Sunday, October 2, 2011

The FO

Yesterday's post beat the drum for managers being basically as good as their talent. So hand-in-hand with Clint Hurdle's review is the performance of the FO in setting the table for 2011.

The first big move was bringing Hurdle aboard. So far, so good. He's energized the team, generally professionalized the day-to-day managing, seems to have meaningful input with the FO and presents a smiling face for the fans, all day-and-night differences from the JR era.

After that, the FO's job was to provide him with the talent to win a few more games. They again had trouble convincing difference-making free agents to sign with Pittsburgh. Kevin Correia proved to be as advertised, a workhorse back-ender, and Jose Veras led the pen in appearances as a solid if erratic bridge man.

The other bally-hooed FAs, Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz, fizzled. As an everyday player, Overbay never found his stroke; he's working out better for the D-Backs as a platoon guy. Diaz had a strong resume, but his bat speed and power disappeared in Pittsburgh. Both players were counted upon to provide a little pop in the lineup and were a big reason the middle of the order was so feeble this year.

The braintrust had better success later in the season with their deadline deals. Derrek Lee gave the Bucs a presence at first, but he looks like a hard sell to keep around. Jason Grilli was a steal and gave the weary pen a huge boost. Ryan Ludwick, well, played like Ryan Ludwick.

Other additions meant to solidify the squad fell through. Joe Beimel ended up a BP pitcher out of the pen. None of the players they invited to camp for a look stuck: Garrett Atkins, Andy Marte, Josh Fields, Corey Wimberly, Scott Olsen, Aaron Thompson and Wil Ledezma.

In fairness, they all were depth players, not challengers to claim a spot on the 25-man roster (although with the way first base ended up, Fields perhaps should have been a keeper). Josh Rodriguez, the Rule 5 claim, yo-yoed between Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the minors.

The FO saved those bench roster spots for the waiver wires. Brandon Wood and Xavier Paul joined the team after being deep-sixed, and both provided a little bench depth. Paul especially has some intriguing tools while Wood has some muscle.

The wave of injuries showed how thin the upper levels of the organization were. First, we'll give the FO props for bringing in Mike McKenry to plug the leak at catcher. Not many teams can lose their top three backstops without costly consequences, but Scooby Doo held the fort competently until Dewey came back. And Eric Fryer showed there is more depth at the spot than just the often injured Tony Sanchez.

The Pirates had no answer when Pedro looked lost at the plate and then got hurt, though Josh Harrison proved that he's a capable reserve. He doesn't have the mitt, muscle or plate discipline to play every day, but as a plug-in player he can play a couple of spots, makes contact and runs well.

Alex Presley thrust himself into contention to start every day next year, and in fact we'd be surprised if he isn't already penciled in for left field for 2012. He's the Neil Walker success story of this season.

Outfield is the exception in the organization; it's deep. With Gorkys Hernandez maturing and Starling Marte rising with a bullet, the Bucs are adequately stocked there. Not so for the other positions.

The young arms were more adept at coming out of the pen than stepping into the rotation, and that's a problem.  Brad Lincoln was the only starter that will compete next year, and that's due more to a thin MLB staff than his big league performance, which was lukewarm.  Indeed, there's been chatter about turning Tony Watson back into a starter, but that would go against the MO of the development people.

There's no one to push Ronny Cedeno at short; Chase d'Arnaud isn't ready, and Jordy Mercer and Brock Holt are behind him. The farm hasn't groomed a first baseman either. If Lee walks, it looks like a platoon between Garrett Jones and probably the unproven Matt Hague, as Steve Pearce has one foot out the door after back-to-back injury plagued seasons.

As we mentioned, third base isn't stocked past Pedro, and second base is backed up by Harrison if iron man Walker ever gets dinged.

But while the upper levels are short of position players, the draft has been a bright spot. Gerritt Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia are all beginning their careers, and a boatload of guys are toiling at the A level. Jeff Locke of Altoona got his feet wet this year in Pittsburgh, and may be a season removed from joining the staff.

There are a couple of reasons why the draft looks so promising, but the upper levels are so barren. One is the FO's preference to sign pitching, which is a good thing in the long run. They target high school arms, and that has its own set of dynamics - the talent is harder to evaluate than college guys, although the upside is greater, they're less polished, and the Pirate development template is step-by-step, making it difficult to fast track a pitcher. So from draft day to opening day is a process for a Pirate farmhand, and not a quick one.

With the emphasis on pitching, the position players selected  have been few and far between. It didn't start that way. In the first draft by the current FO, seven players - 3B Pedro Alvarez, SS Jordy Mercer, SS Chase d'Arnaud, OF Rob Grossman, SS Benji Gonzalez, 3B Jeremy Farrell and 1B Matt Hague - were taken in the top ten rounds.

But in the next two drafts, only a total of four position players were taken in the top ten, and they added four more this year. And that's why there's a talent gap. 2008's players are mainly in the upper levels, but there just haven't been many highly rated warm bodies added to the organization since then.

The Latino signings won't kick in for awhile, either. Rene Gaydos has only had the green light for four years, and his stock in trade is inking kids that are 16-18 years old. They have a long road to Pittsburgh, although some of his ninos are making noise at the A level.

The FO hasn't been sitting on their hands, though.  In their four years, they have added Jose Tabata, Ronny Cedeno, Garrett Jones, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Jason Grilli, Chris Leroux and Chris Resop to the 25-man roster, with the possibilities of Derrek Lee, Josh Harrison, Xavier Paul, Jason Jaramillo, Pedro Ciriaco, D-Mac, Ohlie, Bryan Morris or Jose Veras breaking camp with the team in 2012.

So at least half of the opening day roster and likely more will be guys that came from other organizations, by hook or crook. They have been trying to upgrade. But the record for FAs making an impact in Pittsburgh is bleak; Kevin Correia is the only one that's pretty much a lock to be on Pittsburgh's Opening Day roster.

Now that the final wave of Dave Littlefield's picks have crested, it looks like the Neal Huntington era selections won't be arriving until 2013 and beyond.

So our grade for the FO's efforts in the 2011 season is a D. Their inability to stock Indy and bring in a solid FA was magnified when the injury bug bit, and the competition for infield spots is non-existent right now.  They still haven't found a pitcher to handle the 1-2 spot in the rotation.

But their overall grade is an incomplete. They have always claimed to be building a system that should one day be able to replenish itself, and it's said to take 5-7 years to retool an organization from top-to-bottom. Next year is the fifth. The time of reckoning is fast approaching.


WilliamJPellas said...

You're higher on Paul than I am. Between him and Brandon Wood I much prefer Wood. Maybe my perspective is skewed a bit from watching Pedro Alvarez stink it up, but Wood is a legitimate and very good fielder at third and can play adequately at short and first, besides. He also has legitimate power. Unfortunately he is exactly like Pedro in that he is a strikeout machine. But I believe he can definitely help the Pirates in a pick-your-spots way and maybe more than that going forward. Hopefully Alvarez plays well enough that Wood is relegated to utility duties, but if not, he's not the worst band-aid for half a season.

As for the farm system, yes, it's improved and no, it won't happen overnight. I'll add that the roll call of position players now about to hit the bigs who all came from Huntington's first draft is not bad. Not great, but not bad. It is strange that things fizzled out so abruptly from there, though as you say, there is a truckload of high school arms and Latin players still to be heard from. I never did like what I still believe was an overemphasis on high schoolers, but whatever, the die is cast.

Agreed that the starting rotation is in serious need of reinforcement, and that it is alarming to say the least that none of the hoped-for pitchers in the high minors actually did anything in 2011. All of them---Justin Wilson, Brad Lincoln, and especially Rudy Owens---either stagnated or regressed. Lincoln basically inherited the fifth starter's job by default after Karstens moved up in the rotation and everybody else in the minors spit the bit. Lincoln's so-so results were nothing to write home about, though they were better than what we saw last year. He only has to be consistently average to help us as a back-ender because of his excellent hitting, but so far he hasn't been even that good, not consistently anyway.

Which leaves free agency, and the chances of landing another veteran who would be even as effective as Kevin Correia was for the money the Pirates paid for him, are slim and none. So ya gotta think we'd be looking at a 3 or 4 year deal for somebody at $10 million per, plus incentives. Rich Harden, Roy Oswalt and Brad Penny are the only names I see on Cots' Contracts that might be worth waving that kind of cash around; there are a number of other guys who are worth a flyer, just nowhere near that kind of guaranteed money.

All that to say, we're not out of the woods yet. Not even close. And as you say, judgment day for this regime is nearly upon us.

Ron Ieraci said...

Dunno that I'm high on Paul, Will, as much as I think he profiles pretty well for a bench OF'er who gets 150 or so ABs.

I wouldn't have a problem with Wood being a backup infielder as opposed to Harrison; both bring distinctly different tools to work. I think that will be a hotly debated position within the organization.

The starting pitching needs help. How and if they address that will be a hot stove storyline to watch. Owens and Wilson were guys they were high on, so we'll see if AAA is a learning experience or wall for them in 2012.

With no one on the near horizon to block, I think it'll be foolish of the FO to not ay least try to sign Maholm for a couple or three years. It's not my money, of course, but in my view he has as many positives as anyone they'd be able to reel in from the FA market.

Ron Ieraci said...

Forgot the infield. It's manageable if Pedro steps up; it's a black hole if he continues to flounder.