Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#3 Brad Lincoln

Bradley Eric Lincoln, born May 25, 1985 in Lake Jackson, Texas, is considered one of the few true prospects mined by Dave Littlefield.

He played baseball for Brazoswood High School. But he was a quarterback for the football team, too, and we all know how that goes in Texas; a lot like it does in Western Pennsylvania. Lincoln didn't concentrate solely on baseball until his junior season.

After his senior year, he showed enough stuff that the Texas Rangers selected him in the 28th round of the 2003 draft. He decided instead to attend the University of Houston.

Lincoln did OK there for the first two years, but really burst on the baseball scene with a strong performance in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League in the summer of 2005, and it launched him into a terrific junior season for the Cougars.

He was 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA, and had 152 strikeouts in 127-2/3 innings of work. At the end of the season, he was recognized as Conference USA Player of the Year.

Bad Brad also won the Dick Howser Trophy (national college baseball player of the year) and the Brooks Wallace Award (the most outstanding college shortstop; he hit .295 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI). Lincoln was also one of finalists for the Roger Clemens Award, losing to Andrew Miller of the University of North Carolina.

He also was named to the Louisville Slugger, Pro-Line Cap/National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and Baseball America All-America First Teams as a DH/utility player.

Scouts all loved him, and despite that, the Pirates chose him with the fourth overall selection of the first round in 2006. Lincoln inked a $2.75M deal, and the Bucs had plans to fast-track their budding ace.

Lincoln's right wing had other ideas. He almost immediately encountered injury problems; an oblique strain limited him to 24 innings in 2006. It didn't get better.

The pain continued through spring training, and it was off to see Dr. James Andrews for Tommy John surgery on his right arm in April. Lincoln was done for the year.

Lincoln returned in 2008, making 19 starts between low-A Hickory and high-A Lynchburg, and went 6-10 with a 4.69 ERA. He whiffed 75 and walked 17 in 103-2/3 frames. The results weren't there, but the command was and his heater was hitting 93 MPH, his pre-TJ velocity, and his curve was snapping. It was quite an encouraging comeback, considering he had just spent a year in the tub.

He started 2009 at Class AA Altoona, and after 13 games with the Curve, Lincoln had bad-luck 1-5 record, 2.28 ERA, and in 75 innings struck out 65 and walked 18. So it was off to Indy at the end of June.

His first four starts were miserable, but he picked up the pace and proved he belonged. Lincoln posted a 6-2 slate, 4.17 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and had a sharp 29:2 K/BB ratio in 41 innings pitched.

Between the two clubs, Lincoln made 25 starts, with a 7-7 record, 3.37 ERA in 136-1/3 innings pitched, and a 1.20 WHIP.

Lincoln then took Dan McCutchen's spot for the USA World Cup team, and the squad took home a gold medal. In his four starts, Lincoln had 3-0 record, 2.70 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and K'd 12 while walking six in 23-1/3 innings. He was placed on the 40-man roster this year.

Lincoln was rated the number four prospect by Baseball America in the Pirates' system coming into 2009. John Sickels has him rated #6 going into 2010.

He has a fastball that ranges between 90-93, and touches 95 MPH. He also has a plus curveball with a late break. And like so many other farmhands, he needs a change up; lefties hit 40 points higher against him than righties overall last year, and nearly 100 points higher in his time with the Tribe.

Lincoln's strikeout rate hovers around 6+ per nine innings, which is OK, but not overpowering. He's best when he's getting ground ball outs, and he had some problems with that in AAA.

He needs to keep guys a little more honest; his line drive and home run rates both went up significantly at Indy, too. That's partially a by-product of being around the plate so often, but also shows the need for him to develop a third pitch.

GW always liked Lincoln, but we project him more as a 2-3 pitcher, not an ace. And hey, that ain't bad. His comeback has been impressive, and we'd kinda like to see him settle into a rhythm at Indy and get a full season at one level under his belt. He'll be 25 in May, so age isn't a serious consideration.

That's not likely, though. Unless the wheels fall off, and there's no reason to think that will happen, he should be up at PNC Park by late June or so, avoiding the dreaded Super Two arbitration clock.

(Next - #2 Jose Tabata)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#4 - Chase d'Arnaud

Chase d'Arnaud, 22, is a Long Beach boy. He went to high school at Los Alamitos, where he hit .512 with 5 homers, 30 RBI and 32 runs scored as a senior in 2005. It was good enough to get him drafted in the 44th round by the Dodgers.

But instead of giving the Big Blue a hometown discount, he went off to Pepperdine. d’Arnaud hit .314 with 11 home runs, 17 doubles, 50 RBI, 52 runs scored and 10 stolen bases for the Waves in 2008, his junior season, playing third and short.

He topped his year off during the NCAA Regionals. In four games, d’Arnaud hit .429 with three home runs and five RBI and was named to the All-Tournament Team, to go along with his Honorable Mention selection to the All-West Coast Conference squad.

d'Arnaud was the Pirates' 4th round pick in the 2008 draft (114th overall), as the new suits loaded up with middle infield types. He inked a deal for $293K, and was sent to short-season State College.

The infielder put up solid numbers there and was a NY-Penn League All-Star as a third baseman. His line in his first year of pro ball was .286 with a .333 OBP. He had one homer, 21 RBI, and 26 runs while stealing 14 sacks in 16 tries.

In 2009, he split time for the Pirates' Class A clubs. In 62 games for Low A West Virginia, D'Arnaud hit .291 with 3 HR and 31 RBI, and had a .394 OBP while stealing 17 bases in 20 attempts. He was a Sally League All-Star, playing exclusively at shortstop.

On June 22nd, right after the All-Star game, he was promoted to High A Lynchburg. d'Arnaud hit .295 with a .402 OBP and 4 homers, 26 RBI, and 45 runs scored. He kept his larceny rate strong, too, with 14 steals in 19 attempts. He played both short and second for the Carolina League champ Hillcats.

He kept it going in the Arizona League, where he batted .296 with a .383 OBP, and swiped 13 sacks in 15 tries for Scottsdale.

GW has him rated this high not because of his tools, but because of his consistency and how he fits in the Pirate puzzle.

d’Arnaud works deep counts and get on base. His speed is good, although not overwhelming, but he knows how to get around the basepath and has an 82% base stealing success rate. He draws walks (12% rate), and while not much a banger, d'Arnaud has some gap power and uses all the field.

d'Arnaud has good hands and a decent enough arm. His range is a bit suspect, which is why the Pirates got him some time at second base with Lynchburg, especially with Shelby Ford's boat taking on water.

So what he looks like now is a guy that's not flashy, but a steady, hard-nosed infielder (did we mention he was plunked 17 times in 2009?) who projects as a second baseman that can hit out of the two hole, just what the doc ordered for the Pirates.

Baseball America likes him, too. They see him as the number #5 Bucco prospect for 2010, and predict that he'll eventually be Pittsburgh's starting second sacker.

His next stop is at Altoona. d'Arnaud will be 23 next month, and he's just about right on track for his background, playing at his fourth level in three seasons, and may end up at Indy before the year's played out.

He'll be chasing his little brother Travis, the 37th overall pick in the 2007 draft, who's now a catcher in the Blue Jays organization after the recent Roy Halladay blockbuster deal, to see who gets to the show first.

(Next - #3 Brad Lincoln)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

#5 - Tim Alderson

Timothy Curtis Alderson was born in Phoenix, and was all that as a high school pitcher for Horizon HS.

In his junior and senior high school years, he struck out 173 batters while walking only nine. Alderson went 12-0 with a 1.05 ERA as a senior, fanning 111 and only walking four in 73 innings, and threw 47 straight frames his final year without issuing a free pass. Baseball America named him first-team high school All-American.

The Giants selected Alderson with the 22nd overall pick in Major League Baseball's 2007 draft. They gave him a $1.29M signing bonus, keeping him from his commitment to Oregon State. The pick was San Francisco's second, after Madison Bumgarner, as compensation for the loss of Jason Schmidt via free agency.

He made his pro debut that summer with the Arizona Rookie League Giants, getting few appearances but striking out a dozen in five innings.

In 2008, he was 13-4 with a 2.79 ERA for the San Jose Giants. He led the High Class A California League in ERA, tied for third in wins with 13, and was fourth in strikeouts with 124. Alderson made the All-Star team at the age of 19.

After the season, Baseball America rated him the #6 prospect in the league, the #45 prospect in all the minors, and the #4 prospect in the Giant system.

Alderson began 2009 with San Jose and was 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA after five games. Still, he was promoted to the AA Connecticut Defenders, and went 6-1 with a 3.47 ERA.

On July 29th, the Giants traded Alderson for Freddy Sanchez. San Fran fans beat their chests in frustration at losing Alderson; Bucco backers bemoaned getting another junk-balling back-ender. Time will tell who's right. It always does.

The 6-7 righthander has a plus-plus curveball and terrific control for a young moundsman. His heater is so-so, ranging from 88-91 MPH, touching 94 with a stiff breeze behind him. His change is very much a work in progress, and he'll need it.

Left-handed batters were hitting about 60 points higher against him than right-handed batters, so the change will be a key to handling batters of the lefty persuasion as he works his way up the ladder.

His fastball also took a hit last year, being clocked in the mid-to-high eighties. There are reasons galore being thrown out regarding the loss of velocity. One is that the innings are catching up to him, and he'll get stronger as he adjusts to the workload.

Another has to do with his funky delivery. It's deceptive to hitters, and doesn't look like the sort of herky-jerky motion to stress his arm. But Alderson pitched exclusively from the stretch in high school, and the Giants had to work on developing a full wind-up for him. He's got a lot of moving parts when he throws, especially from the hips down.

The Pirates are continuing that make-over, which incorporates a longer stride, kick and step-over before he lands. It looks awkward, but he claims that it doesn't affect his release or its repeatability, and his control numbers seem to reinforce that view, as he walked 30 in 137-1/3 innings during 2009.

But he only had 84 strike-outs, too, working out to 5.5/nine innings. That's a big red flag at the AA level.

Ross Ohlendorf had the same loss of power when Joe Kerrigan toyed with his mechanics, and his velocity eventually returned. Of course, the league is littered with guys that never regained the touch, so...

In spite of the travails, Alderson is seen by most, though certainly not all, scouts, as a possible #2 guy and likely #3 in the show. He's a pup - he only turned 21 in November - who's been aggressively promoted in a short span, and he’s held his own while showing great control.

Alderson is ranked 60th overall by Baseball Prospectus in their Top 100 Prospects for 2009. Baseball America has him slotted as the #7 Pirate prospect.

The suits are giving him a chance to catch his breath in Altoona this year. If he learns to stick his landings and comes up with a viable change (he was mostly a fastball-curveball guy last year, and two pitches won't cut it), he could be in line to show up at PNC in 2011.

(Next - #4 Chase d'Arnaud)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Happenings

Hey, not much happens around Christmas in the big leagues. But if you tossed the daily rag out with the wrapping paper and are a little behind in the sporting news, here's the holiday tidings for Pittsburgh:

-- The Mad Capper signed with the Nats for $3.5M, with another $425K on the table in performance bonuses. The list of Littlefield's boys grows shorter...

-- The Pirates signed Jack Taschner to a minor-league contract, reports the Associated Press. The lefty doesn't appear to be the answer; his 2009 ERA was 4.91. What was the question, again?

-- Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has the Pirates kicking the tires of relievers Kevin Gregg and Octavio Dotal.

-- Jen Langosch of has a look at the Pirates internal options in the bullpen as they enter 2010.

-- Joe Starkey of the Tribune Review has an "In Depth Look At The Pirates Decade." The good, the bad, and the slapstick.

-- Scratch Justin Duchsherer from the hot-stove list of potential Bucco hurlers. He signed with his home boys, the As, for a reported $5.5M (including bonuses; his base is $2M) according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.

-- Ditto for Kelvim Escobar, who reportedly got an offer from the Pirates. He signed a one-year major-league deal with the Mets, according to Roger Rubin of the New York Daily News, financial terms undisclosed.

-- Pedro Alvarez has made John Manuel's Baseball America Top Twenty Prospect List, coming in seventh.

-- OK, OK, Pittsburgh isn't small-market, just low-revenue. Big diff, hey? Anyway, Maury Brown of The Business of Baseball has the year-ending payrolls since 1999 neatly totaled up, if you care to see just how low-revenue the Pirates really are. They are, not surprisingly, the tightest with a buck outside of the state of Florida.

-- NBC Sports Stan McNeal has a piece titled "Holiday Wish Lists For Every Baseball Team." For Pittsburgh: "A plan. After 17 consecutive losing seasons, they need one other than, 'Let's trade our veterans for unproven young players.'"

-- Everyone likes to pile on the Pirates. Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated has a piece on bad signings of over-the-hill vets and disses the current suits; maybe he thinks Dave Littlefield is still the GM.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Under The Bucco Christmas Tree

Hey, a Merry Christmas to all. We hope Santa took better care of you this year than he did the home team. So far the Pirates are looking at one shiny gift and a lotta lumps of coal.

After a ninety-nine loss year and a September that sank quicker than the Titanic, the Pirates had a lengthy list to send to Santa.
"Dear Saint Nick: I've been a good and thrifty boy this year. Could you shimmy down the chimney and leave me a bullpen, some middle infielders, and a corner/first baseman with some pop for Christmas? It appears that I've lost most of the old toy set you gave that urchin Dave and could really use some new pieces. Thank you - Neal"
Well, the jolly ol' elf did leave one nicely wrapped present, second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Unfortunately, he comes with a limited warranty; some think it'll run out in July.

And he did stuff a stocking with Bobby Crosby. Sadly, the batteries were not included, and he's badly in need of a recharge.

The bullpen? Hey, it's even thinner, with Jesse Chavez leaving in a gift exchange and Matt Capps donated to Goodwill. But the Bucs have collected a few grab-bags so far; maybe one of them will turn the trick.

Players with pop? Well, heck, they cost money, and while the league may send the Pirates a nice cash gift every year, Santa's not so generous. Neither is daddy.

So far, it looks like the ho-ho-ho is on the fans. But hey, keep the holiday spirit alive; maybe the Easter Bunny will have something for us.


Thursday, December 24, 2009


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

#6 - Daniel McCutchen

Daniel McCutchen, 27, was born in Texas and bred an Okie. He was 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA as a senior at Norman HS, hitting .357, and he also played football.

McCutchen began his college days at Central Oklahoma in 2002, going 4-0 with 3 saves and a 2.76 ERA, striking out 38 in 28 innings. He then transferred to Grayson Community College, where he won one game before being hurt and was redshirted. The New York Yankees took McCutchen in the 27th round of the 2003 amateur draft, but he passed on their offer.

He moved on to the University of Oklahoma, where McCutchen went 4-3 with 5 saves and a 3.47 ERA, striking out 60 in 57 innings as a sophomore. He was Honorable Mention All-Big 12 Conference.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays picked him in the 28th round of the 2004 draft; he passed again. In the summer, McCutchen pitched for the wooden-bat Cape Cod League Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, posting a 5-1 slate with a 1.58 ERA, holding opponents to 32 hits in 45-2/3 frames.

In 2005, Daniel was 4-5 with 2 saves and a 4.18 ERA, striking out 84 in 84 innings as he made the jump from reliever to starter for the Sooners, and was again Honorable Mention All-Conference.

The St. Louis Cardinals became the third team to draft him, in the 12th round of the 2005 draft; again he didn't sign. He went to Cape Cod for a second go-around with Y-D Sox. McCutchen was 3-6 with a 3.43 ERA and fanned 63 in 60-1/3 innings, walking just 12 batters.

McCutchen had a 10-8, 4.06 record with one save in 2006 as a senior for Oklahoma, striking out 147 in 148-2/3 innings. He led the Big 12 in strikeouts, tossing 45 more Ks than Joba Chamberlain did at Nebraska.

He was sixth in NCAA Division I in strikeouts; only Tim Lincecum, Eddie Degerman, P.J. Walters, David Price and Brad Lincoln fanned more college batters.

He was chosen by the Yankees again, this time in the 13th round of the 2006 draft (404th overall) and finally signed, not that the senior had many other options.

The right-hander made his debut at short-season Staten Island and moved on to Sally League Charleston, where combined he went 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA, 29 Ks in 29 innings, and a 0.793 WHIP.

But he was busted and suspended for 50 games for using a performance-enhancing substance that he said was a medication for attention deficit disorder. The Bronx Bombers believed him, and that's good enough for us.

In 2007, he split time with the High A Tampa Yankees and AA Trenton Thunder, where overall he posted a 14-4 record with a 2.47 ERA, though his K rate dropped to 6.5/nine innings.

Baseball America rated him as having the best control in the Florida State League and the Yankees #30 prospect in 2007, while he made the FSL All-Star team, one of six pitchers selected.

McCutchen opened 2008 with the Thunder and was 4-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 53 innings. He was promoted to the AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees and went 4-6 with a 3.58 ERA and 11 walks in 70-1/3 IP.

McCutchen was then traded with José Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens to the Pirates for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, and was sent to Indy. At the time, he was the Yankees #14 prospect, according to BA.

He and Jeff Karstens were late substitutes in the deal for pitchers George Kontos and Phil Coke. It's thought that the Pirates wanted a couple of guys that were closer to being MLB ready, and that's why the ol' switcheroo was made.

McCutchen wasn't quite ready for prime time then, and he was back with Indianapolis to begin 2009. After a slow start, he finished 13-6 with a 3.47 in 24 starts and 110 strikeouts in 142-2/3 innings.

He was penciled in to pitch for Team USA in the 2009 Baseball World Cup and was on their final roster. But the Bucs had a change of heart, and decided to make him a September call-up, sending Brad Lincoln to Team USA instead.

McCutchen made his debut on August 31st, starting against the Cincinnati Reds in a double-header. He gave up 3 runs in 6 innings and got a no-decision. He finished the year with six starts, a 1-2 slate, and 4.21 ERA. Not great, and not terrible.

And that's sort of his MO. McCutchen rarely overwhelms anyone, but he's rarely beat up, either. It makes him a perfect back-of-the-rotation kinda guy. He has great control, and gets deep into games, but he's a fly-ball pitcher that gives up gopher balls.

And that draft dance may come back to bite him. McCutchen turned 27 in September, and has just four seasons and fewer than 500 innings in the minors. He's taken the hill for 34 starts in AAA, and is 14-14 with a 4.17 ERA.

And he has a couple of organizational hoops to jump through. McCutchen is a newby on the 40-man roster, so he has all three options left. That gives the control-obsessed Pirates every opportunity to move him down as insurance instead of losing him.

And he has a trio jostling with him in earning that last starting spot - Kevin Hart in camp, and eventually Brad Lincoln and Jose Ascanio (although a trade or two could change that quickly enough).

Baseball America wrote that his future was in the bullpen because of his control and the way he goes right after hitters, and others share their opinion. But we think that at least for now, he should be part of the rotation. The Bucs need a guy that gives them a fighting chance every outing.

McCutchen throws a fastball in the low 90s, a splitter, and a viable curve. Four of his six outings were quality starts, including his last three, and he only failed to go six innings once (he lasted five frames). And when you're rebuilding an offense and bullpen at the same time, that kind of dependability from the bottom of the rotation is a lifeline.

(Next - #5 Tim Alderson)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

#7 - Tony Sanchez

Tony who? Oh no, not Danny Moskos all over again! Don't those cheapskate Pirates ever learn? Those reactions and worse hit the chatboards when prior to the draft, it was leaked that Tony Sanchez would be the Bucs pick at the number 4 spot.

The suits explained that they weren't going to get the day's big kahunas, Steven Strasberg or Dustin Ackley, and the rest of the young guns were pretty well jumbled together, with Sanchez being the fourth player on their list. The fact that the team was top-heavy in catching with no real minor-league prospects played into the decision, too.

They also leaked their grand strategy of getting an affordable guy and putting the rest of the cash into the other rounds; Keith Law of ESPN said behind a pay wall that the Pirates had a deal cut with Sanchez before the draft.

Well, he may have been right. Sanchez was drafted on a Tuesday, and signed on Friday, for just above slot at $2.5M, which was the third-largest bonus in Bucco draft history. No Pedro-like drama; he was shipped to Class A West Virginia to start his career after quick tune-ups at Bradenton and State College, and the Pittsburgh draft board filled up with players picked over-slot.

Sanchez's 2009 line at Boston College was .346/.445/.614 in 228 at-bats, with 14 homers, 63 runs, and 51 RBI, to go with a rep as a good glove guy with the ability to handle a staff. His 19 throw-outs led the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Sanchez ended up as one of the three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award for the best college catcher. He was rated by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN as the top college catcher available in the draft, as well as the best overall defensive catcher and having the best throwing arm of any college catcher, and was considered a mid-to-late first rounder.

The only major concern was his physical shape (shades of Ronny Paulino!) Sanchez got down to fighting weight by joining Jarad on a Subway diet and hitting the gym. He dropped 40 pounds by the time he was a senior, and his conditioning never became an issue.

Sanchez made the trip to West Virginia at the end of June, and handled a wooden bat and Class A competition with ease. He ended up with a .316/.415/.561 line in 155 at-bats in West Virginia, with seven homers, 46 RBI and 29 runs.

Sanchez was promoted to Lynchburg at the end of the season, where he took over as the starting catcher for the Hillcats' Carolina League Championship team.

In his first year as a professional, Sanchez finished with a combined .309 batting average with seven homers, eighteen doubles, 48 RBI, and 33 runs. He's already the #3 prospect in the Pittsburgh organization, according to Baseball America.

Sanchez, 21, came touted as a plus defender, and gave no signs of that being puffery. His arm is OK (average strength, though he did toss out 30% of the base-stealers last year), and he does a good job of blocking balls and framing pitches. The Miamian also, from all reports, works diligently on the pre-game plan with the coaches and pitchers, and has a good rapport with the staff.

He's also considered a solid citizen on the field, a guy that plays hard and plays right, a stereotypical catcher.

The questions about Sanchez center around his bat. He's patient, consistently drawing over 10% walk ratios, but he strikes out a bit, around 20%, and is supposed to be a sucker for the hook. Sanchez has some pop, with 15 homer potential, but his average doesn't project to be anything special.

So far, so good, in that regard. Still, he was a major-college player in low Class A for most of the year, and it's yet to be shown if his stick can handle the pitching at higher levels.

He'll start the year at High Class A Bradenton. How quickly Sanchez will advance in the system is on him; there's no one to block him in the minors, especially with Steve Lerud and Robby Diaz gone. And that should tell you how highly the suits regard him.

(Next - #6 Daniel McCutchen)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

# 8 - Rudy Owens

LHP Rudy Owens, who just turned 22 on Friday, was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona. The 6'-3" lefty put up a 4-4 record in his last year of high school at Southeast Valley, but the numbers to remember his senior season by were his 0.86 ERA and 86 K in 55 innings of work.

Owens' lights out work in school didn't earn him much scout love, though, and the Pirates picked him in the 28th round in 2006. Even they weren't all that sure; they signed him to a draft and follow contract, meaning they kept his rights until next draft (2006 was the last year that particular ploy was legal).

He originally planned to go to Arizona State - maybe that's what hurt him on the draft board - but the Bucs had him go to in-state Chandler-Gilbert, a community college near his home, instead. Good move.

Owens went 7-0 with a 1.08 ERA and 58 K’s in 50 innings for the Coyotes. The Pirates signed him at the end of May, 2007, for $390K, and sent him to Bradenton in the Rookie League.

There, he wasn't all that. His numbers were 1-4 with a 5.32 ERA and 17 K in 22 innings. Still, it got his feet wet, and the Bucs sent the youngster along to the next step in the ladder, short-season State College, in 2008.

Owens got chopped up a little more with the Spikes. He was 3-6 with a 4.97 ERA, and had 45 K in 58 frames. He was having trouble with his splits - his opponent batting average was .269, with lefties hitting .196, righties .290.

But it was a case of the numbers not quite telling the whole story. Owens was the most effective starter at State College and actually had the lowest ERA. That's the level that the Pirates have their guys throw fastballs all night, to get command of the pitch. That, and an appalling defense, combined for some terrible numbers across the board for the staff that season.

At the start of the 2009 season, Rudy Owens was moved up to A West Virginia, but was certainly not on anyone's prospect list. He soon would be.

From May 30th to July 5th, Owens went 32-2/3 innings without allowing an earned run, with five straight shutouts. He also put together a span of 42 frames without a walk. His stay with the Power resulted in a 10-1 record and 1.70 ERA in 100-2/3 innings with 91 K, a WHIP of 0.85, and opponent batting average of .196.

The major change to his repertoire was dumping his slider and picking up a slurve to go with his heater/change combo. With the newly developed slow stuff, he could now keep those pesky right-handed hitters from lighting him up (they only hit .214 off him in 2009).

Owens was kicked upstairs to Lynchburg at the end of July. He returned to mortal status there, going 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in just 23-1/3 innings. But Owens was on a strict inning count with the Hillcats, and got sporadic work. He still ended up with with twice as many innings pitched in 2009 as he had in all of 2008 (124-58).

But he did have enough in the tank to shine during Lynchburg's championship run. In two starts, the lanky lefty allowed two earned runs on eight hits with two walks in 12-1/3 innings, along with 13 K.

Combined, Owens had an 11-2 record, 2.10 ERA, and 113 K in 124 innings, with a WHIP of 0.944. Pretty good stuff, hey?

In addition to a championship ring, he won enough awards in 2009 to make Robert DeNiro jealous. The envelope, please:

He was named the 2009 Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Owens was selected to the 2009 Topps Class A All-Star team. He was the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Year, and was a mid- and post-season all-star selection. Baseball America named him the best pitching prospect, with the best control and the best change-up, in the Sally league, and rated the him as the league's number eleven prospect.

Owens is kinda a throwback to the old days. He's a finesse guy, with a heater between 88-91, a slurve, and a change-up. His command is excellent - Owens has walked 38 batters in 204 minor league innings, 1.67/nine innings - can miss a bat, with a decent 7.72 K/nine, and keeps the ball in the park, throwing a gopher ball every 15 innings. He's the epitome of work fast and throw strikes.

His projection is to be a middle-of-the-pack starter, a finesse lefty along the lines of Zach Duke, hopefully without the bumps. Owens will start 2010 in Altoona, along with Tim Alderson and Jeffrey Locke. The upper levels are slowly beginning to fill in.

(Next - #7 Tony Sanchez)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On...

Yah, yah, you're bored out of your cookies over this year's hot stove league. Where's the action?

Truth is, there's been lots of action, just none of it earth shattering and mostly involving housekeeping. But if you think this year's off season has been without its changes, take a look at the movement so far:

-- Added to MLB roster: LHP Javier Lopez, OF John Raynor (Rule 5), SS Bobby Crosby, RHP Chris Jakubauskas, and 2B Akinori Iwamura.

-- Traded: RHP Jesse Chavez.

-- Added to the 40-man roster: RHP Brad Lincoln, RHP Ramon Aguero, OF Gorkys Hernandez, RHP Bryan Morris, and RHP Anthony Claggett.

-- Cut from 40-man roster/released: RHP Matt Capps (free agent - see Tim Dierkes at Major League Trade Rumors for an update), LHP Phil Dumatrait (signed Detroit), SS Luis Cruz (claimed Milwaukee), RHP Jeff Sues (to Indy), RHP Jeff Karstens (to Indy), LHP Justin Thomas (to Indy), C Robinzon Diaz (signed Detroit), RHP Virgil Vasquez (to Indy), RHP Eric Hacker (signed San Francisco), C Steve Lerud (signed Kansas City), RHP Denny Bautista (free agent), RHP Chris Bootcheck (signed in Japan), RHP Craig Hansen (to Indy), and RHP Tyler Yates (free agent).

-- Added to minor-leagues: RHP Vinnie Chulk, 1B Chris Garcia, LHP Wilfredo Ledezma, and OF Jonathan Van Every.

-- Minor league free agents/released: RHP Jason Davis, Lincoln Holdzkom, Victor Igsema, Jorge Julio, Juan Mateo, Dustin Molleken, Scott Nestor, Jeremy Powell, Dionis Rodriguez, and Ty Taubenheim.
LHP Corey Hamman and Bobby Livingston (not many lefties left in the system to cut).
C Hector Gimenez (resigned), Miguel Perez, Milver Reyes (resigned), and Steven Suarez.
1B Tagg Bozied, Larry Broadway (signed as scout), and Brian Myrow.
2B Josh Bonifay and Ray Chang.
3B Angel Gonzalez.
SS Chris Barnwell and Pedro Lopez.
OF Jonel Pacheco and Jamie Romak.

Weekend News:

-- John Sickels has posted his Bucs Top Twenty Prospect list at Minor League Ball.

-- Mike Gonzalez signed a two-year, $12M deal with Baltimore, according to Yahoo!Sports. It's good to be Gonzo.

Javier Lopez

Javier Alfonso López, 32, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the new Bucco LOOGY. He's had previous stops with the Colorado Rockies (2003–2005), Arizona Diamondbacks (2005) and Boston Red Sox (2006–2009).

López went to college at the University of Virginia, and went 12–9 with a 6.30 ERA, with a batting average of .319, 15 home runs, and 71 RBI. Arizona selected in the fourth round of the 1998 player draft.

He was fairly nondescript on the farm until 2002, his first full season at AA. Pitching for the El Paso Diablos of the Texas League in 2002, Lopez appeared in 61 games, going 2–2 with a 2.72 ERA. He didn't allow an earned run in 53 of his outings; opponents hit .204 off him.

The Red Sox took notice, and picked him in the Rule 5 draft. But he wasn't going to make their roster out of camp, so they dealt him to Colorado Rockies. They kept is name on file, though.

López made his MLB debut for the Rox on opening day. He pitched in 72 games, the third-most among rookies in MLB. He had a 4–1 record, a 3.70 ERA, and a save. At one point, Lopez retired 18 straight hitters.

López started off badly in 2004. He was sent down to AAA Colorado Springs, and was called back to the majors in August. His overall line was 1-2 with a 7.52 ERA in 64 outings, not exactly the follow-up year he was hoping for.

López was traded from Colorado in the middle of the 2005 season to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had an 11.02 ERA, the highest in the majors that season, although in justice he only worked 16-1/3 innings.

He was sent down to the AAA Tucson Sidewinders in July and went 0–1 with a 2.22 ERA while finishing the 2005 season there. Lopez signed as a minor-league free agent with the White Sox.

Playing for their AAA Charlotte Knights, he was 2–1, had 12 saves, and had a 0.55 ERA. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox on June 15 for David Riske, finishing the year going 1–0 with a 2.70 ERA in 27 appearances.

In 2007, López made 61 relief appearances over three stints with the Red Sox. He had a 2–1 record with a 3.10 ERA. He was a member of the 2007 World Series championship roster, and was called on five times during the playoffs, including a brief scoreless stint in the Series.

In January, 2008, López agreed to a one year contract with the Red Sox for $840,000, avoiding arbitration. He went 2-0 in 70 outings, with a 2.43 ERA. He then pitched for Puerto Rico during the World Baseball Classic to start 2009; it would be the highlight of the year.

On April 30, 2009, Lopez allowed five runs in 1⁄3 inning and played the remainder of the eighth inning in right field after Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona switched him with right fielder Jonathan Van Every, now a Pirate minor-leaguer. It marked the first time a Red Sox pitcher played another position in a major league game since 1980.

On May 10, 2009, Javier was designated for assignment to make room for pitcher Daniel Bard after compiling an 0-2 slate with a 9.26 ERA in 11-2/3 frames. On May 15, 2009, he was outrighted to AAA, and Lopez became a free agent in October.

The Bucs signed him to a major-league deal yesterday. His contract is for $775,000, with an additional $550,000 in performance bonuses, based on appearances, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette. That leaves one more spot on the 40-man roster.

He's a sidewinder with sinking stuff, and a ground ball guy. Control is his bugaboo, walking over 4 batters per nine. Lopez grumps at being pigeon holed as a LOOGY, but his actions speak louder than his words in that regard.

His career opponent batting average against lefties is .247; it's .295 against righties. The OPS is even more tilted, .668 to .821. And Lopez has a much higher K rate against lefties, although he walks both about the same no matter what side of the dish they line up over.

Lopez isn't exactly the second coming of John Grabow or Sean Burnett, but ya gotta start somewhere. He put together a pretty good string at Boston as a middle-inning bridge guy from 2006-08; the Pirates hope 2009 was just a bump in the road.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pellas on the Pirates: Coming Full Circle

Today is the day I came full circle as a Pirates fan.

For a long time I was in the "traditional fan" camp. Get 'em next year, let's go Bucs, and all that. With the arrival of each spring training, I'd look hard at our roster, try to project how well (or poorly) our players would perform, formulate a couple of trades or modest free agent signings that would presumably get us over the top, and root the team on.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that for a variety of reasons, the entire Pirates organization was broken and in sore need of fixing. Along the way, it also became clear that whatever priorities the organization had, fielding a winning team at the major league level wasn’t one of them.

Thus, it seemed that the entire “traditional fan” paradigm was no longer valid; it simply wasn’t possible to root-root-root for the Pirates in the traditional sense because the whole appeal of sports is based on the ideal of (more or less) pure competition, and the uncertainty of the outcome of that competition, and the emotional investment you make as a spectator in that uncertain outcome, and the joy that comes with your vicarious participation when the team wins.

But the Pirates were too badly broken for all of that.

So, I reinvented myself as an interested observer in how the whole train wreck might be repaired. Along the way, I abandoned my “traditional fan” perspective because, after all, it’s unrealistic to expect---much less demand---even a mildly competitive big league product on the field at PNC when there’s little or no talent coming up from the minors and when there’s no hope of outspending the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, and Cubs. Or even St. Louis, really.

Being a “fan”, then, became less about wins and losses and more about hanging in there, learning about the entire operation from rookie league to Pittsburgh and all points in between, and vicariously participating that way.

To be sure, going through that process has been highly educational and, honestly, pretty interesting. In a strange sort of way, it might even be more fun to be involved with the Pirates from that point of view than it would be to be a BoSox or Yankees fan---after all, those folks pretty much know they’re going to be in the postseason every year unless something truly remarkable occurs. And if they’re not, they just import the latest and greatest gazillion dollar free agents and spend everyone else into oblivion. Not much fear of failure or anticipation of an uncertain outcome in all that.

But then came the bloodletting of 2008 and especially 2009.

The "team" the Pirates front office put on the field over the second half of 2009 was criminally incompetent. The result was arguably if not probably the worst stretch of baseball this city has ever seen. Yes, most of the veterans that the Nutting-Huntington-Coonelly regime inherited had to be dealt in order to speed the transfusion of talent into the system because that system was, in fact, broken.

But ALL of them? Nate McLouth in the first year of his quite reasonable contract extension? John Grabow when there wasn't a lefthander anywhere in the entire organization who could even begin to replace him? Really?

And even if we swallow hard and look the other way in that regard, well then: where are the handful of intelligently-chosen veterans this offseason? Guys who will both make us better in the short term and who can police the clubhouse and show the kids the ropes? Hello? Bueller? Anybody? BUELLER?

The truth is that there are any number of mid-range, "professional ballplayer" veterans who could and who definitely would help this team be more competitive. Right now. No questions asked. Want proof?

The fondly-remembered 1997 team was all about that sort of player. Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, et al, and all of a sudden we're sort-of interesting even into September. What, I ask, is wrong with that? Oh, I see, we're "rebuilding", as all the sabremetric wonks tell us, so therefore it's somehow totally wrong to even try for moderate (but real) improvement on the field while we wait for the kids to arrive.


As I said, I’ve come full circle. To be sure, every Pirates fan has to accept significant pain and disappointment, at least in the short term, because a significant teardown-rebuild was, in truth, the only kind of strong medicine that had any hope of laying the foundation for a return to winning baseball. But a “significant teardown-rebuild” is emphatically not the same thing as a “total demolition and wins and losses be damned because the kids will save us”.

I refuse to believe our product on the field doesn't matter because, well, you see, it’ll all be better someday and then no one will care. I do not accept that entire premise, not anymore.

If only from the standpoint of professional and competitive integrity---what they used to call "being a big leaguer"---you owe it to your sport and to your fans to put a team on the field that will, at bare minimum, make the other guys sweat to beat you. If you can't, or won't, do even that much, you are not a major league organization and you should sell or be contracted. Period.

(Sounds like you can add Will to the list of disgruntled fans!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pittsburgh Attorney Buys Rangers...Maybe

Chuck Greenberg, 47, of Upper St. Clair, has a rep as a facilitator. After being introduced around the local sports scene by Pittsburgh player rep and boyhood bud Tom Reich, Greenberg dove into the industry.

The Pepper Hamilton partner brokered Mario Lemieux's deal to acquire the Penguins in 1999, and represented the teams' interest again in 2007, dotting the i's on Consol Arena's paperwork after a throw-down with the state, county, and city suits.

He still serves on the board of directors of the Mario Lemieux Foundation and on the executive committee of the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Golf Invitational.

The attorney was also involved with the sale of the NHL Florida Panthers and a couple of minor league baseball teams, the Salem Avalanche and Fort Wayne Wizards. Geez, he even represents Mark Madden!

He must enjoy the field. Greenberg was the owner of three minor-league baseball franchises, and now he's 45 days away from adding the Texas Rangers to his toy box.

The Upper St. Clair lawyer began his ownership skein in 2002, when he bought the Altoona Curve. Greenberg formed a group of about a dozen investors, including Lemieux and the Steelers Jerome Bettis, to buy the Curve. Don't ask the price; mouthpieces are good at writing up things like non-disclosure clauses - and he did.

Under his direction, the Curve set a string of attendance records and was the Minor League franchise of the year in 2006. He helped get the team a new ballyard.

Greenberg was known as an aggressive, accessible and innovative owner with a dash of PT Barnum; he featured events like "Frivolous Lawsuit Night" in Blair County Park. Heck, he even brought in the Pens' Paul Steigerwald to be the radio announcer when the NHL had its lock-out year.

And Greenberg was hands-on as an owner. He spent many a night on 22, driving between his downtown offices after work to Altoona.

Greenberg sold the Curve just before the 2009 season. But he still owns two Single-A teams, the State College Spikes (a Pirate affiliate) and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (a Brave affiliate). His group cut a deal with Penn State to build a new shared stadium, Medlar Field, for State College's nine. Shiny new venues seem to be a specialty of his.

Hey, he even threw his hat in the ring for the Pirate presidency in 2007 after Kevin McClatchy took his bow, but Frank Coonelly got the gig in what many thought was a two-man race.

Instead of being bummed, he just set his sights a little higher, hooked up with Nolan Ryan, and joined the six-man chase for Tom Hicks' Ranger team.

After tweaking their offer - and some think the second group standing, led by Jim Crane, was still alive only to drive up the price - and bringing on Hicks as a minority partner (attorneys don't seem very concerned with that conflict of interest thingie), Greenberg and Ryan have a 45-day window to negitiate a final price and come up with the coin.

Neither Greenberg nor Ryan is a deep-pocketed dude, the North Texas ownership group they cobbled together is said to be kinda bulky, and they have to come up with between $510-$550M to buy the Texas club, no easy task in today's economy.

But Chuck Greenberg is on the last lap of long process. His next key date is January 13-14, 2010, when the owners meet in Paradise Valley, Arizona. If his gang can raise the do-re-mi by then, the owners will vote on letting them join the brothership.

Somewhere, Mark Cuban must be shaking his head.

To Beat A Dead Horse

OK, GW admits to being a bit confused over the whole Matt Capps thing. We'll start with the premise that the Pirates should have tendered and then traded him if they thought he wasn't part of team going forward. Their whining about press leaks is just a red herring.

After all, they've been trying to move him since at least midseason. And when their non-tender cover was blown, well, hey...if they had prior market interest in the Mad Capper, then why not just offer him arbitration and keep his name alive in the marketplace?

Apparently, they didn't do that because they believed A) his potential arbitration award would be an albatross around their necks and make him unmovable, or B) after dipping his toe in the free agent pool, he'd come splashing back to PNC.

The Bucs have Dan Fox to crunch the value numbers for them, and we're sure his spreadsheet played a big role in the affair Capps. GW has an envelope and pencil with a worn out eraser to do his math.

Fortunately, figuring out Capps' value is just a click away at Fangraphs.

First, how good is he? His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a stat that shows how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded) is 3.84; his career ERA is 3.61. Pretty close there.

Bill James projects him to be 3-3 with 30 saves and a 3.47 ERA in 2010; again, a pretty average year statistically for Capps and in keeping with past performance. So there's no big red flag blowin' in the breeze concerning his computer profile.

As far as value, his WAR (wins above replacement, or how much better you are than a AAA replacement player) for 2009 was -.4; it's guessimated to be +.6 in 2010. That's on the low side; the average player is +2 or so.

Crunching all this stuff together, Fangraphs figured Capps 2010 value at $2.9M. And we won't quibble with that - if we accept that the Bucs offer was allegedly around $2.4M and Capps counter was $3.4M, then $2.9M is the mid point.

The quick look tells us that Capps, despite his JVB imitation in 2009, and Paul Kinzer, his agent, had a better concept of Capps market value than the Pirates did, especially in light of JJ Putz's $3M signing. Whether that's so or not will be determined by his next contract.

But when you factor in the fact that his save numbers have increased every year of his career, and that closers generally are over-valued on the market (and arbitration), the money Capps wanted looks about right.

We know it's not about age. His presumed replacement, Joel Hanrahan, is almost two years older than Capps. He reaches his first year of arbitration after this season, and if he has a big year, he'll also be up for a juicy arb reward.

Overall, they're netting two extra years of control, and if Hanrahan's performance matches Capps, they'll soon be in the same boat down the road.

And that makes the suits move to non-tender him even more mystifying. If they could find takers for Soloman Torres, Damaso Marte, Sean Burnett, John Grabow, Jesse Chavez and company, surely they could make a deal for Capps.

For a team that is constantly ISO talent, letting a second-tier closer walk out the door for no return flies in the face of logic, especially for a low-revenue club. We'd love to know the whole story behind the Capps tale. There must be more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, December 14, 2009

#9 Gorkys Hernandez

Gorkys Gustavo Hernández was born September 7, 1987 in Güiria, Venezuela, and signed as a free agent in 2005 with the Detroit Tigers at 17.

He spent the 2006 season with the GCL Lakeland Tigers, and he burned through the Rookie League.

Hernandez won the batting title in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .327/.356/.463. with five homers, 23 RBI, and 41 runs to go with 20 stolen bases in 205 at-bats. Noted for his speed and his ability to steal bases, the Tigers had him penciled him in as their future lead off hitter.

After the smoke cleared from his debut, Hernandez found himself on all the prospect lists - #3 Baseball America Top GCL Prospect; #3 Baseball Prospectus Top Tiger Prospect, #6 Fox Sports Top Tiger Prospect; and #5 Minor League Ball Prospect. Nothin' like a running start, hey?

The motor kept purring during his first full-time pro season with the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps. He was named the Midwest League MVP after hitting .293 with four homers, 50 RBIs, 84 runs, and 54 steals.

The youngster was named a Midwest League All-Star and competed in the All-Star Futures Game for the World Team (ex-Bucco catcher Robby Diaz was his teammate). Though he didn't need a world atlas, a US road map would come in handy.

On November 16, 2007, Hernández was traded by the Tigers along with Jair Jurrjens to the Braves for shortstop Edgar Rentería. He entered 2008 as the fifth-best prospect in the Atlanta organization according to BA, but ominously behind Jason Heyward and Jordan Schafer, two other center fielders. And ya know what three is...

He went to High A Myrtle Beach, and hit .264 with five homers, 51 RBI, and 75 runs. Hernandez pulled a hammy that season, and ended up with just 20 swipes. The Venezuelan was still in demand, and was one of the names bantered about in the Jake Peavy talks (along with Charlie Morton and Jeffrey Locke).

The so-so year didn't hurt his standings; besides being a Top-Ten Brave prospect, Baseball America ranked him #62 and Baseball Prospectus pegged him at #78 nationally.

The Braves promoted him to AA Mississippi in 2009, where he hit .316. He was only there for a few weeks, though. On June 3, 2009, Atlanta shipped Hernández, Morton, and Locke to the Pirates in exchange for Nate McLouth, accompanied by much local gnashing of teeth. He hit .262 at Altoona, not exactly PNC-inspiring numbers.

What the Bucs have is a kid - he just turned 22 - who's been promoted aggressively through three levels by three organizations in three years. Hernandez needs to catch his breath; he has plenty to work on.

First, he needs to really improve his discipline, both at the dish and in the dugout. He was yanked from two games in 2009 because of the occasional drama queen act, arguing balls and strikes once and not running out a ball another time.

His walks and K's, especially for a guy that projects as a top of the order hitter, are trending the wrong way - during his career, he has almost a 19% strikeout rate, and just over a 7% walk rate. Those are OBP killers.

Hernandez doesn't have a lot of power, and will depend on his wheels to get him to the show. In Rookie and Class A ball, he stole 94 bases in 113 attempts, an 83% success rate. Last year, in combined AA, Hernandez swiped 19 sacks out of 35 tries, just 54%. He has to pick up some smarts to go with his speed.

He's fortunate not to be blocked by Andrew McCutchen (thank God for PNC's left field!); we think he's a younger version of Nyjer Morgan, even matching the inside-out swing, with a better set of tools. And his glove, arm, and range are already MLB quality. The Pirates have him protected on the 40-man roster.

But Hernandez could easily find himself dangled as trade bait, too, especially with Robbie Grossman and Starling Marte on the rise and Lastings Milledge and Jose Tabata ahead of him now. The Pirate outfield is their strength organizationally, not very deep but with some top-end prospects.

So he's a guy who's trying to find a place in Pittsburgh's pecking order. We suspect that the suits will continue his fast track and start him at Indy, although an argument could be made to keep him at Altoona and let him follow Tabata in the same way Tabata shadowed McCutchen. (EDIT - Hernandez will start 2010 at Altoona)

(Next - #8 Rudy Owens)

Hot Stove Keeps A' Smokin'

-- The freshly freed Matt Capps is beating off suitors with a stick, according to his agent, Paul Kinzer, and MLB Trade Rumor's Tim Dierkes (with links galore).

Dierkes counts the Nats, Rangers, Rockies, Marlins, Orioles, Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Cardinals as kicking the Mad Capper's tires. We gather he's looking for a multi-year deal with a chance to close at a minimum of $3.4M/year.

Guess Capps and Kinzer gauged the market a little better than Neal Huntington.

-- Dierkes also heard that the Bucs are in on second baseman Kelly Johnson, formerly of the Braves. What, Iwamura is already old hat?

-- Alyson Footer of tweeted that Jason Michaels has signed on for another stint with the 'Stros for $800K with a 2011 option.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Mad Capper Leaves The Nest

Matthew Dicus Capps was born September 3, 1983 in Douglasville, Georgia. He's a 2002 graduate of Alexander High School, where he lettered in football, basketball, cross-country and baseball, and had a scholarship to LSU in his pocket when he graduated.

But Capps was drafted by the Pirates in the 7th round of the 2002 draft out of high school, and opted for the pros. He was a starting pitcher on the farm through 2004, throwing well in the Rookie League but getting clocked in two years of A ball.

In 2005, he was converted to a relief pitcher and as they say, the rest is history. He started the season at Class A Hickory, then was promoted mid-season to the AA Altoona Curve and finished the season with AAA Indy during the International League playoffs.

Capps finished with a 2.57 ERA and 21 saves, with 65 Ks in 73-2/3 innings of work. After Indianapolis's season ended, he was promoted to Pittsburgh on September 16th and pitched that night. Capps never rode a bus again.

The beginning of the 2006 season saw Capps break spring training with the Pirates. At first, he worked only in low-risk situations, but by year's end, he had established himself as the Pirates bridge man for closers Mike González and Salomón Torres.

In 85 games, he threw 80-2/3 innings, striking out 56 batters, allowing 81 hits and an ERA of 3.79. Capps posted a team best 9-1 record out of the bullpen, with thirteen holds and a save. He led all MLB rookie pitchers in appearances.

In 2007, he became the set-up man for Torres, as Gonzo went to the Braves and had TJ surgery. It didn't take long for Solly to shoot himself in the foot, and on June 1st, manager Jim Tracy announced that Capps would be the Pirates closer.

The next day, Capps recorded his first save of the season. They even spiced up his scoreboard video. And why not? He was 4-7 with 18 saves, 15 holds, an ERA of 2.28, and a WHIP of 1.013. A star was born.

Capps started the 2008 season as the man, and notched fifteen consecutive saves before blowing one on June 10th. He ended the season with 21 saves in 26 chances, a 3.02 ERA and a WHIP of 0.969. The Mad Capper was money in the bank for the Bucs.

Unfortunately, as we found out in 2009, banks can fail - and so can relievers. Coming in to the game to the Toby Keith song "Big Bull Rider," Capps couldn't ride that bull last year.

For the first three weeks of the season, Capps was his usual lights-out closing machine. Then on April 24th, he gave up a game-winning single to Brian Giles with two outs, and the wheels fell off. He never found a rhythm after that.

Was he pitching hurt? Capps was placed on the disabled list in early July because of bursitis in his right shoulder. Before that, in late May, he took a liner off the elbow, but surprisingly missed just a few days. And earlier in the season, he had a bruised elbow that sat him down for a brief spell. Was it a tough year physically, or were these omens that that his arm was breaking down?

Others think that Capps was affected by all the trade rumors swirling around him and his team mates, and tried to overcompensate. He blamed too many off-speed pitches as affecting his command. Some feel, plain and simply, that he never took good enough care of his bod and it finally caught up to him.

Whatever the cause, Capps, 26, had his worst season, recording 27 saves in 32 chances and outright losing eight game in 2009, with a 5.80 ERA in 57 appearances and a 1.656 WHIP.

His contract, worth $2.425M, ran out, but he still had two years of arbitration left. And though Capp's numbers are terrible for 2009, his body of work and 27 saves would be worth a lot in an arbitrator's eyes. The Pirates weighed the risk, offered him an unspecified deal, and cut him loose when he nixed it.

Our uneducated guess is the Bucs offered about the same salary, and Capps held out for arbitration. The Pirates have some money to play with, but maybe arbitration scared them off. He did have two years of it ahead of him, 2010-11, and they wanted some contract certainy. Arbitration is often a financial crap shoot, but historically it tends to reward guys with a solid track record.

It's also possible they low-balled him, or maybe Capps and his agent were looking for more than the probable $3M arbitration award, or one side sought a multi-year pact. Perhaps, in keeping with the KISS theory, the suits thought his closing days were done and valued him accordingly.

At any rate, rest assured that Capps and his agent, Paul Kinzer, know that JJ Putz got a one year deal for $3M with $3.5M more available from the White Sox in performance bonuses, based on saves. Ditto for Brandon Lyons, who got 3 years and $15M from the Astros, with a lifetime ERA of 4.20 and 54 saves in eight seasons.

So it'll be interesting to see what kind of market forms for him, and what kind of contract he'll land. Capps still has a decent, if straight, heater and developed a workable change. His 2009 K's per nine innings was 7.6, walks 2.8, decent numbers in isolation.

And he does have 66 career saves earned mainly over the past three seasons for a last place team, with an ERA of 3.61 and a 1.178 WHIP, even with 2009 figured in.

It's known that some teams have interest in him, just not enough to match the Pirates' price; they've been trying to move him all year. And it makes sense that the suits publicly said he would be tendered, just to keep him alive in trade talks (although we don't quite get why they just didn't do a sign and swap). Their ploy didn't seem to increase his value much.

Why give up someone worthwhile, like a JJ Hardy, for a guy that's likely to make $3M in arbitration, especially when he's seen around the league as a set-up man now rather than a closer? Better to let Pittsburgh pay him or get him at your price as a free agent. Already, reports have Detroit, Baltimore, and Arizona as possible suitors.

While Matt Capps faces his brave new world, the Pirates likewise have to face theirs. They believe Joel Hanrahan can take Capps' spot, and that Evan Meek is a viable Plan B. But it does make them vulnerable regarding depth.

They only have Jeff Sues, Ramon Aguerro, and Ron Uviedo as back-ups in the organization. Sues isn't even on the 40-man roster any more, Aguerro pitched in Altoona last year, and Uviedo was only in High A in 2009.

And for those keeping count, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ryan Doumit are the only remaining players from Neal Huntington's inherited 2008 MLB roster. And we're guessing that two of the three could be gone before the team gets to Pirate City this spring.

By our count, ten of the players on the 40-man roster predate the new suits; they brought in the rest. The cleansing is about done, and we won't speculate on the motivation; there's certainly an array of factors in play.

One thing is for sure - this isn't Dave Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy's team anymore. Now all the credit - or blame - belong to Huntington and Frank Coonelly.

And the guys at NBC's Circling the Bases blog don't seem to think it's a great transition, at least in this case. Aaron Gleeman posts "Penny Pinching Pirates Drop Closer Matt Capps," while Craig Calcaterra adds "Neal Huntington: Jerkin' His Players Around." Beat man Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has "Lots of Capp Questions" too. Ouch!

About Keeping Everyone On Board...

Jen Langosh of tweeted that the Bucs have tendered Zach Duke, but cut loose Matt Capps and Phil Dumatrait, and Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has confirmed the moves in an article today.

Their 2009 deals, according to Cot's Contracts, were worth $2.2M for Duke, who should get a hefty raise; $2.425M for Capps, who would get a bump (and maybe a big one) even after an abysmal year, and $401,5000 for Dumatrait, who was worse than Capps in 2009.

Duke and Capps were arbitration eligible; Dumatrait was just flat-out released. Dumatrait didn't have any options left, and was probably not going to make the 2010 roster, even as lefty-challenged as it is now. Apparently the suits offered Capps and Dumatrait deals that they thought they could top on the open market.

They have a negotiating window with Duke. If the two sides don't agreed to a contract by January 19th, they'll exchange arbitration figures. Then they have until sometime in February, depending when the hearing is scheduled, to keep working on a deal.

Now that the Bucs suddenly have a pair of openings on their 40-man roster, expect to see them sign a couple of relievers to fill the slots fairly soon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come...

OK, for the past two hot stove leagues, Pirate faithful have scratched their heads and wondered what in God's good earth were the suits doing to their team? But this season, there actually may be an answer swirling in the mist.

GW was among those that thought the team could be competitive - not championship, mind you, but competitive - with some tinkering and patience. The suits differed.

Our guess is that they were just feeling out the organization when the pitching imploded in 2008, and the minors were found to be virtually devoid of MLB talent. Those two things determined the future blueprint of the team - complete ground-up rebuilding.

Now that the futility record is in Pittsburgh's trophy case, what's the diff if the Pirates win now or a couple of years along the road? The pressure's off; the constant drumbeat stilled.

Hey, admit it - everyone can live with Ryan Doumit, Matt Capps, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm on the block now without yelling about a conspiracy theory. The fans have bought into the Pirate prospectus, or at least are accepting its inevitability.

First, they addressed the pitching. Goodbye, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington. Hello, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, and Dan McCutchen, with Donnie Veal, Tim Alderson, Brad Lincoln, Jeff Karstens and Jose Ascanio waiting in the wings.

The minors? Well, that takes time. They embarked on signing as many high school kids as they could to infuse the lower levels, guys like Jarek Cunningham, Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, Wes Freeman, Chris Aure, Brooks Pounders, Zach Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Billy Cain, and Trent Stevenson. For a team accused of being tight-fisted, this was a costly make-over, but one that was sorely needed.

They're not ready now, and may never be, but West Virginia and Bradenton finally have real prospects instead of too-old college kids filling their rosters. The ones that survive the process will show up in PNC in the next two or three seasons.

The trades made sure that there was mid-level talent to put in the organization, guys like Nate Adcock, Brett Lorin, Hunter Strickland, Aaron Pribanic and Josh Harrison. None may have much upside, but they'll contribute to decent depth and competition in the system, and could become fringe pros.

The upper levels are a different animal. Take away Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Steve Pearce, and there wasn't much to write home about in Altoona and Indy. So they traded, took a shot at Rule 5 help, and scoured the waiver wires.

Altoona will reap some benefit, with draft picks Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer all expected to make appearances there this season. Bryan Morris and Jeffrey Locke should be wearing Curve uniforms sometime in 2010, too.

Indy is a tougher nut to crack, because so many young guys were thrown into the show.

Except for Jose Tabata, Gorkys Hernandez and maybe Jeff Clement, all the hot shots are already wearing Pirate uniforms. The pitching potential has improved dramatically, but the position players are still a year or two away from suiting up for the Tribe.

At any rate, the Bucco farm has gone from the poster child of ineptitude to at least middle-of-the-pack, maybe even touching the upper half.

But the proof is in the pudding, and the final course is the major league product. And there sure ain't been much to brag about there. But that could change.

The outfield is closest to being a finished product. McCutchen is set in center for as long as Bob Nutting will pay him, and there's some heated competition for the corners.

Lastings Milledge has a foot up on the rest of the field, and Jose Tabata is a year away, maybe two, with Hernandez right behind him. We like Rule 5 pick John Raynor; Brandon Moss better rediscover his A game if he wants to hold him off. And Starling Marte is a fast-riser in the minors.

The pitching is in transition. There's a ton of potential; whether it translates into performance is the million dollar question. Duke and Maholm are proven inning eaters. That makes them valuable to Pittsburgh, and also to the rest of league.

We don't think they can afford to lose them both. Ohlendorf and Morton look ready to take regular turns on the mound, and after that are some upside arms without a track record. The bullpen appears OK, even without Jesse Chavez and maybe Capps.

Meek and Joel Hanrahan should be able to handle the late innings, Steve Jackson did enough to hold the bridge spot, and a sixth starter will probably become the long man. They need to find three middle inning guys, and that can be done without busting the wallet wide open.

Catching is problematic. They're set with Doumit and Jason Jaramillo, but if Doumit's dealt, then they're looking at a veteran bargain store pick-up to share time with Jaramillo, who hits lefties like they're all Sandy Koufax clones.

The infield, to us, is set with Andy LaRoche - Ronny Cedeno/Bobby Crosby - Akinori Iwamura - Garrett Jones, and that's not a bad set of gloves. But the bats? Oy! And we're not buying into the Jeff Clement scenario; Clement at first and Jones in right is an error waiting to happen.

What we like so far about this year's player movement is that we can finally see where it's going. They had a hole at second; they filled it. They needed an option at short; they got one. (BTW, Cedeno settled his arbitration by signing for a year at $1.125M).

Neither position has anyone near ready to challenge from within the system, so there's no block, and the trio of Cedeno, Crosby, and Iwamura are all on one year deals. Perform, and the Bucs might tie you up for a couple of seasons or you'll get a better nibble on the market. Fizzle, and the team cuts its losses.

Our take on the signings is that the better of the Cedeno-Crosby pair stays, and Iwamura is a one-year guy or a July trade, especially if LaRoche can handle second after Alvarez arrives.

The light at the end of the tunnel looks a little less like a train than before, but it's still too far down the tracks to be certain. It sure would be nice if the light was Pedro carrying a torch, leading a pack of young, hungry Buccos to Pittsburgh instead of a Chessie locomotive

A Couple of Signings

-- Ronny Cedeno avoided arbitration and inked a one-year deal worth $1.125M with the Bucs.

-- Bobby Crosby passed his physical and is now officially a Pirate.

-- Robby Diaz was signed as a minor league free agent by Detroit this week. He's considered catching insurance for the Tigers, who have to decide whether Alex Avila is better suited for a backup MLB role or everyday minor league duty, according to Steve Kornacki of MLive. Gerald Laird is Motown's regular backstop, and is a free agent after the season.

It was rumored that the Tigers were trying to deal for him in August; Neal Huntington might have missed the boat on that one.

-- Jesse Chavez has been traded again, this time from Tampa Bay to the Atlanta Braves in a deal for reliever Rafael Soriano. Hope he didn't sign a lease in Florida yet. Pat Lackey at WHYGAVS has an insightful post on the economics of the Jesse Chavez Circle.

-- Tom Gorzelanny was tendered by the Cubs, posts Mike Axisa of MLB Trade Rumors, so he remains their property in 2010.

-- Juan C. Rodriguez of Marlins Beat tweets that Ronny Paulino signed a one-year deal with the Fish for $1.1M.

-- Jason Kendall signed with KC for a deal that will earn him $2.25M in 2010 and $3.75M in 2011, with another $250K in incentives, tweets Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star. It's the same two year, $6M contract Pudge Rodriguez received.

-- 28 year-old Chris Duffy signed a minor league contract with the Phillies.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

John "The Roadrunner" Raynor

Ah, the new suits; they just can't resist a Rule 5 draft. It's like Christmas come early, and today was no different. They found Marlin minor-league OF John Raynor, a 6-2, 185 pound, road running right handed hitter, stuffed in their stocking this year.

And like Evan Meek and Donnie Veal before him, he may end up a keeper. Keith Law of ESPN tweeted "Pirates take John Raynor from Florida in Rule 5 draft - good fourth outfielder right now with a chance to be more."

Born in Benson, North Carolina, he played at South Johnston High School and then at UNC - Wilmington.

There, Raynor was a leadoff hitter, and in fact he didn’t hit a home run in his first two seasons. Holy Juan Pierre! But his bod eventually hardened, and he belted five homers as a junior and a dozen as a senior, hitting out of the three and four holes for the Seahawks as an upperclassman.

Raynor was first drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the twelfth round of the 2005 draft as a junior, but didn't sign. In 2006 MLB draft, Raynor was selected in the ninth round by the Florida Marlins and signed for the princely sum of $17,500.

The speedy outfielder was assigned to the short-season Jammies barely after the ink dried, and his four home runs led Jamestown in the New York-Penn League. But the Marlins saw him as a leadoff man after he hit .286 and stole 21 sacks in 23 tries. He made the NY-Penn All-Star squad.

He spent the 2007 campaign with the Marlins Class A affiliate, the Greensboro Grasshoppers in the South Atlantic League. Raynor hit .333, with thirteen dingers, 57 RBI, 110 runs scored, and tacked on 54 steals in 62 attempts.

Raynor was named a Sally League All-Star, MVP of the South Atlantic League, a member of Baseball America's Low Class-A All-Star team, and was crowned the Florida Marlins Minor-League Player of the Year.

He then skipped a level, bypassing High Class A Jupiter, Fla., and going straight to the AA Carolina Mudcats. Raynor led the Marlins minor league system with 104 runs scored and 48 stolen bases in 2008 while hitting .312 with thirteen long balls and 51 RBI.

Baseball America proclaimed him the "Fastest Baserunner" in the Southern League, where he was named to both the mid-season and post-season All-Star teams.

That fall, Raynor was sent to the Arizona Fall League, playing for for the Mesa Solar Sox. In 8 games for Mesa, he batted .364, and even hit for the cycle. It would be a short season, though - he was hit by a pitch that broke his hand.

The world didn't remain his personal oyster this year, though. The 25 year-old (he'll turn 26 on January 4th) outfielder is coming off a downer, hitting .257 with 24 doubles, six homers, 36 RBIs, 63 runs scored and 19 stolen bases in 27 tries during his first season at AAA New Orleans. OK stats, but definitely a bump in the road for Raynor.

The Bucs are betting that he just had an off year after being rushed through the system, and didn't hit the wall. Outside of last year's average, his knocks were his tendency to whiff - he struck out 393 times, once every four at-bats - and that he's been a little old at every level until this year. They wouldn't be alone, though, in considering him MLB material.

One report by the I Yankee blog said the Yankees were considering taking him. And Raynor was ranked the #11 prospect of Florida by Baseball America entering the season.

Overall, Raynor has produced a career average of .299 (.383 OBP) with 89 doubles, 20 triples, 36 home runs, 165 RBI, 313 runs scored and 142 stolen bases in his four seasons of professional baseball. That ain't too shabby; a burner that can occasionally run into a pitch. That's the player the Bucs are betting on.

"We like the bat upside enough that we think there is every-day potential here," Neal Huntington said. "There's a combination of average, he draws walks [and] he can drive the ball gap-to-gap. Depending upon the upside, depending upon how other guys come on, this is a depth option for us long-term."

Oddly, speed merchant Raynor has played almost exclusively as a corner outfielder for the Fish, though the Pirates think he'll be solid defensive center fielder, his position when he was drafted from UNC-W. And he does have the wheels; Baseball America rates him a 70 for speed, which is just shy of supersonic.

He's an interesting selection. A couple of days ago, the suits weren't surfing the Rule 5 seas, but suddenly had a change of heart. We suspect that change had a lot to do with Scott Boras and his pronouncement that he was looking for a three year deal with starter's money for Rick Ankiel. Enter John Raynor, the Bucs' inexpensive term insurance policy.

Raynor looks to us like a viable candidate for the fourth outfielder, where he can back up Andrew McCutchen and cover the long green of PNC's left field. He's got speed to burn, a good arm, a pretty good minor league pedigree, and is said to be a hard-nosed, 100%-effort player.

He's a first in, last out type of guy. Heck, he even reported to spring training right after the Super Bowl, although he didn't have to sign in until February 17th.

And if Raynor is on the Pirates' opening day roster, someone's getting elbowed out; Steve Pearce or Brandon Moss are the likeliest candidates, though Bobby Crosby could make Ramon Vazquez redundant.

As things stand now, Crosby/Ronny Cedeno, Jason Jaramillo, and Delwyn Young are locks on the bench. And the Bucs are gonna look long and hard at Jeff Clement, too. Hey, competition! Who'd thunk it?

-- The Pirates made a minor-league Rule 5 selection on Thursday, taking shortstop Rodolfo Cardona from Baltimore's farm system. In 66 games combined between low A, high A and Double-A, Cardona hit .218 with 24 RBIs and 23 runs scored last year. Ah, Pittsburgh, home of the maple-challenged shortstops.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bobby Crosby

Robert Edward Crosby was born on January 12, 1980, in Lakewood, California, the son of former major league infielder and old A's scout Ed Crosby.

He went to La Quinta High School in Westminster, California, where he played with the Detroit Tigers catcher Gerald Laird and then went off to California State University at Long Beach, joining New York Mets outfielder Jeremy Reed.

The Oakland A's took him in the first round of the 2001 draft (25th overall), and reeled him in with a $1.375M bonus. By 2003, he was in AAA Sacramento, where he hit .308/22/90, and earned a September call-up to the show.

In 2004, his first full season, he took over the Athletics' shortstop duties from 2002 American League MVP Miguel Tejada, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent.

Crosby hit .239 with 22 home runs and 64 RBIs and led American League rookies in hits (130), doubles (34) and walks (58).

It was enough to earn Crosby AL Rookie of the Year honors the same season Jay Bay was the NL ROY for the Pirates. Different career tracks there, hey?

Crosby was hurt for big chunks of the next three seasons: 2005 (broken rib, broken ankle), 2006 (strained back; on DL twice) and 2007 (broken hand, strained hammy).

The broken rib was from a wayward pitch; the broken ankle was from a collision at home; the broken hand came from getting clocked with a 98 MPH heater. The back is chronically cranky, although not considered more than a hindrance now.

In 2008, he stayed relatively healthy (he missed 16 days with a strained calf) and the A's ran him on the field for 145 games. Crosby hit .237 with seven homers and 61 RBI.

Looking for some production, the A's brought in Orlando Cabrera for the 2009 season, and Crosby found himself a utility infielder. In fact, he was put on waivers, but no one wanted a piece of his $5.25M pay hit. He batted .223 with six homers and 29 RBIs over 95 games off the bench.

And once Crosby finished out the final season of his five-year, $12.75M deal, he found himself out of a job.

The Rockies wanted him for a reserve, and the Tigers kicked his tires before settling on Adam Everett. So it's looking like Pittsburgh, where he's assumed to have a chance to compete with Ronny Cedeno for the SS job. (DK says he has a deal for a year worth a mil plus $500K in performance money, pending his physical).

His range is a little suspect, though he has a strong arm, and he's a free swinger, although his K rate is about one for every 5 at-bats, which is bearable. Still, it's enough that an old A's blog went by the handle "Bobby Crosby, Please Stop Swinging at Bad Pitches." Ouch!

After seven seasons and almost 2,400 at-bats, his career line is .238/61/263, and his OBP is .305.

Now he's not JJ Hardy or Adam Everett, both preferred by the PNC suits. But it wouldn't be a stretch if he overtook Cedeno.

Crosby was in a funk most of last season; he played third, and hated the position. But his SS UZR in 2008 was +3; Cedeno's last season was -5.6, so he's an upgrade in the field, at least in performance if not potential.

Cedeno hit .258 with five homers, 21 RBI, and a .307 OBP in 46 games for Pittsburgh. We don't even want to go where he hit for the M's (.167); suffice it to say that he batted .208 overall in 2009.

Crosby did hit lefties OK. He was .265/.333/.460 in 2009 against them, compared to Cedeno's .193/.253/.295. So at worst, he should at least be in a platoon situation here. And the Pirates needed a middle infielder badly, even if for the bench.

It's funny. Five seasons ago, Bobby Crosby was fresh off winning the American League Rookie of the Year award and Ronny Cedeno was rising with a bullet in the Cubs organization. Both were looked on as the real deal.

Now they're battling to see who will be the placeholder until Brian Friday, Chase d'Arnaud, Jarek Cunningham, or Jordy Mercer reach the show. Such is baseball.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Meetings

OK, there are some rumors asizzle, and they've been printed all over the place. So to save you a rat's nest of links, GW is just gonna generally attribute Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette (scroll down his PBC Blog) and Jen Langosch of, who you can check out at By Gosh, It's Langosch. They have all the angles and smoking guns covered.

First, RHP Jeff Sues was DFA'ed. He cleared waivers and has been assigned to Indy; Sues is a potential Rule 5 pick. IF Luis Cruz was DFA'ed, too, and the Brewers claimed him as their AAA insurance policy. The 40-man is now at 38, so the suits can fish in the Rule 5 pond Thursday and sign a free agent or two.

The Bucs are hot on SS Bobby Crosby's trail now that Adam Everett, their presumed Plan A, signed with the Tigers. Thank God; we can't believe that they'd give Ronny Cedeno a free ride. (Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune-Review says it's a done deal, awaiting a physical) They've also touched base again with RHP Justin Duchsherer, who isn't expected to sign during the meetings.

C Ryan Doumit and RHP Matt Capps are drawing some interest. We're still not sure why they let Robby Diaz go if they were going to dangle Doumit.

Both are coming off seasons that would low-ball their value, so it'll be interesting to see if there's more smoke than fire. But Doumit's injury history and Capp's upcoming contract are reason enough to shop them around, just to see what the market will bear.

LHPs Zach Duke and Paul Maholm have been mentioned (Maholm is a Dodger target, according to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports). We think, and Neal Huntington alluded to it in his press conference, that they'll be worth more after the current crop of free agent pitchers have been taken off the board, so there's no rush in moving them.

The Bucs do have a couple of guys to plug in if they go - Dan McCutchen, Kevin Hart, Brad Lincoln, maybe Tim Alderson - and pitchers that eat a couple hundred innings competently should have some value. And it seems they're not destined to be part of the 2012 club, which is beginning to look like the Pirates' window, so...

So far, not a peep regarding OF Rick Ankiel or 1B Hank Blalock. Maybe the suits are playing it close to the vest, or maybe Scott Boras is being, well, Scott Boras.

The suits signed another non-roster reliever, RHP Vinnie Chulk. He's 7-15-2 with a 4.33 ERA over seven big-league seasons, and so has a record of being a potentially capable middle inning guy. We're sure there are more of these signings in the pipeline.

And after some hemming and hawing, the Bucs said they plan to tender their arbitration-eligible trio of Zach Duke, Matt Capps and Ronny Cedeno by the Friday deadline.

Hey, not a lot going on yet that wasn't already bubbling on the burner, but it sure beats last year's meeting and the Jack Wilson death vigil.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Quiet Man

Danny Murtaugh was a man of many hats. Best known as the Bucco skipper in 1960 when the Yankees went down to his underdog Pirate club, Murtaugh also was a slick infielder that put in nine years of MLB, leading the league in stolen bases in 1941 and all NL second basemen in putouts, assists and double plays in 1948.

As a boy in Chester, Pennsylvania, he would walk along the train tracks and pick up lumps of coal that fell from railroad cars to help heat his home. Physically, he was as tough as his background. He earned a football scholarship to Villanova, but didn't accept it because his family needed him near to make ends meet.

In fact, as a player, Murtaugh worked during the off season at McGovern's Men's Store on Market Street in Chester; being a big-leaguer never went to his head.

In 1937, at the age of 19, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him. He made his MLB debut with the Phillies in 1941. Murtaugh played nine seasons for Philadelphia (1941-43, 1946), the Boston Braves (1947) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (1948-51). We couldn't confirm it, but suppose he was in the service during 1944-45.

In '48, he had his best year. Not only did he lead second basemen in the field, but he hit .290 and posted career highs in RBI (71), runs (56), doubles (21), triples (5) and games played (146) to go with a 23 game hitting streak.

In 1950 he hit .294, a career-high, but his playing days were nearing their end. His last at-bat was in September of 1951. Murtaugh's career stat line was a modest .254/8/219 in 767 games.

He began managing in the Pirates' system in 1952. He led the New Orleans Pelicans and Charleston Senators before returning to the Pirates as a coach in 1956.

In August, 1957, he took the helm of the parent club from the crusty Bobby Bragan. He would hold the job for all or parts of 15 seasons with four different stints as boss (1957-64, 1967, 1970-71, 1973-76).

When Murtaugh took over the Pirates in the middle of the 1957 season, the franchise had a fractious racial divide between the white players and the handful of blacks on the squad - Roberto Clemente, Bennie Daniels, Gene Baker, Roman Mejias, and Jim Pendleton.

He quickly changed the clubhouse attitude, letting the team know that he was about winning, and didn't care if the players were white, black, or green. Murtaugh went 84-70 in his first full campaign as manager, and was selected as the Associated Press "Manager of the Year" in 1958.

The best was just around the corner. In 1960, the Pirates won the National League pennant with 95 victories before stunning the can't-lose Yankees in the World Series.

He was selected "Man of the Year" by Sport Magazine, The Sporting News "Manager of the Year," and the Associated Press "NL Manager of the Year" once more after sending Casey Stengel's Bronx Bombers packing.

One of the players he turned around was Billy Mazeroski, who was tortured by Bragan. He was always being pinch-hit for, and spent the game looking over his shoulder, waiting for the hook to come. That's not exactly the way to build a rookie's confidence.

But Murtaugh recognized a kindred spirit - Maz came from tough times in Ohio - and told him that he was the Pirates' everyday, every inning second baseman now.

Of course, it helped that the Irish skipper had carved out a career as a gloveman at second and appreciated a flash of leather, but that quiet boost was all Maz needed to launch his Hall of Fame career.

One guy that he didn't see eye-to-eye with was Clemente; Murtaugh though he was a jake, sitting out games with minor injuries he should be playing through. Clemente, in response, never trusted Murtaugh and thought he was undercutting him. But understanding for both would come soon enough.

The Pirates stumbled after that historic 1960 series, and Murtaugh resigned for health reasons after the 1964 season (he had an ulcer) and took a front-office job, scouting and evaluating players for GM Joe Brown.

Murtaugh was pressed into service once again as an interim manager when Harry Walker was fired during the 1967 season, finished up the year, and returned to his desk job. But hey, things never work out exactly as envisioned.

Murtaugh took over the Pirates for his third stint in 1970, succeeding Larry Shepard, whose tenure had been marked by squabbling in the locker room. The laid back skipper quickly calmed those troubled waters.

It also didn't hurt that as a talent evaluator, Murtaugh knew the team was loaded and about to go off. He lobbied Brown for the job, and got it after a check-up OK'ed him for dugout duty.

Murtaugh and Clemente reached a respectful if not buddy-buddy state of detente in 1970. Murtaugh knew Clemente was the leader of the clubhouse. He started to use him as a conduit, knowing that Clemente would pass along his words to the rest of the team.

And it was a dugout loaded with strong personalities - Pops, Dock Ellis, Richie Hebner...and they all took to Murtaugh. Race never became an issue; Murtaugh fielded the first all-black nine in MLB history in 1971, explaining they were the best players he had that day.

They were plenty good enough, as the Bucs whipped Earl Weaver's Orioles for the title. Murtaugh, a champ again, retired again (and again was chosen The Sporting News "Manager of the Year"), leaving the team to his hand-selected protege, Bill Virdon.

And hey, guess what happened again? Brown canned Virdon in September of 1973, and Murtaugh, this time reluctantly, returned to managing. He stayed through the 1976 season, when he and Brown announced their retirements during the final week of the season. There were no more Series crowns for Murtaugh, but he did win a pair of division titles.

And there would be no more managing ballgames from the tranquility of his rocking chair in his manager's lair. Murtaugh died in Chester of a stroke at the age of 59, two months after retiring. His number 40 was retired by the Pirates the next year.

In 12 full seasons as Pirates manager (overall, he served parts of 15 seasons from 1957-1976), Murtaugh led his team to nine winning records and five league/division titles (1960, 1970, 1971, 1974 and 1975).

He finished second all-time in Pirates history for wins by a manager with 1,115, only behind Fred Clarke's 1,602 (1900-1915), and compiled a .540 winning percentage.

His granddaughter has even written a book about him: "The Whistling Irishman: Danny Murtaugh Remembered," by Colleen Hroncich.

In his pair of World Series wins, he defeated two Hall of Fame managers in Casey Stengel (1960 New York Yankees) and Earl Weaver (1971 Baltimore Orioles). And that's the raison d'etre for todays post.

Daniel Edward Murtaugh was passed over again by the Veteran's Committee in Hall-of-Fame voting, it was announced this morning.

His stats are in line with the other 19 HOF managers - his win percentage and Series titles are middle-of-the pack, and his win total is a little light, but still better than a couple of other guys. So where's the love?

Some say it's because he's from a small market; other say it's because he was so laid back. Some say he didn't thump his own tub enough, and others claim he was no innovator or a great X & O's man. Maybe it's a generational thing.

Here's what we know. Baseball is a game of numbers - wins, losses, averages, championships, name it, baseball has a figure for it. And since Danny Murtaugh's numbers match up against the best, it stands to reason that he should be included with the best, right? Hey, maybe next year...Pittsburgh's eternal battle cry.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

#10 - Donnie Veal

Hey, what's a guy that spent the entire year in the majors doing as a prospect? Well, it's Donnie Veal, a Rule 5 pick, and the time he spent sunning himself in the pen certainly didn't earn him any MLB cred - or innings. 16-1/3 frames hardly qualifies as big league time.

The 16 K's looked good; the 20 walks and 7.16 ERA, not so good. He was dominating when he threw strikes, which was seldom.

Veal, 25, was born in Mississippi, and moved west, where he attended Buena High in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The Chicago White Sox drafted him after his senior year of 2003, but Veal decided to attend the University of Arizona instead.

That didn't go quite as planned. He ended up injuring his labrum and after passing on surgery in favor of rehab, Veal transferred to Pima CC. That turned the trick. He was drafted in the second round of the 2005 draft by the Chicago Cubs, taking home a $530K bonus and jumping right into pro ball.

Veal went 1-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 games between the Mesa Cubs of the Arizona Rookie League and Low A Boise in his maiden season.

He hit the Cub map the following season. Veal combined for an 11-5 record and a 2.16 ERA in 154-1/3 innings between Class-A Peoria and Class High-A Daytona that year. Veal struck out 174 and walked 82, a foreshadowing of things to come.

But it was all sunshine after that season. The big lefty shared the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors with Rich Hill, and entered the 2007 season as the Cubs #2 prospect and number #52 in the all the minors according to Baseball America. Chicago thought he was the second coming of Dontrelle Willis.

But Veal struggled in his first taste of AA ball in 2007, walking 73 batters in 130-1/3 innings and finishing with a 4.97 ERA at Tennessee, whiffing 131. Veal said he lost his mental discipline and tried to get Chicago in one fell swoop instead of taking things a step at a time.

Oddly, now-Pirate and then Cub teammate Kevin Hart inspired Veal. Hart got a late September call-up and impressed the Cubs enough that he made the playoff roster for the National League Division Series. Maybe Veal thought it was that easy (as Hart can tell you, it isn't). He dropped in the Cubbie rankings, but it wasn't a free-fall; he was still their #6 minor-league prospect going into 2008.

His struggles continued that year, both on the mound and personally. His mother had died years before, and his dad passed away in a scuba diving accident. Veal took on the responsibility of mother, father, and brother to his younger brother Devin, who was a freshman at the U of Arizona, and went into a shell for awhile.

He was still pitching at AA Tennessee, and went 5-10 with a 4.58 ERA. In 145-1/3 innings, his K's dropped to 123, the first time they fell to under a K per inning rate, and he walked 81. He bombed in the Arizona Fall league, too, walking 13 in nine innings.

His star had fallen in the Cub eyes, and he was left off the 40-man roster. But the Bucs saw a big frame that could bring the heat and had a plus curve and workable change. So they rolled the dice and brought him on via Rule 5 (it was thought that the Rangers liked Veal too, but their roster was full).

He faced 142 left-handed batters in 2008 and didn't allow a homer. His splits showed that he was murder on lefties, so the Pirates, who saw him as a starter down the line, hoped he could serve as at least a LOOGY and long man in 2009.

So he came to Pittsburgh, and thanks to a couple of iffy and stretched out (some say bogus) injuries, he made it through the year. A groin pull and sprained finger netted him 16 games, 27-1/3 innings, and an ERA of 3.95 at Altoona and Indy while on rehab, more work than he got in at Pittsburgh.

Veal made the bet look smart in Arizona, though. In 7 starts for the Scottsdale Scorpions, he worked 21 frames, compiling a 3-1 record, a 2.14 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts with just 7 walks. He was even an AFL Player of the Week awardee.

The 6-4, 215 pounder has critical control issues, and except for a small sample in the Arizona desert, has had them his entire pro career. His farm walk rate was 5.1/9 innings, and he often fell behind hitters, taking his curve out of equation.

But Veal is a lefty, he throws 91-94 MPH, and has a knee-buckling hook and improving change-up. Like Evan Meek, he's another wild child pick-up, and Joe Kerrigan and Ray Searage hope that their tinkering can fix that. And if they could do it with Meek, they have at least a chance with Veal. Still, that's a big if.

Now that he's under team control, the Pirates can work him every fifth day, maybe at Indy but more likely starting him out at Altoona. The team has to knock a year of rust off the big guy, and that will take a season or two. They value him as a starter, and will work him hard as a member of the rotation, though a LOOGY role is an eventual possibility.

And a final bit of Bucco trivia before we sign off: Donnie Veal is the cousin of former Phoenix Suns basketball guard Kevin Johnson.

(Next - #9 Gorkys Hernandez)