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.]


WilliamJPellas said...

Yoi and double yoi!!! At bare minimum, you'd think this team would have a couple of veterans on split contracts / spring training invites. But other than that Rule V kid from Tampa and the AAA reclamation project from Houston's system (sorry, names escape me at the moment), we don't have anybody backing our---ahem---current starting rotation.

Couldn't agree more with you here, Vlad. Sure, it'd be great if Snell, Gorzellany, and Maholm all stay healthy and continue to pitch well. Sure, it'd be even better if Duke can bounce back even to his '06 form, let along '05. Sure, it'd be sweet gravy if Morris could somehow chewing-gum-and-baling-wire his way to a quasi-passable first half.

But that's asking---no, assuming---an awful lot. Far too much, it seems to me.

WTM said...

About the best reading I can give NH's tenure so far is that he realizes there's little useful that can be done until the farm system is turned around, which will inevitably take time. He probably does not have permission to gut the team and trade for prospects, so he's doing the most he can do: not spend money on more crappy veterans and just hope that all the pitchers stay healthy and that, with all the hitters in the 27-30 age group, 4-5 of them have peak years and the team flukes its way to .500. If .500 is out of reach by July, then maybe he'll look to trade for prospects.

IOW, they're still following the failed formula of trying to have it both ways: trying to win now without investing anything in it, while building for the future without fully committing to building for the future.

TPenaRules said...

I agree the rotation is thin at this point, but there might be a method to the madness. If you assume the Pirates won't be pushing for the playoffs this year (I trust we're all on board with that one), then leaving Duke and Morris in the rotation makes sense to me.
Morris is virtually worthless in a trade now, but if he shows he can be a 6- or 7-inning, 4.50 ERA guy (if, I know) then he'll be worth a prospect or two closer to the deadline. If he's not, we've lost only games we likely would have lost with any other options, including mediocre free agents. Not a bad risk, I think.
With Duke, we might as well see how he responds to a staff that has some faith in him and commits to putting him out there every fifth day. The last time Colburn wasn't around, he was pretty darn good. Let's see if that's for real, and if his head is as much a part of it as his arm.
I also still want to see what Burnett can do, but I realize I'm in a serious minority there. I still have flashbacks to 2004, when he looked as good as anyone we've had in a decade.
The other option I can envision is that Nady, Bay, etc. will be dealt for an arm that's ready to step in this season.

Vlad said...

The problem is that I think Morris is beyond the point of possible reabound, and well on his way toward being completely and irrevocably done. Just look at the trend in his K/BB from 2002-2007. He's right on the edge, and if he loses even a tiny bit more, he won't be able to reach "mediocre" with twelve native guides and a Land Rover.

Even if he lucks his way into that 4.50-ish ERA, though, I don't see him having any real trade value. I mean, he had a 4.35 ERA when we traded for him last year, and even then, all he brought for the Giants was Rajai Davis and salary relief (and it's not like his performance in Pittsburgh has enhanced his value). If the only payoff at the end of the rainbow is another Rajai Davis, I'm really not convinced that the return is worth the investment of innings in Morris.

If they want to give Morris an opportunity for a last stand, so be it, but I think they're crazy to not line up a decent backup plan for when he craters.

WTM said...

If the only payoff at the end of the rainbow is another Rajai Davis, I'm really not convinced that the return is worth the investment of innings in Morris.

Ya never know. Huntingfield might be able to use his negotiating skills to score us a AA middle reliever. You'd have to go for that.

Anonymous said...

I'm really not sure what you expect him to do. At this point, the Pirates don't have anyone that they could trade for top prospects that they could rebuild around. The rest of the league is just as aware of the shortcomings of Nady, Bay, Morris, etc as you are. Their only real attractive players are Gorzelanny and Snell - but they're not going to get top value for these guys based on one pretty good year. I'm not sure what else he can really do at this point beyond hold onto these guys until he you can get something of real value in return, avoid the type of dumb free agent signings they've made in the past, and work on getting the farm system in order. There's really no magic answer to fix this.

richiehebner said...

I'm really, really trying not to be negative. It is sort of working, in that I've stopped posting so I don't say anything negative. We'll see how long I can restrain myself.

Vlad said...

"I'm really not sure what you expect him to do."

This post isn't about conjuring up a top-of-the-rotation starter from nothing; it's about common sense. If, god forbid, something negative happens to one of our five starters (as generally happens at some point during 162 games), then right now we don't actually have anyone who can be counted on to take the ball every fifth day and give us five innings of non-blowout pitching. Bullington is both gimpy and sucky, and Burnett is even more so. Cortes was OK last year, but he was the personification of "undistinguished" before that. Taubenheim, Dumatrait, and Barthmaier are apparently being prepped as relievers, not starters. Without a guy to fill that role, you risk having the entire staff come apart at midseason, as relievers explode from overwork/overexposure, and then the front office makes a panic trade of an actual prospect for a Scuffy Moehler...

Adding a quality minor-league free agent like Heath Phillips or Darrell Rasner would've cost no more than a couple of hundred grand, and it would've given us some assurance that we wouldn't run into that worst-case scenario. At a price like that, how can you NOT buy some insurance?