Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Eric Hinske Saga

Well, one thing we can say for certainy about Eric Hinske - the current polar conditions in Pittsburgh shouldn't scare him off, even if he did come from Tampa Bay.

The 31-year old was born and raised in Wisconsin, and so is no stranger to snow and sub-freezing winters, even admitting to be being a die-hard Green Bay Packer fan. (He did eventually follow the sun, though, and he and his family, wife Kathryn and daughter Ava, now make their offseason home in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

Hinske starred at his hometown Menasha High before moving on to the University of Arkansas, and he was the 17th round pick of the Cubs in 1998 as a junior. He was shipped him to the A's in 2001, and they flipped him a few months later, when the Blue Jays traded Billy Koch for Hinske as part of a youth movement.

He became an everyday player in 2002 at the hot corner, and batted second for Toronto. The rook hit .279 with 24 home runs, knocked in 84 runs, and scored 99 runs. He also led all AL third basemen in errors with 22. Well, no one's perfect. The big infielder won both the MLB and The Sporting News Rookie of the Year awards.

GM J.P. Ricciardi rewarded him with a 5-year, $14,750,000 contract in 2003. You can guess what happened next. He broke a bone in his right hand, and for the next two years didn't hit over .250 or more than 15 HR (though his fielding improved dramatically. Go figure.)

In 2005, the Blue Jays brought in Corey Koskie and Shea Hillenbrand, both third basemen, and Hinske was moved to first base. He finished the season with a .262 average, 15 home runs, 68 RBI, and a .430 slugging percentage in a mild comeback.

The next year saw Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus join Toronto, and the corners were getting pretty crowded. Hinske moved to right field, but lost the job to Alex Rios and became for the first time in his career a spot starter and pinch hitter. But his versatility would pay off when Rios was injured and later, when Hillenbrand would implode in a tirade against the organization.

But he was too expensive to be a bench piece for the Jays, and in August he was sold to Boston. Hinske could now be considered an official journeyman. From that year on, he's played four positions in the field - the corner infield and outfield spots - and DH'ed every season. After a decent couple of months with the Red Sox in 2006, he hit .204 in 2007 and was cut loose.

Tampa Bay signed him for $800K, and he put togther a line of .247/20/60 off the bench for the AL champs. Now he's in Pittsburgh, a versatile veteran that's supposed to a good head around the clubhouse and with a bat that looks like a good match for PNC's Clemente Corner.

Over his seven-year career, Hinske has batted .254 with 105 homers and 399 RBIs. The only caveat is to keep him away from lefties if at all possible; he hit .143 against them last year and .219 lifetime.

But his bat isn't his only calling card. Hinske isn't a bad outfielder, comparable to Xavier Nady in range, though without the accurate arm. Most reports say he still plays a pretty decent third, too. He's supposedly a little shaky at first, but that may have more to do with unfamiliarity than ability.

His wheels are OK for a big guy - he's 6'-2" and 235 pounds - and he even swiped ten sacks last year for the Rays. So there are a lot of ways for John Russell to use him, and we're sure that went into the Pirate thinking when they targeted him.

The big guy also carries around a rep as someone who plays the game the right way, hard and with some energy, and is vocal when he needs to be and zips it up otherwise. That was no doubt part of the equation, too.

Hinske's major vice (to GW, anyway) is that he's a fan of heavy metal rock, calling Pantera and Metallica two of his favorite bands. So if he wants to be a clubhouse voice, he better bring earphones, hehe. Otherwise his music will drown out his message.

However, it does give the scoreboard operators the perfect excuse to blast out Metallica's "Hit the Lights" when he comes to the plate.

We think Pittsburghers will take a liking to Eric Hinske, especially if he can hit the lights above the short porch by the Allegheny.

Friday, January 30, 2009

2008-2009 Bucco Hot Stove

Hey, it may seem like not much has gone down, but the suits have been busy, if not notably productive, during the current Hot Stove session. The moves since November:

* January

1/30/09: Re-signed LHP Paul Maholm to a three-year contract ($14.5M) with a club option for 2012 ($23M). Signed OF Eric Hinske to a one-year contract ($1.5M). DFA'ed TJ Beam.

1/26/09: Claimed RH starter Virgil Vasquez off waivers from the San Diego Padres, adding him to the 40-man roster.

1/21/09: Re-signed RHP Jason Davis to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training. Signed C Erik Kratz, who had been with the Blue Jays, to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training, and RH reliever Eddie Pena from independent Worcester for minor league depth. Free agent IF Luis Rivas signed with the Cubs.

1/20/09: Signed arbitration guys Adam LaRoche ($7.05M), Zach Duke ($2.2M), John Grabow ($2.3M), and Tyler Yates ($1.3M) to 1 year deals. Invited 2B Shelby Ford to Spring Training.

1/19/09: Signed LHP Paul Mildren from Florida to a Minor League contract.

1/13/09: Re-signed C Miguel Perez to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training. Signed OF Craig Monroe, who had been with the Twins, to a Minor League contract and invited him to Spring Training.

1/9/09: Free agent Chris Gomez signs with the Orioles.

1/6/09: Signed IF Anderson Machado, who had been with the Mets, and IF Pedro Lopez, who had been with the Blue Jays, to Minor League contracts and invited them to Spring Training. Re-signed LH starter Corey Hamman.

* December

12/30/08: Signed RH starter Sean Smith, 25, of Colorado and Cleveland; RH reliever Lincoln Holdzkom, of Boston; C/1B Zach Booker of Cleveland; and LH reliever Edwin Walker of the Frontier League. Signed OF Jonel Pacheco. None were given an invite to camp.

12/22/08: Signed arbitration-eligible C Ryan Doumit for three years ($11.5M) plus a club option for an additional two years ($26.5M). Also signed IF Garrett Jones of the Twins, RHP Juan Mateo, RHP Chris Bootcheck of the Angels, IF Andy Phillips of the Reds, and OF Jeff Salazar of the D-backs to Minor League contracts with invitations to Spring Training. Invited non-roster RHP Daniel McCutchen and OF Andrew McCutchen to Spring Training. Busy day!

12/19/08: Signed RHP Denny Bautista to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training.

12/18/08: OF Chris Duffy signs with the Brew Crew.

12/15/08: Free agent OF Jason Michaels signs with the Astros.

12/12/08: Signed INF Ramon Vazquez to a two-year contract ($4M). Non-tendered RHP Denny Bautista, who was arbitration eligible as a "Super Two" player.

12/11/08: Selected LHP Donald Veal from the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft. Lost LH starter Kyle Bloom to the Tigers.

12/10/08: Acquired C Jason Jaramillo from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for C Ronny Paulino.

12/8/08: Signed RHP Brian Slocum to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training.

12/5/08: Signed LHP Daniel Haigwood to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Signed OF Maiko Loyola of the Indians to a Minor League contract. Sent C Raul Chavez and RHP Jason Davis (he was arbitration eligible) to Triple-A Indianapolis. Chavez went to Toronto; Davis re-upped.

* November

11/24/08: Signed RH Dinesh Kumar Patel and LH Rinku Singh, Indian pitchers who got a tryout thanks to a reality TV show.

11/20/08: Purchased the contract of RHP Ronald Uviedo from Single-A Lynchburg. Purchased the contract of C Steven Lerud, OF Jose Tabata and RHP Jeff Sues from Double-A Altoona. Purchased the contract of INF Neil Walker from Triple-A Indianapolis. These guys were all added to the 40-man roster.

11/13/08: Activated LHPs Phil Dumatrait and Tom Gorzelanny from the 60-day disabled list to the 40-man roster.

11/3/08: Purchased the contract of RHP Evan Meek from Triple-A Indianapolis and put him on the 40-man roster.

11/1/08: Signed SS Mpho "Gift" Ngoepe from South Africa.

And hey, that's not all they did. They just missed out on Tim Redding, Daniel Cabrera, Rocco Baldelli and Derrick Turnbow, so we're told, dangled Jack Splat for months without a bite, cleared their bench (literally), hired a new radio announcer, two new coaches, and five new assistants to the GM, turned over their entire minor league managerial staff, drafted Pedro and a gang of hot shots, invaded Latin America, and kissed Kevin McClatchy, John Van Benschoten, and Bryan Bullington goodbye. Smokin' Hot Stove season, hmmmm?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Roster Takes Shape

* Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reported today that Eric Hinske signed a contract worth $1.5M guaranteed for 2009, with maybe another $1M in potential bonus bucks available.

Seems like a bit of an overpay, but hey, as Ralph Kiner said "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

The 31-year old LH hit .247 with 20 HR for Tampa Bay last year, and the deal he just inked cinched a spot on the Pirate pine for him. With Ramon Vazquez and a catcher also dugout fixtures, that leaves two spots open in the spring.

It should be an interesting few weeks. And don't forget that Andrew McCutchen is looming as an early summer call-up to the show, so an April job doesn't ensure a steady gig at PNC.

Someone will be bumped from the now-filled 40-man roster, too. We'd expect a borderline reliever like Dave Davidson or Romulo Sanchez to get the ax, though there are a couple of equally worthy candidates taking up space.

That also puts a final nail in Dirt Dog Doug's coffin. Let's face it - the fans (and GW, for that matter) loved him because he was an entertainer and showed some fire, not because of his skills.

He's a good fielding first-baseman with no thunder in his stick, although he was willing to play anywhere that John Russell stuck him. Mientiekiewicz ran the bases with more spirit than sense. Just the fact that he's still looking for a job says it all.

As for leadership, well, he was a vocal, stand-up player. But where the team's at now calls for one of the young guys, like Ryan Doumit or Paul Maholm, to take command of the clubhouse, not a 34-year old bench guy on a year-to-year contract.

There were also some undercurrents that suggested his act didn't really sell that well to everyone in the Pirate clubhouse and front office. GW can't verify that, but it would fit into Dirt Dog's take-no-prisoners MO. All in all, the truth is the Bucs thought they could find a better ballplayer, and Hinske is younger, more versatile, and has more thump in his twig. It's Darwin's Theory as applied to baseball.

* DK also reports that Paul Maholm has agreed to a four-year deal, with the first three guaranteed, seeing him through his arbitration years and giving the suits their much coveted cost certainy.

No figures were released yet - they'll probably come out tomorrow - but using Ian Snell's deal as a barometer, he'll probably get $14-15M over his arb years and $24M or so if the Bucs pick up the club option for his first walk season, as a guess. But Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington are always full of surprises, so we'll see soon enough.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Chris Peters

Hey, Chris Peters turns 37 today. You might remember the lefty from the Pirate teams of the late 90's; he was a member of that 1997 gang that was called the Freak Show, the closest thing Pittsburgh has seen to a contender since the Jimmy Leyland days.

Peters was born in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, and quickly moved into the area, parlaying his pitching skills at Peters Township High into a scholarship to Indiana University. He did OK by the Hoosiers, with a career record of 11-9 and a 4.75 ERA in 119-1/3 innings pitched. In his senior season, he had a 6-3 record with a 3.77 ERA, and the hometown team picked Peters up in the 37th round of the 1993 draft.

The first couple of years on the farm were a struggle for him, working out of the bullpen, but in 1995, when he was let loose to start again, he put up some pretty nice numbers.

Peters was 13-5 that year with a 2.32 ERA between high A Lynchburg and AA Carolina, and then was solid again in 1996, going 8-4 between Carolina and AAA Calgary with a 2.25 ERA. That work got him his ticket to the show.

The Bucs put in him the rotation, and the rook got rocked. The next year, they worked him out of the pen, and he looked a little more respectable. In 1998, Peters looked like he had finally figured it out.

He made 39 appearances, 21 as a starter, and had an 8-10 record with a 3.47 ERA. His control was good, he missed a few bats, and kept the ball in the yard - and all three of those areas had been sore spots for him in the past.

But as quickly as it fell together, it fell apart. His ERA soared to 6.59 in 1999, and he was sent back to AAA. That's where he started 2000, but he was called back up and was effective in a few outings with the Pirates. But it was too little, too late, and they released him.

The Expos claimed him for 2001, but after a couple of brutal outings, they let him go at the end of May. In the next several months, the Reds, Yankees, and Blue Jays would took a shot on him, but he never made it back to the bigs.

Peters had his last pro hurrah with the Tigers organization in 2002, pitching for the AA Erie Seawolves. He was cut free after that, and spent his last campaign with the independent Atlantic League's Pennsylvania Road Warriors, Newark Bears, and Camden Riversharks in 2003. He decided that he had enough of the bus rides and got on with his real life after his extended indy road trip.

Peters now lives in Mount Washington and has three children, 10, 9 and an infant, and manages Downtown parking lots for his daily bread. But he's back in baseball, and in a familiar situation.

He signed on as Point Park University's pitching coach during the off-season. PPU, like the Pirates, has a rich tradition of baseball success - John Stuper of the Cards and Reds, and now Yale's manager, led the Pioneers to the 1978 NAIA World Series - but have hit on hard times this decade, much like Peter's MLB club.

Along with manager Al Liberi of Mount Lebanon, a renowned hitting coach, he's hoping to infuse the Downtown nine with the knowledge and confidence to dominate regionally again. And he's depending on his Bucco days to provide that influence.

"Just because I played in the big leagues, immediately I gain a little respect from the kids," he said to Steve Hecht of the Post Gazette in a recent interview.

You should recognize his pitching philosophy: "Keep it as simple as you can, work fast, change speeds and throw strikes," is how he explained his mound credo.

And hey - if it was good enough for Spin Williams, it's good enough for Chris Peters. Who knows? His kids might actually listen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bits And Pieces

* The Bucs reupped Ty Taubenheim and Jason Davis, a pair of RHP that are ticketed to add some pitching depth to Indy.

Taubenhiem, 26, was 4-9 with a 5.60 ERA on the farm and was a hot shot in the Astro organization before landing with Pittsburgh. He was an emergency call-up last year and started once, going six innings and dodging the raindrops to yield two runs.

Davis, 28, has seven years in the show with a 22-26 record and 4.82 ERA. He was 2-4 with a 5.21 ERA for the Pirates last year, and rejoined the flock after a brief thought of hooking up with a Japanese team. Davis is a veteran insurance policy if the wheels fall off the pitching wagon again at PNC.

They also signed Virgil Vasquez, 26, a soft-throwing righty who had a long year for Detroit's AAA club in 2008, going 12-12 with a 4.81 ERA at Toledo, but was considered a decent prospect in 2006-07. He was added to the 40-man, and looks like another reclamation project.

* The arb hearing date for Paul Maholm is February 10th and for Nate McLouth, February 17th. Maholm is slowly working his way towards a long-term deal; McLouth will have to prove himself again in 2009 to get on the same page with the suits.

* Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reports that the Pirates have some interest in 41 year old Luis "Gonzo" Gonzalez. Geez, cut us a break - if they're gonna bring back a lefty, bring back Dirt Dog. He's more versatile and every bit as much a clubhouse force.

He added they're looking at other OFs, but boy, there ain't much left to hassle over if Manny, Bobby Abreu, and Adam Dunn are off the Christmas list. Eric Hinske and Garrett Anderson, both LH, with RH golden oldies Andruw Jones and Moises Alou are still looking for paychecks. Maybe there's a guy that's been DFA'ed that they like, but it looks to us like pretty slim pickings.

As far as new arms go, Braden Looper and Pedro Martinez are still being eyed by the Bucs; Kris Benson isn't, according to DK. Maybe they have some interest in DFA'ed guys Chase Wright, late of the Yankees, and Atlanta-ex Chuck James.

* The Pirates got new unis, kinda. The old home and aways have sleeves now; the old Sunday pinstripe is still a vest. They ditched the red softball top and replaced it with a black jersey with a big ol' gold "P" over the players' hearts.

* Eron of Sitting On The North Side Notch is starting a campaign for a Romulo Sanchez bobblehead. If you want to help put Romulo over the top, visit his blog here and vote.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Mayor Hangs 'Em Up...

Sean Casey, the Mayor of the Majors, called it quits after 12 pretty good years in the show. The affable Casey said he'd only entertain offers that would give him a shot at starting; otherwise the cost to his clan would be too great. None came, so it's off to the MLB Network. His kids gain a semi-normal dad; baseball loses an elite ambassador.

The ol' first sacker joins an on-air crew of baseball analysts that includes old teammate Barry Larkin. He'll be a regular on the one-hour "Hot Stove" show that will fold into the eight-hour "MLB Tonight" once the season starts.

Casey was born on July 2, 1974 in Willingboro Township, New Jersey, and soon relocated to Upper St. Clair with his parents, Jim and Joan. His dad was a salesman, and Sean no doubt learned his gift of gab from him.

He was kind of a butterball as a kid, but a lovable one. One story has him running for class president in junior high, and he brought a bag of tootsie rolls to school to hand out as campaign fodder. Sean ate them all before he got to class.

Hey, just a minor drawback; every political race has its bumps. When the candidates were gathered together in the auditorium, he tore off his shirt. His tee underneath said "Casey-Mania." He won.

He and his pop were big Buc fans, catching games at TRS back in the Barry Bonds - Bobby Bo era. And as unspectacular as his bod was, even then, that's how spectacular he was as a high school batter.

Casey was taught how to hit by local coaching guru Frank Porco, who has a batting camp in the area. He showed Casey how to turn on offspeed pitches and how to go with the pitch when he saw the ball on the outside half of the dish, lessons he never forgot.

He raked the ball for the Panthers, but still had that body image problem. Casey sprouted to 6'-4" in HS, but still had the look of an overfed Ichabod Crane. The college scouts didn't give him a second look, so he went out and sold himself.

Richmond bit on his spiel, and they're glad they did. He was invited to school as a walk-on, hit the weights, and drilled liners to the tune of a .386 average as a frosh and .371 as a second-year guy. Casey played some in the prestigious Cape Cod wooden bat league as a sophomore, and hit .338 while leading the circuit in RBI.

As a junior for the Spiders, he led all Division-I hitters with a .461 average and put together a 31-game batting streak. He added 14 homers, 26 doubles and 70 RBIs in 55 games. Casey once homered in four straight at bats against Old Dominion. He was chosen as a second-team All-American behind Todd Helton of Tennessee.

Casey was drafted in 1995 in the 2nd round by the Cleveland Indians and was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Dave Burba before the 1998 season after having fallen behind Jim Thome on the Indian roster.

He wasn't blocked at Cincy, which was in the throes of a Marge Schott youth movement. Casey was penciled in to start, but after two games, he got clocked in the cheek by a warm-up ball gone astray. He missed a month, and then spent another month in the minors, regaining his eye.

But Casey finished with a .272 average and seven homers in 302 at-bats, and showed so much promise that his competition, Paul Konerko, was traded away. He would spend eight years with the Reds, hitting over .300 and driving in over 80 runs for five of them. Casey made the NL All-Star Team three times in that span.

But the Reds couldn't win, and Casey was caught on the wrong side of the next rebuilding effort. He was shipped to his hometown Buccos in 2006 for Dave Williams, putting together a line of .296/3/21 in 236 at bats and winning the hearts of the Pittsburgh faithful, even though he missed huge hunks of time with a fractured vertebra from an early season collision at first, followed later by a pulled rib muscle.

Even a hometown hero can't make the club in the tub, even though there was talk of extending his contract before the second injury. He was dealt to Detroit at the deadline for the immanently forgettable Brian Rogers. And what a pick-up Casey proved to be.

He hit five homers and knocked in 30 runs down the stretch as Detroit held off the Twins for the wild card spot. But he really shined in the post season.

The Motown nine upset the Evil Empire as Casey hit .353 against the Yankees. He missed most of the ALCS sweep of the Oakland A’s, slightly tearing his left calf in Game 1. But he made it back for the Series, even if as a DH.

Casey led all hitters in the series with nine hits, five RBIs and a .529 average, but his teammates folded against the St. Louis Cards, losing in six games. His .432/2/9 in 10 games was one of the top shelf performances in the Tigers' storied postseason history.

The Tigers signed him up for one more year, and he hit .296 for them. Then Casey mosied off to the Red Sox, where he was invaluable off the bench and when injuries hit them. His .322 average helped carry them into the playoffs. That was his last hurrah.

The 34-year old Casey's lifetime stats in 12 MLB seasons were .302 BA/130 HR/735 RBI. And his fielding range was way above the league average, by a guy that might need a head start to beat Sid Bream in a footrace. In his dozen years, he never played another position on the field (except DH).

He banged out the first hit in both the history of PNC Park and Miller Park. Casey got both knocks with the same bat, and then shipped it off to Cooperstown for display the Hall of Fame.

Why the Mayor? Because if elections are indeed just popularity contests, Sean Casey wins hands down as the MLB's nicest guy. In a 2007 SI poll 2007, Casey was voted in "the friendliest player in baseball" by his fellow players. He garnered 46% of the vote with runner-up Jim Thome getting 7%.

His chatfests at first with opposing runners were legendary. Henry Rodriguez of the Cubs got so involved in one conversation that he was picked off in mid sentence. On another occasion, Sean ignored Reds manager Jack McKeon’s calls to play back, holding the Card's Mark McGwire close to first base just so he had someone to talk to.

Every community he played in loved him, too, both for his civic contributions and his friendly persona. Anyone could approach Casey and leave feeling like his best bud. In fact, he was first called the "Mayor" by his Cape Cod manager Mike Kirby while he was still in college, so his sunny disposition goes way back to his roots.

Casey is active in many charitable functions, such as Big Brothers and Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as the "Casey's Crew" program, where he provided free high-priced tickets to disadvantaged youth. Casey is a co-founder of "Labels Are For Jars", an anti-hunger organization. He gave $10,000 to help build a field for disabled kids in Auburn, outside Detroit - and that was last year, after he left the team.

He's a religious guy, too, heavily involved with the Catholic Athletes for Christ and setting up prayer services for his teams.

Casey and his wife Mandi have three children, ages 7, 5 and 3. They live in Pittsburgh again, after moving back to the Steel City from Florida. Hey, who knows - maybe one day he will end up mayor. The City could sure do worse.

(For a full-tilt life story, visit Jock Bio and settle in for a good read of Sean Casey's career.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

18 Days To Go...

Hey, it's almost time for the pitchers and catchers to report. So what's the team look like?

* Free Agents - fuhgetaboutit. They said at the end of last season that they were going to stick with the 2008 core, and boy, did they. Ramon Vasquez was inked as a utility infielder, Donnie Veal as a Rule 5 pick-up, and a zillion guys signed deals that earned them an invite to camp.

The Buc bench wandered off to other pastures, except for Dirt Dog Doug, who is in free agent limbo. So there will be competition there, and eight or nine pitchers will duke it out for rotation spots.

Andy Phillips, Jeff Salazar, Craig Monroe, and Garrett Jones are newcomers with a sub shot, and Jason Jamarillo and Robinzon Diaz will vie for Ronny Paulino's spot. The rest of the roster competition will be internal.

Pitching will be almost entirely selected from the current collection of Buc and Indy arms, with only Veal and Brian Slocum having a chance at the 25-man.

Are they done? "The free-agent market is not over," president Frank Coonelly said at the Fan Fest yesterday. "We're still being very active. I would be very surprised if we don't...sign players that you would fall in love with this year, between now and the beginning of Spring Training." So there!

* Injuries - Phil Dumatrait looks more and more iffy, Jeff Karstens was shut down during mini-camp, and Freddy Sanchez still has vision problems and hasn't cut loose with any throws at 100% during the off-season, although he says his achy-breaky shoulder feels fine.

On the plus side, Brandon Moss, Jack Wilson, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny are ready and rarin' to go, physically at least. Andy LaRoche, to his credit, didn't cry about the thumb injury that he played through last season, and is said to be good to go now.

* Contracts - Ryan Doumit, Ian Snell, and Ramon Vasquez are locked up, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Splat have club options for 2010, Adam LaRoche and John Grabow are in their walk years, and Zach Duke, Matt Capps, and Tyler Yates are signed for the season and have arbitration ahead of them. Nate McLouth and Paul Maholm have exchanged figures with the team as they head towards arbitration.

They're both are open to long term deals. Maholm is said to be making progress on his pact; not so for McLouth. Everyone else is safely under team control for the time being.

* "The Plan" - The suits are amassing young talent, and though they claim to be competitive now, it looks a lot like they're building towards a 2011-12 breakthrough season. They've diverted funds into the draft and Dominican, and that will pay off in spades if they stick to the course instead of overpaying for graybeards.

And though they didn't bring in any new blood, they did keep two players, Wilson and Sanchez, instead of giving them away for a bag of balls and a six-pack. That's worth a few props for keeping the team from becoming a Triple-A club in 2009.

Other changes aren't so obvious. They brought Joe Kerrigan and Perry Hill on staff, guys they targeted but couldn't sweet talk into the fold last year. They continue to bring in player evaluation types, from both the old school and sabermetric eras.

* The Outlook - They could win 70 or so games if the pitching returns more to the norm. Anything much better, and Bob Nutting should give the entire organization a free week at Seven Springs for a job unexpectedly well done.

But hey, it's January. Everyone's tied for first and undefeated.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Adam LaRoche - Should He Stay Or Should He Go?

Adam LaRoche is one of the Buc's more enigmatic figures. Laid back to the point that fans think he sometimes just doesn't care, but red-blooded enough to be the face man for a hunting organization.

In a team starved for production, he cranks out 25 homers and 85-90 RBI like clockwork, but spends much of the time batting sixth.

He's 29, so LaRoche is certainly young enough to be a key piece of the Pirates moving into the future. But many feel his dismal performance during the opening weeks of the season is one of the major reasons the Bucs are traditionally behind the eight ball by Memorial Day.

What to do with Adam LaRoche?

The Pirates are apparently unsure themselves, having broken off talks that began last year to ink him to a long-term deal and instead signing him to one year pacts worth $5M and $7.05M. This is it for arbitration, so 2009 is the last year he's under team control.

GW doesn't have a clue what figures LaRoche and the Pirates exchanged. But he does know this - there aren't very many first basemen running around in baseball today that can replace him, and certainly none in the Pittsburgh system (see the post below).

After a little checking, the closest comparable player we could find to LaRoche was the Yankee's Nick Swisher. He's 28, LH, and his 2006-08 batting stats are 1592 at-bats, .246/81/242.

Over the same period, LaRoche, 29, has been up 1547 times, and compiled a line of .275/78/263. Swisher makes $5.3M this year, part of a deal he signed in 2006 while with the Oakland A's.; LaRoche $7.05M. Both are considered above average glovemen.

From 2010-2012, Swisher will make $6.75M, $9M, and $10.25M (club option) for $26M. The Yankees have him on the market, and it's said to be pretty hot for his services, much hotter than the response to Xavier Nady, in fact.

LaRoche has the advantage of 2010 being his walk year when he can finally dive into the free agent market and test the waters. There are a couple of scenarios possible.

One is that the dearth of 1B leads him to the promised land of a sweet contract. LaRoche would be the top first sacker out; Nick Johnson is the next closest thing to a big name coming out to compete with him. Yah, it's that thin next year, although there could be a couple of options not picked up or non-tendered arb guys available, too.

Second would be that the economy continues to floor, and Obama and Congress for some reason decide not to bail out baseball. LaRoche could be treading water, looking for a deal that never materializes, falling into the category of a solid but not difference-making player.

The Pirates, too, are taking a roll of the dice. There is no one to replace him, and the market is bone dry in 2010. They can hope that the second scenario is the one that happens and he comes back home, but if LaRoche defies history and comes out hitting the ball in April, there will be virtually no chance to get him back in the fold.

And his status as a free agent after the season really puts a cap on what value the team can get in return for him if they decide to move him at the deadline.

The Pirates have said many times that they don't negotiate during the season. If that's the case, they don't have the luxury of seeing if LaRoche is past his April no-show. They have a span of a few weeks to hammer out a deal or in all likelihood lose him.

We say offer him three years at $30M - $8.5M in 2010, $10M in 2011, and $11.5M in 2012, with incentives for 30 HR and 100 RBI, plus the usual All-Star, Golden Glove, etc. honors. Hey, we could also live with a bit of an overpay if that's what it takes, considering both the upcoming market and the Pirates' depth.

Three years gives the Bucs a chance to groom someone, and lets LaRoche hit the market again at age 33, not very long in the tooth for a first sacker.

That's fair to us, although we have no idea what he's asked for; maybe Adam would think we're low-balling him, or the suits think we're throwing money away. C'est la vie.

But that's his value as we see it, and the team needs another contract out of him to compete in the coming seasons. We hope they do sign him, April follies or not.

Then we'll be convinced that they do intend to be a MLB contender by 2011 or 2012. He's a piece they can't replace in the near future.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Farm Fresh - First Base

Hey, this is another easy one - behind Adam LaRoche at first base is a whole lot of maybe, and that ain't good.

LaRoche just signed on the dotted line for $7.05M, a fair salary for his production. The good news is that he's been pretty productive - he's had 20+ homers and 85-90 RBI for the past three years, with a batting average ranging from .270-.285.

And being a lefty, LaRoche is built for the friendly confines of PNC Park, although when he's on, his power is more to the gaps. His glove is more than decent, and at 29, he's young enough to fit into the Bucs plans going down the road.

The bad news is that his bat doesn't warm up until the dog days. In the past three seasons, he's hit .251, .239, and .251 during the first half of the season (we won't even talk about April), and .304, .312, and .323 in the second half. And by that time, the Bucs are eating dust in the Central Division.

The Pirates wanted to sign him to a long-term deal last year, but the gap was so vast that they didn't even broach the subject this year. 2009 is his walk season, and you can be assured he'll stick his toes in the free agent pool in 2010.

So who is lining up behind him? Well, his back-up from 2008, Doug Mientkiewicz, is still unsigned and isn't really a long term answer any way. Looks like Steve Pearce, 1B turned OF, may be flipped again.

The 25-year old RH has hit .266 in 177 big league at-bats, but his 4 long balls aren't what the suits are looking for from a corner infielder. In 2006 and 2007, he smacked 57 homers during stops at every level from Hickory to Indianapolis, but only added a dozen for the Tribe in 2008. Will the real Steve Pearce please stand up?

Does he deserve a shot? The Bucco tribe is divided on that question, but it may be a moot point. If LaRoche heads to greener pastures at the deadline or off season, there may be no choice.

Andy Phillips will be in camp, and the 31-year old has been around the big league block. A Yankee prospect that lost out to Jason Giambi, he's played for three teams and batted 557 times with 14 HR and a .250 average. He's mostly been a third baseman in his MLB appearances, but has played first and second in AAA. But he's a utility guy all the way, not a replacement by any standard.

Huntington also brought in long-time Twin minor league muscle man Garrett Ford, but more than likely as Indy's first-sacker, not Pittsburgh's. The 29-year old LH has hit 20+ homers at AAA for three of the past four seasons, but only gotten 77 at-bats in the show, homering twice and hitting .266 - and that was two years ago.

The much jerked-around Neil Walker may add a first baseman's mitt to his growing collection of leather. He made the transition from catcher to the hot corner well enough to be named the best fielding 3B in the International League, so he shouldn't have much problem with the defensive part of moving across the diamond.

Like another switch-hitting catcher that was athletic enough to play the corners, Ryan Doumit, Walker may get a little love. But unlike Doumit, Walker's bat has yet to explode. He had his best power year in 2008, hitting 16 HR for Indy, but batting just .244.

Some folk think he was rushed to AAA last year and should have put in a full season at Altoona. True or not, this much is sure - Pedro Alvarez is on a fast track behind him, and Andy LaRoche looks immovable for the time being ahead of him. So it would make sense to give Walker another season at Indy and some quality time at 1B.

Jamie Romak, who was part of the LaRoche deal, has big time power but not much else. The 23-year old converted OF has 61 HR in his three minor league seasons, with 340 K in 1322 AB (26%), and in a couple of months at Altoona hit just .208 (his minor league lifetime is .255). And his glove and speed won't take him far.

But he does have the one thing a first baseman needs - a big stick. Romak's not ready for prime time, and how he adjusts to a whole season in AA may make or break his career. He's young enough, but has to quit missing so many pitches.

25-year old Miles Durham showed some spark last season, hitting a combined .293/18/81 between Hickory and Lynchburg, and following up with a brief but effective fall stint in Hawaii. Still, he's awfully long in the tooth for level he's playing at, so...

Altoona 1B Jason Delaney rounds out the list. The 26-year old hit .292, but has never reached double-figures in HR in four years of college and four years in the minors. And that's just not first base performance.

A couple of guys with a darkhorse pedigree are Calvin Anderson, 21, and Justin Byler, 23. Both are young, have some power, and are light years away from the show.

Maybe it's best if Pedro does eat his way to first base...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Baseball America: The Pirates Future...Is In The Future

Baseball America came out yesterday with the Pirate's Top Ten Prospects and a couple of other juicy barroom tidbits, like the best tools and the 2012 lineup, conjured up by long-time Bucco scribe John Perrotto, formerly of the BC Times and now with the Nutting family's West Virginia paper.

You know you're in trouble when the article starts out with "The Pirates are likely to set a record for infamy in 2009 as their never-ending rebuilding process continues..." That's kind of a downer, hey?

So with no further ado, the hopes for the future, BA's Top Ten:

01. Pedro Alvarez, 3b
02. Andrew McCutchen, of
03. Jose Tabata, of
04. Brad Lincoln, rhp
05. Bryan Morris, rhp
06. Neil Walker, 3b
07. Jeff Sues, rhp
08. Shelby Ford, 2b
09. Daniel McCutchen, rhp
10. Robbie Grossman, of

No real shockers there, except that GW still has a distaste for ranking a kid without an at-bat as the alpha dog. We hope he does something soon to earn the recognition.

The toolsy guys? Perrotto picks Alvarez as the guy with the potential for the best average and power as a hitter, McCutchen as the best athlete and oufield glove, and in a bit of a surprise, Ron Uviedo having the best changeup. Uviedo is a 22-year old Venezuelan RHP and closer with just two years in the minors, although he is a vet of the VSL and was protected on the Pirates' latest 40-man roster.

Most interesting was the projected 2012 lineup:

Catcher: Ryan Doumit
First Base: Adam LaRoche
Second Base: Shelby Ford
Third Base: Pedro Alvarez
Shortstop: Jarek Cunningham
Left Field: Nate McLouth
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
Right Field: Jose Tabata
No. 1 Starter: Brad Lincoln
No. 2 Starter: Ian Snell
No. 3 Starter: Bryan Morris
No. 4 Starter: Paul Maholm
No. 5 Starter: Tom Gorzelanny
Closer: Matt Capps

GW doesn't share Perrotto's optimism that LaRoche, McLouth, and Capps will still be sporting Pirate double-knits in 2012. We wouldn't be surprised to see Alvarez at first, little LaRoche manning the hot corner, Brandon Moss in LF and Jeff Sues closing.

Jim Negrych will be on the bench, if he hasn't found a position of his own by then. We wouldn't bet against Dan McCutchen being in the pitching mix, either. Neil Walker could end up the new Dirt Dog Doug, filling in at the corner infield and outfield spots.

It's certainly possible that high school standout Cunningham could beat out Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud at short, but that trio and possibly Brian Friday should have a real battle royale to claim the spot. That sure beats having someone anointed to the position. One of the losers could be shifted to the right side to keep Ford honest.

And also on the horizon will be Robbie Miller and Wesley Freeman, who should be in AAA, and Uviedo, Justin Wilson, and Quinton Miller, all with a chance to land in Indy by 2012.

OK, we've stolen enough from Perrotto for one day. Go click on his article from the link in the lede; it's a good read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nate McLouth - Lowballed?

We know that Nate McLouth and the Bucs have miles to go before they agree on a contract. They just swapped arbitration figures, and McLouth asked for $3.8M; the team countered with $2.75M. Either way, it's a nice jump from the $425K he got in 2008, his first year as a starter and a breakout season by every matrix.

He proved durable, playing in 152 games and getting a team-leading 597 at bats. Mclouth's line was .276/26/94 with 113 runs scored and 23 stolen bases. He ran up a .356 OBP, .497 slugging %, and an OPS of .853. Oh, and was a gold glove CF. Pretty good stuff, no matter how you look at. And he wants the Benjamins those stats say that he deserves.

Whoa, say the suits. Can he repeat that performance on the field? Do those numbers, as swell as they are for a CF, hold up as well for a corner OF spot, his probable future position? And his power and RBI production do take a beating when he faces a lefty - .261 with a .710 OPS and only 3 of his 26 long balls.

The Pirates are apparently basing his contract on Ryan Doumit's recent deal. Doumit signed for a guaranteed three years, carrying him through arbitration, for $2.05M, $3.55M, and $5.1M, with a one-time option for $7.25M and $8.25M in 2012-13.

His line was .318/15/69 with 71 runs tallied, though he played a lot less - 116 games, and 465 at bats. Doumit plays a position that is harder to fill than McLouth's, and his production splits aren't as skewered, though he rakes lefties noticeably better than righties - but he still hits RHPs at a .314 clip with an .849 OPS, not too shabby.

Personally, GW thinks that the Bucs got a pretty sweet deal with Doumit. Then again, his history is that he's in the tub a lot, and our guess is both sides recognized that when striking the deal, balancing performance and injury backgrounds.

Instead of comparing apples and oranges, let's take a look at a couple of other players in the same boat as McLouth. The Dodgers are playing out the exact scenario with Andre Ethier, who wants $3.75M and is being offered $2.65M by LA.

His line was .305/20/77 with 90 runs scored. Ethier's OBP is .375, his slugging percentage is .510, combined for an OPS of .885, all a tick above McLouth. Ethier's splits are terrible - he mashes against righties, but hits .243 with a .692 OPS against portsiders. And he plays a corner position, RF. Comparable player, comparable demand.

Or would could look across state and see what the Phillies did to tie up RF Jatson Werth, a first-time arb eligible player. His line was .273/24/67 with 73 runs scored. Werth's OBP was .363, slugging % .498, and OPS .861. He struggles against RHP, hitting .255 with a .767 OPS.

That didn't bother the City of Brotherly Love's suits a bit - they signed him for the next two years, giving him a $1M signing bonus, $2M for 2009, and $7M in 2010. That's on the high side in 2010, we think, but hey - agents and players are looking at arbitration as a poor man's free agency in these economic times.

The battle in Pittsburgh is to set Nate McLouth's baseline salary through his arbitration years. The higher it is, the brighter McLouth's future earning power becomes, and the Bucs want to keep it down while they have him under control. Hey, someone else may want to cash in on a good season, too.

In the Pirate's defense, they generally want back-to-back performances before signing an arb-eligible guy on the dotted line. But they let that balloon get pricked when they inked Ryan Doumit, who never got more than 252 at bats before 2008.

Our take? McLouth has a good case. The midpoint between he and the Pirates is $3.275M. If they can get him anywhere near that figure, they should sign him. His number looks closer to the going rate than the suit's offer. After all, you eventually have to pay the guys that come through for you.

Unless, of course, the Yankees come courting...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pirate Payroll - 2009

OK, the Pirate payroll is starting to fall in line now - 4 arb players, Adam LaRoche, Zach Duke, John Grabow, and Tyler Yates, signed on the dotted line; Paul Maholm and Nate McLouth are playing it out a little longer, having exchanged arbitration figures with the team, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette. The payroll so far:

Jack Wilson, SS - $7.25M (club option $8.4M in 2010 with $600K buyout)
Adam LaRoche, 1B - $7.05M (2010 free agency year)
Freddy Sanchez, 2B - $6.1M (club option $8M in 2010 with $600K buyout)
Ian Snell, SP - $3M ($4.25M in 2010, club option in 2011 for $6.75M, club option in 2011 for $9.75M)
Nate McLouth, OF - exchanged salary figures; $2.75M team; $3.8M, player (2010 and 2011 - arbitration years)
Paul Maholm, SP - exchanged salary figures; $2.65 team; $3.8M, player (2010 and 2011 - arbitration years)
Matt Capps, RP - $2.3M (2010 and 2011 - arbitration years)
John Grabow, RP - $2.3M (2010 free agency year)
Zach Duke, SP - $2.2M (2010 and 2011 - arbitration years)
Ryan Doumit, C - $2.05M ($3.55M in 2010, $5.1M in 2011, club option for next two years must be exercised in 2012; $7.25M in 2012, $8.25M in 2013 with $500K buyout)
Ramon Vazquez, IF - $2M ($2M in 2010 - not sure of annual splits, 2-year deal for $4M)
Tyler Yates, RP - $1.3M (2010 - arbitration year)

With the gap between the Pirates and their two arb guys, the payroll for the dozen signed players will fall between $40.95M - $43.15M. Throw in thirteen near or minimum wage workers and a few bucks to pay off Matt Morris and a couple of other ex-Bucs, and you have a base payroll in the range of $49 or $50M as it now stands, without bonuses or incentives.

Last year's opening day payroll, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, was $48.7M.

So much for rolling in the extra cash freed up by dumping Jay Bay and Matty Mo's money, hey?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Were the 1969 Steelers the 2009 Pirates?

Ya know, GW enjoyed crossing over and watching the Black and Gold hammer its way into the Super Bowl. The Steelers were so good that they could afford squandering opportunity after opportunity to put away an excellent Baltimore eleven, and that's impressive. Just ask Tennessee or Miami.

But GW remembers the days of "Hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle" and the gridders' sad sack history, the groans of "Same Old Steelers" and gnashing of teeth over the tight purse strings of the now beloved Chief, Art Rooney.

In other words, the Steelers of yore were the Pirates of today.

But in 1969, the Steeler's began an era of success that most fans consider to be their rightful legacy; most don't remember the bad ol' days. And maybe that offers a glimpse into the Pirate blueprint going down the road.

The most obvious sea change was bringing in Chuck Noll to coach, and that professionalized the whole organization, bringing an outsiders perspective to the Steelers. He built a whole new culture on the North Side, much like Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington are doing now in the Pirate offices.

One major change was instead of signing vets whose better days were behind them, the suits turned to the draft to revitalize the team. Art Rooney Jr., scouting guru, was suddenly appreciated, and his skills and focus were sharpened by head-butting sessions with Emperor Chaz. Bill Nunn beat the bushes of the small black college circuit, turning up gem after gem for the team.

The team turned over personnel almost overnight, getting younger, stronger, and faster. But the transition wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. They had just one win in Noll's opening campaign, and it took four years to reach the promised land of playoff football.

But once they got there, the system was in place, and generally fed on itself. There were some down times, to be sure, but drafting new blood and judiciously bringing in free agents for targeted positions filled the gaps. They've qualified for the post season 24 times since 1972, and brought home the crown five times.

How does this correspond to the Pirates' new trail blazers? Well, there are certain similarities.

The Pirates are stripping down the team, preparing for a brave new world of competitive ball a couple of seasons down the road. The Steelers won just a dozen games in three seasons until they broke out with Franco's Immaculate Reception. So you have to stay the course and keep building the roster until you reach a critical mass of talent, and it's not a quick or painless process.

Second, player evaluation and scouting were finally accepted as the key component to replenishing the organization. Greg Smith seems to have a much better eye for talent (and a much larger budget for signing them) than Ed Creech, and Rene Gayo is taking the role of Bill Nunn, scouring the Latino sandlots, baseball's equivalent of the traditionally black college beat.

Will the Pirates be able to successfully bring in free agents like the Steelers? That has yet to be seen - first, you need pieces to fill, not a tabula rosa, before that road is taken. And to their credit, they're not bringing in has-beens to placate the fans and present potential blocks for the youngsters.

There is, of course, one difference. The Steelers operated without a cap until 1994, and did pretty well, making 14 playoff appearances in 22 years beginning in 1972. The did OK with the cap, too, reaching the post season 10 times in 15 years. But there was one huge game-breaker involved in that deal.

The Steelers non-capped years coincided with the NFL's lack of free agency. Guys with Pittsburgh were basically Black and Gold property, much like the pre-Curt Flood days of baseball.

When free agency was granted in 1992, the league quickly adopted a cap in 1994 when they saw how the escalation in player contracts was threatening to cause a huge divide in the league's competitive balance. They also don't guarantee contracts, although bonus money is carried on the books for the length of the deal as "dead" money.

That sword swings both ways - the NFL is now considering scrapping the cap after the 2010 season, so obviously they don't consider it a cure-all in its present form.

The Pirate 2008 financials, as far as we can figure, are $139M in revenues, according to Forbes Magazine, with $50.8M spent on payroll, or about 37%. Pittsburgh is among the bottom dwellers in both figures.

The NFL cap is set at about 60% of league-average revenues, but they don't have to support the costs of a minor-league system, thanks to the NCAA. The cap and the amount plowed back into salaries helps mitigate the effects of free agency to a degree.

You can look at the Bucs payroll a couple of ways - it's less than a quarter of the Evil Empire's checkbook, but just $200K less than Tampa Bay's salaries. The key is how you spend your money, not how much you toss around, though more cash does make it easier to overcome the clunker deals that are killers to smaller franchises and just cash burners to the big boys.

The lesson to be learned here from the Steelers is that with some team-building skills - a mix of pups, contract extensions, and minimal and targeted free agent signings - you can compete in Pittsburgh no matter what system is in place.

The Steeler template of 1969 - change the culture, blow up the team, draft some talent, and ride out the growing pains while working within the economic system of the times - looks a lot like the Pirate roadmap of today. Let's hope they can pull it off half as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

CHONE 2009 - Pirate Pitchers

OK, today we look at the CHONE projections for the Bucco staff. One of the problems with projections, of course, is that they depend on a certain baseline of work for accurate results. The more innings under your belt, the better the projection.

Most of the bullpen has pitched long enough for a credible history, although Sean Burnett is still haunted from his line as a failed starter. But only half the starters have enough time in service to chart with any degree of accuracy.

So we're just taking a look at, first, what a normal season should be after last season's debacle, and second, a comparison of the pitchers on hand, especially the new and young arms.


LH Paul Maholm (175 innings, 9-10, 4.32 ERA)
LH Tom Gorzelanny (151 innings, 8-9, 4.41 ERA)
RH Ian Snell (174 innings, 9-10, 4.50 ERA)
RH Jeff Karstens (107 innings, 5-6, 4.54 ERA)
LH Zach Duke (164 innings, 8-10, 4.66 ERA)
RH Daniel McCutchen (120 innings, 6-8, 4.80 ERA)
LH Phil Dumatrait (57 innings, 3-4, 4.89 ERA)
RH Jimmy Barthmaier (117 innings, 5-8, 4.92 ERA)
LH Donnie Veal (123 innings, 5-9, 5.85 ERA - probably will work out of the pen)

So CHONE has the staff rebounding. Pitchers are notoriously difficult to slot; most have considerable swings in ERA, wins, and innings from year to year. But it does show the major weakness in the constitution of the Pirate pitching - everyone fits into the 3-4-5 end of the rotation, and no one rises to the top.

Snell, Gorzo, and Maholm are the three to watch. Snell has top of the order stuff, and the other two should fall in behind him. If two of the three come through, the staff should be competitive.

And they need to; CHONE only projects 40 wins or so out of the top five pitchers, and that makes for a long year. Last season, the starters only put together 34 wins, the same number Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly notched by themselves for the Cubs; the other half came from the overused and overexposed Pirate pen.

If they don't...well, McCutchen may have mid-order potential one day, and it's gonna be a long time until Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris will be ready for the show. And that's about it for the foreseeable future.

And no, we didn't forget about Ross Ohlendorf. Sean Smith at CHONE has him as a bullpen guy. Maybe he knows something we don't...


RH Matt Capps (62 innings, 4-3, 3.48 ERA)
RH Juan Mateo (47 innings, 3-2, 3.83 ERA)
RH Ross Ohlendorf (64 innings, 4-3, 3.94 ERA)
LH John Grabow (66 innings, 4-3, 3.95 ERA)
RH T.J. Beam (64 innings, 4-3, 4.08 ERA)
RH Tyler Yates (64 innings, 4-3, 4.08 ERA)
RH Brian Slocum (48 innings, 3-3, 4.13 ERA)
RH Craig Hansen (65 innings, 4-4, 4.15 ERA)
RH Denny Bautista (66 innings, 4-4, 4.23 ERA)
RH Jesse Chavez (60 innings, 4-4, 4.24 ERA)
RH Chris Bootcheck (50 innings, 3-3, 4.32 ERA)
RH Evan Meek (52 innings, 3-3, 4.33 ERA)
LH Sean Burnett (61 innings, 3-4, 4.72 ERA)
LH Daniel Haigwood (47 innings, 2-3, 4.98 ERA - will probably start at Indy)
RH Romulo Sanchez (52 innings, 2-3, 5.19 ERA)

What's it tell us? Just what we've always known. The Bucs have always been fairly deep in the pen compared to the rotation, and seem to have forged a master mold of arms (not a lot of difference from Beam to Meek, according to CHONE) available as interchangeable parts as performance and injury require.

Mateo and Slocum are rated higher than we thought; they could be interesting guys to watch in Bradenton, although both are probably predestined to land at Indy.

The obvious concern is that without Damaso Marte, the team is noticeably short handed from the left side, especially if the suits find a taker for Grabow. Maybe Veal can pick up the slack, but that's a big if for a Rule 5 pick-up looking for a spot.

Just making the team would be a major accomplishment for him. And if he sticks, we see an Evan Meek template of sorts in the making - back to the minors in 2010 for a spell to work on becoming a starter, where his value to the team would skyrocket.

And speaking of making the team, what better way to segue into CHONE's look at the farm:


RH Yoslan Herrera (106 innings, 5-7, 5.18 ERA)
RH Derek Hankins (111 innings, 4-8, 5.59 ERA)
RH Michael Crotta (111 innings, 4-8, 5.68 ERA)
LH Corey Hamman (102 innings, 4-7, 5.74 ERA)
LH Anthony Watson (91 innings, 3-7, 6.13 ERA)
LH Brian Holliday (92 innings, 3-7, 6.13 ERA)
RH Brad Lincoln (51 innings, 2-4, 6.18 ERA - first season back from TJ surgery)
LH Daniel Moskos (72 innings, 2-6, 6.25 ERA - probably destined for bullpen)
RH Jared Hughes (103 innings, 3-8, 6.64 ERA)
RH Bryan Morris - not rated by CHONE.

Don't weep quite yet - all these guys are young. Littlefield didn't leave much in the system, and it shows. There's a huge gap in MLB ready arms in the organization, and that's why the team was blown up last season - to buy time for the future.


RH Jeff Sues (34 innings, 1-2, 5.03 ERA)
LH Dave Davidson (44 innings, 2-3, 5.32 ERA)
RH Matt McSwain (27 innings, 1-2, 5.53 - starts in minors)
RH Eric Krebs (30 innings, 1-2, 5.70 ERA - starts in minors)
RH Ronald Uviedo (26 innings, 1-2, 6.58 ERA)

As for this gang, all the AAA arms will have an audition in spring training, and if you're in the minors and used out of the bullpen for anything other than closing, well, that's not a great career path to be on. Sues and Uviedo, though, have the potential to reach PNC as contributing arms.

We knew the pitching was Pittsburgh's Achille's heel. The projections show it, and the fact that 14 of the 23 guys going to spring training this year are Huntington pick-ups confirms the tale.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

CHONE 2009 - Pirate Position Players

OK, as my good bud and collaborator Will notes, CHONE projections tend towards the norm, evening out the breakout seasons with the complete falls from grace. Still, as a team projection, they're OK, assuming that as many guys will perform above the norm as below in any given season.

We thought we'd take a look at them not so much as a prognostication tool, but as a basis for comparison between the starting lineup and what's behind it - how, for example, do Moss, Pearce and Monroe match up, or little LaRoche, Vazquez, Phillips, and Walker, or McCutchen and Morgan? Is there any depth?

Here's what CHONE's Sean Smith figures the lines that the 2009 starting position players should produce based on past performance:

1B: Adam LaRoche (504 at-bats, .264/23/84)
2B: Freddy Sanchez (548 at-bats, .290/8/60)
SS: Jack Wilson (484 at-bats, .273/7/41)
3B: Andy LaRoche (403 at bats, .256/13/59)
CA: Ryan Doumit (384 at bats, .281/14/60)
LF: Nyjer Morgan (442 at bats, .276/2/33)
CF: Nate McLouth (438 at bats, .274/16/53)
RF: Brandon Moss (476 at bats, .267/13/68)'ll interesting to see what John Russell does for a middle-of-the-order with that collection. If Smith is right, runs will be hard to come by next season, but we saw that over the last two months of 2008, and you don't need a sabermetric system to draw that conclusion. It's a no-brainer.

Of a little more interest, to GW at least, is what CHONE thinks of the troops Neal Huntington and crew brought in to plump out the roster and fill in at Indy.

IF: Garrett Jones (1B - 506 at bats, .259/20/83); Ramon Vazquez (339 at bats, .251/6/35); Andy Phillips (317 at bats, .271/11/43); Luis Cruz (457 at bats, .247/7/47); Brian Bixler (465 at bats, .245/6/42).

C: Jason Jamarillo (429 at bats, .256/7/49); Robinzon Diaz (401 at bats, .279/3/48).

OF: Steve Pearce (481 at bats, .266/17/79); Craig Monroe (438 at bats, .257/17/69); Jeff Salazar (385 at bats, .255/8/46).

Hey, there's a little potential there. Pittsburgh has some alternatives in the OF, Jones and Pearce could be a fairly equivalent platoon at first if big bro LaRoche goes, and Phillips wouldn't be a noticeable downgrade at third if little LaRoche takes a swan dive. But the middle of the infield is weaker without the old heads, Wilson and Sanchez, manning their familiar spots.

People remember that the pitching spots were written in stone during camp last year, but they forget how little competition there was for bench spots. Maybe this year the young guys and the vet fill-ins will have to wage a bit of a battle to earn that seat on the pine. Russell doesn't seem adverse to platooning guys; maybe he'll have a couple more options this season.

And now - what does CHONE project the young guns will do if they get the call to the show?

1B: Jason Delaney (457 at bats, .247/7/55); Jamie Romak (408 at bats, .199/14/54)

2B: Shelby Ford (379 at bats, .253/4/40)

SS: Brian Friday (356 at bats, .247/2/26); Jose De Los Santos (382 at bats, .246/1/29)

3B: Neil Walker (482 at bats, .247/11/64); Jim Negrych (451 at bats, .279/3/57)

C: Steve Lerud (385 at bats, .210/8/48)

OF: Andrew McCutchen (499 at bats, .261/9/52); Jose Tabata (407 at bats, .251/5/49); Anthony Webster (436 at bats, .259/6/43)

A couple of guys jump out - Negrych and McCutchen, for example, should both be fast trackers if the CHONE numbers hold up.

Oh, and for you guys that hold out hope that Dirt Dog Doug pulls on the Pirate jersey one more time: his projected line is 297 at bats, .266/6/37.

(Tomorrow: CHONE and the pitchers *yikes*)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mini Camp Mini Notes

GW wishes he were with the Buccos at Bradenton - 45 may be a wintry blast in Florida, but it ain't nothin' like the real thing - and like you, he's here wondering if he's gonna have to auction off his first born when the gas bill comes to roost in the mailbox next month.

But the surest harbinger of spring has arrived, warming the cockles of GW's hardball heart. The Pirates got together for a little game of catch, the prelude to camp. Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette covered it pretty well in the PBC Blog (apparently the Trib can't afford air fare or decided it's still football season, probably both), and between DK and a few other web stories, these points stuck out:

* The guys are in shape, never a given in the past - except for Pedro Alvarez *sigh*. Go figure;

* Donnie Veal can bring it;

* Tyler Yates decided to impress the brass by staying home in Hawaii and filing for arbitration (the other no-shows were the injured Phil Dumatrait, Romulo Sanchez & Ronald Uviedo, still pitching in the winter leagues, and Craig Hansen, who had a family matter to attend to, along with infield coach Perry Hill, who was sick);

* Andrew McCutchen is packing some muscle this year and hasn't given up on breaking with the team after camp;

* Brandon Moss is recovered from whatever mysterious procedure they did to his knee;

* Andy LaRoche and Steve Pearce were pounding BP;

* and Joe Kerrigan is an energizer bunny with a yap that never quits (not to mention the fourth pitching coach in five seasons for the Pirates - no wonder the guys are confused!)

The other news of the day:

* All six arbitration eligible Pirates - Nate McLouth, Paul Maholm, Adam LaRoche, John Grabow, Zach Duke, and Yates - filed for arbitration, as expected. The other arb eligible players, Ryan Doumit and Denny Bautista, inked deals, while Raul Chavez (now with Toronto) and Jason Davis (a free agent) were non-tendered. The hearings will be scheduled beginning February 1st if the team can't come to terms with the guys.

* The Bucs signed another special assistant to Neal Huntington's posse, long-time Tiger scout and GM Bill Lajoie. He joins Chuck Tanner as a senior advisor for player evaluation. Lajoie is 74, and Tanner is 79 - when the Pirates name someone a senior advisor, they ain't kidding!

Lajoie also worked in Boston, where he was said to enjoy matching sabermetric ratings with the old seat-of-the-pants eyeball model, a great mix for this era. While with the Tigers, he said the goal was to amass power arms and power bats, so he'll fit right in here.

* Jake at Bucco Blog has an interesting piece on the Buc's plan for the future - he calls it restructuring, not rebuilding.

* The Bucs are still keeping an eye on Pedro Martinez. We wonder if they're gonna have any eyes on Mark Mulder when he throws for the scouts in a couple of weeks? And we're curious just how affordable the 30-year old Ben Sheets may end up in a market that's not showing him much love?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pirate CHONE Projections 2009

Hey, we thought we'd let you do the work today. Here, compliments of Baseball Projections, are the CHONE ratings for your 2009 PBC's hitters and hurlers. Read 'em and weep.

If you'd like a look at all the players, here's Fangraph's MLB CHONE Projections.

CHONE is a system that projects a player's performance for the upcoming year, as worked out by Sean Smith, and cover a team's MLB and upper minor league roster. The team list may have a gonzo name or two; it's a month old, though the numbers still stand for 2009.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Marilyn Monroe's Son, Craig

Hey, Craig Monroe is a pretty good jock, but his mom, Marilyn Monroe, was the standout, starring in softball and basketball when she was growing up in Texarkana, Texas.

But when she became pregnant with Craig as a teenager, she gave up her shot at college to raise her son. But she never lost her skills.

Monroe couldn't beat his mom at basketball until he was a high school sophomore. And he was a pretty sweet hoopster, named All-State as a shooting guard at Texas High, where he set a record for most three-pointers in a game.

On the gridiron, he was a star wide receiver and cornerback who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game.

Baseball was an afterthought in school. He was never really a star player, though he did excel in the local summer leagues. But a dislocated shoulder changed his plans.

He went to Texarkana JC, as his bum wing scared away the college recruiters bird dogging him for the other sports, and was debating on which sport to focus on when the Texas Rangers made the decision easy. They took Monroe in the 8th round of the 1995 draft, attracted by his tools and athleticism.

It looked like they may have wasted a pick for the first few seasons of his career as he floundered in the low minors. But he broke out at AA Tulsa in 2000, hitting .282 with 20 homers, 64 walks, 12 steals, and a .506 slugging percentage.

He was jumped to AAA Oakland in 2001, and hit .280 with 20 homers, 10 steals, 46 walks, and a .512 slugging percentage. He worked hard to improve his defense, considered a minus by most scouts. Monroe had the speed and arm, but was clueless running his routes.

Monroe hit .212 in a 27-game, 52 at-bat audition with the Rangers in 2001, with 2 dingers, and found himself on waivers.

The Tigers claimed him, and sent him to AAA Toledo, where he hit .321 with 10 HR and 49 RBI in 99 games. Scouts began to see him as a potential MLB fourth outfielder, and the Tigers as more.

Monroe got into 128 games for Detroit in 2003, hitting .230 with 23 homers and 70 RBI. He put together three pretty good season after that, hitting .293/18/72 in 2004 and .277/20/89 in 2005.

Monroe will remember 2004 for a different reason. That's when he was pinched for wrapping a $30 belt around his waist and trying to walk out of a Florida store without paying for it. His record was cleared after he spent some time in a rehab class.

His 2006 campaign made his rep, as he hit .255 with 28 HRs and 92 RBI. Monroe's grand slam off Javier Vazquez help separate the Tigers from their closest pursuers, the White Sox. He also tied a franchise record by hitting five home runs in the postseason, and was thought of as one of the big-time clutch hitters in the league after that those performances.

But as quickly as it came, it went. Mid-way through the 2007 season, Monroe, who lost his starting job in left field to Marcus Thames, was hitting only .222 with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs in 99 games for Motown. The low light came when he struck out 5 times in a 9 inning game against the Milwaukee Brewers, earning a platinum sombrero.

The Tigers called up minor league whiz kid Cameron Maybin and DFA'ed Monroe, eventually shipping him and cash to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Clay Rapada. He hit .204 with a long ball for the Cubbies in limited work off the bench.

Before the 2008 season, the The Twins acquired Monroe from the Tigers for a player to be named later. They released him in August after 58 games and a line of .202/8/29.

Monroe made $4.7M with the Tigers and Cubs in 2007, and in 2008 the Twins signed him to a one year deal worth $3.82M. It's a pretty safe bet the Bucs inked him for a bunch less.

What does C-Moe bring to the table? Well, his D never improved a lot. He can play the corners, and his youthful speed has long left him, although his wheels are still OK and he has a nice arm.

Monroe is a streaky batter, and the right-handed batter can't hit righties worth a dang. He's hit .276 and .271 against LHP the past two years, and .138 and .194 against RHP, and is a platoon/PH guy all the way. Monroe has struck out a lot (26%) and walked a little (7%) for the past two seasons.

He's still pretty clutch, though, with .283 and .254 RISP averages the last pair of seasons, considerably higher than his overall batting average. So Monroe has a decent chance of sticking with the club, especially if the suits, for reasons known only to them and the baseball gods, plan to team Steve Pearce and Neil Walker together at Indy for another year.

And when Andrew McCutchen debuts, he could give the Bucs a RH outfielder with a little pop to play RF and Nyjer can slide into the LH centerfield role, maybe platooning with McCutch.

It's not a major move, but the pieces fit together for 2009, anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bert Blyleven...Inching Towards the Hall

Hey, another Hall of Fame vote, another door slammed in Bert Blyleven's grizzled puss. Just who is this guy that evokes so much passion from both his supporters and detractors?

Bert Blyleven was born April 6, 1951 in Zeist, Netherlands, moved to Canada, and was raised in Garden Grove, California.

He got his baseball jones as a youngster watching Sandy Koufax pitch (his dad was a sportswriter), and later starred on the Santiago High nine. Blyleven was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in the third round in 1969, 55th overall. After 21 minor league starts he was called to the show at age 19, on June 2, 1970.

His curve was already a knee-buckler, and he was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News, going 10-9 with a 3.18 ERA and 135 Ks in 164 innings of work.

For the next six seasons, he was the mainstay of the Twin staff, winning 85 games while never having an ERA higher than 3.00, pitching less than 275 innings or striking out fewer than 219 batters.

But Blyleven was hounded by media and fans who were frustrated by a bad Minnesota team and appointed him as the scapegoat. He wanted out, and got his wish when was traded to the Texas Rangers on June 1, 1976. He pitched well with the Rangers, having a 2.76 ERA in his first season and throwing a no-hitter against the California Angels on September 22, 1977.

Then came his brief Bucco stay. On December 8, 1977, Blyleven and John Milner were traded to the Pirates as part of the first four-team trade in MLB history, with Al Oliver and the Mets' Jon Matlock going to the Rangers, and the Braves tossing in an odd player or two.

He became the rotation's tough-luck guy in Pittsburgh, rarely getting any run support, and he hurt his own cause as his performance dropped each season. Blyleven started off 14-10 with a 3.03 ERA in 1978, followed by 12-5 slate - he had an astounding 20 no decisions, still a record - and 3.60 ERA in the championship year of 1979 (he went 2-0 in the post season, with a Series win and ERA of 1.40), and then fell to 8-13 in 1980 with a 3.83 ERA.

Blyleven and the Pirates finally butted heads. He was unhappy with Chuck Tanner's strategy of going to the bullpen in close games, priding himself on complete games, and he threatened to retire he wasn't traded. It was less than an amicable divorce.

Blyleven did get what he wanted, going to the Cleveland Indians on December 9, 1980 for four guys, Bob Owchinko being the biggest name that came back in return. They gave him away rather than put up with what the suits considered his self-centered guff.

He bounced around after that. In what was fast becoming a career calling card, Blyleven became unhappy playing for the lackluster Indians and forced a trade back to the Twins, where he passed the 3,000-strikeout mark and helped Minnesota to a 1987 World Series crown.

Blyleven went to the California Angels in 1989 and put together 17-5 record and 2.73 ERA, but he missed the entire 1991 season following rotator cuff surgery. He came back in 1992, but was done, a victim of age and the knife, going 8-12 with a 4.74 ERA.

He retired following that season with a career 287-250 record, 3,701 strikeouts and a 3.31 ERA. Blyleven won major league games before he turned twenty and he won major league games after he turned forty, a club that includes only Herb Pennock & Mike Morgan. He also won fifteen games by the score of 1-0. Only two other pitchers have won more 1-0 games, Walter "Big Train" Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

Blyleven has been the color man for the Twins since 1995, and will be the pitching coach for the Dutch national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

He ranks 5th all-time in strikeouts, 9th in shutouts with 60, and 27th all-time in wins. Blyleven is the only retired member of the 3000 strikeout club not yet in the Hall of Fame, but the writers ain't showing him much love.

His detractors point out that he had just one 20-win season, two All-Star bids and never won a Cy Young Award during his 22 year career. In the key categories of strikeouts, wins and ERA, he only led his league once, when he topped the American League in strikeouts in 1985.

They say Blyleven's numbers are a product of longevity, not HoF talent, and use his regular trade demands as an example of Blyleven looking to pad his stats rather than be a team player, a career-long criticism that still haunts him. All GW can add to the debate is that he's never seen a curve ball better than Blyleven's - and we've seen Koufax's, the next best.

He received only 17.55% of the vote in 1998, his first year of eligibility. This year, Blyleven received 336 votes, or 61.9% of the vote. He needs to convince 69 more voters that he deserves a bust, and has until 2012 to sell himself before he's handed off to the Veteran's Committee.

Oh, well. As Blyleven once said early on in the process, "I know I've got a lock on the Dutch Hall of Fame." He should; he's one of only seven Dutchmen to play MLB.

Blyleven is sometimes his worst enemy, even as an announcer for his Twins. In 2006, he dropped a couple of f-bombs on the air when he didn't realize that the camera was still rolling. He was suspended for 7 games, and his fans were spotted holding "Free Bert" signs at the Metrodome.

"Circle Me, Bert" is another popular stadium sign. Fans hope that he'll spot their poster and circle them on television with his telestrator, ala Bob Walk, which gets the lucky winner $100 worth of state lottery tickets.

Blyleven is the main character in many a story. These are told in Baseball - A Laughing Matter, by Warner Fusselle, Rick Wolff and Brian Zevnik of The Sporting News, published in 1987 and related by Wikipedia:

* Blyleven appeared as himself in the 1990 Jim Belushi film Taking Care of Business. During a 2006 broadcast, he forgot the name of the movie and had to be reminded of it by a technician in the broadcast booth.

* He was one of baseball's most famous dugout pranksters during his playing days. Blyleven earned the nickname "Frying Dutchman" because of his love of giving unsuspecting teammates a hotfoot, and was famous in the Bucco dugout for lighting up Phil Garner.

* ESPN announcer Chris Berman, known for his corny handles, tagged him as Bert "Be Home" Blyleven.

* He appeared in a TV commercial for a home realtor company, playing off the many cities he played for during his career.

* Blyleven didn't even know his correct name until he was about to get married. He thought that his given name was Rikaalbert, but when he was about to get married and got a copy of his birth certificate, he discovered that his name was actually Rik Aalbert Blyleven. Hey, common mistake.

Bert Blyleven may or may not get voted into the Hall of Fame, but if Cooperstown had a wing for its characters, he'd be a shoo-in.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pittsburgh - August 2009

In the last post, we took a look at the upcoming mix-and-match makeup of the 2009 Pirates. Now it's time to hop into the GW time machine and set the dials for August 1st, 2009. (Don't worry - H.G. Wells approves. He even lent us the machine.)

The Cubbies were easily atop the division, while the surprising Reds and steady Cards were both alive in the wildcard race. The Pirates were dueling with the Astros for the last spot in the NL Central, with the Bucs sitting at 45-58 at the end of July.

The pitching had turned the corner under Joe Kerrigan, compiling a 4.45 ERA, near the league norm, and was on pace to cut walks and pump up the Ks by 5%. The pre-game planning paid off, too, as the starters averaged 6-2/3 innings per outing in 2009, a full inning deeper than it went 2008.

The bullpen had benefited from fewer appearances and innings, although free passes were still a problem. Matt Capps, after a slow start, had been money in the bank after mastering an off speed pitch, adding a foot to his heater and making batters look silly.

But the offense struggled. The middle of the lineup lacked big boppers, and the team wasn't constructed to play effective small ball, with little speed to speak of and in the midst of transitioning to an AL model attack. The result was a lot of 2 and 3 run games, and that just wasn't enough. Something had to give. And it did, on deadline day.

The usually dapper Neal Huntington stepped in front of the cameras, suit wrinkled and some stubble showing, to announce that Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and John Grabow had been traded to contenders and pretenders just under the deadline, fulfilling season-long predictions.

All were performing at about their MLB average - LaRoche was earning $7.25M after arbitration, and had a line of .273/19/65. Grabow was 2-1 with 12 holds and a 3.78 ERA, showing good control and equal effectiveness against righties and lefties, and had won $1.75M in his arbitration hearing for 2009. Both were in their walk year.

Wilson, making $7.25M and due $8.4 next year, was healthy and hitting .269/5/35. Sanchez had some minor bumps and bruises, but still had steady if limited range in the field and a batting line of .298/6/55, while taking home $6.1M with another $8M coming in 2010. Both of these guys had team options for next season, with $600K buyouts.

The return? Six minor league players, four reporting to AA and a pair to AAA. One was a middle infielder, two were outfielders with some power, and the other three were starting pitchers.

The fans and media were aghast. Losing Jack Splat and Sanchez, two guys deeply embedded in the community, took its toll at the gate, along with the universally held suspicion that the Bucs were more concerned about the bottom line than a winning team. The Pirates averaged under 13,000 fans for the final two months of the season.

The lineup took on an entirely new look. Steve Pearce and Garrett Ford began platooning at first base, Luis Cruz and Andy Phillips shared the chores at second, fighting for an everyday gig, and Ramon Vazquez took over at short, while Pedro Lopez and Neil Walker came up as a spare infielders. The Pirates were out of MLB ready lefties for the bullpen, and Evan Meek got his long-awaited call back to the show.

But other pieces were beginning to fall into place. Andrew McCutchen finally punched his ticket, and with an outfield going from left to right of Nate McLouth, McCutchen, and Brandon Moss, balls that routinely fell in were now being run down. McCutchen looked lost for a month at the dish, but came around to hit .285 in September, ending his rookie year with a .250 average.

Ryan Doumit was still susceptible to nagging injuries behind the plate, but caught 130 games and avoided the DL. Jason Jamarillo proved adequate as his back-up, hitting .260 and playing solid defense with a decent arm. (Ronny Paulino, meanwhile, was hitting .280 at Philly, with a dozen HR and 50 RBI, after Carlos Ruiz broke his ankle in June.)

But unlike 2008, these guys didn't mope around the diamond. Sensing that jobs and careers were to be had, they hustled and dove all over the yard for nine innings, under the watchful eye of clubhouse leader Doumit, who had taken on the roles of big brother and team sheriff when needed.

Oh, the rag-tag bunch didn't fare particularly better than last year's version - they would finish last, with a 68-94 record - but they were beginning to take on the look of a team.

The future was fast approaching. After tearing it up for the Curve, both Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata would start 2010 in Indy. Shelby Ford, Jim Negrych, and Jamie Romak were already there. Bryan Morris and Brad Lincoln were both working their way up the ladder and were in AA, and several members of the 2008 draft class were settled in at Lynchburg on the way to Altoona. The Pirates had bottomed out; now it was time to finally put a team together.

Change at long last had arrived in Pittsburgh.

(GW warns his long suffering readers that no number or scenario in this post, except for Wilson and Sanchez's contracts, have any basis in reality other than GW's imagination and prognostication skills, convoluted as they may be. No voodoo rites were called upon for technical assistance, like Ouija boards, fresh chicken entrails, tea leaves, Delphi oracles, VOR, Baseball Bibles, or PECOTA, although there was this quatrain by Nostradamus...)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Bucs Of 2009

As promised, here's your 2009 PBC, to date:

Added SP Daniel Haigwood and Brian Slocum, RP Chris Bootcheck and Donnie Veal, IF Ramon Vazquez and Andy Phillips, 1B Garrett Jones, SS Anderson Machado and Pedro Lopez; C Jason Jamarillo, and OF Jeff Salazar. Lost SP John van Benschoten, RP Frankie Osoria, C Ronny Paulino and Raul Chavez, OF Jason Michaels and Chris Duffy, and IF Chris Gomez. Unsigned free agents are IF Doug Mientkiewicz and Luis Rivas, and RP Jason Davis.

This year's starting rotation is shaping up to become the baseball version of the TV hit, "Survivors." GW figures Paul Maholm and Ian Snell have nailed down their spots. The rest have a bare-knuckles battle to impress Joe Kerrigan, especially as Phil Dumatrait has taken himself out of the early rotation mix with lingering shoulder woes.

Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, and Ross Ohlendorf are looking at three open spots and maybe a long relief role. Dumatrait may end up with that slot if his arm allows, and Karstens has filled that bill in New York.

For what it's worth, the current Pirate depth chart lists the guys in this order: Maholm, Snell, Ohlendorf, Gorzo, Duke, Karstens and Dumatrait.

Our take? Well, there's a little more competition, though not enough for our taste, and the guys will be working with the knowledge that there will be alternatives chomping at the bit in Indy for once, with Jimmy Barthmaier and the losers of the battle royale eyeing starting spots in Pittsburgh.

The pitchers had a 5.08 ERA in 2008, and were in the bottom three in strikeouts and top two in walks. Joe Kerrigan probably can't do much mechanically with the gang, but his game prep should improve the mental approach that Pirate hurlers have been so sorely lacking. A little more thought and aggression could get the staff moving in the right direction, and a 4.50 ERA with an attendant rise in K's and drop in walks would be a good year.

The bullpen should be OK. It's always been the easiest component of a team to cobble together when the closer is in place, and Matt Capps should be motivated, coming off an injury and the last year of his contract (though he does have two seasons of arbitration remaining in 2010 and 2011).

John Grabow will be working on his last arbitration year, and Tyler Yates and Sean Burnett seem set, as does Donnie Veal if he can find the plate at all in the spring. Grabow is the guy they'll depend on for the 8th inning bridge to Capps. If he's dealt, Yates will probably step into the role.

That leaves two spots for a small army of bullpen candidates, and one should be taken by a sixth starter. TJ Beam and Chris Bootcheck probably have a head start on Evan Meek, Craig Hansen, Jesse Chavez, and Romulo Sanchez. Like the rotation, the pen has to zero in on the plate if they want to avoid throwing gas on a fire.

Their stat line will be linked to getting an extra inning or two out of the starters. There were a lot of cases of August burnout and a spate of minor injuries when the innings finally caught up to the bullpen.

One last thought on the pitching decisions, as brought up by Dejan Kovacevic in the Post Gazette today:
"Phil Dumatrait, Sean Burnett, Craig Hansen and (Tyler) Yates are the only pitchers on the 40-man roster who are out of options, meaning they must make the team -- the 25-man roster -- out of spring training or the Pirates risk losing them on waivers if they try to send them to the minors. In Burnett's case, if he does not make the team, he would become a free agent."

And to make it more interesting, bubble child and wild thing Craig Hansen is a Scott Boras client. The plot thickens.

The infield, at least, is set for now. Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Andy LaRoche will cover the diamond with Ryan Doumit behind the dish - and we think his game will pick up with Kerrigan calling the pitches, something Russell rarely did.

There will be some battling for the bench spots. Vasquez is the only sure thing, and if the Bucs don't deal, Steve Pearce is probably in, too. The backup catcher's job will be decided between Jamarillo and Robinzon Diaz.

The last two slots on the pine will be contested by Luis Cruz, Brian Bixler, Salazar, Lopez, Phillips, and Jones. The Pirates could go a number of ways here, and still may land a bargain basement free agent, like Mientkiewicz, in the next few weeks to further muddy the situation.

And if young LaRoche continues to treat a baseball like a live hornet's nest, Neil Walker may even find a little love and eventually jump into the mix.

The shadow looming over the infield is that although it's set now, come trade deadline, Adam LaRoche, Wilson, and Sanchez will all be dangled. If they have fairly healthy and normal statistical seasons in 2008, they'll almost surely be gone. That will make life real interesting in Bucco country, as none of three have an obvious replacement in the organization.

The outfield is in complete flux for the 2009 squad. To us, Nate McLouth is the only deserving full time player in a Pirate uniform. Brandon Moss is still among the walking wounded, Nyjer Morgan can't throw a baseball across a little league infield, Steve Pearce is a project in the pasture...well, you get the picture.

Salazar has an OK stick and can actually play the field, but he's left handed, as is everyone but Pearce. The suits won't start Andrew McCutchen's clock quite yet, and Jose Tabata, even if he keeps on raking, is a couple of years away at best.

The outlook this year is glum. The pitching should improve - how could it get worse? - the infield and catching should be OK, if thin, and the outfield doesn't go get the ball very well or show much corner power. In fact, there's virtually no middle-of-the-order presence at all. And it could go downhill in July at the trade deadline.

Ya know what? It doesn't bother us. The suits took apart an organization that was dysfunctional, and it will take some time to see results. Pittsburgh has more talent in the system today than it's had at any time during this decade, and it's eventually going to percolate up the show. The team will be stripped down to rock bottom this year, and hopefully in 2010, the jigsaw will start to fit together.

The Bucs are moving in the right direction, but it's a journey, not a step. If they stay the course and catch a break or two, by 2010 the light should start to shine. But until then, there are gonna be some dark days at PNC.

(Tomorrow - from the Bucs of January to the August lineup.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

NL Central - 2009

Yah, we know there's still lots of time to alter a lineup or two; it's been that kind of free agent season. But while the Bucs have stood pat, there's been some changes, both by addition and subtraction, in the Central. The 2009 look, YTD:

Chicago Cubs: Added OF Milton Bradley and Joey Gathright, IF Aaron Miles, RP Luis Vizcaino and Kevin Gregg, and C Mark Johnson. Lost RP Kerry Woods and Bob Howry, SP Jason Marquis, and IF Mark DeRosa.

The Cubbies are loaded again. The starting rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and youngsters Jeff Samardzija or Sean Marshall is the Central's best. And hey, depending on the whims of new owners, the Cubs are still rumored to be in the Jake Peavy sell-off. Adding him would make the rotation something special.

The relief corp could prove interesting. Carlos Marmol has all the goods to close after an awesome 2008 campaign, but is unproven, and the Chitown Nine will have a bullpen by committee to get the ball to him.

Bradley will add some offense and spunk to the laid-back Cubbies, and the bench is OK, although Miles is no DeRosa. The only thing that these guys lacked last year was a spark, and if Bradley can stay in one piece, he's got enough energy for the whole squad.

Cincinnati Reds: Added RP Arthur Rhodes, CF Willy Taveras, C Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Jorgensen, 1B Wes Bankston, and OF Laynce Nix. Lost CF Ryan Freel and Corey Patterson, RP Gary Majewski and Jeremy Affeldt, and IF Andy Phillips. Unsigned free agents are SP Matt Belisle and Josh Fogg, RP Kent Mercker, C Paul Bako and Javier Valentin, OF Rob Mackowiak, and 2B Jolbert Cabrera.

The rotation is young and sweet. Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, and Johnny Cueto will form the core, with Micah Owings, Daryl Thompson, Homer Bailey, and Ramon Ramirez knocking on the door.

Francisco Cordero leads a bullpen that gained Rhodes and lost Majewski, a pretty fair trade.

Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce lead a lineup that's thin and lacking some muscle after Adam Dunn and Junior were dealt away. Young guns like SS Drew Stubbs and 1B Yonder Alonso are in the pipeline, and could end up in Cincy this year.

The bench is all kids, too. It's a young team and its window is probably 2010, not next season. But GW thinks they can make things interesting this year if they stay healthy and the suits pick up a bat for the middle of the order. Hope the Pirates are paying attention.

St. Louis Cards: Added SS Khalil Greene, C Jason LaRue, OF Joe Thurston and RP Royce Ring and Trever Miller. Lost SS Cesar Izturis, C Mark Johnson, 2B Aaron Miles, 1B Josh Phelps, OF Felix Lopez, SP Matt Clement, and RP Mark Worrell. Unsigned free agents are SP Mark Mulder and Braden Looper, RP Jason Isringhausen, Russ Springer, Ron Villone, and Randy Flores, OF Juan Encarcion, IF Scott Spiezio, and 2B Rico Washington.

The starters for Tony LaRussa look like Chris Carpenter, if healthy, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, Todd Wellemeyer, Joel Pineiro and perhaps youngster Kyle McClellan. They'll likely add a veteran arm from the free agent ranks, too.

The Cards top candidates to close are Chris Perez and Jason Motte, both rookies last year. Perez had seven saves in 11 chances after taking over for Isringhausen. LaRussa likes a veteran hand to end games, and the Redbirds could still ink a finisher after losing out on Brian Fuentes, or if Carpenter can't handle a starter's load, he could become the closer. The rest of the bullpen is young, a transition begun last season.

Any club that has Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick, and Ricky Ankiel has to be respected, and this could be the year wunderkind CF Colby Rasmus breaks into the bigs. The bench could use some work. But the Cards have some $20M left from last year's contracts, and have the flexibility to add the depth they need from the market.

Milwaukee Brewers: Added OF Trot Nixon and Chris Duffy, RP Trevor Hoffman, Jorge Julio, Eduardo Morlan, and Chris Smith, and IF Jason Bourgeois. Lost SP CC Sabathia, RP Solly Torres and Derrick Turnbow, IF Calix Crabbe, OF Russell Braynan and Laynce Nix. Unsigned free agents are SP Ben Sheets, RP Brian Shouse, Guillermo Mota, and Eric Gagne, IF Ray Durham and Craig Counsell, and OF Gabe Kapler.

The rotation looks like this: Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Manny Parra, and Seth McClung, Carlos Villanueva, or maybe Chris Capuano. Gallardo is a star in the making; the rest are run of the mill.

The bullpen pitched the fewest innings in the MLB last year, but will spring some major leaks without Torres and Shouse on board. Hoffman, if he has any gas left in the tank, will fill one gaping hole at closer, but good luck with the rest of the arms.

The starting eight can mash with the best of them, and unless you shoot a few balls at Prince Fielder (a misnomer if there ever was one), they can pick 'em pretty well, too. Alcides Escobar could be ready to take over at short, moving Hardy to third, and if Fielder is traded, Mat Gamel is sitting in the wings.

Right now, the Brew Crew needs to add at least one arm to both its rotation and pen. They have to completely reconstruct their bench. But we don't think this is the team they'll take to camp. They shed some $25M in salary from 2008, and almost surely have a signing or two left in them during the next few weeks.

Houston Astros: Added SP Mike Hampton and Clay Hensley, OF Jason Michaels, 3B Aaron Boone, and 2B Jason Smith. Lost 3B Jose Castillo, C JR House, RP Dave Borkowski, and 2B Mark Loretta. Unsigned free agents are SP Randy Wolf and Runelvys Hernandez, RP Ray King and Chad Paronto, 3B Ty Wigginton and Tomas Perez, C Brad Ausmus, and 2B David Newhan.

The rotation is Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Brian Moehler, and hopefully Hampton, Hensley, or Alberto Arias. Ben Sheets cost too much, and they're making loud noises about bringing back Andy Pettitte, but if he already turned down $10M...hey, maybe Oswalt can pull a CC and pitch every fourth day.

The closer is the ever excitable Jose Valverde, and the pen is a quietly dependable group of no-names, led by Doug Brocail and Hawkins.

Not much going on with the starting lineup, and except for Lance Berkman, there's not a whole lot there. The most dependable subs were Loretta and Ausmus, and they're gone, evaporated like every bench in the division.

GW thought the Astros big August was accomplished by smoke and mirrors, and sees them a step below the Cubs, Reds, Cards and Brewers, and a non-factor the wild card race.

GW's early guess at the NL Central:

St. Louis

(No, we didn't give up on or forget the Buccos - we'll take a look at where they're at tomorrow)