Thursday, January 31, 2008

When prospect lists attack

Three prospect lists came out today, and I thought it might be fun to look at them within a Pirate context.

First up: Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. His list has three Pirates. Andrew McCutchen is #24, Steve Pearce is #43, and Neil Walker is #94. The second ranking, posted a few hours later, was Keith Law's for ESPN.com. He ranked McCutchen at #12, Neil Walker at #89, and Brad Lincoln at #97. His ranking included comments, which I've provided below:
McCutchen started off horribly in AA this year, but finally turned his season around in his last 40-odd games there, hitting .307/.382/.460 from July 1 until a mid-August promotion to AAA. McCutchen has incredibly quick wrists that give him tremendous plate coverage and result in a lot of hard, line-drive contact, as well as flashes of raw power. The player-development fiasco in the Pirates' minor league system under Dave Littlefield has hurt McCutchen, however, as he doesn't use his lower half and get his weight transferred with his swing, so all his power now is in his wrists and forearms; once he gets his whole body involved, he should have 30-plus homer power. He's a 65-70 runner with good baserunning instincts, and he plays a plus center field. Take heart, Pirate fans: Nyjer Morgan's goofy routes have only a year or so left in Pittsburgh's center field.
[...]
Walker's plate discipline took a 180 for the better this year, to the point where he's now clearly going to play in the big leagues. He wears down every season even now that he's no longer a catcher, and his defense at third remains unacceptable, so he may end up a 'tweener who doesn't hit enough to play first and can't handle any tougher position on defense.
[...]
Lincoln missed 2007 after Tommy John surgery, but is expected to be ready to go in March. He has an above-average fastball and power curve with some feel for a changeup and is a good athlete who can swing the bat a little bit. It remains to be seen whether his stuff still measures up after the operation.

The third list, compiled by "20 members of the scouting community", was posted at minorleaguebaseball.com. It includes only one Pirate, Cutch, but gives him his highest rating among the three lists, at #8 overall. The article links to a little analytical capsule. I'd quote it here, but you really ought to click the link because the page also includes some scouting video that's worth seeing.

It's interesting to look at the lists as a reflection of the preferences of the men who wrote them and the institutions that commissioned them. Goldstein spent most of his career at scouting-oriented Baseball America, before moving to the much more stat-oriented Baseball Prospectus. Law is a writer who started out at BPro, spent some time in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays (under J.P. Ricciardi, the least "Moneyball" of Beane's assistants), and then took a position with the more scouting-oriented ESPN. The scouts, meanwhile, are going to be fairly scouty in their perspective, but their list is the process of analysis-by-committee rather than individual insight, which can be an advantage at times (because it rules out individual craziness) and a disadvantage at others (because it rules out individual brilliance).

The link between respect for scouting and enthusiasm over McCutchen seems pretty straightforward. He didn't have the killer offensive season that some other top CF prospects did last year, but most scouts seem to retain confidence in his tools and makeup, and they feel that his second-half improvement is a reflection of adjustments that he made (instead of random variation, or promotion bias, or something to that effect). Looking at the video, I do think that Law's point about McCutchen's lower body is a good one. With better weight transfer, he could add some extra pop, though I think that if it does show up it'll come initially as doubles/triples rather than HR. He just looks like he's got a line drive swing right now.

It's interesting that Law didn't put Pearce on his list at all, especially when Goldstein ranked him so highly. There are a lot of valid reasons why he might have done so, but I'm curious about which ones apply here. I dropped him a note, and if he replies, I'll be sure to pass it on. It's also worth noting that BPro has generally treated corner players with unusual bodies (Pearce is kind of small) better than most analysts in the field.

I think it's very interesting that there seems to be a good consensus about Walker, placing him as a future starter but not a star. That might be a disappointment for casual fans who wanted a star, but if he turns into a Travis Fryman or a Doug DeCinces, it's honestly not a bad outcome for us. An average regular would be an upgrade on what Bautista's giving us right now, and when you have an average regular making the minimum, that lets you throw extra money at other holes.

There are still a few lists out there lurking in the weeds, most notably the one from Baseball America, which usually comes out in late February.

Fogotten Bucco History - "I Got It!"

I stumbled across the following bit while doing some research, and I figured it was worth sharing. From the May 31, 1886 edition of The Sporting News (p.5):

In a game at Pittsburg, Morris was knocked down twice in running at flies. First he collided with Ringo, and next Carroll ran against him, sending him to the ground with a bloody nose. Poor coaching was the cause of these collisions.

A lot of people like to pretend that players from way back when had perfect fundamentals and played purely out of a love for the game, and I think it's refreshing to see a reminder once in a while that the old-timers were just as greedy and lazy and fumble-fingered as the players of the modern era.

Incidentally, if you're interested in old-time baseball, Paper of Record is a tremendous resource. They offer a free, searchable online archive of a number of different newspapers, including a complete run of The Sporting News from 1886 to 2003 (listed under Missouri, its state of publication). That's more than 189,000 pages of textual goodness, most of it baseball-related.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Clubhouse friction?

Last offseason, there was a lot of hand-wringing over comments by Jack Wilson about his preference for Freddy Sanchez at second base over Jose Castillo. Sanchez, of course, ended up at second, and Castillo spent the year as a little-used backup after losing the third base job to Jose Bautista. When I read Jason Bay's Friday comments about the franchise's direction, I started to wonder whether we're on the cusp of a similar situation this offseason.

Most of the discussion about his comments has focused on his (probably accurate) belief that the team isn't going to contend in 2008 without getting all kinds of breaks, and his criticism of the lack of significant moves this offseason, but I think that another portion was even more significant:
"You talk to people at these things and everyone is in the best shape of their life - all that's great, but it's your job to be in the best shape of your life," Bay said. "I really don't know if that carries a ton of weight. Ultimately, if a guy reports in the worst shape of his life and goes out and performs, nobody cares."

I don't think that Bay went off on a riff about conditioning because he was up late watching World's Strongest Man reruns on ESPN2. I think he was taking an implicit shot at one or more teammates who came to play in poor shape last year, turned in a lousy season, and then tried to turn things around by buffing up the chassis this winter.

I don't have any inside sources of information here, but a quick look at the newspaper archives suggests a couple of likely candidates. Ronny Ballgame received a lot of coverage for his offseason weight loss, and Chris Duffy has been claiming that he's "in the best shape since before [he] came into professional baseball". Maybe Bay wasn't so much upset about a general lack of moves as the lack of one specific move: a deal that would put the guy in question out of a job, if not on a flight to another city.

Prospecty stuff

*Baseball America published capsule descriptions of some players who didn't quite make the cut, including three Pirate prospects: Charles Benoit, Serguey Linares, and Nelson Pereira. Linares is pretty well known as one of Littlefield's impulse buys last year, and Benoit has been starting to attract a little bit of attention among Pirate prospect-watchers, but Pereira might be a little more obscure. I, certainly, had never heard of him before now, which is a shame, because he's actually got kind of an interesting background. BA seems bearish on Linares and cautiously optimistic about the other two, which sounds about right to me.

*Pereira isn't our only international prospect attracting notice. John Perrotto says that several other teams kicked the tires on Sam Vasquez, a 19-year-old pitcher with our DSL team. Any specific A-ball pitcher is a longshot to become a useful ML pitcher, but when you gather a large clump of interesting arms together, there's a pretty good chance that at least one or two will pan out.

*Perrotto also mentions a possible switch in our AAA affiliation, from Indianapolis to Buffalo. The Buffalo Bisons were our AAA partner from 1988-1994, before bailing on the deal and signing up with the Indians, with whom they've remained ever since. The Cleveland connection through Huntington is interesting here, and the closer geographical proximity to Pittsburgh could be an advantage for us (although Indy isn't terrible in that respect by any means). I had blogged about our situation with Indy in December, and it's worth thinking about some of the points there in light of this new information. With Indy turning huge profits, we might just be trying to create additional leverage for ourselves, in order to strike a more favorable deal when the current agreement expires. If we do end up making the switch, Buffalo is a slightly better offensive environment than Indy, and it seems to suppress strikeouts to a significant degree, so color your expectations for prospect performance accordingly.

*I went to PirateFest (more on that later), and I got a chance to ask a question during one of the management Q and A sessions. I used my shot to try and pick Huntington's brain on draft philosophy (i.e. fastball movement or fastball velocity, curveball or slider, power or speed, physical projection or track record, etc.). His response was pretty general (not surprising), but he did mention that he was interested in having pitchers with clean mechanics (where we've sometimes focused on injured prospects or guys in need of work over the past few years), and he sort of hinted that for position players they would focus on tools and ceiling (which could be good or bad, depending on how they implement that strategy). Another fan tried to get them to commit to taking a position player with this year's first-round pick, and to management's credit they wouldn't bite that hook, sticking with the line that Greg Smith had taken in the P-G a week before. If the best player available ends up being a pitcher, we need to bite the bullet and take the pitcher. An impact player is an impact player, regardless of where he ends up on the diamond.

*I found this BA article about the distribution of each team's Top 30 prospects pretty interesting, even if it says more about where we've been than about where we're going. Compared to the average, more of our top prospects were college players and reclamation projects, while fewer came from high school and international signings. None of that is news, but it's nice to be able to put some numerical support behind the common knowledge.

*We're apparently scouting a Georgia high-schooler named Xavier Avery. At this point in the process, it means very little, but there's no harm in filing the name away just in case he ends up in our pile on draft day. If nothing else, it's nice to see us doing some work in Georgia, after Creech ignored the area for so long.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Other people's work

Here are a few Pirate-related links from the past week that I found interesting, useful, or both.

*Both Charlie and Pat posted responses to this post of mine, making some good points. In fact, Charlie is making something of a series of it (Part II, Part III). It's good stuff.

*Eight years after Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined for a no-hitter against the Astros, Damaso Marte did the same thing. Pitching for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Winter League, Marte teamed up with Ervin Santana and Carlos Marmol on a 2-0 no-hitter against the Oriente Stars. Marte struck out three Stars during his 1 2/3 perfect innings.

*The use of ADD/ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall has skyrocketed over the last year. MLB granted 28 waivers (called "Therapeutic Use Exemptions") to players for the drugs in 2006, but that number increased to 103 last season. That's more than 8% of the total player population, where the estimated incidence in children is between 3% and 5%. ADD/ADHD meds simulate many of the salutary effects of amphetamines, which were used widely throughout baseball before their inclusion in the latest round of drug testing. This is an issue for all teams, of course, but I bring it up here in part because Adam LaRoche was prominently diagnosed with ADD and treated with Ritalin in early 2006. It seems likely that LaRoche is among the legitimately afflicted, but if there's some kind of crackdown as a result of the report, he could get caught in the crossfire.

*When I said that I wanted to see less of Ronny Paulino next year, this isn't what I meant, although I'll take it. Paulino has apparently lost a fair bit of weight: The P-G pegged it at ten pounds a week ago, while the Trib thinks that it's closer to fifteen. That's pretty good, but it's not in the same league as former Pirate minor leaguer Jeff Bennett (lost in the Rule 5 draft in 2003), who claims to have lost a whopping 60 pounds. Even the fat version of Bennett was a pretty decent pitcher, so it'll be interesting to see how he does this year after dropping so much dead weight.

* Former Pirate Don Cardwell has died. As always, the NYT obit is a good place to start reading. Cardwell, who played for the Pirates from 1963-1966, came to Pittsburgh in the deal where Dick Groat was sent to the Cardinals. Cardwell pitched a no-hitter in 1960 and won a World Series in 1969, but his most important accomplishment in black and gold was leading the league twice in hit batsmen (1963 and 1965), no easy task during the Bob Gibson era. To honor him, why not throw something at someone's head during your lunch break?

* Ex-Buc Marc Wilkins has started a baseball academy in Ontario, Ohio. Ex-Met Joe Crawford (NOT the ref) is part of the staff. Wilkins apparently decided to make the jump after visiting the academy run by ex-Buc Jeff Wallace in nearby Alliance, OH. Rumors of a feud with Jeff Tabaka's academy remain unconfirmed.

*Remember Jermaine Allensworth? One of our many past center fielders of the future who didn't pan out, he was a Pirate from '96-'98 (as well as one of my late grandfather's favorite players, god rest his soul). I was mildly surprised to notice that Allensworth, now a grizzled 35-year-old veteran, is still active. He last played in the affiliated minors in 2002, but has kept busy in independent ball since then, and just this week he signed a new deal for 2008 with the Schaumburg Flyers of the Northern League. In this respect, he's following in the footsteps of fellow ex-Buc OF prospects like Will Pennyfeather and Trey Beamon, both of whom had long Indy-league careers. I have a lot of respect for those guys. There aren't many rewards to that lifestyle beyond long bus rides and baloney sandwiches, and you don't take (and keep) a gig like that without having a deep and abiding love for the game of baseball.

*Shane Youman is apparently a class act, not that we would've expected any less. Also of interest: In the article, Youman says that the Pirates "told [him] they took a calculated risk" in putting him on waivers. Not a big thing, but it does provide confirmation both that they would've kept him in the organization if he'd cleared waivers, and that they knew there was a chance he might be picked.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Through the looking glass.

Words of wisdom from our #3 starter in today's P-G:
"We've got the pieces," starter Paul Maholm said. "But, like they've said, it's a matter of having some accountability. We need to step up. We need to win. No excuses."

That's right! We're going to demand accountability! Clear the decks! No job is safe! We aren't going to take this failure lying down!

Oh, wait.
The Pirates' roster, despite precious few changes this offseason, is pretty much set for 2008.

"From a substantial additions standpoint, yeah, I think we are," general manager Neal Huntington said during a break at the team's minicamp.
[...]
If nothing more happens, that will mean the Pirates are keeping together essentially the same group that went 68-94 last season, made no notable acquisitions beyond the signing of utility infielder Chris Gomez and five waiver claims, lost relievers Shawn Chacon and Salomon Torres without finding comparable replacements and added no significant talent to the minor-league system.

When did the White Queen start running our franchise? Accountability yesterday, and accountability tomorrow, but never accountability today.

(Just one point of comparison: The Royals hired Dayton Moore as their new GM on March 31, 2006. Know how many guys who were on KC's 40-man roster when he took over are still there? By my count, twelve. That's 70% turnover in a year and a half.)

=====

Also submitted for your consideration: this quote from Adam LaRoche:
"There's no doubt in my mind we all can get better, including myself," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And I think we will. I like the direction this team is headed in, just like I did last year."

Adam was obviously trying to say something nice, but that sentiment is actually pretty dispiriting once you unpack it. Since the team was pretty uniformly lousy last year, and we're still heading in the same direction with the same group of people, where exactly does he think we're going to end up this time? Does he like losing, or does he just think that we're due?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Nepotism is the new black

Remember when the Tracy-led Pirates seemed to be trying to pick up every known Tracy-era Dodger? Mike Edwards and Cesar Izturis and Giovanni Carrara and Jose Hernandez, that whole fun crew? How much fun was that?

Not fun at all, you say? Then why are we reconstructing scouting director Greg Smith's 2002 Detroit Tigers, a team that lost 106 games? So far we've got minor-league deals for Adam Bernero and Jose Macias, along with a Rule 5 selection of Corey Hamman and (old) rumors of trade interest in Brandon and the Angry Inge.

Who will be the next player to swap his faded stripes for an eyepatch? Jeff Weaver is still out there as a free agent, but deep down in your heart I bet you know the real answer.

History is just one big circle.

Down on the farm

John Sickels is pretty bearish on the prospects of our prospects. He just completed the 2008 edition of his annual prospect book, and he posted his grades for our Top 20:

1. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Grade A-
2. Steven Pearce, OF-1B, Grade B+
3. Neil Walker, 3B, Grade B (not convinced he'll hit quite as well as they expect)
4. Daniel Moskos, LHP, Grade B
5. Brad Lincoln, RHP, Grade C+ (pending recovery from TJ)
6. Brian Bixler, SS, Grade C+
7. Shelby Ford, 2B, Grade C+
8. Duke Welker, RHP, Grade C+
9. Brian Friday, SS, Grade C+
10. Andrew Walker, C, Grade C+
11. Jamie Romak, OF, Grade C
12. Nyjer Morgan, OF, Grade C
13. Brad Corley, OF, Grade C
14. Bryan Bullington, RHP, Grade C
15. Matt Peterson, RHP, Grade C
16. Romulo Sanchez, RHP, Grade C
17. Quincy Latimore, OF, Grade C
18. Marcus Davis, OF, Grade C
19. Tony Watson, LHP, Grade C
20. Josh Sharpless, RHP, Grade C

What a horrible system. There isn't much else to say about it.

John's grading system may not be intuitive for readers, so here's a quick breakdown: A guy's grade is a reflection of both his likely development AND his proximity to the majors. As such, a guy who grades out as a "C" could be either a bench-player-in-training in AAA or a guy in rookie ball with starter-level talent but maybe four years of development (and potential pratfalls) between then and now.

Right now, he's saying that the system includes one future star, three guys who look like potential ML regulars, and a bunch of guys who are either low-ceiling, injured, or playing for a spot on the 2012 roster. The sad part is that I can't disagree with him in any significant respect. Having Ed Creech as a scouting director is a development strategy right up there with sowing your fields with salt. Right now, we're easily bottom 10 among ML franchises, probably bottom 5, and most of the teams behind us are ones that just nuked their farms to make prospect-for-veteran trades over the offseason. We had to sign more than 30 minor-league free agents last year in order to provide enough organizational players to field teams at all levels, and that's probably not going to change for the next few years.

If you're interested in reading about prospects, I recommend Sickels's book. It makes a good companion to BA's book, and I usually buy both. There are a fair number of subtle differences in approach between the two, and as such they complement each other quite well.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Danger, Bill Robinson! Danger!

I've been preaching patience with regard to the Huntington regime. He wasn't necessarily the guy I would've chosen for the job (that would've been Mike Rizzo or Logan White), but he seemed like he had a plan in place, and as such he deserved a chance to flesh it out. I don't trust him implicitly, but I've tried to avoid the sort of reflexive and visceral negative reactions that come so easily to Pirate fans by now. In return, he's tried to avoid raising my suspicions by making any overtly bad decisions.

We may be at an end of our era of d├ętente.

What to make of Dejan's latest piece in the P-G? The money quote:
The Pirates' starting rotation, barring an unexpected development, is set for 2008.

General manager Neal Huntington plans to preserve all of his options regarding possible acquisitions, as per his general policy, but he made clear yesterday that the team's starters for the coming season will be Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Matt Morris and Zach Duke.

"We have not really been in the market for a starting pitcher," Huntington said. "We have been looking to add pitching depth -- a starting option or bullpen help -- but we like our starting five."


Despite a recent draft focus on arms, the 2007 Pirates had little quality pitching depth (as you're no doubt aware if you've been paying attention). They had plenty of arms in terms of numbers, but all of them were guys who would be stretched as more than the 11th or 12th man on a staff. If circumstances forced the team to lean on a Bryan Bullington or a Sean Burnett for an extended period of time, they'd be chewed up and spit out. In 70 innings last year at AAA, Burnett had 39 walks and only 31 strikeouts (to go with a 4.48 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP). If he's scared to throw strikes against Mike Restovich and John-Ford Griffin, how is he going to handle Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee? We've added a few more options through waiver claims, and some of those guys are interesting as developmental projects or lottery tickets, but right now there's nobody in whom I would have a reasonable degree of confidence if Paul Maholm were involved in an unfortunate lawnmower accident tomorrow.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if the Pirates' announced 2008 rotation weren't nearly so shaky. Right now, we're not only assuming continued health for Snell, Gorzelanny, and Maholm, but also relying on two fairly low-percentage bets. Duke could very well be good in 2008, but you can't forget that he missed half of last season with elbow problems, and hasn't actually pitched well for two years. Morris, meanwhile, is an old pitcher with poor stuff and declining peripheral stats, and he put up a 6.10 ERA for us after we so generously took him off the Giants' hands last season. If we get one good season between the pair, we should count ourselves lucky, but for Huntington's approach to be successful we'll need the fortuitous conjunction of strong seasons from both AND good health from the rest of the staff. Any plan that relies on the consistent application of good luck in matters outside your direct control is doomed to failure in the long run. When you combine the uncertainty in the rotation with the lack of a coherent Plan B, and stir in Huntington's previously-stated concerns about our bullpen, it's a recipe for disaster.

The last time we blithely assumed that a problem of this nature would work itself out, we ended up with the train wreck that was our 2001 rotation. We got lazy about backup plans, and our various rehabbing starters didn't recover as quickly as we'd assumed, and then all of a sudden we were relying on a vast assortment of crappy options (Ramon Martinez, Oh-My! Olivares, Don Wengert, and a just-up-from-A-ball Joe Beimel) to get us through the season. Coming out of spring training, we nearly gave a rotation spot to the immortal Balvino Galvez, who hadn't pitched in the majors for fifteen years; one scout saw Galvez's name on our spring training roster, and assumed that Galvez must've had a son with the same name who was trying to break into the bigs. Galvez had the team made until he got into an argument with pitching coach Spin Williams during a rundown drill, at which point he stormed into the clubhouse, packed his bag, drove to the airport, and flew back to the Dominican Republic, never to be seen again. The P-G article describing these misadventures also includes a passage where Bonifay expresses his absolute confidence in a starting five of Todd Ritchie, Terry Mulholland, Jimmy Anderson and Jose Silva. Gack!

Thus far, Huntington has shown no sign that he's willing to tear down the entire roster and engage in wholesale rebuilding (as I would recommend, if he asked my opinion). Given that he is apparently unwilling to punt this season, he needs to find one or two more serviceable starters, or the decision may be forced upon him. It's OK that he didn't seriously pursue Matt Clement, even though Clement is a good arm and a local guy who would've probably taken an inexpensive deal along the lines of his one with the Cardinals to come here, because there are still plenty of other fish in the sea. It's equally OK if he spurns Kris Benson or Jason Jennings or Jon Lieber or Kenshin Kawakami or John Thomson... but eventually he needs to add one or more guys of that type. Adam Bernero and Runelvys Hernandez aren't going to cut it. Over the last five years, the five guys in our rotation at the start of the year have averaged 130 games started. If we don't pick someone for the remaining 32 starts, then circumstances will pick someone for us.

[This is all predicated, of course, on the assumption that Huntington isn't just lying through his teeth while he tries to build a trade market for Morris, in the assumption that he'll be able to flip our beloved albatross in time to sign a replacement. In my mind, the best argument against this explanation is Morris's obvious lack of value. I know that Bavasi still has his Weaver money sloshing around, but it's just not that hard to find a guy who can put up a 6+ ERA for you for less than ten million dollars. At this point, Morris is basically a sunk cost, and we need to devote our trade discussions to matters that have some realistic possibility of returning real value, such as finding a destination for Nady and Marte, or discreetly measuring the market for Freddy Sanchez. A statement like Huntington's is basically useless as a bluff. If people ignore it, then it doesn't have an impact, and if they believe it, then they assume that he's a moron for holding such views. Neither prospect pleases.]