Monday, November 30, 2009

Wil Ledezma

Hey, GW isn't in the habit of cranking out column inches on non-roster pick ups; heck, we'd still be trying to catch up from last season. But lefty Wilfredo Jose Ledezma is the exception.

The Pirates have made no bones about looking for a left-handed hurler or two to add to the bullpen, and we know the propensity for the suits to dumpster-dive, believing that quantity is as good as quality. The guy was DFA'd by the Nats, after all.

The 28 year-old (he'll turn 29 in January) Venezuelan has had quite the career. First, the way he worked his way into a relief role is kinda telling.

Ledezma holds an all-time MLB record: the most consecutive starts of six innings or fewer. He made 31 straight starts with six or fewer innings between 2003-06 - and that's with just 40 career starts under his belt!

After getting yanked from one of those starts in 2006, Ledezma stomped into the dugout, tore his cap up, and began eating it. Yum! Saving up his meal money, we guess.

In 2007, while visiting home during the All-Star break, he threw his papers in the washing machine. The Braves had to briefly put him on the restricted list until he could get a replacement visa & passport.

Anyway, here's his baseball 411. The Red Sox signed him in 1998. Ledezma was a Rule 5 pick of the Tigers in 2002, made it through the 2003 season, and pitched for them until 2007, bouncing between the majors and the farm.

He was traded from the Tigers to the Atlanta Braves for Macay McBride on June 20th, 2007. Ledezma was DFA'd on July 29th. On July 31st, Ledezma was traded along with Will Startup to the San Diego Padres for reliever Royce Ring.

On August 29th, 2008, Ledezma was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was non-tendered following the 2008 season, and became a free agent.

In January, 2009, he signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals, made the opening day roster, and then was DFA'd in May and released in July. Toronto inked him in August, and in October, Ledezma was granted free agency. Hello, Pittsburgh!

BTW, Greg Smith was Detroit’s scouting boss when they grabbed Ledezma in 2002, and there's where the dots connect. He also throws 93 consistently, a bit of a shocker from a 6-3, 150 pound guy. Now if he could only find the dish...

His MLB line is 15-22 with a 5.17 ERA. In 160 games, he's gotten 40 starts and worked 370-2/3 frames with 255 whiffs and 183 free passes. Control is his issue, but that's never scared off a Bucco bird dog.

Ledezma's minor league stats are pretty strong, though. He went 30-19 in 113 games, with a 3.51 ERA, splitting his time between starting and the pen. In 425-2/3 innings, he had 421 Ks and 160 walks.

All in all, he should be a colorful addition to the Indy staff come April.

-- Jeff Karstens and Justin Thomas made it through waivers and were assigned to Indy, joining Virgil Vasquez.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

#14 Jeff Locke

Jeffrey Alan Locke was part of the package that the Braves sent to the Pirates for Nate McLouth this past summer. The 22 year-old lefty (he just celebrated his birthday last week) is a highly touted arm, though his numbers have yet to approach his ballyhoo.

Rated as the #7 prospect in the Brave system by Baseball America coming into 2009, Locke was considered the number two lefty in their organization, behind only Cole Rohrbough.

Other teams knew of his upside; the Pirates had him on their wish list when the Braves made inquiries about Jay Bay in 2008, and during the last offseason, the Padres wanted him included in any potential Jake Peavy talks.

That's a lotta love for a New Hampshire kid that hasn't reached AA ball yet.

Born in New Concord, he pitched scholastically for A. Crosby Kennett High School. Going by the moniker of "The Redstone Rocket", (he hails from the Redstone neighborhood), the 6'2", 180 pound hurler was the first selection of the Braves in the second round in the 2006 draft.

He signed for $675K quickly enough to get some work with the GCL Braves. In 2007, he was moved to Danville of the Appalachian League.

Locke rolled through the Low A League, posting a 7-1 slate with a 2.66 ERA. He struck out 74 batters in 61 innings and walked just eight, with a WHIP of 0.918. The accolades rolled in.

He was rated the eighth-best prospect in the Braves farm system and the fifth-best prospect in the Appalachian League by Baseball America following the season, and named to their post-season All-Star team. The Braves picked him as the Danville Pitcher of the Year. Pretty heady stuff for a 19 year old.

In 2008, Locke moved up one more rung, to Class A Rome in the Sally League. He went 5-12 with a 4.06 ERA, but his peripherals were still decent. Locke more than doubled his workload, going 139-2/3 innings, with 113 Ks and 38 walks, with a 1.314 WHIP. As a younger guy, he stood his ground, and BA ranked him as the #14 prospect in the South Atlantic League.

He entered 2009 as the Braves #7 overall prospect, and was promoted one more step, to High A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League. Locke hit his first bump in the road there.

Struggling with his control, he was 1-4 with a 5.52 ERA in 10 starts. The ability to miss bats still showed, as he collected 43 whiffs in 45-2/3 innings, but his command disappeared, as he walked 26 guys and ran up a WHIP of 1.599.

Then, on June 3rd, the Braves traded Locke to the Pirates along with Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernández in exchange for Nate McLouth. The Bucs assigned him to the Lynchburg Hillcats, also in the Carolina League.

Locke pitched better with the change of scenery, going 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA, and his command returned. His K's dropped to 56 in 81-2/3 innings, but his walks were cut down to 18, just about two free passes per nine innings.

He's still raw, and the Pirates are tinkering with his mechanics. It's also probable that they had him throwing more heaters rather than mixing his stuff; the first commandment for young pitchers in the Buc organization is developing fastball command before working on the soft stuff.

Locke throws a sinking fastball in the 91-94 MPH range, has a plus curve that he delivers in the mid-70's, and is working on a change up. He keeps his pitches down, and has had very good groundball and home run rates throughout his career.

One red flag was his .360 opponent's ball-in-play average in 2009. That's high, and could be rooted in any one of several areas: command issues, a high ratio of fastballs per Pirate instructions, or a leather-challenged infield at Lynchburg. It's most likely a combination of the three, but still bears watching.

The other problem is repeating his delivery, and that's the mechanical issue the Pirate staff is working on now. It's not an unusual problem, especially with guys that were drafted straight out of high school. That may have been his bugaboo at Myrtle Beach, as an erratic motion leads to control problems.

He's been young at every level he's worked, and is still honing his craft. Locke's projection is as a number 2 or 3 man in a MLB rotation, and he's still on track to reach the show by 2012-13. But like virtually all high school draftees, it takes a little longer to get it together, and continued improvement is never a sure thing.

Locke has been on a level-per-year track, and we expect that to continue in 2010 with him moving up to Altoona.

(Next - #13 Bryan Morris)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

#15 - Neil Walker

Neil Walker is the Pittsburgh Kid. Born and raised in Gibsonia, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Walker, he was a record-breaker at Pine-Richland High.

Walker graduated in 2004 as a star catcher on the Ram's baseball team and an outstanding wide receiver for the football team. And we mean he was all that.

He was a three-year starter at receiver. As a senior, Walker had 68 grabs for 1,128 yards and led Pine-Richland win the WPIAL Class AAA title. He played in what many consider the greatest championship game in state history, a 39-38 double overtime loss to Manheim Central that was played in a snowstorm.

Walker was an Associated Press First-Team All-State selection as a senior and was a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gridiron "Fabulous 22" two-time selection as a junior and senior.

Fuhgedaboutit in baseball. Walker hit better than .500 three years in a row. As a junior in the 2003, he played in the junior Pan-Am Cup. Walker was the DH for Team USA and batted .310 with a slugging percentage of .483.

Walker capped it with a brilliant senior season, hitting .657 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs. He had 9 doubles, a triple and scored 41 runs. He struck out twice all season. The catcher's slugging percentage was 1.403.

He was lights out in the postseason, too, hitting .765 in five games, and guess what - the Rams won the WPIAL baseball championship, too. He was a two-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year.

Walker also played for Jim Leyland's Beaver Valley Baseball Club. Geez, how hometown can you get? Well, how about getting drafted in the first round by the Pirates?

In 2004, they made him their top selection, 11th overall. He inked a deal for $1,950,000, and was off to the rookie league Bradenton team. Walker hit .271 there and was named the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League. Late in the year, he moved up to the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters and batted .313.

Promoted to the Hickory Crawdads in 2005, Walker hit .301 with 12 homers, 33 doubles, and 68 RBI. He made the South Atlantic League All-Star team as catcher, and got a cup of coffee in High A Lynchburg.

But a couple of holes were beginning to pop up in his game. He only drew 20 walks and committed 22 passed balls in 79 games.

The Pirates decided to try converting Walker to third base, partly due to his defense and partly because of the presence of catching prospects Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino in the system. He began playing third in the 2005 Arizona Fall League, and showed he was athletic enough to handle the hot corner.

But he injured a ligament in his left wrist on November 9 in the AFL and got the knife, missing the early part of the 2006 campaign. He still wasn't at full strength when he returned to Lynchburg, still a catcher, in late May, and it showed.

He picked it up in late July and August, and hit .271 for the Hillcats, then was promoted in mid-August to the Altoona Curve, where he played just 10 games while battling a nagging illness.

Walker was converted to a full-time third baseman during 2007 spring training. He stayed at Altoona and hit .288 with 13 homers, 30 doubles, 66 RBI and 77 runs for the 2007 Curve, but led the team with 25 errors at his new position.

Promoted to the Indianapolis Indians in mid-August, he hit .203 in 69 at-bats.

In 2008, Walker hit a disappointing .242/16/80 for Indianapolis, and that year began to raise some doubt on his "can't miss" prospect tag. His OBP was a dismal .280, as his lack of discipline at the plate took its toll in AAA. Walker had a 20% strike-out rate and only a 5% walk rate. On the other hand, he was selected the league's top fielding third baseman.

He did a little better in 2009, upping his average to .264, his OBP to .311, and he banged 14 round-trippers and plated 66 runners in 356 at-bats, missing several weeks because of a sprained ligament in his left knee and a broken finger. Walker also improved incrementally on his walk and K rates, walking 7% of the time and whiffing 17%.

Walker spent most of 2009 in AAA, but got a September call-up to the Pirates. He collected his first MLB hit in his second start on September 6th against Jason Motte of the St. Louis Cardinals. The 24 year-old didn't exactly tear it up in Pittsburgh, though, hitting .194 with one double and 11 Ks in 36 at-bats.

The Pittsburgh Kid's star has fallen dramatically. In 2005, Walker was rated the Pirates' #2 prospect by Baseball America, then moved up to #1 the following year. He was #2 again in 2007 and 2008, and fell to #6 in 2009.

Why the drop? His performance just doesn't match up to his pedigree. In six pro seasons, Walker's career average is .269 with an OBP of .317, and he's only taken 65 balls yard, not very much production from a first-round, middle-of-the-order hopeful. While his strikeout rate of 17% isn't excessively high, his plate discipline needs a lot of work; he's still very much a hacker at the dish. And, of course, the prospect pool has gotten a bit deeper in the past two years.

On the other hand, he's switched positions without a peep, and made the transition to third base pretty well. And he never did get much chance to get comfortable and show his stuff in September, probably because his call-up coincided with Andy LaRoche finally finding his stroke.

But it has to be in his head that he's behind LaRoche and Pedro Alvarez, and for the conspiracy fans...

"I'm a young guy, and I feel like I can play at the major league level," Walker told Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette in August. "And if Pittsburgh isn't the place I make it, I'm confident there is somewhere that I will make it. I just really don't know what the future is for me with this organization."

"I just look at it like this: In any situation, in any business, new bosses come in and want their guys and are more comfortable with people they see as their guys. That's the situation I feel like I'm in. I'm not one of their guys."

Whether that's so or not - and Neal Huntington has said on the record that he thinks Walker has the ability to be an everyday player - what is clear is that Neil Walker's future in the organization is reaching critical mass, and he needs to explode. He's on the 40-man roster, but still has two options left, so we expect him to start out 2010 at Indianapolis.

And that will be interesting. With Alvarez zooming up the charts, where will Walker play long-term? They could groom him for a utility role, along with about a zillion other high-level players in the organization.

There's always the outside chance that he'll move back behind the plate with Robby Diaz gone, where his bat projects better, although the brass have given no indication that they plan on that move.

The Pittsburgh Kid has become the Pittsburgh Puzzle.

(Next - #14 Jeff Locke)

Friday, November 27, 2009

#16 - Brian Friday

Brian Friday came to the Bucs in 2007, as the third round pick of the draft from Rice. He fit the mold of Littlefield-era shortstops, speedy, good glove, and contact hitter.

The 23 year-old (he'll be 24 next month) was born in Houston, Texas, where he was a stalwart of the Episcopal High squad, graduating with a .420 batting average.

It was off to the Owls, where he started 36 games as a true freshman.

In 2006 he was named All-America by Baseball America (first team), the College Baseball Foundation and Rosenblatt Report (second team), and Collegiate Baseball (third team), beside being All Conference USA. Friday hit .353, and was part of 40 of Rice's 60 DPs that season.

He was strong again in his junior year of 2007, as he compiled a .336 batting average with a .418 OBP in 280 at-bats, and left for the pro ranks after earning trips to the College World Series twice in his three seasons.

Friday signed early enough (in mid-July for $355K) to get some quality time at State College, where he hit .295 in 156 at-bats with the Spikes. In 2008, he advanced to High A Lynchburg, where he batted .287 in 80 games, missing much of the latter part of the season with a cranky back.

But he did make the All-Star team, and Baseball America named him as the Pirates #14 minor-league prospect.

The suits kept him on a fast track, moving him along to AA Altoona, where they hoped he'd eventually bloom into Jack Wilson's replacement.

He started off afire, but an inner ear infection laid him low in the early part of the year. It took him a couple of months after his return to get back into the swing of things, but from July on, he hit at a .275 clip, more in line with his career numbers. Friday was an All-Star again in 2009 for the Curve.

After the season, the Bucs sent him to get him some work in the Arizona Fall League, where he was among five shortstops on Scottsdale's roster. They were hoping to get him some reps at second, but a slow start at the dish relegated him to part-time duty. He only got 49 at-bats, and hit .245 for the Scorpions while watching Chase d'Arnaud burst onto the scene.

Friday, who is 5-11, 180 pounds, won't ever be a middle-of-the-order guy. He projects like most Pirate middle infielders, either at the top or bottom of the line up.

He has the ability to be a two hitter. He's patient, got an OK eye, works a count, put together a .362 OBP, makes contact, and has 9% walk rate in the minors. Friday also has decent wheels, but that's never translated into stolen bases. He's just 29-49 in three seasons, a 59% success rate.

In the field, Friday has an above average arm and has major league range, particularly on balls hit up the middle. His biggest knock is that he's not aggressive enough attacking balls; he sometimes lays back and gets eaten up by the extra hop. As a result, he booted 25 balls and had a .948 fielding average, certainly not MLB caliber play. That may be why they're auditioning him at second.

One other problem that he has is self-inflicted. Friday gets down on himself after a bad play or game, sometimes carrying it with him instead of letting it go. As he matures, hopefully he'll turn his quest for perfection into an asset rather than a reason to beat himself up.

We expect to see Friday at Indy this year, especially with the posse of young Turk infielders ticketed for Altoona. He'll spend a lot of his time there flopping infield positions, alternating with Argenis Diaz at short and Luis Cruz at second. Brian Bixler, unless he makes the big club or gets pink-slipped, probably will be groomed as a utility guy/oufielder at Indy. It'll be a crowd.

Friday has his work cut out for him, with some players with MLB time ahead of him and a pack of puppies nipping at his heels at the lower levels.

He needs to put together a healthy season. When Friday's right, he offers a potential .270-.275 MLB bat that can move guys up, and can cover enough ground in the infield. A good season at Indy can give him some breathing room in the race to Pittsburgh, and allow the Pirates to let the pups get some innings without the rushing them to the show.

His progress has been steady and fairly consistent, and though he's still young, it's time for him to step up. The competition is closing in on him.

(Next - #15 Neil Walker)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Black Friday Reading List

OK, the missus is out spending the family fortune on Black Friday blue-light specials, and you're home with the remote. After the back-yard brawl, here's a list of posts to keep your baseball jones up to date on the Pirate future (which is all we fans have to hang our hat on this holiday):

-- Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has some potential movin' and groovin' by the Bucs in today's article "Pirates Winter Plan..." - just don't block anyone.

-- Tim Marchman of Sports Illustrated's Inside Baseball has a article on the hot stove chances of the Bucs "The Pittsburgh Pirates Are One Team That Can Get Better- On A Budget - This Winter."

-- Jen Langosch of offers "Pirates Building Talent Base."

She also has a piece on the new Dominican academy, and how it's using Thanksgiving as a cultural lesson for its players.

-- Marc Hulet of Fangraphs chips in with a review of the Pirates drafts, emphasis on 2009 but going back to 2007.

-- Tim Williams of Bucco Fans put together his list of the Top 50 Bucco prospects and their projections.

-- Scouting Book has a list of 2009's Top Fourteen Pirate pups.

-- Eric Mack of CBS Sports has his Top Five list, along with last season hot prospects.

-- John Perrotto of Baseball America has his Top Ten Prospects and other sundry awards and projections.

-- Andrew McCutchen added another feather to his cap, winning a spot on the Topps MLB All-Rookie team. Now he'll have a little trophy engraved on his trading card next season. The only other Bucco to get a nod at any level was Rudy Owens, who was named to Topps Class A All Stars. Do they even get cards?

-- And, of course, Green Weenie has its' own take on the Top Twenty Five and the dozen fermenting underneath.

-- Finally, Paul Sullivan of Sully Baseball reminds Bucco fans of something to be thankful for; the seventh game win against Baltimore in 1979, with a bushel of vignettes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Grave Digger: Richie Hebner

It's been awhile since ol' GW has made a trip in the Pirate way back machine. Today we're going to take a little journey back to celebrate November 26th, 1947, and its Thanksgiving birthday boy, old Bucco third sacker Richie Hebner.

Born Richard Joseph Hebner in Norwood, Massachusetts, he carved out an 18-year career in the show from 1968 to 1985, eleven spent in a Pirate uniform. He was a first round (15th overall) pick in the 1966 amateur draft as an 18 year-old high school player, signing for $40K in the pre-Scott Boras era.

Pittsburgh assigned him to Salem in the Appalachian League in 1966, then to Raleigh in the Carolina League in 1967, where he broke his hand punching the dugout roof, and jumped him to AAA Columbus the next season, temper and all.

Besides honing his craft, Hebner was on a time-share with Uncle Sam. Fearful of losing him to the Vietnam War, the Pirates arranged for Hebner to enter the Marine Reserves, grabbing one of the last two openings available. The teen was assigned to Parris Island, South Carolina for six weeks of boot camp.

At any rate, he came up for a cup of coffee in September of 1968, after the Clipper season was done, and never left the show.

He collected his first hit in 1969, off Bob Gibson ("I wanted the ball, but I didn't dare ask for it because Gibson looked so vicious," he recalled) and had the highest rookie batting average that year, .301.

Along with Al Oliver, he formed a much-heralded rookie duo for the team. Hebner was a left-handed line-drive hitter with decent power, and played an adequate third base, starting for five Pirates' division-winning teams in the early 1970s and the 1971 World Series champs. He roped the first hit ever to drop at Three Rivers Stadium, and drove home its first run.

Hebner was a lead-footed, station-to-station runner, and his value as an every-day starter was largely gone by his late twenties. He stayed in the majors as a platoon first baseman who could pinch-hit and play some third and outfield, notably for the 1977-1978 division champion Phillies and the 1984 Cubs.

A couple of public shouting matches with manager Bill Virdon didn't help endear him with the Pirate Nation. He flipped from a loveable rook that used to get marriage proposals in his fan mail to a guy the crowd loved to heckle, and that's probably the genesis of his team-hopping, along with the search for greener, as in bucks, pastures.

He made his debut on September 23, 1968 for the Pirates (and didn't even get an at-bat; he pinch hit with two outs and Freddy Patek was caught stealing), and took his final swing on October 3, 1985 for the Cubbies (and homered). In between, he played for Pittsburgh (1968-76, 82-83), Philadelphia (77-78), the New York Mets (1979), Detroit (80-82), and the Chicago Cubs (84-85) before he hung up the spikes.

He didn't exactly retire. The story goes that Cubs manager Dallas Green called Hebner into his office during spring training in 1986 and told him "It's time to go home and dig graves in the summer too, not just in the winter." Subtle, hey?

Hebner was famous for working as a gravedigger at a cemetery run by his father in Norwood at a time when major league ballplayers often held other jobs during the off season, earning $35 per grave. Heck, he didn't make six figures until he went to the Phils as a free agent in 1977, and topped out at $310K, less than today's MLB minimum wage.

Hebner compiled a lifetime batting average of .276 with 203 home runs and 890 runs batted in in 1,908 career games, having been a part of eight division winners. He had 97 three-hit games, 16 four-hit games, and 1 five-hit game during his MLB stay.

It's true that he never made an All-Star team during his long MLB tenure; in fact, eighteen seasons is thought to be the longest career never recognized by that honor. But Hebner was as dependable as an old pick-up.

His line was .276/17/76 over 162 games, and he only hit under .265 four times, reaching .300 twice. Hebner hit double-figure dingers eleven of his first dozen seasons. While he never had a season for the ages, he was as steady as a pro could be. That may not garner a bushelful of love, but it sure guarantees a long shelf life in the show.

And baseball might not have even been his best sport.

During his years at Norwood High, Hebner was one of the top scholastic hockey players in the United States. Many people in Massachusetts still consider him among the ten greatest players in state schoolboy hockey history, and he was offered a contract by both the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings.

In fact, then-GM Joe Brown went to visit him, and he was minus his two front teeth thanks to the rink. So the relative safety of baseball - and the fact that he wouldn't have netted more than $10K to sign with the NHL - made his decision to play for Pittsburgh pretty easy. Still, it would have been something to see him and Nyjer Morgan share the ice and trade slap shots.

But he learned to appreciate baseball, and he had played it the right way. So he kept on after his playing days were done. Hebner now has decades of coaching experience in affiliated and major league baseball, including six years as a manager and nine years as a hitting coach.

Hebner was hired as the manager of the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays, the single A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, where he led the team to a playoff berth in 1988. The following year, he was hired by the Red Sox, where he served as the team's hitting coach for three years ultimately helping the Red Sox capture the AL East in 1990.

In 1995, Hebner rejoined the Toronto Blue Jays organization as the manager of the AAA affiliate Syracuse Chiefs. He served two years as manager of the Chiefs before moving on to manage the Nashville Sounds, the AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Pacific Coast League in 2000. Hebner spent the 2001 season as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies coaching staff.

From 2002 through 2006, the former Pittsburgh third baseman served as the hitting coach for the Durham Bulls, the AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2007, Hebner was hired by the Birmingham Barons, the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, to be the team's hitting coach.

Hebner was the hitting coach for the Nashua Pride of the Independent Can-Am League in 2008 before the Orioles called him to their Frederick Keys club in the Carolina League as skipper, and that's where he's at now.

(Will and I wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Catching Up On the News...

-- Baseball America released John Perrotto's Top 30 Prospect list for the Bucs and named their toolsiest players, 2013 projected lineup, etc..

-- Jen Langosch of has a pair of tales: the Bucs are looking for catching help, somewhat a surprise after letting Robby Diaz go. Maybe there is a market for Ryan Doumit.

She also reports on the feel-good Arizona Winter League seasons of Chase d'Arnaud and Donnie Veal, plumping up their prospect resumes.

-- JJ Cooper of Baseball America put the gun on the 2009 Arizona League pitchers and their game-day heat. The Pirates: Donnie Veal (92.4 avg/94.6 max); Danny Moskos (90.5 avg/93.3 max); and Tony Watson (88.9 avg/91.3 max).

A couple of other guys you may be familiar with: Tanner Scheppers, who Pittsburgh drafted in 2008 but didn't sign. He instead inked with the Rangers in 2009 (95.9 avg/98.2 max) and Eric Krebs, now in the LA Dodger system as the PTBNL in the Delwyn Young deal (92.8 avg/96.1 max).

-- Chris Bahr of The Sporting News has these potential first-base FA match-ups for the Pirates:
"Hank Blalock, Rangers. Low-cost option for Pirates, Orioles.
Aubrey Huff, Tigers. Another option for Pittsburgh."

-- Bryan Bullington just keeps rolling along. After being bounced from the Pirates to the Indians to the Blue Jays, the KC Royals have just picked up BB, the first overall selection in 2002, signing him to a minor-league deal, according to Dick Kaegel of

The 29 year-old is 0-5 with a 5.08 ERA in the show, but 53-26 with a 3.82 ERA in the minors.

-- There was some hubbub a few days back when Scott Boras, citing a couple of articles, claimed the low-income clubs were taking home $80M from the MLB revenue sharing, luxury tax, and Central Fund before a game was played.

The Biz of Baseball's Maury Brown sharpened his pencil, and figured that the Marlins were the poster child for this season's po' boys, and probably will take home $73M. Now it's all a guess; MLB hasn't released their figures since 2005.

Still, the have-nots are pocketing a nice hunk of change. It'd be interesting to see the books. The payroll is the big kahuna, but there are hefty expenses in covering the minors, inking draft picks and international free agents, and shelling out for support staff both on the field and in the back room, travel, insurance, etc.

There's only one way that we can think of to clear the smoke - open the books. If you're spending the money on the organization and maybe paying down some debt, cool. If you're tooling around in a Lamborghini instead of a Caddy, you have some explaining to do.

Hey, if we can build you a spiffy new stadium, at very least you can show us what you're doing with it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

#17 Starling Marte

Hey, Rene Gayo may not always get his man, but in 2007, he came away with Starling Marte from Santo Domingo, and at a very affordable $85K. The 6-1 stringbean went straight into the Dominican League.

His first season wasn't anything to write home about - he hit .220 - but Marte was the Dominican Summer League MVP in 2008, hitting .296 with nine home runs and 44 RBI in 257 at-bats. The suits brought him stateside after that performance, and coached him up some in the Florida Instructional League.

Marte started 2009 at Bradenton of the GCL, but after seven games, they moved him up to West Virginia, even though he was hitless in the Rookie League. In 54 games with the Power, Marte batted .312 with three home runs, 34 RBI and 24 steals in 31 tries.

He dazzled the coaches with his play in center field, although there is some debate among scouts as to how much polishing he needs. But the Power management thought that he had a chance to grow into a five tool player.

Matt Forman of Baseball America said this about Marte in the Sally league:
Marte is a plus-plus runner with a very good arm. Defensively, he’s a solid player, but one manager had this to say about his defense — “He makes some plays where you say ‘Wow,’ but then you look and see that he’s got 800 errors, so you back off.” The numbers say he only had seven errors. At this point, Marte needs a little more mileage. He’s still learning pitch recognition and plate discipline, though he did put up solid numbers.
By August, Jim Callas of BA already had him rated as the Pirates #10 prospect.

And hey, they jumped him to High A Lynchburg in September. Marte debuted with Tony Sanchez, and went 2 for 2 with an RBI before leaving the game with a sprained ankle, ending his season.

Now he's back home in the Dominican Winter League, playing for Aguilas Cibaenas, after a quick repeat course in the Pirate City Instructional League.

So what's his 411? Marte's athletic, got speed to burn, although he'll probably be groomed for left in the show, has a strong arm, can make the great play in the pasture but screw up the one-hopper, and has "projectable" power. We'll see if he develops into a slugger; he has packed on 20 pounds since they've signed him.

Marte does need to work on his eye at the dish. He walks at just a 5% rate, and whiffs every 4 or 5 at-bats. So he's a toolsy guy that still has his work cut out for him. We think he's rated a bit high so far based on one breakout year, but if he can repeat, Marte will zoom up the charts. Physically, he's the real deal.

He turned 21 in October, and he'll be just about right age-wise for his next stop, High A Bradenton, as his journey continues.

(Next - #16 Brian Friday)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ramon Aguero...We Think

Hey, remember when Chad Johnson became Chad Ochocinco? Well, the Bucs have a guy who went through the same identity crisis when Samuel Vasquez became Ramon Aristides Aguero.

The Bucs signed Vasquez in 2006. He had a promising couple of years in the DSL, and came stateside in 2008. The new suits did their due diligence on him, and guess what? The fireballing righty ended up being Ramon Aguero, and changed ages from 19 to 23 quicker than you can sing "Happy Birthday."

Aguero, who hails from Santo Domingo, did something commonplace for Latino prospects - he took on a different name and lied about his age, all the better to add a few dollars to his signing bonus. Ask Enron and AIG about economic self-interest and the truth.

The scouts still liked what they saw, and Aguero-Gate never became a big deal to Pittsburgh; it's the price of doing business in Latin America. But it did change his track; instead of starting in the GCL rookie league, he was shipped to the New York-Penn short season A league because of his age.

And it looked like he still needed an alias, after going 1-10 with a 6.75 ERA for the State College Spikes in his maiden pro season, getting hit hard and often. Still, the Pirates were short on arms, and moved him on to Class A West Virginia in 2009.

He made three starts, and was pounded mercilessly. So it was off to the bullpen, where an epiphany occurred. Aguero turned into a stud.

Eventually becoming a closer, he split the season between West Virginia, Lynchburg, and Altoona. In 84 innings between the three levels, Aguero posted a 3.86 ERA, with an 8.04 K/9 IP and 3.32 walks. He was 2-4 with 4 saves in four chances. The light went on.

Aguero has a power arm and throws 95-97 MPH consistently, although when he goes beyond one inning his velocity drops. He also has a workable change, which makes him tough on lefties.

He's a work in progress; his command needs sharpened, and his reverse split (lefties hit .174 against him while righties hit .324 at Altoona) suggests that he still depends too much on a heater-change up combo.

Neal Huntington said "He's got a power sink with the makings of a breaking ball and a changeup. He has a lot of the traits we're looking for." He's jumped over Jeff Sues as the Pirates' top minor-league closer candidate for the time being, and was just placed on the Bucs 40-man roster.

The 6-4, 175 pound bean pole will start this season in Altoona, a bit long in the tooth for that level - he'll be 25 in December - but we expect him to end up in Indy before the season's done if he continues to impress.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Introducing Chris Jakubauskas

RHP Chris Jakubauskas, 30, (his b-day is December 22nd), an Upland (CA) native, is the newest member of the Bucco 40-man roster.

After finishing prep ball, the 6-2, 210 pound Jaku played at Oklahoma and Cal State Fullerton, but any hope he had of being drafted was ended when he underwent Tommy John surgery.

After college, he was an assistant coach for the Los Osos High School team during the 2004-2005 season while his arm was recovering. But the fire still burned.

Jaku continued his career by pitching for several indy teams, including the Lincoln Saltdogs, the Florence Freedom, coached by former Cincinnati Reds player Chris Sabo, and the Fullerton Flyers, where he was the ace, going 14-1 with a sub-3.00 ERA.

His odyssey in the backwaters came to an end when he was acquired by Seattle from Fullerton on June 13, 2007, and assigned to AA West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.

In 2008 Jaku played for three different levels in the Mariners organization, the short-season Everett AquaSox, the Diamond Jaxx, and AAA Tacoma Rainiers, where he spent the majority of his time, primarily as a starter.

He also visited the DL twice. The first trip was from June 13 to July 2 with a strained right shoulder, and he was back in the tub again from July 7 from August 27 with a strained left oblique muscle.

Still, he put up great numbers, going a combined 8-1 with an 1.88 ERA, limiting opponents to a .243 average, including a .196 clip against lefties, and a 1.09 WHIP. He averaged 8K/9 IP against 2 walks.

Jaku went into 2009 camp as a long-shot non-roster invitee, but pitched lights out for the M's, and finished camp with a 1.99 ERA. It earned him a spot on the opening day roster.

One huge reason was that the Mariner's had no lefties in the pen - sound familiar? - and Jaku was their best option, a right-handed LOOGY. Shades of Jesse Chavez!

He won his first MLB game on April 10. On August 22, the Mariners optioned Jaku to the Tacoma Rainiers. He was recalled in September and finished his debut season 6-7 with a 5.28 ERA, seeing time both as starter and reliever.

Jaku didn't miss many bats in the show, averaging 4.5K/9 IP, with 2.6 walks and a 1.27 WHIP. He also gave up too many long balls, 15 in 93 innings of work (1.5/9 IP).

Another red flag: Jaku had been bothered by soreness in his right shoulder before his trip back to Tacoma, and some blog and chat boards speculated that he had a slight shoulder impingement. Given his 2008 trips to the DL, that may bear watching.

Jaku has a fastball (88-92 MPH), curve (76 MPH; 12-to-6 break, his bread-and-butter pitch), and changeup (79 MPH; used as a "show me" pitch) tool kit with decent control, helped by a sharp downhill release that allowed him to record 45% of his outs via the ground ball. And he will work inside; he was fined last year for beaning the Indians' Ben Francisco.

Like Jeff Karstens, whom he replaced, he's a minor-league starter whose niche in the bigs is as a long man/spot starter.

He has all three options remaining, and we expect him to settle in at Indianapolis in 2010 to serve as an insurance policy for the Pittsburgh staff.

Winter Leagues Report

The Scottsdale Scorpions ended their season Thursday, finishing the Arizona League with a 15-16 slate. They had six Bucco farm hands (well, Donnie Veal was Rule 5; same thing), and here's how they did:

Donnie Veal, LHP - 3-1, 2.14 ERA, 21-1/3 IP (22K, 7 BB, .221 Opp BA)
Tony Watson, LHP - 0-0, 2.13 ERA, 12-2/3 IP (12 K, 6 BB, .152 Opp BA)
Danny Moskos, LHP - 1-1, 5.28 ERA, 15-1/3 IP (13K, 8 BB, .349 Opp BA)

Jose Tabata, OF - .392/1/21 (120 AB, 21 RS, 6-2b, 3-3b, 4-6 SB, .517 Slugging, .984 OPS)
Chase d'Arnaud, IF - .296/0/6 (81 AB, 12 RS, 5-2b, 1-3b, 13-15 SB, .383 OBP)
Brian Friday, IF - .245/0/7 (49 AB, 7 RS, 1-2b, 1-3b, 0-2 SB)

Guys in the Latin Winter Leagues (minimum 50 AB/20 IP):

Robby Diaz, C - .372/1/15, 12 RS, 86 AB, .863 OPS
Luis Cruz, IF - .318/1/6, 8 RS, 88 AB
Brian Bixler, IF - .300/5/12, 22 RS, 140 AB, .829 OPS
Neil Walker, IF - .267/4/16, 23 RS, 116 AB, .819 OPS
Gorkys Hernandez, OF - .233/0/3, 7 RS, 60 AB
Ronny Cedeno, SS - .216/1/5, 6 RS, 74 AB
Argenis Diaz, IF - .181/0/4, 10 RS, 94 AB

Jean Machi, RHP - 1-0-9, 1.16 ERA (23-1/3 IP, 16 K, 4 BB)
Derel Hankins, RHP - 0-1, 9.15 ERA (20-2/3 IP, 12 K, 10 BB)

Machi, in case you're wondering, is a 27 year-old that pitched at Altoona and Indy last year. He was 2-3-6 with a 2.08 ERA for the Curve and 1-1-6 with a 2.12 ERA for the Tribe. Opponents hit .202 off him in 2009. The Pirates signed him as a minor-league FA in 2007 from the Jays organization. Machi was originally Tampa Bay property, joining the Rays in 2000.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Forty Good Men...We Hope

Hey, David Bowie knew what he was singing about with all those Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. The Bucs set their 40-man roster today, and yes, there were a couple of surprises.

As expected, RHP Brad Lincoln, OF Gorkys Hernandez, and RHP Bryan Morris made the team. RH closer Ramon Aguero, a bubble candidate with a power arm, also was included.

Lincoln was Pittsburgh's first round selection (4th pick overall) in the 2006 draft. He went 7-9 with a 3.37 ERA in 25 starts with Altoona and Indianapolis. He pitched in the MLB Futures Game and for Team USA in the Baseball World Cup in September. Baseball America considered him the club's fourth-best prospect going into 2009.

Hernandez hit .262 with three homers and 31 RBI in 86 games with Altoona. He also batted .316 with 19 RBI in 52 games with Double-A Mississippi before joining Pittsburgh. He was ranked by Baseball America as Atlanta's fourth-best prospect entering the 2009 season.

Morris spent his 2009 campaign with Carolina League champion Lynchburg, and went 4-9 with a 5.57 ERA in 15 starts, imploding early on, getting himself suspended, and then finishing strong. He was originally selected by the Dodgers in the first round of the 2006 draft (26th overall), and was ranked by Baseball America as Pittsburgh's fifth-best prospect to begin 2009.

Aguero played at three different levels in 2009, finishing the season at Altoona, and posted a 2-4 record, four saves and a 3.86 ERA. You may remember him; he was signed as Samuel Vasquez in 2006, and suddenly became Ramon Aguero, adding four years to his age (he went from 20 to 24) this season. Gotta love the Latino baseball scene.

Two guys had to go; they were LHP Justin Thomas, a recent pick-up and no surprise, and C Robby Diaz, whose stick was thought to be potent enough to keep him on the roster. Have bat, will travel.

It also appears that are no irons in the Ryan Doumit fire now, and geez - how fast of a track is Tony Sanchez on?

The biggest shocker, though, was the claim of RHP Chris Jakubauskas off waivers from the Seattle Mariners. Jeff Karstens was the guy they DFA'd for him, meaning Phil Dumatrait, Jeff Sues and Anthony Claggett have made it through the first round of cuts.

CJ was sorta a surprise pick. The 30-year-old spent the majority of the 2009 season with the Mariners, and went 6-7 with a 5.32 ERA in 93 innings (35 games - eight starts).

Prior to signing with Seattle in June of 2007, Jakubauskas played four seasons of independent baseball. He spent 2007 pitching in AA and in three different levels in the Seattle minor league system in 2008.

So the Bucs liked the 30 year-old who was reclaimed from the indy leagues more than Karstens. Of course, cynics may point out that Karstens had reached arbitration eligibility this year, too; Jaku may never get there.

The Bucs said that Karstens and Jakubaukas are essentially the same pitcher, but Karstens was out of minor-league options; CJ wasn't. Interesting thought process; team control and value rules. Diaz was out of options, too. They say that they'd like to get Karstens and Thomas to rejoin the organization if they clear waivers.

Diaz will move on; he's obviously fallen behind Jason Jaramillo, and with Sanchez zooming up the charts, he needs to find a greener pasture. He helped grease his own skids by expressing his frustration to the brass at being third on the backstop depth chart.

The only guy they left unprotected with a betting shot at getting taken in the Rule 5 draft is 2B Jimmy Negrych, whose stick might be MLB ready, at least for a bench role. Shelby Ford is a Rule 5 darkhorse too, though he's less MLB-ready.

The suits may not be done, depending on who's freed up during the forty-man frenzy, whether they decide to open a spot for the Rule 5 draft in December, and any further signings of minor or major league FAs.

The up-to-date 40-man roster:

Pitchers (20):
Ramon Aguero RHP
Jose Ascanio RHP
Matt Capps RHP
Anthony Claggett RHP
Zach Duke LHP
Phil Dumatrait LHP
Joel Hanrahan RHP
Kevin Hart RHP
Steven Jackson RHP
Chris Jakubauskas RHP
Paul Maholm LHP
Brad Lincoln RHP
Daniel McCutchen RHP
Evan Meek RHP
Bryon Morris RHP
Charlie Morton RHP
Ross Ohlendorf RHP
Jeff Sues RHP
Ronald Uviedo RHP
Donald Veal LHP

Catchers (2):
Ryan Doumit S/R
Jason Jaramillo S/R

Infielders (11):
Pedro Alvarez L/R
Brian Bixler R/R
Ronny Cedeno R/R
Jeff Clement L/R
Luis Cruz R/R
Argenis Diaz R/R
Akinori Iwamura L/R
Andy LaRoche R/R
Steve Pearce R/R
Ramon Vazquez L/R
Neil Walker S/R

Outfielders (7):
Gorkys Hernandez R/R
Garrett Jones L/L
Andrew McCutchen R/R
Lastings Milledge R/R
Brandon Moss L/R
Jose Tabata R/R
Delwyn Young S/R

Dropped From 40-Man Roster:
Denny Bautista RHP
Chris Bootcheck RHP
Robinzon Diaz R/R
Eric Hacker RHP
Chris Hansen RHP
Jeff Karstens RHP
Steve Lerud C L/R
Justin Thomas LHP
Virgil Vasquez RHP
Tyler Yates RHP

Unprotected/Rule 5 Eligible Minor League Players:
Kyle Bloom LHP
Michael Crotta RHP
Michael Dubee RHP
Miles Durham 1B R/R
Shelby Ford 2B R/R
Jim Negrych 2B L/R
R.J. Rodriguez RHP

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bucky Williams

Wallace Ignatius "Bucky" Williams was born on December 15, 1906, in Baltimore, the third of Mathilda and Joe Williams' eight children. When he was a baby, his family moved to Formosa Way in Homewood, sending him to Holy Rosary and Crescent Elementary schools.

Williams will be given his final send-off where he started, at Holy Rosary, on Saturday. He died earlier this week, at the age of 102. With him goes a throwback to local baseball history.

Back in the day, Williams was a shortstop/third baseman for both the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. It's said that he may have been the last living Negro League player left in the city.

Only one Negro League player remains that has more years under his belt than Williams did. Emilio "Millito" Navarro, who just celebrated his 104th birthday on September 26th, was the first Puerto Rican to play baseball in the Negro Leagues.

Williams first took his place on the diamond at Homewood Field, now Willie Stargell Field. He played for one of Pittsburgh's early black teams, the Keystone Juniors, in 1921, and in 1925 wore the uniform of the Pittsburgh Monarchs.

Not very fleet afoot, the infielder was more noted for cranking out singles and doubles. But that was enough to land him a gig on the bench for both of the City's storied Negro League juggernauts.

He joined the Crawfords in 1928, and within a couple of seasons, they were drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands to Ammon Field in the Hill District.

Williams played for them through 1932, long enough to see Gus Greenlee buy the club and put them in their own ball yard, Greenlee Field on Bedford Avenue (now the Bedford Dwelling projects).

Williams disappeared from the Pittsburgh box scores for a spell after that. The big names may have been under contract, but the lesser lights got by passing the hat, and taking home $10-15 after a game was a big deal.

Still, he kept playing, jumping to the Cleveland ABCs in 1932, the Akron Grays in 1933, and Edgar Thomson Steel Mill team until 1936.

That year, he was married to Marjorie Carey, and got back into the Steel City swing of things, joining the cross-town rival Homestead Grays and spending his days at West Field.

Williams recalled getting his first - and only - hit off of Satchel Paige that season and throwing out burner Cool Papa Bell on a bunt were the two plays he most cherished. He returned to the Crawfords in 1937, and stayed with them until they folded their tent in 1939.

As a member of the Crawfords and the Grays, he played with greats such as Josh Gibson, "Cool" Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Martin Dihigo, Oscar Charleston, Buck O’Neil, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, and "Smokey" Joe Williams.

Heck, if you're going to come off of the bench, it might as well be because only the best were ahead of you.

Next it was off to ET full-time, where he lined ladles and played ball for their black mill team, while moon-lighting with the Monarchs in the early forties. In fact, one of his greatest memories is of his Edgar Thompson team defeating the Grays in an exhibition game.

Bucky claimed an overall lifetime .340 batting average, a pretty sweet stick, no matter what the level.

He moved from Swissvale to East Liberty, and his boy, David, turned into a baseball brat. Williams donned the blue suit and became an umpire for the East End Little League Association.

Marjorie died in 1977, and Bucky went to Penn Hills to stay with his son and his wife, Sheila, leading the quiet life of a steelworker's retirement.

But in the nineties, baseball took to its roots and rediscovered the black players of the Negro League. Williams took his first plane ride to Kansas City for a celebration bash at the Negro Leagues Museum in 1995. He was named an honorary member of the Negro League Legends Hall of Fame.

And every year, he was a regular at the Josh Gibson Foundation's Black Tie Gala event. The NLLHOF honored Williams during its annual Negro League Hall of Fame Week in early September, calling it an early birthday party. If they only knew...

(Bucky William's obituary is here, written by Kevin Kirkland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

#18 - Brett Lorin

Brett Lorin, 22, made his minor league debut in 2008 after being drafted in the fifth round by the Seattle Mariners.

Lorin had a 1.94 ERA and a no-hitter as a senior at Dana Hills (CA) high school, where he was a teammate of Tanner Scheppers. He was also a talented hoopster, averaging 15 points and 8 boards per game, and led the league in blocked shots. Oh, did we mention he was 6-7?

He decided to cast his fate in baseball, but struggled at the University of Arizona. After a medical redshirt in 2006, he had a 9.31 ERA in 10 innings of work in '07. Lorin transferred to Cal State Long Beach, and was 5-3 with a 2.61 ERA as a junior. The M's figured good enough, and took him in the draft, inking him for $170K.

Starting out in short-season ball and then advancing to low Class A in the Seattle organization, he was 1-2 with a 3.96 ERA. He worked 51-1/3 frames, fanning 61 but walking 25. Lorin was named Everett's Pitcher of the Year in the short-season Northwest League, the equivalent of the Pirates' State College nine.

Lorin started 2009 strong, going 5-4 with a 2.44 ERA for the Clinton Lumber Kings in low Class A, fanning 87 in 88-2/3 innings with an opponent batting average of .192.

He came to Pittsburgh in the Jack Wilson/Ian Snell deal, and was assigned to the same level at West Virginia. Lorin kept on keepin' on, going 3-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 5 starts.

Overall, the righty put together an 8-5 record with a 2.20 ERA, 116 K's in 123 innings, and slashed his walk rate from 4.3/9IP in 2008 to 2.6 in 2009, issuing 35 free passes. It showed in his WHIP of 1.049, pretty good stuff for a starter, albeit in the low bushes.

Lorin is a big guy at 6' 7" and 245 pounds. Because of his size, lack of experience - his college career consisted of 58 innings - and performance so far, he's an intriguing prospect in regards to his upside, drawing comparisons to Chris Young, the 6-10 Padre pitcher that started in the Pirate organization.

His fastball ranges between 88 and 92 MPH, topping out at 94, and scouts believe because of his height and rawness, he could add some velocity over time to his heat, perhaps getting it up to a consistent mid-90s range.

Lorin's best pitch is a sharp three quarters breaking ball. He's got a decent but still developing changeup. It's helped him master left handed batters, who hit him for a .191 average in 2009, and a .216 clip in 2008.

Lorin throws on a downward plane that gets the ball on hitters in a hurry, and that angle leads to missed bats and grounders. A key for him will be his command; it was terrible his rookie season, but improved greatly in 2009. He'll have to keep ahead of hitters to continue his rise, though, unless his heat becomes a little hotter.

According to MLB Prospect Watch, Lorin has the best chance to succeed of the Pirates trio of pitchers (Lorin, Nate Adcock and Aaron Pribanic) snagged from the M's, while Matthew Pouliot of NBC Sports considered him the sleeper of the trade. Baseball America rated him Seattle's 28th best prospect in 2009. Lorin's projected as a middle of the rotation arm.

Pittsburgh kept him at West Virginia last year instead of moving him up to Lynchburg to guarantee him some steady work. Lorin should start at High A Bradenton in 2010.

(Next - #17 Starling Marte)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

#19 - Jim Negrych

The 5'10", 180-pound Jimmy Negrych is from Buffalo, where he was born on March 2, 1985. He starred at St. Francis HS, where he hit .500 with 91 RBI, 11 home runs and 35 stolen bases before going on to have an All-America career for Pitt.

He started out by being named the Big East Rookie of the Year in 2004, earning Freshman All-America honors from both Baseball America and Louisville Slugger. Negrych finished second in the conference in batting with a .378 average and sixth in on-base percentage (.464) and slugging percentage (.592).

In 2005, Negrych hit .349 and set a Pitt record by drawing 44 walks. He led the Big East with 16 homers, was second with 59 RBI and was selected All-Conference. Baseball America christened him as an All-America as the best second baseman in NCAA Division I.

As a junior, Negrych continued raking with a .396 average, 11 homers and 60 RBI. His .515 OBP was 7th in NCAA Division I and BA picked him as an All-America for the second time. He became one of three Panthers to collect 200 hits during their Pitt careers.

The Pirates made him a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, and signed him soon afterwards for $150K.

Negrych stared out at short season Williamsport, hitting .267 while making the transition to wooden bats, heating up as the season went on. But the year ended abruptly for him in August, when he tore thumb ligaments while sliding into third base.

He was shut down for three months after surgery, and began 2007 at Class A Hickory. Negrych hit .287 in 84 games but his power dried up; many credit that to the thumb injury from the prior year. But he was hurt again, missing several weeks of action with an oblique strain. Negrych played second for the Crawdads, and did OK, committing 10 errors.

In 2008, he finally accepted the fact that he's not the long ball threat in the pros that he was in college, and quit trying to yank pitches.

Negrych cranks out line drives, and has pretty good gap power. He's patient at the dish, and his walks to K's ratio is almost 1:1. Throw in the fact that he finally had an injury-free year, and it added up to a break out season.

Negrych was named the Pirates' Minor League Player of the Year after posting a .359 batting average between Lynchburg and Altoona, fifth best in the entire minor leagues. He also ranked fifth in on-base percentage (.438), ninth in hits (170) and 12th in doubles (41).

Ah, but that glove. Not very toolsy, his speed, range, and arm are considered below-average, and the Bucs played him primarily at third, grooming him for a job as a MLB utility guy. Still, he booted 31 balls in 2008. They gave up on him being a competent hot corner guy.

The Pirates sent him to Hawaii in the Arizona Fall League to play second, his position at Pitt and one that better fits his bat (and mitt). He only hit .225 there, and the injury bug that he avoided during the season bit him again at West Oahu, as he lost a couple of weeks to a finger sprain. So that winter audition was a washout for the scouts.

He returned to Altoona last season, and they put him back at second base, where he showed some improvement. Negrych hit .272 there after an icy start, but again, he was lost in July when he had hematoma surgery after a collision in the infield with Brian Friday.

He'll be 25 next season, and should be the starting second baseman again at Altoona, although he could move to AAA, especially if Neil Walker makes the big club out of camp, he's seen as potentially blocking one of the Pirate pups as they rise in the system, or the suits figure it's put-up-or-shut-up time.

The clock's ticking on him, and Satchel Paige's old saw of "don't look back, someone may be gaining on you" is in play for him. The Pirates have a sweet collection of high pedigree draftees that they're fast-tracking, and they're quickly closing the gap. Negrych is also Rule 5 eligible this year, and presents the Pirates with a decision.

His play so far profiles him as a Delwyn Young clone, and that's a valuable commodity for any MLB bench. His organizational line is .307/.382.410, certainly nothing to sneeze at, and he has great plate discipline. But he's always hurt, and though it's nothing that's chronic, the injuries being more along the lines of bad luck (think Ryan Doumit), it's tough to make the club in a tub.

Another consideration is the status of Akinara Iwamura. The new Bucco second baseman is in his walk year contractually, and the Bucs likely will either ink him for a couple of more seasons or move him in July.

His future stay with Pittsburgh may well hinge on whether Shelby Ford can recover in 2010, or if Negrych can push him aside to provide Neal Huntington with a viable option at second in 2011 at a much cheaper price for the short term (along, of course, with the Andy LaRoche scenario).

It should make Indy a battleground for the two wanna-be second-basemen of the future with Aki as an interested observer.

The lefty is also probably ready for a bench role as an extra stick. ZiPS projects him as a .274 hitter in 2010; Chones has him hitting .267.

So the Buc suits have to decide whether to put him on the 40-man roster or risk losing him; there are several factors to weigh. Whichever way the coin toss goes, this is a make or break season for Negrych in determining if he's a major league prospect or poseur.

(Next - #18 Brett Lorin)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Odds and Ends

-- Not only do guys in the show get to become free agents, but six-year minor league vets get to check out the market, too. And according to Baseball America, the Buccos have a boatload:

RHP: Jason Davis (AAA), Eric Hacker (AAA), Lincoln Holdzkom (AA), Jorge Julio (AAA), Juan Mateo (AAA), Scott Nestor (AA), Jeremy Powell (AAA), Dionis Rodriguez (Lo A), Ty Taubenheim (AAA), Virgil Vasquez (AAA)
LHP: Corey Hamman (AAA), Bobby Livingston (AAA)
C: Hector Gimenez (AAA), Steven Lerud (AA), Miguel Perez (AA), Milver Reyes (AA), Steven Suarez (Hi A)
1B: Tagg Bozied (AAA), Larry Broadway (AAA), Brian Myrow (AAA)
2B: Josh Bonifay (Hi A), Ray Chang (AA)
3B: Angel Gonzalez (AA)
SS: Chris Barnwell (AAA), Pedro Lopez (AAA)
OF: Victor Igsema (DSL), Jonel Pacheco (AA), Jamie Romak (Hi A)

There are a handful they'd like to keep in the system, but it doesn't look like there's a Garrett Jones lurking in the bunch. You may also notice that 15 of the organizational soldiers are from Indy, where the suits have had to stock up with gray hairs until the pups rise through the system.

-- The Pirates have 72 hours left to set their 40-man roster. They have two openings, so we expect a little more shuffling before Friday comes to a close.

-- RJ Anderson of Fangraphs on short-time Pirate pine rider Eric Hinske:
For the third time in as many off-seasons, Eric Hinske will be able to select his next team on the free agent market. The 2002 Rookie of the Year is far removed from any shred of stardom and continues to etch out the career arc of a role player.

Last off-season Hinske was essentially frozen out of a job until the Pirates called. It’s easy to see the same thing happening this off-season, although Hinske figures to stick in the American League. Not because of defensive limitations or league favoritism, but because each of his last three teams have won the pennant and two of those teams won the World Series.
-- For those of you hoping for a Pirate-Mike Gonzalez reunion, don't hold your breath. Gonzo just signed with Scott Boras.


Hey, if you bring up Dave Littlefield's draft record, most Pirate fans begin popping arteries and their teeth begin to gnash. But give the devil his due; in 2005 he got it right.

That's the year he went to the podium and announced that Pittsburgh was selecting Andrew Stefan McCutchen, an 18 year-old from Fort Meade High in Florida.

In his senior year, the multi-talented McCutchen hit .474 with 8 home runs, 40 RBI, 45 stolen bases, and only 5 strikeouts. He also played football and ran track. McCutch was signed up to play for Florida, but $1.95M convinced the 11th overall pick that the time was right to turn pro.

Contrary to popular belief, the Pirates promoted him pretty aggressively. He never got to sit at one level until 2008, always being moved up the ladder.

In 2005, McCutchen went from the GCL rookie league to short-season Williamsport, hitting a combined .310. In 2006, he started at Class A Hickory and moved on to Altoona, skipping High A, and between the two clubs, he hit .294.

He started for the South Atlantic League's All-Star team that season, his first full year as a professional. At the end of 2006, the Pirates named him the organization's Minor League Player of the Year.

In 2007, he started with the Curve and was then kicked upstairs to Indy. That's the year he met his first taste of struggle, hitting just .265 overall.

In 2008, he was a very solid player, hitting .283. Talk was that the highly touted savior - though he shares the title with Pedro Alvarez now - may end up being just a good MLB player rather than the Joltin' Joe everyone had hoped he'd become.

Still, everyone wanted to see him do his thing at PNC Park. The Pirates held off. With a another losing season in the bag and Nate McClouth playing center, there wasn't any reason to bring McCutchen to the show and start his arbitration clock ticking.

Heck, he didn't even get a September call-up, although they brought him to the banks of the Allegheny just to acclimate him to the clubhouse routine. Guess they knew his time was about to come.

So it was back to Indy to start 2009, where he was hitting .303 in 49 games when the news came: Nate McLouth was traded to the Braves, and Andrew McCutchen was finally headed to the big leagues.

McCutch was ready. In five minor league seasons, he went from Rookie league to AAA, and had a line of .286/.362/.423 with 43 homers, 232 RBI, 330 runs, and 105 stolen bases. It was his time.

He got his call on June 3rd, and made his debut the next day, singling in his first at-bat off the Mets' Mike Pelfrey.

On June 17th, McCutchen hit his first career home run off of Francisco Liriano of the Twins. On June 25th, he had his first career walk-off hit off of Indians' reliever Matt Herges.

On August 1st, McCutch had his most memorable evening. Against the Nats, he went 4-for-5 with three home runs and six RBI. He became the tenth Pirate to hit three home runs in a single game, and the first Pirate rookie to ever do it.

He collected his first walk-off home run off of Brad Lidge of the Phillies on August 25th.

In 108 games, McCutchen had a line of .286/.365/.471 with an .836 OPS. He hit a dozen homers, 26 doubles, and nine triples while stealing 22 bases. McClutch drove in 54 runs, scored 74, and hit .324 with runners in scoring position.

His glovework was also as advertised, although his UZR was -1.0. Like most speedy center fielders, he plays fairly shallow. McCutchen has shown the ability to track down balls over his head, although he could do a better job with his reads at balls hit right at him.

His arm is above average, but he needs to improve its accuracy. Overall, he's a very good outfielder, better than McLouth, but has a ways to go. The raw ability is there, but positioning and route-running take time to become second nature.

The baseball world sure took notice of his debut. McCutchen was named the Baseball America Rookie of the Year for 2009, and was fourth in the Baseball Writer's race, garnering a pair if first place votes.

The only question is how much upside does he left to reach, or simply stated, how good can he be?

McCutchen is a little guy at 5-11, 175 pounds, and that may limit his home run production, though his legs guarantee a bushel of doubles and triples. He's got unrealized potential in the field, and at 23 (his birthday is in October) has time to learn the nuances.

His comparable at age 22 is Grady Sizemore, and that's not bad company to be in. Sizemore has more size and power; McCutchen is faster. Otherwise, pretty even match.

Which leads to the big question about McCutchen: what's his future in Pittsburgh? He's young, is a well-spoken team face, and is quietly a leader - or didn't you notice how Lastings Milledge, the devil incarnate in New York and Washington, has become Mr. Peepers under McCutch's wing?

Pirate fans fear that he's gone after, or maybe during, his arb years. Neal Huntington has stated that McCutchen is a guy to build around, but we've heard that song before. Blogger Josh Taylor hopes for a different scenario.

Huntington was in Cleveland when the Indians signed Sizemore to a six-year deal. He suggests that the Pirates work on tying him up through arbitration and early free agency just like the Tribe did with Grady; it ended up a win-win for both.

Now that flies against all that the suits hold holy, and does carry some risk, but it sure would send a welcome message to the Pirate Nation, and the team. But we'll see how Pittsburgh handles its brave new world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shortstop Smoke & McClutch

Matthew Pouliot of Circling the Bases has this to say about Pittsburgh and its shortstop outlook:
If the Pirates had come up with J.J. Hardy to go along with Akinori Iwamura, then they probably would have moved on from (Ronny) Cedeno. However, the former Cub was adequate after being acquired from the Mariners last season and he's only due $1.2 million or so in arbitration. Odds are that he'll stick around.
He also said that he expects to Pirates to make a play for Kahlil Greene.
A team with nothing to lose, such as the Pirates, Astros or Nationals, could sign him and hope for the best. He's just 29, and he still has 25-homer power. Prediction: Pirates - one year, $2 million
If they're looking at free agents, we'd rather they grabbed oldie but goodie Alex Gonzalez, who can probably be had for $2-3M in 2010. The Rays are also shopping Reid Brignac. Even old Bucco farmhand Brent Lillibridge of the White Sox is available.

-- Aaron Gleeman of CTB said this about the BBWAA ROY vote, won by Chris Coghlan of the Florida Marlins:
My guess is that not many of the 32 writers who cast ballots cared that Coghlan beat (Andrew) McCutchen by only 14 points of OPS or spent a lot of time factoring in Coghlan's poor defense in left field compared to McCutchen's good defense in center field, let alone making positional adjustments for their offensive production. Baseball analysis has come a long way in recent years, but for 32 beat reporters casting ballots batting averages and headlines still carry the day.
Gleeman wrote this about Garrett Jones:
Of course, on a per-plate appearance basis, Garrett Jones was the best rookie hitter in the league. He was amazing, but playing just 82 of 162 games keeps him from ranking higher on my ballot.
(He had him pegged as the fifth best NL rookie; he finished seventh.)

Garrett Jones

Hey, it's pretty depressing to be a long-time minor league vet toiling away on the farm, all the while knowing that you're blocked from making the big club no matter what you do. Try vaulting talent like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and Jason Kubel. BB King would feel blue for you.

That's the situation Garrett Jones found himself in at Minnesota. He had spent parts of eleven seasons and over 1,000 games in the minors, where he was a middlin' prospect who had hit 36 homers and driven in 162 runs during the 2007-08 seasons while hitting .280.

But overall during those years, Jones hit .258 with 158 HR’s, a .312 OBP, and 629 RBI in 4,185 AB’s, not exactly a line to make Morneau and Cuddyer peek over their shoulders in fear of their jobs.

Drafted in the 14th round of the draft in 1999 by Atlanta out of high school, Jones sent three seasons in the Brave bushes, where he was released and taken in by the Twins. He spent from 2005 on at AAA Rochester, serving as an insurance policy for the big club.

Jones had a stop in the show in 2007 and fizzled, hitting .208 with 2 homers in 77 at-bats for the Twins after being called up three different times. Heck, he was even taken off the 40-man roster and waived in 2008, and no one claimed him.

His knock was that he swung out of his shoes, and as a result struck out 958 times in the minors. Everyone thought the 28 year-old was a quad A player.

And with that rep, it was no surprise that the Pirates inked him to a minor-league free agent contract in late December, 2008. After all, the Pirates were ground zero for AAAA talent.

Actually, the truth is he was semi-recruited by Tom Gorzelanny after the season, a brother Illinois native (Jones hails from Harvey) who sold him on the Pirates' plan to remake the roster. Little did Gorzo know how thorough a sweeping was in store!

He wrangled an invite to camp, and went pretty deep into spring training, batting .294 with four homers in 51 at-bats. Jones carried that over to Indy, where he hit .307 with 12 homers and 50 RBI in 277 at-bats, with a .502 slugging percentage and .850 OPS.

On June 30th, he got his ticket to Pittsburgh, and started getting some regular at-bats. With Brandon Moss struggling and Adam LaRoche gone, he became a major league starter, a goal that had long eluded him. And he took full advantage.

Jones finished the year with a .293/.372/.567 line and .938 OPS, adding 21 homers and 44 RBI. He was the Rookie of the Month in July, with a .310/.361/.700 line, 10 homers, and 17 RBI. The 6-4, 245 pound slugger cooled off the next couple of months as the league's pitchers began to adjust to him, but he still hit .285 with 11 dingers and 27 RBI.

And on September 2, 2009, his second inning blast at Cincinnati was the Pirates' 10,000th all-time home run in 123 seasons, so his place in Bucco history is assured.

The major area of concern is his approach with runners on base. A .152 average with runners in scoring position is a red flag for a guy you want to plant in the middle of the order. That may just be a blip; he didn't have much of a split between RISP and season batting averages in the minors.

He also had a pretty big righty/lefty split, and that's been a career-long issue with him. Jones had a .333 average against righties, and .208 against lefties. Steve Pearce hit .268 against LHP and .174 against RHP, so we'd suppose the thought of platooning them is at least being considered for early 2010. Spring camp should sort that out.

His fielding was just OK. He had a +2.4 UZR at first, and a -6.9 UZR in right. He had about the performance you would expect for a big galoot first baseman transplanted to the outfield, often struggling with routes, leading to balls rolling to the wall.

But his range was acceptable, as was his arm; he wasn't Manny-like. And he had only played 234 games in the pasture in the minors, so it wasn't exactly like he was getting back on the bike in right field.

Still, there's little doubt he's better suited to be a first baseman, and by mid-season Jose Tabata (or Lastings Milledge) and Brandon Moss should be patrolling the Clemente Wall, relieving him of that duty.

His performance was duly noted by Baseball America, which named him to its All-Rookie team at the end of October.

But the question is: Is he a one-shot wonder, or a late bloomer? His last two months project him as a .280's hitter with 30 home run potential. But the NL pitching coaches have an entire off season to put together a book on him, so the cat-and-mouse game of adjustments will be telling in 2010.

His age shouldn't be an albatross. Jones is exactly what the Pirates lust for, a player that won't be arbitration eligible until 2012. So his near future here should be based on performance, not the Grecian Formula factor.

And there is a good example out there of a guy that figured it out later rather than sooner. Kevin Millar started out at the age of 27, and he put together a pretty good decade since then before injuries caught up to him.

One thing's for sure. Unless something out of the blue strikes, he'll celebrate his first opening day ever as a major leaguer when April 2, 2010, rolls around.

(The Baseball Writers' Association of America begins handing out its postseason awards today, with the National League and American League Rookie of the Year honors up first. The two winners will be announced at 2 p.m. So we thought we'd give a little love to the Bucs pair of candidates, Jones and Andrew McCutchen, who will be featured tomorrow.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

#20 Jordy Mercer

The Pirates drafted Jordy Mercer in the third round of the 2008 MLB draft. Baseball America had him ranked as the best prospect in Oklahoma and the 64th best overall player, so he was a bargain pick.

Mercer was All-State at Taloga High School in Oklahoma, and was picked in the 26th round of the 2005 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but opted to attend Oklahoma State.

While he was there, he played for Team USA in 2007, both as a pitcher and position player (he was the closer and starting shortstop for OSU). Mercer batted .330 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI as a junior with the Cowboys, and was named All-Conference.

He had 17 saves out of the bullpen over three seasons, but with an ERA in the high fours. It didn't take much evaluating to project the strong-armed (he threw at 95 MPH) Mercer as a shortstop. He also fit nicely into the American League mold of an offensive-minded middle infielder, a model that Neal Huntington and Greg Smith cut their teeth on.

And the Pirates were looking for one, despite (or because of) Brian Bixler, Luis Cruz, and Brian Friday. Besides Mercer, they also picked Chase d'Arnaud, Benji Gonzalez, and Jarek Cunningham to groom as middle infielders in 2008.

Fourth round selection d'Arnaud had a breakout year in 2009, and may have passed Mercer on the depth chart. And the Bucs drafted Brock Holt in 2009 and brought in Josh Harrington from the Cubs, too, just to keep it interesting.

He signed without delay for a bonus of $508K, and got right to the business of playing pro ball.

The 6-3, 200 pounder started in State College and then moved up the ladder to Hickory. He hit for a combined .250/.297/.366 line, with five homers, 20 RBI, and a 47 K's to go with 13 walks in 216 at-bats.

Mercer, 23, was promoted to Lynchburg in 2009. His line there was .255/.314/.400, with 10 homers, 83 RBI, a league leading 36 doubles, 93 whiffs, and 41 walks in 580 at-bats.

He played a lot of short and a couple of dozen games at third, as the Bucs juggled their infielders around both to improve their versatility and to find places in the field for their kiddie posse of infield candidates.

It's certainly not that he can't handle the position. Mercer was considered one of the best pure shortstops in the 2008 draft, tall and athletic. Defensively, he has good range, soft hands, and a rifle arm, and was part of 86 twin-killings from short in 2009, and started seven DPs while he manned the hot corner.

Scouts also consider him a corner outfield possibility if push comes to shove, but until the Pirates are backed into a corner where they have to decide among their prospects, his greatest value is at shortstop.

On offense he has some pop, although it's shown up as gap power so far in A Ball. The old scouting adage is that power comes only with experience for young hitters, and doubles are the early indicator of impending long balls. Mercer should be golden if that holds true. And his production was solid, with 83 runs driven in.

But he still needs a lot of work on his pitch discipline and recognition. Reports say that he's a sucker for breaking balls in the dirt, a common malady at every level and one that he'll have to develop the vision and patience to correct.

Mercer improved both his walk and strikeout ratios a bit in 2009, although neither raises a glaring red flag. His on-base and slugging percentages went up, too. But he has a ways to go yet at the dish. That .250-range batting average has to come up too.

The Pirates are pushing their prospects through the pipeline as fast as they can go, so we expect to see Mercer in Altoona next season, where the battle between he and Chase d'Arnaud should continue. And it's about time we see prospects duke it out in the Pirate system instead of being anointed.

(Next - #19 Jim Negrych)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Doumit Done?

-- A little more on the Bucco bid to land JJ Hardy, from Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports: "The Brewers did not want Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit for shortstop J.J. Hardy. They also did not want another player the Pirates suggested, right-handed reliever Matt Capps.

No, the Brewers' preference from the Pirates, according to a major-league source, was one of two left-handed starters, Zach Duke or Paul Maholm. The Pirates said no."

Doumit for Hardy? Guess he is on the market. The Fox duo speculates that the Giants, Mariners, and Rays could use a player like Doumit, but caution that they're not aware of any interest or even conversation regarding him so far.

He does have a club-friendly contract for the next two years, with team options for 2012-12, and had a slugging percentage of .501 and OPS of .858 as recently as 2008. Doumit can also play a corner outfield spot or first; he's not necessarily anchored behind the dish.

Maybe the Bucs just got tired of the injuries and his little pout attack. After all, they didn't really miss him when he was out with his broken wrist, though it does seem they're trying to move him at a low value point of his career.

Anyone got any good deals in mind for Doumit?

2010 ZiPS

The 2010 ZiPS Projections have been released, and here's what the 2010 Pirates, if they don't make any more moves, are profiled to hit:

CF - Andrew McCutchen (.281/15/72, 27 stolen bases)
2B - Akinora Iwamura (.286/4/31)
RF - Garrett Jones (.285/24/78)
C - Ryan Doumit (.276/12/52)
3B - Andy LaRoche (.260/12/61)
LF - Lasting Milledge (.272/9/42)
1B - Steve Pearce (.268/19/85)
SS - Ronny Cedeno (.252/9/38)

UT - Delwyn Young (.269/8/46)
UT - Ramon Vazquez (.253/4/24)
UT - Brandon Moss (.259/11/56)
UT - Jason Jaramillo (.264/6/36)
UT - Neil Walker (.260/16/84)

?? - Pedro Alvarez (.233/22/84 - 500 at bats)
?? - Jose Tabata (.266/6/37 - 400 at bats)

And yes, we'd like a shot of whatever they were drinking when they came up with Pearce and Walker's line. Still, an improvement over last year's projected production.

SP - Zach Duke (9-13/4.76)
SP - Paul Maholm (9-11/4.34)
SP - Ross Ohlendorf (7-12/5.03)
SP - Charlie Morton (11-11/4.12)
SP - Daniel McCutchen (8-13/4.99)

RP - Matt Capps (3-3/3.88)
RP - Joel Hanrahan (3-3/4.04)
RP - Evan Meek (1-1/4.55)
RP - Jeff Karstens (5-7/4.87)
RP - Kevin Hart (6-10/4.83)
RP - Jose Ascanio (3-4/4.32)
RP - Steve Jackson (3-5/5.02)

?? - Brad Lincoln (6-10/5.14 - 120 IP)
?? - Jeff Sues (3-5/4.92 - 80 IP)

We're thinking that the numbers on Ohlendorf, Meek, and to a degree, Morton, are skewed by sample size; none have very many innings yet. In fact, this is the area that should show the most fluctuation in projected performance. Except for a handful of guys, none of them has established much of a baseline yet.

Baseball Think Factory, which produces ZiPS, thinks:
"This will probably shock absolutely nobody, but the Pirates won't be a very good team in 2010.

The Bucs will spend 2010 trying to sort out some of the talent they've acquired in the last year. There's not a whole lot of must-play star talent that will make some of the decisions easy (aside from McCutchen), so the team's going to be tested at how to find playing time for all of Walker, Milledge, Tabata, and Moss, among other questions. Some of the non-stathead Pirate fans are going to continue to be unhappy because Doumit and Duke should be the next to go.

So, 2010? Don't count the Pirates on getting too far into the 70s in the win column, but there's a lot more hope with the future of the team, if they continue to do what they're doing."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wisps of Smoke and Dock Ellis

-- Dave Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News reports that:
(Phillie GM Ruben) Amaro said that he has had discussions with clubs who are looking to move third basemen - he did not name names, but Pittsburgh's Andy LaRoche and San Diego's Kevin Kouzmanoff could be available - (but) he is focusing most of his attention on five or six prospective free agents.
-- Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports add this tidbit:
Pirates switch hitter Ryan Doumit drew interest from several teams during this week's general managers' meetings in Chicago, multiple Major League sources said Thursday.

The sources believe Pittsburgh would not hesitate to move Doumit, 28, in the right deal.
We advise you to take these reports with a grain of salt; the Pirates' Neal Huntington would trade Bob Nutting's nana if he was "offered the right deal." After all, grannie was a left-over from the Littlefield era. But hey, it's the beginning of silly season in baseball, and a hot stove can't be fired up without first creating a little smoke, right?

-- You can cross Jack Splat off the Pirate wish-list, if he was indeed on it. Wilson signed a two-year, $10M contract with the M's, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette.

Neither he nor Freddy Sanchez got their $8M ticket punched for 2010, but both made out better compared to what the Buccos offered. Wilson was offered 2 years/$8M by the Pirates, and Sanchez, who signed for 2 years/$12M, was offered 2 years/$10M, according to reports.

-- Great moments in Pirate history, 1970. This is a vid by the No Mas Crew, tying together animation with Dock Ellis' commentary on his famous LSD-inspired no hitter. Good stuff!

Justin Wilson - The Bulldog That Signed

LHP Justin Wilson was a popular kid. Out of high school, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 37th round of the 2005 draft.

And no wonder. At Buchanan High, he was one of the most highly touted recruits in California's Orange County. Wilson was a pitcher and first baseman, and he hit .350 and tossed 131 strikeouts in his senior year. He was the 2005 Valley Player of the Year and named to the California All-Star team.

But he cast his lot with Fresno State instead of the local pros. Wilson, a junior, ended up carrying the Bulldogs' pitching burden after Tanner Scheppers, staff ace and the unsigned 2008 Pirate second rounder, went down in early May.

He led them to the College World Series, where he started and won the title game against Georgia, striking out nine batters and allowing one run on five hits in eight innings of work. Next stop, Pittsburgh.

The Pirates selected him in the 5th round of the 2008 draft, and it wasn't an easy signing. The Pirates thought he overpriced himself because of his CWS success. Baseball America didn't have Wilson among its top 200 draft prospects, and slotted him as a 6-10th round pick, so the suits had already reached a bit for his services.

But the club and Wilson worked out their differences, and Wilson signed late in the process for a $195K bonus. After all the debate, the bonus was right at slot value.

Wilson inked his deal too late to pitch in 2008 season, and opened in 2009 at High Class A Lynchburg, an aggressive posting by the Pirates and at least a level higher than expected.

Not surprisingly, the 22 year-old (his birthday is in August) got a rude welcome to the Carolina League. He had an ERA of 6.58 from April through June. Wilson couldn't find the dish, and the results were walks and gopher balls, never a good thing from a young pitcher.

But he reversed course in the last two months, cobbling together an ERA of 2.61 and doing a solid job in his two playoff starts, as the Hillcats won the league crown. Say this for Wilson; his teams win.

He changes speeds well, and all of his pitches have great movement. He has average velocity on a fastball that hits 92-93 MPH regularly, a big curveball that often misses the plate, and a sharp slider that he controls pretty well. As with all Bucco hurlers, he's adding a change to his checklist.

With Wilson, his future is going to be a matter of throwing strikes; his walks and high pitch counts are his biggest stumbling blocks. His pitches have so much movement that he sometimes struggles with their location.

As he moves up the ladder, the more experience hitters will just sit back and watch his stuff slide off the plate. Getting into pitchers' counts is key for Wilson, allowing that liveliness to work for him instead of against him.

The Pirates pushed him aggressively last year, and we assume it'll be more of the same this season. He should start 2010 in Altoona.

(Next - #20 Jordy Mercer)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Making Some Room & Other Stuff

According to Baseball America, the Pirates are continuing their housekeeping.

They released RHP Yoslan Herrera, RHP Tyler Herron, 1B Kent Sakamoto, 3B Eddie Prasch, 3B Bobby Spain, 3B Brett Willemburg, OF Butch Biela, OF Justin Byler, OF Jason Delaney, and OF Jared Keel, while RHP Denny Bautista became a free agent.

Herrera, 28, was signed as a free agent from Cuba in 2007, and in 5 starts for the Bucs in 2008 was 1-1 with a 9.83 ERA. Bautista, 29, has pitched for five MLB teams in parts of six seasons, and has a career record of 9-15 with a 6.26 ERA.

Herron, 23, was a first round pick of the Cards in 2006 that the Bucs picked up on waivers, but never showed enough stuff to get past AA ball. Spain, 24, was in Class A, injured during parts of 2008 and 2009, and never featured the power or glove to play the hot corner, a crowded position for the Pirates now.

The other guys had decent enough stats, but were older players for their level, and with the last two draft classes looking for space to grow, were released to open up opportunities for the baby Bucs.

-- Pat Newman of the NPB Tracker (the Japanese version of MLB Trade Rumors) reports the Pirates have interest in 30 year-old free agent Ryota Igarashi.

He notes that Igarashi and new Bucco 2B Akinori Iwamura played together with the Yakult Swallows in Japan. Igarashi, a RH reliever, went 3-2 with three saves and a 3.19 ERA in 56 games. For his 11 year career with Yakult, he compiled a 3.25 ERA with 630 strikeouts in 570 innings over 507 appearances.

In Igarashi's profile, he's reported to "run his heater into the upper 90’s, and augments it with a hard splitter that he throws at around 90mph. He’s also got a slider and a curve that he’ll mix in occasionally, but is primarily a fastball/splitter pitcher."

He also could be had for under $1M; he makes $840K now in Japan. The Giants are the other team said to be in the running for him.

-- Jose Tabata, Chase d'Arnaud, and Daniel Moskos played in the Arizona Fall League All-Star game last week. Tabata and d'Arnaud each went 2-for-3; Moskos got lit up.

We're sorta surprised Moskos made the squad and Donnie Veal didn't. Veal is 3-0 with a 0.54 ERA, striking out 17 and walking just a pair in 16 innings for Scottsdale, while Moskos is 0-1 with a 5.84 ERA, with 11 Ks and 8 free passes in 12-1/3 frames.

-- By the way, if you like the idea of visiting Florida in March, the Bucs announced the Grapefruit League schedule for 2010 last week.

Here are the camp dates:

Feb. 18: First workout for pitchers and catchers;
Feb. 22: Position players report;
Feb. 23: First full squad workout;
March 6: Home opener at McKechnie Field versus the NL champ Phillies.

Bucco Bargains & Busts

With all the talk about the payroll, GW thought he'd pay a visit to Fangraphs and check out what the Pirates' 2009 performance was really worth. They place a free-market value on a player by his performance, as determined by his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) rating.

Here are some selected Pirates, showing their 2009 salary and then their Fangraphs value:

Paul Maholm (paid $3.5M; value $14.4M)
Akinora Iwamura (paid $3.25M; value $5.7M)
Matt Capps (paid $2.3M; value -$1.8M)
Zach Duke (paid $2.2M; value $11.2M)
Ryan Doumit (paid $2.05M; value $4.4M)
Ramon Vazquez (paid $1.875M; value $100K)
Ronny Cedeno (paid $822.5K; value -$2.8M)
Lastings Milledge (paid $452K; value $3.3M)
Joel Hanrahan (paid $420K; value $4.4M)
Brandon Moss (paid $414.5K; value $600K)
Andy LaRoche (paid $413.5K; value $11.4M)
Ross Ohlendorf (paid $413.5K; value $5M)
Kevin Hart ($407.5K; value $300K)
Steve Pearce ($407.5K; value -$2M)
Delwyn Young (paid $406K; value $400K)
Jose Ascanio (paid $405K; value $1M)
Charlie Morton (paid $405K; value $5.5M)
Brian Bixler (paid $404.K; value -$600K)
Luis Cruz (paid $401.5 K; value -$900K)
Phil Dumatrait (paid $401.5K; value -$3.2M)
Jeff Karstens (paid $401.5K; value $400K)
Robby Diaz (paid $401K; value $1.5M)
Virgil Vasquez (paid $401K; value $400K)
Evan Meek (paid $400.5; value $1.3M)
Steve Jackson (paid $400K; value $300K)
Jason Jaramillo (paid $400K; value $3M)
Garrett Jones (paid $400K; value $11.5M)
Andrew McCutchen (paid $400K; value $15.3M)
Donnie Veal (paid $400K; value -$1.2M)
Daniel McCutchen (paid $400K; value $200K)

First, a word of warning - Fangraphs values don't translate into what the player would get on the market to a tee, especially on the far ends of the curve.

We sorta doubt that Maholm is a $15M pitcher, McCutchen a $15M outfielder (although in a few years...?), or that Duke, LaRoche, or Jones would reel in $11M. And as much as GM's would love to write a clause that has underperforming players repay the team, that ain't gonna happen, either.

But it is a snapshot in time, and helps illustrate why the suits are so adamant about keeping players that are under their control, signing arbitration-eligible pups to team-friendly deals, and dumping guys approaching free agency.

And they do a good job of that; except for Ramon Vazquez, Ronny Cedeno, and the injured players, there's not a player earning above minimum wage that's anywhere near a bad (think Matty Mo) contract.

In fact, there are quite a few bargains - Maholm, Duke, Charlie Morton, Joel Hanrahan, Ross Ohlendorf, Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, and Jason Jaramillo are all considerably outpacing their paycheck.

Of course, that's offset a bit thanks to guys, who according to Fangraphs, should be paying the team to play: Phil Dumatrait, Ronny Cedeno, Steve Pearce, Matt Capps, Luis Cruz, Donnie Veal, and Brian Bixler.

This list of 30 players is valued at $83.1M by Fangraphs; the actual payroll amount for them last year was $25.35M. That's how much team control means to a franchise's bottom line.

But team performance is a different matter. The Yankees got $252.2 worth of Fangraphs production from a payroll of $201.6M for their top 30 players.

In our division, the Cards got almost as much production - $219.9M - as the Bronx Bombers, and spent just $125.5M to get it. And that includes all of Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz's deals, plus the Redbirds basically eating the contracts of Julio Lugo, Troy Glaus, and Khalil Greene.

The difference in payroll shows why the Yankees are the big boys. Not only do they spend, but they tie up players. The Cards are looking at a boatload of free agents and retooling the 2010 club.

But it demonstrates, in a down and dirty, back-of-the-envelope way (What you expect, a MLB regression study? Hey, GW does have a day job, too!) that the higher the payroll, the higher the level of performance of the team, even though the gap between spending and producing tighten. No shocking news there.

And it shows how deep the Pirates have to dig into their pockets to match the rest of baseball if they want to compete with the alpha dogs.