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.