Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bucs Hammer Four Homers, Hold Off 'Stros

* Hey, the Pirates played longball (well, it was windy) against the Astros today, and it was just enough to edge the Texans, 6-5.

Brandon Moss, Robinzon Diaz, Craig Monroe, and Jeff Salazar went deep, and in typical Bucco style, three were solo shots. The Bucs also added a little giddy-up to their game with Andrew McCutchen and Nyjer Morgan swiping sacks, though Ramon Vazquez got caught. The Astro's stole three bases of their own.

Paul Maholm was sharp, getting the win after two innings of one-hit ball with a couple of K's. Jeff Karstens got tagged for a run on a Brian Bixler boot (talk about your broken record!), and Matt Capps, Evan Meek and Craig Hansen each added a scoreless inning with a K to the cause.

Denny Bautista and Jesse Chavez didn't fare so well, each giving up a deuce. Both of Chavez's runs came with two down (that third out is so hard to get sometimes), but Bautista's outing was just plain bad.

If you want the inning-by-inning, blow-by-blow rundown, Eron of the North Shore Notch live-blogged the contest.

The 3-1 Bucs will host the Tigers tomorrow afternoon. Jimmy Barthmaier is expected to go for the Bucs, against Detroit's Justin Verlander. We'll see what words of wisdom Jimmy Leyland has to impart to his still loyal Pittsburgh fan base.

* On the aches and pains front, Eric Hinske's bruised ribs could take anywhere from a couple of days to a week to recover. Luis Cruz is about 100%; he should be ready to play tomorrow or Monday. And Phil Dumatrait will pitch BP next week; he may be a couple of weeks away from throwing in a game, according to the Post Gazette.

* The Pirate minor league camp will start March 6th, and the young uns' are reporting already. The positions for the lower levels are starting to fall in place after last year's infield-loaded class got their feet wet, according to's Jen Langosch.

Jarek Cunningham, the Pirates' 18th-round pick, played 11 games at short and 26 games at third in the GCL last summer. He raked at Bradenton, and the Bucs want to keep him in the everyday lineup.

Both Chase d'Arnaud (fourth round) and Jordy Mercer (third round) are slotted to be everyday shortstops at the Class A levels. Third base is taken up by Jeremy Farrell (eighth round) and Matthew Hague (ninth round). We imagine there will be a spot at the hot corner for Pedro, too, probably at Lynchburg or Altoona.

So to unblock the high school whiz, Cunningham is making a move to second. It's a good idea; there's not much behind Shelby Ford and Jim Negrych, the assumed AAA and AA starters this season.

Kyle Stark added that the jury is still out on Daniel Moskos starting or working out of the pen. "We've got to decide throughout Spring Training if it's better for him to get more opportunities or more innings," he explained.

* The Post Gazette and Tribune Review both did a piece on Canadian minor-leaguer Dave Davidson, who joins Nyjer Morgan as a hockey player turned baseballer. "I was a goon," Davidson told them, with a laugh. "I led the league in scoring and in penalty minutes. I'd score two goals, get in a fight and go home."

* How low has baseball's reputation sunk thanks to its steroid scandal? Associated Press' Fred Frummer reports that softball, trying to get reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2016, rejected making a joint presentation with baseball. Why?

The IOC voted to drop baseball and softball in 2005, and softball officials have said their sport was hurt by baseball's doping scandals.

The president of the International Softball Federation, Don Porter, made this announcement Friday: "We have offered the IOC a doping-free, universal team sport that reflects the values of Olympism all over the world."


* You think Scott Boras drove the Pirate suits nuts? How about his wheelin' and dealin' with Manny and the Dodgers? Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has all the weirdness. Post Gazette blogmeister Bob Smizik even took note of the craziness in la-la land.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Which Gorzo Will Show In 2009?

Hey, we saw that Tom Gorzelanny started today's Grapefruit League loss to the Braves. He's not to blame, though - he worked a pair of frames, getting out the first hitters 1-2-3 on seven pitches, and then struggling a bit through the second inning with a couple of walks to start things off, on eight straight pitches. But he escaped unscathed when he coaxed a DP ball from the next batter.

So it was a promising start - no hits, and all six outs were recorded thanks to ground balls. But those walks...

Gorzelanny, an Illinois native from suburban Chicago, was drafted in the 38th round of the 2000 draft by the White Sox as a high-schooler, but didn't sign with the local nine. Instead, he opted to pad his resume with some college ball.

He spent two years at the University of Kansas and a third season at Triton JC, where he was 7-2 with a 2.47 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 66 innings. His reward? Gorzo was selected by the Pirates in the second round of the 2003 draft. He was the 45th overall pick, and signed for $775,000. Pretty good decision to wait it out, hey?

The Bucs assigned him to the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters of the New York-Penn League, where the club took the title. He went 1-2 with a 1.78 ERA and was named the 10th-best prospect in the league by Baseball America.

Gorzelanny moved up to A ball in 2004, and was 7-2 with a 2.23 ERA for the Hickory Crawdads, striking out 106 batters in 93 innings and allowing just a .193 opposing average.

He once again was on a championship team and would have been second in the league in ERA but ended up 19 innings short of qualifying when he was promoted to the High Class A Lynchburg Hillcats later during the season.

There, Gorzo put up a 3-5 record, with a 4.85 ERA, and 61 K in 55-2/3 innings. He was named the 13th-best prospect in the South Atlantic League and the 11th-best in the Carolina League by BA. He was on the fast track.

In 2005, Gorzelanny spent the season with the Class AA Altoona Curve and had a 8-5, 3.26 campaign, striking out 124 in 129-2/3 innings, and finishing ninth in the Eastern League in ERA. Called up for a September cup of coffee with Pittsburgh, he allowed eight runs in six innings. Well, you gotta start sometime.

He began 2006 with Class AAA Indianapolis Indians and went 6-5 with a 2.35 ERA, giving up 67 hits in 99-2/3 innings and league leading 94 strikeouts before he got his call to the show.

Actually, Gorzelanny was selected to play for the US team in the 2006 Futures Game, but the Bucs decided his time was now. Gorzelanny had his Pirate year cut short when he was sidelined from mid-August until mid-September with elbow tendinitis. During his time in the rotation, he was 2-5 with a 3.79 ERA.

The only cloud on the horizon was that he walked 31 in 62-1/3 innings, and struck out 40. A punch out guy in the minors, it looked like he'd have to finesse his way around the major league hitters.

Still, he was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher of the Year and Baseball America rated him the #4 prospect in the International League. He had the best K/9 ratio among all IL starters that year.

Gorzelanny was considered the next big thing for the 2007 Pirate staff, but he sure didn't show it in camp. He was rocked for four runs in his first inning in Grapefruit League play with a worrisome drop in speed.

He walked 14 batters in 20 innings, yet still made the team over Shane Youman and Sean Burnett, who had pitched much better in camp. His Grapefruit League ERA was 7.96. But not to worry; it just goes to show what camp's worth.

Gorzelanny started off his campaign 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA, picking up 3 of Pittsburgh's first 7 victories. On May 14, he singled to left for his first MLB hit in his 37th career at-bat.

It earned him a summer of free golf as he won a bet with Adam LaRoche: if Gorzelanny hadn't gotten a hit by the end of May, he would have had to buy LaRoche a new golf driver.

Gorzelanny finished 2007 with a 14-10 record and 3.88 ERA. He led the Pirates staff in wins and was second to Ian Snell in ERA. His control was fine, walking just three batters per nine innings, and he had some pop in his pitch, striking out six guys per game.

Jim Tracy tried to reward him with a 15th win, but it was a move that backfired. Gorzelanny had his highest inning count, and by a lot: 40-1/3 frames more than his best, 161-2/3 innings in 2006. Many argue that he should have been shut down in mid September, or at least given some extra rest, but it wasn't to be. Neither was that extra W.

Gorzo was a young gun, and the Pirates were going to ride his arm in 2008. Well, it didn't exactly work out as planned.

He battled control problems throughout the first half of 2008, walking 61 and striking out 53 in his first 87-2/3 innings while allowing 99 hits. He was 6-7 but with a 6.57 ERA and was leading the NL in walks.

On the Fourth of July against the Brew Crew, the left-hander yielded 11 hits, 4 walks and 8 runs in 4-2/3 innings. It was off to Indy for last year's ace.

Gorzelanny did well at Indianapolis. In seven starts, he was 3-1, had a 2.06 earned run average and walked only four in 35 innings.

"There were a few things that he needed to do," Pirates then-pitching coach Jeff Andrews told Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette. "One was getting his fastball command back. That was probably the No. 1 issue. The velocity we're used to seeing would have been a bonus had that come all the way back. His velocity came back a little bit."

"There also was the focus on the mound, the concentration, the not letting things get to him and not be so defensive in his approach to pitching and not worry about contact."

He made his way back to the show, but it was the same ol', same ol'. His final stats were 6-9, with a 6.66 ERA and 70 walks against 67 strike outs in 105-1/3 frames.

Gorzo didn't even make it to the finish line. His season ended with a ligament problem with his finger in mid-September. The whispering campaign started - he was out of shape and not doing his work, perhaps the results of being overworked in 2007, being a pet of Tracy's, and having no competition for the rotation spot early on.

Gorzelanny quickly forgot about 2008 and began on his 2009 come-back. His first step was losing 15 pounds. Next, he began work on a chronically weak left shoulder. He said it was an off-and-on problem all during his career, but became a nagging, everyday presence last year.

The 26-year old LHP has got the pedigree to come back and contribute as at least a solid mid-rotation guy. Gorzelanny throws a 90+ mph fastball, which he can complement with a change-up. He has a very good slider, and doesn't give in with runners on base.

We'll wait and see if his physical condition helps him rediscover his heater. It pretty well sat at 90 MPH last year after routinely hitting 93-94 in the past.

And he'll have to learn to trust his stuff. As with so many Pirate pitchers, he has a pitch-to-contact style. Gorzo has to embrace Joe Kerrigan's credo of pounding the strike zone and not pitching from behind. Cutting down on the walks, the hitter counts, and the high pitch counts has to be at the top on his to-do list.

If he can return to near his 2007 form, the Pirate pitching staff has improved by leaps and bounds without a move being made. If not...well, Ross Ohlendorf's looking good so far, hey?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Two In A Row For the Buccos...

* In front of 7,900+ fans at the City of Palms Field, the Pirates scored three times in the ninth to squeeze out a 3-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Grapefruit League play today.

The pitching again looked strong. Ian Snell walked a couple in the first, and they both scored thanks to a two-out bobble by Brian Bixler, who tried to reverse direction on a ball hit to his left and lost his footing.

The miscue juiced the sacks, and the next batter hit a Texas Leaguer into center, just in front of Andrew McCutchen, bringing home a pair.

Snell gave up a single to open the second, and then struck out the side. It'll be his last Pirate appearance for awhile, as he now heads off to represent Puerto Rico in the WBC.

Ross Ohlendorf pitched the next two frames and was el fuego, striking out three BoSox. Jimmy Barthmaier, Denny Bautista, Sean Burnett, Tyler Yates, and Daniel Haigwood sealed the deal.

Yates gave up a one-out single, and Haigwood walked a batter in the ninth; otherwise the staff was untouched, retiring 18 in a row at one point. Yates got the W and Haigwood earned the save.

Someone buy Joe Kerrigan a beer.

Pedro Alvarez got his first big bang of his career after Neil Walker and Jose Tabata walked, plating Walker. The first round pick shot a 3-1 pitch the opposite way for a double. Andy Phillips took one for the team, loading the bases.

A Steve Lerud bouncer to first tied it, and in a bit of sweet irony, Brian Bixler's grounder to short was booted, scoring Alvarez with the winning run.

It was a nice day for the youngsters at the dish. Besides Alvarez's big bop, Walker went 1-for-1 with a walk and run, while Shelby Ford went 1-for-2 with a steal.

Pittsburgh is home against the Braves tomorrow afternoon at McKechnie Field, with Tom Gorzelanny starting against Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami.

* Doug Mientkiewicz signed a minor league deal with the LA Dodgers today. Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune Review said that Neal Huntington's story is:
"We offered Doug a minor league contract with a chance to come to major league spring training to make our club and showcase himself for other clubs. Doug chose the Dodgers because he felt he had a better chance to make that club."
Whatever; the Dirt Dog era is officially over.

* Biertempfel also noted yesterday that Steve Blass has been with the Pirates as a player, staff member and broadcaster for 50 seasons now. And he's done the organization proud during every one of them, whether the year was up or down for him personally.

* Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports tells us that:
"(Will) Ohman, 31, has offers from the Pirates, Marlins and Padres, as first reported by, and is waiting for possible interest to develop from the Phillies, Mets and Dodgers."
Tick, tick, tick...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Break 'Em Up...

* The Bucs rocked the Phils 8-2 today to open the Grapefruit League. Nine guys got an inning each on the hill, and the good news is the Pirate wild children all found the plate in their brief stints: Donnie Veal got the win, giving up a single, while Chris Hansen struck out two and Evan Meek one in perfect innings.

Chris Bootcheck also had a perfect frame with a K, and Ron Uviedo retire all three of his batters. Juan Mateo gave up a double and whiffed one. But not everyone was sharp quite yet.

Matt Capps took a walk on the wild side and issued three free passes on twelve straight pitches, but a K and DP ball cleaned up his mess. Romulo Sanchez wasn't that lucky; he got nicked for a couple of hits and a run. Jesse Chavez gave up three consecutive singles and a run to start the ninth, but got the next two hitters to strike out and ended the game with a come-backer.

Not much to take to school from the first outing, but one sign to watch for in the future: the pitchers threw a lot of change-ups. That philosophy may finally be taking hold.

The hitting heroes were Shelby Ford, who smacked a three-run shot over the right field wall, Freddy Sanchez, who went 2-for-2 with a double, and Steve Pearce, who played some first and went 1-for-1 with a two-bagger and a walk. The Bucs drew seven walks; whether that's Philly rust or a sign of a little plate discipline will be seen.

Oh, and don't expect Pedro to be in the opening day lineup this year. Alvarez was called on to pinch hit - against a lefty, yet - and swung and missed three breaking balls, the last a 55-footer. Welcome to the show, kid, and take a seat.

The opening lineup was: 1. Nyjer Morgan LF, 2. Freddy Sanchez 2B, 3. Nate McLouth CF, 4. Ryan Doumit C, 5. Adam LaRoche 1B, 6. Craig Monroe DH (NL teams can agree to use a DH up to two weeks before the end of spring ball), 7. Brandon Moss RF, 8. Ramon Vazquez 3B, 9. Jack Wilson SS.

* OK, the CHONE and PECOTA projections are out. Looks like a long year for Pittsburgh. The CHONE Central Division picks, by Sean Smith:

Chicago Cubs 88-74
Saint Louis Cardinals 83-79
Cincinnati Reds 82-80
Milwaukee Brewers 81-81
Pittsburgh Pirates 73-89
Houston Astros 72-90

And PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus:

Chicago Cubs 96-66
Milwaukee Brewers 86-76
St. Louis Cardinals 81-81
Cincinnati Reds 79-83
Houston Astros 66-96
Pittsburgh Pirates 64-98 *ouch*

* Those globe-trotting Pirates have nine players on final WBC rosters, two from the big team: RHP Ian Snell and IF Ramon Vazquez (Puerto Rico). The farmhands are: LHP Dave Davidson (Canada), RHP Josh Hill and LHP Paul Mildren (Australia), IF Ray Chang (China), LHP Chi-Hung Cheng (Chinese Taipei), LHP Eliecer Navarro (Panama), and SS Gift Ngoepe (South Africa).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

All The News Fit To Print

* Baseball America has released its Top 100 Prospects for 2009, and no surprises for the Pirates. They rank Pedro Alvarez #12, Andrew McCutchen 33#, and Jose Tabata #75.

They have Pedro and Andrew landing in Pittsburgh this year, and Jose in 2010.

* Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette says the Bucs still have an iron in the Will Ohman fire, eyeing the LHP as an insurance policy as they grease the skids to move John Grabow during his free agent season.

* John Perrotto of the Pirates Report does a piece on the Buc's Barber of the Bullpen, ex-Indian RHP Brian Slocum.

* Rob Beirtempfel of the Tribune Review checks out the achy Bucs: Luis Cruz pulled a hip flexor and will miss a week, while Freddy Sanchez is still long-tossing.

* Chuck Finder of the Post Gazette clues us into Jason Davis' second career - as a taxidermist. Maybe he can go into business stuffing Adam LaRoche's trophies.

* Jen Langosch of takes a look at the eight baby Bucs that landed in PNC at the trade deadline. She thinks that "It's quite possible that by the end of the season six of the eight players acquired last July will be making contributions in Pittsburgh."

* Tony Massarotti of the Boston Globe discusses the Jay Bay quest for a long-term Red Sox contract during his walk year.

He writes that "...factoring in age, defense and mobility, there may not be a more desirable free agent outfielder on the market next November than the man who currently plays left field for the Red Sox."

Oh, and they very much like his glove in Beantown, a facet of his game that was greatly underappreciated in Pittsburgh because he played 2007 more or less on one leg.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another AAA Infielder

The suits signed Ruben Gotay, a 27-year old utility infielder, to a minor league contract today. In parts of four seasons, he's a lifetime .255 hitter, and about a league average second baseman, where he's spent the vast majority of his playing time.

Gotay has a couple of tenuous Pirate ties - he was traded in 2006 to the Mets by KC for old Bucco farmhand Jeff Keppinger, now a Red, and his uncle Julio Gotay had a couple cups of coffee with Pittsburgh in 1963-64. He'll report to the minor league camp in Bradenton, according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette.

Our question is whassup with this move? The Bucs have really stocked up on infielders: holdovers Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz from Indy, to be joined by Shelby Ford, shortstops Pedro Lopez and Anderson Machado, plus Andy Phillips, who plays every infield spot but short. And we expect Brian Friday to start at Altoona.

That's a lot of guys to man the middle of the diamond at Indy and Altoona, even if one of the above lands a utility role behind Ramon Vazquez, and suggests a couple of things to us.

One, and most obvious, is that they want some upper level depth in anticipation of moving the major league infielders, Jack Wilson and/or Freddy Sanchez. That would certainly break up the current logjam.

Two, with all the middle-of-the-infield talent stacked up in Class A and still seasons away from hitting the show, they may just want to strengthen their hand in the minors for competitive reasons.

All that's left behind Bixler and Cruz on the depth chart are Friday and Ford for the short term. That's the state of the Pirate minor league system today.

So it's another small move today to stock the cupboard that Dave Littlefield left so bare. We'll know the new dawn has arrived when the Pirates can promote their own talent from within instead of digging through other people's dumpsters and hoping for the best.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Tabata Tale

While we were reading the news about Pedro cracking the ball into the Florida stratosphere, a quote about a different hotshot caught our eye:

"You should watch Tabata hit. Jose Tabata is kind of going under the radar here, but this kid has a special bat as well," John Russell told the scribes gathered around the batting cage yesterday.

Jose Tabata was born August 12, 1988 in Anzoategui, Venezuela, and is a 20-year old OF'er who's probably going to start the year in Altoona. He signed with the Yankees in 2004, and promptly starting playing in the Dominican Summer League at 16.

In his first year of pro ball, Tabata led the entire Yankees farm system in batting average when he hit .314 for the Gulf Coast Yankees in 2005. He added 3 homers, 25 RBI, and 22 stolen bases.

In 2006, he batted .298 for the Low Class A Charleston RiverDogs. Tabata had 5 HRs, 56 RBI, and the young outfielder looked like he had smooth sailing ahead on his journey to the bigs. But he would soon encounter some rough seas.

The Buc fans got their first look at him when he was selected to participate in the Futures Game as a member of the World Team. The event was part of the festivities for the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park, and Tabata played center field while going 1-for-3 with a single off fellow Yankees prospect Phil Hughes.

Ah, but that first squall was about to pop up. He was hit on the right wrist in 2006, cutting short his season. The injury bothered him throughout 2007, and he finally had the hamate bone removed in August.

He was still having problems with it in early 2008; it's not unusual to have lingering effects from the surgery for months afterwards. Pedro Alvarez had the same operation. Can't anyone get to Pittsburgh with all their body parts intact?

In 2007, he played for the Class A Tampa Yankees. Besides the bum hand, he hurt his cause by reporting to camp overweight and out of shape. Tabata hit .307, but his slugging percentage dropped under .400 for the first time in his pro career.

Still, he got back into condition, and continued his steady climb, reporting to the Class AA Trenton Thunder in 2008. It would be quite a season for the Venezuelan teen. First, he was a star of a couple of soap opera prima donna episodes.

The first incident happened in late April when Tabata, frustrated after a striking out, left the team in the seventh inning. He was suspended three games for the boneheaded move. He said it had nothing to do with his mates; he was just feeling pressure, as only a highly-touted Yankee prospect can, and lost it.

A month later, it was deja vu all over again. He was either asked to leave the game after failing to back up Austin Jackson in the outfield, or got into a shoving match inside the dugout with infielder Reegie Corona, leading to Tabata being dragged into the clubhouse tunnel by his teammates. Maybe it was a little of both; it just depends who you ask. At any rate, he was suspended again.

Tabata served his time once more and returned, just in time to severely pull his hammy. To top it all off, he was hitting .248 and showed no power to speak of at the dish. Tired of his act - and probably performance - the Yankees acted.

On July 26, 2008, he was dealt to the Pirates with Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Dan McCutchen for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Bye-bye, problem child. The Pirates saw it differently.

The Bucs said Tabata was the key to the deal. GM Neal Huntington told Jen Langosch of that "Quite frankly, if we had the opportunity to trade two players of the caliber of Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady [for Tabata] last December, I think we would have done that in a heartbeat."

They sent Tabata to Altoona after some GCL rehab time, and the change of scene seemed to do him good. Away from the prying eyes and poisoned pens of the New York press, he put together a .348/.402/.562 line with 3 dingers and 36 RBI in 89 at-bats. His behavior, by all accounts, was angelic.

At age 20, we expect the Pirates to start him off with the Curve, and probably pencil him in at Indy when Andrew McCutchen gets his inevitable call to the show.

What's the outlook for Jose Tabata? First, his disposition is what it is. He's been described as extremely confident in his abilities, bordering on cocky. And that's OK, if his butt can back up his mouth. Humility isn't exactly a MLB virtue that's widely practiced in today's game.

The Yankees were grooming him to take Bobby Abreu's place in right field, and that seems about right. His wheels are OK, his arm is a rifle, and he played center at Altoona. But he's packed on 40 pounds since the Evil Empire inked him, and Tabata's a 5-11, 215 pound fireplug now. So he'll fit into a corner OF spot in the show.

Now for the bat. He was described as a five tool player, but nothing in his resume suggests he'll ever hit for power. Tabata has 21 long balls in 1,280 minor-league at bats, so we can forget clean-up.

But except for that bummer of a season at Trenton last year, he's had a .370-.400 OBP, and has terrific line-drive gap power. So he looks like he'll be a natural for the three hole. Scouting reports say that the AA pitchers found a hole in his swing and pounded him inside last year; hopefully he and Don Long will solve that problem.

Signs to watch out for are his maturity and attitude - he was widely thought to take some plays off while a member of the Yankee system - and his weight. If Tabata keeps those in check, he should turn into a heck of a ballplayer.

Along with McCutchen, he's as close to a can't-miss prospect as the Pirate system has. Here's how Baseball America has rated him over the years:

2006 - #3 ranked for NYY
2007 - #27 ranked MLB
2007 - #2 ranked for NYY
2008 - #37 ranked MLB
2008 - #3 ranked for NYY
2009 - #75 ranked for MLB
2009 - #3 ranked for Pittsburgh

And the final word, from Scouting Book, with his report just before he was traded:
"Tabata is a polished fielder who's almost major-league ready, despite his young age. A natural right fielder with excellent patience, many see him as a natural fit to replace Bobby Abreu. He needs another year or two of mental development, but other than that and a place to play, there's not much holding him back.

Tabata is likely to be sought after in trades by teams who have more immediate needs than New York, and if one of those teams gets a hold of the young line-drive hitter, the likelihood of a debut in the near future will go up sharply.

(Jose Tabata has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates as the headliner in a four prospect package for veterans Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. Tabata will fall down a notch or two, as Pittsburgh has much more outfield depth, but he should benefit long-term. The future Pirate outfield of McCutchen, McLouth, Tabata could be one of the league's best.)"
Let's hope they're right.

Russell Hot, Nady Frozen

A week in camp, and here's what happened:

* John Russell's option for 2010 was picked up. Seems only fair; he did a good enough job when he had a team, and the post-deal Bucco results can be credited much more to on-field talent, or lack thereof, than coaching.

According to Cot's Contracts, his 2008 deal was worth $1.6M. Chuck Finder of the Post Gazette says he has an option for 2011, too, which wasn't listed by Cot's. The financial details weren't available.

We like his quiet demeanor, which probably wears on a team much more easily than a fireball whose act gets old in a hurry. That said, he could stroll out on the field a little more often, if for no reason than to assure the players that he has their backs and to introduce himself to the umping crew.

The only other question we have is how he'll handle a staff when he gets one. Russell kept guys in the game when it was obvious they didn't have anything left in the tank, but his bullpen was worked to a frazzle, too. Danged if you do, danged if you don't.

Russell is the fifth manager since Gene Lamont took over from Jim Leyland in 1997, and the 38th in Bucco history.

Oh yah, they signed that Nate McLouth guy, too.

* Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reports that Xavier Nady has had his money frozen as part of the newest financial scandal involving Allan Stanford. The account is handled by a Scott Boras' business arm, the Personal Management Consultants. He joins Johnny Damon and Mike Pelfrey as New York rich guys that can't get to their cash, at least for the time being.

* The report from a so far quiet camp: weather's a little chilly, by Sunshine State standards, everyone is present and in shape, Brandon Moss, Phil Dumatrait, and Jeff Karstens are all recovered or on track; only a couple of minor aches, pains and sniffles reported so far; Pedro Alvarez can hit a baseball; and Manny Sanguillen, Billy Mazeroski, Kent Tekulve, and Bill Virdon are in Florida again, passing on the wisdom of the ages.

There are 57 players in camp, and that seems like a very manageable number to work with. No one should be passed over, especially with the extra week of work thanks to the WBC.

The first spring game is Wednesday against the Phillies, and Joe Kerrigan plans to throw nine relievers, an inning at a time. Thursday brings in the Red Sox, and Ian Snell will work the first two innings of that match. Snell will leave on the 28th to join the Puerto Rican squad for the World Baseball Classic.

* How powerful a tool is arbitration for young players? Ron Blum of the Associated Press reports that the guys that filed saw their paycheck jump from an average of $1.13M to $3.07, a 172% increase. Fourteen also signed long-term deals, including McLouth, Ryan Doumit, and Paul Maholm.

The tables surely do turn after the teams get to low-ball their youngsters for the first three years of their career. And the raises were by and large negotiated; only three guys actually had hearings.

* And finally, before GW shovels off his walk and heads to church, RHP Kris Benson, the first pick in the 1996 draft of the Pirates, signed a minor league contract Saturday with the Texas Rangers. Hope springs eternal in the spring...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Long Road From Gibsonia To Pittsburgh

Hey, Neil Walker could do it all back not so long ago when he was an AP All-State receiver for the WPIAL champion Pine-Richland Rams, toolsy All-America catcher, and solid hoops forward in 2004. In fact, he was twice named the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's "Male Athlete of the Year" for his derring-do on the field.

He hit .657 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs his senior go-round, and his nine won a WPIAL baseball title to go with the football crown. Walker was named to Baseball America's 2004 All-American High School team as the top catcher in the country and the USA Today's 10-player All-American team.

Walker was rated the #1 high school backstop by some other national gurus, and had accepted a baseball scholarship from Clemson in 2003, his junior year, hoping in the back of his mind that he'd hit the gridiron there, too.

But baseball was the road he chose; it was in his genes. His dad Tom was a MLB reliever, pitching six seasons for four teams, and uncle Chip Lang made 30 appearances in a couple of years with the Expos. His brother Matt was drafted by the Tigers, and made it as far as AAA in the Baltimore system before hanging the spikes up in 2004. His brother Sean played college hardball.

Even his sister Carrie got into the act - she played international pro hoops, and married into baseball, being the better half of Wexford's (now Mt. Lebanon's) Don Kelly, currently an infielder working for a spot on the Detroit Tiger's roster.

The Pirates made it academic when they nabbed Walker in the first round of 2004 draft with the 11th overall pick. Walker netted a signing bonus of $1,950,000, with an extra $100,000 on tap to pay for college. He was the third non-pitcher selected.

Walker was shipped to the GCL Bradenton Pirates and put together a line of .271/.313/.427, and was named the 5th-best prospect in the Gulf Coast League. Later in the season, he moved up to short season Williamsport and hit .313/.343/.406.

Promoted to the Class A Hickory Crawdads in 2005, Walker had a .301/.332/.452 line with 12 homers, 33 doubles, and 68 RBI, earning a spot on the South Atlantic League All-Star team at catcher after overcoming a slow start at the plate. He got a cup of coffee at High A Lynchburg, going .262/.244/.357 during his nine game stint.

While he showed good contact ability and extra-base gap power with the bat, he only drew 20 walks and allowed 22 passed balls in 79 games. The suits had their work cut out for him regarding his plate discipline and pitch recognition, weaknesses for the free-swinger, but they chose another road to cure his catching woes.

The Pirates decided to convert Walker to third base, partially because of all the balls bouncing off of the backstop, but mainly because Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino were in the system and had him blocked behind the plate, a theme that would recur again a couple of seasons down the road.

He began the transition to the hot corner during the 2005 Arizona Fall League as a member of the Peoria Saguaros, but it was a fairly short-lived try-out. Walker injured a ligament in his left wrist in early November in the AFL and required surgery, missing the early part of the 2006 campaign.

He still wasn't at full strength when he finally returned to action at Lynchburg as a catcher in late May of 2006.

He picked up the pace in late July and August and overall hit .284/.345/.409 for the Lynchburg Hillcats, then was promoted in mid-August to the Altoona Curve, where he hit just .161 in 10 games while battling illness. Worse yet, his power had almost entirely been sapped, as he hit just five bombs for the two clubs.

In February of 2007, Pirate management announced that Walker would be converted full-time to third base. He also got his first call to camp, and it was a family affair of sorts. Infielder Don Kelly, signed as a non-roster invitee to Pirate spring ball, had just married Walker's sister, making the two of them brothers-in-law as they entered camp.

After Bradenton, he headed to Altoona and hit .288/.362/.462 with 13 home runs, 30 doubles, 77 runs, and 66 RBI for the Curve. Walker alos led the team with 25 boots at his new position on the corner. But his stick got him sent to AAA Indy in mid-August, where he rejoined his utility man in-law briefly, hitting .203 in 16 games.

He went to camp in 2008 with an outside chance at making the roster, but it wasn't to be. He was shipped back to Indy, where he had a terrible start - some say because he was bummed at still being in the bushes instead of the show - heated up in the dog days, and leveled off towards the end.

Walker hit .245 with a team-high 16 homers, seven triples, 25 doubles, and 79 RBI in 130 games. The good news was that he only made 19 errors, and was named the best defensive infielder in the International League. Walker was also chosen as the 2008 Indianapolis Indians Most Valuable Player.

He's in camp, but the odds are heavily stacked for a return trip to Indy in April. At 23-years old, he's not exactly at a make-or-break point, but he has to start showing the suits something, and fairly soon.

After all, Walker was rated by Baseball America as the Pirates number two prospect entering 2008, and ranked by them as one of the top 100 MLB prospects in 2005 (81), 2006 (43), 2007 (74), and 2008 (61). But his play last year puts him at serious risk of losing his prospect with a bullet status. Walker was just added to the 40-man roster, and that will start the team clock ticking.

What to do with young Mr. Walker? Well, start by finding a position for him. First he was buried behind a logjam of catchers; now he has Andy LaRoche above him and Pedro Alvarez behind him.

But in the long run, his athleticism and versatility should only help his cause. He can catch in a pinch, he can play third, and it wouldn't take much to assume that with a little work, he could play a corner outfield spot or first base. Heck, it's even been suggested that he's capable of playing second.

So on first blush, if a regular position with Pittsburgh isn't in the cards, Walker could become a super-utility man in the show. Being a switch-hitter only adds to his value off the bench.

The other option is to use him, like Mike Gonzalez or Brent Lillibridge, as bait to lure some more talent into the Pirate system. Just because you amass ballplayers doesn't mean they're all going to end up at PNC one day. There's a lot of stadiums looking for players.

It's too soon to pull the plug on Walker, especially with a team in transition like Pittsburgh. The third base mash-up could just as easily become a black hole in a heartbeat if young LaRoche continues to flame, his big brother jumps into the free agent melee, and Alvarez snacks his way to first base.

And who knows if Ryan Doumit can stand up to the everyday pounding behind the plate? He only played 116 games last year, and the catching spot, at least for the number two position, could be up for grabs. Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz are unproven reserves, just like Walker, and neither was as highly touted.

If nothing else shakes loose, Walker could provide John Russell some much needed flexibility off the pine, and that looks like the direction the Pirates are taking in putting together a bench.

Hey, from the North Hills to Pittsburgh's North Side is just a fifteen minute trip by car. It's a heck of a lot longer, with many more twists, turns, and potholes, on the baseball trail.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Meek Shall Inherit The Hill

Evan Meek was born in Bellevue, Washington, and is a 2002 graduate of the Inglemoor Vikings. He was a classmate of White Sox wild child Bobby Jenks, who was a couple of years ahead of him (they weren't teammates, though - Jenks didn't have the grades to play, and probably couldn't have gotten out of detention hall even if he did.)

He was drafted by the Twins in the 11th round that same year, but didn't sign right away. Instead, Meek went to Bellevue (WA) Community College, where he was named the top starting pitcher in the NWACC as a "draft and follow" player.

In 2003, he did sign on the dotted line, and went 7-1 with a 2.47 ERA for the Twin's short-season club, the Elizabethton Twins. In 51 innings, he walked 24 and struck out 47, allowing 33 hits. Baseball America rated him as the Appalachian League's #11 prospect, for what that's worth.

But in 2004, the right-hander suddenly lost all semblance of control, for no discernible reason. Meek walked 15 batters in only six innings at Class A Quad City before returning to extended spring training.

Hoping he was straightened out, the Twin Cities sent him back to Elizabethton, where he walked 25 more in 22 innings with an 8.06 ERA.

In 2005, the Twins gave him one more shot in the A Midwest League with Beloit, but he walked 36 more batters in 18 innings with a 10.00 ERA. Meek threw 23 wild pitches in 46 innings over two seasons.

He was, not too surprisingly, released by Minnesota midway through the year. Meek took the time off and tried to get his head together. That fall, the San Diego Padres signed him as a free agent and diligently worked side sessions with him, and his control improved significantly.

Meek went 6-6 with a 4.98 ERA for the high A Lake Elsinore Storm in the hitter's California League. Still, he walked 62 in 119 innings of work as a starter, better, but not enough to keep him in the Padre organization.

He was traded with Dale Thayer to Tampa Bay for Russell Branyan. The Rays did their homework, and they deleted two of his starts in which he gave up 17 runs in 2/3 of an inning. Meeks pitched 118-1/3 innings, striking out 113 and compiling a 3.72 ERA without those two stinkers.

They had one other trick up their sleeve. TB switched him to the pen, where he could rear back and fire without pacing himself. Meek was 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA after joining the Visalia Oaks at season's end, but the best was yet to come.

He spent 2007 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits and was 2-1 with a save and 4.30 ERA in 44 games. In 67 innings, he struck out 69 and walked 34 while registering 95 mph on the radar gun regularly.

A concussion and stiff shoulder early in the year hurt his line, but Meek finished strong, not allowing a run from August 9th on. He followed that with a stint in the Arizona Fall League, allowing one run and three hits while whiffing nine and walking five in 9-2/3 innings. His ERA was 0.93.

But the Rays, brimming with talent, had no room for Meek on their 40-man roster. Pittsburgh did, and selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the 2007 season.

Meek looked a little shaky at camp. He failed to top 91 MPH in spring training, claiming that he was taking something off of his stuff to improve his control. That's never good.

He made his MLB debut on April 2nd. His first warmup pitch went to the backstop and the next two hopped in the dirt. It didn't get any better; he gave up a two-run gopher ball to the Braves in his first frame in the show.

Meek walked 12 in 13 innings while striking out 7, and was 0-1 with a 6.92 ERA in nine games. Meek's most infamous performance came in the Bucs home lid-lifter against the Cubs, when the 25-year old picked up the loss after walking five in one inning of work. He allowed multiple runs in five of his first six April appearances.

Guess what? The Bucs waived him, and after he cleared, they offered him back to Tampa Bay. Guess what? They didn't want him back! Pittsburgh worked out a cash deal to keep Meek, who they liked but was obviously in need of the kind of tune-up only the coaching mechanics tinkering in the minors can provide.

They sent him kicking and screaming to Altoona to work out the kinks. Meek beefed, wanting to drop no lower than AAA Indy, no doubt fearing that he'd dropped completely out of the Pirate future. Neal Huntington gave him a choice - his way or the highway.

Meek took off a few days and finally came to the conclusion that Altoona was OK with him.

"I thought about the fact that Neal had made a deal to keep me," Meek recalled for Jen Langosch of "He obviously believed in me. He stuck with me, and the Pirates stuck with me. That's what helped me make my decision."

"And everything worked out great," he continued. "They kept their promise, too. They said that when I got my velocity back and my control back, they'd move me up."

Now that the warm and fuzzies were firmly established, Meek did his work and was 1-1 with 2 saves and a 2.81 ERA in nine outings for Altoona. More importantly, he struck out 17 and walked just three in 16 innings.

It was on to Indy, where he had 2 saves and a 2.40 ERA in 23 games, walking 14 in 41-2/3 frames while fanning 34.

Meek followed that with a strong performance in the Mexican Winter League, pitching for the Mazatlan Deer. He had a 2.93 ERA, 8 BB, 14 Ks, and 10 saves in 15-1/3 innings, with an opposing batting average of .167. Rene Gayo watched, and was impressed that Meek was showing some control and throwing as hot as 98 MPH while consistently hitting 94 MPH.

He put himself back on the fast track, reaching #8 on the Pirate's 2009 Top Ten prospect list, according to Minor League Ball.

Ah, nothing like a career revived to warm over the spring tedium. Will Meek break camp with the team? Well, he throws hard, with a sinking heater - he gets a lot of ground outs for a power pitcher, - curve and slider, and we know how much the suits like guys that throw BBs.

But there is a numbers game in camp, and he has an option left. It would make some sense to start him out at Indy to get his motion etched into his muscle memory. And whether he starts in Pittsburgh or not, he's a solid bet to be in the show sometime in 2009.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Old Gang of Ours

Hey, we thought we'd take a look at the old Pirate gang, and how they're making out in their new digs:

* Jay Bay is having a great time in Beantown, patrolling the hallowed grounds in front of the Green Monster in the shadows of Ted Williams, Yaz, Jim Rice, and Manny. He'll make $7.5M this year and be a free agent in 2010.

* Xavier Nady isn't feeling the love so much in New York. He signed a $6.55M contract for 2009, and promptly found his name blowin' in the trade winds, albeit at a high cost. The X-Man is in his walk year, and as of now is either the Big Apple's starting RF or fourth man, depending on who you ask.

* Damaso Marte caught a fistful of Yankee dollars, wisely signing early before the depressed reliever's market became apparent. The pin-stripers refused his $6M option, and then turned around and inked the lefty to a 3-year, $12M deal. Marte had a rough start, as Joe Girardi tried to use him as a LOOGY, but flipped it around when he returned to his more comfortable set-up slot.

* Jason Michaels inked a deal with the Astros for 1-year, $750K, and will serve his familiar role as pinch-hitter and fourth OF for Houston.

* Ronny Paulino probably landed on his feet at Philly. He's certainly cheap enough - Paulino won't be arbitration-eligible until next season - and from reports, has the upper hand on the 36-year old Chris Coste, who Philadelphia would love to move, as Carlos Ruiz's caddy.

* Jose Bautista signed a $2.4M deal with Toronto to avoid his second arbitration year, and will have his hands full leaving camp with his utility job intact now that the Blue Jays added Kevin Millar to the roster. It'll come down to Millar's bat weighed against Bautista's versatility in the field.

* Kyle Bloom was picked up by the Tigers in the Rule 5 draft, and Jim Leyland liked what he's seen so far in camp, especially the 26-year old LHP's hook.

* Todd Redmond, RHP, was the bait the Pirates used to land Tyler Yates from the Braves last spring. He was steady at AA last year, and Atlanta put him on its 40-man roster and invited him to camp. He's penciled in for their AAA rotation in 2009.

* Lotta ex-Bucs signed non-guaranteed contracts: Raul Chavez, Bryan Bullington, and TJ Beam with Toronto, Luis Rivas with the Cubs, Chris Gomez with Baltimore, Chris Duffy with the Brew Crew, Frankie Osoria with KC, and John Van Benschoten with the White Sox.

* We'll finish off with second round draft pick Tanner Scheppers, who turned down a Buc offer and signed with the indy St. Paul Saints to try to reestablish himself after suffering a stress fracture.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2011 - Time to Cut Bait

OK, we took a look at this year's payroll in the last post. Next year's shouldn't be much of a burden, either.

Nate McLouth, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Ryan Doumit, and Ramon Vazquez are all signed, and will earn a base pay of $18.8M among them. Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez have option years worth $16.4M between them. It'll probably be buy-out time for the middle of the infield, if they're not already packaged and dealt by the deadline.

Tyler Yates, Matt Capps, Zach Duke, Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny will all be arbitration-eligible. Still, the payroll should be manageable next season. Ah, but 2011.

McLouth, Maholm, Snell (option year), and Doumit will bring down $24.1M. With Pedro's anticipated arrival, the bill goes up just a bit, to $24.65M.

But bringing in a pack of pups like the Pirates did this year has the downside of them all hitting arbitration at the same time.

Capps and Duke will be in their third year, Burnett and Gorzelanny their second (and maybe Karstens, depending on how long he's on the 2009 MLB roster), and Craig Hansen (if he earns a spot on the roster this season), Phil Dumatrait, and Andy LaRoche all head into their first year.

Brandon Moss will almost certainly hit Super 2 status and begin arbitration, while Ross Ohlendorf will make it if he's on the roster all year in 2009. That's ten potential arbitration cases, seven or eight almost certain to make the cut.

Will some be signed to deals? Most certainly. Will some go? Again, most certainly.

By 2011, Andrew McCutchen should be established. Pedro Alvarez will be in the bigs. Jose Tabata, if he continues on, will be a Bucco. Evan Meek, Brad Lincoln and Byran Morris should be in the show; maybe Jeff Sues, too.

Shelby Ford and Jim Negrych should be MLB ready, if not already on the roster. Brian Friday and Jarek Cunningham should be fighting it out for short to replace Vazquez. Steve Pearce and Neil Walker should be in the mix.

Are all of these guys can't-miss players? Of course not. But are some of them going to make today's irreplaceable parts replaceable? Certainly. Some will be gone, some will sputter in the minors, and others will become MLB players.

We believe that 2011 will be the telling year for the Pirates. It's the season the Pirates should have their coming-out party and start to play some serious hardball - if the suits and Bob Nutting stay the course.

The cycle the suits have started will continue; guys with value and a fat contract will be moved for guys with potential as payroll pressure will squeeze the team with every successful deal and draft class. The question to be begged is whether they can replace the parts internally or not.

2010 will be season where a couple of guys will get introduced into the mix, but without much outside influence on the roster.

2011 will be when we'll find out if the suits can carry out their plan, and if Pittsburgh will join the ranks of the Rays and Twins or remain the same ol' Bucs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Pirate Treasure Chest

Hey, in a surprise development, the Pirate suits blinked as they approached Nate McLouth's arbitration panel in Phoenix today. Not only did they ink him for this year, but in a marathon session before the hearing, they signed him up for four years.

With his bonus, McLouth gets $3.5M this year, $4.5M in 2010, $6.5M in 2011, and has a team option for $10.65M in 2012, according to several sources. He has the usual array of incentives, and his are escalators - not one-time bonus checks, but money added directly to his base pay that carries over for future seasons.

It's a fair deal; Ryan Ludwick just signed for $5M, Corey Hart for $3.25M, Andre Ethier for $3.1M, and Rick Ankiel for $2.83M, so the baseline numbers fit.

If they exercise the option years, Pittsburgh now has McLouth, Ian Snell, and Paul Maholm under control through the 2012 season, and Ryan Doumit until 2013.

The guys under contract this year now are Jack Wilson ($7.25M), Adam LaRoche ($7.05M), Freddy Sanchez ($6.1M), McLouth ($3.5M), Maholm ($3.5M), Snell ($3M), Doumit ($2.35M), Matt Capps ($2.3M), John Grabow ($2.3M), Zach Duke ($2.2M), Ramon Vazquez ($2M), Eric Hinske ($1.5M), and Tyler Yates ($1.3M). That's $44.35M for the signed, sealed, and delivered lucky thirteen players.

Throw in a dozen guys making minimum wage on the 25-man roster, and we're looking at about a $50M payroll without bonuses, equivalent of two years of Manny. By himself. The City should do so well with its budget; that's $4M under the suit's self-imposed cap.

Well, they wanted flexibility, and did a good job of getting it, too. They've got four young guns bought out of their arbitration years; maybe they'll work on extending Matt Capps next. Heck, they have enough to take on another Boras client in the 2009 draft.

And ya know what? We're not bummed at the figure; actually, we're kinda impressed. They have control of their core youngsters, either contractually or through future arbitration, and a couple of bucks in play money to satisfy whatever small itch they'd like to scratch.

And they'll be in good shape next season, too. If we read the service times right (and please don't assume we can; if there's anyone else eligible, give GW a yell), the following guys will be arbitration-eligible after the season: Yates (year 3), Capps and Duke (year 2), and Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny (first year). Jeff Karstens could end up a "Super Two" if he stays on the roster all year. And even if Pedro defies the odds and arrives in 2010, he's signed for $500K.

So no bank-breakers there, plus Wilson, Adam LaRoche, and Sanchez are pocketing over $20M this year, and we assume some of that should shake free over the course of the season.

Bob Nutting hired the right guys.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Craig Hansen - A Sleeper?

Craig Hansen is the big - 6'6", 230 lb - flamethrower that the Bucs got from the Red Sox as part of the Jay Bay deal. Of the four guys Pittsburgh were sent in return, he's probably struggled the most, though that LaRoche kid is givng him a good run for the money.

The 25-year old native of Glen Cove, NY, used to hit the upper 90s with his heater, but with the Pirates, his velocity has dropped to 92 MPH, and he hasn't found a plate big enough to split yet.

It wasn't always that way. After a so-so frosh year at St. John's in the Big East, he became the closer as a sophomore, striking out 59 in 40-1/3 frames and saving ten games. Hansen had his coming out party during his junior season with the Red Storm.

He put together a 3-2 record with 14 saves, punching out 85 hitters in 64 innings with a 1.68 ERA, and was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America. It impressed the nearby Boston suits.

They took him with the 26th pick of the first round of the 2005 draft, and signed him to a four-year deal valued at $4M. The Red Sox also added him to the 40-man roster. Nice vote of confidence, hey?

The Red Sox assigned Hansen to the GCL briefly before sending him to the AA Portland Sea Dogs. He joined Boston for a September cup of coffee, making his debut in the show on September 19 against the Devil Rays. Hansen struck out the first man he faced, pitching a perfect inning with two strikeouts.

He started 2006 at Portland, and after 5 appearances was shipped to AAA Pawtucket. Hansen worked 36 innings there, K'ing 26 and walking - red flag here - 19. But they called him up to Beantown anyway, and he took his lumps.

Hansen got into 38 games, and had a 6.63 ERA as a middle reliever. He struck out 30 in 38 innings and walked 15. The big guy got to start 2007 back in AAA.

He spent the year there, and his control, well, it was out of control. In 51-1/3 innings, he walked 32 and struck out 48. The Red Sox shipped him to Mesa after the season to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where he threw very little, but did OK. In five innings, he whiffed 8 and issued just one free pass.

Hansen complained of fatigue - and his roomies beefed about his snoring - and after some tests, they found out he had sleep apnea. That was in 2006, but he soldiered through it for awhile. But after the 2007 season, he finally had surgery to correct it.

We'd like to report that the now bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Hansen immediately made a turnaround. But alas, it was more of the same ol', same ol' in 2008. He started out at Pawtucket again, and it looked promising. In 16-2/3 innings, he sent 17 batters back to the dugout empty-handed and walked five.

But the Red Sox couldn't let well enough be, and called him back up. In 32 innings of work, he gave up 23 free passes and K'ed 25. Then it was off to Pittsburgh. He walked 20! in 16 innings and only punched out seven guys.

On August 27th, Hansen was optioned to AAA Indy after he allowed four earned runs without recording an out against the Cubs the night before. Hansen was recalled on September 2nd. He had a whole two innings with the Indians to get his act back together.

So what do the Bucs have, besides a guy with a ton of potential but who's been slowly circling the drain for the past three years? Here's what Sox Prospects said about him last season:
"Hansen's fastball has historically topped out in the high 90s, and he consistently hit the mid-90s. In 2008, he's been sitting more around 92 mph. He also possesses an excellent high-80s slider, which has been somewhat of a mystery -- sometimes its absolutely dominant and other times it just isn't there."

"A fierce competitor who has struggled with adversity early in his professional career. Seems to have the tools to be a successful major league closer, just needs to work on his confidence and composure on the mound. Struggles with getting behind early in counts. When he gets first pitch strikes, he can be dominant. All in all, if Hansen can get his slider going on a regular basis, he is an MLB-caliber reliever."
Well, he best do it now.

Hansen is the textbook example of a guy that the Red Sox - and the Pirates, for that matter - wouldn't keep on the farm long enough to learn his craft. Everybody loves that power arm. And he's out of options, even before he hit his arbitration years.

We're not sure, given his track record, why Pittsburgh didn't start him out at Indy instead of throwing him right into the fire. Maybe the suits were hoping he'd show the fans that they knew what they were doing when they swung the Bay deal; maybe they just were enamored of his rifle. Could be with no options, they figured "what the heck," too.

At any rate, it's time for Craig Hansen to live up to the promise this spring. Joe Kerrigan has his work cut out for him. And we hope he's up to the task. We'd hate to see that 97 MPH heater of old painting the corner while he's in someone else's uniform.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Beat Goes On..

* Some fans were left wondering when they discovered that Pedro Alvarez had tendinitis added to his list of ailments. That, at least, is something to not worry about. It's very rarely chronic, and the way he got it, during instructional league in the fall, is not unusual - he probably worked too hard.

The Pirate spin is he was in lousy shape, and there may be some truth to that; he probably did the minimum while in contract limbo. But our guess is that when he reported, he tried to impress the brass and just overdid it, causing the tendinitis. And the cure is, plain and simply, rest; no workouts allowed. So it ended up a no-win situation for the star-crossed infielder.

We don't have any problem with his conditioning. He's just a college kid getting a lesson in a fishbowl about professional shape, and we think he gets it now. Alvarez is a big guy, and he'll never look like Twiggy. The Bucs just showed some tough love (and maybe some residual ire at Scott Boras), and the message was received.

* The Pirates have seven guys eyeing an outfield spot, and five are lefty. We thought we'd take a look at their splits, and see what problems, and opportunities, that presents, using their career stats.

Two of the everyday players, LHs Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss, have fairly decent splits; McLouth's is .264/.252 and Moss' .244/.266 (yah, he hits lefties better, but he's only faced them 76 times) over their brief careers. McLouth's slugging percentage drops mightily against lefties (.536/.388); Moss' doesn't (.442/.422).

So John Russell may want to toggle McLouth around in the lineup, depending on the mound opponent, while Moss can be penciled in every day behind the middle of the order.

LH Nyjer Morgan's batting average shows a big split (.307/.250), but his OBP doesn't (.353/.339), good news for a top of the order guy. Both, though, are low. Ideally, you want at least a .375 OBP leading off, edging towards .400. Wait for those walks, Nyjer!

Eric Hinske is a batter that you want to pick your spots for; he needs protected. His split is .264/.219, and his slugging % is .458/.365, numbers befitting a LH platoon player.

LH Jeff Salazar rarely faces lefties; he only has 22 career at-bats against them. His splits are .245/.273, OBP .356/.273. Salazar is another platoon player.

The righties are Craig Monroe and Steve Pearce. Monroe is on an even keel, hitting .250/.259 with a slugging % of .443/.468. Pearce has raked lefties, batting .244/.266 with his slugging percentage at an eyepopping .348/.615 split. But with a mere 177 MLB at-bats, those numbers can't be counted on very much.

The verdict? Nah, not that easy. There's only three guys with any kind of track record. McLouth (4 seasons) and Monroe (8 seasons) hit pretty equally no matter which side they face, while Hinske (7 seasons) is a one-way batter.

The other four all have 2 or 3 seasons under their belt, so the sample doesn't tell much of a tale. Salazar, Moss, Pearce and Morgan are pups; none has batted over 275 times in the show yet.

Four of guys - McLouth, Moss, Morgan, and Monroe - so far seem capable of handling all comers, while Hinske, Pearce, and Salazar have sizeable splits. Still, not too bad for being young and tilted to one side of the batter's box.

* Rob Biertempfel of the Tribune-Review has the dope on Brandon Moss' knee surgery.

It ends up his knee was "too angled" for the microfracture procedure, so they just cleaned it out with the scope.

He also reports that Jeff Karstens is throwing bullpen sessions, so his achy elbow from mini-camp isn't a big deal at this point.

* Jen Langosch of talked to Joe Kerrigan, who doesn't have any major concerns over the Pirates' pitching mechanics:
"I see good deliveries. I see no major projects. I see a few tweaks, a few minor adjustments here and there, but everybody has that."

"But as a whole, we have a good set of deliveries here," he continued. "That's a good foundation. There are really no major projects to tear down and rebuild, which is great."
And that included Donnie Veal.

* Chuck Finder of the Post-Gazette profiled Adam LaRoche, who gave his preview of the upcoming season:
"We have the same core coming back. What we have going for us is the same guys with a little bit more experience, hopefully a little more established as a group, a little more confident. We still have to prove to ourselves that we're a good ballclub. It's going to be a grind.

"Again, clubs are going to look at us as not a threat. That's a fact. We're not going to scare a lot of people. Which is good, really; we can sneak up on people.

"We don't have the luxury of having injuries this year. I mean, can't do it. We got to get guys to stay well and grind it out. There aren't going to be a lot of homers hit. There aren't going to be a lot of shutouts. It's going to be a grind. But it's going to be fun. Guys want to win. Guys are competitive."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Notes From the Campfire...

* Phil Dumatrait is throwing long toss at camp, and in a couple of weeks, he should begin working off of a mound. Widely thought to be a DL candidate, he now looks like he has a chance to be the long man out of the pen when camp breaks, stretching his arm out until he can rejoin the rotation later in the summer.

He can thank extended spring training, due to the WBC, if he leaves Bradenton on the 25-man roster. But what's good for him isn't such great news for a couple of bubble guys that the suits will have to decide on sooner instead of later now.

Donnie Veal, the Rule 5 pick with mechanical hitches, could find another LH long man ahead of him. And whomever the sixth starter for the Pirates ends up to be - Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Dan McCutchen, Gorzo, Zach Duke, or long-shot Jimmy Barthmaier - may find themselves in Indy when the season starts instead of Pittsburgh.

In the long run, the only guy it really affects is Veal. If he doesn't make the roster, he has to be offered back to the Cubs. The other starting pitchers all have options, so they can start in AAA without risking them on waivers.

* The most interesting storyline to GW is what the braintrust decides to do with Craig Hansen. He's the victim of being fast-tracked by the Red Sox, and his potential hasn't translated into MLB production. If ever a guy needed some innings in the minors, Hansen is the one.

But he's out of options. The suits must feel the heat; it would be a blow to their touted player evaluation mystique if he was cut after being a part of the wildly vilified Jason Bay deal last July.

And they're not frivolous or ego-driven decisions being made regarding the futures of Hansen and Veal. Both are huge projects, but have power arms in a popgun system and great upside if they can ever harness their stuff, the key word being "if."

* Which Ian Snell decides to show up for the Pirates will go a long way to determining the effectiveness of the staff. He had a dismal 2008, showing immaturity, a wild streak that wouldn't end, and running up some hellacious pitch counts. But after a trip to the DL cleared his head a bit, Snell went 3-3 with 3.68 ERA in his final eight starts in August and September.

In those final 44 innings of 2008, Snell gave up 42 hits, struck out 37 batters and walked 21. He pitched over 6 innings just once in that span, and threw under 95 pitches twice. So he has a ways to go to get back to the glory days, and being aggressive and getting ahead of batters will be the key.

Another question is whether starting the spring by pitching for Puerto Rico in the WBC will help or hurt. It should give Snell a jolt out of the box, but he's a guy the Pirates expect to start 30+ games, and how his arm will hold up in the dog days will be seen. A good performance in the WBC would have him starting the year with his head screwed on straight, but what if he runs into a couple of tough outings...?

* We're also into redemption (blame that on the good nuns at St. Wendelin's), and Snell's not alone in searching for some. Can Zach Duke, and especially Tom Gorzelanny, find the stuff that made them effective MLB pitchers again? That's a tale we'll be watching with anticipation. They could really solidify the middle and back of the rotation if they're on their game.

* We're looking forward to seeing some of the young arms in action. While GW has his doubts about stalling Steve Pearce, Andrew McCutchen, and Neil Walker at AAA, it does make perfect sense to let Evan Meek get repetitions at Indy and hopefully reinforce the success he had in the minors last season.

Daniel McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, Juan Mateo, Jeff Sues, and Ron Uviedo are all guys whose stuff will be on exhibit, too. This camp has a little more going on than last year's did, and we're eager to see what's ahead.

* Speaking of the future, GW really enjoys following the exploits of the two Indian pitchers, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. They're going to the GCL, and may - heck, probably - will never get past A ball.

But they love the sport, and bring some uninhibited joy and wonder to spring, kinda like little league kids going straight to the pros. And hey, the strongest substance they're on is probably garam masala. They remind us that baseball isn't always a business - sometimes it's still just a game.

And after all, it's the game that we all love.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Little of This...

While the Pirate pitchers and catchers are getting poked and probed by the medicos, GW thought he'd take a quick lap around Bradenton and the league to see whassup as we enter spring traing:

* Now that the batteries are in camp, the next reporting date is Monday, when the position players are due in. Full squad workouts start Tuesday.

* The Bucs and Nate McLouth still may reach a middle ground on contract numbers and avoid arbitration. "It's possible we will be able to reach an agreement, and maybe more so today than when I spoke to you last," McLouth told Jen Langosch of "I don't know what odds I would put on it or what percentage, but there's a chance."

If they do ink a deal, it'll be a one-year contract, and they'll agree to disagree until next season.

* Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette picks out what he sees as the top ten issues confronting the 2009 edition of the Buccos, topped by Adam LaRoche's miserable April starts.

* Rob Beirtempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports that LHP Phil Dumatrait just began tossing this week and looks like a very likely bullpen candidate to start the season.

* The Associated Press' Alan Robinson talks about the Pirate pitching. Buc skipper John Russell had this to say about Joe Kerrigan and his staff: “Joe is not going to be a miracle worker, he’s not going to come in and sprinkle fairy dust around and everybody’s going to be a Cy Young pitcher. But these guys will be better.”

* The Top 100 prospects list of 2009 was released by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. Pittsburgh is represented by Pedro Alvarez (#4), Andrew McCutchen (#25), and Jose Tabata (#91).

Current Bucs that were on the 2008 list were Andy LaRoche (#14), Andrew McCutchen (#24), Steve Pearce (#43), and Neil Walker (#94).

* The Sporting News takes the view that the 2009 Pirate squad will end up in the cellar of the NL Central Division.

* Tom Singer of explains how the hot stove turned cold for so many free agents this year. He lists the guys that took the biggest pay cuts this off-season:

• Jason Giambi: cut $15.75 million ($21 million with Yankees to $5.25 million with A's).
• Mike Hampton: $13 million ($15 million with Braves to $2 million with Astros).
• Bobby Abreu: $11 million ($16 million with Yankees to $5 million with Angels).
• Andy Pettitte: $10.5 million ($16 million to $5.5 million with Yankees).
• Carl Pavano: $9.5 million ($11 million with Yankees to $1.5 million with Indians).
• Pat Burrell: $7 million ($14 million with Phillies to $7 million with Rays).
• Adam Dunn: $5 million ($13 million with Reds/D-backs to $8 million with Nats).
• Omar Vizquel: $4.9 million ($5.3 million with Giants to Minor deal with Rangers).
• Jason Varitek: $4 million ($9 million to $5 million with Red Sox).
• Angel Berroa: $3.95 million ($4.75 million with Dodgers to Minor deal with Yankees, valued at $800,000 if on big league roster).
• Juan Uribe: $3.5 million ($4.5 million with White Sox to Minor deal with Giants, valued at $1 million if on big league roster).
• Brad Penny: $3.5 million ($8.5 million with Dodgers to $5 million with Red Sox).

* Baseball America rates the #1 draft picks of the decade - and hey, they actually have three numero unos they consider worse selections than Bryan Bullington!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Pitchers Report...

The Steeler hangover is about gone, and won't resurface until the April draft. The winds are howling, and we may see some flakes tonight. But hey, the pitchers and catchers are reporting, and finally 'tis the season when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts

28 pitchers will start working out under the Florida sun, and all that's absolutely certain is that only 12 of them will break camp as Pittsburgh Pirates.

The questions to be answered in the next few weeks from the staff:

* Will talent or options have more effect on shaping the final roster?

It won't cause a problem with the rotation. Phil Dumatrait is the only guy out of options. Jeff Karstens, Tom Gorzelanny and Jimmy Barthmaier all have one option year left, while Ross Ohlendorf has two, and Zach Duke has three.

Daniel McCutchen's clock hasn't started yet, and Paul Maholm and Ian Snell are under contract. Virgil Vasquez is only in camp for a cup of coffee before he heads to the hinterlands.

Ah, but the bullpen. Matt Capps is signed this year, as is John Grabow, but Sean Burnett and Craig Hansen are out of options and either make the club or are probably lost. Ditto with Rule 5 pickup Donnie Veal. Tyler Yates is out of options, too. Denny Bautista has an opt-out clause if he doesn't make the 25-man by June 1st.

That leaves Chris Bootcheck, Jesse Chavez, Dave Davidson, Jason Davis, Daniel Haigwood, Juan Mateo, Evan Meek, Romulo Sanchez, Brian Slocum, Jeff Sues, and Ron Uviedo in the less than envious position of holding minor-league contracts, so they can go straight to the bushes, risk-free.

Now some of them, of course, are in Bradenton for a look-see only, and are ticketed for the minors no matter what they do. But for a handful, it's not a very level playing field. It'll be interesting to see how the Pirates play it.

They've shown some cases where they're quick to the gun for underachievers (see Matty Mo & Tom Gorzelanny) and other cases where they just fall in love with potential (see Andy LaRoche). It should keep everyone on their toes right up to cutdown day.

* Will Joe Kerrigan's veteran counsel break the Bucco urge to nibble, nibble, nibble? Can he somehow convince these guys that going after batters and getting that first pitch over sounds like a plan?

Jeff Andrews was a pretty laissez faire kind of coach. We'll see what difference a more aggressive guy like Kerrigan, with an eye to detail and pre-game prep, will have on the staff.

Remember, some of these pitchers have had four coaches (Spin Williams, Jim Colbert, Jeff Andrews, and now Kerrigan) in five years. Who knows how many conflicting bits of pitching minutiae are floating around between their ears?

* This is a staff that pitches to contact; will the team bail them out or add gas to the fire? Only two teams struck out fewer batters, and only two teams had a worse defensive efficiency rating - 1/3 of all the balls put in play against the Bucs resulted in a safe baserunner. Throw in 657 walks, and the result is a bunch of guys circling the bases when the Pirates are in the field.

So the two keys to improving the pitching are pretty basic stuff - throw strikes and catch the dang ball. Both could be a challenge. If they're up to the task, the pitching could be OK. If not, same ol', same ol'.

* The final piece of the puzzle is the Gunner's famous "hidden vigorish." What are the odds of two pitchers - Maholm and Grabow - having career years while everyone else implodes, ends up on the DL, gets sent down, or in some cases, all three? Maybe those odds will reverse themselves this season.

After all, they say that the sun shines on every dog's butt once in awhile. Maybe 2009 will be the year our mutts catch a couple of rays.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hot Stove Goes Cold

Ah, the life of a blogger. Bobby Abreu didn't play out for a stinkin' news cycle before he went and signed up with the Angels for a year at $5M guaranteed and another $3M worth of incentive carrots bobbing in front of his nose.

We can't even fantasize about Adam Dunn manning the middle of the lineup. He went and inked a 2 year deal for $20M with the Nats. The Nats!!! Oh, the humanity!

The inning eater they were looking for to anchor an underachieving staff? Well, scrub Braden Looper from the list. He's about to ply his trade for division rival Milwaukee after agreeing to a year at $4.75M and an option for 2010.

That pretty well throws a pail of ice water over the embers of the Pirate's Hot Stove season. They never did come up with that righty power bat or veteran arm to gobble up some innings.

Can you blame the Bucs? Sure, they didn't want to drop a dollar on someone to help keep the team afloat for the short term. You gotta pay to play.

And you can blame the market, too. There were LH corners galore, but not much from the right side. The pitching? Heck, we have more back-of-rotation guys than you can shake a stick at. Why overpay another one, especially a dinosaur?

Thank God for Ramon Vazquez, Eric Hinske, and, uh, Donnie Veal. And hey - Manny's still out there...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Guy Can Dream, Can't He?

Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated says the Pirates are one of the teams in on Bobby Abreu here, along with the Angels, Braves, Reds and Mets.

Now GW doesn't think the Bucs are front runners; heck, they may never get to the point where they even offer him a deal. Three of the other clubs are contenders, and Pittsburgh would have to top their bids to get him. And in fact, the Angels may be close to inking him.

But hey, what would it mean to the Bucco faithful, and the team, if the local rags sported the headline "Abreu signs with Pirates for 2 years, $11M" the week they headed into camp? (Two years because he'll be 35 in March, and Tabata should be up after that.)

First, it'd cause quite a shuffle in the Pirate outfield. Brandon Moss would have to fight Nyjer Morgan for left, Nate McLouth would stay in center, and Abreu would patrol right.

The suits would have more options concerning wunderkind Andrew McCutchen's inevitable call-up. Morgan would be thrown into the fire with Moss, and competition for jobs, never a bad thing, would finally become more than lip service.

Bat him third, and you can keep McLouth at the top of the order and you can bet Ryan Doumit will see more runners at cleanup than ever before. Abreu's lifetime OBP is .405, and starting from 1999, he's never taken fewer than 73 walks, at one point drawing 100+ for eight straight seasons.

The OBP is why GW likes him batting third, in case you're wondering, plus he's not that much of an HR hitter. Abreu has also stolen 20 sacks or more for 10 years straight. The down side is he's an automatic 100+ strikeout guy.

Another lefty? Abreu has had great splits throughout his career, batting .308 against righties and .280 against lefties, although he does have more power facing RHP. His split last year was .315/.287 with a line of .296/20/100.

Abreu hasn't hit lower than .277 since he played full-time in 1998, has driven in 100 runs or more seven of the past eight seasons (the last six in a row), and been an iron man, never playing in fewer than 151 games since becoming a regular.

As far as his fielding, well, we wouldn't put him in center, but he's league average or better in right, and still has that cannon. Abreu has never thrown out fewer then six runners since becoming a starting OF'er, and gunned down 10 guys last season.

And he'd be a salesman off the field, too. In Philly and New York both, he lent his name to many charitable and youth endeavors.

Now Abreu isn't Jason Bay or Xavier Nady at the plate; he doesn't have their power. But he'd sure help fill in the gap while the Pirates are scrambling to develop the players who will one day take their places in the lineup.

More importantly, signing a guy like Bobby Abreu would deliver a message to the fans and the team that the suits are playing for today, not a couple seasons down the road. And that would be be a powerful message for a skeptical City.

We know the chances of bringing him to Pittsburgh are as slim as Ed Creech's draft record, but a guy can dream, can't he...?

The Rotation of the Future

The Pirate rotation of the future is awfully young - they're not stacked up in Indy waiting for a call, but in Altoona and below - but there are a couple of guys that could pop up to take regular spots by 2011.

Brad Lincoln was selected in 2006 ahead of Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain. Baseball America rated him as the Pirates' fourth overall organizational prospect in 2009 and predicts that he'll join the Pittsburgh rotation in 2010. But whether the 23-year old RHP will meet those expectations depends on how well he continues to rebound from 2007 TJ surgery.

He put up modest stats at Hickory and Lynchburg, but did work a total of 103-1/3 innings a year removed from the knife, didn't have any residual arm problems, and his control was there, even if he struggled to regain complete command of his pitches.

His WHIP was around 1.27, he walked fewer than 2 batters per nine innings, and K'd over six per game, all pretty good numbers for a recovery season. The youngster will have to cut down on long balls allowed, but that's a part of a control pitcher's learning curve.

Lincoln throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball, has a good curve, and his changeup is coming along. We expect to see him in Altoona, and his work there will dictate exactly how fast a track he's on for a PNC splashdown.

Rated right behind Lincoln was Dodger pickup Bryan Morris, part of the Jason Bay deal. He's another first round pick of 2006, and like Lincoln, had TJ surgery in 2007. Baseball America rated him the Pirates' fifth best organizational prospect of 2009, and foresees an arrival date in the show of 2011 or 2012.

In fact, BA says that Lincoln and Morris should be Pittsburgh's one-two punch in 2012. Talk about a pair of guys joined at the hip!

Morris threw 96 innings of A ball in his come-back season. He struck out 83 batters, but walked 43, so his stuff is OK, but a little scattered. Morris was also shut down pretty much by the Pirates after they got him, working only 14 innings at Hickory. They say it was just precautionary - he had bicep tenderness - but that may be a red flag to watch for down the road.

To add to the woes, the 22-year old (he'll be 23 in March) had toe surgery, totally unrelated to the other problems, so he'll have a late start to the season.

Still, the RHP has the tools. Morris' heater is gunned at 95, his curve is sharp, and he's working on a changeup. What he needs most is a season or two without any visits to the surgeon. He may start at Lynchburg, but we expect him to be with the Curve before too long.

Daniel Moskos can't be blamed for where he was picked. The question is whether or not he has first-round ability and a future role with the team.

He was a reliever at Clemson, but the new suits had him start at Lynchburg last year, and the results weren't pretty. Moskos is supposed to have a power arm, but his heater was pressed to touch 90, although his slider is considered top notch.

The 22-year old LHP will likely join Altoona's rotation this year. We don't think the starting experiment will last that long. As a two pitch pony, Moskos looks like a bullpen guy, maybe becoming the Bucs next LOOGY.

Tony Watson, 23-year old LHP, has put together two solid seasons in the Pirate A ranks. Drafted in the ninth round in 2007, Watson fit the Littlefield mold of a finesse pitcher, depending on a change-up for his out pitch. But unlike most Littlefield selections, he was actually somewhat touted and drafted lower than expected.

He's got excellent control, walking fewer than two batter per nine, and he gets about a half-dozen K's per game. Watson will get to step up to Altoona this year, and another good season will get him notice as a young gun on the rise. The Curve should have quite a rotation this year; that's about the level all the upside guys have reached.

Rafael De Los Santos is a young guy - he's 22 - that has some upside. He throws a low 90s fastball, slider and changeup. De Los Santos can make bats miss the ball, but his balls miss the plate pretty often, too.

His stats at Hickory were flat-out ugly, but he doubled his innings pitched and may have just hit the wall. The RHP will be floating around somewhere in the A level this year, and may yet blossom.

20-year old LHP Nelson Pereira will get a look at West Virginia this year after blazing through the GCL last year as a 19-year old after two excellent VSL campaigns.

The youngster from El Salvador has good off speed stuff, especially his changeup and curve, and his heater is good enough to set them up. He had a 4.6/1 K to BB ratio, so he can miss some bats and still find the dish.

Christopher Aure, 19-year old LHP drafted from high school out of North Pole, Alaska, could end up more than just the answer to a trivia quiz. He's a project, but his heater is in the upper 80 range and improving while he's shown some progress with his other pitches, notably the curve and changeup.

Aure did just OK in the GCL, and there's some debate whether he's better suited to start or come out of the pen, but he has some upside and may be a keeper.

Andres Santos, a guy the Bucs picked up in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees, has some upside. The Evil Empire gave him a $400K bonus to sign, and he was lights out in the Dominican League last year.

The 22-year old Dominican has a low 90s heater and a sweet change up, and he struck out a batter an inning in the DSL with decent control. Maybe Rene Gayo and Kyle Starks stole one for the team.

Another grab bag pick that may have a shot is Rafael Quintero, a 21-year old RHP plucked from the Indians in the minor's Rule 5 draft, who had some great numbers in the DSL.

The Venezuelan is a converted catcher with great control and over a strikeout per inning. Given his background, he's a darkhorse, but hey...nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Quinton Miller, 19-year old RHP, was drafted out of high school and has yet to pitch in pro ball. He throws a fastball that ranges from the high 80s to the low 90s, with a nice slider and average change.

The Bucs thought he was worth $900K in the 20th round - he had commited to playing at North Carolina - so they certainly feel he has some major upside.

Justin Wilson led Fresno State to the College World Series when his teammate Tanner Schleppers went down. The Bucs couldn't get Schleppers to sign on the dotted line, but after a long dance, reeled Wilson into the fold.

The 21-year old LHP features a 90 MPH fastball, curve and slider. Wilson signed too late to pitch last year, and he's ticketed to head to Class A West Virgina in 2009.

Guys that we profiled yesterday that were invited to camp and have chances to eventually dent the rotation in the near term are Daniel McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, Ross Ohlendorf, and perhaps Donnie Veal.

It's not a very deep collection of arms, and for all the attention Littlefield paid to pitchers, it's an area Huntington and gang are going to have really work at to build up some depth and talent.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The 2009 Rotation

OK, it's simple enough this year. The pitching rotation is not set in stone like it was last year, nor will there be a cast of hundreds trying to win a spot. There are 10 guys gunning for five spots, so there should be plenty of innings to go around this spring for everyone to get a fair look. The competition:

Paul Maholm is da man. 2008 was his breakout season with a 9-9/3.71 line. Maholm parlayed that into a nice contract, and is ready to take a leadership role on the staff. Maholm is also a workhorse; he's thrown 560 innings and picked up 27 wins in his three MLB seasons.

He throws four pitches - a 90 MPH fastball, curve, slider and change. His control is good, if not exceptional, and his strikeout rate is about 6 batters per nine innings. Maholm is a ground ball pitcher, so infield defense is a key to his game.

The 26-year old LHP is the epitome of a guy that does a lot of little things right. Maholm doesn't fold under pressure, holds runners, doesn't usually walk himself into trouble, and is in professional shape. Having said that, he doesn't have top-of-the order stuff. But Maholm is a solid MLB pitcher, and should be a steady middle of the rotation guy for the foreseeable future, maybe growing into a #2 pitcher.

Ian Snell has the best stuff on the team, with a mid 90s heater and a sharp slider. So what's the problem? Well, he certainly threw too many pitches in too few innings, spent some time on the DL, and his control was the worst it had ever been, although he still could punch out a batter when he had to.

Some say that he has to mature some; he has too many games that he's cruising when the least bit of adversity completely derails him. There were whispers that his conditioning wasn't up to snuff last season, either, although he has a reputation as being a guy that prides himself on his shape. Whatever the problem, a 7-12/5.42 line was the result.

One thing is certain - Snell is the closest to having a top-of-the-order arm on the staff, and getting him back in operating order is job #1 for Joe Kerrigan. He's carrying around a pretty pricey long term deal, and it's hoped that Kerrigan's detailed game plans will help focus the 28-year old RHP. And while he's at it, we hope he teaches him to throw an off-speed pitch to keep the lefty hitters honest - they hit .314 off Snell last year, with a .914 OPS.

The suits say that Maholm is the only lock for the rotation; they're blowing smoke. There's no way Snell doesn't break camp with the team short of injury.

Tom Gorzelanny was the suits' favorite whipping boy last year. He was out of shape, his work habits were questioned, and he suffered the ignominy of being sent back to the bushes, topped off by a stint on the DL when he was finally recalled. To boot, he walked 70 batters and only K'ed 67. Ouch!

But possible redemption is around the corner. They worked on the 26-year old LHP's mechanics - and head - at Indy, and he came into mini-camp in better shape. He has a decent low 90s heater, but his bread-and-butter pitch is the changeup.

The question is whether Jim Tracy's blatant overuse of Gorzo in 2007, when he was 14-10/3.88, was the root of his pitching problems in 2008, when he was 6-9/5.72. For the Pirates sake, let's hope so.

Zach Duke is the textbook example of a back end rotation guy, and that's not said as an insult. He's a pitcher with an upper 80s fastball that lives off his curve, strikes out only about four batters per nine innings, and gets opponents to hit the ball on the ground. Like Maholm, Duke depends on his infield to have success.

Duke was 5-14/4.82 last year, but didn't pitch as badly as the stat line. The 25-year old LHP (he'll be 26 in April) had a terrible July, but otherwise just ran into some hard luck. He looked a lot more like the 2006 version (no, we don't ever expect to see the 2005 Duke again, when as a rookie he was 8-2/1.81).

He does the professional things well - he only gives up a couple of walks per nine innings, holds runners, and gets ground balls - but his inability to strike out hitters and dependence on his fielders will keep him at the 4-5 spot on the staff.

Jeff Karstens, a late addition to the Nady/Marte deal with the Yankees, was immediately plugged into the rotation when he joined the Bucs. The 26-year old RHP flirted with a no-no against the Cubs, but settled in to finish with a 2-6/4.03 line for the Pirates.

He's a soft thrower with an upper 80s fastball, curve, slider, and changeup. Karstens can't get the bat to miss many balls (his control is excellent, but he only struck out 23 batters in 51-1/3 innings), and depends on command and location to get by. He also has an elbow problem that popped up in mini-camp that's supposed to set him back a week or two in Bradenton; we'll find out how severe it is soon enough.

Karstens looks like a back of the rotation/long relief pitcher for the Pirates.

Ross Ohlendorf was a guy the Bucs were after, and they finally pried him loose from the Yankees. The 26-year old RHP, touted to be a flamethrower, threw just in the low 90s with a 0-3/6.35 line for the Pirates, and had 13 K's and 12 BBs in 22-2/3 innings, hardly dominating stuff.

He admitted to being worn down at the end of the season, and that's the nub of the problem. The Big O threw 131-2/3 innings in 42 outings, 25 from the pen and 17 as a starter, not a particularly overwhelming workload. The Pirates have to decide if his future is as a starter and stretch him out, or, as the Yankees thought before dealing him, in the bullpen. Either way, he's likely to end up in Indy, though he does have a shot at being the long man out of the pen.

Phil Dumatrait is this year's mystery man. Is he the dude that lit the league up in April and May replacing the infamous Matty Mo, or the bum that got hammered in his last three outings? We may not find the answer this year.

The 27-year old has a couple of questions hanging over him. First, how badly was his performance affected by a bum wing, which landed him on the DL and eventually led to surgery? Second, can they stretch him out as a starter? He only has 17 MLB starts, and he wore down as the game went on.

If he was healthy - which he isn't - he'd probably be a lock to make the rotation with his low 90s heater setting up his offspeed stuff, although the LHP had some control issues, walking nearly five batters per nine innings. Dumatrait is out of options and hasn't been throwing, so he'll most likely start the year on the DL and pop back onto the 25-man when he's recovered.

Still, we can't help but feel 2008 and possibly 2009 will be wasted years for Dumatrait, and he needs to get healthy and notch some innings on his belt.

Daniel McCutchen throws a two and four seam heater, both in the low 90s, with an excellent curve and a changeup. He's still waiting to get a call to the show, and will probably have to wait a little longer, although he does have an outside shot at making the club.

McCutchen goes after batters, and has pretty good control. As with most guys that are around the plate, he's susceptible to the long ball, giving up 26 in 171-1/3 combined innings last year. The 26-year old RHP had a combined 7-9/4.01 ERA in AAA last year, and unless someone falls flat on their face, is likely to end up at Indy.

Jimmy Barthmaier, 25-year old RHP, was a top five prospect for the Astros in 2005-06, but when he was promoted to AA in 2007, he got bombed. The Pirates claimed him after the season, and thought enough of him to keep him on the 40-man after a combined 5-5/3.85 line at Altoona and Indy last year.

Barthmaier throws in the low 90s, and has a decent curve and changeup. He struck out eight and walked three per nine innings. Barthmaier needs to get stronger, though - he averaged just under 5 innings pitched per start, and he'll be ticketed for Indy to begin the season. But his career is back on track.

Virgil Vasquez, a 26-year old RHP, is here just to provide some depth at Indy. He's never pitched in the majors, and is a control artist with a subpar upper 80s heater and the usual array of curve-slider-changeup. He was waived by three teams during the 2008-09 off season, with Pittsburgh being the only club that had room on its 40-man for him.

So how does the rotation set up? It looks to GW like Maholm-Snell-Gorzo-Karstens-Duke will be the starting five. Dumatrait will be on the DL, Vasquez and Barthmaier are heading to Indy, with Ohlendorf and McCutchen joining them, unless Karstens' elbow becomes an issue; then those two will be fighting for the fifth spot.

Of course, there will be a lot of twists and turns in the Pirate pitching soap opera, so stay tuned. There's still not enough competition, depth, or quality, and that will make for some interesting coaching - and management - decisions.

And remember that it's not a staff that can get by on pure stuff and power; it'll depend mightily on team defense; as they say in the lingo, it's a group that pitches to contact. For the rotation to improve, the glovework has to hold up its end of the bargain in 2009, no matter what miracles Kerrigan and maturity perform.

Perry Hill may just end up being the key coach for the pitching staff this season.