Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Squibblers

> Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote that "the Dodgers backed off their pursuit of shortstop Jack Wilson after the Pirates asked for shortstop Chin-Lung Hu, outfielder Delwyn Young and a third player.

Well, there's a reason the Pirates asked for a third player, according to a major-league source. The Dodgers wanted the Pirates to include cash that would help defray Wilson's $7.25 million salary next season and $8.4 million club option or $600,000 buyout for 2010.

The Pirates did not rule out the idea, but wanted an additional prospect for their money, a player whom they essentially would buy from the Dodgers. The better the prospect, the greater the amount the Pirates would pay."

We think Hu and Young aren't much of a return, anyway. We don't know what Neal Huntington sees in the Dodger system. Like the Bucs, many of their hot prospects are already on the 25-man roster.

> MLB Trade Rumors reports that John Perretto in his Baseball Prospectus column says that the Tigers are still looking to land Matt Treanor from the Marlins, and that tells us all we need to know about Detroit's feelings towards Ronny Paulino. So any Motown deal for Jack Splat won't be huge; maybe him, a reliever or prospect, and cash for a couple of up-and-comers.

The Tigers are trying to sign Joe Biemel, old Bucco and Dodger, and that could affect what they're looking for from Pittsburgh.

> Earlier in the week, Pirate GM Neal Huntington had a Q&A session with fans. A couple of points form his discussion:

On the trade returns for Bay, Nady, and Marte - "We acknowledged from the outset that not all eight players would live up to expectations, but we need to caution against jumping to quick judgments (positive or negative). We did not make the trades looking for immediate returns; rather we made the trades to positively impact the quality and depth of our system currently and in the future."

It was pretty obvious in the Nady/Marte deal that the Pirates were addressing a crying need to get some competent pitching for the back end of the rotation and Indy. They rolled the dice on the Bay deal. They hoped that Brandon Moss and Andy LaRoche would be everyday players, with Bryan Morris and Craig Hansen eventually developing. The deals were all about organizational depth and future returns.

On the third base logjam: "As an organization, we will be closer to our goals when we have multiple players at various positions throughout our farm system that we believe will become Major League players."

And we have no beef with that - solid organizations thrive off of competition and depth. Good players are like like money in the bank - the more you have, the more you get.

> 29-year old catcher J.R. House agreed to a split major league/minor league with the Kansas City Royals. House was with the Astros last year, and once upon a time was the heir apparent in Pittsburgh to Jason Kendall. And you may recall, he quit baseball briefly to become quarterback at WVU.

He's played in the bigs for the Pirates, Orioles and Astros in 32 games, going 10-for-60 (.167) with 3 homers. House has played in 817 minor league games with a .310 average, 108 homers and 509 RBIs. J.R. has been hampered by shoulder problems throughout his career.

> Midnight Monday is the deadline to offer arbitration. The Pirates have ten players eligible, including Adam LaRoche, John Grabow, Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, and Paul Maholm.

Expect to see the free agent market heat up at the winter meetings on December 8th after arbitration is sorted out and the players can sign with other teams. The potential FAs have until December 7th to accept or reject the deal.

Arbitration for free agents is a different horse than service-time arbitration. Usually only the top guns - those rated A or B type free agents - are considered for arb by their teams because they get a draft pick or two back if they sign with another club.

Unlike service-time arbitration cases, FAs can reject the offer, and usually do. Of course, the player may accept arbitration, and then the team is looking at picking up a fat contract for another year, so it's double-edged.

Service-time arbitration has to be offered by December 12th to players with 4-6 years in the show that aren't under contract.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Economy, Baseball, and the Bucs

It's no secret that the economy is in the tank, and that has an effect on everything from politics to baseball. What's it mean to baseball in general and the Pirates in particular?

Baseball, as part of the entertainment industry, is considered by many to be doing business in a recession-proof sector. It generated $6.5B in 2008, a record season for raking in the loot. Both New York teams will open the year in brand-spanking-new stadiums.

Scott Boras and other agents don't foresee Armegeddon, at least this year, largely because baseball had a record year for revenues, is in the middle of its TV contract, and drew nearly 79M fans through the turnstiles last season.

But Players Union chief Don Fehr frankly told Hal Bodley of's "Baseball Perspectives" that "we don't know how the economic problems will affect baseball. Historically, the sports industries have been resistant to most economic downturns, but we're in an atmosphere right now I haven't seen in my lifetime. We have to do our best and the future will take care of itself."

Bud Selig was worried enough that he brought in financial guru Paul Volker to talk to the suits assembled at Dana Point for the early November baseball meetings about the state of the economy. (He served on Selig's blue-ribbon economic study committee in the early 1990s.) While the exact text wasn't released, doom and gloom seemed to be his general theme.

The teams that are less well-heeled than the heavy hitters are already entrenching. The Pittsburgh Pirates announced that they have put a freeze on season-ticket prices with an interest-free payment plan.

Arizona Diamondbacks CEO Jeff Moorad says his club has lost a corporate sponsorship, and he axed 31 staffers. The San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers said they're ready to cut payroll to $40 million. If Toronto can't resign AJ Burnett, they plan to stick his $24M savings in the bank instead of adding it to the payroll. Ticket prices across the league are being held at 2008 prices or raised gently. Free agents across the land are cooling their heels, waiting for offers.

Any team that's hoping to break ground on a new ballyard or add some major renovations to the old park can give up the ghost for the time being, too. Not only may attendance fall league-wide, but the income from business sponsorships, give-aways, and advertising is predicted to nose-dive.

It may even bite the big boys. The Cubs sale, rumored to be set at $1.3B, may find soft credit markets throwing up unpassable roadblocks, and the team may end up off the market. The Mets deal for naming rights of their new Citi Field may be out the window if the taxpayers end up owning a hunk of Citibank. And the Yankees tripled the corporate boxes in their new digs. The luxury suites could be a tough sale if business decides to cut back on advertising and entertainment spending, its traditional response to recession.

Baseball's saving grace is that it's still America's most affordable sport. It's ticket prices increased 10 percent last season to $25.43 while the NFL's average ducat was $72.20, according to the Team Marketing Report. The NBA's average was $48.83 and the NHL's $48.72.

And if attendance flags - 2008 was the first year in the past five that the MLB fan count didn't increase - owners may be able to recoup some of the loss by regional media deals, whose viewership should rise as stadium attendance drops. The caveat there is whether the ad rates can be sustained in today's business economy.

How that affects the free agent market is yet to be seen. The popular view is that the top flight of FAs will be, as expected, buried in cash. Teams like the Yankees, Cubs, Mets, Red Sox, and Angels have huge, gate-spinning fan bases and lucrative regional contracts to air their games. They're better built to withstand economic downturns, and a deep recession could widen the gulf between the have and have-not teams in baseball.

The kings of the hill also have enormous expenses, so on-the-field product is generally essential to their continued success, especially in New York. As a matter of necessity, they will pay whatever it takes to attract star power to their teams. So CC, AJ, Derek, Tex, Manny, and Rafael will get their payday, although they may find their deals a little shorter and more incentive-based than they anticipated.

But the second tier of players are poised to take a hit. Those $12-15M contracts over 4 years will be scaled back considerably, one would assume, for the good but not great talents up for bid. But we'll see about that - Ryan Dempster getting 4 years/$52M could just be a Cub anomaly, or an omen of things to come.

How will all of this play out in Pittsburgh? First, it explains their stance on free agency. The Pirate suits are waiting out the market, expecting some reasonable value for players that in past years may have been beyond their budget. There's some risk involved in that philosophy, because as the prices drop, the competition should increase, but given the climate, a well-calculated one.

Next, it makes houscleaning a priority. There are only four Pirates signed for next year so far, and two of them, Jack Splat and Freddy Sanchez, have contracts they'd like to move. The other pair are Matt Capps, who's signed for next year, and Ian Snell, who is guaranteed until 2010 and optioned until 2012.

Four guys in arbitration are due hefty raises - Adam LaRoche, Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm - and we'd expect to see the Bucs try to sign them through their arbitration years, if possible. That would give the team a degree of cost certainy for the future, plus make the players easier to move, if that's the direction they plan to take.

And there's a good reason why. Frank Coonelly spoke at Penn State a few days ago, and told the Smeal Business School audience that "We have a payroll that is not locked into long, multi-year contracts, so we have what is understood to be payroll flexibility. So we can make moves that will allow us to weather the storm."

They can control expenses, to a degree. But their biggest challenge will be keeping a steady revenue stream flowing into their coffers. Their average 2008 gate of 20,113 was the lowest per game count since 1998 in TRS, and with the product looking less than stellar and corporate support iffy, the suits will be up late trying to figure out how to get fannies in the seats.

They've already frozen season ticket costs, and it would behoove them to extend that to single game tickets, too.

So that's the Pittsburgh challenge - how to generate corporate and community interest in a team that's been blown up, so that it can afford to build for the future in an economy that's flat lined. We think it'll take more than the Zambelli Brothers to right the ship.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bucco Housekeeping - 2009

It's natural for the fans to daydream of free agent hauls and team-altering trades during the offseason, but the Bucco suits have a little more housework to take care of - getting their arbitration eligible players under contract.

They met their first deadline on November 20th, when they set the 40-man roster and protected their minor league assets as they saw fit. Now the next deadline is fast approaching. They have to offer arbitration to the eligible free players by December 1st, but since none are ranked ("A" or "B" free agents), they'll let them go and try to resign them as free agents.

This year, they have ten guys up for service-time arbitration: Denny Bautista (Super-Two, based on service time), Raul Chavez, Jason Davis, Ryan Doumit, Zach Duke, John Grabow, Adam LaRoche, Paul Maholm, Nate McLouth, and Tyler Yates. (Bautista didn't get his designation because of performance, as you may have guessed. He became a "Super Two" by being in the top 17% of players ranked by service time with between 2-3 years in the bigs.)

Adam LaRoche is in his third and final year of arbitration eligibility, and avoided it the last two years by inking one-year deals (he got $5M in 2008). Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, and Nate McLouth are all in their first year of the process.

The word after the season was that the Pirates wanted to wrap up deals with these four guys before arbitration. If they're trying, there's been a blackout surrounding the negotiations. They tried to tie up LaRoche last year, without success. The other three should all get very nice bumps in pay - none made over $425K in 2008 - and Pittsburgh will try to get them under contract, perhaps along the lines of Ian Snell, before the hearings.

John Grabow is a case unto himself. He's in his last year of arbitration, and made $1.135M last year. The hot stove consensus is the Pirates will try to move him, because if they don't sign the 30-year old to a contract, 2010 will be his walk season. And we haven't heard any rumblings that he's on their short list to ink a deal.

The remaining five are all pieces of the Pirate puzzle that they will probably tender. Yates, Davis, and Chavez are in their second season of arbitration, while the Zachster and Bautista are in their first year. Duke made $400K and Bautista $395K in 2008. Yates made $800K last year, and the Bucs may look at working out a two-year deal to cover his arb years.

We understand that there may be some internal debate about bringing back Davis, but at $650K last year, he provided a professional insurance policy for a young staff. Chavez may have to avoid arbitration and sign on the dotted line to remain a Pirate; he could possibly price himself out of the Bucs market, though he made a reasonable, by MLB standards, $550K in 2008.

And if you're wondering, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Ronny Paulino should be arbitration eligible in 2010, depending upon the level they play at next season. There are a couple of other pups, notably Brandon Moss, that could conceivably became Super Twos.

Huntington had five players eligible for arbitration last year, and signed them all before it came to a hearing. We expect he'll try to do the same this year, just for the sake of contract certainy. Otherwise, he risks taking a couple of big hits at the arbitration hearings. The Bucs still have a couple of weeks to work out their game plan; the service arb deadline is December 12th.

Surprisingly, Pittsburgh only has four players under contract for 2009 - Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Matt Capps, and Ian Snell.

Jack Splat's deal is guaranteed for next season, with a club option for 2010. He'll make $7.25M in 2009, and $8.4M if the option is taken for 2010. Otherwise, he gets a $600K buy-out. But it doesn't look like Pittsburgh will be carrying his contract much longer.

Freddy Sanchez is also inked for 2009, with a $6.1M price tag. He has a club option for 2010, too, and the option is automatically triggered if Sanchez gets 630 plate appearances or 600 PA's with an All-Star pick. He'll earn $8M in 2010, with a $600K buy-out if the Pirates don't pick up his option year.

Matt Capps has a simple deal. He's signed through next year, for $2.3M. The Mad Capper will have two years of arbitration eligibilty remaining when the contract runs out.

The Bucs really locked Ian Snell down. He's signed until 2010, with two team options afterwards that if exercised will carry him through arbitration and his first year of free agency. He'll haul in $3M in 2009, $4.25M in 2010, and if his options are picked up, $6.75M in 2011 and $9.25M in 2012. A great deal if the old Snell returns, and a bearable one otherwise, with its escape hatch.

Oh, and the Pirates owe Matt Morris $1M, too, for his 2009 buy-out. The ghost of Dave Littlefield still haunts the dugout.

All the other guys are under Pirate control, most for at least four years or better.

So we'll see how the Pirates deal with arbitration. Once they have that settled, their housekeeping is done, and they can start wheeling and dealing their little hearts out in Vegas, the part of the off season that everyone loves.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jack Splat...Going, Going, Gone?

OK, we've known since last season that the Pirates have been floating Jack Wilson's name around MLB trade circles. There's even been some smoke wisping over his fire. What is the shortstop market now, and how does Jack Splat fit in?

Here's the guys on the market: Raphael Furcal (Dodgers), Orlando Cabrera (White Sox), Edgar Renteria (Tigers), Omar Vizquel (Giants), Juan Castro (Orioles), Juan Uribe (White Sox), Alex Cintron (Orioles), Alex Cora (Red Sox), Craig Counsell (Brewers), David Eckstein (Diamondbacks), Adam Everett (Twins), Jerry Hairston (Reds), Cesar Izturis (Cardinals), and Nick Punto (Twins).

You can add Julio Lugo (Red Sox) to the list; Boston would love to unload his remaining 2 years and $18M obligation and let Jed Lowrie play everyday. Khalil Greene (Padres), JJ Hardy (Brewers), Yunel Escobar (Braves) and Brent Lillibridge (Braves) are also said to be on the market, but their price tags will probably prove prohibitive.

Here's the teams that are looking: Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, Toronto, St. Louis, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Oakland, Minnesota, and San Diego.

LA and Detroit want short-term help; both have hotties (Ivan DeJesus Jr., Chin-Lung Hu & Angel Berroa in Los Angeles, Cale Iorg and Danny Worth in Motown) in their system that should be ready to join the fray in 2010-11. Cincy is in the same boat, but they have Alex Gonzalez and Jeff Keppinger coming back, so they're not looking to add much but insurance.

Toronto's looking for a stick. The Giants, Twins, O's and Cards are empty in the hole, while the A's are looking for an upgrade over Bobby Crosby. The Padres are hoping to dump Khalil Greene's salary, but it looks like they may just end up keeping him.

There's a lot of SS's out there, but except for Furcal, Renteria and Cabrera, the guys are ham-and-eggers or senior citizens.

The hot stove gossip has Furcal going to Oakland or maybe SF, and his signing will start the rush. The Giants, Twins, and Cards are rumored to be tied into either/or Renteria and Cabrera, so that leaves the Pirates with a handful of suitors for Wilson.

Detroit and LA would top the list. Both are looking for a good glove guy with a set price tag and no long commitments to block their up-and-comers. That's Jack Splat to a tee.

The Tiger's needs dovetail neatly into the Buc's strengths. Besides needing a shortstop, they're looking for a catcher and bullpen arm. The Pirates do have five backstops stashed on the 40-man, and Tyler Yates and John Grabow are both reputedly of interest to Motown's decision makers.

It seems the Tigers aren't too enamored with Ronny Paulino, or otherwise the Matt Treanor rumors wouldn't have popped up. Now there's been some whispers that they might up the ante and try to land Ryan Doumit, changing a relatively minor deal into a blockbuster.

Detroit would have to put some combination of SS Danny Worth, RHP's Rick Porcello, Cody Satterwhite, or Zach Miner into play, we'd assume, and maybe one of their highly touted first base prospects, Jeff Larish or Ryan Streibly.

Jack Splat is Jimmy Leyland's kinda down and dirty player, and they did offer Jair Jurrjens for him last year. Still, GW thinks it's more likely that Wilson will end up in Motown with either Paulino or a reliever for Worth and another prospect. But it could get interesting.

Wilson, though, isn't the only guy on their radar. The Tigers just ended contract-swap talks with Boston about Lugo, and the Motown papers report that they're looking at veteran stop-gaps at a minimal wage, like Alex Cora.

LA is another possible landing spot, but owner Frank McCourt has been making noises about cutting payroll, and quite frankly, we don't consider Hu to be superior to Brian Bixler.

Now what Neal Huntington thinks may be another matter entirely, but our take is that Pittsburgh wants a high-level return above Hu and extra OFer Delwyn Young, who look more like throw-ins than centerpieces, and that will make or break any potential deal.

Saint Louis is next in line if they're left out in the cold when the Big Three sign. They have a couple of young shortstops in the system, AA Jose Martinez and high A Peter Kozma, though the Pirates would probably look at some StL minor-league pitching first if they talk turkey with the Redbirds.

San Francisco and the Twin Cities have shown no love for Wilson at all so far, and Baltimore is talking to our our ol' bud, Cesar Izturis. But if they're interested, well, it's a tough match. Their minors are slowly rebuilding, but by and large their better prospects are still in the lower levels of the organization, with some nice OF/1B bats.

The Pirates would likely want some upper level players for a deal to click, though they may be tempted by a couple of young thunder sticks, something that's sorely lacking in the Pittsburgh organization.

The market has played out in the Pirates favor this year. There's a lot of demand and not much talent, so Wilson's injury plagued year may not devalue him as much as feared. It does look like the iron's hot, and the market's dominoes will fall into place once Furcal signs. We'll be surprised if Jack Splat lasts through the winter meetings.

So hey, there's the grist for today's rumor mill. Caveat emptor!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bucco Bits

> Al "Scoops" Oliver, longtime Pirate outfielder and first baseman throughout the seventies, is a finalist for the Veteran's Committee Hall of Fame vote this year. Scoops played for seven teams from 1968-85, and had a lifetime .303 average in eighteen MLB seasons. The HoF has his bio online.

> The signings of the two Indian pitchers, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, along with South African SS Gift Ngoepe, show that the Pirates are Exploring New Talent Pools internationally, beefing up their nearly invisible presence in Latin America and the Pacific Rim and putting eyes in non-traditional baseball areas.

> Here's the wrap-up on the seven Pirate minor leaguers that were on the Scottsdale roster of the just concluded 2008 Arizona Fall League.

> A quick look at the Detroit Tiger shortstop situation gives the options Motown has in front of them - and there are several scenarios other than snagging Jack Splat that could carry them through the next season or two.

> Here are some other Potential Suitors for the services of Jack Wilson. SS is a hot position this year.

> A final Jack Splat note: Tim Brown of Yahoo!Sports wrote that the Dodgers won't take on Wilson's contract unless the Pirates pick up a big piece of the change due to him next year. It's hard to believe there's a team cheaper than the Bucs, hey?

> Baseball Analysts takes a look at the top pitching prospects available in December's Rule 5 draft - and unprotected Pirate LHP Kyle Bloom isn't one of them. We don't know whether that's good or bad news; probably a little of both.

> Hal Morris has joined the Bucco scouting staff as an area supervisor in the upper Midwest. The 43-year-old played 13 seasons, mostly with the Reds, and finished with a .304 career batting average.

> The Pirates former Indy skipper Trent Jewett has been hired to manage Washington's High Class A Carolina League affiliate, the Potomac Nationals, based in Woodbridge, Virginia. Jewett spent 15 years managing in Pittsburgh's system before getting the axe after this season.

> The Colorado Rockies' Clint Hurdle just added ex-Pirate manager Jim Tracy to the staff as his bench coach.

> A factoid from Bill James 2009 Handbook: Long-ago Pirate and current Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield had the slowest fastball in MLB last year, averaging just under 73 MPH. Marlin closer Matt Lindstrom had the zippiest heater, averaging a tick under 97 MPH.

GW wishes all its fans and their families a Happy Thanksgiving. Don't OD while lovin' the football, in-laws, and turkey! And if you're the prayerful sort, please include the innocents in Bombay in them today. We do have a lot to be thankful for in America.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Preacher Roe

GW was remiss in not mentioning the passing of Elwin Charles Roe, better known as Preacher, a couple of weeks ago. You probably remember him as one of Roger Kahn's "Boys of Summer," but Preacher spent his first four full big league seasons as a Pirate.

He was a country boy, born on February 26, 1916, in Ash Flat, Arkansas, and moved to Viola, on the edge of Ozark country, when he was 6. Roe’s father played for a semi-pro team in Pine Bluff, but gave up baseball to become a country doctor.

Preacher was a hard throwing pitcher in high school, but also a wild child: "I had smoke," he recalled. "I'd strike out twelve and walk seventeen." He attended Harding College in Searcy, and got a degree in education while averaging 18 Ks per game.

Roe was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938, pitching one game that season. He spent five years in the minors before being traded to the Pirates for Johnny Podgajny, Johnny Wyrostek, and cash. That deal was as sweet as the one that sent him to Brooklyn was sour. More on that later.

Preacher was a power pitcher then, all 6'2", 165 pounds of him, and won 13 games for Pittsburgh in 1944 and 14 more in 1945 with a league-leading 148 strikeouts.

But in 1945, Roe fractured his skull in a brawl with a referee while coaching a girl's high school basketball game during the off-season (he was a substitute math teacher at Hardy HS in the winter).

Preacher recovered slowly, going 7-23 over the next two seasons, and appeared washed-up after his tussle with the zebra. But Branch Rickey, whose brother Rick scouted him a decade earlier for the Cards, was Brooklyn's GM and pulled the trigger on a deal for him. The trade was the kind that Dave Littlefield was fond of making.

The Pirates sent him, sweet fielding Billy Cox and Gene Mauch to the Boro for Dixie Walker, Hal Gregg, and Vic Lombardi. The trio of Bums were gone from Pittsburgh by 1950. Roe and Cox would play in three Fall Classics for the Dodgers.

Roe, healthy once more, rang up six straight winning seasons with the Dodgers, highlighted by a 19-11 mark in 1950 and a 22-3 record in 1951, earning him TSN's "Pitcher of the Year" honors to go with four All-Star selections. He helped pitch them to three World Series in that span, and went 2-1 in five October outings with a 2.54 ERA.

Two other things factored into his success with Brooklyn - he was now on a top flight team for one, and secondly, he changed from a flamethrower into a thinking man's pitcher.

The Dodgers, unlike the Bucs, could actually field behind him. Comparing the glovework of the two teams, he said that a pitcher should pay to pitch for the Dodgers, while the Pirates' infielders were like stationary goalposts with the ball bouncing between them.

He wasn't much more complimentary of Ralph Kiner's range. He claimed Kiner stood in his hole (the patch of dead grass left by his spikes) in the outfield, and would only catch the balls hit to his hole and nowhere else.

Of course, it had to help to play alongside the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, and the other fabled Boys of Summer at Ebbets Field instead of the sad sacks that suited up at Forbes Field.

The lanky lefty changed styles, from power to finesse, in Brooklyn. As Roe said "I've got three pitches, my change, my change off my change, and my change off my change off my change."

And in truth, he had come up with a new pitch - the spitter. Actually, two new pitches - his fake spitter kept batters off balance pretty well, too. "You don't have to throw it," he explained, "just make 'em think you're going to throw it."

In "Boys of Summer," Kahn told this tale: While pitching against the Boston Braves’ Jim Russell, Roe went to his cap repeatedly. Each time he did that, Russell stepped out of the batter’s box. After this went on three or four times, Roe finally pitched the ball.

Roe told Kahn: “He’s waiting for that good hard drop. I touch the visor and throw a big slow curve. He was so wound up he couldn’t swing. But he spit at the ball as it went by.”

Needless to say, he was one of the slowest working pitchers in the majors, often authoring three hour games. It was all part of his plan to play with hitters' minds.

He was also famous for his folksy tales and humor. Roe once opened the door to the Cardinals’ clubhouse after a game, and told the Redbirds “I know how to get Stan Musial out.”

Cardinals’ players: “How?”

Roe: ”Throw him four wide ones, and pick ‘em off first!”

After going 3-4 for the Dodgers in 1954 at the age of 39, Roe was sent to the Baltimore Orioles along with Cox. But The Pride of the Ozarks opted to retire, finishing with a career record of 127-84, a 3.43 ERA and 101 complete games in twelve seasons.

After he hung them up, he sent the baseball world into a tizzy by owning up to his out pitch in a 1955 Sports Illustrated article by Dick Young, "The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch."

Hey, all the players knew; why not the fans, too? Roe later said he did the story in hopes that it would get the spitter legalized. Fat chance of that. Instead, he became a pariah, unwelcome at old timers games and other official MLB events.

He operated a grocery store in his long-time home of West Plains, Missouri, with his wife Mozee and son Tommy, where he would gladly sign autographs and shoot the breeze with any fan that walked into his market.

Preacher kept pretty busy. Roe coached youth baseball, was President of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club Board of Directors, and on the Methodist Church Board of Directors. He was an instructor for several of the Dodgers' Adult Baseball Camps in Florida. Roe even took up golfing - at the age of 77!

He died at the age of 93 on November 9th after waging a battle with colon cancer.

He was quite a local celeb. US 160 is still called Preacher Roe Boulevard south of US 63. And a ballyard in Fulton County, Arkansas, 18 miles from his birthplace of Ash Flat, is known as Preacher Roe Park. His legacy includes being elected to the Harding College, Missouri, Arkansas and Dodger Halls of Fame.

How did he become Preacher? He said that the moniker was given to him at age 3 when an uncle, just back from WW1, asked his name and Roe responded "Preacher," in recognition of his favorite Methodist minister who would take him on horse-and-buggy rides. That's the official version.

Ralph Branca, an old Dodger teammate, recalled the nickname's origin a bit differently. "We all called him 'Preacher' because he could talk your ear off," he said. "If there was no one around, he would talk to the wall."

Another tale is that Roe got his nickname when he said he wanted to become a minister at Harding College before deciding on teaching.

Preacher always liked to keep them guessing.

(GW thanks his bud, Mike Broz, for mentioning that Preacher was an old Bucco and suggesting his tale be told.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hot Stove Embers...

According to a report on MLB Trade Rumors based on a report from the NPB Tracker that came from a report on Yahoo!Japan, the Bucs have signed Indian whiz kids Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh to minor league deals. And you thought Ronald Uviedo was obscure?

Patel, 20, and Singh, 19, were discovered on the “The Million Dollar Arm”, a reality TV show in India. More than 25,000 contestants vied to see who had the best baseball arms, and Patel and Singh took the honors.

They collected a few rupees, and got a trip to Southern Cal to get a six-month mechanical tuneup at the hands of Tom House. They picked up an agent while they were there, Jeff Borris, and had a try-out in front of a couple of dozen scouts.

RHP Patel hit 90 on the gun, while LHP Singh registered at 84. We hope he's a crafty lefty, 'cause he sure ain't gonna blow anyone away.

Neal Huntington was coy when Jenifer Langosch of asked him if he had indeed signed the pair, just saying "We have seen the pitchers and are very interested in signing them," before eventually confirming that they had indeed inked Pirate contracts.

"The Pirates are committed to creatively adding talent to our organization," Huntington said in a release. "By adding these two young men, we are pleased to not only add two prospects to our system but also hope to open a pathway to an untapped market."

Hey, if nothing else, the Bucs picked up a couple of GCL pitchers, and with the signing of South Africa's Gift Ngoepe, the scouts will have frequent flier miles out the wazoo. The Pirates have jumped into the brave new world of international ball with both feet.

You can read Singh and Patel's story at & at

Our take on the Jack Splat to Detroit rumors? The Tigers are the likeliest club, along with LA if Furcal is too expensive for their taste, that would have much interest in Wilson right now, needing someone to hold down SS until wunderkind Cale Iorg is ready for the show in a season or two. His glove and contract make him a perfect fit for Motown.

We're not sure how the rumored three-team deal with the Marlins makes any sense; if they send us C Matt Treanor to flip to Detroit, then the Fish need a catcher to back up John Baker.

So the Pirates have to give up a backstop either way. We think Ronny Paulino should be attractive to either club - he's young, experienced, and cheap.

But unless Treanor is part of a bigger deal, which is possible, or is who the Tigers really want, it's simpler to just add one of our posse of catchers to the Detroit ante.

The possible payback? The Bucs could be looking at the other Tiger SS prospect, 22-year old Danny Worth, 2007's second round draft pick who was in AA this year. He hit .254, and is considered a superior glove guy.

Right now, GW thinks it's all sizzle and no steak. But the Pirates claim that they're looking to add young talent across the board, and if they can get a couple of pups out of the deal, the suits may eventually cobble something together.

Besides, it's all the action we have so far.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ron Uviedo...The 40-Man Mystery Guest.

Ronald Javier Uviedo was born on October 7th, 1986 in Calabozo, Venezuela. The young righty, a 6-1, 165 pound stringbean with a cannon for an arm, was just placed on the Pirates 40-man roster. And that's more than most of Piratedom knows about him. But while his Q factor might be low, his K factor isn't.

Uviedo began his career with Seattle when he signed as an 18-year old in 2004. He spent two years in the Venezuelan Summer League as Mariner property.

The young Latino was knocked around his first season, compiling a 2-1 record and 5.81 ERA. But he reversed course in 2005 as a starter, leading the staff in innings with 62, going deeper into games than any other pitcher on the club (5 innings+), and posting the lowest hit rate (6.1/9 innings) on the team.

He finished 4-3 with a 2.76 ERA and 52 strikeouts, and a workmanlike 3:1 K to BB ratio. But Seattle wasn't impressed, and let his contract lapse. The Pirates welcomed him aboard and converted him to a reliever in 2006. Uviedo ended up 2-0 with 11 saves in the VSL, with a 2.02 ERA and 44 Ks in 35-2/3 innings.

The Pirates moved him to short season State College in 2007, where he was 2-0 with 12 saves and a 3.92 ERA. Uviedo kept getting swings and misses there, too, striking out 26 in 20-1/3 innings of work. He also got a cup of joe at Lynchburg early in the year and Hickory towards the end of the season, where he wasn't overwhelming but wasn't overmatched, either.

The 22-year old spent most of the 2008 season with A Hickory, where he made 33 appearances and put together a 3-1 slate with 5 saves and a 3.01 ERA for the Crawdads. He struck out 76 in 71-2/3 innings, with a 5:1 K/BB ratio.

Uviedo finished the season at A Lynchburg, making seven appearances and pitching like Superman. He had an ERA of 2.25, and gave up 5 hits and 5 walks in 16 innings, striking out a dozen batters. Opponents hit .094 off him, and his WHIP was 0.63. A small sample, but a very good one.

Kyle Stark, Pirate Player Development Director, says that he expects Uviedo to start at Lynchburg in 2009. He's back in Venezuela now, pitching in the Winter League. Uviedo has allowed an opponent BA of .319, but the rest of his stats are fine - a 2-1 record, 1.69 ERA, and 12 punch outs in 10-2/3 innings.

Still, it begs the question: Why is he on the 40-man now, when he's probably two full seasons away from reaching the bigs?

"He throws strikes," Huntington told Jenifer Langosch of "As we evaluated the types of players that get selected, those guys who throw strikes are the type of guys that catch a scout's eye or get the interest of someone in the front office. We didn't want to risk losing that."

Not everyone is as sold on Uviedo as Huntington. Matt Pouliot of USA Today's Strike Zone said "Ronald Uviedo may develop into a setup man in three years or so." Still, it shows he's on the national radar, if relatively unknown by Bucco boosters.

The Pirates see a young RHP that has a shot at being their closer in 2011. Uviedo throws a mid-90s heater with a sharp slider and is always around the plate. His one knock is that he's susceptible to the longball, but that's the M.O. of control pitchers. He has a serious knack for missing bats, a rare commodity in the Pirate system.

And even if Pouliot is right and he ends up as the next Tyler Yates, minus control issues, then he's a keeper.

Better safe than sorry. It's nice to see the Pirates forced to put on their thinking cap for a change when it comes to constructing a roster, and having talent deep enough to force hard decisions about A players. And we hope the decisions get harder every year.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Johnny Bye-Bye

Well, it was probably way overdue, but the 2009 list of Pirate prospects will have the fingerprints of the new suits all over it, as the Bonifay/Littlefield gang gets relentlessly elbowed out. The latest to hit the road was John Van Benschoten, cut from the 40-man roster last month and declaring for minor league free agency yesterday.

John Wesley Van Benschoten was born April 14, 1980 in San Diego, California. JVB grew up in Milford, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, where he was a two-sport athlete at Milford HS.

Van Benschoten was a longball monster at Kent State University. He led Division I in home runs his junior year with 31, batted .440 and slugged .982. He was 7th in batting average, tied for 4th with 84 RBI, stole 23 bases, and was also the Golden Flash closer, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 63 K in 49 innings with 8 saves.

The Pirates thought that he had more potential as a pitcher than as a hitter, although the scouting consensus saw a 6'4", 230 pound long-armed hitter with plus power and an athletic frame. But Pittsburgh saw a powerful righthander with a chance to develop four above-average pitches. They made him the eighth overall selection of the 2001 Draft, and announced that he would be a pitcher.

He was picked when the Pirate front office was in turmoil. Cam Bonifay would be axed shortly after the draft, as would head scout Mickey White. But the new suits, Dave Littlefield and Ed Creech, signed off on the decision to keep JVB on the mound instead trying to bring him along him as a position player.

To this day, the Pirate nation wonders if that was the right decision. It's hard to tell, judging by his minor league pitching career, which was pretty stellar when his arm wasn't in a sling. But if you have to choose between developing an everyday, middle of the lineup player or a guy that you trot out every five days, which way would you go?

Make no mistake, Van Benschoten performed well as a pitching prospect. He threw in the 2003 All-Star Futures Game as a member of the Altoona Curve, and Baseball America named him the top prospect in the Pirates system in both 2003 and 2004. JVB was bringing the heat at 88-92 MPH, and even the scouts that liked him as a hitter out of college thought he looked good on the hill.

He made his MLB debut in 2004, taking the mound for five starts after an August 18th call-up from AAA Nashville, going 1-3 with a 6.91 earned run average. But he was shut down after a September 18th start with what the Pirates described as shoulder fatigue in his throwing arm.

He didn't pitch again that year, and in November, he had surgery to repair tears to the glenoid labrum and rotator cuff of his left arm, which was sorta a surprise since the reported problem was with his throwing arm.

Those injuries didn't affect his pitching, creating more problems as a batter, and Van Benschoten participated in the team's minicamp in January of 2005. There, he began experiencing more problems with his right arm. He ended up having surgery to repair a tear to the labrum and remove a cyst on his right shoulder, and missed the entire 2005 season.

Van Benschoten returned to play in August 2006 after nearly a two-year layoff, but made only 5 starts, split among the Bradenton Pirates, Altoona Curve, and Indianapolis Indians, before a tender shoulder ended his season.

He came back strong at Indy in 2007, where he was 10-7 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 starts. But in Pittsburgh, he was 0-7 with a 10.15 ERA with brutal mechanics. It was more of the same in 2008, with his Indy line being 7-4/3.92 ERA, while his Pirate stats were 1-3 with a 10.48 ERA.

Even with his nice minor league numbers, he struggled with command at Indy, and never came up with an offspeed pitch to compliment his fastball. You might get away with that at AAA, but it's a death sentence in the majors.

He was a beaten guy, even in body language, and the Bucs sent him back to Indy and the bullpen. In October, he was lopped of the 40-man roster. JVB went to pitch winter ball in Mexico, where he's 1-3 with a 5.16 ERA in six starts.

He holds the dubious record of having a MLB career ERA of 9.20, the highest in big league history by anyone with at least 75 innings pitched, and a 2-13 record. He gave up 92 earned runs in 90 innings of work. But while in the minors, he was 45-34 with a 3.46 ERA. JVB was the textbook example of a AAAA pitcher.

Should he have been a Pirate fixture at first base? Well, no one knows the answer to that question, and he'll be 29 in 2009, so it's not likely that he'll take the Ricky Ankiel route. Did they miss a diagnosis when they operated on both shoulders in 2005-06 and perhaps killed his pitching career? Again, no one will ever know.

This much is word - he's done with Pittsburgh. And we can only wish JVB luck. GW can't help but think the way the Pirates handled Van Benschoten had as much to do with his disappointing eight season run in the organization as he did.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The 40-Man Roster...Hmmm

The Pirates placed 3B Neil Walker, OF Jose Tabata, RHP Jeff Sues, C Steve Lerud and RHP Ronald Uviedo to its 40-man roster yesterday. They added RHP Evan Meek a couple of weeks ago, or he would have been eligible for minor-league free agency. The 40-man roster is now full once again.

They slid the five into the slots vacated by the four Pirate free agents: Chris Gomez, Jason Michaels, Dirt Dog Doug Mientkiewicz, and Luis Rivas, plus one prior opening. It doesn't look hopeful that Dirt Dog or Michaels are gonna re-up, at least any time soon.

The suits had cleared more space in October, when they scratched RHPs Ron Belisario, John Van Benschoten, Yoslan Herrera, Marino Salas and Frankie Osoria off the list. RHPs Ty Taubenheim and Bryan Bullington, along with OF Chris Duffy, got their walking papers in September, elbowed out by the call-ups.

Walker, Tabata, and Sues were no-brainers. Lerud and Uviedo were longshots that the Pirates predicted may be on someones wish list.

As Jenifer Langosch of wrote about Lerud: The Pirates have a deficiency of catchers in the organization, and the risk of losing Lerud was too high to leave him unprotected.

"He can catch and throw," Neal Huntington told her. "He's left-handed. He looks the part. We wanted to buy ourselves some time by ensuring that he stays in the organization."

It also suggests to GW that Ronny Paulino is as good as gone, and the 24-year old Lerud is the only option left in the system that could potentially make the move to AAA if Robinzon Diaz gets the call to PNC Park in 2009. Still, that leaves five catchers on the 40-man roster, and that's a crowd.

Uviedo is an interesting, upside prospect, but he's never pitched above A ball. He throws a 94 MPH heater and has a nasty curve - he struck out 88 in 87 innings of work at Hickory and Lynchburg last year.

A quick glance at whom the other teams protected shows that at least a dozen other A players have been put on the 40-man in the past couple of days. The Pirates must have a sense that the 22-year old Venezuelan wasn't flying under the scouts' radar, and that A players were going to be fair game this year.

It's also somewhat telling who they rolled the dice on and left off the protected list: OF Jamie Romak, RHP Juan Mateo, LHP Kyle Bloom and RHP Eric Krebs. All four have a shot at being snatched by someone on December 11th, Rule 5 draft day.

Romak is one of the few power sticks in the organization, but he's a low average, high strikeout batter that the Pirates are trying out at first, although he can play the corner OF if need be. He could be someones bat off the bench.

Mateo was a highly considered Cub prospect until arm woes slowed down his career. But he looked sharp out of the pen at Altoona and been in the show with Chicago, though he is a one-trick pony, throwing mid-90s heat and little else, though that alone is pretty nice stuff. But it's what earmarks him as a bullpen fixture instead of a starter and limits his future value.

The Pirates signed him as a minor league free agent, and used him as a middle reliever in AA. He's a free agent again, and being neither starter nor closer, the Bucs decided to risk exposing him. There's always a chance that they could sign him again further down the road if he clears the draft before inking a deal.

Krebs also throws in the mid-90s, and has struck out more batters than innings worked in the past three years. He was beaned with a liner during the season, and was pulled from winter league work with elbow problems. The suits are hoping that his injuries raise a red flag for the rest of the teams.

Bloom put together a super stint in Hawaii. He's a fastball-slider-curve pitcher, and has had control issues to go along with a respectable strikeout rate. Bloom's 25-years old and pitched in AA, and a LHP to boot. It's a safe bet that someone's looking over his computer file.

But here's the rub - the Pirates aren't protecting guys based on upside or potential. They're rating them by who is MLB ready. Even if they lose a player or two, if they can't last the season out with their new team, they have to be offered back to the Bucs. So that's the only question that counts - is this player capable of spending a season on someones major league roster?

"It's one thing to be selected," Huntington told Langosch, "but it's another to be carried on through all year long."

It's also a little curious as to who they left on the roster - LHP Dave Davidson, RHP Jason Davis, who is up for arbitration and isn't expected to get it offered, and RHP Romulo Sanchez. But that may have nothing to do with their ability and everything to do with holding potential spots the suits can clear if they sign anyone new.

So maybe there's a deal in the air. Let the games begin.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

November 20, 1985 - Jim Leyland Comes To Town

James Richard Leyland was born on December 15, 1944, in Perrysburg, Ohio, right on the Maumee River, the son of a factory foreman, and a wiry kid who grew up tough and driven.

Leyland started his baseball career with the Tigers when they inked him as a catcher on September 21, 1963. He spent six seasons in the Detroit minors (1964-69) before leaving the plate for the dugout.

He became a coach for the Montgomery Rebels in 1970, moving to the Rocky Mount Leafs for half of the 1971 season before earning his first managerial shot with the Bristol Tigers that same year.

Leyland managed for 11 seasons in the Tigers' organization (1971-81), advancing to the playoffs six times and claiming three league titles. He was selected as the manager of the year in the Florida State League in 1977 and 1978, and given the same honor in the American Association in 1979, a pretty cool trifecta.

He was always had a cigarette jones, even back in the day, and a locla newspaper ran a story about that habit: "Ex-umpire Sonny Fulks recalled a minor-league game in the 1970s when chain-smoker Jim Leyland, then managing the Lakeland (Fla.) Tigers, had just fired one up when Fulks called a balk on Leyland's pitcher.

"He ran out on the field to argue and jammed the cigarette in the hip pocket of his pants, which were double-knit," Fulks told the Dayton Daily News. "By the time he got to second base, it had melted a hole in the seat and he was really smoking.

"He didn't stay long. He wasn't wearing underwear, and I mean his [rear end] was hangin' out."

Leyland left the Tigers' nest in 1982 when he became Tony La Russa's third base coach (1982-85) with the Chicago White Sox, waving in the runs during team's 1983 AL West division title season.

Then Syd Thrift had a brainstorm when it was time to find Chuck Tanner's replacement. He raided Chicago and named Jim Leyland to be the 33rd Pirate skipper on November 20, 1985.

He managed the Bucs from 1986 to 1996, winning two Manager of the Year trophies in 1990 and 1992. Leyland had an All-Star line-up with Barry Bonds, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, John Smiley, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla.

The no-nonsense Bucco leader became a local folk hero when in 1991, with local TV cameras rolling during camp, he scolded Barry Bonds for talking back to a coach. Leyland yelled, "I've kissed your butt for three years! If you don't want to be here, then get your butt off the field!" The blue collar fans of Pittsburgh had found their boy.

Under Leyland, the Pirates went to the NLCS three straight seasons (1990-1992). The Pirates lost all three, the last pair going the full seven games against the Atlanta Braves. Sid @#%&* Bream!

But the management, the Pittsburgh Associates and Cam Bonifay, began breaking up the team after 1992's run, and sapped Leyland. After 11 seasons, he had enough of the losing.

In 1997, he was hired by Wayne Huizenga to manage the Florida Marlins and led them to the franchise's first championship. The Marlins, in only their fifth year of existence, became the fastest expansion franchise to win a World Series, a feat that has since been bested only by the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

In the offseason, Huizenga dismantled the team in what became known as "the fire sale." Leyland stayed as the manager, but used an escape clause in his contract to defect to Colorado after his defending champions lost 108 games in 1998.

But after another bad year with the disappointing Rockies, he called it quits, walking away from $4.5 million of a three-year, $6 million deal, the largest ever signed by a major-league manager to that time. He said he just didn't have the energy to compete anymore. The fire that burned so fiercely had banked.

So he became a Pittsburgh-based scout for the Cards, hired by his bud Tony LaRussa. He was often spotted sitting in the stands at PNC Park with fellow ex-Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, one with a smoke hangin' out his mouth and the other with a crumpled roll-up hat, no doubt reminiscing about the good ol' days of Bucco baseball.

But the fire still smoldered, and Leyland interviewed for the Phillies' managerial vacancy following the 2004 season after Larry Bowa was fired, losing out to Charlie Manuel.

When the 2005 season ended, Leyland dropped some broad hints that he was more than willing to return to Pittsburgh, his home since 1985. Again he lost out, without even the courtesy of an interview, to Littlefield's pre-ordained pick, Jim Tracy.

Pittsburgh's loss, Detroit's gain. Leyland shrugged off the rejection and returned his baseball roots, taking the helm of the Detroit Tigers when he replaced Alan Trammell on October 3, 2005.

And he remembered where he came from. Among his coaches were Lloyd McClendon, Gene Lamont (who replaced Leyland at Pittsburgh), and Andy Van Slyke, kindred spirits from the Pirate days that provided him with a comfort zone at his new gig.

In the 2006 regular season, Leyland took the Tigers to a 95-67 record, their best year since 1987. The Tigers entered the playoffs as the wild card, and went on to whup the New York Yankees and sweep the Oakland Athletics on their way to winning the AL pennant.

But he lost the World Series to his mentor, Tony LaRussa, and his St. Louis Cards, a heavy underdog, proving its' not how you start the year, but how you finish it. The Tigers extended Leyland's contract through 2009 after he won the Manager of the Year award for the third time.

Leyland became the seventh manager in history to win pennants in both leagues that year, joining Joe McCarthy, Yogi Berra, Alvin Dark, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, and Tony La Russa.

After a disappointing 2008 season, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski confirmed that Leyland would be back for the 2009 season, although his contract wasn't being extended this time around. That's OK. Jimmy Leyland with a chip on his shoulder is a formidable force.

In 17 seasons as a big league manager, Leyland's posted a 1326-1360 (.494) record, with five playoff appearances, two chances at the dance, and a World Series title.

He's known as a hard-nosed guy that tells it like it is, with a somewhat unorthodox managing style. But in March, he told the Post Gazette's Paul Meyer that managing is simple:

"John Russell will do fine -- if he has good players. Just like Jim Leyland will do fine if he has good players. Tony La Russa will do fine if he has good players. Bobby Cox will do fine if he has good players. But, if you don't have good players, you won't do fine."

"We all know the hit-and-run," Leyland said. "We all know about playing the infield in or back. Now, people get tired of hearing this, but the team with the best players is going to win. That's just the way it is.

"If the best players execute against a team of players who aren't very good players, the best players are going to win." Word.

The 63-year old Leyland still keeps his home in Pittsburgh (Thornburg, to be exact), where he met his wife Katy and has raised two children, Pat and Kelly. In fact, they were hitched by Jim's bro Tom, a Catholic priest who did the honors on November of 1987. The kids go to Bishop Canevin High School. You can find Leyland in the Beaver Valley indoor baseball complex in the off season, coaching up the youngsters.

And that's Jim Leyland. No matter where he's at, he's a Pittsburgh guy.

(Tomorrow at noon, GW gives his take on the 40-man roster moves)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Farm Fresh - Minor League Catchers

Aye, Carimba! The Bucs have a handful of backstops at the top level, and then...well, it's baseball's version of Miss Jan's Romper Room.

First, we don't think that there's any plan afoot to move Ryan Doumit from behind the plate. The Bucs believe that their corners are pretty well manned, once Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss flank the CF in-waiting, Andrew McCutchen, with Jose Tabata in the wings.

First base? We'll see if they sign up Adam LaRoche for another tour of duty, which is likely given the state of 1B in the minors, before that's even a thought. And if you move Doumit for Paulino, Chavez, or Diaz, you're replacing a middle-of-the-order rocket launcher with a popgun, and the Pirates can't afford to do that.

Plus he stayed relatively healthy, with his injuries being the usual catcher blues - a whacked finger and a few balls bounced off the noggin. His glove work became more solid as the year went on, except for a brief August regression. He's set in stone for the Buc's catching duties, at least for the short term.

Dinosaur Raul Chavez gives the Pirates a strong arm, good head, and .250 bat whenever Doumit needs a blow, and has a work ethic that we can only hope rubs off on the youngsters, especially Paulino.

Ronny Paulino has been a minor and winter league monster at the plate since his demotion, and is out of options. So he stays - unless he's dealt, which is probably the plan.

Robinzon Diaz was a good return for Jose Bautista, filling in a crying need in the Pittsburgh organization. He'll most probably start at Indy, and will eventually replace Chavez. But he's a Punch-and-Judy hitter, and doesn't appear to be anything more than Doumit's caddy in the scheme of things.

Baseball Prospectus has this scouting report on him: "Diaz is a little bit of an anomaly: A catcher who hits like a middle infielder, with good contact-hitting ability, a very low strikeout rate, and above-average speed. His defense is quite good."

They also forecast him as a .270-.275 MLB hitter. With some power, that's a nice range. Without it...

When the Pirates pulled Neil Walker from behind the plate and moved him to third, the catching conga line took a spill. The Pirates have two guys in the minors that are fairly young, and should start at Altoona and Lynchburg in 2009. The first is Steve Lerud.

Now entering his sixth pro season, Lerud, 23, started the 2008 season at Lynchburg, and was promoted to Altoona in July.

He was picked by the Pirates in the third round of the 2003 draft from Galena HS in Nevada, where he claimed all of Matt William's records. But a broken foot stopped Lerud from playing after he signed. He was hurt again in 2005 when a wayward pitch broke his hand.

Lerud finally got out of baby ball in 2006, and hit .239 with 12 HR for Hickory. He also K'ed 146 times in 393 ABs and allowed 35 passed balls.

His father, whom he was very close to, passed away in 2007, and Lerud was on the DL a couple of times. It was a completely wasted season, with the big lefty hitting .202 at Lynchburg.

But he showed some signs of life for the Hillcats in 2008, hitting .256 with 8 HRs before moving on to Altoona. Lerud didn't exactly light it up there, batting .233 with 4 HRs, but it was his first taste of AA.

One promising sign was his defense, which vastly improved. Some think his early woes had more to do with the sad sack staffs he caught than his ability. He's hitting .263 at Scottsdale in the AFL, though his OBP is higher than his slugging average.

As Wilbur Miller says: "Lerud will play next year at 24 and catchers often develop slowly. A LH-hitting catcher who can play solid defense and has a little power and a willingness to draw a walk has some value."

Not exactly a Matt Weiter type endorsement, but hey. Steve Lerud is the best we have toiling in the minors. He should start at Altoona and could end up in AAA sometime during the 2009 season. Lerud's Rule 5 eligible, but a pretty safe bet to slide through this year.

The other potential hope in the system is Andrew Walker.

Walker was a fifth round selection in 2007, out of TCU. He was a .300+ hitter for the Frogs with some pop in his bat, but was an overdraft because of the alarming lack of depth at the catching spot in the Pirate's minor league system.

He stroked the ball pretty well at State College that year, hitting .317. Walker was promoted to Hickory in 2008, where he hit .256 with 7 HRs in 212 ABs, playing with a bum ankle for much of the year. The 22-year old struck out once every 4 at-bats, and drew only 9 walks, so his eye sure could use some sharpening.

Walker doesn't have a strong arm, but still nailed 30% of the basepath larcenists that challenged him, not a bad figure for A ball. He should get the call at Lynchburg for 2009.

The other backstops are 24-year old Kris Watts, a lefty with a big bat and porous glove, and three youngsters - Ronald Pena and Josue Peley, both 21, and 20-year old Miguel Mendez. They'll pick up the slack in the lower levels. None are considered hot prospects at this point, but time will tell.

So behind the logjam at the top of the system, the Pirates are peach fuzzy behind the plate throughout the rest of the organization. The good news is that both of the hopefuls are young - Lerud will be 24 and Walker 23 next season - and have time to grow.

The bad news? Neither one appears to be anywhere near MLB ready, nor a sure bet to ever be.

The Pirates seem set at the MLB level, so they should have the couple or three seasons it'll take for a prospect to percolate through the system. They should get through the short term OK.

(Farm Fresh is a periodical series of posts looking at the state of the Pirate's farm system. Other positions covered were shortstop and second base.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The News...

A little bit of news:

> Nyjer Morgan did this week's Pirate chat. Besides loving the words "fun" and "energy" to describe his 2009 goals, he told the fan forum that he most compared himself to "Juan Pierre, but I have just a little more pop." Pretty good analogy.

> Nate McLouth got a 10th place vote from a writer in the MVP polling. He was one of 27 NL players that were penciled in for the honor. McLouth also made the All-Star team, earned a Gold Glove, and won Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente award. Sweet season, hey?

> For those holding their breath waiting for Dirt Dog Doug to re-up with the Bucs, Jenifer Langosch of says she'd "set those odds at less than 50 percent" for his return.

Langosch also got a Solly Torres e-mail after his retirement, asking her to post his thank-you to Pittsburgh fans. The Brew Crew picked up his option anyway, freezing him on their roster just in case he has a change of heart.

> A quick cruise around Pirate blogdom finds the following names being floated as the veteran starting pitcher the Pirates should go after: Pedro Martinez, Brad Penny, Mike Hampton, Mark Prior, Freddie Garcia, and Ben Sheets. Geez, poor Paul Byrd just can't get any love.

> Gorzo is supposed to start throwing at the end of the month, and Phil Dumatrait is scheduled to crank it up at the end of December. Both are expected to be 100% for camp. Brandon Moss is said to be coming along, and they expect him to be nearly ready for spring training. GW doesn't like the sound of that.

We still think the Pirates should get after Juan Rivera, a RH bat that can platoon with Moss in RF, Nick Punto, who can step into either middle IF spot, and take a shot at one of the pitchers with some upside instead of looking at a Matty Mo clone.

> Jeff Branson, Lynchburg's manager the past two seasons, was kicked upstairs to Indy as the Tribes' hitting coach. Ray Searage will stay on as the pitching coach. The Pirates now have managing vacancies at Indy, Altoona, Lynchburg, and State College.

> And what would the news be if Neal Huntington didn't add another special assistant? Keith Champion signed up today to be another voice whispering in the GM's ear.

He spent the last two seasons as a scout for the Red Sox, after 12 seasons with the Cubs, where he served both as a special assistant to the GM (2000-06) and an advance scout (1995-99). Champion, 49, also has eight years of experience as a minor league manager and coach in the St. Louis and San Diego farm systems.

Huntington has now hired three new special assistants since the end of the season.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Getting Desperate Here...

OK, the Pirates refuse to make a move in the off season other than hiring a slew of special assistants for Neal Huntington and a couple of coaches for John Russell.

By Thursday, they have to set the 40-man roster, and that might give us something to talk about. Or maybe they'll hire some minor league managers; they only have one now.

But far no clue on the free agent market, nor any movement on signing Nate the Great, Paul Maholm or LaRoche the Elder to contracts. What's a blogger to do? GW has to post something before the December 8th GM meetings. There are only so many ways to serve steaming Paul Byrd rumors.

Hey, stuff has happened before on November 17th on the Bucco front:

> In 1992, the Pirates lost OF Alex Coles to Colorado and P Ramon Martinez to Florida in the expansion draft.

> In 1993, the Atlanta Braves traded 1B Brian Hunter to the Pirates for Cuban C José Raúl Delgado. It was a little late for the Bucs, though.

Hunter had already hit a 3 run HR vs Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 1991 NLCS at TRS, putting the game away and propelling the Atlanta Braves to the 1991 World Series date against the Minnesota Twins.

> The Pirates made a FA splash in 1998 when they inked IF Mike Benjamin to a two-year contract worth $1.4M. They liked him so much that they brought him back in 2002 for $925K. He hit .150 and never played MLB again.

> 2000 saw Pittsburgh sign Jason Kendall to the richest contract in team history. The $60 million, six-year contract extension, which includes a $4 million signing bonus, starts with a base salary of $6 million in 2002 and peaks at $13 million in 2007.

> In 2005, Jason Bay, coming off two of the best career-starting seasons in Pirates history, agreed to an $18.25 million, four-year contract that covers his arbitration-eligible seasons.

In 2004, Bay hit .282 with 26 home runs and 82 RBI in 120 games played while becoming the first Rookie of the Year in club history. He won the award despite missing the first five weeks of the season after shoulder surgery.

Bay followed by hitting .306 with 32 homers, 101 RBI, 110 runs scored, 21 stolen bases and a .402 on-base percentage in 2005 despite playing on a team that lost 95 games. He finished 12th in the National League MVP voting after playing in all 162 games.

Boston loves him now.

That's all, folks. Hopefully, GW can get more motivated tomorrow...throw us a lifeline, please, Neal. Make a move. Baseball Reference can only do so much.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

WBC...the World Championship

No, it's not a post about the World Boxing Council, but it is about a clash of heavyweights - the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

The initial international All-Star matchup in 2006 was greeted by yawns by the American baseball public at the start, but by its end, when the Japanese defeated the Cubans 10-6 at PETCO in front of a house of 42,696, it had earned its sporting spurs.

While greeted by a "show me" attitude by USA fans, the tournament was fanatically followed in the participating Asian and Latin American nations where TV ratings for games involving the homeland teams reached blow-up proportions, including a 36 share in Japan for its game against Korea.

And hey, what better way to internationalize the game? There were over 150 big league players representing their flag, the event drew 737,112 fans in 17 days and was pushed by 5,354 media outlets across the planet. Latino and Asian fans rocked the ball yards, with flag-waving and conga lines.

Even the usually grouchy Cubans liked it. They want to play every two years instead of the current four.

The games also proved to be a great showcase for world-class talent - does Daisuke Matsuzaka ring any bells? He was was 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA over three starts, and was named tournament MVP. The RHP allowed two earned runs over 13 innings, walking three and striking out 10. It got Dice-K a sweet deal with the BoSox, where he's won 33 games over the past two seasons.

It probably helped the tournament keep the spotlight of the world stage when the US was blown out of the water before the final round. Why the early exit?

Easy - because the rest of the world played small-ball and the U.S. sent an Earl Weaver line-up; live or die by the three run homer. They died by it. The international pitching, by and large, was just too good to tee off on consistently. In addition, not all of the MLB bought into the concept. That should change this year.

Its timing is ideal, being played in March rather than disrupting the season like the Olympics. And while one MLB player, RHP Luis Ayala, now of the Mets, had a season-ending elbow injury, the feared injury bug never appeared. What better way to start the MLB season than with some tub-thumping from the WBC?

This year's lineup of countries is the same as in 2006:

Pool A: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea in Tokyo (Tokyo Dome).

Pool B: Australia, Cuba, Mexico and South Africa in Mexico City (Estadio Foro Sol).

Pool C: Canada, Italy, the U. S. and Venezuela in Toronto (Rogers Centre).

Pool D: Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico in San Juan (Hiram Bithorn Stadium).

The winners from Pools A and B will go to PETCO Park and the winners from Pools C and D will go to Dolphin Stadium. The semi-finals and championship will be played at Dodger Stadium. The tourney will last from March 5th to the 23rd.

The playoff rules have been changed somewhat. Now instead of convoluted tie-breakers, a team is bounced from its pool by straightforward double-elimination.

Hey, we're looking forward to it. Other than watching the Pirate suits try to cobble together a lineup and rotation, it's the only game in town for us during the spring. USA...USA...USA!!!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

K as in Kyle

The Pirates sent 41 guys to the fall leagues during the off season, some to hone their game, others to go through the crucible of better competition. It's safe to say that no one has created more of an off season buzz than AA pitcher Kyle Bloom.

The lanky lefty (6-3, 185 lbs) is an cornbelt kid, born on February 21, 1983 in Schaumburg, Illinois. His family moved to Iowa, and he still lives in Bettendorf. Bloom went to Pleasant Valley HS, where he was 5-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 88 K’s in 43-1/3 IP as a senior, and was named first-team All-State. An all around athlete, he earned four letters in tennis and three in golf at PVHS.

Bloom went on to Illinois State University (2002-04), and posted a 14-16 record and 5.31 ERA in 42 games while leading the Redbirds in strikeouts all three seasons. He was a second-team Louisville Slugger/TPX Freshman All-American in 2002 and an honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Conference pick as a sophomore.

The Pirates took him as their fifth-round pick in 2004, the 143rd player picked in the draft. Bloom's a three-pitch guy, with an upper 80 MPH fastball, curve, and change-up, and is a fly-ball/strikeout pitcher with a good strikeout rate and equally high walk rate. He's now spent five seasons with the Bucs, with his share of ups and downs.

Bloom started off in short-season Williamsport in 2004. He was 4-3, but with a 2.60 ERA and 46 K in 45 IP. That merited him a promotion to A Hickory the next year. The LHP went 4-1 there with a 1.87 ERA in half a season, but his walks per 9 IP doubled, from 2-1/2 per game to nearly 5.

He was sent to Lynchburg in high A halfway through the season, and his lack of command caught up to him. His walked more batters than he fanned, yielding 6 free passes per game. It showed on his line, too, which ended up 3-5 with a 5.86 ERA.

Bloom would spend 2006-07 with the Hillcats, putting together a 16-20 record and watching his ERA climb from 4.30 in 2006 to 5.51 in 2007. Control was still an issue, as he walked 4 batters per game, though his K rate was still pretty good.

His inability to throw strikes led to some monster pitch counts, and in 2008 he was pegged for bullpen work at Altoona, where he stopped for a cup of coffee in 2007.

He was eligible for the Rule 5 draft after 2007, but with his struggles at Lynchburg, the scouts crossed him off their list. That might not be true this time around.

The first stroke of serendipity happened when Todd Redmond was shipped to Atlanta for Tyler Yates. That put Bloom into the Curve rotation. He didn't exactly grab that opportunity by the horns, getting blasted early. But he settled down, after the Altoona coaches eliminated a hitch in his motion.

After going winless in April and May with ERAs of 8.15 and 4.15, his ERA improved to 3.63 in June, 2.45 in July and 3.86 in August. Bloom finished the year 5-8 with a 4.19 ERA. His control was still poor - he walked 4-1/2 batters per nine - but his steady improvement merited him a shot at winter ball, in the eyes of the Pirate suits. So off to West Oahu he sailed. And he's kicking butt there.

The 25 year-old is second in the league with a 1.50 ERA. He is 2-0 with 32 K to 11 walks and has allowed just 15 hits in 30 innings in seven starts with a week to go in the winter season. Pretty dramatic stuff in Hawaii from Mr. Bloom.

"Honestly, it's just fastball command," Bloom told Stacy Kaneshiro of Baseball America. "A lot of these (the hitters) are from Class A ball, so they're pretty aggressive on fastball. So what I usually try to do is initiate the inside part of the plate and then use my offspeed if I fall behind, kind of keep them honest. Mainly, it's just moving my fastball in and out."

His game plan was simple. "Be consistent, go out there, log innings, go deep into games, keep my fastball command," he said. "Also, I want to work on my secondary stuff, changeup and curveball. But just pitch efficiently, try to go five innings, not throw so many pitches."

He's done well enough that the Pirates have a decision to make. The organization is short on upper-level starting pitching, especially from the left side. And while Bloom has been quite impressive in Hawaii, he's an old vet in what's basically an A+ level league.

The Pirates have one spot left on their 40-man right now, and that belongs to Neil Walker. Jose Tabata may or may not need protected this year, too. And Jeff Sues is pushing for a spot, along with a couple of bubble players.

Tune in November 20th. The suits have already done some weeding of the 40-man roster, and that date is when they have to finish the job. The future depends on how well they do it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Early Christmas

Ah, free agency has started, baseball's Christmas-time when good boys and girls wake up and find a shiny new toy under the tree. Well, maybe not in Pittsburgh, where the Buc suits tend to shop at Sam's Club instead of Neiman-Marcus, but in the real world of competitive baseball, here's the top of the shopping lists:

C.C. Sabathia: The Yankees have reportedly offered CC Sabathia a contract that tops the record-setting six-year, $137.5M deal the Mets gave Johan Santana last winter, with their initial balloon floated in the area of 6 years/$140M - and that's just for starters.

The Brew Crew, Dodgers, and Angels are also after him. He's said to prefer a NL, west coast gig, but that crazy money that the NYY are waving around is tough to ignore.

Sabathia went a combined 17-10 with a 2.70 ERA last season for the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. The 28-year-old LHP won the 2007 AL Cy Young award and finished fifth in this year's NL voting.

A.J. Burnett: Burnett, who's looking for $15-18 million annually over four or five years, was the last of the big names to declare, opting out of his current contract, which had 2 years and $24M remaining. He already has a four-year, $54MM offer from the Blue Jays in his back pocket.

In a career-high 35 games, the 31-year old RHP set personal bests in 2008 with 18 wins, 221-1/3 innings pitched, and an AL high of 231 strikeouts. The Yankees, Orioles, Bosox, and Braves are said to be in the hunt for Burnett.

Derek Lowe: Lowe may settle for $14-15M/year over three or four seasons, but his agent, the prince of darkness Scott Boras, is planning on $16-18M with a guaranteed fourth year for the 35-year old RHP.

He was 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA in LA, and will probably sit back and wait for the smoke to clear from the Sabathia/Burnett bidding wars to leverage a few more dollars from the teams left holding the bag. The Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, and Braves are kicking his tires.

Lowe's consistency is his calling card. He's made 33 starts or more ever since 2002, and his ERA has been under 4 since 2005. While not a huge winner, he's an inning eater that keeps his team in the game.

Francisco Rodriguez: K-Rod is looking for Mariano Rivera money, three years and $45M. He turned down a three-year, $34 million offer last winter from the Angels. Rodriguez was successful in 62 of 69 save opportunities in 2008, thumping Bobby Thigpen's 18-year old record of 57 saves, and had an ERA of 2.24.

The 26-year old RHP has 208 saves and a 2.35 ERA during his seven year career. His only speed bump may be that there's a number of proven closers on the market, either as FAs or trade bait, and that could drive down his asking price. Rodriguez will probably sit on the shelf for a while, until the closers' market settles. Now the only teams said to be on him are the Angels and Mets.

Ben Sheets: He's ISO a $75M, 5 year deal. The 30-year old RHP was 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 2008, but had arm problems towards the end of the year, and that could devalue him. He might be able to get the near the money, but the five years is way iffy. The Astros are his primary suitor to date.

Jake Peavy: He's sort of a joker thrown into the FA deck. While under contract to the Padres, they've made it known that they'll entertain bids for his arm. The Braves offered half their farm system for him, but pulled back after the Padres missed the Atlanta deadline. The Cubs, Dodgers, Astros, Cardinals, Yankees and Angels are thought to be lurking.

The 27-year old RHP was 10-11 with a 2.85 ERA last year, and won the NL Cy Young in 2007. Peavy has four years left on his contract at about $63M, plus an option year. He's a bargain, although he does have trading veto rights and would likely seek a sweetener to move.

Mark Teixeira: Teixeira, a 28-year old, switch-hitting first baseman with two Gold Gloves and a booming bat, is the top position player in this year's free agent free-for-all. He figures to get a seven or eight year deal worth $140-160M, and is said to be looking for 10 years at $20M/season.

Tex hit .308 with 33-121 for the Braves and Angels last year. So far, the Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals (the Nats?), Angels, and Orioles are in the hunt for the Boras client.

Manny Ramirez: Manny and Scott Boras will put on quite a dog and pony show, looking for Ramirez's last big payday. They're asking for six years and $150M, but there's been no rush to knock down the doors.

Ramirez will turn 37 in May, and though 40 HR and 125 RBI look good, the betting line is that he'll land a 3 or 4 year, $25M/year deal. After the drama ends (and it'll be drawn out), the Dodgers are the most likely guys to reel in Manny, with the Giants, Jays, Angels, Phils, and Mets sniffing around.

Hey, some lucky team will end up with one or more of these ponies under the Christmas tree (the Yankees, having just cleared $80-90M in payroll, may end up with 2 or 3 of them).

For Pittsburgh, with $10M to spend - and that doesn't cover one of these stud's paycheck past August of 2009; the Bronx Bombers dumped more payroll than the Pirates have - it looks like another lump of coal in the stocking.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Winter Ball...Winners & Losers

Ah, winter ball. A time for prospects to bask in Hawaii, Arizona, and Latin America, honing their game. No pressure at all, just beaches, babes, and baseball, right? Well...

For one gang of minor leaguers, it's a last chance to get included on the 40-man roster, a sure sign that you've arrived in an organization. Make it and you know you're in the team's future; miss it and you may be wearing a different uniform.

A ballyhooed star in the making like Jose Tabata doesn't have to sweat it. As soon as he's eligible, he's on the roster. And the youngster is playing like he deserves a spot, batting .288 with a homer and 9 RBI, 7 K and 7 BB, and 5 stolen bases in seven tries in 73 Venezuelan League AB.

There's some debate about whether he signed in 2004 or 2005. If it's the former, he's on the 40-man, no questions asked. If the latter, he's got a year to go.

For other guys, it's not so clear cut. RHP Evan Meek was put on the roster, but he earned his spot at Indy. Even so, he's kept his stats up in Mexico, with a 1-1 record and 7 saves in nine opportunities. In 11-2/3 IP, he's got an ERA of 3.09, giving up 9 hits and striking out 14 while walking 7.

Lefty Dave Davidson, who pitched for the Canadian Olympic team, is trying to preserve his place on the 40-man. DD is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in Mexico, giving up 9 hits in 8 innings with 8 K and 7 BB.

Two AA pitchers are trying to work their way on the protected list. One is Pirate Minor League Pitcher of the Year, RHP Jeff Sues. After a horrid start at Arizona, his slate is 11-2/3 IP, giving up 18 hits and running up an ERA of 6.94. He's struck out 13, walked 4, and hit 3 batters while trying to develop an inside presence.

Lefty Kyle Bloom is knocking hard at the 40-man door with his excellent work at Hawaii. As a starter, he's 2-0 in 30 IP, yielding but 15 hits while K'ing 32 and walking 11 with a 1.50 ERA.

That's good enough to get him on the MLB scouts' radar, and the Bucs have a decision to make with him. A lefty with some potential is likely worth a roll of the Ruke 5dice.

Class A RHP Ron Uviedo is trying to make a name for himself, too. His ERA in Venezuela is 1.93, but in 9-1/3 innings, he's given up 14 hits. Still, Uviedo has struck out 11 without a walk. A long shot, but...

All the catchers on the 40-man save Ryan Doumit are playing winter ball. Ronny Paulino is playing lights out in limited time in the Dominican League, batting .400 in 25 AB with 4 HR and 11 RBI, drawing 6 walks and striking out 4 times. His slugging percentage is a ridiculous .960.

Ol' man Raul Chavez is raking, too. He's hitting .333 in 39 AB in Venezuela, with, as during the regular season, no power at all, swatting a pair of doubles.

Robinzon Diaz, the new boy on the block, isn't doing much to press his case in the Dominican League. He's hitting just .238, without an extra base hit and 5 DP in 42 AB. Ouch!

Steve Lerud, the next catcher in line, has had a tough go of it in Arizona. He's hitting just .194, and is a cinch to be left off the roster this time around.

So catching has pretty much sorted itself out for next year. Paulino - who is out of options - and Chavez will battle for the back-up spot in the spring, unless Paulino plumps up his value enough to bring some bacon home in an off-season deal.

Catching is a hot commodity this year; he may be on some team's wish list after the first wave of current free agent backstops find a home.

Diaz has an option left, and should start at Indy. Lerud? Well, he better have a breakout year at Altoona next season, or he'll find himself off the prospect list and on the organizational depth chart, if he already isn't.

Luis Cruz is playing steady ball in Mexico. The utility infielder is batting .269, with 2 HR and 7 RBI, and showing a nice eye, drawing 11 walks to 7 K. After a not-so-sweet September in the show, he's using the fall to try to establish himself as a MLB-caliber player, even if off the pine.

A loser in the winter rat race is Steve Pearce. He hit just .203, with no homers and 6 RBI, and a slugging percentage of .305. It's not bad enough to dump him from the 40-man, but as for making the active roster...

It's no secret that the Bucs are actively beating the bushes for a RH bat with some pop, but Pearce's half season in Mexico has put him squarely behind the 8-ball going into 2009. The Pirates will almost certainly go another direction this winter to find that power stick.

Might it be Jamie Romak, who's also looking for a spot on this year's 40-man? Well, he's struggling almost as much as Pearce in Arizona. He's hitting .232, with 1 HR and 7 RBI and a slugging % of .339. But he does have 45 HR the past two seasons.

The suits have another week, until November 20th, to set their 40-man roster and protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft. Guys they'll talk about are Tabata, Sues, Bloom, Davidson (who's already on), and Uviedo. Neil Walker, who didn't play fall ball, is a shoo-in, and Cruz has laid claim to holding his spot.

Can Pittsburgh risk losing any arms, in an organization woefully short of pitching? That's the question they face this week.

Maybe Romak and certainly Lerud have hurt their chances to create some buzz in the organization. Ya gotta answer when opportunity knocks.

The same dynamic is in play for next year. Shelby Ford (.294, 3-11 in Arizona) and Miles Durham (.276, 2-26 in Hawaii) are making noise. Jim Negrych (.225, 0-4 in Hawaii) has been hurt, and Brian Friday (.184, 0-4 in Hawaii), is blowing his claim as the SS of the future.

Winter ball is just a small slice of a prospect's career, but it can serve as a launching pad or a set of cement shoes. Winners and losers...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Catchin' Up on the News

Solly Torres hung 'em up, leaving $3.75M on the table for 2009, telling the Brew Crew that he wants to be a full-time daddy.

Torres, a devout Jehovah's Witness, said he wanted to devote more time to his wife Belkis and three children, Ashley, Allison, and Jordan, as well as his faith. Retirement was a road he was an inch away from taking after he was traded by Pittsburgh to Milwaukee last season.

But his daughters talked him into pitching another year. As Torres told Adam McCalvy of, he sat down and asked the family for feedback. His daughters, 6-year-old Ashley and 4-year-old Allison, asked where they would be going.

"I said, Milwaukee. You know those racing sausages? That's where," he said. The girls went wild. "That was the big selling point," he said with a laugh.

But they can't talk him out of leaving the game now.

"It's time for me to dedicate more time to my family and my religion," Torres told the Brewers' Blog. "Doug (Melvin) was very understanding, which I appreciate. I had a wonderful experience in Milwaukee but he knows I am serious about it."

The rubber armed 36-year old Dominican appeared in 94 games for the Bucs in 2006, and was briefly the closer when Gonzo was shipped to Atlanta, losing out eventually to Matt Capps.

In 14 big league seasons (6 with the Pirates) his career line was 44-58-57 with a 4.31 ERA in 497 games, covering 847-1/3 innings of work. Salomon was a class act, even with the bit of mess regarding his academy at the end with Littlefield, and baseball will miss him.

Torres e-mailed this message to Pirates fans via the Post Gazette's Dejan Kovacevic, saying "Thank you for for all the support you gave me and my family. It was great getting to know so many people here in Pittsburgh." He says he'll stay in his Ohio Township home, so Solly did connect with the Steel City.

As we said, a class act.

Damaso Marte ended up being treated OK by the evil empire, after all.

The New York Yankees announced today that they have signed the 33-year old LHP to a three-year contract worth a reported $12M with a club option for 2012.

In 72 relief appearances with the Pirates and Yankees in 2008, he was 5-3 with a 4.02 ERA, holding opponents to a .214 batting average (52-for-243).

He made 25 appearances with the Yankees, going 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA, but allowed just 2 earned runs over his final 16 appearances and held the opposition to a .135 batting average over that stretch.

It seems that Marte hadn't lost it when he switched leagues, but just had a touch of elbow irritation when he hit the Big Apple. That's no big surprise, as over the last five years, Marte owns the fourth-most appearances among MLB pitchers, averaging over 70 outings per season. He's always been a guy that wants the ball.

Among left-handed relievers in the majors over the same span, he ranks second in appearances and fourth in strikeouts, with 307.

Hey, guess what - Neal Huntington has brought in another special assistant. Barack Obama doesn't have as many aides. The latest suit is Joe Ferrone.

Ferrone, 42, worked in the Pirates organization as a West Coast area scout in 2003. He's spent the past five seasons working as a West Coast regional crosschecker for the Tigers. Ferrone's also held various scouting positions with the Expos in 1993-94 and the Dodgers from 1995 to 2002.

The new guys are keeping their word about building from within; all their recent hires have a heavy helping of scouting cred piled high on their resumes.

NL Notes: Tim Lincecum romped to the Cy Young Award. The 24-year old RHP of the Giants was 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA and a MLB high 265 strikeouts...Sweet Lou Pinella of the Cubs was named Manager of the Year...Trenni Kusnierek, formerly of FSN Pittsburgh, was hired as a reporter for the new MLB Network, which will air starting in 2009.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Boy Named Sues

Jeff Sues, the Pirates 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, was born on June 8, 1983, in Edison, New Jersey. We assume he was a big baby, because he's 6-4, 215 pounds now, and has a power arm to match his size, something the suits lust for and that's in short supply in the Buc farm system.

He started at Red Bank HS, and moved on to Vandy. Sues worked out of the bullpen for the Commodores, and in an omen of things to come, missed most of his sophomore season with elbow tendinitis.

He threw in the low 90s, touching 97 MPH on a good day, with a slider and curve, but had problems finding the dish consistently. Still, he had enough stuff to draw some attention.

Sues was selected by Cleveland Indians in 14th round of 2004 Draft as a junior, but didn't sign, chancing another roll of the dice on a good senior year. He was just 3-5 with a save and 4.10 ERA in his last year, but 60 K in 48 innings raised his stock beyond those numbers.

The Bucs chose Sues in the fifth round of the 2005 draft, though as is usually the case with Littlefield/Creech era high-end Pirate draftees, they could have had him further down the road. As a senior, he signed without a fuss, always a key to the Pirates' thinking on draft day.

But before he could take the mound as a pro, he had labrum surgery in March of 2006. Sues spent many frustrating months in rehab, and at times was ready to give up the game. Finally, in late May of 2007, he was sent to Hickory to start his career.

Used as a starter there, he pitched 8 times. He was, as to be expected after a two year hiatus, clocked. Sues was 3-2, but with a 7.18 ERA and big problems with walks and the long ball. To add injury to insult, he went back on the DL in mid-July and the fork was stuck in him for the year.

But like Minor League Player of the Year Jim Negrych, a healthy 2008 led to a breakout season. First, the Pirates decided that his fragile arm wasn't up to the rigors of starting - his velocity dropped as the game wore on, and all the time spent on the DL confirmed his arm strength wasn't where it needed to be - and moved him back to his college spot, working out of the bullpen.

He told Jenifer Langosch of that "When I came to spring training I felt like I had new life in me. My arm was normal, I was able to throw hard again, my confidence came back and the results came with it."

Sues split the season pitching for high-A Lynchburg and AA Altoona. In 64 IP, he had 72 K with a 3.22 ERA, and his heater was clocked in the mid 90s, his slider was sharp, and he came up with what he calls a "power curve," which he was confident enough to use whether ahead or behind in the count. His control, though, was still iffy.

Sues is the classic strike out-fly out pitcher. And, of course, he couldn't quite make it through an entire season. He was shut down on August 8th because of biceps tendinitis, but this time it didn't keep him down. Sues was sent to Scottsdale to play winter ball, and his arm is still in one functional piece as the AFL year winds down.

At Lynchburg, Sues posted a 2.11 ERA over 21-1/3 innings, giving up 11 hits and walking six while striking out 17. He limited Carolina League batters to a .153 average, and was promoted to Altoona on May 17th. With the Curve, Sues' line was a 3.77 ERA in 43 innings, walking 20 and striking out 55 while Eastern League batters hit .219 against him.

He's returned to reality in the Arizona League, a notorious hitter's paradise. Sues' ERA is 8.38, and in 9-2/3 innings he's been tagged for 16 hits (two that left the yard), 4 walks, and 3 beaned batters, to go along with 10K.

It's a pretty small sample, especially after missing several weeks of the regular season, but it shows the two areas he needs the most work in if he's going to join the show - control and the gopher ball.

But he's still learning. Sues may be 25, but he only has two years of professional baseball under his belt, so his upside is still there. And he's already taken to heart one lesson that all too many Pirate pitchers seemed to have missed in the minors.

As he said in his Scottsdale blog "Pitching inside can make or break pitchers' outings and careers. A lot of pitchers are afraid to pitch inside. I mention pitching inside because it looks like the hitters, in general, are too comfortable and therefore are diving to the outer edge of the plate. Pitching inside is paramount in this league and higher levels because if you don't it gives the hitter an advantage."

Music to Joe Kerrigan's ears, no doubt. There's no point in being able to throw the ball 95 MPH if you can't back a guy off the plate and put some fear of the Lord in him. Just ask Bob Gibson or Roger Clemens.

And one last thing. Even though Sues spent four years in college and is a Jersey boy, he's the antithesis of a single-minded jock.

He told's Kevin Czerwinski that "I don't follow sports at all. I have no interest (in) football, baseball, basketball. I graduated from Vanderbilt with an English degree. I like to read."

Sues says Sidney Sheldon is his favorite author, with his novel "The Other Side of Midnight" topping his list. He reads a different book every week or two and has stacks of them around the house.

"I don't play video games, either," Sues added. "I like to read. It passes the time and I enjoy it. I might be the exception, but it's what I like to do."

Now if the Pirates can only talk Sidney Sheldon into penning a potboiler on pounding the strike zone...