Tuesday, December 14, 2004

I Pine For Kelly Stinnett

Or, How the Pirates are Getting Outsmarted by the F*$@ing Diamondbacks

So, the Pirates are about to give up a 21-year-old flamethrower with a very good performance record in Leo Nunez in order to get 39-year-old drug abuser Benito Santiago. This would be a bad idea for a young, non-contending team no matter what the circumstance. But it's especially bad when we consider that Santiago is unlikely to help the team much.

2004 Stats
J.R. House .288/.344/.508 (in AAA)
Humberto Cota .227/.271/.500
Benito Santiago .274/.312/.434

There's no convincing evidence here that on offense, Santiago will outperform either of the catchers the Pirates already have. In fact, it seems unlikely that he will outhit either of them, since 1) House and Cota are young and likely to get better, while Santiago is as old as the hills and just as likely to erode and 2) Santiago put up his numbers in a good hitters' park, whereas neither Cota nor House played in hitters' parks.

Further, it seems unlikely that Santiago will even be available to help the Pirates next year, since he only played 49 games last year despite beginning the season as a starter. If a player has injury problems one year, he's also likely to have them the next year, particularly if he's a 40-year-old catcher.

The Pirates are concerned that Cota can't hit - they're probably right about that one - and that House can't catch. But however bad House may or may not be as a catcher, Santiago is not likely to be an improvement behind the plate. He had six passed balls despite a small number of games played last year. His arm, once a major strength, has become a weakness - I was unable to find the number of runners he threw out in 2004, but in 2003, he threw out just 8 of 44 runners attempting to steal on him.

The Pirates probably think that someone like Santiago would be good to have around not necessarily as a starter, but as an insurance policy in case things go wrong with House or Cota. I disagree. If House or Cota gets hurt, the Pirates can use Craig Wilson as a backup for a while, or call up prospect Ronny Paulino. There is no need for the Pirates to acquire a veteran catcher now, especially not one who isn't an improvement on the guys they already have.

But let's say you're Lloyd McClendon, and you may go into convulsions if you don't have a veteran catcher available. It seems like a bad idea to me to depend on Santiago - who, again, played 49 games last year - to be around to play at all. And there's another problem: the Pirates can probably only spend two of their 25 man roster spots on catchers. So if you carry Santiago, who has a guaranteed major league contract, you effectively move House back to AAA. House already hit well at AAA, and with Ryan Doumit and Paulino likely to be there at some point next year, House is likely to play first or outfield rather than catch if he's there anyway. In other words, there is no particular benefit to moving House to AAA rather than the majors.

The Arizona Diamondbacks entered the offseason in a position similar to the one the Pirates are in now. They had two reasonably promising young catchers, Koyie Hill and Chris Snyder. Both are question marks, however. Hill is coming off an injury. (Ty Wigginton ended Hill's season with a bodyslam that caused Wigginton to bleed from the head and an intern at SportsCenter to develop carpal tunnel from pressing rewind over and over.) And Snyder spent all of 2004 at Class AA El Paso and, like House, faces questions about his defense.

So what did the Diamondbacks do? This week, they signed Kelly Stinnett to a minor league contract. They don't have to pay Stinnett much of anything for the privilege of taking him to spring training, and he can play at Class AAA unless there's a problem with Hill or Snyder. Both those guys can therefore stay on the major league roster, and the Diamondbacks pay virtually nothing for their insurance policy.

What makes this even better for the Diamondbacks is that Stinnett a good bet to outperform Santiago next year. He's five years younger than Santiago, he hit very well in a small sample last year in the majors, and he has a respectable lifetime .709 OPS, barely below Santiago's. There's no reason to think Stinnett can't reach that next year. At this point, his defense is likely better than Santiago's, too.

It's important to remember, also, that both these guys are, or should be, backup or third string catchers. The minute differences in performance between them look even more minute when one considers the small number of games that both should be playing in next year.

The Royals themselves are going into camp with a young starter, John Buck. Instead of keeping Santiago to tutor him and back him up, they're depending on journeyman Alberto Castillo, who hit a measly .255/.348/.329 at AAA Omaha in 2004. The Royals and the Pirates are in similar places right now - they're both bad teams trying to claw their way up. Why are the Royals willing to part with Santiago and promote Castillo?

The answer is that neither figures to play much next year, so the differences between them won't mean much in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, the Royals will gladly take a very promising prospect off the Pirates' hands.

Instead of going through with this terrible trade, the Pirates should just sign someone like Stinnett and send him to Indianapolis. The differences right now between Santiago and Stinnett, and even Alberto Castillo, are minor. And there are always plenty of Stinnetts and Castillos available. True, they don't have Santiago's name recognition, but given the sports world's recent worries about steroid abuse, perhaps that's a good thing. (Attempts to justify this Santiago/Nunez trade on the grounds of veteran leadership are silly, and not just for the usual reasons that arguments for veteran leadership are silly: is Santiago really the kind of leader the Pirates want?)

Meanwhile, the Pirates can keep a roster spot free for House, who clearly deserves a shot in the big leagues. And they can keep Nunez, who may one day develop some name recognition of his own. I'm not convinced a veteran catcher is necessary at all, but if you've got two interesting young catchers, it's far better to do what the Diamondbacks did than what the Pirates are thinking of doing.

28 Comments:

Blogger Wilbur Miller said...

Finally found your blog. Really good points on Santiago. Funny how Littlefield has made trades with three different teams this winter, all of which are at different points on the success cycle, yet all three trades have enhanced the other team's chances of contending at some point, while overall they've hurt the Pirates' chances.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Rowdy said...

Both of you guys forget that Santiago was Tony Pena's catcher.

Intangibles! Never overlook the power of intangibles.

11:48 PM  
Blogger Wilbur Miller said...

Oooohhh, I can't wait! We're getting the catcher who helped Tony Pena lead the Royals to a 58-104 finish! Think of all the inside knowledge he can impart!

11:42 AM  
Blogger bkopec said...

i might very well be mistaken, but isn't stinnett coming off a major injury?

how about this not unlikely scenario....santiago sucks in training camp and house has a good camp. there will be tremendous pressure on the pirates to roster santiago since they gave up a prospect. so house goes back to AAA to learn how to, well, learn how to wait. and the pirates take another step towards giving me a stroke.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Yeah, he is - Tommy John surgery. He's supposed to be fine in time for training camp, but I should have noted that.

I guess I picked the wrong guy to pine for. I'd still take Stinnett over Santiago next year, but Stinnett himself is not really the point - the point is that of all the catchers discussed here, I'd say House is likely to be the best and Cota the second best. There are plenty of guys around they could sign to minor league contracts. Get one of those guys rather than trading a guy who could turn out to be a really good pitcher, and blocking House in the meantime.

7:55 PM  
Blogger bkopec said...

"House should be the best and Cota the second best"

i just threw up in my mouth.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Wilbur Miller said...

How about this: Santiago goes Chris Stynes all over PNC. The Pirates realizing their mistake, release him . . . in September. House and Doumit come up, get three starts between them, then for 2006 the Bucs release Cota, lose House on waivers, and sign Sandy Alomar, Jr., because they "don't know what they have" in Doumit.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Eric G said...

I'm sickened we're getting Santiago but to make it worse is we dumped a real prospect for this chump. I'm all for trading prospects for a proven player, and I suppose that Santiago has proven himself in the past, but the guy's friggin' 40 years old. This should have been a waiver claim, a Spring Training invite, or *at the very least* a FA signing for $750K. The Pirates are an effin joke and I point the finger directly at KMac and his pathetic lackey DL.
Think I'll go put on my Stiller hat.....
Eric

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