Sunday, February 26, 2012

Camp Questions - Erik Bedard

Give Neal Huntington some credit. He identified players he wanted, and went after them this off season. His starting pitching faltered in the dog days of 2011, and seems to be populated by a posse of guys whose upside topped out as three-four pitchers in a big league rotation.

Huntington has ace potential guys like Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Luis Heredia et al in diapers at the lower levels of Pittsburgh's organization. But with last year's early success, the team had both raised fan expectations and built some good mojo to carry forward. So finding a top end arm to help keep the Bucs in business in 2012 was, despite management claims to be happy with the starters already in place, a priority.

But it's not easy being the Pirates. Roy Oswalt wouldn't return the GM's calls, and Edwin Jackson spurned one and three year overtures. But he did land one big fish in early December, lefty Eric Bedard.

We're talking about a guy that spent eight years in the AL, and posted a 3.70 career ERA with 8.8 Ks per nine innings. Unfortunately, we're also talking about a guy that's made just 165 starts covering 951 innings over that same span. He's only made 30 starts once, and never reached 200 IP. So the question regarding Bedard has nothing to do with his stuff; it's how many times will he be able to take the hill for Pittsburgh?

Since being traded from Baltimore to Seattle in 2008, Bedard has made just 54 starts due to injuries of his hip, his oblique, his shoulder (twice) and his knee. He missed all of 2010. Last season was the first time he's cracked the 100 inning barrier during that span, working 129-1/3 frames for the Mariners and Red Sox.

The silver lining is that high risk projects like Bedard fall into the willing arms of low-revenue clubs like the Pirates. He signed a $4.5M contract with another $500K in potential bonuses, half of what inning eater Paul Maholm's option was worth. And it was probably a bit of an overpay - he made $1M in 2011 and $1.5 in 2010.

It's a bet that both sides were happy to place. Bedard gets a decent one-year and out contract with a chance to rebuild his brand, and the Bucs are crossing their fingers that they get the 2006-07 version of the lefty. In those two seasons, he started 61 games, pitched 378 innings, and posted a 28-16 record with a 3.48 ERA for an Oriole team that was 45 games under .500.

After sitting out 2010 while rehabbing a shoulder injury, he showed signs of returning to his old form last year. He was only 5-9, but put up a 3.62 ERA with 125 Ks in 129-1/3 innings. Of course, he made his annual trip to the DL - he's been on it nine times during his career, seven times since 2007 - and showed a little rust when he joined the Boston rotation after a month's layoff. That wasn't surprising; he's 8-15 with a 4.51 ERA in August and September, not too surprising for a guy who's usually coming back from an injury.

OK, we guess you've figured out that Bedard isn't likely to be a horse. But he is likely to be the Pirate's best pitcher when he takes the mound. He throws a low nineties heater, a change, and uses the hook as his out pitch. Bedard has virtually no platoon split, and his ERA and xFIP are nearly twins (3.70/3.83). His fly ball - home run ratio is 9%, and his WHIP 1.317. His only negative is a bit of wildness, averaging 3.5 walks per nine innings, offset somewhat by allowing just 8 hits per game.

As far as the injuries, he's coming into 2012 with a clean slate. It's been the first off season in a spell that he's been able to condition instead of rehabbing and Bedard should enter 2012 as physically sound as he's been since his halycon days with the O's.

Realistically, the Pirates have a top gun that they hope to nurse through 25 starts and 150 innings, maybe topping out at 30 starts and 180 IP if his body cooperates. And they should have a guy that gives the team a chance to win every time he steps out of the dugout. If they get that, it'll be considered a win-win situation for both sides.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Camp Questions - Pedro Alvarez

Camp opened yesterday, and all but one guy (Anderson Hernandez, with visa problems, reported today) was there. For some, spring training is just an opportunity to get back into the rhythm of baseball, but for others, it's the first step in resolving some questions. The Pirates are generally loaded with the latter. None loom larger this season than the Pedro Alvarez enigma.

Can Alvarez, 25, develop into the middle of the order bat the Pirates need? Last year, he couldn't decide if he wanted to be patient or aggressive at bat, and it led to a disastrous .191/4/19 line and an OPS of 56, with 100 being the league norm. To boot, he was injured for a good chunk of the year, and ended up with a UZR/150 of -2.8 and a WAR of -0.8.

We remember the template too well - watch the first pitch go by on the outside corner for strike one, swing over an off speed pitch, and try to work out of an 0-2 hole.  He was in that count 28% of his at-bats last year, and batted .077 with a 55% K rate. What a difference a year makes.

In 2010, he looked alright in July and August, with a line of .252/.336/.435 with 10 HR and 32 RBI in 190 ABs before breaking out in September, finishing with a 1.6 WAR. His Isolated Power rating (ISO) was an excellent .205, and his fly ball to home runs worked out at a strong 17.6%  The Pirates will take that gladly this year. 2011's numbers dropped drastically in the power department, with an .098 ISO and 10.3% HR/FB ratio.

His plate discipline will be crucial. Last year, he had two strike counts in 151 of his 236 (64%) plate appearances, which matches up with his first-strike takes (61%, not an overly high number). He hit .094 in those situations with an OBP of .172 (13 hits, 12 walks). In his strike-or-less appearances, his average was .278.  In 2010, he had 2 strikes on him a more reasonable 54% of the time, but still hit just .130 with a .194 OBP.

So it's not a new development, and it's trending the wrong way. For El Toro, it's a simple enough matter: figure out the strike zone and stay aggressive within it, especially when down in the count. Easier said than done, especially for a young power hitter.

The problem isn't that he swings at more pitches off the plate than most guys; his career average matches the MLB standards. It's that he misses them at a much greater rate - he swings through 44% of them, while the league average is about 35%, indicative of some real fishing at the dish. His impatience with two strikes really shows, both in that swing-and-miss rate and his career 31% K rate.

His rebound is a key to the Pirate batting order. If Pedro can be plugged into the four-five spot, it's easier for Hurdle to cover the black hole at 7-8-9. Conceding an inning is hard enough on a lineup; conceding the final four batters is murder.

It got so bad last year that in the off season, the Rockies were said to be trawling the trade waters for Pedro, hoping the FO would cut ties and sell him low. Not much chance of that after the money and effort they've invested in him, not to mention his potential upside on a team that needs a guy whose fly balls the fences can't hold.

He's signed for $700K this year and has two club options for the same amount in 2013-14 (although he can void an option when he becomes arbitration eligible), so he's under team control for awhile yet. It's too soon to give up on him - remember Jose Bautista? - but after being caught without a Plan B at the hot corner last year, the FO brought in Casey McGehee this season. Their patience with Alvarez is not infinite, as they showed last year.

The $6M question this camp is will Pedro Alvarez become the next Jose Bautista, the next Ian Stewart, or something in between? The timeline for the Pirates' return to respectability depends on the answer.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pirate Potpourri

  • Dejan Kovacevic of the Trib reports that Pirate president Frank Coonelly was busted for a DUI in late December by the Ross Township police. Coonelly mans up to his mistake in the article.
  • Rob Beirtempfel of the Trib talked to Neal Huntington about the catcher merry-go-round, and the GM told him "In a perfect world, you’ve got four guys who you’re comfortable bringing to the big league level...We got Rod Barajas, (with) Michael McKenry and Jose Morales (who) will split time (as the backup). We retained Eric Fryer...We’ll continue to explore if there’s something else out there.” The Bucs almost signed Chris Gimenez last week before he opted for the Rays, according to's Bill Chastain.
  • Speaking of catchers, Barajas told Bill Brink of the Post Gazette that Curt Schilling was his model in working with pitchers.
  • Dave Laurila of Fangraphs interviewed Bucco scouting director Greg Smith to get the dope on the last two drafts and his thoughts on Josh Bell, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia, along with the CBA and Latino scouting. It's a pretty nice, in-depth article.
  • Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus lists the top minor league rotations built around current prospects. He has the Pirates in the Top Five, with the Pittsburgh staff consisting of Cole, Taillon, Heredia, Kyle McPherson and Colton Cain.
  • Also in Fangraphs, Mark Anderson compares Cole and Taillon.  He thinks Cole has fringe #1 potential while Taillon is a "comfortable" #2 arm. Anderson likes both guys' heater and curve; he's not so impressed by the rest of the arsenal yet.
  • Jim Callis of Baseball America on Josh Bell: "He's a very good prospect, but I think his $5 million signing bonus clouds the fact that had he been considered signable, he would have gone in the 11-20th range of the 2011 draft. He wasn't an elite prospect in that regard. I think he'll hit for considerable power and average and wind up in right field." He also discusses Cole, Heredia and Robbie Grossman.
  • Kristy Robinson of Pirates Prospects is in camp and keeping busy. She has already filed stories on Evan Meek, Jeff Locke, Mike McKenry, Casey McGehee, Nate McLouth and Charlie Morton as they look ahead to the 2012 campaign.
  • Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout goes over the Pirates 2012 draft budget under the new CBA. The cap is at $8.6M this year, and effectively eliminates the Josh Bell/Stetson Allie second round signings and the late round overslot deals with high school players. There will be more changes. Bud Selig told Josh Leventhal of Baseball America that a world-wide draft "is inevitable."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

And The First Roster Move Is...

Rule 5 selection Gustavo Nunez, the good glove, no stick shortstop that the Bucs claimed from Detroit in December, was the moving piece yesterday on the 40 man roster to clear room for new hurler AJ Burnett.

No, the FO didn't ship him back to the Tigers already. Instead, they moved him to the 60 day DL with a bum ankle. The injury doesn't seem to be a convenient, wink-wink excuse to keep the roster intact. Nunez hurt the joint last summer in AA ball, going down in early August. He was still rehabbing it when the Pirates drafted him.

The injury makes his selection even a little bit more bizarre. The 23 year old is a Pedro Ciriaco leather and wheels clone, and the Bucs cut Ciriaco loose during the off season. Nunez has only 34 games at the AA level, so keeping him on the roster for a full season was an iffy proposition to start with.

A Rule 5 player has to be on the 25 man roster for an entire season, and can't be optioned to the minors (although he can be traded). The loophole is that a player needs 90 consecutive days on the active roster if he's placed on the DL. And there's a little wiggle room built into that reg.

For example, if you have a Rule 5 player who has been on the roster for only 60 days in the season he was selected because of injury, he has to be on the active roster for 30 days in the following year after he's removed from the DL to satisfy the full season rule. Maybe the Pirates are now entertaining that thought with Nunez because of the ankle injury.

The Pirate system isn't exactly brimming with MLB ready shortstops. One scenario is to get Nunez back mid-season, stash him for 90 days, and add him to the organization in Altoona. It could work if the Bucs are out of the running in July or August.

His odds of making the team out of camp were probably slim. With Clint Barmes, a good glove man, set as the everyday shortstop, the Bucs were most likely looking for a back-up who could contribute a pinch hit or three off the bench for the big team coming out of Florida.

At any rate, Nunez to the DL was the obvious, and probably in the long run inevitable, move to make. We don't know what exactly his ankle injury is or how serious it is, except that it's carried over from last season. He's eligible to return in late April, and we'll check his status again then.

Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 Pirate Rotation

The 2012 rotation has a new look to it, with a couple of veterans that have been top guns at some point in their career, a couple of younger guys with some upside, and a competition for the bottom end.

The first new guy, LHP Erik Bedard, signed this off season to a 1 year/$4.5M contract. It may not seem like an ace's paycheck, but Bedard is this year's top of the rotation guy. He's trying to reestablish his value, and where better than in low-pressure Pittsburgh?

The 32 year old (he'll turn 33 next month) has put up a 3.70 ERA in eight AL seasons, but only has 56 wins to show for. Durability, not stuff, is his major issue. He's only reached 30 starts once and never thrown 200 innings in a single season. In fact, he's only crossed the 100 inning mark once in the past four seasons, missing all of 2010 due to injury. Bedard posted a 3.62 ERA over 129-1/3 innings last season between the Mariners and Red Sox.

He gives up 3.5 walks per nine, but gets 8.8 Ks per game. If the Bucs can get 150-175 innings and 25-30 starts out him, they'll be repaid in spades for their modest investment. He doesn't have an option year in his contract, so he'll be one and done for Pittsburgh in 2012.

Behind him in the rotation should be AJ Burnett. The 35 year old is in camp and officially part of the team. His stuff and travails with New York have been well documented over the past week or so, but the righty can still miss some bats, and the Pirates hope to get 30+ starts and a 4.00 ERA out of him.

He adds more than an arm to the staff. Burnett, for all his tats and wild child rep, is said to be a good guy to young pitchers and his antics keep a clubhouse loose, even if they wear on management. If nothing else, Burnett should keep the writers and bloggers deep in column inches during his stay.

The Pirates assumed the last two years of his contract, paying him $5M this year and $8M in 2013. He also comes without an option, so Pittsburgh controls him through 2013.

RHP James McDonald, 27, showed some promise last season, although his 9-9/4.21 line wasn't all that impressive. But a rocky April and September inflated his ERA, and it was his first full season as an everyday starter. He has the ability to miss bats, but spent last season trying to manage his pitch count and getting easy outs rather than burning out his arm looking for the K, and it was an uneven effort at best.

That will be his mission this year: to get deeper into games and cut down his 4.1 walks per nine. His stuff is there if he can harness it and avoid deep counts. J-Mac will be arbitration eligible next year, so he's under team control through 2015.

Charlie Morton changed his arm slot last year and put his career back on track after a dismal 2010 campaign. The 28 year old righty went 10-10/3.83 in 2011 after a 2-12/7.57 season that resulted in a trip to Indy.

With his retooled delivery, he recorded 59% of his outs on the ground last year, and only 19% of his outs were in the air. The fewer flies, the fewer homers - and his HR rate/fly ball was a miniscule 5.8%, half of the norm, after being 18% in 2010.

This year, he's coming off labrum surgery and is a candidate to stay in Florida when the team leaves for a couple of reasons. The Bucs don't want to repeat the 2011 J-Mac situation when they hurried his return to the rotation. Secondly, the weather in Bradenton is much more conducive to recovery than a northern spring blast. And finally, he could use the time to work on a couple of lingering issues from 2011.

His splits were ridiculous. Righties hit .220 against him; lefties .364. OBP was worse, at .289/.460. An effective off speed pitch and a little more work on spotting his heat inside should be high on his to-do list. He also walked 4 batters per outing, and that could stand improvement.

We'd expect a little regression this year, especially in the home run rate, but also some improvement in his split numbers. Morton signed a $2.445M contract in his first arb season. He's under team control through 2014.

Jeff Karstens, 29, was the story in 2011. The righty went 9-9/3.38 and picked up the slack admirably when the now departed Ross Ohlendorf went down. A repeat performance isn't likely, at least in runs allowed. His strand rate was 77%, and his xFIP was 4.00. But his other stats were within his career line, and JK looks like he's proved that he can hold up the back end of a rotation.

After Clint Hurdle stretched him out and took him off his short pitch count leash, Karstens was dependable and generally got the game to the seventh inning or beyond. His stuff isn't great, but his control is and he moves the ball around. That's what you look for in a fifth starter. The downside is that he doesn't miss many bats and is a flyball pitcher, susceptible to the long ball.

He's also versatile, and shown over his time that he can be an effective spot starter and long man. The negative is that he was bombed in August and September, eventually leaving the rotation with shoulder soreness, which also shelved him in September of 2010, the season when JR first added him to the rotation. That could be the result of innings catching up to him, but the summer swoon bears watching in 2012.

He signed a $3.1 contract, and has a year of arbitration remaining.

Kevin Correia, 31, made the All-Star team and led the Pirate staff in wins with twelve. It wasn't very pretty; his ERA went up every month, finishing at 4.79. But he gave Pittsburgh a year that pretty much was predictable regarding performance, being well in line with his career stats. The only noticeable difference was a fairly large drop in his K rate, but that may have been by design as he also put up the lowest walk rate of his career.

Like Karstens, his stuff is pedestrian and he doesn't have much upside beyond a bottom of the rotation guy. He didn't become a full time starter until 2008, and it will be interesting to see which one ends up in the bullpen when Charlie Morton returns. It could be either guy, providing another little sidebar to follow.

He makes $3M this year, and is eligible for free agency in 2013.

Brad Lincoln, 26, along with non-roster invitee Shairon Martis, 24 (he'll turn 25 next month), are the top two minor league reserves. Lincoln, a first round pick in 2006, has 17 starts with the Pirates over the past two seasons, and was 2-3/4.72 in 2011. He needs to get more aggressive at the MLB level; nibbling and falling behind batters has been his MO.

Martis had nineteen starts over the past two seasons with the Nats, and posted a 6-6/5.33 line. He has a four pitch arsenal, and may have had his development stunted by call ups to Washington before his time.

Other guys in the upper system now are Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Kyle McPherson and perhaps Justin Wilson. Much of the talent and promise is in the lower levels, with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Nick Kingham, Stetson Allie, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson and Zack von Rosenberg.

The Pirates have also brought in a couple of non-roster depth guys in Daniel Cabrera, who sat out 2011 with TJ surgery, and Jo-Jo Reyes to provide some depth.

There's some reason to be optimistic over this year's staff. If things fall together right, it will easily be the strongest rotation of the Coonelly/Huntington era, and with a little bit of depth.

Bedard and Burnett have both been staff aces at some point of their career, McDonald and Morton should be better prepared after a full year under their belts, and Karstens and Correia are competent at the bottom end.

It also could go bust - Bedard has injury concerns, Burnett has back-to-back seasons with 5+ ERAs, McDonald and Morton are trying to establish themselves, and Karstens and Correia are rotation fillers without much upside.

Half empty or half full? This season will tell if Huntington has built a staff that can carry on, at least until the young turks are ready to take the hill.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pirate Bullpen

Last year's Bucco bullpen was one busy place. They led the MLB in appearances, as Clint Hurdle waved them in 549 times, an average of 10 outings for every three game series. And they hung in pretty well. Eight of the top ten ERAs on the team last year belonged to relievers, led by Joel Hanrahan's 1.83 mark.

Hanny notched 40 saves, joining Mike Williams (2002 - 46) and Jose Mesa (2004 - 43) in the Pirate 40 save club, and earned an All-Star berth. He blew just four save opportunities and had a strong 1.05 WHIP. Unlike last year, there's no debate regarding the closer's job in 2012.

Which isn't to say there may not be in the near future. Hanrahan, 30, was a popular hot stove topic during the off season, and signed a $4.1M deal for this season. He still has another season of arb, so the Pirates control him through next season - if they're willing to foot the bill. Given his salary and the FO's philosophical reluctance to invest major dollars in the bullpen, the odds are heavily weighed toward Hanny being gone before he gets to walk in 2014. Enjoy him while he's here.

Assuming Hanny can repeat last year's performance, the biggest question mark regarding a pretty strong pen will be the set up man. Evan Meek was supposed to hold down that job last year, but injuries took him out of the season and Jose Veras picked up the slack. Veras did the job by and large, and appeared a team high 79 times, but was sent to the Brewers for Casey McGehee during the off season.

Meek will try to reclaim the eighth inning role. In 2010, he was 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA. He made 70 appearances and worked 80 frames, picking up 70 Ks and holding opponents a 1.05 WHIP and .183 BA on his way to the All-Star game. Last year was a different tale.

The righty was limited to just 24 relief appearances and 20-2/3 IP due to a shoulder injury diagnosed as tendonitis. He tried to pitch through it early in the year, but by June was placed on the DL, not to return until September. The 28 year old was arbitration-eligible for the first time, and signed an $875K deal.

If he can't can't nail down the job, the Bucs have a couple of guys lined up for the position in Chris Resop and Jason Grilli.

Resop, 29, answered the bell 76 times last year. His 4.39 ERA is misleading. He suffered through a horrible July (6.50 ERA) but was at 3.67 or lower every other month of the season. The righty collected 76 Ks in 69-2/3 frames, so he has the swing-and-miss stuff that a late inning guy needs. He signed for $850K in his first arbitration year.

Jason Grilli, 35, was signed from the Phillies farm system in late July, and the nine year vet pitched 32-1/3 innings with a 1.19 WHIP and 37 whiffs. He's best suited to be used as he was in 2011, as a bridge reliever rather than set up man. He inked a $1.1M contract in his final arbitration year, and will be eligible for free agency in 2013.

The Pirate pen competition is so intense that those three are the locks. The other four positions will be hotly contested, especially if Clint Hurdle decides to carry two lefties.

The returning righties are Daniel McCutchen and Chris Leroux, and they'll be pushed by non-roster invitee Juan Cruz.

McCutchen slid into Jeff Karstens' multi-purpose role last year, and he tied Resop for bullpen wins with five. The 29 year old Texan had a 3.72 ERA and worked 84-2/3 innings, a bullpen high, while making 73 appearances. He's not arbitration eligible yet, and still has a pair of minor league options remaining.

Chris Leroux also had a strong season. He finished the year with a 2.88 ERA and 24 Ks in 25 innings after getting the call from Indy. He added to his value by starting this winter in the Dominican League, where he put up a 1.14 ERA in 23+ innings, an opponent BA of .179 and WHIP of 0.85. The 27 year old isn't arbitration eligible yet, and is out of options.

In most situations, that pair would be secure heading into camp. But the Bucs signed Cruz, 33, who worked for Tampa last season, his 11th in the show. He's worked both as a bridge and set up man, and is still a strikeout per inning guy. His curse is his control. Cruz has walked an average of 5/nine innings, and that limits the situations he can be used in. But his power arm puts him in the mix to head north.

Backing those arms up on the 40 man roster are Duke Welker, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes, all who will start the year in the minors barring injury or meltdown. Other non-roster invitees are Mike Crotta, Ryota Igarashi, Logan Kensing and Tim Wood, who should provide added depth. The Pirates look pretty solid from the right side, both at the MLB and minor league levels.

The returning lefties are Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos, with Doug Slaten, Brian Tallet and the well-traveled Jo-Jo Reyes as camp invitees.

Watson, 26, was a pleasant surprise last season. Converted from a starting role, he had a 3.95 ERA in 41 IP with 37 K. His control is a problem, with 20 walks during that time. Opponents hit just .228 against him, but he had a reverse split, being more effective against righties (.279-.193) in a limited sample of at bats. That and control will be his issues in camp, although he has a good shot to leave Florida with the club in April.

Moskos, the first round pick of 2007, had a 2.89 ERA in 24-1/3 IP. But his K rate of 4.1 per nine, opponent BA of .302 and 1.56 WHIP are more indicative of his pitching than his ERA in 2011. Like Watson, the 25 year old has a big reverse split (.364-.250), again with not many at bats in the sample.

Slaten, 32, pitched for the Nats last year, and had a 4.41 ERA. In six seasons, he's worked 137-2/3 innings with a 3.60 ERA. The curveballer has a positive split against lefties (.241-.279), although hardly a LOOGY. And he has the added benefit of being a catcher's best friend. No one has tried to steal against him in 36 straight appearances, dating back to 2010.

Tallet, 34, has pitched for three other teams. He has a career ERA of 4.79 with fairly even splits. He's a depth acquisition rather than a challenger for a spot right out of camp. Tallet is a swing man who's made 36 starts during his time in the show.

Reyes, 27, has primarily started in his five seasons, and none too successfully, with a career 6.06 ERA . The Pirates will use him as a spot starter/long man, and he's just a veteran insurance policy they'll stash at Indy.

A wildcard will be Justin Wilson, 24, who was drafted in 2008. Last year, he was used as a reliever late in the season at Indy, and he seems to have found a home in the pen. He features a fastball with lots of movement, making it a swing and miss pitch. Unfortunately, it also misses the plate quite often.

Whether the Bucs decide to keep him as a short man in 2012 hasn't been announced yet. With the dearth of lefty bullpen arms, he well may remain a reliever and could be on a fast track to Pittsburgh if he finds the strike zone a little more often.

As a group, the lefties aren't strong or deep in the system. The FO has probably made all its 2012 roster moves, but if they have another one up its sleeve, it's likely to try to strengthen this area.

Overall, the Pirate bullpen should be strong in the last three innings, but is noticeably lacking from the left side. The team could opt to break camp with six righties again, although they may keep Watson and Slaten on the roster, with Wilson a possibility later in the summer.

The pen's depth is contingent on Evan Meek rebounding to claim the set up role; it falls together nicely if he can. The FO has built a nice collection of power arms in a short time. But the best thing that could happen is for the starters to eat a few more innings and to keep the arms loose instead of limp in 2012.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Inside the Burnett Deal

Joel Sherman of the New York Post has been tweeting and typing away on the Burnett deal. Here's some of the thought processes involved by the Bronx Bombers:
  • He said the New York timeline ran out "Because the Yankees have been shopping Burnett since early December, (and) the feeling in the organization is that it would be awkward for each side to have him report Sunday."
  • The Yanks thought of selecting Diego Moreno, the hard throwing righty, in the Rule 5 draft, but had taken two guys before him and didn't want to use up another 40-man roster spot.
  • NY considered Moreno one of the Bucs Top Ten prospects, obviously an assessment the Pirate FO disagreed with, especially with the discipline related problems he had. They hope he can become a low cost Scott Proctor or Brian Bruney type pitcher.
  • They took OF'er Exicardo Cayonez as a throw-in. The Yanks don't think he has the power to play a corner or the speed to last in center.
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports agrees on both physical assessments.
  • Buster Olney of ESPN tweets that the mystery team in on Burnett was the Phillies, but they couldn't unload Joe Blanton to free up salary. Sherman wrote that the Phils were exploring a 3-way deal, but couldn't get it together.
So it ends up there was one other serious bidder, and the Yankees get both salary relief and a prospect they liked that the Bucs had given up on, while Pittsburgh added some needed depth to the rotation. The key, according to most sources, was the Pirates bumping up the cash component to $13M from their original offer of $10M. That gave the Yankees enough salary wiggle room to seal the deal and allowed the Pirates to hold on to their upper level prospects.

Pirate Catching

The Bucs figured they had their tag team behind the dish last year in Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, with switch-hitting Jason Jaramillo serving as insurance in Indy while they awaited the development of 2009 first-rounder Tony Sanchez.

Well, all three of those guys were hurt for considerable chunks of the season, and the Pirates let the trio go in the off season, with Dewey landing in Minnesota, Snyder in Houston and Jaramillo with the Cubs. How often do you see a club release its top three catchers?

Because of the injuries, Pittsburgh ended up using eight different catchers during the season. The top returnee at the position is Mike McKenry, who got into 58 games after the Pirates got him from Boston in June. His line wasn't much, just .222/.276/.322 with a 24% K rate. He took three off season trips to visit with Clint McHurdle and get some one-on-one batting lessons.

His strength is his defensive game. McKenry threw out 25% of the opponent base stealers and is supposedly good in handling a staff. He's young in catcher years, turning 27 next month, and has 136 service days in the bigs, so he's no threat to the payroll. McK also has an option remaining.

The righty is one of two catchers on the 40-man roster, and won that roster spot during the off season when the Pirates opted to keep him and dump JJ. But they weren't about to entrust McKenry with the everyday job of catching.

The FO identified the guy they wanted early on, and went out and signed Rod Barajas, a grizzled 13 year vet, to a 1 year/$4M deal in November with a $3.5M team option in 2013. They overpaid, but it was a thin market and a position of need.

He's another guy with an iffy stick and a rep as a streak hitter, with a career line of .238/.284/.414 but with 52 long balls in the past three seasons, not bad for a guy that projects to be a bottom-of-the-order hitter. The 36 year old has 125 home runs and 449 RBIs in 1,010 career games with Arizona, Texas, Toronto, Philadelphia, the New York Mets and the Dodgers.

Barajas hit close to that average for LA last year with a .230/.287.430 line and 16 HRs. He's also noted for his glovework, ability to control a staff, and being a good clubhouse head. RB matched McKenry's throwout rate of 25%.

He doesn't have a history of durability, and that combined with his age make it likely that the Pirates are looking for about 100-110 starts for Barajas. They should get it. Except for one season (he backed up Carlos Ruiz in Philly during 2007), he's started between 97-125 games per year since 2004.

The Pirates brought in one non-roster catcher to compete, Jose Morales. He was a third round pick of the Twins in 2001, and has parts of four MLB seasons under his belt. His career line is .289/.365/.344 (yep, his slugging % is lower than his OBP; he's a Billy Beane kinda player).

Morales, 28, is athletic, a switch-hitter, and played a bit of first and second in the past couple of seasons. As with most slash guys - he was a SS when he was drafted - defense isn't his forte, as eight passed balls in 382 innings indicate. But he has thrown out 34% of would-be base stealers in the show, and 30% during his minor league work.

Camp invitee Jake Fox can also catch, and that's his listed position on the roster, but that spot is just as part a complete utility presume. In his four big league seasons, he's played 47 games as a corner OF'er, 32 as a catcher, 31 as a third baseman and 24 at first base. So he's in the mix as a bench candidate and third-string catcher if he makes the camp cut.

Barajas is the default starter, and if he catches to his usual standards, will probably return to start in 2113.  It's been sort of assumed that McKenry is penciled in as the back-up, as he's already on the 40 man roster and does seem to be a FO favorite.

We wouldn't write off Morales, who can get on base, even if he doesn't have any power, and has an opt-out clause if he doesn't break camp with the team. McKenry still has an option to burn. That adds a spicy little sidebar to the back-up competition. The decision will probably hinge on whether or not the Bucs want to carry two defense first catchers or add another stick, both for the bench and the 50 or 60 starts that the #2 guy is in line to make.

The Pirate system has no immediate help to offer. 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez will be in camp, along with brother prospects Ramon Cabrera and Eric Fryer, but all three will begin the year in the minors.

Sanchez hit .241 with 20 extra-base hits and 44 RBIs in 118 games at Altoona last season. While his defense seems to be up to snuff, the oft-injured catcher needs to settle in at the plate. We don't see him as big-league ready until mid-21013, if then.

Fryer is another athletic guy who has been often used as an outfielder. That has hurt his development some, but he's still probably going to be in Indy this year and could be the Buc's #3 catcher if Morales doesn't win the back-up job. Cabrera tore up the Florida State League last year, winning the batting title with a .343 average, but his defense needs lots of work. He should be in Altoona this season, but so will Sanchez, so RC's assignment is still up in the air.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Well, About Time...Burnett Deal Done

Give Neal Huntington credit. It may have taken a while, but he finally outlasted Yankee GM Brian Cashman and got a deal done for AJ Burnett. The Yankees tried to use the old Scott Boras tactic of leaking other suitors who may or may not have existed to add a little frenzy factor to the negotiations, but to no avail.

The Bucs didn't bid against themselves and ended up with a guy who upgrades their rotation through 2013 at a cost of $13M and two Class A players, OF Exicardo Cayonez and RHP Diego Moreno. The Pirates will pay AJ $5M this season and $8M in 2013.

As of now, the deal is contingent on Burnett passing his physical and the league OK'ing the Yankees eating $20M of Burnett's contract. Both should be pro forma, and when official, the Bucs will have to remove someone from their 40 man roster to make room for Burnett.

Cayonez was the highest priced Latino signing in Bucco history in 2008 when he inked a $400K deal (since bypassed by Luis Heredia and several others), but the 20 year old floundered offensively in A ball. The Yankees are getting a young, speedy center fielder who may yet develop as he acclimates to pro ball and El Norte.

Diego Moreno has a rocket arm. The righty reliever delivers a high-nineties heater and a dandy slider. The 25 year old has a career 2.42 ERA and 212 Ks in 194 IP with a WHIP under one in five minor league seasons.

But he hasn't had much luck at Altoona in two stops, and was suspended in 2010 and dropped a level. He was left unprotected in this year's Rule 5 draft and went unselected. Still, he projects as a eighth inning set-up pitcher, and has the tools to pitch in the show if he finds focus.

Losing these two guys doesn't dent the Pirate system. The FO has made a point of drafting power pitchers and athletic outfielders, and so were dealing out of areas of strength when they sent the pair to New York.

Burnett has a chance to become the Bucs #2, or could settle in at the back of the rotation. Right now, we'd rate him right behind Eric Bedard and ahead of James McDonald and Charlie Morton. Yes, his last two years in New York were ERA nightmares (5.26 and 5.15), but his xFIPs were solid (3.86 and 4.49).
He still throws in the low 90s, has a nice curve and misses bats. His major problem last season was getting beat up in division (6.22 ERA in the AL East) and giving up the long ball. Both problems could be solved as he leaves the new Yankee Stadium launching pad for the saner PNC gaps, and says so long to the AL East and howdy to the NL Central. Let's not forget that he's also trading in DHs for pitchers.

The downside, of course, is that he is 35 years old, the Yankee run support is considerably sturdier than Pittsburgh's, and his control has been a career-long issue. So we'll see how it all factors out come April.

The price was right on the nose. Fangraphs listed his FA value in 2011 as $6.7M, just about the $6.5M average of what the Bucs will pay him in 2012-13.

With the additions of Burnett and Erik Bedard, the Buc rotation has some potential, and certainly stronger than it was at this time last season. Now Clint Hurdle has six or seven potential starters, and that's not a bad problem.

It allows the team to start Brad Lincoln out in Indy and to take it easy with Charlie Morton. When he returns, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia should have enough innings to determine who stays on as the fifth man and who joins the bullpen. More importantly, it provides a little depth when injuries invariably strike.

It's been a busy off season for Neal Huntington, adding Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Eric Bedard and AJ Burnett.  Now on to Bradenton to see how it all works out..

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pirate Corner Infield

Meh, the corners are a mess.  Platoon at first, knock on wood at third...

The only certainty is that Garrett Jones, 30, will see time at first. He's put up a .254/60/193 line in four seasons and 419 games. Like many corner players, Jones is a slash in the field. He played just 260 innings at first last year, to a pretty poor -13.2 UZR/150. He was better in right, where he picked up the majority of his time (659 innings) and played to a -0.9 UZR/150.

The big lefty has some pop, but a .147 BA against southpaws last year (and .199 lifetime) has reduced him to a platoon role. JR spent his time trying to turn Jones into an everyday player, but Hurdle had him work primarily against righties, getting Jones 405 PAs against them versus 60 against lefties.

Just yesterday, in his first year of arbitration, Jones lost his salary bid and was assigned a $2.25M contract. He was in his Super Two season, and will be arb eligible through 2015.

The spring will be spent looking for his alter ego at first base. Casey McGehee is the presumed front runner among right handed batters. We hope he spent the winter fielding throws, since the old Brewer third baseman has spent just 22 innings at first base during his four year MLB career and was used at the spot quite sparingly during his six year minor league stint.

The 29 year old, obtained for Jose Veras, had a pair of strong offensive years in 2009-10 with 39 homers and 170 RBI, but put up a line of just .223/13/67 with a .280 OBP last season. The Pirates will give him an opportunity to regain his past mojo, but they've got a couple of first base irons in the fire just in case. Beside, they may need him at third base.

His contract is for $2,537,500, just announced today, shortly before his arbitration hearing was scheduled. The amount was midpoint between his asking price and Pittsburgh's offer. McGehee still has two years of arb left before becoming a free agent.

Those irons in the fire? Internally, they have Matt Hague safe and secure on the 40-man roster, but he'll soon be passed up by the duo behind him, Matt Curry and/or Alex Dickerson. The latter pair won't be here this year, and Hague, 26, hits but doesn't have much power, speed, or leather. Big Jeff Clement is also back and trying to revive his career after 2010 microfracture surgery.

The best chance to break camp as an extra first baseman belongs to Nick Evans, 26, formerly of the Mets and signed as a non-roster camp invitee. His MLB line is .256/8/46 in 386 at-bats. He's actually played more outfield than first in the show, and hit .295 with a .360 OBP against lefties, making him a solid bench candidate.

That leaves the hot corner. Pedro Alvarez's name had been written in stone on that sack ever since he was drafted - until last year. Funny how a line of .191/4/19 in 235 ABs with an OBP of .272 and a 30.5% K rate will empty the bandwagon. El Toro took the winter off, and hopefully spent the time mentally envisioning himself drilling first pitch fastballs on the outside corner all around the park instead of watching them whiz by.

As we understand, Alvarez has one option left, and the Pirates may opt to start him off at Indy for a couple of months to get him going. He is, no matter where he starts out, going to be on a pretty short leash this season. McGehee will be his backup. If Evans sticks, he's played third base a bit in the majors and enough times to be acquainted in the minors. And whoever earns the bench middle infield spot should also be capable of stepping in to play third base.  

Josh Harrison would probably top the list of internal candidates for the position, with Jordy Mercer right there. Harrison can also play second, while Mercer plays all around the infield except for first.  And that would be about it in the system.

With the way the team is built currently, the corner infielders should provide the power. Jones, Alvarez, and McGehee all have that potential to varying degrees, but it would take a trio of breakout years, as unlikely a scenario as that is, to help power the Pirates. For Alvarez and McGehee, 2012 is most likely a make or break season.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Arb, Burnett, Time To Report, Rumors

  •  Casey McGehee goes to his arb hearing tomorrow, with Garrett Jones soon to follow (edit: Jones had his hearing today, the results should be out tomorrow). Bill Brink of the Post Gazette has this year's dealings with the Pirates' off-season arb players. Ross Ohlendorf is the only player who hasn't signed with anyone yet; missing most of the past two seasons with injuries has taken the bloom off his rose.
  • OK, today's big question is whether AJ Burnett will join the Pirate pitchers when they report Saturday. It seems to come down to the Yankees believing that he's got value anywhere beside Pittsburgh and the Buc FO sticking to their guns. Possible Burney deals for the Indians' Travis Hafner and the Angel's Bobby Abreu are dead in the water, and the two teams are in "stare down" mode. So the Bucs have set their value for Burnett, and if Brian Cashman wants to play hardball, he could wait through camp and see if an opening shakes loose. That would surprise us, as the Yanks have budget issues (go figure) and a hole or two to fill that requires some freed-up salary room. The assumed offer of $10M in salary and two lesser prospects is high enough. Maybe the Bucs could sweeten the money pot, but he's not worth a prime-time youngster with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon potentially just a couple of years away.
  • Greg Johns, who covers Seattle, tweeted that "Chris Gimenez can't sign until Thursday, but sounds like could end up with Pirates after declining an outright assignment to AAA by the Mariners." Gimenez is a utility guy who plays C, 1B and corner OF with a .171/5/21 line in 228 MLB ABs, and might be considered for a minor league depth deal. The murky picture behind C Rod Barajas could make Pittsburgh a tempting landing spot for him.
  • The Bucs had a private try-out for former MLB first baseman Dmitri Young. They said nice things about him, and then wished him good luck and sent him on his way according to writer Tom Singer.
  • Pirate pitchers report Saturday and position players on the 24th. Only 50 days to go until the opener.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pirate Middle Infield

Well, not much question about who will man the middle for the Buccos in 2012. Newly inked Clint Barmes and Neil Walker are the only two eggs in that particular basket.

Walker came up in 2010 as a utility infielder and ended up the regular second baseman a heartbeat later in one of JR's more inspired moves. The good news is that The Pittsburgh Kid is young (26), profiles nicely for a middle infield bat (.280/24/189 in 286 games), and made some strides in fielding the position.

He still has room to grow, considering he had all of 21 games of minor-league experience at second before being thrown in the fire. His caveat is that he's a candidate to move to his more natural third base position if the opportunity or necessity arises, depending largely on Pedro Alvarez and Casey McGehee's ability to rebound.

More good news is not only is Walker young, but he's an ironman. A throwback player, he needs to be dragged off the field for a day off, and he only had three in 2011.

Shortstop was a different tale. Finally tiring of Ronny Cedno's yo-yo performances, the FO opted for more stability and inked Clint Barmes, who had spent 8 of his 9 MLB seasons in Colorado, and seven of those under Hurdle. Statistically, he doesn't bring a whole lot more to the table than RC did except for consistency - and the trust of his manager.

The 32 year old has put together a line of .252/73/324 with just a .302 OBP. The good news is that he'll bring a superior mitt and a little power to the bottom of the order; the bad news is that he's hit lower than his career average for five of the past six seasons.

Get use to him for the short term; the Bucs inked him to a two year, $10.5M deal, the biggest free agent contract in team history.

In the organization, Chase d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer and Brock Holt have all been groomed as shortstops, and have seen time at second base, too. d'Arnaud has played 290 games at SS and 64 at second, Mercer 278/83 (with 75 games at third) and Brock 126/116, almost an even split. Josh Harrison has also played second regularly in the minors.

Last year's second base backup, the 24 year old Harrison played 152 games at second in the minors along with 161 games at the hot corner. He started five games in Pittsburgh at second, and looked OK in the field while hitting a very quiet .272, quiet because he had a .281 OBP, drawing three walks in 204 PAs. But at least we know that he's not overmatched at the plate, can put a ball in play and runs a little.

d'Arnaud is an exciting player, and was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. He flies around the sacks and is an accomplished base stealer. It's just getting him on base that's proved troublesome. In his tiny 2011 MLB sampling of 151 PAs, he hit .217 and only had a .248 OBP. His main problem was discipline, proving a sucker for pitches off the dish.

The 24 year old is projected by many as a better second baseman than shortstop, but he only saw three innings at second base in 2011. For all his hops, d'Arnaud was just league average in range and committed 6 errors in 206 innings, not the SS numbers you want behind a pitch-to-contact staff.

He'll probably start 2012 at Indy, getting some at-bats and working on his D. The experience won't hurt; d'Arnaud has only played 70-some games at the AAA level. The 24 year old is still considered to be the shortstop of the future, and is toolsy enough to eventually claim the spot.

There is a very slim chance, since he's also played third and second, that Pittsburgh keeps him on the big team. d'Arnaud is a sparkplug off the bench, but exposed when he's out there every day, and could stand some steady reps at Indy.

Right behind him is Mercer, who was actually taken a round earlier than d'Arnaud in the 2008 draft. Mercer is a better fielder with a strong arm - he was a closer in college - and has some pop with the bat. He's had 30 doubles three years running, and knocked 19 balls out of the yard in 2011, split between Altoona and Indy.

But Mercer has discipline problems at the plate, and his OBP for the Tribe was just .304. He is a streak hitter, too - he had to finish strong to end up with a .239 BA at Indy after a terrible August run. Mercer was added to the 40-man roster during the off season.

Altoona's Holt, 23, may eventually work his way into the mix, too. He has a good bat and an eye at the plate, but profiles more in the field as a second baseman than shortstop. He played his first full professional season this year after being injured in 2010, and hit .289 with a .356 OBP at Altoona. He's a contact hitter who will draw a few walks and steal the occasional base, although he's not a burner.

We may get to see him at Indy in 2012, but if Mercer and d'Arnaud both start there, he could also tread water with the Curve a bit longer.

Brian Friday won't be 26 until December, but he's already been bypassed by the above group. He's a steady defender, puts the ball in play and has a decent eye, but was the utility guy for the Tribe and didn't earn a spot on the 40-man roster.

Our take is that no one in the above group is ready to chase The Pittsburgh Kid or Barmes. We think the likeliest to be kept on the major league roster is Josh Harrison because of the questions surrounding Pedro Alvarez. Who knows if El Toro will even start the year in Pittsburgh?

They also brought in a couple of guys from outside the system to provide some depth. In early December, the Bucs traded with KC for Yamaico Navarro. They sent the Royals RHP Brooks Pounders, who worked out of Class A West Virginia in 2011 (5-5, 3.68 ERA) and infielder Diego Goris, 21, who had spent four seasons playing the Dominican League.

Navarro, 24, is a right-handed batter and has hit .206 for Boston and KC in the past two seasons. In six minor league years, he has a .279 BA and has shown a little pop. Navarro has a strong arm, but his range at shortstop has declined, making second and third stronger positions for him. But his original club, the Red Sox, were grooming him as a utility player, and that's where the Bucs hope he'll make his mark.

They also picked Tigers' minor-league SS Gustavo Nunez in the Rule 5 draft. The 23 year old split 2011 between High-A and Double-A, hitting .276 with 13 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 26 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 96 minor league games.

Like Pedro Ciriaco before him, he's a leather and wheels guy with an iffy ability to swing a stick. His selection was a bit of a surprise; he's never played Triple-A ball, and has only 34 games at Double-A. On the plus side, he was seen as a prospect and did make the Florida State League All-State team. The big question is whether the Pirates took him too soon, before he's had a chance to develop, as is so often the case with Rule 5 guys.

Both of those players are on the 40-man roster. The FO also brought in Anderson Hernandez on a minor league deal with an invite to camp. The 29 year old switch-hitter has put in 6 seasons with 4 MLB teams so far, playing mostly second and short, and put up a .241 career BA.

Hernandez spent all of 2011 with the Astro's Triple-A club, and like Navarro, he was being groomed for an infield utility spot, splitting time at short, second and third. It's probable that he was brought aboard to provide some insurance at Indy, though it's hard to see how he can do that without disrupting the playing time for the Pirate prospects.

So the middle back-up spot should be fairly wide open. Navarro probably stands the best chance of coming out of camp with the team, but that's not etched in stone. He's had conditioning problems in the past, and so his shape will bear watching when he reports to camp. But it is a much better scenario to have the battle for the backup spot rather than the starter.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday Update

  • The Bucs and Yanks continue to slog along on the AJ Burnett front. The Bronx Bombers claim that three other teams are in on him; the Pittsburgh FO has to determine if they are, in actuality, bidding against themselves or if Brian Cashman is using their offer to up the ante of the other interested clubs. It's apparent that NY is trying to get a little more than financial relief, as the rumor mill has floated both Garrett Jones and solid prospect Nick Kingham as Yankee targets in the deal. To the Bucs' credit, reports are that they're willing to take on more salary rather give up more talent.
  • Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus ranked his Top 101 Prospects, and the Bucs had a healthy half dozen: Gerrit Cole (9), Jameson Taillon (13), Luis Heredia (42), Josh Bell (43), Starling Marte (56), and Robbie Grossman (76). They're all young, although Marte could arrive anytime and Cole possibly in 2013. All in all, it's been a good year for the Bucco system, according to the baseball media. 
  • Casey McGehee has his arbitration hearing on Thursday, with Garrett Jones soon to follow. The gap wasn't that big between the players and the club. We're wondering if the Burnett discussions have kept the FO busy and kicked the arb guys on the backburner. The only other unsigned NL arb player is Jose Veras, who the Bucs sent to the Brew Crew for McGehee.
  • Tom Singer of has a pre-camp, pre-season look at the Buccos.
  • Joe Soriano of Call To The Pen defends Edwin Jackson's decision to sign with Washington for a year, and not because Pittsburgh is such a sad sack destination. He calculates that the Pirates - and everyone else -  low balled him with their offers based on WAR and dependability, and it was in his interest to take the highest one-year deal and try again in 2012.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

AJ Burnett

So Pittsburgh waits with bated breath as the AJ Burnett watch continues. It probably won't be a long vigil.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sport's MLB Buzz reports that the Pirates and Bronx Bombers have a framework and are just discussing money and players, one dependent on the other. He hears that the NYY will eat between $19-23M, leaving the Bucs to shell out $5-7M/year for Burnett.

The 35 year old should be an upgrade to the staff as it now stands, and worth the risk, even if it is for two years. And there are risks.

The big righty has a history of nagging injuries, although he has worked over 185 innings and started 30+ games in each of the past four seasons. Also, his age has to be a concern. Some pitchers last into their 40s, while others step off a cliff.

In his past four years, his fastball velocity has dropped off, from 94.3 MPH in 2008 to 92.7 last year. To counter, he threw considerably fewer heaters in 2011 (56% vs 69% in 2010) and more changeups. Burnett also sports a knuckle-curve to go with his usual hook, which he throws both overhand and three quarters.

He can miss bats, something that Pirate pitchers traditionally struggle with. Burnett can also miss the dish with some regularity. Last year, he averaged 8.2 Ks and 3.9 BBs per nine, pretty close to his career 2-1 ratio.

Of course, the key question is can the dude still pitch? His 11-11, 5.15 ERA from 2011 and 10-15, 5.26 ERA from the season prior suggests not so well. But his xFIP for those two season are 3.86 and 4.49, while his K rate shows he still has some life left to his servings. His biggest bugaboo has been his HR rate - 17% of the flies hit against him went yard last year, as did 11.6% in 2010.

The new Yankee Stadium has been a launching pad, but the Clemente Wall isn't exactly Green Acres, either. He does give up the long ball, but if he gets back to his career average of 10-12%, that shouldn't be a terrible problem here. And leaving the AL East for the Albert Pujol/Prince Fielder-less NL Central can't hurt.

Here's the point: the Bucs have some cash to toss around yet, and Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt don't want any. The starting pitching is thin, and Burnett would be at least one of the top five pitchers, nudging ahead of Kevin Correia and Brad Lincoln. As we found out last year, a team never has enough starting pitching.

Burnett knows what it's like to be on the short end of the stick. It took him eleven years and three teams to finally get into the post season. According to his agent, he has no negatives about the trade talk. And he does bring passion to the game and a reputation as being pretty good with mentoring young pitchers. After 13 seasons, one can only assume he has some insights worth passing along.

So hey, let's dot the i's and cross the t's and get Burnett to camp this weekend.

Some random notable moments in his career:
  • Burnett was an eighth-round pick of the New York Mets in the 1995 draft. 
  • He was traded to the Marlins as part of a package for Al Leiter before the 1998 season when the Marlins held their infamous fire sale of Jimmy Leyland's 1997 World Series champs. 
  • On May 12, 2001, Burnett pitched a no-hitter. Oddly, he walked more men (9) than he whiffed (7). His cap and a baseball from the game are on display in Cooperstown. 
  • In 2002, he had the top fastball of all major league starters, averaging 94.9 miles per hour and led the NL with 5 shutouts. 
  • He was limited to four starts in 2003 before Tommy John surgery, but returned in June of the following year and once hit 102 on the gun. 
  • Burnett, in his 2005 walk year, was booted from the team in late September after griping about the Marlin on-field management. It didn't hurt him much; the Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $55M deal. 
  • He had an opt-out clause for 2008, and had a great year, going 18-10 with a 4.08 ERA and leading the AL with 231 Ks in 221-1/3 IP. Not surprisingly, he did opt out and the Yankees inked him to a five year/$82.5M contract. 
  • Burnett was suspended by MLB for five games in 2009 for throwing a heater over Nelson Cruz's bean after Mark Teixeira had been drilled twice. 
  • Also in 2009, he became the first Yankee pitcher to win a World Series game at the new Yankee Stadium against the Phils. 
  • The righty struck out four batters in one inning last year, joining an exclusive club of just two dozen members.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012 Buc Outfield

The Pirate plan going into 2011 was to use PNC's right field to stash a basher while McCutch & JT covered the top of the order and the vast expanses of left and center. They signed Matt Diaz as a platoon mate of Garrett Jones to provide some thunder. On paper, it worked. On the field, it didn't. Diaz and later Ryan Ludwick failed to deliver, and bench outfielder Xavier Paul was released after the season.

Well, Jones is still around, although penciled in at first base this time around (and who knew the Yankees liked him?). Nate McLouth was reclaimed from the Braves. And Alex Presley, after a nice showing as an injury replacement, will get the early nod in left. So those five - McCutchen, Tabata, Presley, McLouth and Jones, the classic platoon 1B/corner OF'er - look like this year's outfield patrol.

The man who stirs the drink is McCutch. And as he goes, so goes the club. He played in 70 of Pittsburgh's 72 wins with a line of .337/16/58. He was on the field for 87 of the team's 90 losses, and put up a line of .198/7/31 in the defeats.

He faded badly at the end of the year, with a terrible closing month (.171) and BA splits that seemed to show that the grind got to him, hitting .280 in the season's opening three months and .247 in the last three. But he was consistent in his production splits - RBI (41-48), runs scored (47-40), homers (11-12) and doubles (17-17) - which were about as evenly distributed as could be.

McCutch played 158 games, starting 155. We wouldn't make much of his September swoon, at least this time around. He tried to single handedly counter the Pirate dog-days tailspin by going for the fences instead of sticking to what he does best, stinging liners and shooting balls through the infield. Hopefully, that's a lesson learned by the 25 year old that will carry over.

He doesn't enter his arbitration years until 2013, just missing Super Two status this season. His contract status will be the ongoing drama for bloggers and fans.

Jose Tabata will also play everyday, flipping from left to right field. In the 91 games he got into last year, he ran up a .266/4/21 line with 53 runs scored and 16 stolen bases, which was OK but could hardly be called a breakthrough year.

And the continued injuries are troublesome; he's been haunted by them since the Pirates traded for him in 2008, and last season was the same ol'. He pulled his quad in June, then came back in August and broke his wrist. But he'll be around for awhile, fragile or not.

He signed with the Bucs through 2016, with three following club option years, so he's one player that the team has locked up. The silver lining of his injury-plagued season was that he provided Alex Presley with an opening, and he ran with it.

Presley, 26, had a lukewarm September showing in 2010, and started the 2011 season at Indy. He was smoking the ball for the Indians (.333/8/41 in 87 games), but the Bucs kept him on hold until JT went down in late June.

Tabata's aches and breaks gave The King 52 games to show his stuff, sandwiched around his own trip to the DL with a bruised hand. He hit .298 and fit in well at the top of the order, and when JT returned, it was to right field. Presley had taken over left.

He has his own caveat emptor: Presley has a .327 BA/.373 OBP against righties, but just .231/.261 against lefties, and his slugging percentage drops over 175 points, too, in an admittedly small sampling. So that will bear watching as his career moves forward. (JT & McCutch's splits are much more manageable. Tabata sports a 40 point career spread and McCutchen's is just 20).

Presley was one of two players mentioned by Clint Hurdle as being on a short leash to start the year, and we're sure the splits have the brass wondering if he's everyday material or a platoon/4th OF'er candidate. They may still be looking for a corner with more pop, too.

The one thing the 2011 season produced was three starting outfielders who will set the table this year, hitting 1-2-3: Presley, Tabata, McCutch. We'd probably flip Presley and Tabata, moving the lefty to the two hole just to open a hole on the right side and break up the righty-lefty scheme, but Hurdle hasn't asked us, sooo...

The important part of equation is that Andrew McCutchen is finally in his rightful position, batting third, after being jerked all around the order. He's averaged 20 homers, 90 runs scored and 70+ RBI over the last two years and is growing into a prototypical three hole guy, especially if he plays within himself.

That will give the Pirates an outfield that's speedy, pretty fair defensively, and tailor-made to fill the top of the Bucco order. They're interchangeable, too, as Tabata and Presley have both the wheels and experience to roam center field.

The FO cleaned out the OF bench of 2011 and entrusted the fourth outfield role to Nate McLouth. The Pirates inked him to a one-year, $1.75M contract with $450K in possible performance bonuses. McLouth, 30, was a 25th-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2000 and was with the team until he was dealt to the Atlanta Braves in June, 2009, for Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez.

Nate the Great had his Pittsburgh coming out party in 2008, when he hit .276 with 26 homers and 94 RBIs, leading the NL in doubles (46), winning a Gold Glove and earning an All-Star nod. But his brief Brave career was dismal, marked by injury and a .229 BA. So the Bucs are rolling the dice that McLouth can again be productive in a Pirate uniform. His center field days are likely done, but even as a corner outfielder he's considered an upgrade over Xavier Paul.

While the outfield looks like the offensive generator for the Pirates this year, the reason Presley is on thin ice and McLouth is the fourth outfielder is because Pittsburgh has a couple of guys in the minors that are close to playing in the show.

Gorkys Hernandez might be the best defensive OF'er in the Pirate system. He's 24, and had a poor season at Altoona in 2009 after the Bucs got him from the Braves as part of the McLouth deal. But he's put together back-to-back solid years at the dish in 2010-11 for the Curve and Indy, averaging .275 and stealing 38 bases in 50 tries.

But Hernandez's best value to the club may be as trade bait. He has McCutch ahead of him, and closing quickly is Starling Marte, who has been popping up in Top 100 Prospect lists after his year with the Curve.

Marte, 23, was named the Eastern League's 2011 Rookie of the Year. His line at Altoona was .332/12/50 with 90 runs and 24 stolen bases, along with a rep as a tremendous outfielder tools-wise. He could be a year away after the Indy coaches work on honing his defensive routes and improving his plate discipline. There's been some talk that he could eventually bump McCutch to a corner position; we'll hold our judgment on that call.

Behind him is Robbie Grossman, 22, of Bradenton, who was named the Pirates minor-league player of the year after being a high school sixth-round pick in the 2008 draft. Grossman is a tweener who probably projects best as a corner outfielder in the show.

He hit .294/13/56 for High A Bradenton with a .418 OBP, drawing 104 walks. But he also K'ed 111 times, so the Bucs will be certain to work on his aggressiveness as he journeys through the system. But ESPN's Keith Law named him as one of his Top 100 Propects, so it looks like there's something there for the staff to tease out of him.

The Bucs are also excited about Josh Bell, a power-hitting high school outfielder that they signed in a way overslot deal in last year's draft. The 19 year old has already cracked a couple of Top Five Pirate Prospect lists without swinging a bat in anger.

Andrew Lambo, 22, is still on the radar. The big lefty is a corner outfielder who was overmatched at Indy after playing pretty solidly at the AA level. But with his age and some power potential, the Pirates haven't given up on his career - yet. Lambo isn't on the 40-man roster, and this may be his "show me" year."

They also have a couple of outfield candidates who signed minor league deals but with invites to camp. They're Brandon Boggs, a corner outfielder, and slash outfielders Andy Fox and Nick Evans. Evans probably has the best shot at sticking, but that depends more on how first base shakes out than with his skills in the pasture.

If Presley can solve lefties and Tabata remains healthy enough to play 135 games, the OF is set. They have depth at Indy in Hernandez and Marte along with the vets, and up-and-comers like Grossman, Bell, and Lambo. The future is arriving - the OF is one spot where the Pirates have some organizational depth - and if Presley/Tabata falter, it could mark an early beginning of the Marte era.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Heading Into The Weekend

  • Hey, the trucks have left PNC and are on the way to Florida. February 18th is the day pitchers and catchers report, and the full squad takes the field on the 24th. Disregard those snow shovels and bags of salt: showtime is quickly approaching...
  • Jayson Stark of says that the Pirates aren't just working on AJ Burnett. They could also be in on the Phillies Joe Blanton and Washington's John Lannan. None of the trio slot higher than the back end of the rotation kinda guys, but do have the rep of being able to eat some innings, although Blanton is coming on an elbow injury. He adds that the Rays' Jeff Niemann, the White Sox's Gavin Floyd, and Jake Westbrook/Kyle McClennan of the Cards are also on the block.
  • David Schoenfeld of ESPN's Sweet Spot blog looks at the stat lines put up by Jay Bruce, Colby Rasmus and McCutch and compares them to other 20-something performances to determine who is likeliest to break out. His pick is McCutchen. "He has the best all-around game of the three, draws walks and strikes out considerably less than the other two." But he warns that "His second-half struggles are a concern and he needs to get back to a solid approach at the plate and take his home runs when they come."
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects lists Keith Law's Bucco farmhands on his Top 100 prospect list (linked here, for ESPN Insider subscribers only). They are #10 Gerrit Cole, #16 Jameson Taillon, #67 Josh Bell, #72 Starling Marte and #86 Robbie Grossman. Luis Heredia just missed the rankings, and RHP Clayton Holmes, a 2011 overslot draftee, is his sleeper candidate. 
  • Dejan Kovacevic of the Trib discusses the cause and cure of the Pirates' shunning by FAs.
  • Tom Singer of has the story on infielder Curt Roberts, who broke the color line for the Pirates back in 1954.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Midweek Scribbles

  • Latest Bucco rumor: "Hear ye, hear ye: The Pittsburgh Pirates are one team that actually might want to trade for New York Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett," according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. He adds the caveat that he knows the Pirates have spoken to the Bronx Bombers, but doesn't know if that represents a smoking gun or just due diligence on the part of the FO. Burnett makes $33M over the next two years, so the Yankees would have to eat most of his salary. The 35 year old went 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA in 2011.
  • Buster Olney of ESPN, purely as speculation, tweeted that he wondered if a Garrett Jones for Burnett deal would work, with NY eating 90% of the contract. And it is just speculation; that deal would make the trade a wash for NY, which is trying to clear some salary room for a couple of bench pieces. But make it 75% of AJ's contract eaten by the Yanks, and that might do it, as long as we're speculating.
  • Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has a post on Burnett, his recent performance, why he's available and what clubs may bite.
  • Fangraph's Dan Williams has a story on Jose Tabata's disappointing season and his potential going forward.
  • Various sources report that Dmitri Young, who has been out of baseball since 2008, will get a tryout in front of Clint Hurdle and the Pirate scouts in Florida. Young, 38, is playing winter ball now and has dropped 75 pounds since he last squeezed into a big league uniform. Doesn't seem like the Bucs have a lot of confidence in their first base platoon, hey?
  • Jonathan Mayo of has the Bucs Top 20 prospects. Interesting list, and he has a couple of  guys floating under the radar, too.
  • Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects wrote that Keith Law of ESPN ranked the Buc farm system eighth. You have to be an ESPN Insider subscriber to get the Law story.
  • Baseball Prospectus has their 2012 PECOTA ratings out; it's subscriber only.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday Notepad

  • Well, it appears that the Bucs aren't quite as myopic - or cheap - as we thought. They did try to land some pitching. It ends up that the FO made a nice little offer to Edwin Jackson, one that would have possibly kept him around until the Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon debuts. They tried to entice him from two directions, one year for $10M or 3 years for $30M, according to Fox Sport's Ken Rosenthal. But it was no dice, as EJ inked an $11M deal with the Nats. 
  • They also reached out to Roy Oswalt and were shooed away, according to Rob Biertempfel of the Trib. They didn't even use the interest to help build Oswalt's market value a tad. That's a little odd, as he's 34 years old and the team's he's courted so far haven't shown much reciprocal  interest.
  • David Schoenfeld of ESPN's Sweet Spot blog looked over the Central Division position by position and has the Buccos finishing fourth in 2012. The everyday players finished pretty much middle in the of the pack, but the starting pitching got no respect at all. Maybe if one of those guys above would have taken Bob Nutting's money...
  • Despite his flame-out 2011 season, St. Mary's Joe has latched on with the Rangers. Beimel (1-1, 5.33) inked a minor league deal with a camp invite.

Friday, February 3, 2012

This Week's News

  • The Bucs signed RHP Juan Cruz, late of the Tampa Rays, to a minor league deal with an invite to camp. A set-up man, the 33 year old was 5-0/3.88 last season in 48-1/3 innings. Of all the pitchers they've brought in so far, Cruz has the best chance to break camp with the team, striking us as a possible 2012 Jose Veras. He's been with 6 teams in 11 seasons, working a 35-37/4.13 line in 619 innings. Cruz spent 7 of those seasons in the NL with Chicago, Atlanta, and Arizona.
  • The Pirates also added LHP Brian Tallet to the minor league roster. Tallet, 34, has nine season in the show, mostly in the AL with the Indians and Jays. He has a 16-25/4.77 line in 460 innings of work. You might recall his tale from last year: he strained an intercostal muscle, and after the CAT scan, doctors discovered that he also had cysts on his kidneys, suffering from polycystic kidney disease. At any rate, Tallet is a little more veteran left-handed bullpen insurance, joining Doug Slaten.
  • Bill Brink reports that the Pirates and Casey McGehee have an arbitration hearing date set for February 16th, but are still currently negotiating. McGehee asked for $2.725M and the FO countered with $2.35M. The midpoint is $2.5-2.6M, which sounds about right, so we're wondering which party to blame for the holdup. No news on Garrett Jones, either, who put in for $2.5M while the Pirates offered $2.25M. Neither spread was outrageous, so we are kinda surprised the deals haven't been completed.
  • Baseball America has ranked its Top Ten Prospects by organization. There are no surprises on the Bucco list.
  • OK - the Nats signed Edwin Jackson for 1 year/$11M, and it's been written that he turned down a 3 year/$30M deal, making this a year to rebuild his brand. Now you can see why he was off of the Pirate's radar screen. As for Roy Oswalt, his preferred teams, the Red Sox, Rangers and Cards, are all taking turns playing cat-and-mouse with him. Anyhow, doesn't look like the Pirates are adding any big pieces to the 2012 puzzle.