Monday, October 31, 2011

Bucs Pass On Cedeno, Maholm, Dewey & Snyder

The Bucs had four contract options going into the off season, for Paul Maholm, Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Ronnie Cedeno, and passed on them all.  Cedeno's was a surprise, not so much based on performance as affordability, a dearth of MLB ready SS's in the system and a weak class of FAs. The others were long expected.

Maholm had an option year worth $9.75M, with a buyout of $750K. Snyder's option was for $6.75M, also with a $750K buyout. Dewey had a double option; if the Pirates picked it up, they would be on the hook for $7.25M in 2012 and $8.25M for 2013. His buyout is $500K. The Pirates may try to cut a deal with Maholm and/or Dewey for a more team-friendly contract, but now they're competing against an open market and that is likely to drive their price beyond the FO's comfort level.

With RC, it looks like a matter of just running out of patience and finally severing ties. His option year was an affordable $3M with a $200K buyout. While his fielding has been above par during his Pittsburgh stay (he came to town in 2009 as part of the Jack Wilson deal with Seattle), Cedeno never showed the day-in and day-out consistency the team sought, just frustrating flashes of his talent when he was on his game. The fact that he spent half of the past season in Clint Hurdle's doghouse had to have an impact, too.

The FO says it will keep the lines of communication open with the four during free agency, meaning that if their price drops significantly, they'll deal. But the catchers are competing in a weak market, as is Cedeno, and a LHP that can take the mound every fifth day has value to contending clubs. So we wouldn't expect them to return, even if the Bucs haven't slammed the door and nailed it shut.

It cost the Bucs $2.2M to release the four, not a very hefty parting gift, and cleared $18.65M in 2011 salary (and $26.75M in 2012 payroll) from the books. But now they have two very big holes to fill behind the plate and at short and need an inning-eater to join the staff.

The internal candidates at short are Chase d'Arnaud, Pedro Ciriaco, and Jordy Mercer. None appear ready to step in everyday, but the Pirates may have decided that this was time to end the Cedeno bottleneck and audition their young infielders. Brock Holt is also in the mix, but at least a year away.

Assuming the Bucs will pass on Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, the free market SS's the Pirates may look at are John McDonald, Clint Barmes, Cesar Izurtis, Yuniesky Betancourt, Nick Punto and Jamey Carroll plus a couple of veteran heads. Rafael Furcal may hit the market, too, but is probably out of the Pirates price range.

The Pirates got through a few weeks without Dewey and Snyder, but Mike McKenry and Matt Pagnozzi haven't shown that they can become a regular tandem behind the plate. Eric Fryer has some promise, but his game needs polished. The wild card is Jason Jaramillo, who is out of options this year but is the most experienced and accomplished catcher remaining in the organization.

The market has a pair of guys that can catch 120 games in Ramon Hernandez and Rod Barajas. The rest are career back-ups or players on the downside of their careers.

The pitching will be a poser, especially with Charlie Morton recovering from surgery. Brad Lincoln may have enough to hold down the bottom of the rotation, but Rudy Owens and Justin Miller hit a wall at Indy while Jeff Locke's audition failed to impress. The FO will kick the tires of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Francis, and Chris Young along with a long list of available back-enders.

During the end of last season and into the fall, the FO has made noise about pulling the trigger on a trade or two to fill in the holes. We'll see where that chatter leads. There haven't been any signs of smoke along that front yet, but the rumors won't really heat up until the winter meetings begin on December 5th.

The first log has been thrown in the hot stove.

  • The Braves tweeted that they picked up Eric Hinske's $1.55M option and declined Nate McLouth's, which was $10.65M.
  • A-Ram declined his $16M mutual option with the Cubs and will try his luck on the market.
  • Javier Lopez agreed to a two-year, $8.5M deal with the Giants.
  • Still no word on Octavio Dotel or Zach Duke's options; the betting line is that the Cards will pick up Dotel ($3.5M) and the D-Backs pass on the Zachster ($5.5M).
  • Tony LaRussa retired while on top at St. Louis, and there should be a long line forming in St. Louis for the skipper job. He's exactly the kind of guy that opponents hated and the home crowd loved.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Decision Time Approaching

Congrats to the St. Louis Cards. They proved that playing to the last strike is sometimes rewarded by the baseball gods. That's a lesson that the young Buccos should take to heart - grind it out through the dog days, even if it looks like pride is the only thing left to play for.

Of course, it helps when the players who are digging deep are named Pujols, Holliday and Carpenter, with role players like David Freese and the bullpen contributing mightily, and filling in that kind of roster is a job for the FO. And decision time for 2012's roster is just around the corner.

The Pirates have quite a few personnel decisions to make in the coming weeks. The winter meeting starts December 5th, and that's the traditional starting gun for wheeling and dealing.

There's been no smoke concerning free agents Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, so we're assuming that Lee is going to dive into the FA market, as will Ludwick. They can declare for free agency this week, on November 3rd.

The club also holds options on Paul Maholm, Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Ronny Cedeno. No mystery involved there. The FO has announced that they're not going to tender offers to Maholm or the catchers, and there's been no indication that they're working on signing the three to more team-friendly contracts.

Our guess is that they'll keep RC and allow the rest to dip their toes in the marketplace before talking turkey, especially in the case of the catchers. They have no depth there, and if one of the pair drops into the $3-4M range, the Pirates may have some interest in bringing one of the two back. If they don't fall back to earth, then the Bucs will dust off Plan B, either going the FA route or filling in internally.

The team does have a boatload of players up for arb: Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan, Garrett Jones, Jeff Karstens, Evan Meek, Charlie Morton, Ross Ohlendorf, Steve Pearce, Chris Resop, Jose Veras and Brandon Wood.

Pearce and Ohlie are almost certain to be non-tendered, with Veras and Wood on the bubble. We'd be surprised if the others aren't brought back via contract. That deadline is December 12th, a week after the meetings.

But it's the under-the-radar moves that will be telling during the off season. The Pirates, whether they planned to or not, built fan expectations with their first half run. The only way to continue the buzz among the base is to stay competitive - not contending, just competitive - until the young guns like Coles, Taillon, Marte, Bell and company arrive a couple of years down the road.

They can only do that now through free agency; the major league ready guys in the system are already in Pittsburgh. The FO knows it has holes in the pitching, catching, first base and shortstop positions, and have to patch them, in that order.

Even more telling will be the composition of their 40 man roster. November 18th is the deadline to set the rosters for the 2011 Rule 5 draft. The roster already is full, and Kevin Correia has to be added to it from the DL. Maholm, Snyder, Pearce and Kevin Hart are also on the DL, but we assume that they won't be added.

There are, of course, guys likely to be removed without much soul searching - Lee, Ludwick, Aaron Thompson, Brian Burres, Ohlie, Dewey, and possibly Pedro Ciriaco, Daniel McCutchen, Jose Veras, and Xavier Paul.

The balancing act requires that a spot be open for a replacement player - the Pirates are almost assuredly going to bring in a pitcher or two, a catcher and maybe a first baseman - and leave room to protect first-time draft eligible players like Starling Marte, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson and Matt Hague, along with a handful of others who are on the bubble.

The Cards put a dramatic ending to the 2011 MLB season, and the foundation for 2012 is already being poured in Pittsburgh and around the league.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Third Base

The FO inherited Jose Bautista at third base, and dumped him unceremoniously in 2008, sending him to Toronto for long-gone C Robinzon Diaz and clearing a spot for Andy LaRoche. They also drafted Pedro Alvarez that same season, so the hot corner looked to be in good shape for years down the road.

Well, funny thing about that. La Roche is working on a .226 career BA and looking for work after a gig in Oakland while Pedro is coming off a season that he and the Pirate Nation would like to forget. There was great anticipation for his coming-out party after a hot September in 2010 when he put up a .306/6/27 batting line, but reality set in this year when the April pitchers reclaimed the hill.

The big third basemen hit .191 with 4 homers and 80 K's in 235 at-bats. He tore the cover off the ball at Indy, but there are a long list of folk who crush AAA pitching but can't hit a major league slider. In early May, he was showing some small signs of coming out of his slump before injuring his quad.  By the time he came back in late July, he was lost at the dish.

It's said that the FO wanted El Toro to play winter ball, but he declined. Let's hope he spends the off season in the gym. The Pirates retooled their training staff, and we suspect Pedro - and the teamwide sprain and strain epidemic - had a lot to do with that. Maybe a more specific PT regimen will benefit him and the whole squad. And the team could really use what he brings to the table.

The truth is that right now, Pedro is the lone egg in the Bucs' third base basket. Brandon Wood can field the position, but his .220 average won't help the attack untrack though he does have some pop. Josh Harrison can hit the ball (.272) but has no power to speak of and a questionable mitt. Chase d'Arnaud saw time at the hot corner too, but profiles strictly as a middle infielder.

In the minors, Altoona's Jeremy Farrell, 24, has hit the ball OK, with a career .271 BA, but has neither corner power nor very much leather. A better chance at playing the hot corner belongs to Indy's Jordy Mercer, a shortstop who's played 75 games at third in the minors, although not in 2011. Mercer has some pop in his bat and probably profiles the best at third base among the Bucco minor league prospects now.

The third base FA class is really weak. There's no one who has Pedro's upside, except for A-Ram, on the market. Some hot stove talk involves switching The Pittsburgh Kid to third. While technically viable (Neil Walker was a dandy glove at the hot corner), after two seasons in the show, it looks like his bat profiles well for a middle infielder but it's not very special for an everyday corner infielder. Second base looks like Walker's home.

We once thought sending Pedro to first ASAP was a no brainer, and it may be someday if he regains his stroke. But now the cupboard is bare, and his fielding, while pedestrian, isn't blood curdling, and so there's no compelling reason to add to his challenges by moving him across the diamond. 

The Pirates are between a rock and a hard place right now, playing the waiting game. There's no point in looking for a third baseman until Pedro takes himself out of the running, and a bad sophomore season hardly does that. There is no guarantee that Pedro will even start the year in Pittsburgh, but there is no doubt that the position is his to lose, at least in 2012. The hot corner may require a little baby-sitting while Alvarez looks for his missing mojo, but the two go together now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

First Base

The Bucs were set going into 2011. Veteran Lyle Overbay would man first base and Garrett Jones would platoon with Matt Diaz in right, adding some pop to the Pittsburgh lineup. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men...and FOs.

Overbay crapped out after a line of .227/8/37 in 103 games and Diaz delivered not one long ball. Alex Presley bumped Garrett Jones to first, and he got bumped in turn by the late season acquisition of Derrek Lee. Steve Pearce was injured again while Matt Hague raked at Indy. It all adds up to one highly unsettled position going into 2012.

The Pirates would like Lee to baby-sit the position, but that seems improbable. The 36 year old Lee is a free agent, and his 2011 stat line - .267/19/59 - will probably net him a nice deal on the market. And he was in the City during the Pirate nosedive, with no first-hand experience of Pittsburgh's boisterous crowds or winning baseball, so there's not much to recommend the Buccos to him except for a juicy overpay.

Internally, the Pirates could go with Jones, 30, ideally in a platoon situation. His lifetime BA against righties is .275 compared to .199 vs southpaws, with equally disparate production numbers. So getting 350-400 at-bats against righties wouldn't be a bad thing, even if his glove is at best average.

Finding a righty to compliment Jones might be a problem. Steve Pearce is out of options and the FO is probably out of patience with him, even with the occasional flash.

Matt Hague, 26, is unproven, but has hit at all levels in the minors (.302 career BA), is a good defender at first, and has some experience and the arm to play third. He also has noticeable splits, so a platoon, if he's ready for the show, should be the answer.

Hague doesn't provide much home run power, but he's had 30 doubles or more over the past three seasons. But he'll have to shine to come out of camp with the team. Like Presley, the FO wants a follow-up year before moving him up.

And after Hague, there's not a lot more in the cupboard. Third round pick Alex Dickerson, 21, is in the process of being converted to first base, and after a strong start at State College, expected for a major-college player (he played for Indiana), he should be fast-tracked to High A Bradenton in 2012.

The other guys all have holes and need to pick it up to make the radar. Matt Curry, 23, is the highest rated of the remaining players, though he hit a bump at Altoona last year, batting just .242 with a 26% K rate. But he was moved aggressively and skipped a level, so his second go-round with the Curve should give us a better idea of his potential.

There are a couple of FAs floating around that could fill the bill in Pittsburgh. Casey Kotchman (29) could be a longer term fit, although he doesn't bring much pop to the lineup. Carlos Pena was a player the Bucs were supposed to have interest in, and he's on the market this off season. The rest of the pack, minus Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, are quite pedestrian; that's why Lee may take his chances in the market this year.

Like much of the infield, first base is a position with a variety of routes available, and the off season will tell which road they choose.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Well, ya can't say the Bucs didn't give everyone a look - Chris Snyder, Jason Jaramillo, Ryan Doumit, Dusty Brown, Wyatt Toregas, Eric Fryer, Mike McKenry, Matt Pagnozzi...heck, everyone caught except for the anointed one, Tony Sanchez. Go figure.

Anyway, you're all aware of the travails of the Pittsburgh catching corps. You're also probably aware that both Dewey and Snyder are in costly option years - $7.25/$8.25 in the next two years for Doumit and $6.75M for Snyder in 2012. Both will be bought out, and it's possible if unlikely that the FO will try to sign one or the other to a more team-friendly contract.

The Pirates template is for a defense-first receiver who can call a game. Neither of those attributes are generally associated with Dewey. While his stick is welcome (.271/67/266 in 611 games), he can't seem to stay in one piece very long. In fact, he's started behind the plate 100 times in a season just once, and had over 300 at-bats twice.

Chris Snyder, while a well respected glove man, came to the Pirates with a rep for a bad back and sure enough, a herniated disc in early June ended his 2011 season after just 34 games and 119 at-bats. He started the year on the 15-day DL because of a lower back injury. It's too bad he's so fragile, because he was the perfect candidate for the spot.

Of the other guys, Brown and Toregas have left the team, Fryer will start in the higher minors, and Jaramillo, McKenry and Pagnozzi are returning. There are a few catchers out on the free market, but they are the usual second-line suspects. To hold the fort a couple of seasons until the next wave hits Pittsburgh, the Bucs could go for 36 year olds Ramon Hernandez or Rod Barajas.

It's an interesting position that Jaramillo, McKenry & Pagnozzi are in. If the Bucs don't make a move, two of the three will be catching quite a bit in Pittsburgh. And that's not real good news.

Jaramillo, 29, is probably the best two-way guy of the trio, even with a lifetime BA of .235. The switchhitter  is a good glove, and has started 90 games the past three seasons for the Bucs. But when the two big league catchers went down, JJ was out with what became a lengthy elbow injury caused when he was caught flush by a foul ball and it opened the door for the catcher derby.

That gave Scooby Doo McKenry, 26, a chance, after Brown and Toregas auditions in the show fizzled. He was a good receiver and game-caller, but not so hot at throwing out runners, making plays at the plate or hitting a baseball.

Eric Fryer, 26, got a shot, too, and looked OK if very green. Jaramillo came back eventually, but Pagnozzi, 29, a late-season waiver claim taken from Colorado is widely seen as a challenger to JJ as a Pirate insurance policy. Pagnozzi is reputedly another good glove, bad hit backstop.

The trio can't hit a lick - Jaramillo's lifetime BA is .235, Scooby-Doo's is .213, and Pagnozzi's has a .276 MLB average, but in just 76 at-bats; his minor league BA is .220 in 625 games, a little better indicator, we think, of his stick. To make it a little more interesting, JJ is out of the options, while the other pair each have one remaining.

And it looks like that's the trio that will remain in the 2012 mix from the last season's catcher posse, with Fryer still in the organization but learning his craft. It's possible that two of the three will split catching duties, although the main scenario involves a three-way fight for the back-up role.

It's more likely the Pirates will bring someone aboard to catch in the 110-game range like Barajas or  Hernandez. We know Chris Iannetta is available, and the Bucs were asking about Geovany Soto.

The Pirate future is invested in Tony Sanchez and Eric Fryer. Sanchez looked like he had it all going at Bradenton in 2010 before a broken jaw limited his season to just 59 games. The lack of reps showed at Altoona, when he hit just .241 although his defensive skills looked sharp. The reports we've seen say he needs to shorten his swing. The more he goes for the fence, the less solid contact he makes, a familiar conundrum for young hitters.

But now it looks like he'll start 2012 with the Curve, and that means he's at least a year behind the schedule the Pirates had him on as the number one pick in 2009.

Fryer came to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 Yankee deal for Eric Hinske. He began 2011 with Altoona, where he hit .345/5/16 in 37 games. In 38 Indy games, he put up a line of .269/2/11. He needs time behind the dish; he's only caught 225 games in the minors. That's partially due to being fairly athletic, as he's spent considerable time playing the outfield, and also because he's been Sanchez's caddy, backing him up rather than starting.

While he's no sure thing, he does have some potential, and we'll see if the Pirates give him some time to develop his skills. Fryer is penciled in to start out at Indy, but whether he'll be the man or continue as a jack-of-all-trades player will tell us a lot about how he's considered by the FO.

There are some intriguing prospects at the A level like Ramon Cabrera who won the Florida State batting crown with a .343 average, but all are works in progress and don't appear to be fast-track candidates.

Catching is a position in flux, and the Pirates have several routes they can take in 2012 to fill the spot, going internal, signing a FA, or swinging a trade. Add it to your checklist of hot stove items that need addressed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


- Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors has his offseason outlook for the Bucs. Among his points:

  • Expect the team to pass on Ryan Doumit & Chris Snyder, and look at guys like Ramon Hernandez and Rod Barajas for the short term.
  • Check out Paul Maholm's perceived value before reaching a final decision on letting him go.
  • Sign all the arb-eligible relievers.
  • Pluck another Kevin-Correia-type pitcher from the FA class.
  • Pass on the top FA's because the team isn't close enough to winning for it to make financial sense.
  • Try to lock up McCutch and Neil Walker.

- Rob Biertempfel of the Trib reports in his notes that at least one group is pleased with the Bucs 2011 performance. Root Sports Pittsburgh saw its ratings for Pirates games jump by 49 percent over last year.

- John Manuel and Jim Callis of Baseball America rate the Buc's 2011 draft as the third best in baseball. They think highly of Gerritt Cole and Josh Bell, and have both rated highly in their "Closest to the Majors" category, which is good news indeed for the ever-patient Pirate Nation.

- RHP James McDonald is 27 today.

- It's early in the fall season, but Pirate OF prospect Robbie Grossman is hitting .375 with 4 homers and 10 RBI after 13 games for Mesa in the AFL.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Second Base

At the turn of the decade, second base was a one-and-out position for the Pirates. Warren Morris, Pat Meares, Pokey Reese, Jeff Reboulet and Abraham Nunez all manned the spot.

Then in the middle of the decade, Jose Castillo claimed second from 2004-06 before Freddy Sanchez took the position. He lasted three years before being shipped to the Giants for Tim Alderson, and Delwyn Young and Aki Iwomura took their shots there.

That leads us to Neil Walker, who came up in 2010 as a utility infielder and ended up the regular second baseman a heartbeat later in one of JR's more inspired moves. The good news is that The Pittsburgh Kid is young (26), profiles nicely for a middle infield bat (.280/24/189 in 286 games), and made great strides in fielding the position. He still has room to grow, considering he had all of 21 games of minor-league experience at second before being thrown in the fire.

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

The bad news is that his backup on the depth chart was Ronny Cedeno, the shortstop, when the 2011 season started (Chase d'Arnaud & Josh Harrison are the current reserves). And that about tells us where the Bucs are at the position.

When Sanchez left, Delwyn Young was tossed in the position in hopes that he could hold the fort until Shelby Ford or Brian Friday were ready. Well, Young is playing AAA for the Phils (as an outfielder), Friday is considered an organizational player now, and Ford is a minor-league free agent. How's that for depth? So they brought in a hobbled Aki Iwomura to start with Bobby Crosby and then Josh Rodriguez as security blankets until Walker showed up.

The Pirates actually have quite a few guys that can play the spot as their middle infielders have been multi-tasking in the minors. It's just that the second base list is just about the same as the shortstop list.

SS candidates d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer and Brock Holt have all been given substantial time at second. d'Arnaud has played 290 games at SS and 64 at second, Mercer 278/83 (with 75 games at third) and Brock 126/116, almost an even split.

Last year's big league backup, 24 year old Harrison, played 152 games at second in the minors to 161 games at the hot corner. He started five games in Pittsburgh at second, and looked OK in the field while hitting a quiet .272, quiet because he has little power and less discipline. But at least we know that he's not overmatched at the plate, can put a ball in play and fits into Clint Hurdle's go-go attack with his wheels.

d'Arnaud, 24, despite his game changing speed, had his problems with the stick. He struck out 36 times in 143 at-bats and drew just four walks while hitting .217. Many project him as a better second baseman than shortstop, but he only saw three innings at second base in 2011.

Mercer, 25, has been a 30 double - 15 homer guy so far in the minors, and is a good fielder with a strong arm that can play both middle infield positions and third. But he had a rough start at Indy when he was promoted during the year, and only a strong September allowed him to finish with a .239 BA. He'll need to be added to the 40-man roster this year.

Holt, 23, played his first full professional season this year after being injured in 2010, and hit .289 with a .356 OBP at Altoona. He's a contact hitter who will draw a few walks and steal the occasional base, although he's not a burner. Holt projects to be a second baseman because of his range and arm. 

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

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

But another from that group could step in, depending on the status of Brandon Wood. We're not as sure as some of the other Pirate followers that he'll be let loose in the off season, not so much due to his performance as much as the need to fill the hot corner with a guy with a little muscle should Pedro falter again. But he didn't see much playing time in September, so we'll see how the Pirates craft their infield or 2012.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

...that Steve Blass threw his gem against the Baltimore O's to take the seventh game of the 1971 World Series 2-1, capped by his iconic leap into Bob Robertson's arms. His four hitter was backed by a Roberto Clemente homer and Pops Stargell RBI single, just enough to send Mike Cuellar to his second defeat of the October Classic, both times outdueled by Blass.

The series started with the Bucs losing the first two games at Baltimore, getting thumped 5-3 after blowing a 3-0 lead and then 11-3. But they came back to win the next three at Pittsburgh in the friendly confines of TRS. Pitching fueled that home-sweet-home run. Blass started with a complete game, three hit 5-1 win, followed by Bruce Kison's 6+ inning scoreless relief stint in the next contest, which was the first night game in Series history. The cherry on top was Nellie Briles' complete game, two hit shutout in the fifth match.

With a chance to take it in six, the Bucs faltered 3-2 in ten innings. Bob Moose started and Dave Guisti tossed three shutout innings from the pen, but Bob Miller was tagged with the loss. Hey, it only put off the inevitable by a game, and we know that the Bucs do like to take their series to seven. Drama is everything, no?

Arriba and Manny Sanguillen carried the Buc attack, hitting .414 and .379 respectively, but the O's staff held the Pirates to a .235 team average. The Big Bad Bird's fared worse; they had a collective .205 BA. Blass led the Pittsburgh staff with two complete game wins and a 1.00 ERA; Dave McNally was 2-1 for the Orioles with a 1.98 ERA, starting twice and coming out of the pen twice.

Danny Murtaugh retired after the win, although he would return in 1974. The Great One would have one more season in the sun, reaching 3,000 hits in 1972 before being called home. And the Bucs would be back at the end of the decade to face the same foes, with the same results.

The 1971 Pirate championship team, celebrated at PNC Park this summer.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pellas on the Pirates: The Case for Trading (Gulp!) Andrew McCutchen

No, wait! Hear me out! Put the pitchforks and torches down....that's it.....deep breaths, everybody. I'm here tonight, with Pirates Nation in front of me and PNC Park in the background, to discuss a course of action that might---might---possibly make sense for the Pirates at this point in time. That course of action is: trading Andrew McCutchen.

Before you have me keelhauled, consider these points: first and most importantly, it appears that he doesn’t want to be here long term. Not really. Why’s that, you ask? Well, according to at least one voice in the blogosphere, the much-maligned (often rightly, but not in this case) Pirates front office actually tried to emulate the Rays’ early career, pre-emptive, big-but-not-obscene-money signing of Evan Longoria when the team suits offered Andrew a long term deal of his own---and this not once, but twice.

Both times, Andrew said no. Before you respond by saying, “What’s so unusual about that? Players and their agents do that sort of thing all the time”, consider the examples of two other current major leaguers: the Angels’ Jared Weaver and our own Jose Tabata.

Weaver, one of the best starting pitchers in the American League, ignored the, ahem, “advice” of his agent, Scot Beelze-Boras, and signed a 6 year contract extension for about $85 million. His reasons? One, he was happy in Anaheim and wanted to put the distraction of contract negotiations behind him so he could get back to playing ball. Two, as he himself put it, “If I can’t live the rest of my life on $85 million, I’m pretty stupid”.

In other words, how much does any one man need….really? Once you factor in taxes and living expenses, both of which are going to be considerably higher in the large markets Andrew is presumably eying once his time in Pittsburgh is done, is a few million more or even $10 or $20 million more in another city really going to make that much difference to a player’s bottom line?

I don’t think so, yet Andrew has said no. Twice.

And now Tabata. While no one disputes the fact that Jose is not the elite or near-elite talent that Andrew is, nevertheless he’s pretty good. Tabata, like Weaver, told his agent(s) to jump in the lake and signed an early career contract extension that made him a multimillionaire while also giving him the opportunity to play right field in Pittsburgh ---like his longtime role model, Roberto Clemente

Certainly Tabata is no Clemente. But there is no doubt---zero---that he can really hit (just not with a lot of home runs) and really play defense and even steal some bases. With him, it’s all a question of whether he can stay healthy. If he’s on the field, he’s hitting and he’s catching everything in the vicinity, it’s that simple.

But the most important factor with him is this: he wants to be here. Obviously. So he got a deal done, and done quickly. Not so McCutchen. Why not?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Andrew is waiting to see what will happen with the current rebuilding plan before he commits to staying in town past the maximum six years the Pirates can retain him before he hits the open market as a free agent. You only live once, Andrew is a big market talent, and maybe he wants the experience of being in the national spotlight to look back upon as he bounces his grandchildren on his knees. Okay. I get that.

But it only returns us to the first point: he doesn’t, or at least apparently doesn’t, want to be here, in Pittsburgh , long term. At minimum, he’s given no indication that that is what he wants to do.

Well, okay. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that Andrew wants to bolt for the brighter lights and bigger stage once his six year stay in Pittsburgh is over. Or even sooner than that, if the right scenario were to present itself. If…IF…that’s true, it makes sense to deal him now or in the next off season at the latest. That’s because he’ll be all the more valuable in a down economy as a trading chip who combines elite or near-elite talent with a salary that is not yet in the stratospheric locale that it will reach soon enough.

In other words, right now, and for the next year or two, he will be just about the most bang for the buck any team could possibly have in its starting outfield. There might be a handful of better ballplayers around the majors, but few if any play as well as Andrew does for the money he makes. Therefore, his potential value in trade is never going to be as high as it is now and for the next year or two. After that, his salary will zoom climb, even over his last couple of Pirates seasons if he spends the full six years in black and gold.

In other words, there’s more than one way to maximize the asset that is Andrew McCutchen. Hanging onto him for six years as the reluctant centerpiece of the current rebuilding project, all the while making long term, multimillion dollar offer after fruitless offer, is not the only road down which the team can travel.

Trading him alone or with other major and/or minor league Pirates in a blockbuster deal that would net 2 or 3 or 4 players in return, in some combination of productive, current major leaguers and top prospects, should definitely not be out of the question for the Pirates. Of course, trusting Neal Huntington to be the man who would pull the trigger on such a trade is….well, it would be interesting, let’s put it that way.

The GM who has proven more than capable of making very astute junkheap pickups like Garrett Jones is the same one who evidently either can’t be bothered with the most basic medical due diligence (Iwamura, Hart, Ascanio, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, Matt Diaz) or else is knowingly gambling on players who are already hurt before they ever get here.

We’re talking about the guy who gave former National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez to the Giants in exchange for a fading A-ball pitcher with diminished velocity. We’re talking about the guy who is hoping against hope that Bryan Morris will prove to be some modicum of return for Jason Bay, because everyone else the Pirates got in exchange for Bay long ago washed out of Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River.

On the other hand, this is also the guy who made excellent trades with the Yankees and the Dodgers and turned the likes of Octavio Dotel, Xavier Nady, and Damaso Marte into Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and others.

Andrew McCutchen, without question, is a very good major league baseball player. But he is not great. Definitely not. Want proof? In terms of his raw athletic tools, he is no worse than a righthanded batting version of Carl Crawford. Another player from the recent past who was quite similar to Andrew was Marquis Grissom.

But despite being in the same class as those two and other fleet-footed types in terms of pure foot speed, McCutchen is not a good base stealer. In fact, he’s barely average. And he is a significantly lesser player in terms of his base thievery than a guy with his speed ought to be. Even in an era of baseball dominated by sabermetric thinking - which postulates that it is better to steal smaller numbers of bases at an 80% or better success rate than to force the action in higher risk situations - even with all that, any player with McCutchen’s blazing speed should be logging 40 or more swipes every season.

Andrew’s career high of 33, set last season, is a respectable total but nowhere close to what he is capable of doing. And those 33 steals came with 10 caught stealing. This year his total regressed to 23, with another 10 caught stealing. His success rate over the past two seasons combined is a middling 74%, though it is higher for his career thanks to his 22 for 27 effort as a rookie. But the rather surprising downward trend in his steals leads us to our final point.

When I watch Andrew McCutchen, I see a player who, while definitely, indisputably, and consistently pretty good since the very start of his career, is also a guy who’s just not getting much better as he approaches what should be his peak seasons. This is very odd, especially for a guy with his talent, but it is not without precedent in major league history.

Fred Lynn, the old Boston Red Sox standby, rarely approached and never exceeded his incredible rookie season despite a long and productive career. Andrew’s rookie season, which did not begin until June of that year, did not approach the heights that Lynn reached, but he still posted a .286 average average with 12 home runs and 22 steals. This year his average sank to .259, though this was offset to some extent by his career-high 23 home runs.

As mentioned above, his steals also fell off this year from 33 to 23, and he had the worst success rate of his career, just under 70%. Now, maybe he’s still a young guy who’s “adjusting to the adjustments” and he’ll put it all together next year or the year after. But maybe not. Maybe he’s as good as he’ll ever be, right now, in which case it would be better to get another team to overpay for his potential, especially if by overpaying they strengthen our lineup at 2 or 3 or 4 positions.

I can already see some of you picking up your pitchforks again, and I can already hear the hue and cry that will certainly be the result of this piece. And if McCutchen had already said and done the things that would indicate he really, truly wants to be in Pittsburgh for the long haul, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But he hasn’t. And if trading him would actually make this team stronger, overall, from top to bottom, it’s something the “best management team in sports” should strongly consider.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Head To Forbes Field...

Well, the little bit of brick wall that's left of it, anyway. It's October 13th, time for the 51st anniversary of the shot heard 'round the City, celebrating the day that Billy Maz became a Pittsburgh legend. The festivities start at noon, highlighted by the NBC broadcast that will be replayed by the wall on Roberto Clemente Drive beside Mazeroski Field. Don't let the gray skies deter ya; there's a tent up in Schenley Plaza if it rains on the Pirate parade. Beside, you never know what old Bucco may stop by to say "hi."

The home run:

And some home video of Maz being honored last year at PNC:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Buc News: The Fan In, Maholm Out

  • The Bucs have selected KDKA's incarnation, The Fan, Sportsradio 93.7 as its flag station for the next four years. It shouldn't be a lot different, we're guessing. The announcers are the same, the Pirate radio network is the same, so... It is a return to the Pirates old KD roots, and an all-sports channel probably is a good fit.
  • Oddly enough, Frank Coonelly was on the air with The Fan's David Todd. He pretty much kissed Paul Maholm goodbye, saying that it's "unlikely" PM will return, the Bucs aren't in the position to offer a multi-year deal (to Maholm, presumably), and they'll stay in touch while he's feeling out the market. (The prez confirmed that the Bucs won't pick up his option to Rob Beirtempfel of the Tribune Review) We're not sure who they have in mind to take his spot, but good luck replacing him.
  • IF Jordy Mercer is 8-for-19 (.421) with the US team, with 5 runs, 5 RBI, 3 2Bs and a homer.
  • Baseball America listed all the top prospects, team-by-team. The Bucs had nine, most in the A or rookie level.
  • The NL Central is sure getting interesting. Buster Olney of ESPN reports that the Cubs have signed Theo Epstein of the Redsox as GM. Peter Gammons of the MLB Network tweets that the Astros will be sold and then jump leagues.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Morton Has Labrum Surgery

Well, it ends up that Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens weren't the only pitchers dinged up in the dog days. Charlie Morton was too, and had hip surgery yesterday, according to the beat gang.

He tore the labrum in his left hip "late" during the season; the club said that there was no one event to pinpoint when the injury occurred. The surgery went well, and the usual recovery time is six months, so he should be ready to return sometime in mid April if that holds true.

His agent, Andrew Lowenthal, told Mike Sanserino of the Post Gazette that "We have every indication he'll be ready for the season," and he was hopeful that Morton could participate in some baseball activity in four months, which would lead him into spring training.

For a right handed pitcher, the left is the landing side, so it takes a beating. And it's tough to catch up if you miss the off-season and camp. Look at how long it took James McDonald to get back into a groove; he really didn't regain his swing-and-miss stuff until the second half of the season after being hurt in early March.

Morton pitched a career-high 171-2/3 innings, ending 2011 with a 10-10 slate and 3.83 ERA in 29 starts with a shutout and two complete games. He was a staff workhorse, and his injury timeline makes us wonder how that will affect the way the Bucs approach Paul Maholm.

They haven't spoken to him yet about coming back to the fold. The FO will almost certainly refuse his $9.75M club option, but Maholm has said he's amenable to working out a new deal. If he hits the market, the Pirates will likely have trouble matching the bids he'll get. A lefty that eats innings, even as the fourth man on the staff, is a valued commodity around MLB.

Sanserino asked that question, and tweeted the reply: "GM Neal Huntington says Morton's surgery will not affect team's decision on Paul Maholm." Hmmmm. Throw another log or two into the hot stove.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pellas On the Pirates: Shortstop

Will Pellas' thoughts on the shortstop position:

I'll say it again: if you have to go with a shortstop who is a one or two dimensional guy---a flawed player, a less than ideal solution---surely he ought to be the one with the best glove unless he is totally incompetent with the bat. To me, that spells "C-I-R-I-A-C-O".

That said, given the weakness of the position all around the majors at the moment, as well as the weakeness of this offseason's free agent class, maybe Cedeno isn't such a bad idea after all, assuming his considerable defensive improvement in 2011 is real and sustainable.

I'd personally be inclined to re-sign him and make Ciriaco the backup, while giving Ciriaco enough starts to get a better idea if his bat---such as it is---and running game would provide enough offense to consider getting rid of Cedeno, either during the season or, surely, by the winter of 2012.

D'Arnaud, I think, probably has the inside track among the guys who are left, but if he doesn't hit a lot better next year, the door is wide open for Mercer. Mercer has power, D'Arnaud has speed; if I had to choose one or the other I'd take speed, at least when we're talking about shortstop, but as the saying goes: you can't steal first base.

Then again this team has a lot worse holes than shortstop, and a lot more of them. So, maybe this is a tempest in a teapot discussion.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


We knew coming into the season that Ronny Cedeno was going to man the middle. Cedeno was on a short leash because of his legendary good SS/bad SS resume, but nobody stepped up to challenge him.

Well, looks like the same situation is about to repeat in 2012. The Bucs lost out on last year's SS market, which pretty much consisted of JJ Hardy, and Chase d'Arnaud showed he wasn't ready for prime time. This year's free market is headlined by Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins, and the Pirate grab bag consists of guys like Jamey Carroll, Cesar Izturis, Clint Barmes and maybe Rafael Furcal. So it's likely that the FO will exercise RC's $3M option and bring him back.

Cedeno, 28, hit .249, about what you'd expect from an eight-hole hitter, although his .297 OBP was disappointing. But his Ultimate Zone Rating/150 of +6.8 was excellent, he had his best professional season of fielding balls in his zone, and had a career high 66 plays outside of his zone. He was the ninth ranked SS in MLB, and third in the NL, with his glove. All in all, he finished the year with a 1.4 WAR, OK for a glove-first position.

Funny how the Bucs seemed to be loaded back in the day with Brent Lillibridge, who went to Atlanta, and Brian Bixler, now of the Nats. Neither lived up to their billing, and the hope is that Chase d'Arnaud doesn't join them.

d'Arnaud is an exciting player, and was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. He flies around the sacks and is an accomplished base stealer. It's just getting him on base that's proved troublesome. In his tiny 2011 MLB sampling of 151 PAs, he hit .217 and only had a .248 OBP. His main problem was discipline, proving a sucker for pitches off the dish. Cedeno, by contrast, hit .249/.297, not very strong numbers but considerably stronger than d'Arnaud's line.

For all his quickness, d'Arnaud was just league average in range and committed 6 errors in 206 innings, not the SS numbers you want behind a pitch-to-contact staff. Again, Cedeno trumped him with above-average range and 13 errors in 1,050 frames.

He'll probably start 2012 at Indy, getting some at-bats; d'Arnaud has only played 70-some games at the AAA level. The 24 year old is considered to be the shortstop of the future, and is toolsy enough to eventually claim the spot.

There's also a chance, since he's also played third and second, that Pittsburgh keeps him on the big team instead of Brandon Wood or Pedro Ciriaco. d'Arnaud is a sparkplug off the bench, but exposed when he's out there every day.

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

But Mercer has discipline problems at the plate, and his OBP for the Tribe was just .304. He is a streak hitter, too - he had to finish strong to end up with a .239 BA at Indy after a terrible August run. Mercer isn't on the 40-man roster, and has to be protected this year from the Rule V draft.

So the Bucs have two minor league guys behind Cedeno, and both have holes. There are also holdovers Pedro Ciriaco and Brandon Wood.

Ciriaco, 25, is a terrific SS with the leather and can run well, but he joins the crowd with a so-so BA (.270) and terrible OBP (.297) in the minors, although he was competent with the stick in his few outings in Pittsburgh. But judging by the way Clint Hurdle buried him, we don't see much organizational love for Ciriaco.

Wood, 26, a waiver wire pick up, also filled in at short, his original position, though he handled third base well. He put together a line of .220/7/31 in 236 ABs. His major drawback is that the other three can also play second - heck, so can RC - and that lack of versatility could haunt him. At least, it makes him a better bench corner candidate than middle infield soldier. Wood can play first, and if the FO can't sign Derrek Lee and returns to platooning with Garrett Jones there, he's a better fit there.

Altoona's Brock Holt, 23, may eventually work his way into the mix, too. He has a good bat and an eye at the plate, but profiles more in the field as a second baseman than shortstop. We may get to see him at Indy in 2012, but if Mercer and d'Arnaud both start there, he could also tread water with the Curve a bit longer.

So the Bucs have four young shortstops - d'Arnaud is 24, Mercer and Ciriaco are 25, and Wood is 26 - but none who is a complete package. Two can field, two can run, and two have some pop, but none have all three tools. So it will be interesting to see how the FO handles the jam, especially if the team feels that d'Arnaud and Mercer both still need work at Indy.

That would leave their choice for back-up SS between Wood, who held the spot most of the season, and Ciriaco, who probably needed a few doses of Dramamine to counter his rapid trips between Indy and Pittsburgh in 2011. Or they could bring in a free agent, which has not exactly been the FO's forte (do Ramon Vazquez, Bobby Crosby and Josh Rodriguez ring a bell?)

If the Bucs hope to find a good field, good hit shortstop, they'll likely have to go outside the system. If one out of two works, they're set.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Central The NL's Best In 2011

Hey, guess what division is the best in baseball as of this moment and has a guaranteed spot in the World Series? Nope, not that one in the junior circuit with the Yankees, Rays and Bosox. It would be the home base of the Buccos, the NL Central.

Milwaukee and St. Louis eliminated Arizona and the Phils in thrillers last night. Their upcoming NLCS series will determine which of the pair will represent the NL in the 2011 October Classic.

The Brew Crew fell behind on Justin Upton's third inning homer off a 3-2 heater from Yovanni Gallardo, who was especially honked because he thought he had caught him looking at a slider the pitch before. The Brewers tied it on a Jerry Hairston sac fly in the fourth, and a two-out Yuniesky Belancourt single in the sixth off Ian Kennedy put them up 2-1.

It could have been a bigger frame, but Chris Young made a no-look web gem grab of a Hairston shot to center to limit the damage. The drama continued in the ninth, when a Willie Bloomquist squeeze tied the game, snapping John Axford's 44-game save streak.

That set the table for Nyjer Morgan, who rolled a single up the middle just past JJ Putz's leg in the tenth inning to plate Carlos Gomez, who had stolen second, with the series-clinching run.

St. Louis came out on top of an old fashioned pitching duel. Raphael Furcal and Skip Schumaker opened the game with extra base knocks off Roy Halladay to take a 1-0 lead before an out was recorded. It was the game's only score. Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hit, complete game gem and the Phillies were left on the outside looking in yet again. As Paul McCartney noted, money can't buy you love.

It should make for a great series. Yesterday's winners, team aces Carpenter and Gallardo, are set up to square off in Games 3 and 7. The clubs finished the regular season series 9-9, and have a thing for one another, with trash talkin' yap and bench clearing hubbubs regular features of their contests.

For the Bucs, it validates the blueprint of building a team that is championship caliber rather than just competitive. For all the hue and cry of a weak division, the Central proved itself in the playoffs. This year is a high point, of course, but it does show how far the Bucs have to go yet.

The Brewers and Cards both have a murderous one-two punch in the middle of their lineups (although Prince Fielder is likely to become a free agent, and who knows whassup with Sir Albert?) and can throw some top-of-the-rotation arms at you.

The result? Pittsburgh won seven games against the Cards and three against Milwaukee for a combined 10-21 slate against the big boys of the division. Make no mistake; that's a fair barometer against teams that have some elite talent playing against a club that by and large doesn't. And those games are the only meaningful measuring stick, because you can't go anywhere until you step out of the division.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bucs Keep Coaches; Rox Looking At Pedro?

  •  The beat gang reports that all the Pirate coaches will be back next season. Half of the eight were Clint Hurdle guys while the other four were holdovers. The only question mark was hitting coach Gregg Ritchie, but it looks like Hurdle and the FO are pointing the finger for the Bucs' batting woes at the players rather than the way they're coached up. Just straightening out Pedro would go a long way toward straightening out the offense. And speaking of Pedro...
  • Troy Renck of the Denver Post writes "The Rockies will cast a wide net (for a third baseman), from the tough-to-get (Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox) to the intriguing (San Diego's Chase Headley and Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez). When looking to trade Stewart this past summer, the Rockies inquired about Headley and Alvarez. Neither team was interested in making a deal, but it would be no surprise if Colorado restarts talks this winter."
  • Free agent rumor-mongering: Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors said that "If the Astros fail to sign (Clint) Barmes, he could be a more affordable alternative for the Twins, Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Pirates, Cardinals, or Giants."    
  • IF Jordy Mercer went 3-for-3 with two doubles, a homer & three RBI yesterday in Team USA's 15-1 win vs. Chinese Taipei in World Cup.
  • Two Bucco farmhands made the Top Twenty Eastern League prospects per Baseball America: OF Starling Marte and RHP Kyle McPherson.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Outfield

In the last post, we looked at the FO; today we'll look at the OF. The Pirate plan going into 2011 was to use PNC's right field to stash a basher while McCutch & JT covered the top of the order and expanses of left and center, so they brought in Matt Diaz to platoon with Garrett Jones. Both had some bop in their background, something that Delwyn Young and Lastings Milledge lacked last season.

But it sure didn't work out they way they drew it up. Oh, Jones did his part, with a line of .262/14/50 and .356 OBP against righties, even if he was at sea against southpaws. Diaz did hit .295 against lefties, but had just seven extra-base hits in 132 ABs, absolutely dismal numbers for a man the FO planned to plop somewhere in the middle of the order and earning him a ticket to Atlanta.

Then Jose Tabata got hurt. Twice. First, he pulled his quad in June. Then he came back in August and broke his hand. In the 91 games he got into, he ran up a .266/4/21 line with 53 runs scored and 16 stolen bases, which was OK but could hardly be called a breakthrough year. And the injuries are troublesome; he's been haunted by them since the Pirates traded for him in 2008. But he did do two things to help solidify the future:

First, he signed with the Bucs through 2016, with three following club option years, so he's one player that the team has locked up. Secondly, his injuries provided Alex Presley with an opening, and he ran with it. Presley had a lukewarm September showing in 2010, and started the 2011 season at Indy. He was smoking the ball there, but the Bucs kept him on the farm until JT went down in late June.

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

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

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

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

McCutch played 158 games, starting 155. We wouldn't make much of his September swoon. If the season wore on him, we'd guess it was more mentally than physically exhausting, a fairly predictable result after riding the wave into mid-July before crashing.

At any rate, the one thing the season has produced is the three guys that will be penciled in to start in the outfield at set the table in 2012, hitting 1-2-3: Presley, Tabata, McCutch. We'd probably flip Presley and Tabata, just to add a little more power to the two hole, open up the right side and break up the righty-lefty scheme, but that's just nitpicking.

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

That will give the Pirates an outfield that's speedy, pretty fair defensively, and tailor-made to fill the top of the Bucco order. The next question is who will join McCutch, JT and The King?

Xavier Paul and Ryan Ludwick are the spare OF'ers. Paul (.259/2/20 & 16 SBs in 251 PAs) has some use being lefty, fast, and a good defensive player, but his lack of plate discipline was exposed when he had to play regularly. Ludwick is likewise a decent fielder, although without Paul's speed, and didn't do much at the plate (.232/2/11 in 133 PAs) as a Bucco.

Paul's future may be tied to Garrett Jones. If Jones returns to first base, Paul could be part of the Pirates bench mix.  He's out of options but cheap, as he doesn't reach arbitration until 2013. Ludwick earned $6.775M in 2011 and will be a free agent. He'll almost certainly be allowed to walk in the off season.

Pittsburgh has a couple of guys in the minors that are close. Gorkys Hernandez might be the best defensive OF'er in the Pirate system. He just turned 24, and had a poor season at Altoona in 2009 after the Bucs got him from the Braves as part of the Nate McLouth deal. But he's put together back-to-back solid years at the dish the last two seasons for the Curve and Indy. He's averaged .275 and stolen 38 bases in 50 tries.

The Bucs' prospect with a bullet is Starling Marte, Altoona's OF'er who was named the Eastern league's 2011 Rookie of the Year. His 2011 line was .332/12/50 with 90 runs and 24 stolen bases, along with a rep as a tremendous outfielder tools-wise. He could be a year away after the Indy coaches work on honing his defensive routes and improving his plate discipline. And Marte won't turn 23 until next week.

If Presley can repeat and Tabata remains healthy enough to play 135 games, the OF is set. They have depth in Hernandez and Marte, along with guys on the move like Robbie Grossman, 22, at Bradenton, who was named the Pirates minor-league player of the year, and Andrew Lambo, 23, at Altoona. They also have high hopes for Josh Bell, 19, their second round prep selection in the 2011 draft. Marte and Lambo have to be added to the 40 man roster in the off season to be protected.

If the FO decides to deal to fill an infield or pitching hole, this outfield is easily the deepest position in the system to draw a trade candidate from. So when the hot stove fires up, the OF'ers should provide plenty of fuel.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The FO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pirate Potpourri

Stuff happening lately:

  • OF Alex Presley suffered a stiff back caused by a slide during the last series against Milwaukee, but doesn't think it will stop him from going to the Instructional League in another week.
  • C Ryan Doumit discusses his Bucco future with's Jen Langosch. He told her "I know the probability of me being back is probably slim, but I've just been trying to enjoy the last couple of days and soak it all in."
  • SS Ronny Cedeno told Langosh that he hopes his $3M option is picked up (as it likely will be). "I feel good here...If they want to keep me here, I would love to be here"
  • RHP Jason Grilli, who is in an arbitration year, tweets that "I have a good feeling that I will be back."
  • The Bucs named their minor league players of the year: OF Robbie Grossman (.294/13/56 with 127 runs scored in 134 games with Bradenton) and RHP Kyle McPherson (12-6, 2.96 with 142 K's in 161 IP with Bradenton & Altoona).
  • Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout says not to expect much off season activity this year and gives a rundown of the current FO's winter pick-ups over the past few seasons.
  • Raise The Jolly Roger's Brian McElhinny follows up on reports that the Bucs canned their entire MLB training and strength staff, including Head Athletic Trainer Brad Henderson, Head Conditioning Coordinator Frank Velasquez, and Assistant Athletic Trainer Mike Sandoval. Guess those July & August injuries took a toll on more than the lineup. 
  • On the other hand, the FO promoted a boatload of development/scout folk like Greg Smith and Kyle Stark. Our guess is that they'll turn their attention to the coaching staff next. From what we hear, none are in trouble with the FO. We should find out for sure soon.
  • Mike Axisa of MLB Trade Rumors went over the AAA transaction wires and found 22 players filed for free agency, including Dusty Brown, Wyatt Toregas, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge and Wil Ledezma.
  • New Brighton's Terry "Tito" Francona was canned as the Bosox manager after their monumental September collapse. Here's the story from Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe.

Clint Hurdle's Opening Bow

OK, we've had time to knock down a couple of Brooklyn Brewing's best and contemplate the 2011 Pirate season. We were shaken out of our IPA reverie when we recalled that on this day in 1903, the first World Series opened in Boston. It was between the Boston Pilgrims and our Pittsburgh Pirates (The Bucs lost in eight games; it was best-of-nine), and we began wondering when the club would get into its next October Classic.

Rightly or wrongly, a team's performance is hung on the shoulders of its skipper. GW's theory has always been the players win or lose games whether it be due to or in spite of the field boss' brainstorming. The manager's job is simply to set up situations that allow the players to do their thing to the best of their abilities.

And Clint Hurdle danced through the good, bad and ugly this year.

Tactically, he relies on the bunt a little more (OK, a lot more) than we prefer and likes to use his pen by the numbers, which worked fine for four months and then caused some problems later in the year when the staff went south on him. Hanny got 40 saves, but many times was a spectator when there were high leverage innings begging for his presence while he cooled his heels waiting for a save situation that never came.

On the positive side, Hurdle showed some imagination putting together a lineup, and did a pretty good job of getting everyone involved (well, except Pedro Ciriaco) while depending on a swinging gate roster of AAA players. And Clint utilized the two-for-one and defensive switches as well as any skipper in the league. Our guess is that he'd be happier with an everyday order, even if it involved a platoon spot or two, but given the realities of 2011, he scuffled pretty well with the cards dealt to him.

And on the sunny side of the bullpen, he didn't blatantly overwork anybody with the possible exceptions of D-Mac and Jose Veras. Hurdle stuck to his three days in a row or 25-30 pitch outing limits for relievers fairly religiously, and he wasn't afraid to throw a young guy into a late-inning fire. That may not have done much for the record this season, but should prove invaluable for the growth of his staff and down-the-road evaluations. He toed the highwire of a longer-range plan without sacrificing day-to-day results as well as possible.

His work with the rotation was solid too, as he alternately stretched and protected his arms as the innings piled up. The perfect example was Jeff Karstens, who was weaned from a long-man's pitch count early in the season to a reliable inning eater within weeks, and then rested again when signs of fatigue showed late in the year. In hindsight, he could have used a sixth starter earlier in the year, but who could have predicted that his two proven workhorses, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia, would pull up lame?

His pedal to the metal running attack had its up and downs. It worked great when McCutch, Alex Presley, Chase d'Arnaud and others with their speed were on, but led to some head-banging when the more lead footed Buccos tried to stretch the bases with Lastings Milledge-like results. The team did steal 21 more sacks than last year (although with a lower success rate), made great strides in taking the extra base, and did a much better job of situational running even with the occasional fax paus.

The team seemed to adapt to the running game better in the second half of the season, both because the younger guys that got the call up had wheels and the coaches got a better read on what the players were capable of actually doing.

As far as coaching up the players, his staff did wonders with the pitching, dropping the ERA by nearly a run from last year, and he deserves credit for keeping Ray Searage aboard. But his rep as a batting guru took a hit when the attack tread water in 2011. That leads to another chicken-or-egg debate; were the results due to coaching or the performances of Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and Hanny on the hill, and Pedro Alvarez, Lyle Overbay and the injury bug at the dish?

The staff did a good job at bringing the fielding up to par. It began to break down some in the final weeks, but that probably had more to do with the shuffling of players because of injuries and performance, leading to a shaky make-shift infield, than lack of preparation. That also shows the flip; the staff had the advantage of a fairly set lineup to work with for the first four months when they were catching everything. The positioning was by-the-book, a welcome change from the JR/Gary Varsho days.

But managers don't get rated for their coaching by WAR for good reason; the lowest-percentage calls look great if the players come through and the no-brainer decisions fall flat when your guy bombs. (We're stretching, but the team's Pythagorean calculation was for 70 wins, so we'd assume Sabermetric dudes would consider Hurdle as a +2.0 WAR this year). The key to being a good manger isn't so much on-the-field generalship as much as the role of ringmaster in the clubhouse.

And Hurdle deserves good marks in that department. He let the team know who was boss quickly when he sat down Ronny Cedeno for not hustling out of the box, and doubled down when he did the same to McCutch. He was consistent in the way he handled players and assignments, even if that meant Lyle Overbay got nearly 400 at-bats, and that fostered easier dugout relations because the players knew where the boss was coming from.

His locker room is looser and more player-friendly now than in the taciturn JR days. Hurdle is a booming and gregarious presence, and communication, important to a young team, is a two-way street now. The players have a much better understanding of where they stand and what they need to improve.

Just as importantly, he put a human face to the franchise. He's approachable, quotable and sometimes downright comical in his dealings with the media, and almost singlehandedly transformed the team's PR image, previously fronted by the dour and secretive FO, into a positive.

Will Clint Hurdle become a long term fixture behind the Pirate bench?  Well, as the old chestnut goes, "managers are hired to be fired." We think he's a good fit for the team now. How long he'll remain a fit will hang on the abilities of the players he gets to manage down the road.