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Opinions and Analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates
as Bucs Dugout. Please update your links, and see you there.
Thanks for everything,
Here's a nice article by Studes on why the Pirates and Brewers have been playing so well recently.
Studes notes, as many have, that the Pirates' run scoring has far better recently than it was at the beginning of the season. Here are the Pirates' hitting stats for May. Daryle Ward, Jose Castillo, Ty Wigginton and Rob Mackowiak are all playing way over their heads, and Jason Bay arguably is too. Jack Wilson and Matt Lawton, who probably shouldn't be benched for any extended period of time, have been cold. Other than that, it looks like Lloyd McClendon has done a fairly good job figuring out who the hot players are - or maybe those players are hot because they're getting playing time, or maybe McClendon is just lucky. (Actually, it's probably some combination of the three.) In any case, all the players above except Wigginton have played a lot, while cold players like Tike Redman, David Ross and Freddy Sanchez have had limited opportunities to hurt the Pirates.
The Pirates have allowed few runs in May, also, but the team's 3.73 ERA this month simply isn't sustainable, with nearly as many walks during that period as strikeouts. (And no, I don't care how good Brian O'Neill thinks the defense has been, but check out his fine article anyway.) In the meantime, though, Mark Redman, Kip Wells and Dave Williams have posted good ERAs this month, and opposing hitters have failed to score much at all against the Bucs' bullpen.
What an unbelievably stupid, breathless, worthless piece of hackery this is.
"You always have to be prepared for what could happen," Littlefield said. "It's easy to think everything's going good and there's no worries, but every general manager will tell you that's not the case."
A foul tip can injure a catcher in an instant. A second baseman can be lost for two months because he stood his ground while a baserunner crashed into him trying to break up a double play. An outfielder can hit a wall trying to catch a long drive.
Or a starting pitcher can be lost for the season when a line drive strikes his knee.
All of which are incredibly pressing issues when the team you built has never contended and is nowhere near ready to contend!
"Since coming out of spring training, there have been some thunderbolts," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I think Dave has done a tremendous job of trying to manage this roster and giving me the best players he can possibly give me under the circumstances.
'By the way, Dave, if you're reading this, please don't fire me.'
That makes one realize there's yet another category in the "What if" game, as in "What if" Littlefield hadn't done a good job?
Well, then, you'd probably have a ridiculously inept Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation for two thirds of a year. You'd probably have huge holes at center field and third base. You'd probably have had one of the worst offenses in the big leagues last year. You'd probably have a consistently terrible performance record. Good thing Littlefield has done such a good job.
Paul Meyer, Dave Littlefield, please do us all a favor and retire. Both of you.
The Pirates just acquired Mike Restovich from the Rockies for a player to be named later and cash. Presuming the PTBNL isn't a prospect and that amount of cash isn't much (in the last few months, Restovich has been DFA'ed by the Rockies and Devil Rays and waived by the Twins, though with the Pirates one never knows), this is a nice little trade. Restovich is just 26 and has an .806 career major league OPS, and he has always hit pretty well against minor league pitching, so there could be some upside here. Since Craig Wilson is hurt, Nate McLouth and Chris Duffy aren't ready, and the Pirates don't want to move Daryle Ward to the outfield, the Pirates have a corner outfield spot available. This is a nice opportunity to find out more about Restovich, who could be a dirt-cheap, league-average player the next few years if everything breaks right for him. He might grab some starts here and there in the outfield, then become a solid bench player if better players become available. This trade isn't any big deal, but that doesn't mean it couldn't turn out nicely.
Bob Smizik writes about Chris Young, Bronson Arroyo, Leo Nunez and Roberto Novoa. Theirs are stories that need to be told, but Smizik doesn't tell them very well.
On Arroyo: "[The Pirates] gave Arroyo, who was a highly regarded prospect, ample opportunity and he never took advantage of it. In parts of three seasons with the Pirates, he was 9-14 and gave no hint of what was to come."
In parts of three seasons with the Pirates, that's almost true, but it doesn't come close to telling the whole story.
In 2000, when Arroyo was 23, he put up an 8-2 record and a 3.65 ERA in 88.2 innings at Class AAA Nashville. In spite of these superficially strong statistics, he had no business playing for the Pirates at that point - he only struck out 52 batters at Nashville, so his strikeout rate was quite low, an indication that he needed more time to develop. But he ended up pitching 71.2 innings for the Pirates that year anyway, and the results were predictable: he got bombed, putting up a 6.40 ERA.
Arroyo split 2001 between Nashville and Pittsburgh. His ERA went up a bit at Nashville, but his strikeout and K/BB rates were much better, indicating improvement. In Pittsburgh, his strikeout rate was a bit lower than it had been in 2000, but his walk rate dropped too, and he lopped 1.3 runs off his ERA.
Arroyo spent most of 2002 at Nashville, where he was downright good, posting 116 strikeouts, 28 walks and an ERA below 3. He didn't play much at Pittsburgh that year, but again, he knocked more than a run off the previous year's ERA when he did (although it was a small sample, and his strikeout and walk rates were about what they had been in 2000).
Arroyo's record wasn't completely consistent, but the general trend was one of marked improvement. The reason why Arroyo may have looked like a failed prospect at the time was that he was called up well before he should have been. In reality, he was already a productive big league pitcher in the season before the Pirates let him go, and a 25 year-old who puts up the numbers Arroyo did at AAA in 2002 deserves a spot on a roster, especially the roster of a bad team. It is also worth pointing out that when the Pirates let him go, Arroyo was two years younger than Ryan Vogelsong is now, and Vogelsong continues to get chances with the Pirates even though his performance record is not as strong as Arroyo's was. Dave Littlefield really screwed up in letting Arroyo go.
Elsewhere, Smizik rightly calls the Pirates out for losing Chris Young for the veteran Matt Herges, and for having so many former farmhands on other major league teams but failing to get anything from their own top draft picks. The Young move offers an unfortunate bit of history that the Pirates recently repeated. At the time of the trade, Young had posted great numbers at Class A Hickory, but his status as a prospect was widely doubted because he was old for his level and because he relied too much on a small number of pitches. Young's subsequent rise through the minors and success in the big leagues (in a small sample, I know) shows that There Is No Such Thing As Not A Pitching Prospect (TINSTANAPP). Just as you can't rely on a successful Class A pitcher to eventually help you in the big leagues, it's probably unwise to discount successful Class A starters on the basis of things they might improve later anyway, like secondary pitches and velocity. But that's exactly what the Pirates did with Leo Nunez, who, like Young, was mowing down hitters at Hickory but having trouble with secondary pitches when he was traded for a crappy veteran. The kicker, though, is that Nunez' stuff was probably better than Young's was at the time, and unlike Young, Nunez was not old for his league.
Anyway, Smizik fails to mention the real reason why it was dumb to dump Arroyo, Young and Nunez: the Pirates were not contending when those players were lost. Any transaction a team makes must be judged from within the context of what that team is trying to achieve. For example, if the Red Sox were to trade a pitching prospect for a veteran, and then they didn't get anything from the veteran while the prospect ended up helping another team a few years later, that would be a shame for the Red Sox. But it would not necessarily indicate a major error in judgment. It might just have been a good gamble that didn't work out. As Smizik points out, "Bad trades and ill-advised personnel decisions are part of baseball. They happen to all teams." If a bad trade happens every so often, that isn't the end of the world. But all trades should come within the context of a plan. Dave Littlefield doesn't have one, or if he does, it isn't any good.
Unlike the Red Sox, the Pirates need talented young players to succeed, and unlike the Sox, the Pirates aren't perennial contenders in need of immediate help at the big league level. That's what's so galling about the losses of Arroyo, Young, Nunez, Chris Shelton, Duaner Sanchez, Walter Young, and others - not only was there no immediate need for the mediocrities for whom those prospects were lost (Herges, Benito Santiago, Mike Lincoln, Abraham Nunez, Mark Corey, Jim Mann, Raul Mondesi, Randall Simon and others), but the Pirates also had and continue to have a pressing need for young players. Not only will young players help them build for the future, but they're also cheap, and the Pirates simply don't (or won't) have the resources to reach the playoffs without a core of players performing much better than their salaries.
Brian O'Neill explains that defense was also a good reason why it was a good idea to drop Benito Santiago. This is a good column. I comment less on O'Neill's work than I used to, but that's mostly because there's less in them that I disagree with.
In other Benito-related news, the Royals called up Leo Nunez today. From a PR standpoint, that's some poor timing for the Pirates. Actually, though, what seems to be happening here is that the Royals aren't making a good decision. Nunez didn't pitch very well at Class A this year, and then he pitched five good innings at Class AA. Those five innings are his only experience above Class A. I don't see much evidence to suggest that he's ready.
Moreover, he isn't old, and he pitched very successfully last year in the South Atlantic League as a starter. Given that Nunez has very good stuff (although he has a limited assortment of pitches), it would behoove the Royals to let him start in the minors unless he proves he can't handle it. A good starter is worth far more than a good reliever. Nunez should be in the rotation at High Desert right now, not in the Royals' bullpen.
The Pirates have released Benito Santiago. Kudos to them for correcting their mistake, which was trading for him in the first place. When he was acquired, I complained that there was no need to trade a real prospect, Leo Nunez, for a catcher when the Pirates had several young catchers, and catchers who contribute at Santiago's level are fairly easy to find anyway.
Near the beginning of the season, the Pirates proved me, and nearly everyone else who was paying attention, right. After J.R. House's injury problems finally got the best of him and Humberto Cota experienced a minor injury, the Pirates decided it would help to acquire yet another catcher rather than bring up Ryan Doumit or Ronny Paulino to ride the bench behind Santiago. So they acquired David Ross from the Dodgers for a nominal fee. He has hit fairly well since then, and his defense is far better than Santiago's, so the Pirates are now releasing Santiago rather than sending Ross to Indianapolis to be their second AAA catcher.
Ross was probably not available for such a low price when the Pirates acquired Santiago, since Ross was not really expendable for the Dodgers until they later acquired Jason Phillips. But that is not the point. The point is that talents like Ross and Santiago are not hard to find in the offseason. You shouldn't trade prospects for them, especially if you're a bad team and you're hoping to contend in the future rather than the present.
In case you're wondering, Nunez is now pitching out of the bullpen for the Class AA Wichita Wranglers, where he has allowed one earned run and one walk, with five strikeouts, in five innings. In April, he also pitched for high Class A High Desert, where he has a 9.00 ERA in 13 innings, although he struck out 15 and walked only three. His chance of making the big leagues will be reduced if he can't make it as a starter, but he still has a chance at helping the Royals in the future. Santiago has no chance of ever helping the Pirates.
One of the few comforts in rooting for a very bad baseball team is thinking about what's going on in the minor leagues. The guys the Pirates have down there mostly aren't very good either, but at least they're interesting. Let's take a look at how some of the Pirates' more intriguing farmhands are doing so far.
Ryan Doumit 7 HR .333/.416/.680
Graham Koonce 7 HR .264/.341/.583
Doumit is similar to J.R. House in that he's hit very well as he has climbed the ladder, despite not actually playing very much at some spots due to injury. Unlike House, he's healthy now, and he's hitting better at AAA than House ever did. If he keeps this up, Doumit might make the Bucs' complicated catching situation even more complicated in a few months. Koonce continues to mash at AAA; his upside is low, but he might provide a fearsome bat off the bench for a Pirates team that badly needs offense. The Pirates should call him up now.
Ian Snell 38 IP 36 K 6 BB 3.55
Zach Duke 37 IP 24 K 8 BB 3.41
After a rough start for Indianapolis, Duke has performed better recently, but his ERA is way up from last year. The Pirates were right to send him back to the minors; he needs a couple more months there. Snell deserves to take the next opening in the rotation in Pittsburgh. In the last few years, many Pirates' pitching prospects have received more hype (Duke, Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, and even Bryan Bullington), but none have been as consistently good as Snell.
Well, actually, no one currently at Altoona has played very well there. Brad Eldred punished the ball as usual for a month, then got promoted to Indianapolis; infielder Craig Stansberry was good at Lynchburg and recently got promoted to Altoona. After that, there isn't much to report. However, this line is nothing if not interesting:
Matt Peterson 21.1 IP 9 K 22 BB 9.70
No, I didn't get those K and BB numbers backwards. Ouch.
Javier Guzman 3 HR .333/.384/.510
The entire Lynchburg team is hitting well, but most of its players are so old that they have no chance of making the majors. Guzman isn't one of those; he's young, he plays middle infield, and he hit well for contact last year at Hickory. He was left off the 40-man roster last winter, but no one took him in the Rule 5 draft. He's hitting like crazy right now, and people who've had the chance to watch him have reported that the numbers aren't fluky - he's hitting the ball with more authority this year. Of the Hillcats' other hitters, only Mike McCuiston bears watching - he's a bit old for his level, but he has showed some on-base skills in the past and he's currently hitting .314/.435/.549.
Wardell Starling 30.2 IP 24 K 9 BB 3.52 ERA
Josh Sharpless 14 IP 23 K 6 BB 0.00 ERA
Starling is a real prospect - a tall 22 year-old with mid-90s heat and a good breaking ball. Watch out for him. Sharpless is 24 and he's a reliever, but his performance so far is too good to be ignored. He's not getting any younger, so the Pirates might want to consider promoting him aggressively.
Yeah, this isn't so good. The most intriguing lines belong to Antonio Sucre and Kyle Bloom. Sucre, an outfielder who was acquired for J.J. Davis, has a .400 OBP but has shown no power at all. Bloom is a promising pitcher who has had a good strikeout rate and great ERA so far, but has walked 13 batters in 23 innings. Neil Walker has hit .279/.330/.433, which isn't bad for a kid his age in Class A ball.
I have very little to say about this subject that I haven't said before, but this is really nice work.
Where have I been? Elsewhere. Writing music, going out, walking on the beach. Three of the Pirates' first several series this year were against the Cubs or Padres, two teams I get on television, so I watched several games. Jeez, it was tough - it was hard to watch knowing that if the other team got a lead, the Pirates were pretty much toast.
The offense this year has been horrible, which is the worst kind of horrible to be. When Ryan Vogelsong comes out to pitch, I groan, but at least I get to see the other team's players hit the ball hard. When the Pirates come out to hit, I get a bunch of weak grounders, which are no fun at all.
I don't like Lloyd McClendon much, but I have to give him credit for finding some playing time for some bench players - Freddy Sanchez, Bobby Hill, Dave Ross - who have managed to do something on offense. Jack Wilson, Ty Wigginton and Tike Redman have been beyond terrible; Craig Wilson has at least managed to get on base, but he hasn't done anything else.
Throughout all this, the Pirates' front office has been inexplicable; the only move they've made is to reacquire Abraham Nunez, who's just as pointless and poorly suited to the Pirates' needs as he was the first time around.
Bob Smizik points out that the Pirates will have a decision to make soon - Benito Santiago can come off the DL, so the Pirates will have to decide what to do about their catchers. Smizik thinks the Pirates should cut Santiago. He's absolutely right.
As much fun as it is to watch baseball again, now is actually a very difficult time to write about it. There are games going on, so one's usual ideas about how good or bad a player is can be defied by the player and his stat lines on a daily basis. At the same time, it's way too early to draw firm conclusions from the results on the field, so a player's 2004 stats are usually still much better indicators of his future value than anything he's already done in 2005. These situations can lead to some very bad writing.
Case in point: this atypically insane editorial from the otherwise excellent John Perrotto.
Perrotto points out that the Pirates used computer simulations to determine that Tike Redman should bat third. He then uses this as an excuse to take a cheap shot at "numbers" (which he does soften first, claiming that he sometimes finds advanced metrics helpful, but still):
I believe baseball instincts are just as important as numbers.
My instincts, supported by statistics, tell me Redman is not good enough to hit No. 3 on any major-league club. In fact, he isn't good enough to be in many teams' starting lineups.
What Perrotto's instincts tell him is obviously true, but it's also true that nearly everyone who has ever been accused of being a 'number cruncher' or a 'stat geek' has bashed the Pirates' decision to bat Redman third.
Then, he adds:
Hopefully, there was a money-back guarantee [for the simulations], especially since the Pirates failed to score more than three runs in any of their first five games and a total of 19 in their first seven.
Right, but Redman only batted third in two of those games! Apparently, though, Perrotto only said that to be nasty. He doesn't actually think that the Pirates' decision to bat Redman third is the only cause of their run-scoring problems, so he offers some of his own solutions. And here's where Perrotto's article really starts to get nuts.
I would suggest some drastic personnel changes, the biggest would be benching shortstop Jack Wilson or using him as a trade bait.
Well, that's drastic, alright. I fully agree that the Pirates should at least consider trading Wilson - they have a fair amount of talent at the middle infield positions, Wilson is coming off a career year, and he is signed to a reasonable contract. I'm less of a Wilson fan than many are, and I would be thrilled if the Pirates could get a blue-chip hitter or two for him. But benching him? That's crazy. He's still fairly young, he's coming off a very good year at the plate and his defense has improved to the point where he's quite an asset at shortstop. The Pirates are bad, yes, but that hasn't been Wilson's fault since 2003.
Perrotto then suggests a number of other moves, none of which are terrible in isolation. But, when taken together, they create the following defense:
C David Ross
1B Daryle Ward
2B Rob Mackowiak
SS Freddy Sanchez
3B Ty Wigginton
LF Craig Wilson
CF Jason Bay
RF Matt Lawton
This would be among the worst defenses fielded by a major league team in the last decade. The Pirates would be well below average at first, second, third, and right, and average to below average at shortstop, left, and center. They'd probably only be decent at catcher. And without Jack Wilson in the lineup, this team might even be worse offensively.
Perrotto is right that the Pirates' offense is inadequate. But sacrificing defense entirely doesn't even solve their problems on offense, and creates entirely new ones on defense. And benching one of the team's few good players out of impatience doesn't help the offense or the defense.
Oliver Perez looked as bad as his box score tonight - he threw hard but had all kinds of trouble throwing strikes, getting into a number of 3-1 counts even in a number of plate appearances that didn't end with walks. He didn't throw his breaking ball that much, and except for a couple of knee-bucklers in the fourth inning, it didn't snap nearly as much as it did in his best outings in 2004. Perez's outing could have looked much worse than it did, since the Padres hit a number of balls very hard that ended up dying in the outfield - this happens a lot in Petco Park.
Lloyd McClendon seems to be trying some different lineups in an attempt to produce offense - last night he started Rob Mackowiak at second, and tonight he benched Tike Redman, moving Jason Bay to center, Craig Wilson to right and Daryle Ward to first. The Pirates are having troubles on offense for three reasons: they've had the misfortune to start the season in a slump, they're a terrible offensive team, and Petco is a very difficult park in which to try to hit.
Here are some random thoughts on the first Pirates game of the year I was able to watch.
-Did you know the Padres' mascot - or, at least, the only one I saw - is a freaking monk who dances on the dugout and does all the usual dumb mascot stuff? How bizarre is that?
-Josh Fogg was looking like his usual mediocre self to me until I checked the box score and realized he had struck out five and walked only one. That's a nice outing.
-Craig Wilson has gone from having the worst hair in the big leagues to having merely the worst facial hair in the big leagues. Or the best in both areas, if you're really into Judas Priest and/or porn. (Actually, that's not entirely true: Brett Myers whips Wilson in the Best Porn 'Stache category.) Either way, Wilson had a nice game, with two singles and one of his trademark HBPs. He misplayed a foul ball and swung at some breaking junk down and away, though.
-Tike Redman drew two walks, so I hope you TIVOed this one, because that's not ever going to happen again.
-Miguel Ojeda was the first batter Mike Gonzalez faced, and I was a little confused when Gonzalez started out with some really mediocre-looking stuff. Gonzalez waited until he had a two-strike count against Ojeda, then whiffed him with an amazing glove-popping fastball. He was great after that - his only baserunner was Brian Giles, and that was only after Gonzalez almost nailed Giles with a questionable check-swing with two strikes and then barely missed the strike zone on his last pitch.
Trev has posted his predictions for the 2005 season. Just for fun, here are mine.
Picking the Red Sox may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part. I think it'll be a very close race with the Yankees.
I like Cleveland but am not sure they'll have they'll be able to overcome the Twins, who should benefit from the presence of Joe Mauer and an entire year of Justin Morneau.
I think Anaheim's much-ballyhooed outfield could actually turn out to be only average, but I love their bullpen and their depth - once everyone gets healthy, their bench could include Juan Rivera, Jeff DaVanon, Chone Figgins and Robb Quinlan, all of whom could be decent starters for lots of other teams. Oakland gets the nod over the other two teams because their pitching is actually much better. Still, I think this division contains four pretty good teams and that all four of them could be breathing down each other's necks all year long. The West is a great pennant race waiting to happen.
I won't make the mistake of betting against the Braves this year.
I changed my mind - I picked the Cubs to win a few weeks ago, but doubt they can win without a healthy Mark Prior.
The Dodgers and the Padres are the class of this division. Unless Barry Bonds comes back soon, the Giants should be terrible. The Rockies will be, too. Arizona threw a bunch of money around this offseason but made some ridiculously bad decisions; amazingly, their starting middle infield is Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton, who also have the first two positions in the batting order. Yuck.
Jose Castillo to the DL. Here's what is going on here:
1. The Pirates placed their starting second baseman on the DL.
2. The Pirates recognized that since they already have five players in addition to Castillo on the 25-man roster who can play at least one middle infield position, they didn't need to use Castillo's spot on the 25-man roster on a middle infielder (likely Howie Clark, Cesar Crespo or Jorge Velandia, although Indianapolis hasn't updated its website, so it's hard to figure out who's down there right now). That's good thinking. Hopefully, the Pirates will use this window of time to get a closer look at Freddy Sanchez.
3. The Pirates decided they would use that roster spot on a position player. Again, good thinking.
4. The Pirates decided they would use that spot on a hitter who would back up the guy who's currently batting third in their order. This is actually less nonsensical than it seems when you remember who's batting third.
5. The Pirates decided they would use that spot on Chris Duffy, who, if one actually pays attention to his performance record and not the orgasmic exclamations from the Pirates' management and its lapdogs, is not nearly ready to hit in the big leagues. I can't comment much on his defense except to say that his reputation in that area is very good, although at least some of that reputation has come from reports from the same partisans and/or idiots who have recently decided, despite the amazing amount of evidence to the contrary, that Duffy is a top prospect.
I'm skeptical, but if Duffy really is terrific on defense, this isn't a completely terrible move. I said last week that Duffy will not contribute to a major league team for any sustained period of time and I still believe that is basically true (although I was a bit too hyperbolic; I probably should have said "contribute much"). But as a weak hitter with a supposedly strong glove, he'd be most useful as a bench player on a team with a couple of decent pinch-hitting options already on the pine and a very bad defensive outfield. The Pirates are that team.
When I started this post, I was going to grouse about this decision. If I were making the call, I'd probably grab Graham Koonce instead, and I still feel the Pirates are promoting Duffy for the wrong reasons - to hype him as a prospect, give the fans some cheap thrills, and have him 'learn' while sitting on the bench. But, all things considered, this isn't bad. Normally, I'd whine about Duffy's service time, but he's not a good prospect, so who cares?
* * *
The Cub Reporter has a nice piece up about the Pirates. The intro, about Atlas Shrugged and the economic structure of baseball, is very perceptive and well written. Check it out.
I've been watching the Red Sox - Yankees game on ESPN and they've been repeatedly running a banner at the bottom of the page saying that three Pirates minor leaguers have been punished for steroids. Great press, huh? I was immediately worried that one of them would be Brad Eldred or Nate McLouth or someone else who has potential, but no, it was Jon Nunnally, Brian Mallette, and Tom Evans.
Dave Littlefield wins the Hypocrite of the Day award for this one:
"If there's a positive in this, it's that Tom Evans is the only one who has been part of our organization," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "We have a zero-tolerance philosophy in terms of drugs."
Despite that policy, Littlefield said the Pirates did not plan to release any of the players after their suspensions end.
Hilarious! They're serious about this no-tolerance policy, but not so serious that they'd be willing to part with three journeyman non-prospects who are doing something illegal. I personally don't care much about the steroids issue, so I mostly avoid writing about it here. But I find it funny that Littlefield doesn't even bother to frame his moral righteousness in such a way that he can avoid looking completely ridiculous after a follow-up question.
UPDATE: A commenter points out that "zero-tolerance" might actually mean something like "punishing after the first offense." Littlefield did say he was referring to "drugs" and not "drug users," and Mallette et. al. will be punished, which means that maybe what he said isn't as hypocritical as I originally thought. Now I just wonder what he's talking about, since it's the league, not the Pirates, that actually metes out the punishments. In any case, nothing to see here, move along...