Friday, October 31, 2008

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Yesterday, we gave a few examples of how a team can run down its farm system with nothing but bad judgment.

Waive guys like Tim Wakefield, Al Reyes, Ty Wigginton, Joe Beimel, Bronson Arroyo, and Duaner Sanchez, lose Jeff Bennett to Rule 5, and give away people like Chris Young, Leo Nuñez, and Jeff Keppinger in mindless trades or as a throw-in to the main attractions, and you're not going to be very well stocked organizationally.

Again, we caution that these guys may not have fit into the Pirate plans at the time, or for that matter, ever. But they are all serviceable or better MLB parts, and a team can't build a system if they don't get talent in return for talent.

But where replacement value is especially noticeable is in trades, where you can pretty much gauge the return. Here's the good, bad, and ugly of Pirate wheeling and dealing:

The Good:

Now this is the kind of trade that keeps on giving. In 1998, Ricardo Rincon was sent to the Indians for Brian Giles. That alone would make it a steal. But in 2003, Giles was sent to San Diego for Jay Bay and Ollie Perez.

Perez went to the Mets in 2006 for Xavier Nady. All good so far; Bay and Nady became the heart of the Pirate order. Now whether or not it remains on the plus side depends on how Jose Tabata, Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris develop.

They are, in a way, Rincon's grandchildren. And a deal that nets a team two generations of players has to be considered pretty good.

After the 2005 season, the Pirates sent Rob Mackowiac to the White Sox for Damaso Marte's second go-around in Pittsburgh. Marte gave the team some solid work, and we'll see how the haul from the Yankees works out before we finally rate the deal.

In 2003, Jeff Suppan was a free agent pickup that the Pirates moved to Boston at the deadline. The return was Freddy Sanchez and Mike Gonzalez. It was convoluted, as Gonzo went to the BoSox from Pittsburgh a week earlier, but stumbled through the physical.

Gonzo went to the Braves for Adam LaRoche and Jamie Romak in 2007, along with Brent Lillibridge. So Suppan, a back end rotation guy, was basically flipped for the right side of today's infield.

In 2000, Sanchez's playmate, Jack Splat, joined the team from Saint Louis at the deadline for Jason Christiansen. An everyday player for a set-up guy is always a good deal. As with the Suppan swap, it proves that deadline trades don't have to always be salary dumps.

The Bad:

Let's try on the new suits' first deal, Solly Torres to the Brew Crew for Marino Salas and Kevin Roberts. Giving up a rubber-armed set-up pitcher isn't a great loss, but he would have been useful here - how many times did the starters struggle to put together three innings? - and the Bucs may have been better off getting a bag of practice balls in return instead of Salas and Roberts.

We'll throw in the ill-fated Matty Mo deal here, although if it was indeed the straw that broke Dave Littlefield's back, we may consider moving it up the to "the good."

At best, it just cost Pittsburgh a few Nutting dollars; Rajai Davis had no place in the Buc system, though he may have helped the team more if he was DFA'ed instead of traded.

But at worse, it may have cost the team the cash in hand to land a bottom-end rotation arm or a decent free-agent position player or two. And that makes it plenty bad.

At the 2006 deadline, the Pirates sent Sean Casey to the Tigers for Brian Rodgers. It wasn't a big deal, but again the Pirates gave away a player with some value for a player with none.

After the 2004 season, Jason Kendall was sent to the A's for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes was almost immediately traded for Matt Lawton, who in 2005 was dealt for Jody Gerut. Redman was traded after the season for Jonah Bayliss. The net result was that Kendall was virtually given away.

In 1999, the Pirates shipped Jose Guillen to Tampa Bay to get Humberto Cota and Joe Oliver, another something-for-nothing deal.

And we remember Cam Bonifay's deal with the Cubs after the 1998 season, when he sent Jon Leiber to the Windy City for Brant Brown, who was out of baseball by 2000.

The Ugly:

On July 23, 2003, the Bucs hold the greatest fire sale of their history, sending Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and cash to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Bruback.

At the 2001 deadline, the Pirates sent Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Not all deadline deals work out, or even make sense.

For all their dealing, the Pirates brought in 4 middle-of-the-order guys: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and Adam LaRoche. They lost four middle-of-the-order guys: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and A-Ram. So in a decade of deals, Adam LaRoche is all the Bucs have to show, although there are some hopefuls in the pipeline.

But they took some huge hits pitching, losing Chris Young, Jason Schmidt, and Jon Lieber without replacing a one of them.

Not much of a record to brag on. Still, while the bad trading has certainly held the club back and dates back to Cam Bonifay, it wasn't the coffin nail. We'll discuss the first nail tomorrow, the draft, and the final spike on Sunday, free agency.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Give-Away Day

The Royals acquired first baseman Mike Jacobs from the Florida Marlins for RHP Leo Nuñez today.

You may remember Núñez. He was originally signed by the Pirates on February 16, 2000. Four seasons later, Núñez was traded to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Benito Santiago. Benito was released in May after playing 6 games for Pittsburgh, and was out of baseball by July.

Núñez was converted from a starter to the pen by KC, and last year the 25-year old was 4-1 with a 2.98 ERA in 45 games. To boot, he's not even eligible for arbitration yet, and is making just $405,000.

And the Royals just flipped him for a LH first sacker that hit 32 home runs.

And hey, do you remember San Diego starter Chris Young from his Pirate days? No? He was selected by the Pirates in the third round of the 2000 draft, and the Bucs sent him to Montreal for Matt Herges. Then they cut Herges at the end of camp.

The 6'-10" RHP has a record of 42-28 in 117 starts since then, with a 3.72 ERA and pitched in an All-Star game.

How about Jeff Keppinger? He was drafted by the Pirates in the 4th round of the 2001 draft. At the 2004 trading deadline, he was traded to the Mets as part of the Kris Benson for Ty Wigginton trade.

Keppinger is with the Reds now, and in 4 big-league season, he's put up a .287 average. A bit better than Brian Bixler, hey?

Then there's the case of Jeff Bennett. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 19th round of the 1998 draft and lost to the Brew Crew in the 2003 Rule 5 draft. The RHP has been in 75 games for Atlanta in the last two years, with a 5-8-3 record and 3.68 ERA, mostly out of the bullpen.

Duaner Sanchez was booted from the 40-man roster in 2003 and claimed by the Dodgers. The RHP has appeared in 276 games in six seasons since then, with an 18-10-8 line and 3.91 ERA.

We can even take a trip in the way-back machine to remind Bucco fans that Bip Roberts was once was Pirate property. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 1st round (13th pick) of the 1982 draft, and San Diego nabbed him through the Rule 5 draft in 1985.

In 12 years, the second sacker has a .294 average, and teams are still lining up for his services.

Now the point of this isn't that Pittsburgh has lost a bevy of All-Stars through giveaways, although Dave Littlefield did make an art form of it. With the buzz about who the Bucs are waiving and the upcoming decisions on whom to protect on the 40-man roster, its just a cautionary tale.

Through Rule 5, throw-ins to major deals, poorly thought out trades, and waivers, the Pirates have seen some of their home-grown talent blossom on other clubs. A minor league system can be devasted by bad decisions as easily as by bad drafts.

(This, of course, doesn't include dealing Jason Schmidt, Aramis Ramirez, etc. They knew what they had with them, and just elected to not pay them. Look no further than the 1992 Pirates to see what penny-pinching gets a team. But that's a post for another day)

The lesson is don't give your young major league players away. There are a couple of big names - and we're sure more, if we dug around - and a few MLB capable ballers on the list. The most important club to scout is your own. We hope Neal Huntington understands that.

Tomorrow: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Pirate trades.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Farm Fresh - Minor League Second Basemen

Hey, we all know how fragile Freddy Sanchez has become in the past couple of seasons with a bum wheel, shoulder, and scratched-up eye. Does the team have anyone that can give him a blow during the upcoming year?

Heck, no. Basically the same pretenders for shortstop are also in line for second base, too. That doesn't bode real well for the Bucs in the short term if Sanchez continues his rickety ways.

Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz manned the position towards the end of Indy's year as the Pirates tried to prime the pair for utility roles. When they were out of the lineup, veterans Matt Kata and Luis Ordaz held the fort, and neither one of them is exactly a fuzzy faced prospect.

The Buc light at the end of the tunnel is Shelby Ford at Altoona. He was a third round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2006, and there's hope for him to be ready for Pittsburgh when Sanchez's contract expires after 2009, with a 2010 option.

So far he's gone a step at a time, from A to high A to AA, and done OK at every stop. He should be at Indy this year. The switch hitter will turn 24 in December, not exactly a babe but still well on course for the show if he doesn't falter.

Like Freddy, he's a steady fielder that won't make many flashy plays, and a line-drive hitter who's put together solid, but not super, years at the plate, batting in the mid-to-upper .280 range. Ford is a much better runner than Sanchez (he's hit more triples than homers the past two seasons) and a threat to steal a base or two.

Oh, another similarity - he missed a couple of months in 2007 with back issues and a couple more in 2008 with a hip flexor. Let's hope he stays in one piece. Unless the suits swing a deal, he's the cavalry at second base.

Pirate Minor League Player of the Year Jim Negrych is a second baseman in name, too, but he's all bat and no mitt. And we don't mean "work in progress" bad glove - the dude flat out cannot field at an acceptable level for an everyday major league player according to most reports.

But he can crank out line drives, and while he's not a fence buster, Negrych has good gap power and hits a ton of doubles. He's played a lot of third the last couple of seasons, and it looks like the Bucs are trying to fit him into the Bobby Hill - Chris Gomez mold as a utility man and bat off the bench.

The 23-year old was chosen in the 6th round of the 2006 draft after a sterling career at Pitt. In 2005, he led the Big East with 16 homers, was second with 59 RBI and was All-Conference. Baseball America named him as its All-America at second base in NCAA Division I.

We expect him to start at Altoona, and if he keeps mashing, to pop up at Indy before the 2009 season is done. It'll be interesting to see if the Pirates give him a steady position or continue to play musical chairs with his glove.

The other guys in A - Dan Bomback, Matt Cavagnaro and Adenson Chourio - don't appear to be MLB threats, although Chourio has hit well in Venezuela and Bradenton.

He's a speedy lil' devil with a good eye, larcenous feet, and a decent mitt. But Chourio played in the GCL at age 21 (he turned 22 in August), and has absolutely no power at all, two bad signs.

He's hit 1 home run, 4 triples, and 21 doubles in 751 minor league at bats, and that ain't much muscle flexing for the ground floor of organized baseball.

But the low levels will be filled with second sackers within a year or two, when the logjam of SS's on the A rosters are converted into 2B's and 3B's as the coaches determine their niche.

Guys like SS's Jose Luis de los Santos and Angel Gonzalez have gotten reps at both middle infield spots, and Chase d'Arnaud could make the move to second, too.

So it's in the same bind as short, with the talent still years away from bubbling up to Pittsburgh, except for Shelby Ford. Cross your fingers that Freddy can hang on another year or two.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bucco News

Troy Renck of the Denver Post has a couple of Bucco-related tidbits to offer while we wait out the World Series snow date:

First, he reports that Ken Macha has emerged as the favorite to land Milwaukee's skipper post, leaving old Met manager Willie Randolph as the odd man out. With Dale Sveum given the axe, there are a whole lot of guys with Pittsburgh ties that are players in the Brew Crew coaching drama.

Next, he says that Jayson Nix has signed with the White Sox. That's disappointing news to GW, who hoped the Pirates would have an interest in the 26-year old second sacker. He's an Olympian, was taken 44th in the 2001 draft pick, and isn't far removed from being the man at Colorado.

His bat failed him, but he came around to hit .303 in AAA. He's exactly the kind of affordable low-risk, high-return player that Pittsburgh should be after, especially considering Freddie Sanchez's lingering list of injuries over the past two seasons.

Jenifer Langosch has a couple of items of interest that she reported in her recent articles:

She says that Pedro looked good in Bradenton, and that the No. 2 overall pick will be invited to the Pirates' camp in February, though he is expected to start the year at one of Pittsburgh's two Class A clubs. Alvarez's time working out in Florida didn't determine his minor league spot. That will be decided this spring.

Between now and February, he'll spend most of the winter at Vanderbilt, where Alvarez will work on his prescribed conditioning program.

Her timeline on Alvarez and Tabata moving through the system:

JL expects Alvarez to be in the majors by the end of the 2010 season. Tabata will be 20 most of next season, which he will likely spend at the Triple-A level.

By late next summer, there's a strong possibility of Alvarez and Tabata playing with each other in Indy. And while she thinks Alvarez will still make his major league debut before Tabata, she wouldn't be surprised to see Jose in Pittsburgh before the end of the 2010 season. If not then, it should be 2011 for sure.

It sure looks like some fast-tracking for the dynamic duo.

Langosch also says that GM Neal Huntington has identified two needs that he would like to address this offseason, finding a right-handed power bat and a veteran starter. The Pirates will look at both the trade and free-agent markets to address these needs. But, she cautions, the organization will not overpay. There's a shocker.

Other notes:

Joining the Pirates as a special assistant to GM Neal Huntington will be Jim Benedict, who most recently worked as a scout for Cleveland. Before that, he spent six seasons with the Yankees as a scout and special assistant of baseball operations. Benedict started as a bird dog for the Rangers in 1990.

The 47-year-old also spent seven seasons as a minor league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers and Expos.

He'll take over the special-assistant position vacated by Jesse Flores, who is now the Pirates' West Coast scouting supervisor.

Aramis Ramirez was picked as the NL Hank Aaron Award winner, presented annually by MLB for the most outstanding offensive performers in each league. This year, for the first time, fans voted on MLB's Web site after each team selected a nominee. Boston's Kevin Youkilis won the AL award, which is a testament to which teams have the most loyal fans, or at least the most computer-savvy.

And finally, something not in the least bit Pittsburgh. Did you know there was a "William Penn Curse" on Philly's teams, much like the Cubbies "Billy Goat Curse?"

ESPN's Jim Caple checked it out. Seems like the William Penn statue was the tallest structure in Philly for the longest time. But after the 1983 World Series win, the Liberty Tower and other skyscrapers shot up and dwarfed it. Ol' man Penn showed his displeasure at playing second banana by cursing the Philadelphia franchises.

But it's been exorcised, Philly fans hope. When they topped off the Comcast Center, the King Kong of Philadelphia's buildings, they attached a mini-statue of Penn to the last beam. He's again king of the hill, and that's why the Phillies are flying high again.

A Long, Strange Journey

"It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key."

Sir Winston Churchill said that of Russia, but Pirate fans can be excused if it seems to be the perfect description of Chris Duffy's Pittsburgh career. He went from the center fielder of the future in 2005 to a guy that couldn't even be given away on waivers in 2008. It's really been a long, strange journey for Duffy.

Christopher Ellis Duffy was born on April 20, 1980 in Brattleboro, Vermont, but the family soon moved on to the warmer climes of Glendale, Arizona.

A 1998 graduate of Mountain Ridge HS, Duffy was a three sport star in football, baseball and basketball, and was all-conference on the diamond three times.

He played for two seasons at South Mountain CC in Arizona, where he led all JC players with 57 stolen bases. In 2000, he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 43rd round of the draft, but decided to attend Arizona State.

Duffy hit .373 with four home runs, 37 RBI and 20 stolen bases for the Sun Devils and was named to the All-Pac-10 squad. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 8th round of the 2001 draft, and inked a contract.

Duffy climbed through the Pirates' minor league system, playing for Williamsport, Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis. He had a stutter every now and then, but over 5 minor league seasons and 524 games, Duffy had a .299 batting average with 27 HR and 190 RBI.

He had a terrific camp in 2005, and finally caught the eye of the Pirate management, who had been searching for a centerfielder since Andy Van Slyke left town.

Duffy got his call-up from Indy on April 7, spending two weeks in the show when Jose Castillo went down. On July 17, he was called up again when Craig Wilson was hurt and spent the rest of the season on the roster. Before going down himself with dehydration in early August and then tearing his hammy a couple of weeks later, he hit .341 in 39 games.

In 2006, Duffy began the season as the Pirates' starting center fielder. After a slow spring and an .194 batting average during the first few weeks of the season, the Pirates sent him back to Indy on May 14th.

After a fiery closed-door chat with Dave Littlefield and Jim Tracy about the move, Duffy decided to return home to Glendale instead of reporting to the Tribe. The Pirates suspended him.

Duffy had let it be known earlier that he wasn't a fan of Tracy's demand that he change his swing and hit ground balls to left side of the infield instead of ripping liners into right.

Many thought that, along with the lingering effects of the hamstring injury, were the cause of his anemic average. But he insisted, through his agent, that he was not protesting the Pirates' decision or Tracy's tutelage.

Nope, not at all. He was on leave for personal reasons known only to him, rumored to be a lack of desire to continue playing pro ball. Yep, we believed that (even though we've heard that prolonged exposure to Jim Tracy does have that effect on players).

Duffy returned to Indy after about a month. Despite his protestations that the decision to quit had nothing to do with Tracy screwing with his batting style, he immediately reverted to his 2005 mind set and hit for a .349 average in 26 games.

Duffy returned to the majors on August 2, and Tracy penciled him into the center field and leadoff spots. After struggling initially, he raised his average to .255 by season's end, had stolen 26 bases in 27 tries for the best base swiping percentage in the NL, and was solid and sometimes spectacular playing center field.

He sat out the final game of 2006 with hamstring tightness, and snubbed the team's suggestion that he play winter ball. Still, Duffy was deservedly the starting center fielder for the Pirates in 2007, by default if not by performance.

On June 8th, he hit an inside-the-park home run at Yankee Stadium, and that was the highlight of his season. His batwork ran hot and cold, and the injuries piled up.

He sprained his ankle late in the June, and when he went on a minor league rehab assignment, his shoulder went bad. It had bothered him for years, and he had surgery on it in early September, ending his season. Duffy played 70 games and hit .249, hardly the force the Pirate's had hoped he'd become at the top of the order.

His recovery was painfully slow. He never made a move to challenge for a spot in 2008, and spent much of the summer playing long toss in Bradenton. Even after he recovered, he missed more time with nagging injuries.

The Pirates optioned him to AA because they had Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen and Steve Pearce in the outfield in AAA. Also, it surely served as a not-so-subtle hint by the suits to the players that you can't make the club in a tub.

When the new golden boy, Morgan, got the call to Pittsburgh, Duffy went to Indy. He was unceremoniously dumped from the 40-man roster when the deluge of young players arrived after Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, and Jay Bay were sent to the AL. To add insult to injury, no one claimed him.

As we said, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Duffy is a solid defensive player in center, with nice range if just an average arm. He's a tremendous threat on the bases. Duffy hits for a decent average (.269 in three seasons), but he doesn't draw walks and has an OBP of just .328, not nearly what you'd like from your leadoff hitter. He strikes out once every five at bats. And, of course, Duffy has never played a whole MLB season between injuries and meltdowns.

His biggest problem is that he belongs to an organization that desperately needs a leadoff hitter, not really having a true top-of-the-order guy since Kenny Lofton. They want their center fielder to be that man. And Chris Duffy is many things, but that's not one of them. He was a square trying to fit into a round hole.

It looks like his time has run out in Pittsburgh. The suits are happy with the work of Morgan, Andrew McCutchen is hovering in the wings, and a 28-year old CF isn't high on their wish-list.

His contract has run its course, and although he cleared waivers in August, Atlanta has always had interest in Duffy. If not them, we're sure someone will take a flyer on the talented but too-often injured player.

Perhaps there is a key...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pirate Wildcard - Phil Dumatrait

Last year, the Pirates broke camp - heck, entered camp - with their starting rotation set in stone. This coming year promises to be different, thank the baseball gods.

Paul Maholm and probably Ian Snell are the only locks. Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, and maybe Jimmy Barthmaier, will battle for the other three spots and the long man/spot starter roles in Bradenton.

The Pirates are also thought to be in the market for a middle-to-bottom end of the rotation veteran to add some stability and smarts to a young staff either through free agency or as part of a deal.

But don't forget about the star-crossed Phil Dumatrait.

Phillip Anthony Dumatrait was born on July 12, 1981 in Bakersfield, California. He played for Bakersfield High and then Bakersfield College (we guess he liked his mom's cooking) before he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2000 as the 22nd pick of the first round.

On July 30, 2003, the Reds traded Scott Williamson to the BoSox in exchange for Dumatrait, left-hander Tyler Pelland and cash. Then in 2004, Dumatrait suffered a season-ending elbow injury and underwent Tommy John surgery.

He missed that year, and came back in 2005. Dumatrait floated around the Reds organization in AA Chatanooga and AAA Louisville for the next couple of seasons.

He was a highly regarded arm - according to Baseball America, in his years at Boston, he was considered a mid-top ten prospect, and after struggling a bit after his surgery, he recovered enough to be the Reds sixteenth rated minor leaguer in 2007.

On September 9, 2007, Phil Dumatrait made his major league debut for the Reds against the Brew Crew.

In the first inning, he gave up four runs on five hits, including consecutive home runs to Rickie Weeks, J. J. Hardy, and Ryan Braun, the first three batters he faced. Dumatrait didn't record an out. He ended his year with an 0-4 record and 15.00 ERA.

The Red management lost all faith in him after that nightmare audition and cut him. The Pirates claimed him off waivers on October 26, 2007 after John Russell, who had faced him as a AAA manager, put in a good word for him to Neal Huntington.

Dumatrait was solid in the minors, but had control issues, both before and after the surgery. But Russell liked his stuff, a low-90s heater and OK off-speed pitches.

He never worked out of the pen, but the Pirates went into spring training with a set rotation and nobody in the minors to back it up. They eyed Dumatrait as a long reliever who'd add starting depth.

He pitched well enough to make the team out of camp, and in April, when the starters were getting bombed regularly, he put together a 3.92 ERA as a long man.

He joined the rotation when Matt Morris was released, and won his first MLB game on May 7, 2008 against the Giants, pitching 5-2/3 shutout innings.

After his first eight starts of May and early June, his ERA was 3.22, but he was raked for 14 runs in ten innings in his next two outings and went on the DL on June 22 with shoulder bursitis.

They brought him back on July 7th for one more try against the Astro's, but he was ripped again. Dumatrait went back on the DL on July 11th for good.

He eventually had a scope done to correct an impingement in the shoulder (the shoulder blade rubs on the rotator cuff) on October 3rd. A season that started with so much promise ended up 3-4, with a 5.26 ERA. That's the bad news. The good news is that he's expected to be good to go by spring training.

The question is which Phil Dumatrait will the Pirates see? He added a change-up to his repertoire, and it was effective. He also walked 42 guys in 78-2/3 innings, and his control was either very good or very bad, not only regarding free passes, but in keeping the ball down.

Two surgeries in 4 years kinda raises a red flag, too, although modern MLB pitchers do seem knife-happy.

Dumatrait has just 17 MLB starts under his belt. He's 27 years old, and has a pedigree as a number one pick and top prospect. His upside is pretty obvious, even if his clock is running.

We think that he's very like to be part of the rotation come April. If he can regain his May form, the Pirates have cleared one huge hurdle awaiting them in 2009, and Joe Kerrigan will look a heckuva lot smarter without making a move.

In fact, we look forward to a much improved staff in 2009. Now if the Bucs can find any bats to support them...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rosters, Rule 5, and Pittsburgh

The Pirates have to set their 40-man roster by November 20th for the Rule 5 draft held at the winter meetings, and that should lead to some interesting moves. Please bear through the legalese at the start of the post; we wanted to give you the background before we talked about rug-cutting time.

There are two different rosters in play for MLB teams: the 25-man, or active roster, and the 40-man roster.

The 40-man roster is all of the players on the 25-man roster, plus anyone who is on the 15-day disabled list, and players on "optional assignment" in the minor leagues. From September 1 until the end of the regular season, teams use expanded rosters, so they are allowed to have anybody from the 40-man roster play in games during that final month - the September call-ups.

If a player is on the 40-man roster but not on the active major league roster, he is said to be on optional assignment and his organization may freely move him between the major league and minor league teams.

But if a player is on the 40-man roster and not the 25 man roster for any part of more than three seasons, he is out of options and may not be assigned to the minors without first clearing waivers.

If a major league player is ineligible for free agency and has options remaining, his team may send him down to a minor league team without consequence.

A player can be removed from the 40-man roster at any time, which results in the player having to pass through waivers to stay with the organization.

Clear as mud, hey? For our purposes, just remember that if a player is good enough to play MLB ball and not on his team’s 40-man roster, here’s what happens:

A player not on a major-league 40-man roster as of November 20 may be eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Major league teams must protect young players by placing them on their 40-man rosters within four or five years of their original signing. Otherwise, those left off the roster are available to other teams as Rule 5 picks for a $50,000 fee.

Players signed at age 19 or older are exempt from the Rule 5 draft for four years after being drafted (in the amateur draft) or signed by their current organization; players drafted or signed at age 18 or younger are exempt for five years.

But there's the kicker. To prevent teams from drafting players to stock their own minors, each Rule 5 pick must be kept in the major leagues the entire following season or be offered back to his former team for $25,000. Remember Evan Meek’s saga?

Not many players are ready for that jump, so only about a dozen or so get picked each year. Last year was a bumper crop of Rule 5 selectees; 18 were taken, and 9 stuck with their team for the season.

So here’s the decision the Pirates have to make in the next three weeks - who do they protect on the 40-man roster? Do they have anyone floating around in their minors that could last the year out on a major-league roster?

The minor league guys protected on the 40-man are pitchers Jimmy Barthmaier, Ron Belisario, Jesse Chavez, Dave Davidson, Romulo Sanchez, and John Van Benschoten.

Position players are Robinzon Diaz, Ronny Paulino, Pedro Alvarez, Brian Bixler, and Luis Cruz. The other 30 are regulars or semi-regulars for the Pirates and that number will be whittled down during spring camp to the opening day 25 man roster.

These players are Rule 5 eligible if not protected by the deadline:

Jose Tabata - He signed as a 17 year-old in 2005, according to every report we've seen, but he's supposed to have played in the Dominican Summer League as a 16 year-old in 2004, which makes him eligible this year. Confused? So are we. Hey, they have to put him on sooner or later, right? Still, you hate to burn a year.

Neil Walker - Why they didn’t call him up in September to light a fire under Andy LaRoche's butt is still a mystery to us, but he’ll be on the 40-man for sure this year.

Evan Meek - He found the plate at Indy, and has an outside shot at landing a spot on the 25-man roster. He’ll certainly be lost if he’s not protected - the second time through Rule 5 doesn’t carry the MLB burden; he can be drafted and go straight to the minors.

Juan Mateo - A former highly regarded starter in the Cub organization, he seemed to have overcome his arm problems last year at Altoona when the Bucs converted him to the bullpen. He’s only 25, and could earn a spot on the big club. He was also a former Rule 5 pick, so it would be the second time around for him, too.

Jeff Sues - Sues had a solid year and showed off a power arm as he finally had a healthy season. He stands a chance of being lost if he’s not added to the 40-man. AA pitchers are often fair game.

Kyle Bloom - A LH starter that had a strong finish at Altoona and is pitching well in winter ball at Hawaii. He’s probably on the league’s radar now, so he’s got a shot at being protected.

Jamie Romak - He’s another possibility, but while his power is pretty sexy, his glove, batting average and K rate make him an unlikely candidate to take up a spot on anyone’s 25-man roster, so the Pirates may take a chance that he‘ll get through the draft.

Eric Krebs - Pitched pretty well out of the pen at Lynchburg, but was shaky after being smacked in the face by a liner in July. He was in Hawaii to get some work, but came up with elbow problems. He’ll probably get by in the draft, given the combo of pitching in A ball and being hurt, so he‘ll likely be off the roster this year.

Ron Uviedo - He's only 22 and a solid bullpen prospect, but hasn't pitched above the A level yet. The Pirates should have a year or two to reach a decision on Uviedo.

Chris Duffy - He's already passed through waivers, spends way too much time in the tub, and his contract ends this year, to boot. He'll be a free agent and someone might take a shot at using him as a spare part because of his wheels and glove. That someone is not likely to be Pittsburgh, though GW would rather see him in left field than Nyjer Morgan. Oh well, you only get so many chances in life, right?

Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reported that the Pirates are looking to add Tabata, Walker, and Meek to the 40-man roster. We think there may a couple more players they protect, particularly Sues and Mateo. We'll find out soon.

The key to the decisions will be whether or not the Pirates think someone can carry the unprotected players on their MLB roster for an entire season, and that sometimes ends up a crapshoot. Different strokes for different scouts...

Players not eligible for Rule 5 this year:

Andrew McCutchen was signed as an 18 year-old in 2005, and has one more full minor league season to go, although we expect him to be in Pittsburgh sometime in 2009.

Daniel McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Jim Negrych, Shelby Ford, Jared Hughes, and Miles Durham are all members of the class of 2006, and have another season before the Pirates have to decide their fates.

The Pirates have a handful of guys to add to the 40-man roster as it stands. Except for Tabata and Walker (and long-shot Romak), they’re all pitchers, and the organization can’t afford to let any of them slip away.

But with Belisario, Davidson, Sanchez and JVB taking up spots now, that transfer could be made smoothly enough without any truly painful decisions. The pity is that so many of the players involved are working out of the pen instead of starting.

Hopefully, there will be no repeat of 2003, when Jose Bautista, Chris Shelton, and Jeff Bennett were lost in the Rule 5 draft, while five of the first six picks were Pirate farmhands.

But they better have their scouting eyes sharp this year. There’s another small gang of potentially good players drafted in 2006 that the suits will have to decide on after next season. It’s the kind of decisions competitive baseball teams have to make every year. It's about time that Pittsburgh joined that club.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Saturday News

From USA Today: The Toronto Blue Jays acquired the top pick in the 2002 draft on Friday, claiming right-hander Bryan Bullington off waivers from Cleveland, which had claimed him from the Pirates earlier this summer. We guess the Indians saw enough, too.

From Yahoo! Sports: Dale Sveum, who finished the season as Milwaukee’s interim manager, is on the radar to replace Lou Frazier as the Bucs first base coach. Sveum was a utility infielder with the Pirates in 1996-97 and 1999, then was a manager in their farm system for three seasons.

Yahoo also reports that Joe Kerrigan uses numbers, not his gut, when it comes to pitching decisions. He's a big believer in statistical analysis, and always had a laptop computer at his locker when he coached. Kerrigan uses those numbers to make tactical decisions.

He gained an appreciation for statistics from Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, whom he pitched for in Baltimore at the end of his playing career in 1980. “Earl always went by the matchups, and it enabled him to make the Hall of Fame,” Kerrigan said. “That’s what I base my pitching philosophy on.”

From Jenifer Langosch of Jim Negrych, who was honored as the Pirates' Minor League Player of the Year, injured his finger on October 10th. He jammed it while sliding into a base playing for West Oahu of the Hawaiian League.

X-rays on the finger came back negative, confirming that nothing was broken. As a result, the 23-year-old infielder has begun taking batting practice again and should be able to return in a designated hitter role within the next few days.

The prognosis for Eric Krebs' Hawaiian Winter Baseball season is not as promising. After pitching one-third of an inning of relief on October 7th, the RHP was shut down with inflammation in his right elbow. Krebs, a 16th-round draft pick in 2005, hasn't pitched since and will be examined by doctors in Pittsburgh.

It's almost certain that he won't return to Hawaii to finish out the final three weeks of the CaneFires' season. "I don't think there is going to be an issue that will affect next year," Kyle Stark said. "But it's likely going to have him shut down for the rest of the time out there [in Hawaii]."

From the Winter League Stats Board: As of yesterday, Jose Tabata is hitting .455, Robinzon Diaz .388, Steve Pearce .318, Miles Durham .299 with 2 HRs and 17 RBI, and Shelby Ford .286 with a homer and an invite to the Arizona All-Star team.

Most of the pitchers haven't gotten much work. The best of the guys with a few innings under their belt are LHP Kyle Bloom (15 innings, 1-0, 2.40 ERA) and JVB (7 innings, 0-1, 1.29 ERA).

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Tampa Draft...and Pittsburgh's

Hey, some articles in the national press are talking about parity in MLB and how the meek can one day inherit the earth thanks to Tampa Bay's run for the roses - even the Pirates.

But before Pittsburgh fans buy into that, the similarity in budgets is the only thing the Rays and Bucs share. TB used some solid scouting, good drafting, depth, and sharp dealing to get where they are. Just look at the draft:

Tampa Bay drafted James Shields in the 16th round in 2000, and all he's done for them is turned into "Big Game" James. The Pirates did all right, too, picking up Ian Snell in the 23rd round. The first round? Pittsburgh selected Sean Burnett, while the Rays took Rocco Baldelli.

2001 was a wash, with the Rays taking Dewon Brazelton and the Bucs John von Benschoten. Both were mulligans.

In 2002, the Mets took Scott Kazmir as their top pick. The Rays dumped salary by trading Carlos Zambrano to NY for Kazmir in 2004. While Tampa reeled in Kazmir, Pittsburgh took Bryan Bullington as the number one pick of the entire draft.

Tampa Bay, by the way, took BJ Upton with the pick right behind Pittsburgh's.

In 2003, they took Delmon Young, who they later flipped into Matt Garza. The Pirates did OK, too, taking Paul Maholm.

Both clubs landed guys in 2004 who are considered top prospects in their respective organizations but not MLB ready yet in the Ray's Jeff Niemann and Pittsburgh's Neil Walker.

Minnesota chose Matt Garza as their top pick in 2005, and the Rays sent Delmon Young to the Twin Cities to get him last year. The Bucs top arm was Jeff Sues, who they picked in the 5th round.

But in justice, this draft also produced Andrew McCutchen, Brent Lillibridge, who was part of the Adam LaRoche deal, and Steve Pearce for Pittsburgh, while Tampa Bay spent their #1 on the eminently forgettable RHP Wade Townsend.

Evan Longoria was Tampa's top pick in 2006, and the Pirates took Brad Lincoln.

The Ray's David Price was the first overall pick in 2007. The Pirates opted for Daniel Moskos. Matt Wieters and Matthew LaPorta were taken after him.

In 2008, Tampa took HS shortstop Tim Beckham, and the Bucs got Pedro. Both are highly touted, and we'll see in 2011 or so how this year worked out.

Notice a trend? Tampa ended up with a pretty healthy percentage of impact players from the first round. Pittsburgh...well, you judge.

The Rays have been loading up since 2000 with solid #1 selections. Rocco Baldelli, BJ Upton, Delmon Young (traded for Matt Garza), Evan Longoria, and David Price are a pretty nice haul. Pittsburgh has Paul Maholm, Andrew McCutchen and Brad Lincoln to show for the same drafts.

That's how far behind the Pirates are in catching up to them. Not only is the difference apparent at the MLB level, but it's especially pronounced in the minors.

Tampa can reload and deal from system-wide depth. The Pirates had to trade stars just to stock some arms at AAA, and are practically empty at the A and AA levels. So don't hold your breath on a Tampa miracle happening here anytime soon.

If Pittsburgh stays the course and gets lucky, the rebuilding should take less time than the eight or nine years that it took Tampa, just because the Pirates don't have to line it up everyday with the Yankees, BoSox, and Jays. No division is as brutal as theirs.

But if Huntington and company can get it done in under four or five years, they are miracle workers, especially considering that the determination was reached to blow the team up and start from scratch instead of filling in the blanks - a good decision, we think, given the woeful pitching and especially the state of the minors.

Loaves and fishes, anyone?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Senator Jim Bunning

On this day in 1931, Jim Bunning entered the world in Southgate, Kentucky. He would eventually end up in Cooperstown and the hallowed halls of the US Senate. Not too bad for a backwoods boy.

The lanky pitcher went to Xavier University, and the Tigers signed him as a free agent in 1950. He began his big league career with Detroit on July 20, 1955, and ended up playing nine seasons with them.

The 6'3" righthander's unusual pitching style, a sweeping sidearm delivery that finished with his glove hand touching the ground well in front of the mound, made him especially difficult for righthanded batters. He used a great curve and sneaky fastball, and although he was known for giving up the long ball, he could eat up the innings.

Bunning won 20 games for the Tigers in 1957 and threw a no-hitter on July 20th, 1956, against the Boston Red Sox. He was an All-Star five times with Motown.

On August 2, 1959, Bunning struck out three batters on nine pitches in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox. He became the fifth American League pitcher and the 10th pitcher in Major League history to accomplish the nine-pitch/three-strikeout half-inning.

After the 1963 season, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Bunning won 19 games in three of his four seasons there and earned two more All-Star Game appearances. He threw a perfect game on June 21, 1964, against the New York Mets, the first in the National League in 84 years. In 1967, he set a ML record with five 1-0 losses.

Bunning is remembered, perhaps unfairly, for his role in the pennant race of 1964, in which the Phillies held a commanding lead in the NL for most of the season, only to eventually lose the title to the St. Louis Cardinals when they blew a 6-1/2 game lead on September 20 by losing their last 10 games. Sounds like today's Mets.

Manager Gene Mauch used Bunning and fellow hurler Chris Short heavily down the stretch, and the two became flat worn out as September went on. Still, Bunning was the team ace, going 19-8, throwing 5 shutouts with 13 complete games. He struck out 219 and walked just 43 batters.

Bunning came to Pittsburgh in 1968 for Don Money, Woodie Fryman, Bill Laxton, and Harold Clem. He was 4-14 with a 3.88 ERA in his first year at Forbes Field, and 10-9 with a 3.81 ERA in 1969.

They were decent Pirate clubs under the direction of Larry Shephard, laying the foundation for the powerhouse 70's squads, and Bunning was a dependable arm for them.

But Pittsburgh was looking for young blood to go with Pops, Scoops, Sangy, Big Red, Steve Blass and Dock Ellis, so he was sent to the Dodgers in an August deadline deal for Chuck Goggin, Ron Mitchell, and cash (not that they helped much).

He retired three years later, after 17 seasons in the bigs with 3,759 innings worked, a 224-184 record, and ERA of 3.27. And Bunning didn't just start. He'd come out of the bullpen four or five times a year between outings to keep his team in games.

Besides throwing a no-hitter in both leagues, Bunning was the second pitcher in history (Cy Young was the first) to record 1000 strikeouts and 100 wins in both the American League and the National League (118-87 with Tigers, and 106-97 in the NL for Philly, Pittsburgh, and LA). When he retired in 1971, Bunning was second on the all time strikeout list to Walter Johnson with 2,855.

After his playing career, Bunning managed the Reading Phillies, Eugene Emeralds, Toledo Mud Hens and Oklahoma City 89ers. He was also instrumental in forming the Player's Association and worked as a player rep.

Bunning returned to his old Kentucky home in 1977 and entered Republican politics. He served on the City Council of Fort Thomas and was then elected to the State Senate in 1979.

After serving there for four years, he moved on to the United States House of Representatives from 1987 to 1999. In 1999, he was elected to the United States Senate, and he won reelection in 2003. He's still there, representing Kentucky at the age of 77.

Happy birthday, Senator and Pirate (if ever so briefly) Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

His MLB achievements:
7-time All-Star (1957, 1959, 1961-1964 & 1966)
AL Wins Leader: 20 (1957)
2-time Innings Pitched Leader: 267-1/3 (1957/Detroit) & 302-1/3 (1967/Philly)
3-time Strikeouts Leader: 201 (1959/Detroit), 201 (1960/Detroit) & 253 (1967/Philly)
2-time NL Shutouts Leader: 5 (1966/Philly) & 6 (1967/Philly)
15 Wins Seasons: 8 (1957, 1959, 1961, 1962 & 1964-1967)
20 Wins Seasons: 1 (1957/Detroit)
200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 13 (1957-1967, 1969 & 1970)
300 innings Pitched Seasons: 2 (1966 & 1967/Philly)
200 Strikeouts Seasons: 6 (1959, 1960 & 1964-1967)
Baseball Hall of Fame: Class of 1996 (Veteran's Committee)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Old Bucs Hit the Market

These guys were all part of the Bucco free-for-all in 2008 or the Littlefield bunch. And, as of this month, they're looking for new homes:

Franquelis Osoria - Frankie was an inning eater, no doubt. But a bad wheel and probably some serious overuse of his rubber arm got him his walking papers last week.

Osoria was 4-3 this year, with a 6.08 ERA, and 0-2 last season with a 4.76 ERA as a Pirate long man after spending two seasons in Dodger blue. The dude did have some serious googles, though.

And hey, at 27, someone may still take a flyer on Osoria and see if a reduced workload can cure what ails him - giving up HR's (10 in 60 innings) like Halloween treats.

Jose Castillo - He got the boot in a hurry from the new management, and landed in Florida. They dumped him, too, and he ended up in San Fran. After losing his 3B job there, it was off to Houston. They opted to ship him to AAA, and he decided to opt for free agency. Jose collected $850,000 and more frequent flyer miles than hits this season.

A lifetime .254 batter, his 2008 line was .246-6-37. That may cut it at second, but not at the hot corner. But he's 27 and has somewhat of a track record, so we guess someone will sign him up for another ride on the MLB merry-go-round.

Josh Phelps - After ripping the cover off the ball in 2007 after coming over from the Yankees (.351-5-19 in 77 ABs), the Bucs new suits said "thanks, but no thanks," and he got a job with the Cards. They just optioned him to AAA, and he declared for free agency.

GW could never figure out why with his bat (.273-64-244 in eight seasons), the 30 year-old vet can't find a spot on someone's bench.

Josh Wilson - The wrong SS Wilson, Josh was a 1999 grad of Mt. Lebo Hi and played on the Blue Devil's 1998 championship squad. The Pirates brought him into camp, but when he didn't make the big team, he joined Boston's system. The 27 year-old was just released. Wilson is a decent glove guy, with a lifetime .233 average in 116 MLB games.

We'd take him over Brian Bixler, but hey, that's not saying too much.

Jorge Valandia - Pittsburgh brought the veteran back-up SS in for a cup of joe at Bradenton, and that was all. He left and landed in Tampa Bay's organization. He's a FA again. The 33 year-old Valandia has a .189 batting average in 8 seasons in the bigs.

We expect a couple more Pirate exes to hit the waiver wires before the off-season gets much older. Well, more than a couple.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Ex-Buc Curse

Ah, the Pirate curse. We know it permeates PNC, but a quick look at the playoffs makes it apparent that it covers all of baseball, even and perhaps especially during the post season. Darn that Sid Bream! Here's how the former Corsairs handled their dash for glory:

Jason Kendall, C, Milwaukee Brewers - The ol' backstop started every game and went 2-14 (.143) with 2 RBI.
Jeff Suppan, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers - Mr. Inning Eater started one game and got clobbered, giving up 5 runs in three innings.
Salomon Torres, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers - Solly got into 2 games, and gave up 4 hits in two innings, but no runs. He notched a save in the Brew Crew's lone win.
Brian Shouse, LHP, Milwaukee Brewers - No love, no appearances.
Dale Sveum, manager - Milwaukee Brewers - His thanks for taking over the reins of Milwaukee's sputtering Brewers was to be told to pack his bags and not to let the door hit him, now that the lights are out. That's gratitude for ya!

Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs - A-Ram was 2-11 (.182) with a double and no RBI. Bobby Hill coulda done that well!
Daryle Ward, PH/1B, Chicago Cubs - The big lefty came off of the bench 3 times and got a hit and RBI as a pinch hitter.

Joe Beimel, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers - St. Mary's Joe got into three games, lasted 2/3 of an inning, and escaped unscored upon with a couple of walks.

Matt Stairs, 1B/OF, Philadelphia Phillies - The Pirate's first Canuck came off of the bench three times and hit a clutch two-run homer in game four that crushed the come-back hopes of the Dodgers.

Yep, the two NL teams with the fewest ex-Pirates met for the NLCS. Hey, one of them had to win. And Beimel spent three seasons in Pittsburgh while Stairs was only in town for one. Less time, less bad karma to work off.

And now for the AL Bucco brethern:

Jason Bay, LF, Boston - Jay Bay just hit .341 with 3 homers and 9 RBI in his first 11 playoff games. Not Manny, maybe, but pretty dang good. He walked 9 times, too, for an OBP of .471.
Sean Casey, 1B, Boston - The Mayor of Upper St. Clair came up twice and whiffed twice.
David Ross, C, Boston - He made one appearance, with no at bats.
Tim Wakefield, RHP, Boston - The knuckleballer was 2-2, but only lasted 7-1/3 innings and gave up 10 runs. Ouch!
Terry Francona, manager, Boston - One of the promising dudes in the bossman ranks, and this bump in the road won't hurt him. (He's not an old Pirate, but being from New Brighton is close enough for GW!)

Gary Matthews, Jr., CF, Los Angeles Angels - Went 0-5 in the ALDS, and his contract is still a wonderment to us.

Tampa Bay has a clear edge over the Phils - they aren't carrying any extra old-Bucco baggage around with them. Unless, of course, the curse covers coaches - isn't that old Bucco George Hendricks we see in the Tampa Bay first base box?

Could be an interesting series.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Kerrigan Signs Up & Winter Ball News

When Jeff Andrews was let go, the speculation was that he was shown the door so quickly in a large part because a couple of guys the Pirate suits had their eyes on were available. One of the names bandied about was Joe Kerrigan's, and sho' enuff, he landed the job.

Kerrigan, 53, went to Temple and was a first round pick in the 1974 draft by Montreal. He made his major league debut on July 9, 1976, for the Expos. Kerrigan was traded to Baltimore after the 1977 season, and played with the O's until 1980.

So that's his playing background - 4 years, 131 games, 220 innings, mainly as an all purpose reliever, and a record of 8-12, with 15 saves and a 3.89 ERA. But the position requires psychology and technique, not an arm, and he's put together a pretty solid coaching resume since his playing days.

Kerrigan has spent parts of 12 seasons as a MLB pitching coach, first holding the job with the Expos from 1992-96, after splitting the previous nine seasons as Montreal's bullpen coach and minor league pitching coach. He met Neal Huntington there, who joined Montreal's front office in 1992. Nothin' like a little networking.

He joined the Red Sox in 1997 as the team's pitching coach. In August 2001, Kerrigan finished out the season as Boston's interim manager after Jimy Williams was canned. He finished with a 17-26 record, and was in turn replaced by Grady Little when new owners took over the BoSox reins.

Kerrigan moved on to the Phillies as their pitching coach for two seasons. Then he worked as a special assistant to Yankees GM Brian Cashman in 2005 before taking over as the Yankees' bullpen coach for the 2006-07 seasons.

Kerrigan spent this year working as an on-air talking head for the Phillie's TV and radio crew.

He has to get more out of the staff than Andrews did. Besides a dozen years under his belt, Kerrigan will be an unknown to the guys he's coaching up, and that's a good thing - maybe it'll grab their attention.

If you recall, Andrews got the job because he knew so many of the pitchers from their minor league days, and they had a comfort zone with him. But we all saw what familiarity bred in that case.

He'll be the third Pirate pitching coach in three years, and the fourth in five seasons, following Spin Williams (2005), Jim Colburn (2006-07), and Andrews. Good luck to him and the staff.

> In case you were curious as to what Pirates were still playing ball over the winter, here's a list provided by Jenifer Langosch of and a little googling:

Arizona Fall League: RHP Jared Hughes (0-0, 10.38), C Steve Lerud (.333, 0-2), RHP Jeff Sues (0-0, 0.00), RHP Derek Hankins (0-0, 2.25), RHP Michael Crotta (0-0, 3.25), INF Shelby Ford (.344, 1-5), and OF Jamie Romak (.158, 0-3).

Ford is the only regular among the bunch, and none of the pitchers has gotten over 4 innings of work yet. The Scottsdale Scorpions are 5-7 so far. Lotta good this league is doing for Pittsburgh's prospects (or is that suspects) to date, hey?

Hawaiian League: IF Jim Negrych (.273, 0-3), SS Brian Friday (.205, 0-4), 1B Miles Durham (.290, 2-16), LHP Kyle Bloom (1-0, 2.40), RHP Eric Krebs (0-0, 5.40), RHP Harrison Bishop (1-0, 6.14), and RHP Moises Robles (0-2-2, 6.75).

Durham is a monster in Hawaii, and Bloom's doing pretty well, too. The West Oahu CaneFires are 10-8 and playing everyone on the roster. Primo!

Caribbean Leagues: OF Jose Tabata, OF Chris Duffy, OF Steve Pearce, C Robinzon Diaz, C Carlos Maldonado, C Raul Chavez, IF Luis Rivas, RHP Romulo Sanchez, LHP Dave Davidson, RHP John Van Benschoten, RHP Evan Meek, RHP Marino Salas, RHP Ron Belasario, RHP Jesse Chavez, RHP Nelson Cruz, RHP Edgar Gutierrez, RHP Juan Mateo, LHP Juan Perez, RHP Ron Uviedo, and RHP Malvin Vasquez.

Sorry, dudes, not in the mood to run down the Mexican, Venuzalean, and Dominican stats quite yet. Whoops, don't have to - they're here: Pirate Winter League Stats, found by Matt Bandi of Pittsburgh Lumber Company.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Humble Helmet

Hey, it only seems like common sense that when you're 60' from someone firing a 90 MPH hardball at you, a helmet is a pretty cool thing to have covering your noodle. But like most athletes, baseball players would rather risk injury than lose even a split second's edge in competition.

History is a little misty about the first player that decided to protect his money maker and put more than a piece of cloth between his noggin and the ball.

Inventor Frank Mogridge made the first crude attempt at protective gear in 1905. He came up with something that looked like an inflatable boxing glove that wrapped around the hitter’s head. The A.J. Reach Company of Philadelphia sold it for $5. Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan experimented with it, and did him one better.

He developed a leather batting helmet in 1908 after he was severely injured by a beaning. He's considered the papa of batting helmets, although the other players snickered at the very thought of wearing one. Bresnahan, a catcher for the New York Giants, is also credited with inventing and using shinguards. Smart guy, hey?

Despite the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman by Carl Mays in 1920, batting helmets were not made mandatory in Major League Baseball until decades down the road.

According to The Way Baseball Works by Dan Gutman, Willie Wells of the 1942 Newark Eagles of the Negro National League was the first player to wear a helmet during a regular season game. It looked much like a blue collar hardhat.

But others say that the first time players wore protective headgear came during a spring training game on March 7, 1941, and continued on through the years. Pee Wee Reese and Ducky Medwick of the Dodgers wore a plastic insert after being beaned in 1940 and missing weeks of playing time.

The headpiece was designed by Johns Hopkins brain surgeon Walter Dandy, at the request of GM Larry McPhail. Those helmets were based on jockeys' hats, and were just a normal baseball cap with curved hard plastic shells slipped into a zippered compartment.

Regardless who started the idea, the first true helmet was developed by Charlie Muse at the behest of Pirate GM Branch Rickey. Muse was an executive with the club, and Rickey asked him to design and create a helmet that would protect the players' heads.

Muse was appointed president of Rickey’s American Cap Company, and came up with the first modern-day helmet, based on a miner's hardhat. Of, course, Rickey's company produced and sold them. Just a bit of serendipity, we're sure.

In 1952, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first major league team to permanently adopt batting helmets. And Rickey was serious about it. The Pirates were ordered to wear the helmets both at bat and in the field, though thankfully that idea only lasted a couple of seasons before the fielders could leave them in the dugout.

At first, the Bucs weren't too crazy about them, and the fans got a hoot out of them too, bouncing marbles off the players' plastic headgear. But one play that year turned many players' attitudes around.

A helmeted Paul Pettit, pinch-running for the Pirates against the Cubs, was speeding toward second base to break up a DP when the shortstop's bullet relay hit him squarely in the head. "All it did was dent the helmet, and he stayed in the game," recalled Joe Garagiola, talking to SI. "Made believers out of everybody."

They became mandatory in MLB in 1971. However, they had been in use for several years before the rule. In the 1950s and 1960s, many players batted without outer helmets, but used the Dodger-style plastic inserts inside their baseball caps.

After 1971, players who were grandfathered could still choose whether or not they wanted to use a helmet. Some players, like Norm Cash and Bob Montgomery, hit without a helmet throughout their playing careers. Montgomery was the last of the helmetless dinosaurs, retiring in 1979.

Although helmets with earflaps were common in amateur sports, they were slow to gain popularity at the professional level.

Earl Battey of the Minnesota Twins developed the first helmet with an ear flap. Cub third baseman Ron Santo gets the credit for donning the first earflap helmet at the major league level, after having his left cheekbone fractured by a pitch in 1966.

BoSox Tony Conigliaro had his career cut short in August of 1967, when Jack Hamilton beaned him with an inside heater (Tony C was noted for crowding the dish, and Hamilton was a wild child that walked almost as many batters - 348 in 611-2/3 innings - as he struck out in his career; it was an accident waiting to happen.)

The pitch hit him flush on the cheek just below the left eye. If his batting helmet had an earflap, he might have been spared from serious injury. Still, the macho attitude continued unabated.

The idea of earflaps was accepted by the players reluctantly. Some batters felt that catching a glimpse of the earflap out of the corner of an eye was distracting. But in 1983, it was made mandatory for new players to use a helmet with at least one ear flap.

Grandfathered players could elect to wear a helmet without ear flaps. Tim Raines was the last player to wear an old-timey helmet until he retired in the 2002 season. His flapless Florida Marlins helmet is currently on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame with other relics of baseball's Stone Ages.

Gary Gaetti, who retired in 2000, and Ozzie Smith, who retired in 1996, also wore helmets without flaps to the end. Julio Franco was the last player eligible to wear a helmet without flaps, although he's worn a helmet with one throughout his career - and it's been a pretty long and healthy one.

MLB bat and ball boys/girls are required to wear a helmet while on the field of play. Some catchers also continue to use the no-flap helmet, wearing it backwards along with their mask, but it looks like the hockey-style mask will eventually render the old school backstopping gear obsolete.

After the 2007 death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh, the old-timers coaching the bases were added to the list of protected species.

The Oakland A's Rene Lachemann decided to wear a helmet out to his third base coaching position for the remainder of the 2007 season after Coolbaugh's death. This year, MLB made it mandatory for coaches to wear helmets while in the box.

Some, like the Dodger's Larry Bowa, kicked and screamed about it, but if it's good enough for the players, the league felt it was good enough for them, too.

Hey, baseball players may be hard-headed, but...

EDIT - since we've posted this, Rawlings has introduced its S-100 helmet, a somewhat bulkier headpiece that's supposed to absorb pitches up to 100 MPH. MLB teams were given a half dozen of the new helmets in late 2009, and their use will become mandatory in the minor leagues beginning in 2010.

Friday, October 17, 2008

October 17, 1979 - Game Seven

1979 Pirate baseball was all about "Fam-A-Lee," gold stars, day-glo double-knit uniforms, Fidel Castro caps, and Pops.

Willie Stargell awarded a gold star to any Bucco that did something above and beyond the call of duty, much like the nuns that taught the old blogster at St. Wendelin's did when GW spelled something right or parsed a sentence to their satisfaction. The only difference was Pops stuck it on their hat, not their forehead.

It was hokey, but it worked. The players fought and hustled for their stars, and Pittsburgh wrested the NL East Championship from Montreal on the final day of the season. In 1978, they had roared from 15-1/2 games back to lose the crown on the last day of the season, so this title was especially sweet.

Stargell earned his own stars as the 38 year-old veteran slugged thirty-two home runs and almost single-handedly swept the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS with a .455 average, two homers, and six RBI. It set up a rematch of the 1971 World Series. Pittsburgh and Baltimore would again battle it out for baseball's ultimate bragging rights.

The Orioles sprinted out of the gate at home in Game 1, scoring five times in the first inning off Bruce Kison, keyed by a two run blast from Doug DeCinces. Mike Flanagan made the runs stand up as the Pirates tried to nickel and dime their way back into the game.

Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner and Stargell each collected two RBIs and Dave "The Cobra" Parker added four hits. Pops made it close with an eighth inning homer, but the Birds held on for a 5-4 victory.

The Roadrunner, Manny Sanguillen, nearing the end of his baseball days (he was a season away from hangin' his spikes up for good), was the hero of Game 2, delivering a clutch two-out, ninth-inning single off Don Stanhouse that scored Ed Ott, breaking a 2-2 deadlock and enabling Pittsburgh to even the Series with a 3-2 win.

Captain Hook, Bert Blyleven, started and pitched 6 strong innings, Don Robinson tossed the seventh and eighth for the win, and Teke struck out two in a perfect ninth for the save.

The Series went to TRS, but home field advantage didn't mean much to the Candy Man, big lefty John Candelaria, even with the Bucco wives and sweeties dancing on the dugout to Sister Sledge's jam.

Kiko Garcia embarrassed him and the Pirates staff in front of the home crowd. The shortstop ripped two singles, a double and a triple with four RBI and Benny Ayala hammered a two run shot into the cheap seats as Baltimore romped, 8-4.

In game four, the Bucs clubbed a homer and five doubles and had 4-0 and 6-3 leads, but let them both slip away. John Lowenstein and Terry Crowley both mashed two run doubles during a six-run eighth for a crushing 9-6 comeback win.

Jim Bibby and Grant Jackson combined for seven stellar innings, but Robinson and Kent Tekulve had a nightmare eighth to give up the ghost and put the Bucs nine innings away from the outhouse.

Down 3-1 in the Series, the Pirates not only had to deal with Mike Flanagan, but also the tragic death of manager Chuck Tanner's mother prior to the game.

Just in time, Bill Madlock and Tim Foli donned their Superman capes and carried the squad on their backs. Mad Dog went 4-4 and Foli drove in three runs to deliver a do-or-die 7-1 victory. Blyleven worked four scoreless innings of relief to close the deal and earn the W.

Jim Rooker, who had won only four games during the regular season but pitched well in the opener of the Series, got Tanner's nod for the start and performed brilliantly. He gave up just three hits and a run in five innings, and the Pirates stayed alive, 7-1.

The Series shifted back to Memorial Stadium and a snowstorm. The Candy Man, rocked in his last outing against the O's, combined with Teke to hold the Orioles to seven hits for a 4-0 shutout. The Bucs scored a pair in the seventh to break up the goose eggs, and iced it with two more runs in the eighth.

Pittsburgh's Jim Bibby and Baltimore's Scott McGregor went head-to-head in a winner-take-all battle royale to decide the last world champion of the 1970's.

Rich Dauer drew first blood when he homered in the third. The score remained 1-0 until the sixth. After striking out Parker, McGregor surrendered a single to Bill Robinson and Stargell followed with a tape-measure drive over the right field fence.

After going through five Oriole pitchers for two more runs in the ninth, the Pirates claimed a hard-fought 4-1 victory and the 1979 World Series title. Pittsburgh became the fourth team in history to come back from a three-games-to-one hole to take the crown, and ruined Baltimore's premature plans for a downtown victory parade, hehe.

Grant Jackson got the win, and Teke notched his third save. The "Fam-a-lee" pitching staff had held the Orioles to a pair of runs over the final twenty-eight innings of the Series. Phil Garner had 12 hits, Omar Moreno had 11 knocks, and the Cobra and Foli had 10 hits each to prime the attack.

But no one could top Pops. Captain Willie hit .400, with twelve hits, three home runs, seven extra-base hits, and seven RBI. He was the Major League Player of the Year, NL MVP, NLCS MVP, and of course, the World Series MVP. Nice season, hey?

A few months later, the equally dominant Pittsburgh Steelers went on to win the Superbowl. Stargell and QB Terry Bradshaw were selected as the first dual Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated magazine. Who could argue?

In 1979, Pittsburgh was truly the City of Champions. Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 16, 1909 - Game Seven

The Pirates began their life playing in Recreation, Union and Exposition Parks, all in what was then Allegheny City. AC wasn't annexed by Pittsburgh until December, 1907, so it can be said that they weren't really the Pittsburgh Pirates until the 1908 season.

The Bucs and owner Barney Dreyfuss opened Forbes Field in 1909, and what a beginning it was for the team and its new hometown.

Along with player/manager Fred Clarke, Sam Leever, Tommy Leach, and Deacon Phillippe, Honus Wagner was one of just five players who remained from the roster of the 1902 National League champions that Dreyfuss had cobbled together from his loaded Louisville nine.

Wagner was the only .300 hitter for the Pirates (there were only four in the NL) but the Bucs lineup didn't have any holes. Pittsburgh had the best attack in the league, leading in runs, doubles, triples, batting average and slugging average. No regular hit below .261, and seven of the eight had 14 stolen sacks or better.

The Pirates' pitching staff was equally well-balanced. Their team ERA of 2.07 was second only to Chicago's brilliant 1.75 ERA. All in all, the team had enough parts to win 110 games and take the NL title by 6-1/2 games over the Cubs. It was time to stare down the AL champ, the Detroit Tigers, for all the marbles.

The 1909 World Series storyline was the head-to-head matchup of two of baseball's storied players, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. It took seven games, but when the smoke cleared, Pittsburgh had become World Champions for the first time in their history. But the real star of the show wasn't the Flying Dutchman or the Georgia Peach.

It was 27-year old rookie LHP Babe Adams, who notched three victories, including the decisive seventh game shutout. The Babe won games one, five and seven, going the distance all three times. He surrendered 5 runs, and gave up 18 hits (each game was a six-hitter) against the Tigers with an ERA of 1.33.

It was the same ol' from Adams, who had been 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA during the regular season.

He took the first game on October 8 at Forbes Field 4-1, backed by Fred Clarke's homer and three Detroit errors that led to the other scores. It would see-saw back and forth from there. Howie Camitz was rocked in the next game, 7-2, as Bill Donovan quieted the Buc bats, holding Pittsburgh to five hits.

Then it was off to Motown and Bennett Park. The Pirates held serve, winning 8-6. They scored 5 times in the first, and Nick Maddox survived to earn the W, weathering a storm of booted balls that led to five unearned Detroit runs.

Pittsburgh put together their big inning with four singles, a walk, three errors, a stolen base and a wild pitch. Talk about manufacturing some runs! The Tigers roared back the next afternoon, 5-0, as George Mullin tossed a five hit goose egg versus the Bucs.

They hopped the train back to Pittsburgh, and though the Babe was touched for a pair of homers, he and the Bucs prevailed 8-4. The big blast was Clarke's three-run shot in the seventh to put the game away. Then it was back to the Motor City to close out the set.

In the most exciting game of the Series, the Tigers stayed alive with a 5-4 win. Pittsburgh was down by a pair in the ninth, and loaded the sacks with no one out. A bouncer brought in one run, but pinch hitter Ed Abbaticchio swung into a strike out, throw out DP to end the game when Chief Wilson was gunned down at third.

But there wasn't much fight left in the Michigan nine. Adams tossed zeroes, and the Pirates scored eight times, thanks to four extra-base knocks and ten Tiger free passes. For the first time ever, the baseball nation looked up to the Pittsburgh Pirates, champions of the world.

The Pirates were led by Adams and the plate heroics of Tommy Leach, who hit .360 with 4 2Bs, Honus Wagner, who batted .333 with 6 RBI, and slugger Fred Clarke, who only hit .211 but led both teams in RBI with 7 and a pair of homers. Ty Cobb? He was held to a .231 average. Donie Bush (.318) and Jim Delahanty (.346) had the hot sticks for Detroit.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

PNC Gets A Facelift

When the Pirates begin their 2009 home season, a brand spanking new playing surface will be underfoot when the players take the field, according to the latest Buc news flash.

The project consists of completely replacing all the grass, dirt, and track, even though the surface was redone just three years ago, before the 2006 All-Star Game. Could it be that they think Jimmy Hoffa is pushin' up the outfield blades?

The new grass will be made up of a mix of four different kinds of Kentucky Bluegrass. It was chosen because it's supposedly ideal for northern climates. Now Dirt Dog Doug can be covered with blue grass stains instead of green.

The turf was hand-picked by Pirates director of field operations Manny Lopez and field maintenance supervisor Derek Hurlburt from a sod farm in New Jersey after visiting several grass gardens in the Northeast and Midwest. We hope they scout players just as thoroughly as they checked out the new greenery.

The infield will be replaced by a darker dirt called Dura Edge All-Star Infield Mix. The mix is a blend of several different kinds of dirt. GW never knew that you could tell one kind of dirt from another, but we'll take their word for it.

"The new infield mix is coming to us from a company in Slippery Rock called Natural Sand Company," said Lopez. "This mixture has been created exclusively for PNC Park, so it will be unlike any other infield surface in Major League Baseball." So we'll have Pittsburgh dirt. It sounds like a new blog.

Finally, the warning and foul line track will be replaced with crushed lava rock. Seems kinda ouchy to us.

According to Frank Coonelly, the new design of the infield will include unique baselines, with first base, third base, and home plate cutouts, to spiff up the diamond. Maybe the batter's box will be shaped like Bob Nutting's profile - or checkbook.

Keeping with their "Let's Go Bucs, Let's Go Green" campaign, the Pirates are working hand-in-hand with the City's Public Works Department so that the old field surface doesn't go to waste.

The city will recycle the PNC dirt and sod by using it at different ballyards and parks which are in need of field maintenance, and that should be just about all of them. Hey, at least the local little leagues will get something out of it.

Our nagging question is why now? Most fields hold up fine for 5 or 6 years. The Buc suits say it's so they can have the coolest park in baseball, but GW would rather see the money spent on a new infielder instead of a new infield.

Oh well, we'll take what we can get. After all, maybe the Pirates decided to rebuild literally from the ground-up.

>BTW, the Game 7 Gang's blowout Monday was a rousing success, drawing some 500 people, including Bob Friend, Dick Groat, Elroy Face, Nellie King and Frank Thomas. Buc prez Frank Coonelly was there, too. The Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neill talked to some of the crowd in his piece Once Upon A Time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Old Perfessor

Speakin' of did NYC icon Casey Stengel ever make it to Pittsburgh-proud GW's board? Easy - the baseball legend was a Buc early in his career, playing here in 1918-19. And no, we weren't around to see the Old Perfessor patrolling the garden in Forbes Field!

He hit town along with infielder George Cutshaw in a 1918 trade for infielder Chuck Ward and pitchers Burleigh Grimes & Al Mamaux, who went to the Brooklyn Robins.

The lefty was a platoon OF'er in Pittsburgh, hitting .246 and .293 in his two years here (he was a .284 lifetime hitter in 14 seasons). They weren't great squads, finishing fourth both years, playing slightly better than .500 baseball.

But the legend of Stengel the showman was born while he was wearing the Bucco colors.

In 1918, Stengel was being taunted mercilessly in the outfield by the rabid Brooklyn fans at Ebbett's Field, where he played for five seasons before being traded to Pittsburgh. It was his first game back in the Borough since the deal, and the crowd really let him have it.

Stengel got hold of a sparrow on the way back to the dugout and stuffed the poor bird under his cap. Due up, he strolled to the plate, greeted by a chorus of boos and catcalls. He turned to the crowd, took a bow, tipped his hat, and out flew his feathered captive. The jeers turned into laughter and cheers, and a star was born.

But not in the Steel City. The management was not amused nearly as much as the fans were by his antics, and they shipped him to Philadelphia in August of 1919 for Possum Whitted.

Of course, Stengel became better known for managing than for playing, and was closely associated with the Big Apple.

He's the only person to have worn the uniform of all four MLB teams that played in New York City in the 20th century; the New York Giants (as a player), the Brooklyn Robins/Dodgers (as both a player and a manager), the New York Yankees (as a manager), and the New York Mets (also as a manager). As Stengel would say, "You can look it up."

Stengelese became a language even more renowned than Yogi Berra-ism. Here's a couple quips that John Russell may want to adopt:

> Most ball games are lost, not won.

> You have to have a catcher because if you don't you're likely to have a lot of passed balls.

> You gotta lose 'em some of the time. When you do, lose 'em right.

> I don't like them fellas who drive in two runs and let in three.

> Son, we'd like to keep you around this season but we're going to try and win a pennant.

> We are a much improved ball club, now we lose in extra innings!

> Can't anybody here play this game?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October 13, 1960 - Game Seven

It was an momentous end to a magical season. In 1960, the little Bucs that could won the National League pennant by a comfortable seven games over the Milwaukee Braves of Hammerin' Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Matthews fame.

They won 95 games and overcame a September broken wrist by captain Dick Groat, who was superbly replaced by Ducky Schofield. Groat would lead the league in batting (.325) and be awarded the 1960 NL MVP.

The Pirates had eight NL All-Stars, paced by pitchers Vernon Law, Bob Friend, and ElRoy Face, and players like Roberto Clemente, Bob Skinner, Bill Mazeroski, Smokey Burgess and Groat.

Bill Virdon didn't get an all-star nod, but played the spacious meadow that was Forbes Field's center field like a maestro. Dick Stuart and Don Hoak filled the corners for the starting eight. Harvey Haddix provided a third dependable arm, and the whole shebang was orchestrated by manager Danny Murtaugh.

But a snowball in...well, they weren't given much of a shot against the mighty 1960 Yankees of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Casey Stengel. During the 1950's, the Yankees won six World Series ('50, 51, '52, '53, '56, '58) and eight American League pennants.

The Bucs were coming off a decade where they were better known as the Rickey-Dinks, baseball's laughable losers. They had dropped 90 games or more seven times in those years, and 100 or more three times. But there's a reason why they play the games.

The Bucs started with a split of the first two matches at Forbes Field, winning the opener 6-4 and getting pummeled in the next game, 16-3. The Bronx Bombers pushed their advantage when they got home, shooting the Pirates down 10-0. The rout was on, right?

Wrong. The Deacon, Vern Law, and the Kitten, Harvey Haddix, had the Yankees eating out of their hands, taking the next two at Yankee Stadium, 3-2 and 5-2. On to triumph in the Steel City, hey? Hold your horses, cowboy.

Whitey Ford shut down Pittsburgh, 12-0. Hey, nothing to get the juices flowing like a game seven, and this would end up as one of the greatest finales ever played in World Series history.

Vernon Law, making his third start of the Series, held the powerful Yankees' attack at bay through four innings, giving up just a two-out single to Hector Lopez and another to the Mick. The Pirates flew out of the box, lighting up Bob Turley.

They scored twice in the first, when a two-out walk to the Hound, Bob Skinner, was followed by a Rocky Nelson homer, a "no doubt about it" shot to right. Pittsburgh tacked on another pair in the second. Shake, Rattle and Roll Smokey Burgess singled, the Tiger, Don Hoak, walked, and the bases were juiced after Billy Maz, trying to sacrifice, ended up with a gift bunt single.

Law bounced back to the hill for a DP while Burgess crossed the plate, and the Quail, Bill Virdon, singled home Hoak. It was looking good for the Bucs, especially with their Yankee-killer, the Deacon, on the mound.

Johnny Blanchard touched him up for a fifth inning long ball, and then the wheels came off in the sixth. Bobby Richardson got it rolling with a single, and then Tony Kubek walked. Murtaugh called on the Baron of the Bullpen, Roy Face, to quench the fire.

Face already had saved the Pirates first three wins, but his legendary forkball, an early version of the splitter, failed him utterly that autumn afternoon. The Oklahoma Golden Boy singled in a run, and Yogi Berra took Face yard to right. The 36,683 fans collectively gasped as the early lead went by the boards. New York was up 5-4 now, but baby, don't fret, because you ain't seen nothin' yet.

ElRoy settled down in the seventh, and got Roger Maris and Mantle quickly to start the eighth. But disaster was just around the corner. A two-out walk to Yogi opened the floodgates. Moose Skowron and Blanchard singled, followed by a Clete Boyer double, and the Pirates were down 7-4 with six outs to go. OK, now you can worry.

But not for long. Gino "That's My Boy" Cimoli, batting for Face, led off with a single against Bobby Shantz (who would pitch for the Pirates in 1961). Then Virdon bounced a sure DP ball to slick-fielding SS Tony Kubek, but the baseball gods (and Forbes Field's infamous Sankrete infield) conspired to have the ball take a carom that caught Kubek in the throat, putting the Quail on first and Kubek in the trainer's room.

Groat singled in Cimoli, and Jim Coates got the call from the bullpen. Skinner laid down a successful bunt, and Nelson flew out to short right. But two-out lighting was about to strike. The Great One singled home a tally, and catcher Hal Smith, in the game because Burgess was lifted earlier for pinchrunner Joe Christopher, blasted a three-run shot over the left field wall. Still, don't head for the car quite yet.

The Bucs were up 9-7 with an inning to go, but the fat lady wasn't singing. She knew that the Series drama needed a fitting finishing act.

The Yankees were a great team, and great teams don't lay down. Murtaugh chose Bob Friend to come in to close the game. But Friend was greeted by singles off the bats of Richardson and pinch hitter Dale Long, an ex-Buc. There was no grin on the puss of the Smilin' Irishman Murtaugh when he went to the mound to put the hook in Friend and bring on the Kitten.

He coaxed Maris to foul out to the catcher, but Mantle singled in Richardson to make it first and third, one out, 9-8, Pittsburgh. Berra rolled one to first base, and as Nelson beat him to the bag, Gil McDougal, in to run for Long, scored to tie the game.

Ralph Terry, who got the final out of the eighth, came out to pitch. Bill Mazeroski was hitting lead-off, with Dick Stuart on deck to pinch hit for Haddix and Virdon in the hole. But the fat lady was ready now, and Maz was about to become an icon of Pittsburgh sports lore.

With a count of one ball and no strikes, the Pirates second baseman mashed Terry's pitch over the left field scoreboard's Longine clock as a dumfounded Berra turned and watched it soar towards Schenley Park. It was the first game-ending walk off home run in Series history, and still the only one to win a game seven. It launched Billy Maz towards his eventual and well-deserved spot in Cooperstown.

You surely know the rest of the tale. The Yankees got the records and the Pirates got the rings. So raise your glass high to toast Maz and his boys of summer, and celebrate the greatest day in Pittsburgh Pirate history - October 13, 1960.

October 13, 1960 Redux

There's not much left of old Forbes Field but the memories.

Pitt's Posvar Hall currently occupies the former infield. Roberto Clemente Drive now bisects the site and runs about 10 feet under what used to be the playing surface of the outfield. Home plate remains in almost its exact original location, but it is now encased in glass on the first-floor walkway of Posvar Hall.

A small patch of red brick still stands, the old left field wall of Oakland's ballyard, right beside Mazeroski Field, a Little league diamond. The wall has "457" painted on it. That's how deep left center was. It was so unreachable that they parked the batting cage in its niche. There's an old flagpole there, too.

The late Saul Finkelstein showed up alone to listen to a cassette tape of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series at that spot in 1985 and started a tradition. Before long, people gathered to relive the game that's become woven into a Pittsburgh meme, spread more by memory and word of mouth than by the world wide web.

Now a couple hundred folk bring lawn chairs and coolers to celebrate the day Maz cut the mighty Yankees down, a David and Goliath tale that still resonates with the locals. Pay attention, Neal Huntington, if you want to find out what makes Pirate fans' hearts tick.

There will be all kind of people there - curious college kids, fans that were at the game, or watched on TV, or heard the radio broadcast. Believe it or not, almost everybody in Pittsburgh followed the team back in the day, and proudly. Fans that were born too late come to catch the day Pittsburgh become the center of the baseball universe. And, of course, there will be old Bucs galore.

Everyone's eyes still get a little misty when they listen to the recording of NBC broadcasters Chuck Thompson and Jack Quinlan calling every pitch of Game 7. They hang on every play, from the bad hop off of Tony Kubek's throat to Hal Smith's big blast. But especially, they wait for Maz's at bat in the ninth against Ralph Terry.

It never fails to get a rowdy explosion of cheers from the assembly, almost like they were experiencing the actual game. It's awesome.

GW was last there in 2006 (yah, sneaked outta work again. GW's lucky to have understanding bosses.) The mayor, Bobby O'Connor, who was a great baseball fan and all-around sportsman, had just been admitted to the hospital then, sadly never to return. In fact, he was a coach for one of the JCC baseball teams that played at Frick Field.

But his wife Judy and son Corey were there in his stead, along with state Senator Jimmy Ferlo and an assortment of other political suits. Steve Blass, Manny Sanguillen, Bob Friend, and Bobby Del Greco were there, with a couple of other Pirates GW missed; we think Grant Jackson showed up, too. It was baseball Vahalla.

But GW digresses (and not for the first or last time, either.) This year's shindig, in conjuction with the City's 250th anniversary, is gonna be a blowout.

Starting at 12:30 Monday, Pitt will serve free hot dogs and other munchies. At the flagpole by the wall, members of the Game 7 Gang and Forbes Field Wall Working Group will raise a new 12-by-6 Forbes Field pennant. Then they'll turn on the tape.

To while away the boring moments - and there weren't many in that game, believe me - there will be a tent set up in Schenley Plaza with Pirate and Homestead Gray pictures and memorabilia for you to graze through. Maybe you can look for the plaque on Clemente Drive that marks the spot where Maz's ball landed.

But don't forget why you're there. Make sure you're within earshot of the wall by 3:36 PM, the time when Maz hit the homer that Pittsburgh will never forget. Forbes Field may only be a memory, but sometimes that's enough. Nothing that you remember is ever truly gone.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Farm Fresh - Minor League Shortstops

With Jack Splat on the block, GW thought it would lead off its minor league roundup with a look at the farm's shortstop crop. The suits loaded up on young SS's in the 2008 draft, and that alone should tell you all you need to know about the system's depth at that position.

Luis Cruz - He's the fast riser among young Buc infielders. Cruz was a surprise call-up in September, and hit .224 in 22 games after a blazing start at the plate. He's a solid contact hitter, striking out just twice in 67 at-bats, but he only drew a trio of walks and has no power to speak of.

Oddly, his career has been reverse of his scouting reports. They all have him as a slick-fielding, no-hit guy. Cruz's rep at Altoona was that he had hands of iron, but his glovework looked better in Pittsburgh as he saw more playing time. The Pirates like his bat, although he's been a middle-of-the-road hitter in the minors with one good stretch at Indy.

It looks like he's finally living up to his advance billing.

The 24-year old Mexican native was signed as an undrafted free agent by the BoSox in 2000, bounced around the San Diego system for awhile, and inked a deal with Pittsburgh in 2007 as a free agent.

Can he take Luis Rivas' spot on the Buc pine? Probably, and he has plenty of second base experience under his belt. Can he give the Bucs an everyday presence at SS? Not yet, and probably not ever.

Brian Bixler - The BB era looks about done in Pittsburgh. Oh, the suits say the right things about him, but his deer-in-the-headlights look at the plate and inconsistent play in the field have probably dropped him from a potential utility man role to a depth chart player stationed at Indy for emergency duty.

The pride of Sandusky, Ohio, Bixler will turn 26 in October. He was a 2nd round draft pick in 2004 from Eastern Michigan, and hit .157 while committing 8 errors and several muffs in 39 games in the bigs.

He gives every impression of being another AAAA player, good enough to rock on at Indy but without having the stuff it takes to land a job in Pittsburgh.

Brian Friday - The good news and bad news about Friday is that he's a younger Bixler clone - speedy, good glove (in 2007, Baseball America picked him as the best defensive infielder in the system), and better at making contact. He needs a break-out year in 2009 to gain some separation before the pack of shortstops at the A level begin to chase him down.

Friday hit .287 at High Class A Lynchburg, although he lost a good chunk of the year to back problems, and looks like he'll be the man at Altoona in 2009.

He was drafted third in the 2007 draft out of Rice, and will be 23 in the spring. So Friday still has time to get it on, but the clock is ticking as the competition heats up.

Chase d'Arnaud - 21 year-old d'Arnaud spent the season at short-season State College, where he hit .286 and was one of the bright spots on a dismal team. He was a New York-Penn League All Star and was selected as the Spike's MVP.

Where he'll land next is still up in the air. d'Arnaud should be headed to West Virginia next season in low A, but with the glut of infielders the Bucs drafted in 2008, his final destination is yet to be determined.

He was this year's fourth-round pick out of Pepperdine, and considered a run-of-the-mill gloveman with a good stick, but little power. d'Arnaud does have a good eye, puts the ball in play, and showed the ability to steal a base at State College.

He's a candidate to make the switch to second base, which is even weaker in bodies than shortstop in the Pirate organization.

Jordy Mercer - Mercer had a cup of coffee at State College before being moved up Hickory, more to give him some space from the other SS's than on performance. He was lost at the dish in the higher level for awhile, but the light came on in the final weeks of the season.

Mercer finished hitting .250, and showed acceptable range with a cannon for an arm, which should be no surprise, as he was the closer in his college days. But he didn't show the power or plate discipline that the suits were looking for - he hit just 4 homers and only walked a dozen times - so where he'll start 2009 is a coin flip.

The 22 year-old was the third round pick in this year's draft from Oklahoma State, and a departure from the Littlefield infielders, being a strapping hitter without a lot of speed or a pedigree with the leather. In other words, he's a fairly stereotypical AL shortstop.

Jarek Cunningham - In 48 games for Bradenton in the GCL, Cunningham, 3B-SS, hit .336 with six home runs, 27 RBIs, and a .540 slugging percentage. He was named one of Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects in the Gulf Coast League.

The youngster was taken in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, out of Washington's Mt. Spokane HS, turning down a free ride to Arizona State to ink a deal with the Bucs. Cunningham will turn 19 at Christmas, and has the look of a steal for the Pirates.

He lasted so long in the draft because a knee injury cost him his senior year of ball. It's also the reason Cunningham played some 3B for Bradenton. He has the tools to be an everyday SS when 100%.

He'll advance to State College for sure, and depending how the other SS's fall, he could possibly skip a level and end up at West Virgina in Low A. But we think at his age and with the current lower level logjam at short, the Pirates will move him along one step at a time.

Benjamin Gonzalez - We bring up Benji only because he may be the best glove man in the Pirate system, and one of its fastest players. He spent 2008 at Bradenton, but hit only .207.

Gonzalez came from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, and had a scholarship to Oklahoma State before coming to terms with Pittsburgh as its seventh round pick this year. GW's take is that that the 18 year-old will spend another year in the GCL to try to straighten out his stick.

Andury Acevedo - He's another puppy in the system, signed out of Santo Domingo in 2007. He only turned 18 in August, so there's still some room to grow for Acevado. He's considered athletic, and at 6'4", he's a big, rangy guy with some speed. Acevedo struggled at Bradenton, hitting .216 and striking out 42 times in 153 at-bats while committing 20 errors between third and short.

We'll see what his upside is in a couple of more seasons; a kid that young in pro ball is worth keeping an eye on. If he fills out, Acevedo may end up on a corner.

The Bucs will have to make some choices to make regarding this crew of players, and where they end up sending them to develop should be telling.

If they all go where expected, the Buc system should feature Cruz as the Pirate's utility guy, Bixler at Indy, Friday at Altoona, Mercer at Lynchburg, d'Arnaud at West Virginia, Cunningham at State College, with Gonzalez & Acevedo at Bradenton. Where they move up or down that ladder will indicate what the scouts and suits think of their potential.

It's also certain that the oversupply will lead to some position changes, perhaps as soon as next year, and that could effect the minor league postings, as would any deal that nets a young infielder as part of the payoff.

And what to do about Jack Splat? Hey, if the team gets an offer they can't refuse, he's gone. But don't look for his replacement from anywhere within the Pirate organization, which is void at the top end, although with a promising pack of players stacking the A level.

Anyone for bringing back Cesar Izturis?