Sunday, February 28, 2010

Akinori Iwamura

The Pirates have a boatload of questions going into 2010 - Jeff Clement, a retooled bullpen, shortstop, Lastings Milledge/Garrett Jones as difference makers - but so far, second baseman Akinori Iwamura has evaded the microscope.

His pedigree is solid. Iwamura, a convert from the hot corner, has become a dependable middle infielder and sports a career .281 batting average and .354 OBP, certainly bona-fides strong enough to replace a banged-up Freddy Sanchez at second (.299/.334).

But as Jen Langosch of MLB.com reports, he is less than a year removed from ACL surgery, and plans to wear a brace during the season.

Is that reason for concern? Well, yes and no. Certainly wearing a brace doesn't mean that he's not healing. From the reports we've seen, he's participating in all the drills at Bradenton and showing no ill effects from his knifework.

But the Pirates have put all their eggs in his basket. There's already been talk about punching up the Bucco attack at some point by leading off with Iwamura, batting Andy LaRoche behind him (he did hit .289 from that spot in 2009, although his OBP was a pretty measly .319) and dropping Andrew McCutchen to third.

Additionally, he's a linchpin for the infield. Iwamura is the only infield guy that doesn't have a Plan B; his backups are Bobby Crosby and Ramon Vazquez. Even LaRoche has the shadow of Pedro Alvarez looming large over him.

So he's quietly become an integral part of the Pirates moving forward in 2010. And there's one question concerning Iwamura; can the Pirates get 145-150 games out of his knee?

If the answer is positive, the Pirates are a better team, and may ink him for another season or two while their young infield prospects dry off behind the ears. If not...well, remember the black hole that second base became after Steady Freddy left, both in the field and the lineup card?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The GW Realignment

It's a rainy day in Bradenton; the big news of the last couple of days has been the love-fest for old Bucco's Billy Maz, Bill Virdon, Manny Sanguillen, and Teke, along with Chuck Tanner, who is out of commission right now.

These torch-passers are partly coaching up the current crop of pups, but mostly reminding PNC fans of what once was. They invoke the warm and fuzzy days of Pirate baseball, when babushka power, The Lumber Company, and Sister Sledge ruled. Historic they are; newsy, they ain't.

So GW thought he'd throw his two cents worth in regarding realignment. We care not a twit what the AL does, but the gang brought up a couple of good points that are germane to NL switcheroos.

Mark In Dallas says "The DH-No DH question is too much of a hurdle to overcome," and The Doctor Is In adds "The Phillies were a HUGE rival of the Pirates. Put the Pirates, Phils, Nats and Mets in one division."

OK, we'll take both very valid points into consideration. With a minimum of disruption, how does this NL alignment sound...?

NL East: Mets, Pirates, Phils, Nats, and Reds.

NL Central: Brewers, Cards, Cubs, Braves, Marlins, and Astros.

NL West: D-Backs, Giants, Dodgers, Padres, and Rockies.

Pretty simple, no? Swap out the Braves and Marlins with the Bucs and Reds, leave the West be, and viola - no DH controversy, no traditional lore lost, and some regional rivalries restored, while the others continue on. What's not to like?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Realignment, Anyone?

Hey, the snow is flyin' in Pittsburgh and baseballs are flyin' in Bradenton. And that's about all the Bucco news you need to know today. So we thought we'd bring you some hot stove fodder - Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has a couple of radical realignment ideas for baseball, in the main to break up the Red Sox and Yankees and spread the wealth.

One plan was to break up the teams by geography and revenues; we'll ignore that one, because it's quite frankly weak. But the other two...

His simplest machination involves the Red Sox and Tigers switching divisions, with the Astros moving to the AL West to match up with their natural rivals, the Rangers. Each league would be balanced.

Ah, but his biggie - he mixes the leagues up, basing most of his alignment on geography. This shakeup results in these divisions:

AL Atlantic: Mets, Yankees, Jays, Orioles, and Nationals.

AL Great Lakes: Twins, Pirates, Indians, Tigers, and the Reds.

AL Pacific: Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, Giants, and Mariners.

NL East: Red Sox, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, and Rays.

NL Midwest: Cubs, Cards, White Sox, Brewers, and Royals.

NL Southwest: D-Backs, Rockies, Rangers, Astros, and Padres.

Hey, it does provide a lot of natural rivalries; it does a much nicer job of that than inter-league play ever could. And it balances the leagues, too.

Of course, it shatters the traditional NL/AL history, and MLB would probably have to finally figure out if it wants to keep the DH or not league-wide (and we know how the union would vote on that one!)

Any thoughts?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Another Day At Camp Bradenton

Sorry, guys, no sex or steroid scandals, no blockbuster trades or season-ending injuries; no breakout performances. It's just another day at camp.

First, what the beat gang is reporting:

-- Octavio Dotel is day-to-day with a sore left side; the Bucs don't believe it's anything serious, and we sure hope it's not his oblique. Evan Meek can tell OD all about those.

-- Joel Hanrahan should be ready sooner rather than later. The swelling is going down, according to his MRI, and Dr. McAndrews seconded the strained elbow opinion. He's on track to be ready for Opening Day or thereabouts.

-- Neil Walker is working out at first, third, second, and right. Think the suits are trying to tell him something? We think his glove is fine; he needs to pick up his bat.

-- The docs checked out Jose Ascanio's labrum; he's looking like he'll be back in the last couple weeks of June.

-- Jen Langosch of MLB.com wrote that Bucco minor-league guru Kyle Stark says a pair of touted minor-league arms will be down for the start of the season: Colton Cain (8th round, 2009) has a back injury, but has been cleared to begin workouts. Brett Lorin, acquired in the Seattle trade, will miss the start of the season because of a hip injury.

-- Chuck Finder of the Post Gazette reports on a wonderful problem; where are the Pirates gonna place all their pitchers? The Bucs have a load of arms trying to make their way up from High A and AA. That's one area the new crew addressed in a hurry.

-- According to Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 30 year-old JR House was given a premature burial by GW; he landed on his feet and signed with the Braves for another minor-league go around. In 10 minor league seasons, House has a .302 career average, 117 homers and a .838 OPS. He’s had just 10 hits in 60 MLB at-bats with Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore.

House spent the 2009 season with the Royals’ AAA Omaha club, batting .251 with nine homers and 53 RBIs in 505 at-bats. Ouch.

-- Speaking of signings, GM Neal Huntington's contract is up this year and manager John Russell is working on the first of two team options. Bob Nutting isn't extending either one quite yet, though he did give the management gang a vote of confidence.

-- The MLB Network will televise four of the Pirates' Spring games: March 3 at 1 pm (Pirates/Yankees), March 10 at 7 pm (Orioles/Pirates), March 13 at 7 pm (Pirates/Red Sox), March 14 at 9 pm (Yankees/Pirates).

-- And for those of you bemoaning the popularity of baseball, Maury Brown of the Business of Baseball wrote that though attendance was down 7%, MLB set a revenue record. He explains how in his article.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Coonelly Dynasty Begins...

Chuck Finder in the Post Gazette reports that Bucco prez Frank Coonelly said "2010 is the beginning of the next dynasty of the Pirates..." Woohoo! About time, we say.

But hey, every dynasty needs its warriors. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen as a fairly sure thing to be an above average MLB player, maybe even a difference maker in time. The rest of the gang? Well, they're on the way.

Here's how the baseball world sees the up-and-coming Pirate pups, who are supposed to lead the bumbling Bucs to the promised land:

-- JJ Cooper of Baseball America picks his Top 100 Prospects. Out of those hot-shots, he includes two Pirates-to-be: Pedro Alvavrez, #8, and Tony Sanchez, #79.

-- Keith Law of ESPN also compiled a list of the Top 100 prospects; he likes Alvarez, but at #35, Jose Tabata at #57, and Sanchez, #82.

-- MLB.com selects a Top 50 with vids; the only Bucco baby they rank is Alvarez, at #8. To add a little insult to injury, they select Tanner Sheppers, the pitcher the suits didn't sign, as #39.

As you can see, the pundits don't think there's a lot of Grade A help on the horizon; that makes the dynasty talk a bit premature.

But hey, if the Pirates continue to overdraft - remember, as their payroll increases, their draft budget will shrink - and guys like Brad Lincoln, Chase d'Arnaud and Jarek Cunningham continue to mature, along with the rest of the gang, there should be a light at the end of what's been a very long tunnel.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spring Predictions

OK, they're in camp. So it must be time for the pre-season reviews, right?

-- Here's NBC Sports Tony DeMarco's look at the Bucs; he's looking for a 64-98 finish and a big year from Jeff Clement.

-- Darren Pare of Associated Content thinks things will be brighter in 2011; he's predicting a 69-93 record.

-- Fan Huddle's fantasy expert Joe Pisapia thinks a couple of the sticks are sweet, but hates the pitching.

-- Hubpages looks over the top players, and Josh Redclay at Bleacher Report picks his starting lineup.

Green Weenies prognosis? Call us old-fashioned, but we'll wait a couple of weeks. We think the gold medals should be handed out before the baseball predictions.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Curious Cases of Zach Duke and Paul Maholm

Hmmmm...Joe Kerrigan says that they overworked Zach Duke and threw Paul Maholm out while injured, according to Chuck Finder of the Post Gazette. Are the inmates running the asylum?

The more worrisome case is regarding Maholm. Kerrigan as much as admitted that his knee was never really OK in 2009, and they sent him out with a brace for a couple of starts.

Now Maholm will never be mistaken for Sandy Koufax. But the lefty is a bulldog, and when he's on, he's capable of being a perfectly acceptable mid-rotation arm, and that's a valuable MLB commodity that should be handled with care.

No player, especially one with Maholm's demeanor, passes up an opportunity to take the ball. That's why teams have docs, trainers, and coaches - someone has to be the grownup and be willing to say "no" when the situation calls for it.

But in this case, it appears the Pirates would rather risk their talent than show the due diligence most clubs would exercise. Instead of shutting him down until his knee recovered, they sent him out to the mound 31 times, and he logged 194-1/3 innings on one leg.

We understand that Maholm downplayed his injury; he's a pro. We'd hate to think that a paper-thin rotation and the threat of 100 losses had anything to do with the decision to keep trotting him out to the mound.

Duke is a surprise. He went deep into games, as befitting his recent MO; he threw 3 complete games and should have had a fourth. He's worked 398 frames in the past two seasons, making 63 starts.

Most teams would be pleased as punch with that kind of performance. But Kerrigan thinks maybe they left him on the hill too long, citing his second-half meltdown.

He did toss 28 more innings in 2009 than he did in 2008, but that's just a 13% increase, pretty much within the limits. Actually, he should have imploded in 2008, when he jumped from 107 injury-plagued innings to 185 (and he did).

Hey, we thought the point was to get seven good innings out of a guy. His woes from August on had more to do with a bullpen that couldn't hold a lead and the trades of Jack Wilson and Steady Freddy, a major blow to a ground ball pitcher that doesn't miss many bats.

It seems to us that the answer is to cut down on his off-day regimen during the dog days (which the team says it did), strengthen the middle infield (which they did, too, to a degree), and put together a bullpen that he can hand the ball to in the seventh or eighth inning without fear of an impeding train wreck. That's yet to be seen.

Telling the media that a guy is gonna have his innings cut back isn't up there with the diatribes that the suits launched against Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, we admit. But it does devalue a pitcher whose claim to fame is as a dependable inning-eater, and a little nagging voice wonders if it has something to do with contract leverage rather than effectiveness.

We'd like at least to see some more consistency in the way they handle pitchers; some are shut down and others are given the ball every fifth day. Ditto with the injured guys, like Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen, and Jose Ascanio, who pitched until it was time for the knife.

We're hoping that there's no management favoritism (or ineptitude) involved, especially with Littlefield-inherited pitchers, just a young coaching staff feeling its way around. But one can't help but wonder...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Competition Ain't Nothin'

You may recall that in 2009, despite all the lip service to accountability, the rotation and opening day lineup were pretty much etched in stone.

Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, and Tom Gorzelanny were set in the rotation, while Jeff Karstens took the fifth spot. Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan owned their starting jobs from the first day of camp.

Don't expect much difference this year. Oh, the cast of characters have changed, but the competition level hasn't.

Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke and Charlie Morton are locks to start this season, and from the reports of the beat guys, the Pirate brass think the fifth spot is Kevin Hart's to lose; we'll see what Daniel McCutchen has to say about that. But again, the only competition is for the fifth spot.

The 2010 lineup is fairly well set, too. Ryan Doumit, Andy LaRoche, Akinori Iwamura, Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen, and Garrett Jones are guaranteed positions.

And the rest of the competition isn't really that heated. The Bucs expect Ronny Cedeno to start at short over Bobby Crosby, so the only burning question is whether Jeff Clement can transition to first base; if not, Ryan Church goes to right and Jones to first.

That's not to say there hasn't been drastic change. Only two starters, Duke and Maholm, remain in the retooled rotation (nary a soul is left from the original 2009 bullpen), and Doumit and LaRoche are the only pair of everyday players left among the regulars.

It will only get more confused in the future. Pedro Alvarez and possibly Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln loom large in the near future. And while there may not be much more talent joining them soon (maybe Gorkys Hernandez), by 2012 there will be a steady stream of pups ready to join the pack - Sterling Marte, Tim Alderson, Chase d'Arnaud, Jarek Cunningham and maybe Rudy Owens, among others.

So don't get hung up on the current position battles, or lack thereof. This team is still one that's in transition. Wait until late season 2011 and camp 2012; that's when it'll get interesting.

Friday, February 19, 2010

And It Begins

-- Chuck Finder of the Post Gazette reports that "With three off days scattered among the opening 12 games of the season, Pirates management is considering the possibility of using just four starting pitchers until late April.

'Maybe we do carry an extra bench player early,' Neal Huntington suggested. For the time being, the Pirates aim to head north with a roster of 12 pitchers and 13 position players."

Wonder what Daniel McCutchen and Kevin Hart think of that? The advantage is that the pair each pick up a start or two at Indy - both have options - and come out of the gate running; the drawback is burning up player moves so early in the year.

-- Even though the full squad isn't due until Tuesday, all but seven players are in camp now. The handful that haven't arrived yet are Andrew McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno, Delwyn Young, Jonathan Van Every, Gorkys Hernandez and Argenis Diaz, according to Jen Langosch of MLB.com.

-- She also noted that Neil Walker caught Zach Duke's side session at the start of camp, and took some balls at second yesterday. Every little bit of versatility helps when you're a bubble player.

-- Jeff Clement continues to get a crash course in the art of picking a ball at first. Carlos Garcia now knows how Perry Hill felt when he took Delwyn Young under his wing last season.

-- Jean Machi, minor-league reliever who was held back from pitching after his physical, was cleared for action and threw a side session today.

-- You think it's easy to put up a statue? Not so, says Jeremy Boren of the Tribune Review. The Sports & Exhibition Authority's board of directors had to approve the proposed Maz statue by PNC park; they're the owners of the field. Next, the city's Art Commission has to review and OK the piece.

The Pirates are paying $450,000 to build the statute on Mazeroski Way. Sculptor Susan Wagner will do the honors; she's already created the Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell statues. Construction should begin in June and be finished by September 5th, Maz's birthday.

-- The Nationals have won their arbitration case with LHP Sean Burnett, who will make $775,000 in 2010 instead of the $925,000 he sought, according to Bill Ladson of MLB.com. "It was interesting," Burnett told Ladson. "I learned a lesson. I don't want to deal with it again."

Last season, Burnett went a combined 2-3 with a 3.12 ERA for the Pirates and Nationals.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bucs Already Battered

Hey, we knew going into camp that a couple of pitchers had bum wings - Jose Ascanio, Tyler Yates, newly-inked Neal Cotts, and Craig Hansen. Well, John Russell announced to the beat gang that another pair can be added to the list - reserve infielder Ramon Vazquez and heavily counted-upon reliever Joel Hanrahan.

Vazquez had his knee scoped in November after injuring it in August and playing through the pain. He should be good to go by the time the team breaks camp.

Hanrahan may be another story. The righty had some pain towards the end of last season, and it returned during mini-camp. The official diagnosis is a flexor pronator strain in his right elbow; a tendinitis-type injury. He could be gone for a couple of weeks; he could, on the outside, face the knife.

"The reality is that Joel probably won't be ready for Opening Day," GM Neal Huntington told Jen Langosch of MLB.com. "Is it May 1? Is it June 1? We'll know more as we get more doctor information."

He visited sawbone Dr. Patrick DeMeo in Bradenton today, and will get another MRI Tuesday; the first test showed no structural damage. Orthopedist Dr. James Andrews will poke and probe him next Thursday in Pensacola.

So it's gonna be treading water for the next few weeks. The Pirates plan to replace him internally - they have a small horde of relievers on hand - although a long-term injury could make them look over the remaining market.

They don't have a likely top-four reliever among their many pick-ups, unless one of the young guys stands out. Ramon Aguero, Jean Machi, Jeff Sues, and Ronald Uviedo may get longer looks now. Kevin Hart may get a nod, too, if he doesn't take the final rotation spot.

As far as the rest of the bruise crew, here's their anticipated return to action:

Jose Ascanio (right shoulder surgery): He's looking at an early June return.

Tyler Yates (right elbow TJ surgery): He's on track to return in July, which will be a year after the original surgery. It's his second time under the scalpel, so that could be a wishful recovery date.

Neal Cotts (left elbow TJ surgery): The Pirates hope for a mid-June to early-July come-back for the lefty, who went under the knife last July. It's an aggressive date, though by all reports he's recovering well.

Craig Hansen (upper, mid-back nerve damage): Hansen has begun throwing, but there's no timetable for his return to action.

Jimmy Barthmaier (right elbow TJ surgery): After missing almost all of the 2009 season, he's hoping for a mid-May clearance, which would be a full year after his surgery.

Cotts and Barthmaier are throwing soft side sessions; Yates and Hansen are long-tossing.

It was also reported that Jean Machi, a highly regarded minor-league reliever, was held out of practice after his physical; there's no announcement saying why, so he's a another wait-and-see arm. (EDIT - Machi is OK; he was cleared to pitch).

The healthy pitchers - and there are 30 of them cleared for camp - will throw side sessions for a week on alternating days, then some BP, as they slowly prepare for the March 3rd opening of the Grapefruit League. Here's knockin' on wood that they all get through it OK.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Jim Bibby

Jim Bibby, one of Chuck Tanner's starting arms when the Bucs took the crown in 1979, joined teammates Willie 'Pops' Stargell, John 'Hitman' Milner, Bill Robinson, Doc Ellis, and Dave Roberts on the Field of Dreams when he died from undisclosed causes today.

The big righty pitched in the show for 12 seasons, from 1972-84, spending five years with the Pirates, four with the Rangers, three with the Indians and two short stints with the Cardinals. He ran up 111 wins with a 3.76 ERA during his career.

A tall (6'-5"), intimidating flamethrower with overpowering stuff, Bibby averaged a trifle over 5-1/2 K's per nine, while walking almost four per game, tantalizing but never consistent. He was a Jekyll and Hyde guy, capable of great games followed by stinkers.

Bibby, 65 when he died, started his pro career in the New York Mets system in 1965 following three years with the Fayetteville State Broncos. After missing the 1966-1967 seasons when he was part of Uncle Sam's contingent in Vietnam, he returned to the Mets and was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 in an eight player deal of marginal talents.

He got the call in the show in 1972: his inability to throw strikes kept Bibby from becoming a big leaguer until he was 27 years old, when got a cup of coffee in St. Louis. After six very forgettable outings for the Cards in 1973, he was shipped to the Rangers for Mike Nagy and John Wockenfuss.

He showed his potential that season. Bibby tossed a no-hitter against the A's, a one-hitter, a two-hitter, two four-hitters, and four five-hitters in 1973. He struck out 15 in one game, and fanned at least 10 seven times. Still, he finished 9-12, though with a respectable 3.76 ERA.

In 1975, he was part of a trio the Rangers sent to the Tribe for Gaylord Perry, and the light went on in Cleveland. Bibby won 30 games there in 2-1/2 years, with ERAs of 3.20, 3.20, and 3.57.

Bibby joined the Bucs as a free agent in 1978, and would remain a Pirate until 1983. The team got its money's worth from Bibby. He went 50-32 for Pittsburgh, with a 3.53 ERA over that span (he lost 1982 to an elbow injury), and he went 19-6 with a 3.32 ERA to earn his only All-Star nod and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 1980.

Hey, so what if he came to Pittsburgh to replace Goose Gossage? Teke Tekulve took care of that after Bibby fizzled as a finisher and returned to the rotation.

He became a key member of that 1979 pitching staff. Bibby made 34 appearances, split between starting and the pen. The big guy put up a 12-4 record with a 2.81 ERA, and did even better in the playoffs and Series. He got three starts, including Game #7 against the O's during the post-season. Although earning no decisions, he pitched in 17-1/3 pressure cooker innings, with an ERA of 2.08.

After that brilliant 1980 season, he still had a highlight left in him. On May 19, 1981, at the age of 36, Bibby gave up a leadoff single to the Atlanta Braves' Terry Harper, then was perfect for the remainder of the game, retiring the next 27 batters for a 5-0 shutout. On top of that he went 2-for-3 with a pair of doubles, and drove in and scored a run.

But in 1982 he had arm woes, missing the year, and that put the nail in his MLB coffin. Bibby was a swingman in 1983, with a 6.69 ERA, and played briefly with the Rangers, where he was released and signed to a minor-league deal by St. Louis.

He retired in July of 1984 from his original club, the Cards, and Bibby served as pitching coach with the Lynchburg Mets, Red Sox and Hillcats for 15 years. After a season with the Pirates' Nashville club in 2000, Bibby's contract wasn't renewed, and he retired from baseball for good, getting two new knees in 2001.

There was one final recognition for Bibby. In 2002, Lynchburg retired his number 26 and held a bobblehead night for him. That's some kinda love for a pitching coach.

Bibby was the oldest brother of UCLA basketball player Henry Bibby and the uncle of NBA player Mike Bibby. He leaves behind his wife, Jackie (Jordan) Bibby, and two daughters, Tamara Bibby and Tanya (Bibby) McClain.

We know that somewhere tonight in baseball Vahalla, Jim Bibby is staring in for the sign, with a torrent of sweat washing over him, ready to unleash his wild heater once again.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Buc Battles: The Bullpen

Well, the suits said that a bullpen was the easiest thing to build, and on the cheap, too. Looks like they were right; the cattle call starts tomorrow for their auditions.

The April starting seven from last year's relief corp - Matt Capps, John Grabow, Tyler Yates, Jesse Chavez, Sean Burnett, Donnie Veal, and Chris Hansen are gonzo; only Yates, Veal and Hansen even remain with the organization.

It's not like they were breaking up a dominant group of arms. The pen ranked 15th in the National League in 2009 with a 4.61 ERA and had a league-low 28 saves. They walked too many and didn't strike enough guys out.

So it will be an entirely new gang entrusted to put out the fires in 2010.

Coming back are Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan; both will get some time to ripen as late relievers, much like last year, judging by the Bucco bullpen signings. The Pirates brought veteran guys in ahead of them who can serve as tutors, not blocks, for their future progression up the bullpen ladder.

The finisher will be 36 year-old RHP Octavio Dotel, who hasn't closed regularly since 2004 when he notched 36 saves. He can certainly miss bats - he's struck out 940 hitters in 770-1/3 innings over his eleven year career, with 83 saves and a 3.73 ERA - but there's some question whether or not he can seal the deal.

Dotel's save percentage is 68%, he has control issues, walking over four batters per game, and his splits last year weren't all that great. Still, for this point in the Pirates' development, he'll do nicely.

38 year-old RHP Brendan Donnelly has eight seasons of experience, and he looks to be the favorite to become the set-up man. He can slip the ball past hitters, too, with 343 K's in 354-2/3 career innings.

Donnelly was lights out for the Marlins last year, but is less than three years removed from Tommy John surgery and hasn't worked over 25 innings since 2006. That's the club's main concern; can he handle the workload? If he can, his lifetime 3.02 ERA gives good indication of how effective he can be as Dotel's bridge.

Ah, but the bottom three. The four pitchers above are locks; after that, it's a battle royale for a spot on the 25 man roster.

Two guys have a leg up on the competition. Javier Lopez is the alpha lefty candidate, and was the first reliever signed by the Pirates back in December. He was a dud with the for the Red Sox last season, but from 2006-08 was quite effective, with ERAs of 2.70, 3.10, and 2.43 as Beantown's middle reliever.

And hey, they have to have a lefty, right? Last year should have taught the suits at least that much. So the Bucs have Wilfredo Ledezma, Brian Burres, and Justin Thomas in camp, too, throwing from the south side. But none of the group appear to match up to Grabow or Burnett.

Neal Cotts was an interesting pick-up, and would be part of the mix, but he had TJ surgery in July, and his timetable for 2010 isn't known.

D.J Carrasco is touted to be the favorite among the non-roster invitees to land a spot in the corps. After a very forgettable three years spent flopping between starting and relieving for the Royals, he found his niche in Chicago. He became a part of the White Sox bullpen, and put together ERAs of 3.96 and 3.73, with an impressive 93-1/3 innings worked last year.

If it goes to form, the last spot will be decided between Steven Jackson and Chris Jakubauskas, with a possible challenge from Kevin Hart if he loses his starting role to Daniel McCutchen.

Other invitees are Brian Bass, Vinnie Chulk, Jeff Karstens, and Jack Taschner, all righties with previous big league relief experience. But they seem ticketed to provide insurance policies at Indy, not break camp. Yates and Hansen are injured, and late season possibilities at best.

Better or worse? Well, it'll depend on whether Dotel can recapture his 2006 magic and Donnelly can provide 70 innings or so for the cause. Meek and Hanrahan should excel without facing the pressure-cooker of closing quite yet, and the last three pitchers are, well, the last three. We're still concerned about the lack of left-handed relievers; the lack bit the team badly during the sad sack second half of 2009.

But if the questions are answered in the positive, the Pirates should be strong for the clutch 7-8-9 inning roles. So if the starting staff can get the game into the last three innings, the bullpen should be better at holding and finishing games, especially if Dotel becomes a hammer.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Buc Battles: Outfield Overload

Hey, no one can deny that the Bucs still have some holes to fill. But geez, they really went overboard on the outfield. They've protected ten guys slotted for pasture duty on the 40-man roster, and invited another pair to camp.

The only discernible logic behind the stockpiling seems to be the more, the merrier, although nightmares of Jay Michaels, Craig Monroe, and Eric Hinske certainly played in the decision.

The list of camp invitees: Ryan Church, Gorkys Hernandez, Brandon Jones, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, Brandon Moss, Brian Myrow, John Raynor, Jose Tabata, Jonathan Van Every, and Delwyn Young.

Who's got dibs on a Pirate uni for sure? McCutchen, Milledge, Church and Garrett Jones are lead-pipe cinches to make the roster. The only question is whether Jones will move to first base and free up an outfield spot if Jeff Clement doesn't break camp with the team.

Hernandez, Myrow, Tabata, and Van Every will also just as surely start in the minors; Tabata is the only one will a better than even chance of making the jump to the show sometime in 2010, although Van Every does have the pedigree to be part of the mix if the stars align right.

That leaves four guys for at best two positions - Brandon Jones, Moss, Raynor, and Young. Jones is the latest addition.

The 26 year-old lefty was a minor league phenom, and one of the highest ranked players in the Braves' organization up until the past couple of season, being ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 going into 2008 and ahead of Gorkys Hernandez.

But a couple of so-so AAA seasons dimmed his star, and the Brave's DFA'd him. He's yet another corner outfielder, and he's projected now as a bench/platoon player. Jones has an option left, so while he's rumored to be trade bait, we think he's just another insurance policy destined for Indy.

Moss may be in for the fight of his Pittsburgh career. After given countless chances to put a stranglehold on right field, the likeable 26 year-old put up a .236/.304/.364 line in 2009 with seven long balls in 385 at-bats.

He's never shown the ability to convert his sizable potential into performance, and unless he becomes the second coming of Mickey Mantle in Florida, he's on very thin ice.

Raynor is the latest Rule 5 pick, and we think the last spot will come down to him and Delwyn Young. He's a pesky player, with speed, a good glove, and a .383 career OBP on the farm.

The 26 year-old also has the advantage of being the only true center-field type in camp, and we assume that McCutchen is going to need a blow every now and then.

But...and this is a big but...he had a largely forgettable year in AAA New Orleans last season, with a line of .257/.327/.360. So Raynor will need to come out guns a-blazing in camp to prove that 2009 was a learning year, not a regression.

That leaves Young. The switch-hitter was a brilliant bat of the bench, but all his stats took a big hit after the Pirates' ill-advised effort to make him a second baseman sapped him after the All-Star break.

He'll turn 28 in June, and the coin toss the suits have to make in camp is whether Raynor's glove outweighs Young's bat.

As far as team control, except for Brandon Jones and his option, the rest either make the team or risk a trip out of town. Raynor, as a Rule 5 dude, has to make the roster or get offered back to the Marlins. Moss and Young are out of minor-league options.

We lean towards McCutchen, Milledge, Church, Raynor, and Young making the team, assuming Garrett Jones goes to first. If not, we think because of age and limited defensive usefulness, Young will lose out.

But the picture may clear up; with their depth, the Pirates have given themselves some options if they pull off a spring deal.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Weekend Widgets

-- The Pirates are not a lead-footed bunch by design, or so it seems. Matt Pouliot of the Hardball Times projects steal leaders for 2010. Among his top eleven picks, one is a current Pirate and a pair are recent vintage: Andrew McCutchen - 37 steals; Rajai Davis - 39 sacks (that Matt Morris deal gets worse and worse!), and of course Nyjer Morgan, with 52 swipes.

-- 32 year old (is that all?) RHP Kip Wells signed a minor-league deal with the Reds, per the Cincinnati Reds Blog.

-- The Charlestown Gazette's Mitch Vingle reports that it could be the end of the road for 30 year-old catcher JR House, once one of the Bucs' brightest prospects.

-- Bill Ladson of MLB.com tweets that RHP Kris Benson - and Anna, they're a package deal, we suppose - is on the Washington Nat's radar. The 35 year-old fizzled as a reliever for the Rangers last year, and was sent to the minors in June. It was his first MLB action since 2006, when he blew out his arm.

-- J.J. Furmaniak, an old Pirate farmhand, signed a minor-league deal with the Ryas, according to Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Buc Battles: Shortstop

For the past nine seasons, Pirate fans could count on one sure thing in an ever-changing Pittsburgh universe: Jack Wilson would be at shortstop, sometimes frustrating with his stick but never with his glove.

Well, that security blanket is gone off to Seattle. Now the shortstop hole will be filled by Ronny Cedeno or Bobby Crosby, both once rising stars that have plummeted to earth in recent seasons.

Throughout his Cub career - and they signed him as a 16 year-old - Cedeno had always been compared to Rey Ordonez. And the Bucs feel they can still get him there, although he's got a ways to go.

Pittsburgh has had a glimpse of Cedeno during the last two months of the 2009 season. He hit .258 in 46 games and showed some pop by drilling five long balls. One warning, though: between Seattle and Pittsburgh, Cedeno hit ten homers, his career-best. So A-Rod, he ain't.

The Venezuelean has put together a .240/.307/.394 line over his five year career, with 23 homers in 1,245 at-bats.

In the field, Cedeno showed OK range and a MLB arm, but his .975 fielding percentage is weak, and in fact, his lifetime average is worse at .966. The Pirates think he has some issues with focus, and if that's so, the 27 year-old has had trouble paying attention throughout his career.

The Cubs brought him up in April of 2005 to replace Nomar Garciaparra, but Neifi Perez won the starting job. Cedeno started in 2006, and hit .245 with 109 Ks and a mere 17 walks. Patience is just not his thing at the dish.

He was a bench guy until Seattle snagged him last year, but combined with the Pirates, Cedeno hit .208 with 79 whiffs and 19 walks.

His conglomerate projection is as a utility middle infielder. Cedeno has a strong arm, good range, good speed, and fair hands, but lacks the play-by-play concentration to field a routine ball. At the plate, he has fair bat speed but struggles with away pitches, especially low and breaking balls. Plus there is that discipline thing.

And guess what? The shortstop job, according to most sources, is Cedeno's to lose.

His challenger is one-time 2004 Rookie of Year shortstop Bobby Crosby.

The Oakland A's took him in the first round of the 2001 draft (25th overall), and in 2004, his first full season, he took over the Athletics' shortstop duties from 2002 American League MVP Miguel Tejada.

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

The 30 year-old 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).

But it wasn't his medical record that got him his walking papers; after seven seasons and almost 2,400 at-bats, his career line was .238/61/263, and his OBP is .305.

His range is a little suspect, though he has a strong arm. Crosby's 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.

As with Cedeno, the Pirate suits think that there's more to Crosby than the stats show, and they hope a change of scenery will rejuvenate him.

So we have a pair of guys who have a little pop, career averages of .240 and .238, and one that has limited range but makes the plays, and one with all the tools who nods off too often. Carlos Garcia has his work cut out for him.

Crosby has a one-year deal; Garcia will enter his final arbitration season after 2010, and both will stick this year. There's no one on the near horizon in the Pirate organization ready to take over yet.

Our take is that the winner of this battle will get a two-year deal as a placeholder at short; the loser will be one and out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Camp Crashers

With the addition of RHP Jeff Sues, the Pirate roster of non-40 man roster invitees to camp is now at 26 players. They are:

Pitchers (18) - RH Jimmy Barthmaier, RH Brian Bass, LH Brian Burres, RH D.J. Carrasco, RH Vinnie Chulk, RH Anthony Claggett, LH Neal Cotts, RH Craig Hansen, RH Steven Jackson, RH Jeff Karstens, LH Wilfredo Ledezma, RH Jean Machi, RH Jeremy Powell, RH Jeff Sues, LH Jack Taschner, LH Justin Thomas, RH Virgil Vasquez, and RH Tyler Yates.

Outlook: Carrasco has an excellent shot at sticking; Jackson and Ledzema will get good looks. Cotts, Hansen, and Yates are all recovering from injuries and probably won't be physically ready for the start of the season.

Catchers (4) - Luke Carlin, Hector Gimenez, Erik Kratz, and Tony Sanchez.

Outlook: They're just in Bradenton to give the pitchers a target. It's growing less likely that Ryan Doumit will be dealt, but if there's a trade or injury, Carlin is probably the next man on the organizational depth chart, just ahead of Kratz.

Infielders (2) - 2B Doug Bernier and SS Brian Friday.

Outlook: Neither has a shot at breaking camp with the big team.

Outfielders (2) - Brian Myrow and Jonathan Van Every.

Outlook: On a team glutted with outfielders, these guys are assuredly Indy-bound. But both are MLB capable players and add nice depth to the position. If the team packages some of their excess outfielders, one or the other could end up on Pittsburgh's bench. But the numbers game is slanted decidedly against them now.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Quick Look Ahead

Sorry about the posting gap; between the snow - my son and some neighbors shoveled out enough of my street to reach a plowed street so we can get off the hill; a City truck finally made an appearance early this morning - and lack of Pirate news, it's been a challenging week for GW. And if the weatherpeople are right, it'll stay that way for a couple more days.

-- Here's what Circling the Bases reports on the 2010 Bucco.

-- Eric Mack of CBS Sports Fantasy Report has this outlook.

-- The Baseball Think Factory has its 2010 outlook and ZiPs projectons for Pittsburgh (not updated; goes back to November)

-- Baseball Projections offers the 2010 Chone projections for Pittsburgh's hitters and pitchers.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Buc Battles: First Base

OK, the choices are dig through a couple feet of snow to get to a street that won't see a plow until Monday, or sit down at the ol' PC and blog Bucco. Hmmmmmm...

Opting for dreams of a sunshine-filled Bradenton, we're looking at perhaps the Pirates most unsettled position, first base. There is no returning incumbent; Garrett Jones and Steve Pearce split the sack after Adam LaRoche was shopped to the Red Sox. And as far as the depth chart goes today, Jones is in right field and Pearce isn't even listed.

The heir-apparent is Jeff Clement, a catcher/DH who was a prime return of the Jack Wilson deal. Unfortunately, he also comes with two chip-chopped knees and no pedigree at first base. Clement's got a grand total of 28 games played at the position in his five minor-league seasons.

The Pirates envision a big, left-handed bat at a power position, much like LaRoche provided from June onward. We'll see. In the past two years at Triple A, he's hit 20 and 21 homers, nice numbers but certainly not Ruthian - or even Alvarezian. Still, a fair indicator that he has some muscle, and that short PNC porch in right should be worth a few extra dingers.

The question is whether or not he has the leather to handle the new position. The early indicators are that he's not making an exactly smooth transition; we can't help but recall the struggles that Delwyn Young had trying to master second base.

The good news comes in two forms. First, if the Bucs decide to polish his game at Indy, he does have a remaining option year. And second, Plan B entails returning Jones to his original position full-time.

Jones comes with his set of questions. One of 2009's feel-good stories, the long time bush leaguer got the call and pounded out 21 bombs while compiling a line of .293/.372/.567 in 82 games.

But a .208 average against lefties and a RISP of .152 show he has holes in his swing; he'd be a platoon player on a team less power-challenged than Pittsburgh.

But the Bucs are well aware that Jones is the odds-on favorite. That's why they brought Ryan Church into the fold, to be the placeholder in right field until one of the pups, like Jose Tabata, is ready for prime time.

After that? Well, nada, actually, unless there's a position switch. And with Alvarez on the radar to land at PNC sooner rather than later, that could well be in the cards.

Don't be entirely surprised if another LaRoche moves across the infield when Alvarez finally lays claim on the hot corner. Second base would be a tough transition, but he'd be a plus first baseman - with the glove. It makes sense if he brings September's bat with him into 2010; not so much otherwise.

Still, first base is a position that has more questions than answers right now. We're a little surprised they didn't trawl the market to seek a little competition; someone like Xavier Nady would have been the ticket.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Already, the Draft

OK, Neal Huntington has been trying to calm the Bryce Harper storm, at least until the June meat market opens. Who might he be looking at right now?

Well, doh, Bryce Harper, despite Huntington's cool as a January dip in the Mon attitude. The kid's 17, hits a ball 500 feet, and has four tools (a roadrunner he ain't.)

In his favor: he's a lefty bomber. Also, the suits seem to favor plucking a position player (Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez) with their first pick. And while he's mainly catching now, he projects as a corner fielder (he throws righty) and could be Pedro's infield bookend down the road or a big bat in right field.

Drawbacks: Awfully young, still jumps at the ball, and is represented by the piledriving Scott Boras, so he'll be a tough sign. But give the devil his due; he's the only reason Pittsburgh may sniff Harper.

After last year's dealing with the Boras Corporation, who was representing Stephen Strasburg, the Nats may let young Mr. Harper drop to the Pirates. They didn't sign Strasburg until the deadline (hey, they had a minute left), which was less contentious than the Pirate's dealings with Boras and his 2008 client, Alvarez.

The Bucs have also been associated - and this is very early - with RHP Jameson Taillon of The Woodlands HS, Texas. The 6'-5" hurler throws a low to mid-90s fastball and a power 12-to-6 curve.

Another name that's a blip on the Pirate radar is RHP Anthony Ranaudo of LSU. His fastball hits 93, he works the inside half of the plate, misses bats, and owns a plus hook and change up. He's 6'-7", and the Bucs love those big guys.

Other highly ranked players are:

-- A.J. Cole, a RHP from Ovedia HS, Florida. He features a low 90s heater and is reputed to have the best arm in this year's high school class.

-- RHP Cameron Bedrosian of East Coweta HS, Georgia. The son of former MLB vet Steve Bedroisian, he throws in the low 90s and has a nasty power curve.

-- Drew Pomeranz, a LHP from Ole Miss. The junior was taken by the Rangers out of high school but wasn't signed. His fastball was clocked at 94-90 and his curveball darts at 78-80.

-- Christian Colon, SS, from Cal-State Fullerton. He was taken out of high school, but didn't sign. Colon was a freshman All-American and started every game for a Team USA team that went undefeated over the summer. He hit .352 as the sophomore shortstop for the College World Series-bound Titans, and projects as a second baseman.

-- Deck McGuire is a RHP from the Ramblin' Wrecks of Georgia Tech, the ACC's Pitcher-of-the-Year for 2009 and was named to several All-America teams. He shows a sinking 90-93 mph fastball that runs into righthanded hitters, a hard, upper-70s slurve, and a changeup.

Baseball America has their preliminary ratings here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Buc Battles: McCutchen vs Hart

As the Bucs prepare to pack up the bats and balls and head to Bradenton for spring training, there are are couple of position battles to be waged in the Florida sunshine. The final spot of the rotation is one such match-up.

It's almost a given that Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton will take the first four spots in the 2010 rotation. That leaves Dan McCutchen and Kevin Hart as the mano-a-mano gunslingers for the final position.

McCutchen, 27, brings steady performance; Hart, also 27, features tantalizing stuff.

In a brief audition last season, McCutchen went 1-2 with a 4.21 ERA in six starts. He lasted 36-1/3 innings, and gave up 11 walks and had 19 K's to go with a WHIP of 1.349. His biggest bugaboo was yielding six long balls, or 1.5 per nine innings.

McCutchen also throws a few too many pitches. He only lasted seven innings once (and less than six only once; he notched four quality starts and is consistent if nothing else), but still averaged 94 pitches per outing.

He did put it together during his last three starts. His ERA was just a hair under three, and he earned his first win even though the Bucs hit the ball behind him like what they were - the worst offense in the league. The secret was he began to quit nibbling and throwing first-pitch strikes.

McCutchen depends on his fastball, which averaged a tad over 90 last season, and a split-fingered heater with nasty sink that comes in at 81 and serves as his off-speed ball; those two pitches account for about 88% of his offerings, according to Fan Graphs. He also throws a slider, and very rarely shows a change-up.

As a result, he has good control, but doesn't have the velocity to get away with a mistake. The good news is he makes very few of them.

Kevin Hart was transitioned from a spot starter/reliever with the Cubs, where he was 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA, to an everyday starter with Pittsburgh. In ten trips to the hill, he was smacked around quite a bit.

He finished up 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA. Hart whiffed 39 batters and walked 26 in 53-1/3 innings, with a WHIP of 1.875. The righty never went past six innings, and tossed 102 pitches per outing that lasted 5-1/3 innings on average.

Hart showed a more extensive repertoire, tossing a mix of 59% fastballs, 23% hooks, 14% cutters, and 4% change-ups. His trouble was getting the ball over the plate; he regularly fell behind in the count and had to come in with a meatball; that's how you give up 74 hits in 53 frames.

For once, the outcome won't be determined by team control. McCutchen has all his options still in play, and Hart has one remaining. The Pirates see both pitchers right now as starters (although both have been mentioned as possible closer material down the road), so the loser will in all likelihood take a trip to Indy to work on getting that first pitch over the plate and learning to pitch more effectively to get deeper into contests.

Our take is that McCutchen is more MLB ready at this point and has the upper hand in this battle; he's shown the consistency that you look for in a back-ender.

But the battle will continue; Brad Lincoln will be breathing down someone's back, possibly as soon as this coming season.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cecilio Guante - The Man Who Helped Bring Doug Drabek To Pittsburgh

Today is Cecilio Guante's 50th birthday; he was born on February 1st, 1960, in Villa Mella in the Dominican Republic. Happy birthday, dude!

The righty was signed as an amateur free agent by Pirate scouts Howie Haak and Pablo Cruz in 1979, back in the day when the Bucs actually worked Latin America. Guante was a big kid, 6'-3" and 205 pounds, and could bring the smoke then, although he would evolve into a junkballer.

He made it to the big leagues as a 22 year-old in 1982, yo-yoing back and forth between the big club and the bushes for his first three seasons. Guante finally stuck in 1985, when he posted a 4-6 record in 63 appearances and saved five games. He tossed 109 innings with 92 strikeouts, a 2.72 ERA and a 1.138 WHIP.

Guante had a nice follow-up season in 1986, too. He went 5-2 with a 3.35 ERA and four saves, with 63 K's in 78 innings and a 1.205 WHIP as Don Robinson's caddy.

In 1987, Guante was traded to the New York Yankees, a team looking for pitching help, along with Pat Clements and Rick Rhoden. The Bucs got back Brian Fisher, Logan Easley, and some guy named Doug Drabek.

Drabek won 92 games in five years at Pittsburgh, led the team to three straight playoff appearances, and went on to win the National League Cy Young Award in 1990.

Guante? He had a 5.73 ERA in 1987; so much for solving the Bronx Bombers' pitching woes (although it should be noted that Rhoden, the deal's main target, won 16 games for the Pinstripes that year). Guante bounced back in 1988 with five wins and career-high eleven saves with a 2.82 ERA, but was traded to the Texas Rangers for Dale Mohorcic at the end of August after being on the DL twice.

Guante played two more seasons before leaving MLB for good. He had a decent 1989 with the Rangers and a terrible 1990 as a free agent for the Indians, who cut him August.

He ended his MLB service in 1991, when he was the Boston Red Sox's final cut in spring camp, and then went on to play ball in the Latino leagues afterward.

Cecilio Guante finished his career with a 29-34 record and a 3.48 ERA. He worked out of the pen, except for one start in 1990, and notched 35 saves in his nine-year MLB tour. During his Buc stay, he was 13-17 with a 3.06 ERA and 20 saves from 1982-86.

But he'll be forever remembered in Pittsburgh for two things - the huge "G" he sported on the web of his glove, and being part of the Doug Drabek deal. Oh, and five years of pretty good set-up pitching, too.