Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Little of This...

Hey, it's a slow day and everyone's in a rush to dance between the snow flakes and go greet the New Year. So here's a quick rundown of the week's news, as it was:

Pirates Ink A Slew of Farmhands:

The Pirates signed RHPs Sean Smith, Lincoln Holdzkom, and Eduardo Pena, along with LHP Edwin Walker, C/1B Zach Booker, and Altoona OF Jonel Pacheco to minor league deals. Smith is a starter; the other three hurlers work out of the pen.

Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has the lowdown on the new players. He also reports that Jeff Andrews was signed by Texas as pitching coach of their short-season A team this year. That's one heck of a demotion.

Bucs Finish Winter League Ball:

OF Jose Tabata (Mexico) - .286/1/14, 126 at-bats
IF Luis Cruz (Mexico) - .282/3/16, 174 at-bats
OF Miles Durham (Hawaii) - .273/3/28, 121 at-bats
C Robinzon Diaz (Dominican) - .202/0/4, 99 at-bats

No Buc pitcher worked over 21-1/3 innings, so the stats don't mean much for them. Out of 25 Pirate hands pitching during winter ball, only Jared Hughes started, and he got ripped (0-3/10.62)

Check MLB.com for everyone's final winter ball stats.

Bucs Lose Some Players (from Baseball America):

C Raul Chavez (Pittsburgh) to Toronto - .259/1/10, 35 years old
LHP Josh Shortslef (Altoona) to Philly - 5-2/3.47, 26 years old
2B Melvin Dorta (Altoona) to Baltimore - .287/7/43, 26 years old
LHP Eddy Nunez (State College/GCL - 2007; released by Pirates)
4-3/3.25, 24 years old

As previously posted, Chris Duffy went to the Brewers and Jose Castillo to the Nats. The signings were all minor league deals.

Snell In WBC:

Ian Snell, whose father was Puerto Rican, will represent the Island during the 2009 World Basball Classic, according to several sources.

The Great One:

Roberto Clemente died in a plane accident on December 31, 1972, while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. His body was never recovered. Arriba was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973, becoming the first Latin American to be selected and the only current Hall of Famer for whom the mandatory five year waiting period was waived since the period began in 1954.


The Skipper That Stirs The Drink...

While the Pirate nation waits with bated breath to find out if Rocco or Derrick join the team or if Dirt Dog makes a miraculous resurrection in Bucco colors, GW's mind got to wandering: who was the best at being maestro to a Pittsburgh ensemble when the talent was finally assembled?

Yah, we know that it's the players that make a team, but still, somebody has to fill out the lineup card. Here's our list of the top five skippers to ever run the Pirate orchestra since the days of Al Pratt, the first Allegheny manager from back in 1882:

5) Bill McKechnie (1922-1926, 409-293, .583) - McKechnie, a Wilkinsburg native who started and ended his MLB playing career with the Pirates, won 55% or more of his games in four of his five seasons at the helm, and his 1925 Bucs won it all.

They beat Washington and the Big Train, Walter Johnson, in seven games. With Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey, and Pie Traynor, he had an explosive club. Alas, his Pirate career came to a screeching halt during the ABC uprising (see Fred Clarke) and he moved on to St. Louis, the third of his five managerial stops.

McKechnie is the only skipper to win pennants with three different NL clubs - Pittsburgh (1925), St. Louis (1928), and Cincinnati (1939-40). He led his 1925 and 1940 clubs to World Championships and was twice named manager of the year.

He was an odd kinda manager for his era (this era, too!) A religious man, he didn't smoke, didn't drink, and didn't cuss. When he had a problem child who liked to party, McKechnie's Solomonic solution was to room with him. That usually calmed the situation. Not too surprisingly, his nickname was the Deacon.

McKechnie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He died at age 79 in Bradenton, Florida, where the Pirates' spring training home, McKechnie Field, is named after him.

4) Jim Leyland (1986-1996, 851-863, .496) - Before the Pirate suits gutted his lineup, the chain smoking skipper led the Bucs to three straight division titles (1990-92). But for all the players he had in the early 1990s, he couldn't get past the NLCS and suffered some of the most heart-breaking losses in Pittsburgh sports history.

In 1990, his club was outpitched by the Reds. In 1991, they lost the NLCS to Atlanta, losing a pair of 1-0 games and the series in seven after being up 3 games to 2, and 1992 - well, we'll just forget about that one.

Leyland hung around for a while, but the suits let all the stars - Barry Bonds, Bobby Bo, Doug Drabek, Andy Van Slyke - leave, and Jim eventually followed them.

In 1997, he was hired by Wayne Huizenga to manage the Florida Marlins and led them to the franchise's first world championship. In the offseason, Huizenga dismantled the team. Leyland lasted another season, and moved on to the Colorado Rockies head job in 1999.

It was one and out with the Rox, and he became a Pittsburgh-based scout for the Cardinals. You could spy him in the stands of PNC Park with Chuck Tanner. And what a commentary that was to the Pittsburgh fans.

In 2005, Leyland returned to the franchise where he spent the first 18 years of his pro baseball career, Detroit. In 2006, he guided the Tigers to a 95-67 record, their best season since 1987. They won the AL crown as a wild card, only to be dropped by St. Louis in the Series.

Leyland was recognized with the Manager of the Year award for the third time in his career, becoming the third person to win the award in both leagues. He also won The Sporting News Manager of the Year Award for the American League in 2006.

Times have been a little rougher in Motown for Jim of late, and he's working on the last year of his contract. He and his wife Katie live in Pittsburgh with their two kids.

3) Chuck Tanner (1977-1985, 711-685, .509) - Sunshine superman was the ideal guru for the "We Are Familee" Pirates of the late 70s and early 80s. In his 11 seasons, he only made the playoffs once - but whatta ride that was, as the 1979 Pirates rallied to take the Series' crown away from Baltimore.

You know the Pirates wanted him badly. They traded an over-the-hill Manny Sanguillen and threw in $100,000 to pry him loose from Charlie Finley and the Oakland A's, then only the second time a manager had been traded.

He took them to the promised land, but Pops and Dave Parker were on a downslide, and Bert Blyleven was traded. The results showed, as did Tanner's laissez faire attitude towards his players' personal lives, culminating in the low mark of Pittsburgh baseball, the drug trials of 1985.

His baby-sitting skills can be questioned, but he came up with an innovation that's still en vogue. Tanner came up with the "bridge" relievers, bringing in guys as early as the sixth inning to keep the lead, a new tactic at the time. In fact, in 1979 Grant Jackson pitched in 72 games, Enrique Romo in 84 and Kent Tekulve in a league-leading 94. They had the three highest appearance totals in the NL.

Pittsburgh and Tanner parted ways after the 1985 season, and he went to the Braves to manage three unforgettable years with an old, creaking roster.

In 2006, he was invited to be a coach in the All Star game in a classy move by NL manager Phil Garner, who played for the Pirates during Tanner's time, and Chuck threw out the first pitch. It was a great moment for both Tanner and the Pirate faithful.

He returned to the Pirates in 2008 as a senior advisor, and his rumpled golf hat is as much a part of PNC Park as the Pierogies. And Tanner has two more modest claims to fame - the Yankee Doodle was born in New Castle, where he still lives, on the Fourth of July, and hit a home run in his first MLB at bat.

2) Fred Clarke (1900-1915, 1422-969, .595) - Clarke won four NL titles and the 1909 World Series with a roster of great players brought to Pittsburgh by Barney Dreyfuss at the turn of the century. And he was one of them.

In 1900, Clarke joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as a player and manager, roles he would hold until his retirement in 1915. His team played in the first World Series ever held, losing 5 games to 3 in 1903 to the AL Boston Americans and Cy Young after their third consecutive NL title.

But he got his revenge in 1909, when his club whipped the Ty Cobb-led Detroit Tigers. Of course, having Honus Wagner and Babe Adams didn't hurt the cause, either.

He was also a cause celebrite when he instigated the ABC affair. As an assistant to Barney Dreyfuss in 1926, he was allowed to sit on the Pirates' bench but the players, egged on by a trio of vets, wanted him out of the dugout. The Pirates responded by releasing Babe Adams, Carson Bigbee and Max Carey. Still, he had enough and retired after the season.

Clarke was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945 as one of the first to be elected by the Old-Timers Committee with over 1,400 wins as a manager and a lifetime .312 batting average. After his baseball days, Clarke retired to his "Little Pirate Ranch" near Winfield, Kansas, where he died at age 87

1) Danny Murtaugh (1957-1964, 1967, 1970-1971, 1973-1976, 1115-950, .540) - The Smilin' Irishman was as synonymous with Pirate baseball as Rosey Rosewell and the Gunner. He took the helm four times, and twice won World Series as a heavy underdog, with a NL pennant and 4 NL East titles to his credit.

He was named the Pirates manager in the middle of the 1957 season, replacing the acerbic Bobby Bragan. The next year, he led Pittsburgh to a second place finish.

Two years later he piloted the Pirates to their first NL flag since 1927, and led them to a 4 games to 3 victory over the heavily favored New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, aided a bit by Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic 9th inning home run in Game 7. It was Pittsburgh's first title since 1944.

After managing the Bucs for the next four seasons, he stepped down in 1964 after a heart attack, but stayed with the club as an advisor.

In 1967 he replaced Harry "The Hat" Walker as the Pirates field leader in mid-season as a favor, but stepped down at season's end. In 1970, after spending two years in the front office, he accepted the managers job for a third time, having helped build the team from within and recognizing that it was, well, loaded. He managed the team to another first place finish, but lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS.

With a lineup that boasted of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Dock Ellis and Al Oliver, he captured the 1971 NL Pennant and then defeated the Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 3 in the World Series. After winning the crown he retired one more time, again on top of the baseball world.

But you can't keep a good man down. For a fourth time, he would come back to the Pirates at the tail end of the 1973 season to take the spot of his hand-picked replacement, Bill Virdon. He led the team to two more NL East titles in 1974 and 1975, but lost in the NLCS both years.

After the 1976 season he called it quits for the final time, suffering a stroke and dying only two months later in his Chester home. He was named the NL Manager of the Year in 1958, won the Sporting News' Manager of the Year honors twice (1960 and 1970), and in 1960, he was selected as the "Man of the Year" by Sport magazine.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jose Castillo - A Riches to Rags Story

Hey, we noticed that just before Christmas, Jose Castillo signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nats. We could only shake our heads to see such a promising ballplayer reduced to scuffling for work with the lowly DC nine.

The Pirates signed the Venezuelan shortstop in 1997 at the tender age of 17. After working his way through the system, he hit his stride in Lynchburg in 2002, hitting .300. The next season, he followed with a .287 average in Altoona and garnered an armful of accolades.

Castillo was named the Pirates' fourth-best prospect by Baseball America following the 2003 season, and the top wonder child in the Bucco system by USA Today Sports Weekly. He was the starting SS for the World Team in MLB's All-Star Futures Game and an All-Star in the AA Eastern League.

Jose impressed the Pirate suits enough that he by-passed AAA and went straight to the show in 2004. In the field, he was switched to second base, relegating Bobby Hill and Abe Nunoz to the pine, and brought above-average range and a rifle arm to his new spot.

At the plate, he was streaky and not terribly patient, striking out 92 times in 383 at-bats. But his power potential was there. The majority of his extra base hits and home runs were hit the opposite way, including a 445-foot blast at Florida's Pro Player Stadium (aka, Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Dolphins). This would become a flash point between Castillo and his hitting coaches throughout his career.

He finished with eight home runs, 39 RBI and a .256 batting average, despite missing two months on the DL. Because of his defense and offensive upside, the second base job was his to lose in 2005.

But Castillo tried to lose it. He was on the DL for most of April with a strained left oblique muscle. In late August, he tore the MCL in his left knee and missed the rest of the season.

In between injuries, though, Castillo showed progress both defensively and at the plate when he did play. In the field, the Pirates turned 193 DPs, second to the Card's 196, and he was in on 92 of the twin killings playing just 100 games.

More impressively, Castillo hit .268 with 11 homers and 53 RBI, drastically cutting down on his strikeouts, from 92 in 2004 to 59 in 2005. The Pirates thought the position was set for the foreseeable future.

After a slow April start in 2006, Castillo's bat woke up, culminating in his "Player of the Week" award for the last week in May, during which he lead the NL in RBI, total bases, slugging percentage, and home runs.

The glovework became steadier, too. Sean Casey, just freshly signed from the Reds, told the Post Gazette that "You don't get any better than Castillo and Wilson up the middle. When we played these guys, they'd take at least a hit away from you a series."

But Castillo struggled down the stretch of the 2006 season. He hit seven dingers in a two week span in May, but only six more during the remainder of the year. Many people think that power spurt was the beginning of the end for Castillo. He turned from a guy that used the whole field to someone looking to yank every pitch. It showed.

Castillo suffered through a 0-23 hitting slump in September (he hit .087 for the month), and for the first time, he saw considerable bench time. By the end of the season, his batting average had slipped to .253. His glove suffered too, and he committed a team high 18 errors.

He finished the 2006 season with 14 home runs, 65 RBI, 131 hits, and 25 doubles.

Rumors flew that he might be traded in the off-season, but the Pirates elected to keep Castillo. He was locked in a battle with Jose Bautista for a starting job. Castillo entered camp a few pounds lighter and had a good spring.

But the Pirates decided to start Jose Bautista at third base and Freddy Sanchez at second. Castillo lost the battle, and would start the season on the pine.

Through May and June, Castillo was basically wasting away on the bench. Jim Tracy praised his attitude, but apparently was less impressed with his ability. Jose, not too surprisingly, wasn't happy with his role even if he did keep his mouth zippered, and his agent asked the Pirates to trade him

The street talk says they tried, but couldn't find any takers. And if Dave Littlefield can't give you away, well, that about says it all.

Even playing for a team that just running out the string in 2007, he only got into about half of the games, and many appearances were as a pinch hitter. He was in Tracy's doghouse, and never gave the skipper a reason to let him loose. Castillo finished with a .244 batting average, 24 RBI, and no home runs, and was released by the club on December 6.

On December 24th, Castillo signed with the Florida Marlins, but was placed on waivers in the spring. He was then claimed by the San Francisco Giants on March 22nd, 2008, who took on his $850,000 salary. Castillo opened up the 2008 season as the team's starting third baseman. After a hot start, his twig cooled, and he ended up hitting .244 for the G-Men and took his now-familiar seat on the bench.

Castillo was designated for assignment on August 13th. He was claimed by the Houston Astros on August 20th, and finished the year as a utility man for the 'Stros. Castillo became a free agent when Houston outrighted him in October, and signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals on December 23rd. How the mighty have fallen.

What proved to be Jose Castillo's feet of clay that led to his downfall? Well, for one thing, he entirely skipped AAA ball, where his impatience at the plate would have been exposed and worked on by the staff. And the suits can take the blame for that poor decision.

Let's take a look at how the two different management teams dealt with Castillo and current second-baseman-in-training, Shelby Ford.

Jose hit .283 in the bushes, and was 22 when he was at Altoona, batting .287. Ford has a minor league average of .280, and hit .282 for the Curve when he was 23. Castillo had an OBP of .329, slugging percentage of .422 and OPS of .751; Shelby's numbers are .348, .444, and .792. They both have kinda high strikeout rates of 18%.

In the field, Ford physically isn't as talented as Castillo, but statistically is his match and better. Ford's fielding percentage is .977 and range factor 4.87; Castillo's are .957 and 4.79 (although in fairness, Castillo spent his time in the minors at SS, not 2B). One noticeable difference is in double plays; Castillo was much better at turning them.

So we have two players that are pretty similar in age and minor league production. The 2004 Bucs rushed Castillo to the show; the 2009 version is debating whether to start Ford at Altoona again or Indy.

The point isn't to compare the two second basemen, but to show that patience is a virtue that wasn't exercised in Castillo's case and probably became a roadblock to his development. Hopefully it won't be in Ford's situation. The philsophy now seems to be move them quickly in the minors, but not to bring them up until the player is a finished product.

Two other issues factor into Jose's fall from grace. One is his maddening efforts to pull the ball. It completely destroyed his approach at the plate, driving his hitting instructors gray and making a shambles of his average, contact, and power numbers. Whether that May 2006 freak outburst was at fault we'll never know; maybe he just needed some polish that was never applied at the lower levels.

Finally, like Ronny Paulino, his physical shape got worse instead of better in the majors. He carried too much weight and it cost him range in the field, sometimes making him look lethargic on the diamond. It not only took away from his game, but the fans began to think of him as unmotivated, making a bad situation worse.

That can be partially put on Castillo. He's a pro athlete, and should be in shape without big brother looking over his shoulder. But it's interesting that the new bosses installed a PT program in the off season as priority number one. They're just taking care of a small but crucial detail that was overlooked by the Littlefield gang.

Castillo is 27, and a career that started off so brightly has dimmed in a heartbeat. Whether he can become an old dog that can learn new tricks is the question. There comes a point when physical ability has to be meshed with a well thought-out mental plan. Jose Castillo may have passed that point.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Danny O'Connell Deal

Hey, you think that dumping talent for a boatload of prospects and a little loose cash is a recent Bucco phenomena? Heck, the Pirates have been masters of the art for decades. In fact, they pulled the trigger on just such a deal 54 years ago to this day, on December 28th, 1954. Here's an excerpt from the 1954 Street and Smith Baseball Yearbook:

There's nothing but trouble ahead for the Pirates in '54. Last year, they peddled the long-time Forbes Field favorite, Ralph Kiner. Pressed for cash after a $325,000 deficit in 1953, the Pirates sent another star, Danny O'Connell, to the Milwaukee Braves for six players and financial balm estimated as high as $100,000. Though owned by wealthy people, including John Galbreath and Bing Crosby, the Pirates aren't throwing money around.

For O'Connell, Branch Rickey obtained three veterans and three rookies. The established players were Pitcher Max Surkont, Outfielder Sid Gordon, ticketed for third base, and Sam Jethroe, an outfielder Rickey originally sold to the Braves. The freshmen pitchers are Larry Lasalle, a southpaw who won 19 and lost 5 for Jacksonville; Fred Waters, 10-10 lefty at Lincoln, Neb.; and Curtis Raydon, also from Jacksonville. Rickey called it a long range deal. Fred Haney, his manager, wasn't quoted.

Another estimated $80,000 came rolling in when the tailenders dispatched 37-year-old Pitcher Murry Dickson to the Phillies, who also gave up an infielder and a pitcher in the transaction.

Sound vaguely familiar? While the deal ended up being no great shakes for either side, it sure gives some insight to the Pirate dilemma over the years, a budget that emphasized quantity over quality. Everything old is new again.

O'Connell was 26 when he was traded after hitting .292 and .294 in his first two season for the Bucs. He was speedy and flashy in the field, carving out a 10 year career in the bigs with a lifetime batting average of .260. O'Connell played until 1962, when he died in a car accident.

The Bucs thought that O'Connell was replaceable because they had Curt Roberts and Johnny O'Brien waiting in the wings. Neither would ever amount to much, though they did sign his eventual heir in 1954, a high school kid from West Virginia - Billy Mazeroski. Better to be lucky than good sometimes, hey?

The Pittsburgh return? Joe Gordon had a good year, hitting .306 in 1954, but faded badly in '55 and was out of baseball by 1956. Max Surkont pitched two season for the Pirates, going 16-32 with ERAs of 4.41 and 5.57. He outlasted Gordon by a year, retiring in 1957. Sam Jethroe saw the handwriting on the wall. After taking one at bat for his new squad, he hung 'em up for good in 1954. So much for vets filling the holes.

The prospects? Fred Waters was the first to hit the bigs. He pitched in 1955 and '56, and did OK, compiling a 2-2 record and ERAs of 3.62 and 2.82. But those would be his only years in MLB. Curt Raydon made to Forbes Field in 1958, and went 8-4 with a 3.62 ERA in his only season in the show. That beat Larry Lasalle's track record - he never made it out of the bushes.

What happened to Waters and Raydon? Hard to tell. They both pitched well in their brief stints, although Waters was a true wild child, walking 32 and only striking out 14 in 56 innings of work, so its likely his lack of command cost him a MLB slot.

Raydon was 24 when he dropped off the face of the earth, but as late as 1960 he was still considered a hot prospect. It's speculated he suffered some kind of injury, but until we hit the newspaper morgue - and don't hold your breath waiting on that - it is just that, speculation. At any rate, he left baseball to become a cop.

The Brave's thought they had their second baseman of the future. The Pirates got a couple of bucks and some young arms that didn't pan out. Such is the risk of blowing up a team by dumping the vets, a gamble taken on both sides of the divide.

The kicker? GM Branch Rickey, as related in Andrew O'Toole's book Branch Rickey In Pittsburgh, said he could have had Henry Aaron straight up for O'Connell.

Roberto Clemente and Hammerin' Hank in the same outfield, with Billy Virdon between them? We can only dream.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rocco Baldelli - A Pittsburgh Paisano?

It's time for GW to break out his Calabrese colors and post a piece about the Pirates' rumor de jour, Rocco Baldelli.

Ever since Tuesday, when Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette wrote that the free agent outfielder was on the Pirate radar, Baldelli has dominated the local talk boards.

Scouts have compared Baldelli to Joe DiMaggio ever since his days as a prep star. He even wore the same #5 as the Yankee Clipper in high school. Long time Dodger scout Al LaMacchia went so far as to call him "Joe's twin."

Baldelli was a baseball legend in his native New England - he was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island - and was first round pick of Tampa Bay in the 2000 amateur draft (sixth overall) fresh out of high school.

He got off to a slow start in the minors, playing more like Vince DiMaggio than Joltin' Joe, but in 2002, he marched from High A all the way to AAA. In 2003, he won a starting job with the Rays.

Baldelli finished the 2003 season hitting .289 with 11 home runs, 78 RBI, 89 runs scored and 27 stolen bases. Nice rookie year, hey?

In 2004, it was the same old thing, as he batted .280 with 16 home runs, 74 RBI, 79 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. Baldelli led all MLB center fielders in range factor. He had all five tools to some degree, and was showing off every one of them.

But 2005 was his year from hell. Baldelli started on the DL with a torn ACL in his knee, suffered while playing baseball with his brother. The team hoped he would be back by the All-Star break, but while rehabbing, he injured his elbow and needed TJ surgery. He missed the whole season, and more.

Baldelli returned to the Rays lineup against the Los Angeles Angels on June 7, 2006. He was looking good, too, as he hit .302 with 16 home runs, 57 runs batted in, 57 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in only 364 at bats. The kid was back, or so it seemed.

You can't blame Baldelli for thinking the baseball gods must be crazy, and 2007 was his proof. In spring training, he pulled his hamstring. The injury nagged him, and after appearing in 35 games, he was placed on the DL again. He aggravated the injury during minor league rehab and was lost for the rest of the season.

Baldini couldn't figure out why his body was giving out on him and why his usual regimen was wearing him down. So in the offseason, he was tested to get to the root of his problems. Doctors diagnosed him with mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that would be with him for the rest of his life. There is no cure.

He tried to be a trouper, but in a teary press conference in March of 2008, he announced he was going back on the DL. No quitter, Baldelli was gulping supplements and vitamins by the bottleload in an effort to keep up his strength while battling back in the bushes, and was rewarded with a late season call up.

On August 10th, 2008, he was activated and started in right field for the Rays in a game against the Mariners. Baldelli had an RBI single as well as a highlight reel diving catch before coming out of the game after the 5th inning.

Baldelli ended up playing 28 games for the Rays in 2008, mostly as a DH and pinch hitter, starting just seven games in the field. He hit .263 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI, good enough to earn a spot on the Rays' postseason roster.

In Game 3 of the 2008 ALCS, Baldelli hit a clutch three-run homer off Boston's Paul Byrd in the eighth inning to notch a key victory. He ended up hitting .200 in the post season with 2 homers and 6 RBI. But he still couldn't play back-to-back games, and the Rays let his option expire, making him a free agent.

But hey, the gods may be crazy sometimes, but they're not always vindictive. After the season ended, Baldelli went to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion and got some good news for a change. He doesn't have mitochondrial myopathy, but instead the docs said he had channelopathy. That's a cellular disorder, and it's treatable.

So we have a 27-year old RH hitter with some pop in his bat on the market who's looking at 2009 as a year to reestablish himself as a player, even if not on an everyday basis - yet. Baldelli's got 447 MLB games under his belt, with a .286 lifetime average along with 52 home runs and 234 RBI.

The Bucs are supposedly showing serious interest in Baldelli, with the Reds, Phillies, and Rays in the chase, and Boston and the Yankees lurking. He'd be a good fit for the team, which can use a RH bat in the OF to at least platoon with Brandon Moss if not outright challenge him for the position.

And if his condition improves enough for him to return to his glory days...well, he'll be a heck of catch for some team. If not, he's still a worthwhile risk. After all, his agent is Casey Close, not you-know-who, so much of the drama should be missing from his mating dance.

As we say in the old country, "A caval donato non si guarda in bocca." Besides, the team needs someone to carry on the tradition of Bobby Del Greco, Gino Cimoli, Lee Mazzilli, and John Cangelosi, si?

(GW has gotten a couple of e-mails asking about channelopathy. We aren't docs, but we're pretty good at googling, and here's what we came up with: It's a disorder that can be inherited or caused by autoimmune problems, and basically screws up the exchange of potassium, sodium, chloride and calcium in the nervous system.

It's not one disease, either, but sort of a catch-all diagnosis - channelopathy can involve up to 42 specific illnesses ranging from Cystic Fibrosis to a whole lot of syndromes, according to Wikipedia. The treatments range from diet to some scary sounding drugs. So Rocco has an ailment that's thankfully treatable, but there's no guarantee that he won't have medical issues throughout his career.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

How To Cap America's Team (The Evil Empire)

Hey, Santa and his reindeer made their annual visit yesterday, but in MLB, he only made one stop. Hal Steinbrenner must have been very nice last year - or maybe the rest of the league was very naughty - but the jolly old elf took care of him like he was his own.

While he found CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Tex under his tree, the rest of baseball woke up to a stocking full of coal. Bah humbug!

OK, so the Yankees are the team everyone loves to hate. But the question this season begs is are they good or bad for baseball? Does the sport need a cap to stop them?

For starters, the New York Yankees are the top US brand name out-of-market for all sports teams, according to an annual report by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, and for the second year running. No other MLB team is in the top ten, so there's no question they are America's baseball team, at least by name recognition.

Next, they are in the media and financial capital of the world, operate their own TV package, and rake in loot like it's autumn leaves. They wallow in revenue streams that leave other suits agape, and their market bears ticket prices that stun most fans. Heck, they had the werewithal to sign their big three this year from the money they saved by having the City build their new playpen.

That's a credit to their organization and the consistently excellent quality of the teams they put on the field; just being located in NYC guarantees you nothing - just ask the Mets, Jets, Giants, Knicks, Rangers or Devils.

And hey, give the Yankees their due. They make money and plow it back into their product instead of their pocket, unlike certain other teams we're familiar with here in Pittsburgh.

That's the one point that causes GW to gnash his teeth. Some of the guys were worth the gelt, like A-Rod and Derek Jeter. But there's too many signings of average talents like Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, yada, yada, that skew the whole structure of the sport.

Not only does it play into the hands of agents like Scott Boras who wring every dollar they can out teams for their clients (after all, it's their job) and then use the deal as a baseline for future signings, but it filters all the way down to arbitration awards.

We're concerned not only with the big money, but also the length of the contracts, which unlike the NFL, are guaranteed for their duration. The Yankees can afford to wait out bad contracts and patch over the holes; for the majority of the league, a Barry Zito or Mike Hampton signing is a competitive crippler for years.

Does this create a competitive imbalance? Well, yes and no. One has to go back to 1993 to find an AL post-season without the Yankees, Red Sox (the mini-me empire), or both participating. The NL, without an 800 pound gorilla or three in its ranks, has had a much more motley collection of teams reach the playoffs.

Baseball has had eight different champions in nine years, and 18 of MLB's 30 franchises have made the playoffs at least once the past three years. So much for the "everyone has a shot at the brass ring" rap espoused by the hard-capped NFL. MLB has plenty of rags-to-riches stories, too.

The reason is that many teams, most recently our PBC, have adapted their business model to grow their own, sign them through arbitration, and then watch them either march away to the golden land when they hit free agency or deal them in advance for a few pups.

This leads most clubs to budget for "boom or bust" cycles, where teams have to plan for a window of success (think Florida Marlins) while they still control their talent. It also shows its face in the surge of backloaded contracts with team options, much like the ones Ian Snell and Ryan Doumit signed.

The odds are that Pittsburgh will never exercise the options when they get pricey, but will be able to dump the remaining dollars on a big bucks team if the players perform up to expectations in return for a handful of hopefuls. And so the circle remains unbroken.

It's a frustrating methodology for fans to suffer through, and makes selling a team without a face to the hometown that much harder for the office gang. It's a system that ensures the rich get richer.

GW's humble suggestion? Don't fight for a hard cap, like the NFL. Create a unique, flexible range for teams to fit into, with a ceiling and floor like the NHL. Base it on MLB revenues, so that every team has to spend something between $125,000,000 and $60,000,000 in payroll (We just came up with those figures by knocking off the top and bottom four teams in the 2008 salary rankings; we're sure Billy Beane and gang can crunch some workable numbers.)

Guess what? Suddenly there will be a crowd for free agents, contracts will be structured more realistically, and the teams will be on a somewhat level playing field, depending on their operational competence. GW doesn't think this route will cause as much of a stir from the player's camp as it will from the owners. There are still a lot of them that make a dollar by skimping on talent.

The agents aren't the biggest problem in MLB. It's the owners. As long as some of them play with mad money and others prefer penny-ante, baseball will suffer competitively. The game and its fans deserve better.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pud Galvin - Pittsburgh's Christmas Kid

James Francis "Pud" Galvin was born in St. Louis on Christmas Day, 1856, in the Irish neighborhood of Kerry Patch. It was a baseball hotbed during the post Civil War period, and he absorbed the sport like a sponge in the streets and fields of the Patch. He would grow up to become MLB's first 300-game winner.

The nickname "Pud" was hung on him because he made the hitters "look like pudding." Galvin was also nicknamed "The Little Steam Engine," a tribute to his durability. Some folks also knew him as "Gentleman Jeems," an acknowledgement of his laid-back manner delivered with a bit of the Ould Sod's brogue.

Standing 5'8" and weighing 190 pounds, he depended on a hellacious heater to tame opposing bats. He also sported a nasty changeup, but never bothered throwing the curve. He didn't think he needed it. The record seems to agree with him.

Galvin saw the mound go from 45' away from the plate when he started pro ball to 50' in 1880 before reaching its current 60'-6" in 1893, a year after he retired. He started in the era when pitchers had to throw underhand, until finally allowed to pitch overhand in 1884. That probably added a couple of feet to his fastball.

Despite his smoke, he was never a big strikeout guy, but rather a control pitcher. He was always around the dish, so the batters generally put the ball in play, though usually not very solidly. Pud gave up better than a hit per inning, struck out about a batter every three innings and walked one every eight frames.

Galvin played in the day where two-man pitching rotations were the rule. That helps explain his career 6,003 innings pitched and 646 complete games, second only to Cy Young. Pud compiled a 364-310 record and 2.85 ERA during his days in the show, twice won over 40 games in a season, and threw a pair of no-hitters.

He pitched over 70 complete games in both 1883 and 1884 and 65 in 1879. Galvin is the only player in baseball history to win 20 or more games in 10 different years without winning a pennant (he never was on a team that finished higher than third), starting 689 outings and finishing 646 of them, an astounding 94% rate.

The short, stocky right hander with the handlebar mustache was also known for having the best pickoff move in baseball, bordering on but never quite becoming a balk. As competitor and brother Hall of Famer C Buck Ewing said "If I had Galvin to catch, no one would ever steal a base on me. That fellow keeps them glued to the bag.”

He also played some outfield on his rare days off (he had a reputation as a great glove man), but with a lifetime batting average of .201, it didn't take a Solomon to figure out his rightful place was on the hill.

Galvin was the first baseball player to be widely known for using performance enhancing drugs. In 1889, over 100 years before 'roids became a hot MLB topic, Galvin openly used a concoction known as the Brown-Séquard elixir, which contained monkey testosterone extracted from the chimp's...well, testosterone maker. Not exactly HgH, but hey, monkey juice is monkey juice.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1965 by the Veterans Committee, who corrected an obvious oversight of the regular selectors. If baseball's first 300 game winner can't get voted in on his merits, well, who can? (The question of his HoF credentials is debated by This Day In Baseball.)

Galvin debuted for the hometown St. Louis Browns of the National Association in 1875, the franchise's inaugural season. He spent the next 6½ seasons with Buffalo in the International Association and later of the National League, where he would be at his most productive.

Besides winning 218 games for the New York club, Galvin also forged a friendship that would last a lifetime. He hung out with Buffalo sheriff Grover Cleveland, who later would become mayor and eventually reach the White House. When a group of touring ballplayers visited the prez, the first thing he asked was "How's my old friend Jimmy Galvin?"

On August 20, 1880, Galvin became the first major league pitcher to throw a no-hitter on the road, leading the Buffalo Bisons to a 1-0 victory over the Worcester Ruby Legs.

He was sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in midseason of 1885, and pitched for the locals from 1885 to 1889. The Buffalo nine got the magnificent sum, for the times, of $2,500 for him, and gave Galvin $700 of the fee.

He was then inked to a $3,000 contract by the Alleghenys, making him the highest paid player in baseball. And as far as GW knows, there is no truth to the rumor that he was represented by Scott Boras' great-grandfather.

On October 5, 1888, Galvin spun a four hitter as the Alleghenys beat the Washington Nats 5-1 at Swampoodle Grounds to notch his 300th victory and set the benchmark for greatness for future MLB pitchers.

Pud jumped to the Pittsburgh Burghers before the 1890 season to join the rebel Player's, aka Brotherhood, League, but returned to his old club, now known as the Pirates, after one season.

On June 14, 1892, Galvin was sold to the St. Louis Browns (he was pitching on one leg, after being injured in a collision with Cap Anson), and retired after the season. He umped for a year, but found it easier to throw strikes than call them. Pud tried to stage a last hurrah with Buffalo in 1894. The magic was gone - or maybe it was that new 60' 6" distance - and the come-back trail led to a dead end.

Galvin came home to roost in Pittsburgh, earning his daily bread as a construction worker and barkeeper before opening what was called the biggest saloon in Allegheny. But he pitched better than he ran a business, and the watering hole went under.

It's said that he had nine bartenders on his payroll, and everyone of them opened their own joint from the money they took home from Galvin's gin palace. It's pretty easy to figure out where the profits went.

Pud Galvin died of pneumonia at age 45 on March 7, 1902 in a North Side boarding house and is buried in Hazelwood's Calvary Cemetery.

He shuffled off this mortal coil penniless, and his former teammates, fans, and friends had to pony up to pay for his burial and give his wife and six kids a couple of bucks to get by. Not all Christmas stories end with a ho-ho-ho.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Merry Christmas To All...


Ron and Will wish a safe and merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah to all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Evil Empire Inks Tex

Verbatim from ESPN:

"The New York Yankees reached agreement with free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira on an eight-year contract worth $180 million, three sources involved in the negotiations told ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney.

The contract will pay Teixeira an average of $22.5 million per season.

The Yankees had $88.5M coming off the books (included in that total - $23.4M on Jason Giambi, $16M on Bobby Abreu, and $11M to both Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano), and even with the Teixeira contract, they expect their payroll to fall below $200M.

New York has committed $423.5M in salary in the last month, with $161M going to LHP CC Sabathia ($23M over seven years) and $82.5 million to RHP A.J. Burnett ($18.5M over five) last week alone.

New York does have money left to add another starting pitcher, most likely veteran LH Andy Pettitte at $10M if he agrees to terms soon.

Teixeira's salary gives the Yankees, who are preparing to move into their pricey new ballpark in 2009, the four highest-paid players in Major League Baseball, including third baseman Alex Rodriguez, shortstop Derek Jeter and Sabathia.

Teixeira's agreement also comes just one day after the Yankees received a $26.9M luxury tax bill for 2008."

In case you're wondering, the Yankee payroll in 2008 was $209,081,577, according to Cot's Contracts. The Bronx Bombers are spending $64M next year on just their three new toys. The Pirates spent $48,689,783 in toto last season, their highest salary amount in five years.

Well, hey, the Pirates did sign Ramon Vazquez and Andy Phillips, and they are looking at Rocco Baldelli now that they're rid of that pricey Jason Davis contract. And geez, we can't help but wonder what'll happen when Scott Boras gets to redo Pedro's deal. Love him or hate him, he's the magic man.

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bucs Build Around The Edges...

The Pirates announced a bevy of signings today (so much for Christmas killing the news cycle, hehe). The key deal is the lock-down of C Ryan Doumit through his arbitration years with a club option for 2012-13.

Doumit came to camp last year penciled in as Ronny Paulino's caddy, but soon overtook him to claim the top spot. The second round draft pick of 1999 figured it out in his fourth season, hitting .318 with 15 HR, 69 RBI and a .501 slugging percentage in 116 games.

The switch-hitter's split against RHP/LHP was pretty solid, going .314 vs. righties and .330 vs. lefties, and batting off the charts with runners in scoring position, with a .407 average, third best in MLB.

His ball receiving mechanics improved as the season wore on, and his game management should improve too, as Joe Kerrigan plans to call many of the pitches from the pine to pick up the pace of his, and the staff's, learning curve.

The 27-year old inked a contract that guarantees him $11.5M over his three arb years, with a $300K bonus and salaries of $2.05M in 2009, $3.55M in 2010, and $5.1M in 2011, with a $500K buy-out if the Pirates don't exercise his future option, according to figures provided by Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette.

The optional years are 2012-13, and the team has a one-shot trigger for the option after the 2011 season. He'll earn $7.25 in 2012 and $8.25 in 2013, with bonuses that could add another $1M per year to those seasons depending on All-Star and Silver Slugger appearances. So that's $26.5M over the life of the contract, with a top value of $27.5M if the stars align.

GW likes the deal's structure. Doumit started 103 games behind the plate last year, losing chunks of time to a couple of injuries. Both Doumit and the Pirates have affordable cost certainy over the arb years, and if Doumit proves durable, they have their man locked up for his first two free agency seasons. If he can't stay out of the tub, the Bucs have an escape hatch via the buy-out option.

A catcher with a stick isn't an everyday commodity in MLB. If Doumit stays consistent with his bat, and there's no reason to believe he won't, and can catch 125-140 games a year, which is a bit more problematic, the Pirates have a nice deal, and Doumit has a fat carrot to chase, the $15.5M payday for the final two years.

The length of the deal is also interesting to us. As GW opined in the last post, the Pirate plan should begin to bear fruit in 2011-12. And now the suits have Snell and Doumit both tied into that time frame. There's no mistaking the reasoning behind those two deals - Snell is the most talented, if enigmatic, arm on the staff, and Doumit is a clubhouse leader who's about to become the face of the Pirates.

Neal Huntington signed another half-dozen guys to minor league contracts today, and they'll all be invited to camp. They are RHPs Chris Bootcheck, Juan Mateo, and Denny Bautista, along with utility guy Andy Phillips, OF Luis Salazar, and 1B Garrett Jones.

The dope on them, thanks mainly to the Pirate release, is:

Chris Bootcheck (RHP) - The 30-year old spent the 2008 season with the Angels organization. He began the year on the DL before making 10 relief appearances for the Angels. Bootcheck posted a 2.86 ERA in 19 relief appearances with AAA Salt Lake. He was originally picked by Anaheim in the first round of the 2000 Draft (20th pick overall).

Juan Mateo (RHP) - The 26-year old went 8-1 with five saves and a 3.66 ERA in 38 games between the Cub's AAA Iowa and AA Tennessee, and the Buc's AA Altoona in 2008. He was 7-1 with 5 saves, a 2.12 ERA, and .99 WHIP for the Curve.

Denny Bautista (RHP) - The 26-year old posted a 4-4 record with 44 strikeouts, 42 walks, and a 5.22 ERA in 51 combined games between Detroit and Pittsburgh in 2008. The wild child had a great start to the season and then faded badly. The question is whether he was overused or just not that good.

Andy Phillips (INF) - The 31-year old RH hit a combined .231 with 18 doubles, three home runs and 10 RBI in 56 games between the Reds and the Mets in 2008. Phillips was originally selected by the Yankees in the seventh round of the 1999 Draft. He has a career average of .250 with 25 doubles, 14 home runs and 70 RBI in 259 games and five seasons. Phillips has played 1B, 2B, and 3B.

Jeff Salazar (OF) -- The 28-year old hit .211 with five doubles, three triples, two home runs and 12 RBI in 90 games last year with Arizona. The LH was tied for 13th among NL players with 10 pinch hits in 2008, and has a career average of .291 as a pinch hitter. He hasn't made an error in his 147 MLB games.

Garrett Jones (INF) -- The 6-4, 245 pound LH spent 2008 with AAA Rochester (Twins), where he hit .279 with 33 doubles, 23 home runs and 92 RBI in 138 games. He led the International League in games and total bases (255), and was tied for third in doubles and second in extra base hits (59). Jones plays both first and some OF.

None of these guys are world-beaters, but they all help fill a void in Pittsburgh's upper level organization. Phillips has the best chance to stick as a RH utilityman off the bench and back-up to Adam LaRoche. He also provides some balance to Ramon Vazquez's LH bat.

Salazar has an opportunity to make the roster as an extra outfielder if the Bucs opt to send Steve Pearce back to Indy, although the Pirates are already overloaded with LH outfielders.

The rest look like AAA fodder, where Jones will add some sorely missing pop to the system and the pitchers provide some power arms for the Indy bullpen.

Some observations - Phillips and recent signee Vazquez seem to have taken Dirt Dog Mientkiewicz's bench roles, so the odds of his return just took a big hit.

Another is that with Phillips, Jones and Pearce all being capable first-base types (although Phillips, a good glove man, can move around the infield), the Bucs have a short-term safety net if they uncover a taker for Adam LaRoche.

We should find out the Pirate take on LaRoche soon enough. At 28-years old, he's still young enough to fit into the Pirate plans, but he may have priced himself out of the organization. If Pittsburgh signs him to a multi-year deal, which is unlikely, he'll be the first baseman of the future. If not, we expect him to be trade deadline bait in 2009.

The same scenario could be in play for Freddy Sanchez, too, as Vazquez and Phillips have both logged a lot of innings at second and Shelby Ford seemingly a season or two away from a shot at the bigs.

Vazquez and Phillips can also platoon at third if young Mr. LaRoche continues to have his problems at the hot corner and plate. The Pirates are slowly building options for the club.

Now to see whassup with Paul Maholm and Nate McLouth...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Path Out Of The Woods

Hey, it's a blustery, windy day in the 'Burgh and apparently all over the baseball universe; we're approaching Christmas shutdown time regarding the hardball news cycle.

And that gives GW a chance to break out the divining rod and try to figure out the direction the new Bucco suits are forging for the team, and a possible timeline for frutition.

Early on, we thought the suits were gonna take a wait-and-see attitude regarding the MLB talent on the club, and try to fill in a few pieces - a third baseman, a couple of bottom-end RHP guys for the rotation and a bench, for starters - to keep the Bucs interesting while spending the majority of its effort on building the farm system.

And while the position players were probably good enough to compete, two things happened to conspire against the double-pronged plan to keep the MLB roster competitive while building from within - the pitching staff imploded and the minors proved to be virtually void of up-and-coming difference makers.

Pirate fans hoped that the return for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, which netted a pretty fair payback, would be the major move of the season. But when Jay Bay went in the Manny deal, everyone faced the fact that Pittsburgh was once again in full tilt rebuilding mode.

Another "here we go again" moment was the last thing the Pirate faithful wanted to experience. It's almost as if Pirate baseball was the inspiration for "Groundhog Day."

GW agreed that blowing up the team was its best way to to move beyond borderline competitive and eventually contend, even knowing how painful the next couple of season will be in the meantime.

As we see the Pirate plan, step #1 now consists of moving everyone that's on the wrong side of 30 for whatever talent can be amassed, simply because it'll take longer than the older guys have for Buc baseball to click on all cylinders again, and the management has no other chips to fill the farm other than dealing the vets.

The Pittsburgh feeder system under Ed Creech and Dave Littlefield deteriorated so badly that it wasn't a matter of filling in a position, but of bringing in anyone who looked like they could play the game.

They've done pretty well for one season's work in that regard. Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce, Brad Lincoln, Brian Bixler, and Neil Walker were virtually all the likely MLB talent on hand, and Shelby Ford, with perhaps Jamie Romak, Danny Moskos, Steve Lerud and Brian Friday having the potential to develop someday into players.

It was a terribly weak system, overloaded with players that projected as relievers and only a handful that that had a shot at starting every fifth day or playing regularly.

They had to immediately address the pitching, which was abysmal at the MLB level and filled with AAAA arms at Indy. At great cost, they brought in Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Dan McCutchen, Chris Hansen and Byran Morris.

Karstens and Ohlendorf could be on the 25-man next year, while Morris and McCutchen are already two of the top three pitching prospects in the system.

It also netted Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, and Jeff Tabata. Moss may turn into an adequate RFer, or he may settle back into a platoon/fourth outfielder role. He's been a high strikeout guy throughout his career at every level, and that will keep his batting average down.

LaRoche has some demons to overcome. Although the team that knows him best, the Dodgers, couldn't find a spot for him, it's hard to believe so many scouts could be that wrong on his potential.

The new suits can't be faulted for giving him third base. On paper, he's all that. They can be faulted for not trying to light a fire under him with a little accountability, competition, and well-deserved pine time. Handing someone a position didn't work out so well with the pitchers; it's no different with LaRoche.

Tabata is a welcome addition to a minor league outfield that needed big-time help. Some believe that he's among the Pirate's top three positional prospects.

The draft has helped the system, too. Besides Pedro, Neal Huntington brought in a bevy of shortstops than can hit and inked some high school talent. But those guys, with the exception of Alvarez, are at best three years away from the show.

The new gang has also brought a previously unseen commitment to entering the international player pool. They've made strides in Latin America, have an Asian scout, and made a couple of high-profile signings in non-traditional territories that may not have any short-term effect but should pay off down the road by announcing the Pirate's presence to world baseball.

And they're still in a position to scan the waiver wires - Evan Meek joined the Indy after a post Rule 5 deal, and Jimmy Barthmaier has shown some promise.

Also, for better or worse, they've taken the former seat-of-pants teaching of players out of the hands of the minor-league managers and coaches and put together a system that's to be adhered to, covering everything from pitch counts, selection, and innings for their arms to patience in the box for hitters. And they mean it; ignore the book and your coaching career or player advancement will hit a wall.

Hopefully, they're trying to install some discipline and a team plan to help keep everyone on the same page, and will work out individual plans with some flexibility once the playbook is absorbed system-wide.

Now, don't mistake the Pirates' moves as having made the farm system even average yet. But it is obvious that the suits are obsessing over it, and they've taken strides to get it back to snuff. But they need at least two, maybe three, more solid drafts to stock the organization to respectability at all levels.

The minors are the first and overriding concern of the current management team. Almost without exception, every move the new suits have made is to benefit the farm system and infuse the organization with prospects, which is the hand they have to play if the team is to reach any sort of consistent competitive niche.

So if you wonder what the odds of Jack Wilson, John Grabow, Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez finishing out their years in Pittsburgh are, well, don't bet the ranch. The team may not be truly competitive again until 2011-12, and that's too long and too expensive a gap to hang on to the older guys.

The good news is that Huntington is a pretty fair poker player, and plays his hand to the limit instead of just throwing the cards in as his predecessor so often did. The new crew likes to let the pot build and get value for its chips.

One other point, often raised by GW collaborator Will Pellas, is the American League approach of the new suits. The Pirates under Littlefield/Creech looked for gloves in the infield and cutesy pitching. The Huntington/Greg Smith preference is for power arms and infielders that can smack the ball.

Whether that is a long-term trend or just an attempt to counter skills lacking in the current player lineup is yet to be seen. But we think it's something that's a goal of the new management team and will become a benchmark of sorts for future players in the organization.

The Pirate plan, as far as we can see, is to focus all its energy on building a minor league system that will replenish itself, much like Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Load it up with power options, and the MLB team will take care of itself with a little bit of tinkering.

The plan seems logical enough, but it does beg a couple of hard questions because of the time frame it sets for talent to percolate through the system to Pittsburgh.

Will the long-suffering fans be able to stand the inevitable wait that's required for a Pirate makeover before finally seeing on-the-field success? And will Bob Nutting be willing to stay the course if the attendance drops along with the on-field product? The competitive future of the franchise depends on the answers.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Weekend Bits

> Dock Ellis died today. The 63-year old was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver after Thanksgiving last year, and was waiting for a transplant that never came.

He'll be remembered forever in Pittsburgh for his curlers and no-hitter on acid. And those images are valid; a saint he wasn't, at least during his highly-publicized playing days. Still, he was a fierce competitor and popular locker room guy, by virtually all accounts.

Ellis admitted publicly in several forums that he was hooked on booze and chemicals during his career. And we'll add self-promotion to his list of addictions.

But he was clean since 1980, motivated, he said, by fatherhood. Ellis worked with prisoners both in SCI and California as a drug counselor. He also fronted a Sickle Cell group to help fight the disease, and never shrunk from supporting black equality issues.

Rather than eulogize or worse, editorialize, GW is just gonna post a couple of links to cover his flamboyant career and later real life.

"Pirates Saddened By Ellis' Passing", Pirates.com;

"Ex-Pitcher Ellis Dies Of Liver Disease", ESPN;

"Ellis Is Trying To Strike Back At A Tough Foe", LA Times;

"Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr.", The Baseball Reliquary;

"Did Dock Ellis Throw A No-Hitter Under The Influence Of LSD?" Urban Legends;

"Dock Ellis Statistics", Baseball Reference.

> The Bucs won't get their paws on Daniel Cabrera. The left-handed wild child was signed by the Nats, according to Bill Ladson of MLB's Hot Stove Blog.

> The Pirates are also the darkest of horses in their chase of Derrick Turnbow and Ty Wigginton. Not only are several teams in the hunt, but Turnbow has suitors that could possibly return him to a closer role, while there are teams that see Wigginton as an everyday player, and will bid accordingly. Neither scenario is a fit for Pittsburgh.

> The Phils are shopping C Chris Conte now that they have Ronny Paulino on the roster. Paulino is younger and cheaper, and Philadelphia believes he can be a capable MLB catcher, which is more than the Pirate suits did.

GW agrees that his situation had escalated to the point where he had to go. What we don't agree with is the heavy-handed way the new management has treated some of Littlefield's guys. It smells to us like there's still a ways to go before communication and especially motivation is dealt with professionally by the front office.

It's understandable that the new sheriff in town would want to put a couple notches on the six-shooter, but the Pirates aren't in a position to fritter away talent. Some guys need tough love; others need stroked. The suits need to approach each player individually and dump their cookie-cutter, hard-guy philosophy.

> Jody Gerut agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.1775M with the Padres, thus avoiding salary arbitration, according to Corey Brock of MLB.com.

As you may recall, Gerut was the return for Matt Lawton in 2005, and blew out his wheel after 18 Pirate at-bats. He was out of baseball for two years before returning to hit .296 with 14 home runs and 48 RBIs in 100 games last season.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Frank Kremblas Storyboard

The Bucs announced Trent Jewett's replacement at AAA Indy today, the Brew Crew's recently deposed AAA Nashville Sound manager, Frank Kremblas.

Kremblas comes complete with a couple of storylines that should keep Pirate bloggers in their glory. First, he's the son of Frank Kremblas, Sr., who QB'ed Ohio State to the national championship in 1957 and shared the backfield with Steeler coaching legend Dick LeBeau, who was a two-way player for the Buckeyes back in the day.

Next, in a not-so-illustrious minor league career, he played catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, outfielder, and pitcher. Talk about a one man band! But Kremblas' biggest asset as a player, unfortunately, was that he was smart and scrappy. Danged by faint praise, indeed.

In 661 minor league games - he topped out as a AAA utility guy at, surprise, Indianapolis, then a Cincy farm team - Kremblas hit .233 with 20 HRs and 201 RBI. So it's a no-brainer why he ended up coaching instead of playing. That's where smart, scrappy, versatile, and no stick players gravitate to in baseball.

He hung up the spikes in 1996, and in 1998 began his career as skipper with the Gulf Coast Expos. In 2000, Kremblas made the move to the Milwaukee organization, first at the helm of the A Mudville Nine (no, that was really their name - even GW couldn't make that one up. Now they're known as the Stockton Port.)

The 42-year old soldiered his way through the ranks, spending the last four years at AAA Nashville, where in a bit of karmic foreshadowing, he replaced Trent Jewett in 2005. He led the team to the PCL crown in his first go-around, and in 2006 and 2007, the Sound won the American North Division title but lost the championship series.

After the 2007 season, Kremblas was named the PCL Manager of the Year. While with the Sound, he helped developed guys like Tony Gwynn, Jr., Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks and Manny Parra. And that's a pretty sweet list.

He was canned as Nashville's manager after a 59–81 season in 2008; the good times can't roll on forever. Kremblas was told that Brewers officials didn't see him getting an opportunity to coach in the big leagues, so they decided to let him seek that opportunity elsewhere. Sounds kinda flimsy to us.

It was no secret, though, that he had an eye on a spot with the MLB club. But he was passed over in 2006 for Nick Leyva and in 2007 for Ted Simmons. GW took a quick survey of Brewer blogs, and they seemed split between the "he deserved a shot at the show" and "don't let the door hit you in the butt" camps. C'est la vie.

Another little bit on his coaching career - he sharpened up his skills in the Latin winter leagues, managing twice in Venezuela and once in Mexico. In fact, he's now the skipper of Leones de Caracas. Kremblas also served stints coaching in the Arizona Fall League and the Futures game.

So Pittsburgh landed a young guy with ambition, success at the AAA level, a track record of handling and developing talent, an appreciation of versatility, and some hands-on experience with Latino players, both as a manager and evaluator.

On first blush, it's just what the doctor ordered. But as with all things currently Pirate-related, only time will tell.

The Bucs also finally connected the dots for their minor staffs today. Here's the complete coaching lineup.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past...

OK, the Pirates are going into 2009 with a roster of, well...Pittsburgh will have a roster. GW took a look back just to see what a difference a couple of decades make, to the one-away season of 1989.

The team would finish fifth, with a 74-88 record, but was just a year away from 95 wins and first place in the East. It was the kind of team Pirate fans have been lighting candles to see.

The 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates:

C - Junior Ortiz, about to be phased out by Spanky Lavalierre
1B - Gary Redus, holding down the fort for Sid Bream, who had a bum knee
2B - Chico Lind
SS - Jay Bell
3B - Bobby Bonilla, who would take over RF in 1990 and be replaced by Jeff King
LF - Barry Bonds
CF - Andy Van Slyke
RF - Glen Wilson & RJ Reynolds platooned; Bobby Bo manned the spot next season

PH - Rey Quinones, Jeff King, Spanky, John Cangelosi, Rafael Belliard and Benny DiStefano. Wally Backman and Don Slaught would replace Quinones, Ortiz, and DiStefano the following year.

SP - Doug Drabek, Bob Walk, John Smiley, Jeff Robinson, Neal Heaton, and Randy Kramer. Robinson and Kramer were gone in 1990, and pitching in their stead were Walt Terrell, Randy Tomlin, Zane Smith and Rick Reed.

BP - Bill Landrum closed, Bob Kipper, Doug Bair, and swingmen Robinson, Walk, and Heaton. Stan Belinda and Scott Ruskin would join the mix in 1990.

Does the 2009 PBC have any similarities with the 1989 club? Well, it depends how you look at the glass.

In the field and at bat, they were built around AVS, Bobby Bo, Barry Bonds, Jeff King, Jay Bell and Chico Lind. Next year's team will be centered around the abilities of Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Brandon Moss, and possibly Jack Wilson or Andrew McCutchen.

The rest were mix-and-match, the way that Jimmy Leyland, master of the platoon system, liked to manage the game. John Russell will get plenty of opportunity to use his bench, too, but for different reasons.

The pitching counted on Doug Drabek, Bob Walk, and John Smiley to pile up the innings and take the ball every turn, plus a handful of guys that could work out of the pen or start. Pittsburgh in 2009 will call on Paul Maholm, Ian Snell...and, well, a lot of guys that will fight for the next start.

The bullpen? Well, both teams took a pitch-by-committee attitude into the season. The Bucs may be better off in that regard with Matt Capps on hand. Landrum drew most of the work in 1989, but closing was pretty well spread out in the championship season the following year.

Do they match up? Nah. The 1989 Pirates had a couple of young guys that would become legitimate stars scattered amongst a pretty solid veteran core. Bonds and Bonilla could carry a team; McLouth and Doumit aren't there. Neither is the experience factor. The suits aren't adding to this team; they're still busy blowing it up.

The pitching is where the teams really veer. Drabek would become a Cy Young guy, and he's who the staff was built around. The Pirates may have someone of that physical ability with Ian Snell, but he's a far cry from the consistency of DD. And the 1989 version had great depth, something that the 2009 team is striving to add. All you have to do is look at the team ERAs - 3.64 in '89, 5.10 in '08.

Offensively, today's Bucs scored 735 runs, and the 1989 edition only put up 637. But if you take away the 122 runs scored by Jay Bay and Xavier Nady, it matches up fairly evenly, especially as the replacements, Nyjer Morgan, Andy LaRoche, and Brandon Moss, only put up 49 tallies.

So hey - if things fall right, maybe by late 2010 or 2011, the Pirates might be the equal to the 1989 team. We can only hope; God know's Pittsburgh fans have been waiting long enough (since they broke the 1989 Bucs up in 1993) for a team that plays like there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

* For the rumor de jour and other Bucco stuff, Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has it all pretty well covered in one post or another at the PBC Blog.

* The Pirates just hired a new play-by-play guy, Tim Neverett, formerly of FSN Rocky Mountain, to replace Lanny.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"These Men Are The Game"

Line-Up For Yesterday
An ABC Of Baseball Immortals

by Ogden Nash ©
Published: Sport Magazine (01-1949)

A is for Alex
The great Alexander;
More Goose eggs he pitched
Than a popular gander.

B is for Bresnahan
Back of the plate;
The Cubs were his love,
and McGraw his hate.

C is for Cobb,
Who grew spikes and not corn,
And made all the basemen
Wish they weren't born.

D is for Dean,
The grammatical Diz,
When they asked, Who's the tops?
Said correctly, I is.

E is for Evers,
His jaw in advance;
Never afraid
To Tinker with Chance.

F is for Fordham
And Frankie and Frisch;
I wish he were back
With the Giants, I wish.

G is for Gehrig,
The Pride of the Stadium;
His record pure gold,
His courage, pure radium.

H is for Hornsby;
When pitching to Rog,
The pitcher would pitch,
Then the pitcher would dodge.

I is for Me,
Not a hard-hitting man,
But an outstanding all-time
Incurable fan.

J is for Johnson
The Big Train in his prime
Was so fast he could throw
Three strikes at a time.

K is for Keeler,
As fresh as green paint,
The fastest and mostest
To hit where they ain't.

L is for Lajoie
Whom Clevelanders love,
Napolean himself,
With glue in his glove.

M is for Matty,
Who carried a charm
In the form of an extra
brain in his arm.

N is for Newsom,
Bobo's favorite kin.
You ask how he's here,
He talked himself in.

O is for Ott
Of the restless right foot.
When he leaned on the pellet,
The pellet stayed put.

P is for Plank,
The arm of the A's;
When he tangled with Matty
Games lasted for days.

Q is for Don Quixote
Cornelius Mack;
Neither Yankees nor years
Can halt his attack.

R is for Ruth.
To tell you the truth,
There's just no more to be said,
Just R is for Ruth.

S is for Speaker,
Swift center-field tender,
When the ball saw him coming,
It yelled, "I surrender."

T is for Terry
The Giant from Memphis
Whose .400 average
You can't overemphis.

U would be 'Ubell
if Carl were a cockney;
We say Hubbell and Baseball
Like Football and Rockne.

V is for Vance
The Dodger's very own Dazzy;
None of his rivals
Could throw as fast as he.

W is for Wagner,
The bowlegged beauty;
Short was closed to all traffic
With Honus on duty.

X is the first
of two x's in Foxx
Who was right behind Ruth
with his powerful soxx.

Y is for Young
The magnificent Cy;
People battled against him,
But I never knew why.

Z is for Zenith
The summit of fame.
These men are up there.
These men are the game.

from Baseball Almanac's Baseball Poetry

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'm Walking, Yes Indeed...

Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette applied Occam's Razor to the Pirate staff's problem with walks today. Simply stated, old William of Occam said way back in the day that "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best."

Do Buc hurlers suffer from bad mechanics? Lousy coaching? A nibbler pitching philosophy? Naw. As DK says "If the Pirates are going to be anything other than the worst pitching staff in the league in terms of walks, part of the process has to involve acquiring pitchers who have a history of throwing strikes."

Let's look at who the new suits have added to the Pirate pitching corp. First, there was Phil Dumatrait. In 753-2/3 innings of minor league ball, he walked 340 guys, or 4.2 men per nine innings. In the pros, the average grows to 5.0 per 9 innings.

Next came Tyler Yates. He issued 4.1 free passes per nine in the bushes, and 4.85 in the bigs. Denny Bautista? The wild child walked 4.0 men per game on the farm and 5.0 hitters per game in the MLB. Craig Hansen of the Jay Bay deal couldn't find the plate in the minors, tossing four balls to 4.3 batters every nine innings. He bettered (if better is the word) that in the show, walking 6.0 guys per game.

Ross Ohlendorf has the biggest split. The Big O only issued 2.3 free passes per nine in the minors, but let 4.3 hitters work him for a walk per game in the majors. He's the only example of a guy blowing up by more than a walk per game, so his problem may actually be correctable to a degree.

Other Yankee pitchers have held up OK, though. TJ Beam was the only one who actually sharpened his control in the big leagues, going from 2.7 walks/nine in the minors to just 2.45 in the majors. Jeff Karstens was a strike thrower down on the farm, walking only 2.25 guys every game, and he's OK in a MLB hill, too, issuing just 2.7 walks per nine.

The latest pick-up, Donnie Veal, hasn't had a shot at the show yet. But his 4.6 walks per nine in the minors doesn't bode well for poor Joe Kerrigan, tasked with showing him where the dish is at PNC.

And the Bucs are rumored to be sniffing around Daniel Cabrera, who has walked 5.1 batters per nine in his five year MLB career. Aye carumba!

What this all means is that the odds are stacked. If you're wild in the minors, you'll be wilder in the majors. Every pitcher the Pirates have brought aboard this year, except for TJ Beam, has walked an extra batter per nine innings when they got the call to the show, and some more than that.

And the extra walks beget the dreaded "counts" conundrum - pitch counts, hitter's counts, run counts...

Pitching style is part of the mix, too. The Green Weenie corollary to Occam is that the harder you throw, the less likely you are to know where the dang ball is going. So as long as the Pirates are enamored of power arms scavenged off the waiver wires, that's how long they'll have to learn to live with the walks.

And there ain't much Joe Kerrigan can do about that.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Throw Another Log On...

> The Bucs are supposed to be one of the teams in play to sign Ty Wigginton, who Dave Littlefield dumped in 2005. He'd provide another third base/OF option for the Pirates, and also has experience at first and second. Wigginton would be a good fit, and Devan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette confirmed Pittsburgh's interest.

So far the Indians, Giants and Reds are kicking his tires, and the Twins are known to be looking for a thirdbaseman. The going price is guesstimated by Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors to be $5-6M/year, based on Casey Blake's recent contract.

We don't see him returning. Not only does his cost seem high, but the Bucs aren't in a position to offer him a starting position unless other guys - namely, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss - flounder. Still, he and Juan Rivera look like the only right-handed OF options left with some pop in their sticks, and Wigginton's versatility is a huge plus considering the many Pirate question marks going into 2009.

> In a related note, Alyson Footer writes in MLB Hot Stove Blog: "Chris Gomez could be an attractive option (for the Astros). The 37-year-old veteran of 16 Major League seasons played in 90 games in 2008 for the Pirates, batting .273 with eight doubles and 20 RBIs in a backup role. He also earned only $1 million, which suggests he may be affordable for a team like the Astros, who are attempting to fill out their roster under extremely frugal guidelines."

> Rob Beirtempfel of the Tribune Review writes that "(Daniel) Cabrera's agent, Mike Powers, exchanged several e-mails over the weekend with a Pirates official. The Pirates have not yet made an offer for Cabrera, a right-hander who last season went 8-10 with a 5.25 ERA in 30 starts for the Baltimore Orioles.

Powers said he already has gotten two firm offers for Cabrera and expects a few more this week. Pirates management is very interested in Cabrera, and almost assuredly will make an offer."

There'll be a line, we think. The Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly reports in Peter Schmuck's column that eleven teams have called Powers and "expressed interest" in Cabrera.

> Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com has some kind words about RHP Bryan Morris, an often forgotten piece of the Jay Bay deal. She says: "Those who have scouted Morris and watched him pitch project him as being a mid-to-upper rotation starter down the road. Morris could very well be the best piece to come out of that (Bay) deal.

Morris has a fastball in the mid-90s and a power breaking ball and is probably one of the best pitching prospects the Pirates now have in their farm system."

> Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle reports that Jason Michaels has signed with the Astros. The deal was for a year, with a base of $750,000 plus incentives. Despite a .224 batting average in 2008, the career .271 hitter drove in 53 runs over 286 at-bats. So much for the Pirate suits wanting to bring Michaels back, hey?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ramon Vazquez

Hey, a couple of days late, but now that the Bucs have a lull after the action of the winter meetings, as it was, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the newest Pirate, Ramon Vazquez.

Here's the short version of his baseball trek, from Mahalo:

*June 1, 1995: Drafted in the 27th round of the 1995 amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners.
*December 11, 2001: Traded with Tom Lampkin, Brett Tomko, and cash to the San Diego Padres for Ben Davis, Alex Arias, and Wascar Serrano.
*December 20, 2004: Traded with David Pauley, Jay Payton, and cash to the Boston Red Sox for Dave Roberts.
*July 7, 2005: Traded to the Cleveland Indians for Alex Cora.
*November 17, 2006: Signed with the Texas Rangers as a Free Agent.
*December 12, 2008: Signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a Free Agent.

The Pirates were on the 32-year old Puerto Rican early in the process, according to reports, and he was pretty well known to the suits from his 2005-06 stint with the Indians. They liked his professionalism, left-handed stick and the infield flexibility he offered.

"The Pirates were interested in me from the beginning, and they put an offer on the table really early," Vazquez told Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review. "This is where I want to be."

Of course, seeing his salary get jacked from $800,000 to $2,000,000 made Pittsburgh a pretty straightforward sell, too. They easily outbid cash-strapped Arizona for his services. Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reported that the deal consisted of a $250,000 signing bonus, a $1.75M salary for 2009 and a $2M salary for 2010.

"He's a nice Major League option for us," GM Neal Huntington told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "He can play second, short and third as a backup man or potentially as a regular if one of our guys were to get hurt or if we were to make a move."

"He certainly is more than capable of hitting right-handed pitching and if we complement him with the right guy we could have a pretty good platoon there. For the immediate future, we think he supplies us with some quality Major League depth, and that's important."

There's no doubt that Vazquez is a super-utility man, although scouts think that shortstop is his natural position. In his career, he's played 247 games at short, 198 at the hot corner, and 143 at second, with 11 more games at first. Lately, he's been logging a lot of time at third, but that had more to do with injuries at Texas than anything else.

He's not a great range guy, according to Baseball Reference, and his lifetime fielding percentage is at the league norm. But after watching a parade of wanna-bes filling in at short when Jack Splat went down, the ability to pencil in a major-league caliber fielder on the lineup card sure looks like up to us.

Vazquez hasn't had a 400 at-bat season since his early years at San Diego, and has stepped up to the plate 300 times in both 2007 and 2008. His line last year, which was a career season, was .290/6/40; lifetime, he's .257/21/160.

His biggest problem is with his pitcher splits. During his career, he's hit a pretty solid .273 against righties, but just .195 against lefties. He continued the trend last year, with .310/.188 splits.

Still, he offers a nice bat off of the bench if John Russell can favorably match him up; he's generally overmatched against a LOOGY, or any southpaw, for that matter. He's spent most of his time at the top or bottom of the order. Vasquez's ability to hit righties could earn him a couple of shots at the two hole in the right situation; otherwise he'll hit eighth. Sounds like the current SS, no?

Also, perhaps as an unintended consequence, but probably not, his signing pretty much assures Neil Walker of another year at Indy, now that there's a veteran left handed bat that can step in at third if little LaRoche continues his freefall.

But there's more to him than his stats and versatility on the diamond. Vazquez, who's been around the major league block (Pittsburgh is his fifth team in eight years), brings a professional attitude and a little spark with him.

He had a telling interview with DK, in the article cited above. Vazquez first brought up the Roberto Clemente - Puerto Rican - Pittsburgh link, a connection that will never die as long as kids swat stuffed socks with broomsticks on the Island and look to their heroes for inspiration. Never underestimate the staying power of a baseball legend.

He then told Kovacevic that he takes his role seriously: "Look, I've been a utility guy for five or six years now, and I'm a guy who can play any position, from first to third," he said.

"If a guy goes down for a month or two, I can perform for you there. If I go out there for just a couple days to take the place of a guy who's struggling, maybe I'll open that player's eyes. Maybe I'll show him what he should be doing." And the Lord knows this squad can use an old head to show the way.

Here's a tale that Wikipedia tells of him from last season:

On July 29, after his third error of the game allowed the Seattle to take a 10-9 lead in the top of the 9th, Vazquez doubled to right-center field off Mariners closer J. J. Putz, just out of Ichiro's reach, to drive in the tying and winning runs.

In a postgame interview, broadcast over the stadium speakers, Vazquez thanked all the fans that were cheering him on despite his three errors, and then told those who booed him to "Take that, *BLEEP*!" (Vazquez didn't cuss aloud, but lip-synced the bleep).

Now we don't recommend flipping a verbal bird at the fans as the best way to win friends. But it shows that he plays with heart and emotion, and if you remember how the Pirates showed all the spunk of George Romero zombies through the final few weeks of 2008, Vazquez should provide a welcome sparkplug to a team badly in need of a jolt.

And hey, with Vazquez on the roster, wouldn't it be sweet if Dirt Dog signed on for a return engagement? With a middle infielder inked, DM is a perfect piece of the bench again. The ball may not be much better, but it sure would keep the summer interesting.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Love Me Tender...

Midnight was the deadline to tender contracts to the arbitration eligible Pirates, who numbered ten going into the off-season, and the Bucs pared another one off the list, Denny Bautista.

Bautista, you may recall, did a Frankie Osario imitation, pitching lights out early and then completely losing it as the innings piled up, finishing with a 6.10 ERA.

He might be a candidate for a minor-league deal. Bautista made $395,000 last year, and the suits feared that amount would double in arbitration. And for a guy that walked 28 batters in 35 appearances and was iffy to make the team, that's a lot of loot.

Buatista's cause wasn't helped when he qualified for arbitration a year early as a "Super Two" player. In fact, it may have cost him his spot on the 40-man roster.

Two more arb guys, Jason Davis and Raul Chavez, were also given their walking papers earlier.

We considered Davis to be a solid veteran insurance policy, but a combo of a potentially high sticker price and the influx of arms that came during the trading deadline frenzy made him expendable.

He made four starts and 10 relief outings, going 2-4 with a 5.29 ERA, earning $650,000 and expected to get bumped up to at least $750,000 in arbitration. The only way Davis comes back, as we see it, is if he takes a pay cut and minor league gig. He's rumored to be looking into Japan as his next baseball landing spot.

Chavez was caught in a numbers game. He was brought in with Michel Hernandez last year when the Pirate catching consisted of Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit, with Candy Maldonado being the only Plan B backstop. With Robinzon Diaz and Jason Jaramillo now in the flock, Steve Lerud at Altoona, and Andrew Walker at Lynchburg, the Bucs are adequately stocked in the upper levels of their farm.

Still, he'll almost surely be offered a minor-league deal to come back to the organization, as the Bucs liked both his performance and work ethic. Chavez's biggest asset was his defense (he threw out 48% of the runners that took off against him) and game smarts, while hitting a respectable .259. He made $550,000 in 2008, and the Pirates would like to sign him again at roughly the same cost.

So there are seven left, and they were all tendered deals - Nate McLouth, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, John Grabow, Tyler Yates, Adam LaRoche and catcher Ryan Doumit.

Doumit, Duke, Maholm and McLouth are all in their first year of arbitration and are due for significant raises. Yates is in his second year, while Grabow and LaRoche are entering their third and final arbitration season.

Local media reports say that the Pirates plan to offer Maholm (9-9, 3.71 ERA), McLouth (.276, 26/94) and Doumit (.318, 15/69) multi-year deals, looking to buy out the remaining arbitration years and perhaps a free agent season or two, although action has been excruciatingly slow on that front.

We understand that they've made an initial offer to McLouth at the winter meetings, but we're not so sure if they've made concrete proposals to Doumit or Maholm yet.

All three will reap huge leaps in pay, as McLouth made $425,000, Maholm $424,500, and Doumit $412,000 in 2008 and all came through with break-out years. We won't guess what their ceiling may be in arbitration, and the Pirates aren't sure how high the limit will be, either.

One reason that the Bucs have been foot-dragging in contract talks is because they would love to tie up the trio's arbitration years and at least a season of free agency, as they did with Ian Snell. He signed a three year deal in 2008 with two club options afterwards, extending their control over him through the 2012 season. But coming up with numbers that satisfy both parties isn't an easy task.

That approach, of course, is also a double edged sword. The Pirates get cost certainy and control over the players, but run the risk of them becoming one-year wonders. And the players themselves need a pretty juicy carrot to give up their walk year, even with the added security of a long-term deal in their pocket.

The same dynamic came into play when the suits tried to ink Matt Capps last year. The two sides couldn't strike an agreement that met everyone's interest, and they ended up hammering out a two-year pact that covered his first pair of arbitration seasons, to be revisited in 2010 when his value is more firmly set.

So that will be the first sub-plot of arbitration. Can the Pirates ink their trio of future lynch pins, or will their contracts become the stuff of soap operas in future seasons?

Next, we have the cases of LaRoche (.270, 25/85) and Grabow (6-3-4, 2.84 ERA), both in their final arb year. Frankly, we can't see an upside from the players point of view that would make signing a deal beyond 2009 attractive.

LaRoche made $5,000,000 last year, and will be looking at $7,000,000+ in 2009. Unless the suits blow his socks off, there's no reason for him to talk - he'll have a comfy salary no matter what and just one year left to reach the promised land of free agency. As Ralph Kiner famously said: "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

That's bad news for the Pirates. While his infamous slow starts have helped to put the team behind the eight ball by Memorial Day, his pay will make him a difficult guy to move, even at the deadline, when he's traditionally hot.

There's also the small matter of there being nobody in the Pittsburgh system ready to take his place, unless they think Jamie Romak looks good with a first-baseman's mitt on his paw (does anyone think that Neil Walker or Steve Pearce have another position switch in their immediate future?) So the Bucs are danged if they do and danged if they don't with LaRoche.

Grabow has been one of the guys the Pirates have been aggressively pushing this winter. He made $1,135,000 last year, a reasonable salary for his performance, especially if you're with a contending team. The lefty will get a healthy jump this year.

Pittsburgh's theory, even predating Neil Huntington, is that you can build a bullpen pretty much from scratch if you have a closer. They did it last year, and look to do it again this season, as they showed by shipping Damaso Marte to the evil empire. We'd be surprised to see the 30-year old set-up guy last until camp.

That leaves Tyler Yates and Zach Duke.

Yates (6-3-1, 4.66 ERA) showed enough last year to hang around, and our guess is the Bucs will try to ink him to a one year deal for $1M and some change, up from his current $800,000.

Duke (5-14, 4.82 ERA) took a pay cut last year, to $400,000, and is probably in a make-or-break year in Pittsburgh. He may get a one-year deal, or he may end up in front of a hearing judge, unless his second half resurgence impressed the suits.

Duke won't have to worry about his salary this season; either way, he's expected to get a nice bump. His more immediate concern should be establishing a major league career.

The Pirates have until February to ink their seven. The arbitration hearings begin on the first and run until the twenty-first that month for the unsigned players.

The arbitration deadline is sort of a second free-agency period for baseball. By MLB Trade Rumors.com count, 34 players were non-tendered. Guys like Ty Wiggington and Takashi Saito should land on their feet, though almost certainly not in Pittsburgh.

But there are a couple of interesting names that may be on the Pirate radar. A thumper like Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes, a sweet glove guy like Dodger SS Angel Berroa, Rox speedster Willie Taveras, and starters like Baltimore's Daniel Cabrera, Washington's Tim Redding, Atlanta's Chuck James, and the Brew Crew's Chris Capuano should all have their tires kicked by the Bucco mechanics.

The wheel keeps on turning.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Your 2009 Pirates...

OK, the winter meetings have come and gone, and in the ten weeks since the season has ended, Pittsburgh has done some jivin' and shuckin' in regards to the 40-man roster. If the season started tomorrow, here's what the PNC Fightin' Forty would be:

RHP: Jimmy Barthmaier, TJ Beam, Matt Capps, Jesse Chavez, Craig Hansen, Jeff Karstens, Evan Meek, Ross Ohlendorf, Romulo Sanchez, Ian Snell, Jeff Sues, Ron Uviedo, and Tyler Yates.

LHP: Sean Burnett, Dave Davidson, Zach Duke, Phil Dumatrait, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, Paul Maholm, and Donnie Veal.

C: Robinzon Diaz, Ryan Doumit, Jason Jaramillo, and Steve Lerud.

INF: Pedro Alvarez, Brian Bixler, Luis Cruz, Adam LaRoche, Andy LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Ramon Vazquez, Neil Walker, and Jack Wilson.

OF: Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Brandon Moss, Steve Pearce, and Jose Tabata.

Since the last game, the suits have cut the bench and some deadwood pitching. The only newcomers, aside from Pedro and the Rule 5 gang that needed cover, are IF Vazquez, who can play all four infield spots, back-up C Jaramillo, and LHP Veal, a Rule 5 project.

Additions? We don't really foresee many more to fill that one spot left in the 40-man roster. They'll continue to try to move Wilson and Grabow, maybe big daddy LaRoche, Sanchez, and Snell, too, sometime between now and the trading deadline.

The team will cross their fingers and hope that an outfielder with a little pop will drop into their price range. It's likely that Andrew McCutcheon will finally get his long-awaited call to the bigs, along with perhaps Daniel McCutchen, sometime during the year.

And there's always the off-chance that Dirt Dog Doug Mientkiewicz will be back, although we wouldn't recommend holding your breath waiting on his return. Ditto for Jason Michaels, Denny Bautista, Raul Chavez and Jason Davis, unless they come back cheap.

And that, folks, will be your 2009 Pirates, a team in the early stages of a full-blown makeover. Again. Let's hope these guys get it right.