Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pellas on the Pirates: The First Salvo

Huntington Fires The First Salvo in the Trade Wars...But Did He Hit The Target?

As the 2008 season has played out, most observers figured that the Pirates were likely to tempt contending teams with a two player package of outfielder-first baseman Xavier Nady and lefthanded reliever Damaso Marte.

Lo and behold, that's precisely what happened. The winner of the presumed sweepstakes among an undetermined number of bidders was the New York Yankees. (I personally thought the Rays, fighting to stay ahead of the Yankees in the A. L. East, would step up to the plate. Apparently they did not.)

Prior to this deal, new Pirates GM Neil Huntington made a number of fairly small, usually pretty sharp trades and acquisitions. Jason Michaels, the quintessential fourth outfielder and a very handy fellow, was fished out of the water after the Cleveland Indians' season plunged to the bottom. Doug Mientkiewicz was a savvy acquisition in spring training, even if it seems it was Mientkiewicz who more or less "acquired" himself for the Pirates.

Getting Tyler Yates to help in the 'pen was a sound move, though losing Todd Redmond---lately lighting it up in double A in the Braves' system---could possibly hurt down the road. Phil Dumatrait proved to be an excellent scrapheap pickup before he hurt his shoulder again. All of these and several minor league, organizational-filler type moves have proven to be solid, professional moves by the new captain.

But this deal was different. This was the first of what could be a series of large scale, near-blockbuster, veterans-for-youngsters kinds of trades. It is hard to overstate just how crucial it is for the future of the franchise that such trades work out in the best interests of the Pirates.

While Huntington's first amateur draft looks pretty good on paper, it is rare that any team, let alone the Pirates, can succeed solely by growing its own talent from within. Certainly the amateur draft and subsequent player development is the largest part of the success equation---no question there---but good teams still manage to turn their veterans into an additional source of young talent, more often than not.

All of which brings us to the million---or multi-million---dollar question: Did Huntington and the Pirates succeed with this trade? That is, did they successfully turn two established, better than average, young(er) veteran major leaguers into more than their number in promising young minor league talent?

The answer, alas, is "maybe".

What jumps out at you when you look at the players the Pirates received in this deal is the lack of a true Blue Chipper from the Yankees' minor league system. Outfielder Jose Tabata comes close to Blue Chip status, but he is not yet 20, was probably overpromoted to double-A Trenton this year, and is coming off a hamate injury, to boot.

He's also had, shall we say, behavior issues that have nothing to do with drugs but do have to do with his being difficult. Hopefully he's just young and doesn't know how to deal with the emotions coming from the first significant injury of his professional baseball career.

Anyway, Tabata is definitely still a very interesting player and probably the surest thing in this deal.

Along with him, the Bucs got three pitchers: righthanders Ross Ohlendorf and George Kontos and lefthander Phil Coke.

Ohlendorf, whom the Yankees got in the Randy Johnson trade a couple years ago, throws in the low 90s and has a good sinker. He's been in the bigs for parts of the past two seasons, but had recently gone back down to triple-A to be reconverted into a starting pitcher.

Kontos is 3-9 for double-A Trenton this season, but has a power arm and fairly promising peripheral statistics; he has defintely mowed them down over the past two seasons, averaging about 9 strikeouts per 9 innings.

Coke likewise misses a lot of bats and has better than average strikeout numbers. He was promoted to triple-A after a stellar half season at double-A, which makes us feel a little better about his being a 26 year old player who has yet to pitch in the big leagues. He's probably a throw-in in this trade, but ya never know with lefthanders, and in our organization he'll probably go straight to triple-A Indianapolis.

All in all, these 3 pitchers are not outstanding prospects, but we can confidently say that they are all interesting prospects. Unfortunately none of them carries the "can't miss" tag, which returns us to our original assessment: WAIT AND SEE.

Making a "wait and see" type of trade, rather than a veterans for a couple of can't miss prospects (such as the Brian Giles for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez deal) is a ballsy move by Neil Huntington. It's particularly courageous when one considers that this was his first big deal. That said, I can't help but think that if he had been able to acquire just one of the Yankees top pitching prospects---Ian Kennedy is the most likely---this trade would look much better, at least in the short term.

The most worrisome thing about this deal is that so much of it is, in fact, speculative. We've just made a big play in the futures market, without a lot of protection in the short term if the long term falls flat. It was definitely a calculated risk on Huntington's part, and it took a signficant amount of intestinal fortitude to pull the trigger.

There's reason for optimism with this trade, and it definitely proves that the team's front office is determined to rectify the failures of what has been an atrocious starting rotation this season.

Unfortunately there's also reason for concern. Whether Huntington hit the target with the full broadside remains to be seen, and it will likely be two or three years before we know for sure. Meanwhile, we must continue to do our best to see through the mists of battle and stay the course, full speed ahead.

(The GW's analyst Will Pellas gives us his take on the Yankee deal. And no, he's not on the block, so save your dime.)

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