a college junior/draft-eligible sophomore can no longer bank a strong follow-up season to enhance their draft status. That player can spend a couple of months in a wood-bat league (like the Cape Cod league), and then he has to fish or cut bait as far as turning pro is concerned. If we take the best available player, and then aren't able to sign him, we'll get the third overall pick next year (in addition to another probable top-10 pick for this year's likely out-of-the-money finish). That's not an ideal outcome, but the downside for us is much less than the potential downside for the drafted player, who would be risking a drop in the next year's draft due to injury or ineffectiveness, and even in the best-case scenario would be delaying the start of his pro career by a year, thus costing himself a year of service time (and in turn one year's ML salary from the middle of his career).

It's also possible that this will all be a moot point. There's plenty of time for players to shuffle around on the Big Board, and the best player at our slot may very well be someone who isn't preoccupied with maxing out the dollars on his rookie deal. Justin Smoak, for one, is on the record as saying that he'll sign quickly if he's offered a fair deal. I guess we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed, and keep a few torches and pitchforks on hand in case Coonelly and Co. try to cross us up.

UPDATE #2: 5:00, 3/5/08
Coonelly again addressed the issue of signability in a chat at today.
Regretably, signability has been a principal factor for many clubs as they evaluate players in the Draft. What the Pirates will do going forward is select the best player available who we believe will help us build the championship-caliber teams we are trying to build. No one can ignore inflated demands by agents or players, but we will not allow signability to dictate our decision making.

So there you have it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Zum Geburtstag viel Gluck

Happy birthday to The Flying Dutchman, Pittsburgh's own Honus Wagner, likely the best player who will ever suit up for the Pirates. He would've been 134 years old today.
Honus Wagner circa 1909, from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
You can make a reasonable case for Wagner's 1908 season as the most all-around dominant performance in baseball history. It's worth revisiting for a moment. There were more impressive raw offensive seasons that revolve around dominance in one or two areas (like Babe Ruth's 1920), but only rarely does a player make the entire league look like a gaggle of 12-year-old boys in every aspect of the game. Wagner hit .354/.415/.542, while leading the NL in almost every significant category (spoiled only by second-place finishes in runs scored, by one, and home runs, by two). He did this in a league environment where the average batter hit .239/.299/.306. That may be kind of hard to contextualize in the modern game, where almost everybody can hit at least a little bit, so here's a quick-and-dirty example. Inexplicable midseason acquisition Cesar Izturis has a career batting line of .259/.295/.334.

In a league where the average team on a typical day trotted out half of a starting lineup that was significantly weaker with the bat than Cesar Izturis, ol' Hans put up a season that wouldn't stand out if you dropped it right into the middle of A-Rod's career. Oh, and he also stole 53 bases, played in 151 of 154 possible games, and was the league's top defender at the game's most difficult defensive position. At the age of 34.

That deserves a moment of respectful silence.

If you feel like reading a bit about Wagner (and really, why wouldn't you want to?), there's a nice SABR biography of him here, and a pretty good chronology of events in his career here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mr. Kim, come on down

Byung-Hyun Kim is apparently your newest Pirate. Details are sketchy, but the world's most famous Korean submariner (beating out ROKS Chang Bogo) apparently got a major league deal, and will work out of the pen.

On an analytical level, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from him in 2008. He sucked on toast last year, but he hasn't spent the majority of a season in relief in five years, and he's got very unusual stuff and mechanics (as well as significant variations in the quality thereof). With a guy like him, you have to trust the reports from your scouts, because the past performance record may not mean much. This is a particular issue because of the environmental factors in play on his stat line. Kim spent '05 and '06 pitching in Colorado, where the thin air is hard on a guy with a big breaking ball, and then put in most of his '07 with the Marlins, home to the worst defense in the history of the universe. I exaggerate for effect, but not much. Florida had the second-worst DER in baseball last year, ahead of only their neighbors in Tampa. They earned it on merit: By my subjective judgment, a full 5/8 of the guys in their everyday lineup were stretched to the limit defensively at their 2007 position (Jacobs, Uggla, Ramirez, Cabrera, and Willingham, for those of you keeping score at home). As a result, all of the Marlins' pitchers look like crap when you eyeball their stat lines, even with the advantage of a favorable home park. Anyway, the Hardball Times shows a FIP and xFIP that are much better than his actual performance for both 2006 and 2007. The caveats there, of course, are that Kim's unusual characteristics might make him resistant to statistical modeling (since all projections are based around a set of shared assumptions about how pitchers "work", and those assumptions may not be accurate for a guy with his background, training methods, and skill set), and also that the adjusted numbers still aren't very good. Still, he misses a lot of bats, which gives us something that the staff didn't have last year, and a guy who's so hard to predict does have a significant amount of upside in the best-case scenario. We might find out that there's still some juice in his orange when we get him down to Florida.

On a fannish level, I like the move, because Kim's an interesting guy. First and foremost, sidewinders are fun to watch even when they don't pitch well, just because the delivery is so novel in the modern era. Kim's release point is extremely low even among the members of his exclusive club, making him one of the only guys capable of actually throwing a true rising fastball. He's also a genuinely unique personality: The black-belt son of a Tae Kwon Do instructor, who sleeps up to eighteen hours a day, and can drift off at the drop of a hat. There are all kinds of quirky human-interest stories about Kim all over the internet (with this magazine piece from ESPN being a good place to start). He may or may not succeed with the Pirates, but with his "different" nature and his Three True Outcomes style of pitching, at least he won't be boring.

The one cloud in the sky from my fan's perspective is the potential for clubhouse friction if Kuwata also manages to make the team. Historically, there isn't any great love lost between Japan and Korea, and that antipathy definitely extends onto the diamond. For example, Robert Whiting's great book "You Gotta Have Wa" has a story about former ML outfielder Richie Scheinblum, who spent two years in Japan. Scheinblum was having some trouble getting calls from Japanese umpires, but as an English-speaker in a foreign land he lacked any real means of communicating his displeasure. One of his teammates came to his rescue by promising to teach him a taunt that never failed, and soon, Scheinblum was mumbling "You lousy Korean" to the men in blue (and picking up substantial fines every time he did so). That was more than 30 years ago, but the two nations' feelings really haven't changed, as anyone who watched the WBC can tell you. Cross your fingers that both guys can look past the issue and act like professionals.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A few college notes

I've still got school on the brain after a big win from my alma mater on Wednesday, so here are a few college-related items that I found of interest:

*A lot of people enjoy rooting against Duke. I can certainly understand the impulse, but I'm always kind of saddened when people from Pittsburgh do so, because there are actually several fairly significant connections between the school and the city. One, obviously, is Dick Groat: a Duke hoops star turned Pirate shortstop MVP turned Pitt broadcaster. Another one who might not be as well known, though, is Tom Butters.

Signed by the Pirates out of Ohio Wesleyan in 1957, Butters put up a 3.10 ERA over 95 2/3 innings for the Bucs in parts of four seasons during the 1960s (stats), mostly in relief. After his playing career was ended by an offseason car accident, he won a job as the Blue Devils' baseball coach - largely as result of a recommendation from Groat, the school's initial target. He transferred into an administrative role in the athletic department after three seasons, and worked his way up through the ranks until he became Duke's athletic director in 1977. Butters was the man who selected and hired Mike Krzyzewski, then bore the brunt of alumni wrath during Coach K's difficult first few years. It's safe to say that without the two ex-Pirates, Groat and Butters, the Duke dynasty likely never would have happened.

Butters retired in 1998, and last week he was one of eight men selected to the North Carolina Hall of Fame.

*Xavier Nady's cousin scored a football scholarship with Nevada. Jeff Nady, a 6'7", 250 pound TE/DL, chose Nevada despite interest from Colorado State, UNLV, Idaho and San Jose State. The report is kind of a neat little news blurb in and of itself, and we certainly wish Jay well, but one section of it is also useful as an indicator of the type of athletic bloodline from which a lot of pro ballplayers spring. For example, the X-Man's uncle Joe (little Jay's father) played baseball at Nevada, and his uncle Jay earned a spot in Nevada's Hall of Fame for both football and boxing, then became a fairly notable boxing referee. Talent breeds talent, though the exact ratio of nature to nurture will probably always be up for debate.

*Another week, another report from a small-town paper about a kid the Pirates are apparently scouting. The internet is awesome. Last time, it was Xavier Avery. This time, the player in question is Division III North Carolina Wesleyan outfielder Chris Pecora. Pecora is apparently a switch-hitting senior, listed at 6'2" and 200 lbs., with speed and defense being his best attributes at this point. The Mariners drafted him in the 33rd round last year, but pulled their offer after they learned that he had some damage to the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Pecora says that the shoulder is about 85% healthy now after rehab (he elected not to have surgery).

As I said before with Avery, the odds of us ending up with Pecora are actually pretty slim (Atlanta and Tampa Bay are both reported as scouting him, too, in the same article, and there's plenty of time yet for other teams to get involved as well), but it's worth filing the name away, just in case.

Go read this site, right now.

I haven't been able to post any of the things that I've been meaning to post for the last few days. I came down with what can only be pneumonic plague about six hours before the Super Bowl, and I still haven't stopped coughing. Seriously: right now, I look and sound like one of those 90-year-old smokers who checks for little black shreds of lung in his handkerchief every five minutes.

If you need something to keep you occupied in the meantime, though, I found a great Pirates blog. I want to steal everything on it. Decent writing, solid logic, nice range of topics. 16 good-length posts in three weeks... with a grand total of three comments. That's just not right.

Hyzdu HQ. Go to it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sean! Sean! Come back, Sean!

I'll say one thing for Huntington: He hasn't been shy about allowing our failed prospects to ride off into the sunset (or about picking through other people's garbage, for that matter). The Bucs just made the sixth waiver claim of Huntington's brief tenure, grabbing shortstop Ray Olmedo on waivers. To create a spot on the 40-man roster, they designated long-suffering lefty starter Sean Burnett for assignment. If he slips through waivers, the team can either give him an outright assignment to Indy or cut him loose entirely. If he's claimed, they have ten days to work out a trade with the claiming team(s), and if they haven't made a deal at the end of that time, he's assigned to the team with the highest waiver priority.

There's probably going to be a lot of hand-wringing about the transaction among the sports talk radio set, since Burnett was a big part of the Littlefield regime's spin about the hopeful future, but at this point he's just a 25-year-old lefty with subpar stuff and multiple arm surgeries, who hasn't had a good season at any level since 2003. I wish him well (I wish nearly all ex-Bucs well), but I don't think his (probable) loss is particularly likely to come back and bite us on the butt. Before the injuries, he was always a guy whose bread and butter were his impeccable command and freakish ability to keep the ball in the park, and he hasn't shown either one in quite some time now. He walked seven batters in eleven spring training innings, pitched a fit about not making the team over Gorzelanny, and then walked 39 batters in 70 minor league innings (against only 31 strikeouts). He had put up a 2.45 ERA in 25 innings in the Venezuelan winter League this offseason, but his K/BB was still an uninspiring 11/8, and the level of competition wasn't all that impressive (check the names on their roster). The fairly reliable ZiPS projection system predicted a 6.14 ML ERA for him for 2008. He was also out of options, and as such would've needed to go on waivers if he didn't make the 25-man roster out of spring training. At this point, it's probably best for both sides to go their separate ways.

Olmedo, meanwhile, is a former Reds prospect who has spent parts of the last four seasons in the majors. He's reported to be a very good fielder, and he has spent a fair bit of time at both shortstop and second base. Offensively, he's significantly weaker. He has a career .228/.276/.293 batting line in 403 ML ABs, and a career .284/.340/.371 line in 1088 career AB at AAA. He's got pretty good speed, and his hit chart suggests that he's taking the optimal approach for a player of his skill set: using the whole field to put balls on the ground and run like hell. Like most players with that approach, he doesn't have much power at all, minimizing the chances of an age-related breakout. He's a switch hitter, but isn't notably stronger from one side than the other, and ZiPS projected him as likely being good for a .244/.296/.311 line in 2008.

Olmedo isn't hugely exciting, but I can understand why Huntington wanted to add him. We have fairly little middle infield depth, and Olmedo will provide competition for Brian Bixler and Josh Wilson as utility infield candidates in spring training, with the losers likely ticketed for regular duty at AAA. Bixler is at a double disadvantage there, in that he has an option remaining while the others do not, and that he has some mechanical flaws to his swing that might benefit from additional instruction and regular play in the minors.

To properly leverage a guy like Olmedo, who has basically the same skill set as Abe Nunez, you need to try to maximize his defensive innings and baserunning opportunities, while minimizing his trips to the plate. Ideally, that means pairing him with a good-hitting utility infielder with a weaker glove (probably portrayed here by Chris Gomez). It'll be a good early test for Russell to see how well he implements that plan; Lloyd McClendon failed his test with Noonie, serving notice that game management would be a serious issue on his watch.